Life Partners : Susanna Fogel’s story of two best friends, one straight and one a lesbian, is a bit self-conscious in its opening passages — it feels like “high concept,” almost like something out of an ‘80s sex comedy or ‘90s sitcom. But once it settles in and establishes its refreshingly nuanced characters, it’s a sunny, likable treat. Fogel and co-writer Joni Lefkowitz have a good ear for conversational dialogue, and their e themes are clear but not clumsy; it’s sort of remarkable, how subtly the picture becomes a poignant snapshot of growing up and letting go. And the cast is uniformly strong, particularly the always-wonderful Gillian Jacobs and Leighton Meester, who has never been better.
The Immigrant : James Gray’s period drama became something of a rallying point for cinephiles last year, as reported clashes between the writer/director and his distributor, The Weinstein Company, resulted in delays, a half-assed theatrical release, an unexplained and unexpected appearance on Netflix two months later, and a deafening silence in the company’s Oscar campaigns. Now, nearly a year later, it’s available on Blu-ray, and boy is it worth the wait; Darius Khondji’s gorgeous cinematography (clearly influenced by Once Upon a Time in America and the flashback scenes in The Godfather Part II) is downright luminous, while the film grows richer with multiple viewings, once each character’s true nature and intentions are known. Gray traffics in melodrama, but not in the pejorative sense; the tone is emotionally vivid and the style is operatic, which lends particular power to the way his masterful script inverts our perceptions and initial impressions. (Includes audio commentary with Gray, featurette, and original trailer.)
The Voices : Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis) directs this startling, challenging, pitch-black comedy about an awkward average Joe (Ryan Reynolds) whose only friends — his dog and his cat — seem to be urging him to kill and kill again. Satrapi give the picture a bright, cartoon sheen that renders the serious darkness and considerable gore all the more disturbing; she seems, at first, to aim for a jovial nuttiness, but doesn’t let her characters or her audience off the hook that easily. This is a sharp and unpredictable movie, constantly zigging when you think it’ll zag, investing real pathos, depth, and charm into its characters and relationships, and landing at an ending that’s a grin and a punch in the gut, at the same time. Frankly, that goes for the whole movie. (Includes featurettes, deleted scenes, and animatics.)
A Most Violent Year : Eschewing the usual kitsch and karaoke of ‘80s period pieces, this crime drama from J.C. Chandor (Margin Call, All is Lost) instead seems like a refugee from the era, a low-key, talky Lumet-style picture with a brain and a conscience. Substituting the usual drugs and gambling for a turf war over heating oil (yes, really), Chandor peers deep into the darkness of Bradford Young’s fabulous photography, and gets forceful performances out of Jessica Chastain — as believable and present as ever playing a would-be moll, a role 180 degrees from anything she’s ever done — and Oscar Isaac, whose work first seems to channel Godfather I Pacino before becoming its own, remarkable thing.
Breathless : When Jim McBride’s drama hit theaters back in 1983, it was all but laughed off the screen. A Godard remake?! With Richard Gere?!? Ho, ho. But time has been kind to this freewheeling, sharp-edged, absorbing potboiler. Much of its current reputation is thanks to the frequent boosting of Quentin Tarantino (who said of it, “When I saw this in ’83, it was everything I wanted to do in movies”); you can see the stylistic DNA of QT’s tone-hopping, cultural obsessions, and love of rockabilly (to say nothing of the hero’s French love, a relationship echoed in Pulp Fiction). And you can see just how tricky Gere’s performance was — as with much of his ‘80s work, he was so natural and so great-looking that few people noticed the depth of his talent. (Includes a trailer.)