Initially produced for French television, director Oliver Assayas' Carlos was bumped from competition at the Cannes Film Festival this past summer for that reason, denying it a potential Palme d'Or win that might have expanded its distribution. But in terms of scope, achievement, and pure film-watching pleasure, it rivals The Social Network and Inception as the Movie of the Year regardless of how few U.S. screens it will appear on.
A docudrama about '70s-era international terrorist Ilich Ramirez Sanchez — aka "Carlos the Jackal" — Carlos spans 20 years, roughly a dozen countries, roughly half-a-dozen languages (about a quarter of the film is in English, the rest subtitled), and, in the version I've seen, about 330 minutes, every one of which it earns. The centerpiece is an hour-long sequence about the siege of a 1975 OPEC meeting, in which Carlos and his crew took hostages on a daring and ill-fated attempted escape from Vienna to Baghdad. But even Carlos' long, slow decline — which coincides with the fall of the Soviet Bloc — maintains considerable interest.
With a richly textured rise-and-fall arc (Goodfellas) and physically grueling lead performance from Edgar Ramirez (Raging Bull) that both evoke Martin Scorsese and a moment-by-moment focus that evokes David Fincher, Carlos doesn't require advanced study in international art cinema to appreciate it. And the serialized format — the 330-minute version is broken into three self-contained sections — makes it perfect for multi-night watching. A two-and-a-half-hour version of Carlos is currently available via television on demand, but I'd hold out for the five-and-a-half-hour version in whatever format you can find it. — Chris Herrington
- Red Riding Trilogy
Although all three parts of the Red Riding trilogy are set in Yorkshire, England, the vibe of these grim, near-great films noir is pure Chinatown. The first installment, 1974, stars The Social Network's James Garfield as a cocky journalist who, in spite of the none-too-subtle protestations of the thuggish local cops, tries to connect the dots linking a series of child murders. The film's dank atmospherics and broken-down locations only underscore the media's powerlessness when faced with the twin battering rams of capitalism and law enforcement; the catastrophic violence at the film's end almost feels like a legitimate form of protest. The powers of the corrupt Yorkshire police force are once again front and center in Red Riding: 1980, where Paddy Considine plays a detective assigned to look into the case of the "Yorkshire Ripper." In his search, he discovers a few troubling inconsistencies about the crimes that ended 1974 and that don't sit well at all with the YPD, whose motto is "This is the North — we do what we want." The general wickedness is brought to a close in 1983, which doesn't live up to the high standards of the previous two films. But the rain of feathers near the end is a deft touch. The Red Riding trilogy is out on DVD.
— Addison Engelking
South Korean director Joon-ho Bong's previous film, 2006's comic creature feature The Host, graced local screens. But we missed out on his more audacious and even better follow-up, the Freudian thriller Mother, which casts matronly Korean television icon Hye-ja Kim as the particularly devoted single mother to a mentally handicapped young man accused of murdering a local girl. Suffice it to say that this parent is willing to go to great lengths to prove her son's innocence and secure his release — regardless of whether or not he's actually innocent. Like The Host, Mother richly balances genre responsibilities — it's deftly plotted and packed with unsettling twists and revelations — with ironic notes. And in Hye-ja, Mother also boasts arguably the best lead performance found on screen this year. Mother is available on DVD. — CH
- The Secret of Kells
The Secret of Kells is a trim, scintillating cartoon period drama that exalts the splendor of nature and the wonder of the written word courtesy of some old-fashioned two-dimensional animation. Its vibrant, supple, richly textured imagery easily compensates for its ho-hum plot.
Evan McGuire plays a boy holed up in a monastery who sneaks off into the forest after a legendary master illuminator (Brendan Gleeson) asks him to fetch some secret ingredients needed to produce the ink used for writing the Book of Kells, the Irish set of the four Gospels. While in the woods, McGuire meets the fairy-spirit Aislynn, a mischievous spirit whose giggly wisdom and charm kindle a tender and chaste pre-teen romance.
In a fascinating attempt at historical appositeness, co-directors Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey (with lots of help from a brotherhood of film artists and painters) frequently reject linear perspective, choosing instead to tell their story through the multiple points of view and hieratic compositional arrangement of medieval European painting. The shots and scenes glow as if lit from within. An Oscar nominee for Best Animated Feature Film earlier this year, The Secret of Kells is available on DVD. — AE
- Night Catches Us
Though it did receive a lone local screening at October's Indie Memphis Film Festival, Night Catches Us belongs here because it's unlikely to get a theatrical run despite being — to these eyes — the year's second-best domestic indie feature (after the more celebrated Winter's Bone).
A period drama from filmmaker Tanya Hamilton, Night Catches Us drew strong notices when it debuted at Sundance early this year. It's an intimate, prickly depiction of an African-American community in Philadelphia dealing with the dissolution of the local Black Panther Party. Set in 1976, the film stars Anthony Mackie (The Hurt Locker) as a former Panther returning home to a cold welcome, with Kerry Washington as a woman with whom he has a complicated past. (Fans of The Wire note: Wendell "Bunk" Pierce and Jamie "Marlo" Hector show up in supporting roles.)
Eschewing easy or fashionable nostalgia, Hamilton delivers an honest, ultimately sad reckoning with the contradictions and complications of the Black Power movement. The film also boasts a score from hip-hop stalwarts the Roots that rivals The Social Network as the year's most effective movie music. Night Catches Us is currently available via television on demand. — CH
- Enter the Void
After an assaultive opening-title sequence, Gaspar Noe's Enter the Void knocks you flat with an exhilarating, terrifying, emotionally draining 20-minute experiment in first-person point of view (complete with flashes to black that mimic eye blinks). Those 20 minutes include a blissful and sensorially accurate hallucinogenic drug trip; a veering and barely-sober jaunt down several narrow flights of stairs into Tokyo's overlit late-night streets; an ill-advised rendezvous in a dank and wretched nightclub; and a panicked off-key aria of floundering rat-like desperation in a bathroom stall before a sudden gunshot ends the whole remarkably lifelike show. Bang! You're dead ... but actually, it's poor unfortunate drug-dealing Oscar (Nathaniel Brown) who's been mortally wounded.
However, as he lies on the bathroom floor, the camera drifts up and away from his body and assumes another unconventional point of view: For the film's remaining two hours, you follow Oscar's spirit as it drifts through time and space, reconstructing the months leading to his death, dredging up some childhood traumas, and peering into the future before arriving at a pungent final destination. Overlong (161 minutes), disorienting, and occasionally too shocking for its own sake, Noe's third feature is nevertheless impossible to shake off. Enter the Void is currently available via television on demand. — AE