Phoenix : Christian Petzold’s period drama is showing up on a fair amount of year-end lists, as is leading lady Nina Hoss—and for good reason. The picture, reteaming the director and star of 2012’s Barbara, is the uncompromising story of a concentration camp survivor who reunites with the husband who betrayed her, and who she still loves. She’s somewhat unrecognizable after her ordeal, and he believes her dead (and with an inheritance to collect). So he sets about “remaking” her as herself (shades of Vertigo), with Petzold creating considerable suspense around the question of how much he’ll figure out, and when. It’s heavy stuff, but remarkably restrained — right up and to and including its stunning ending, a powerful payoff delivered at the last possible second.
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation : Usual Suspects screenwriter and Way of the Gun writer/director Christopher McQuarrie proves a good match for the ever-evolving M:I franchise; he’s got a gift for lean, muscular action beats with inventive fight choreography and elegant construction (that opera house sequence is a monster), and he moves from one to the next a bit more organically than is the series’ tendency. But this one is all about chemistry, between the team and between Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and the impenetrable Ilsa Foust (Rebecca Ferguson, one of the movie year’s most exciting discoveries). That stunt with the airplane is thrilling, yes — but so is the way Ving Rhames purrs “Oh boy” when Ilsa makes Ethan an offer he shouldn’t refuse. (Includes featurettes and audio commentary by McQuarrie and Cruise.)
Burroughs: The Movie : Howard Brookner’s 1983 documentary portrait of William S. Burroughs was this close to being lost; the story of how nephew Aaron Brookner rescued it from the dustbin is a fascinating story of its own (which you can read here). And the film is worth the effort, even for casual readers, as Brookner captures “Bill” enjoying his status as a living legend within the New York counterculture, doing readings at punk clubs and experimental theaters in his rich, rolling baritone, and donning Dr. Benway’s coat and stethoscope to participate in a dramatization of a gory scene from Naked Lunch. That’s all fun, but Brookner also gets a glimpse of the rage lurking just beneath the man’s elegant exterior, and the pain. It’s an intimate portrait, and, on the side, a remarkable snapshot of the city and its scene in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. (Includes new and vintage interviews, outtakes, New York Film Festival restoration premiere footage, experimental edit, and new audio commentary by Jim Jarmusch.)
Time Out of Mind : This modest yet powerful drama from writer/director Oren Moverman (The Messenger), starring Richard Gere as a homeless man grinding it out on the streets of New York City, had the misfortune of comparison to the earthier, grittier (and, if we’re being honest, superior) Heaven Knows What . But it’s still well worth seeking out. Gere is tremendous — he usually is, though no one ever notices — and Moverman’s observational style is effective. There’s an overheard quality to the picture, its soundtrack dominated by unrelated phone calls and conversations, the compositions framed by windows and doorways. This observational look and feel underscores the idea that lives like this are unfolding all the time, all around us, all but unnoticed.
The Car : This deliciously disreputable B-movie from 1977 (getting the upgrade from Shout Factory’s Scream off-shot) is almost a beat-for-beat remake of Jaws — from the random opening attack to all hell breaking lose at a big public event, with the small-town sheriff on the front lines — while somehow managing to rip off both that Spielberg hit and his earlier breakthrough picture Duel (the villain here is an evil vehicle that seems to have no driver). Oh, and there’s a touch of The Exorcist in there as well, with the suggestion that the titular vehicle is driven by Satan himself, thanks to an opening quote from Anton LaVey (subtle!) and the appearance of a devlish face in a closing fireball. You get the idea here — it’s some pretty goofy shit, but undeniably entertaining, thanks to the unapologetic style, the bonkers score by Leonard Rosenman, and game performers (particularly James Brolin, in the typical ‘70s-era charming-dirtbag leading role) doing their very best to make its silliest moments credible. It’s not a great movie, but ain’t boring either. (Includes new interviews and original trailers, TV ads, and radio spots.)