Oscar night is just around the corner, and there’s a decent chance that you’re spending this week finally getting around to seeing The Imitation Game or whatever. But if you’re all caught up on this year’s nominees (or, good for you, utterly indifferent to the whole shebang), good news: this week’s new disc and streaming releases include a couple of last year’s acclaimed but largely unrecognized pictures, a terrific under-the-radar thriller, and a new HD release of the last film by one of Japan’s cinematic masters. Oh, and one of the year’s most nominated titles is out there now as well, if you go for that sorta thing.
The Two Faces of January : Truth in criticism: even if this Patricia Highsmith adaptation from writer/director Hossein Amini (Drive) were lousy, it’d still be worth at least a cursory glance for the opportunity to watch the comically great-looking trio of Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, and Oscar Isaac gallivant around sunny Europe in vintage ‘60s duds. Luckily, there’s more going on here than period travelogue; it’s got all of the deception, jealousy, and carefully controlled passion you’d expect from the source material, marinated in slowly boiling sexual tension. The chase finale is disappointingly generic, but that complaint aside, this is a sharp, moody throwback.
Birdman : This year’s (maybe?) Oscar frontrunner makes a particularly well-timed home video debut, and it’s a multipurpose one. New viewers can either a) enjoy this big, brash, poison-penned valentine to the stage, the screen, actors, and superhero movies, or b) dismiss it as a bag of inflated, self-important, self-satisfied hot air. (These seem to be just about the only options out there!) Your film editor falls into the former camp; I was infatuated with the picture’s wit, intelligence, and let’s-name-names spirit, and pleased as punch to see the long undervalued Michael Keaton finally getting the sort of fast-talking, fast-thinking role that he used to own. (Let’s not take that supporting cast for granted, though; Edward Norton landed a well-deserved Oscar nomination, but on repeat viewing, I realized how little conversation there’s been about how great Zach Galifianakis is here.) So repeat visitors will probably want to do what I did: take a second pass to focus on the stunning technical achievement of its theatrical, long-take style, and engage in the spectator sport of trying to puzzle out where the hell the edits are.
St. Vincent : Let this be said: there’s something a little bothersome about the way Bill Murray seems, in this gentle dramedy, to be morphing from an actor who merely receives our unadulterated adoration to one who actively courts it. But that could also be a case of overthinking it; such fears probably shouldn’t be held against this shambling, low-key charmer, which finds Murray taking on the Walter Matthau-esque role of the hard-drinking, chain-smoking, pony-betting grouse who becomes an unlikely father figure to a neighbor kid. He’s got some terrific moments (that closing-credit Bob Dylan sing-along is a keeper), and Melissa McCarthy turns in a lovely, understated supporting performance that’s thankfully closer to Gilmore Girls than Tammy.
The Homesman : In his second theatrical feature, Tommy Lee Jones reaffirms himself as an actor/director firmly in the Eastwood mold — i.e., he makes films in an even-eyed, no-nonsense style that matches his acting. Here, he adapts Glendon Swarthout’s novel into a frontier journey, but one with haunting nightmare imagery and the kind of richly complicated female protagonist that’s all too rare in even the best Westerns (well played by Hilary Swank). It’s got the trappings of a traditional oater, but Jones gives it a welcome, eccentric twist, coming up with a dark, atmospheric, and thankfully unpredictable picture.
An Autumn Afternoon : The final film of the great Japanese master Yasujirō Ozu (newly remastered for Blu-ray by Criterion) is, true to his form, a modest character study, told in the rhythms — and prone to the detours and sidebars — of everyday life. Ozu seems, at first, in the thrall of his protagonists (wealthy, powerful men who spend their days brokering others, and themselves), but he ends up telling this story of traditional, conservative family life with a sly wink and a nod towards shifting mores. He contemplates his characters, and holds, mesmerizingly, on their private moments and inner turmoil. It’s a delicate picture, told with sensitivity, good humor, and a well-measured shot of melancholy in the home stretch.