Mississippi Grind : Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds turn in two of the year’s best performances in this rich homage to busted-out gambler movies like California Split and The Gambler. Mendelsohn is a bad luck case who’s thousands in the hole, until he meets Reynolds’ smooth talker and finds him something of a good luck charm. They hit the road for a big game down South, picking up games and colorful characters along the way; the blues-heavy soundtrack is a winner, directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson) invest every stop along the way with its own distinctive atmosphere, and the dynamic between the two leads oscillates smoothly between affection and exhaustion. It’s the kind of movie they don’t make that much these days, until they do. (Includes featurette.)
Mistress America : Director Noah Baumbach and star Greta Gerwig team up for their second screenplay, continuing to bring out the absolute best in each other with this screwball portrait of collegiate culture, youthful idolatry, and cinematic stereotyping. Its tonal shifts are wildly unpredictable yet somehow successful, allowing Baumbach to indulge in his most purely comic sequences in well over a decade, while Gerwig crafts a complex character whose affects are all but impossible to differentiate from her actual personality. A shrewd and boisterous picture, and, at its best, an utter delight. (Includes featurettes.)
Amy : This documentary profile from director Asif Kapadia (Senna) could’ve easily come out as a ghoulish bit of slapdash exploitation. Instead, thanks to a stunning archive of private home movies and demo recordings, it’s an uncommonly personal portrait of an artist whose personal demons and frequent recklessness both infused her art and ended her life. It’s not just a good music documentary — it’s one of the most vivid portraits of addiction yet rendered onscreen, the omnipresent camera complementing horrible footage of zonked-out performances and interviews (and shameful coverage) to create a feeling of intruding, and eavesdropping, on her free-fall. Powerful, heartbreaking, and true. (Includes audio commentary, deleted scenes, interviews, additional performances, featurette, and trailers.)
Goodnight Mommy : This Austrian horror thriller from writer/directors Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz begins quietly (almost troublingly so), as a three-hander between two twin boys and their mother, home and recuperating from a difficult surgery. But as the boys become convinced she’s not who she says, the picture unexpectedly somersaults between reality and nightmare, blurring the lines between the two and tinkering with our sympathies — at first you’re with these kids, until you’re really, really not. The filmmaking is blunt, and sometimes cruel, but you can’t deny its effectiveness; this is a brutal, frightening, and efficient psychological chiller.
Downhill Racer : Director Michael Ritchie’s 1969 drama (newly upgraded to Blu-ray by Criterion) doesn’t feel like the “sports movie” it’s branded as; the on-the-fly photography, overheard dialogue, and jagged cutting patterns keep the movie over star Robert Redford’s shoulder (and often in his head, thanks to remarkable point-of-view photography). The director takes a matter-of-fact approach to the rather terrifying sport of downhill ski racing — and to his protagonist, who morphs in front of our eyes from a cocky up-and-comer to a spoiled brat. Eschewing conventional character arcs and competitive tropes, it remains a fascinating subversion of movie-star worship, and a tantalizing hint of the coming decade’s unique take on genre storytelling. (Includes archival featurette, interviews, AFI seminar excerpts, and trailer.)