After two straight weeks of awfully slim pickings on the new release shelf, this Tuesday offers an embarrassment of riches (one more than our usual top five, in fact): two big spring studio efforts, a year-end heartbreaker, two low-key indies, and a powerful Danish war drama.
Hail, Caesar! : The Coen Brothers’ latest is a valentine to the golden age of Hollywood, and is so full of frisky homage and good cheer (there are few sequences in recent movie memory with the joy of the Channing Tatum number) that it’s easy to overlook its more serious overtones – they’re returning to the questions of faith and morality that made A Serious Man (among many others) so compelling, and taking a sideways glance at the Communist “subversion” of Hollywood that’s both funnier and more knowing than Trumbo. Like so many of the Coens’ best works, it only improves with repeated viewings; what seem aimless detours and strange indulgences later reveal themselves as inextricably linked. It’s a good time, but one that sticks with you. (Includes featurettes.)
Zootopia : Disney’s giant spring hit is the charming, zippy, and frequently funny story of the first “bunny cop” (cheerily voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) and the con artist fox (Jason Bateman, terrific) who helps her solve her first big case. Yes, it’s a mismatched buddy cop movie, full of mystery and chases and some awfully funny quick-hit gags (my favorite: the numbers clicking rapidly on the population sign of her all-bunny suburb). And if the institutional diversity/anti-racial profiling messaging is a little heavy-handed, hey, at least its heart is in the right place. (Includes featurettes and deleted scenes.)
Anomalisa : Directors Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman adapt what was once a live radio play into a stop-motion animation story of first flush of infatuation, when everything about another person is simply extraordinary, and the role delusion and self-sabotage play in breaking that illusion. Kaufman’s script is a remarkable balancing act; it’s filled with little touches that will read like either comedy or tragedy, depending on which side of them you’ve been on, and banal chatter takes on the scope and importance of grand opera, conveying how an average person in an average place can lead what amounts to a life of quiet resignation. It’s one of the strangest and most unexpected films of the 2015, and one of the best. (Includes featurettes.)
A War : Writer/director Tobias Lindholm follows up A Hijacking with another close-to-the-ground picture that transcends the boundaries of traditional action or even prestige drama. It’s less a “war movie” than a character study, focusing on a company commander (Pilou Asbæk) in Afghanistan, intercutting his day-to-day grind with the small conflicts within his family back home, emphasizing the stress on both fronts, telling this story on the most personal scale. Its offhand moments – vignettes, almost – become relevant in its second half, when his actions in combat come into question; Lindholm commendably resists the tropes of the courtroom drama, choosing instead to complicate our conditioned responses to them, and extend his initial questions of responsibility and honor. Intelligently written, smoothly directed, with a series of closing images that are staggering in their power. (Includes interviews, featurette, and trailer.)
The Confirmation : Nebraska co-writer Bob Nelson makes his directorial debut with a similar peek into the cozy houses on side streets of small towns, though this one doesn’t quite land with the same amount of emotional immediacy; Nelson’s film is so low-key it almost doesn’t register. And Clive Owen is badly miscast, wearing his construction worker character (and dodgy American accent) uneasily. But its portraiture of everyday alcoholism stings with truth, and the supporting players (particularly Patton Oswalt and Maria Bello) give nice jolts to their vignettes, while Owen and Jaeden Lieberher get a good father-and-son chemistry going. It might not quite land overall, but it’s filled with small moments of real warmth and humor. (Includes featurettes.)
Touched with Fire : This story of a pair of bipolar poets falling in love against the wishes of their doctors and families sounds like the worst kind of indie tripe; it’s even got a de-glammed career rehab turn for a big name (in the form of Katie Holmes). But writer/director Paul Dalio is the real deal — he’s got a great eye and ear, and a way with visceral moments of abstract sound and imagery that put us right into his characters’ headspace. He moves carefully through this tricky relationship, whose players make each other (literally) manic with their end-of-the-world love; it represents something, anything, for them to cling to, until it reaches a point where they (and the filmmaker) can no longer romanticize it. The film falls apart a bit at the end, thanks to a troubling story turn and a clumsy resolution, but there’s much to recommend here, particularly the performances. Male lead Luke Kirby gets the initially tragicomic and ultimately tragic implications of his character, and this Holmes’s best work since The Gift. (Includes audio commentary, featurettes, deleted scene, and trailer.)