Every few weeks I give you some of my Picks from recent redbox releases–smaller, overlooked, underrated films I find interesting or better than you might expect. But every now and then I like to round up the Picks of My Picks, going back over the past few months to point out those lesser-known films (in no particular order) I like a lot and highly recommend:
Michael Sheen continues to play British Prime Minister Tony Blair for screenwriter Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon) in their third such collaboration (including The Queen). The Special Relationship follows Blair’s mid-’90s rise to power in tandem with his political guru Bill Clinton (a smirking, charming but also battered and weary Dennis Quaid). Sheen is terrific as always as the earnestly ambitious Blair in this, a film about people and politics that understands you can’t have one without the other.
This merciless Australian crime thriller follows a young man reconnected with his four bank-robbing uncles and their mother (his grandmother)–a bubbly, bottle-blond Lady MacBeth played with a crocodile smile by Academy Award nominee Jacki Weaver. Animal Kingdom is full of gun-toting (and futile) macho posturing, but it keeps a tight balance between character and plot and plays as a vicious crime epic in an unnerving minor key.
Part rock-and-roll thrills and part broken-family ache, Nowhere Boy is a gripping, emotional look at how adolescent John Lennon eventually became “John Lennon.” Thanks to a charming, cheeky, and sometimes aching performance by Aaron Johnson as young John and Kristin Scott Thomas and Anne-Marie Duff as his aunt and absent mother, the film works–both as bittersweet insight into how tension between two very different maternal influences spurred creativity, and as a joyful warm-up for the pop-culture-changing force that was about to be unleashed from Liverpool in the early ‘60s.
This subtle prison/parole drama with Edward Norton’s prisoner (the Stone of the title) squaring off against Robert De Niro’s parole official, has taken its lumps from both critics and viewers, in part because it refuses to become the thriller or fist-shaking melodrama some want it to be. But I like very much what it is: a study of sin and guilt, of morality and hypocrisy, of shifting motivations and intent. Norton and De Niro are typically strong, but the film’s real surprise is a tremendous supporting performance from Milla Jovovich as Stone’s almost inhumanly manipulative wife. Like its title character, Stone follows its own path–it’s not one with a neat and tidy end point, but the walk is worth it.
This is rock-solid, hard-boiled, R-rated, and highly recommended. Dwayne Johnson is out to ruthlessly and relentlessly avenge his brother’s death and Billy Bob Thornton almost collapses into himself as the seedy, shot-out cop trying to stop him. Toss in some Old Testament vengeance, sin, and redemption and you’ve got one of my favorite small genre films of the past year. Grim and gritty, lean and mean, Faster is no-frills, all forward momentum, and perfectly crafted for its stripped-down, violent purpose by director George Tillman Jr.
Writer-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson, Sugar) embrace a more conventional and overtly emotional narrative style in their adaptation of Ned Vizzini’s novel about a stressed out teen who checks himself into a psych ward for a few days. The resulting dramedy is a little Ferris Bueller’s Cuckoo’s Nest, a little One Flew Over the Breakfast Club, but it also features fine, honest work from stars Keir Gilchrist and Emma Stone, and a terrific supporting cast led by Zach Galifianakis and Jeremy Davies. It may feel familiar, but that doesn’t make the film any less genuine, moving or uplifting.
Sofia Coppola’s thematic and stylistic companion piece to Lost in Translation once again noodles languidly around an actor and a younger woman in his life–only instead of middle-aged Bill Murray’s platonic, father-like relationship with Scarlett Johansson, it’s Stephen Dorff as a 40-ish action-flick actor and a stunning Elle Fanning as his own preteen daughter. And instead of Tokyo, we’re drifting through the sunny shallows of L.A.’s Chateau Marmont. Coppola loves her some foreign-film rhythms and silences, but Dorff and especially Fanning keep reminding us that there are still human beings at the center of all this bright and lonely emptiness.
Thanks to Javier Bardem, in its strongest moments, the Best Foreign Film nominee Biutiful takes us to unvarnished, unromanticized places we may not want to go, and yet makes the experience something enriching, cathartic, even uplifting. As a Barcelona street hustler with terminal cancer, Bardem gives an Oscar-nominated performance that’s heartbreaking and raw but also so nuanced and honest it seems to single-handedly reflect and define our collective fragile, damaged humanity. Biutiful asks us to sympathize with a character it would be easy to blame or ignore, and to see humanity and beauty in a world and life that too often feels dauntingly ugly.
Ben Affleck gives a solid performance alongside terrific work from Tommy Lee Jones, Chris Cooper, Maria Bello, and Kevin Costner in writer-director John Wells’ examination of the (painfully) changing face of American industry and its workforce. Affleck, Jones, and Cooper play three corporate big wigs experiencing different kinds of unemployment, and reacting differently. At first it’s hard to feel sorry for guys who have to cancel their country-club memberships and tropical vacations, but Wells is painting a larger picture of the shifting American economy and its effect on workers (and their families) at every level. It’s not depressing, but ultimately roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-back-to-work inspiring.
Robert Duvall and Bill Murray circle each other in Get Low, a semi-true Depression-era dramedy about a backwoods hermit who wants to attend his own funeral. With his usual stunning authenticity, Duvall vanishes inside what feels like a real, living, breathing human being. And Murray dryly outfits his usual sleepy sardonics with the mustache and suit of a ‘30s car salesman—once again the opportunistic angler tricked into doing the right thing. Get Low is in no hurry, but it’s a charming tale nicely told that knows where it’s going. A bemusing, folksy yarn that under its surface guards a bellowing, burning heart.
Now how about you? Any smaller films you’ve seen lately you want to share with others in the comments below?