We’ve seen some grim weeks for new releases in the half-year or so that this column has run, but never one quite like this — I mean, seriously, try to find a movie you’ve even heard of in this sad bunch. Luckily, the week’s not a total washout, thanks (as usual) to Netflix and Criterion; the former is debuting a gripping documentary, an earnest love story, and one of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final films, while the latter gives us a Terry Gilliam classic and a German antiwar film that you probably haven’t seen, but should.
Beyond the Lights : The too-rarely-seen Gina Prince-Bythewood writes and directs this story of a Rihanna-style R&B bombshell (a wonderful Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who finds herself, in a moment of emotional fragility, drawn to a regular guy (Nate Parker, also very good) whose common sense and uncomplicated affection provides a much-needed sense of real-world stability. What could’ve been a hip-hop Notting Hill becomes something quietly revelatory and special, thanks to the gifted performers, Prince-Bythewood’s unassuming style, and the picture’s unabashed, unapologetic romanticism.
A Most Wanted Man : The great Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final leading role is a corker. As a German spy tracking a potential terrorist, he masterfully realizes this weary bureaucrat who’s been battered by the system, yet lets himself believe, just one more time, that he can get the job done. Director Anton Corbijn (Control, The American) brings his elegant sense of pace to the John le Carré source material; he makes movies that often live as much in their pauses as their action. Bolstered by an ace supporting cast (including Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, Robin Wright, and the tremendous German actress Nina Hoss), A Most Wanted Man is a spy movie with real stakes.
Point and Shoot : Marshall Curry, one of our finest documentary filmmakers (his credits include Street Fight and Racing Dreams), crafts the gripping portrait of Matt Vandyke, an OCD adrenaline junkie who impulsively leaves his comfortable life in Baltimore to join the Libyan rebels’ fight against Gaddafi. He takes his video camera along, forced to cast himself as “a filmmaker or a fighter,” but that duality is invaluable in creating this thoughtful portrait of the true nature of war, which Curry drafts as a first-person narrative, filled with remarkable images and penetrating questions.
The Bridge : Criterion releases tend to fall into three camps: the classics you’ve heard of, the secondary films from their go-to auteurs, and movies like this one: curated titles that many of us might never see or hear of if they didn’t carry the Criterion logo. Billed as “the first major antiwar film to come out of Germany after World War II,” this powerful 1959 drama from director Bernhard Wicki reproduces the look of war films from the period, but takes an intimate style and tone that seems to predict not only the German New Wave, but the French New Wave. It’s a story told in sketches and impressions, small talk and offhand references, until the group of young men at its center is sent off to fight the good fight, in the final days of the war, as the wheels fall off the wagon and the men are forced to fend for themselves. Wicki and Karl-Wilhelm Vivier’s script (adapted from Manfred Gregor’s novel) sharply contrasts the idealism of these young men with the cynicism and fear of their parents and elders, setting up a quiet desperation in its closing scenes that’s downright devastating. (Includes new and archival interviews and a documentary excerpt.)
The Fisher King : After years of critical kudos and studio battles, Terry Gilliam finally scored a mainstream hit with this 1991 Robin Williams/Jeff Bridges vehicle — and it’s still a little surprising that he managed to make such a downright odd movie within that system, at that moment. His over-caffeinated style doesn’t always mesh with the subtleties of Richard LaGravenese’s excellent (Oscar-nominated) screenplay, but he does bring out an operatic lyricism that works, while miraculously, gingerly navigating from tragedy to buddy comedy to adventure to rom-com to, ultimately (and smashingly), fairy tale. It’s a funny film with some unbearably painful moments (the image of Williams kneeling in the street and begging his imagined antagonist to “Please let me have this” is downright unshakable), vital questions of personal responsibility at its center, and a wonderfully eccentric Amanda Plummer performance that we’re still not talking about enough. (Includes audio commentary, new and vintage interviews, archival footage, deleted scenes, featurettes, and trailers.)