One of the most interesting new releases of the week — from the standpoint of both movies and the movie business — is the direct-to-Netflix chiller Creep, which you can read more about here. But even past that innovative release, this is a four-star week for discs and on-demand viewing (so much that we’ve expanded from our customary top five format), with one of the year’s best dramas, two widely acclaimed genre pictures, two terrific titles from the Criterion Collection, and a forgotten gem from one of indie cinema’s godfathers.
Clouds of Sils Maria : “I’m sick of acting hanging on wires in front of green screens.” So says Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche), the famous actress who is rethinking her career, and her life, when she gets the opportunity to revisit the play that made her a star. Olivier Assayas’ latest is a sly and knowing entry in the Hollywood self-awareness sweepstakes, but there’s much more to it than gossip column connect-the-dots; it’s a breathlessly intelligent study of two complicated women, played with verve and wit by Binoche and Kristen Stewart, whose magnetic yet offhand performance is an unequivocal success. (No bonus features.)
It Follows : From the opening images of tree-lined streets to the synth score and gliding camera that follows, writer/director David Robert Mitchell wears his debt to Halloween like a badge of honor. But he’s not just making a tribute film; as with Carpenter’s classic, he emphasizes tension over gore and dread over jolts (though there’s plenty of all to go around). And as with the best horror, his story is anchored by real fears — of intimacy, vulnerability, humiliation, and being watched. The deconstructive nature of how Mitchell plays with the promiscuity tropes of traditional slasher flicks is welcome, but at the end of the day, it’s just a stylish, effective thriller, coming to a head with a climax of brutal, slow-boil efficiency. (Includes composer interview, trailer, and a critics’ commentary featuring Flavorwire’s own Alison Nastasi.)
Ex Machina : Last month, I picked Alex Garland’s tense Frankenstein riff as one of the best movies of the year thus far; a second viewing only confirms its quality as that rarest of creatures, a science fiction movie (and one with robots and labs and computers and so on) that’s also a chatty discussion of provocative ideas, as well as a penetrating and complicated character study. But I’m even more struck by how insightfully Garland maps and navigates the power dynamics, savvily constructing the mind games Oscar Isaac’s tech millionaire dudebro plays on Domnhall Gleeson’s ingratiating underling, and the mastery with which he shifts our sympathies and realigns the relationships. Oh, and that dance scene is still the best. (Includes featurettes, “behind-the-scenes vignettes,” and SXSW Q&A.)
The Black Stallion : Carroll Ballard’s 1976 drama is an epic told in an intimate style and with remarkable craftsmanship. It’s a luminously photographed movie, which is important, as its key sequence is mostly wordless — a long stretch that establishes the primary relationship (between a boy and the title horse) like a silent adventure movie, treating the stallion so convincingly as a character that you begin to think of him as one. The patience of the picture is remarkable, and vital; we need the time it takes building their bond, so that the rescue scene that follows lands with maximum emotional impact (and it does). The film’s second half is framed by a wonderfully understated, lived-in Mickey Rooney performance, and several narrative turns that are unexpected, visceral, and more than a little scary. It’s a great movie, vivid and powerful and true. (Includes interviews, featurette, trailer, and five early Ballard short films.)
Hiroshima Mon Amour : Director Alain Resnais’s tone poem/memory play gets a gorgeous Blu-ray upgrade, capturing the pin-crisp beauty of what are, quite often, horrifying images. His story of an affair between a Hiroshima-fascinated actress, on location in the bombed city years later for a film, and a local with memories of his own is a complicated peek into an attraction tied up in tragedy (à la The Night Porter, another recent Criterion upgrade). But it’s not merely a wallow in disaster; there’s something indescribably perfect about the way Resnais captures the long nights when you tell a stranger your secrets, and the shrugging sophistication with which he regards the illicit nature of the affair is still ahead of its time. (Includes commentary, interviews, and featurettes.)
Baby, It’s You : John Sayles’ 1983 coming-of-age drama, which didn’t even see a DVD release until 2008 (due to music clearance issues), gets a Blu-ray upgrade and, hopefully, finds a new audience. Rosanna Arquette is radiant and wonderful as a Jewish good-girl type, gobsmacked by the charms of an Italian bad boy (Vincent Spano) who’s new to their New Jersey high school, circa 1967. Sayles knows this is well-trod ground, but he finds the complexity in these characters and situations — he captures the urgency and eroticism of first love, as well as the importance of getting that love out of your system. His sense of time and place is indelible, and the cinematography (by frequent Scorsese lenser Michael Ballhaus) is top-notch, but this is Arquette’s show; watch the way her eyes flash when she looks at him, which tells a whole story in an instant. (No bonus features.)