Thursday, November 24, 2011

Fall Harvest

It’s that time of year again when distributors dump high-gloss and high-class Oscar hopefuls into theaters almost faster than we can keep up with them. Here are a few of my favorites that are playing now.

After their uncomfortable flirtation with neutered political commentary in 2008’s Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, it’s a relief to see Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn) return to their absurdist roots in A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas. This sweet stoner comedy is a loosely strung-together series of goofs on 3D gimmickry, classic scenes and tropes from other movies, and the growing Harold and Kumar canon (“We’ll see you in the fourth one,” Neil Patrick Harris tells the boys at the end of his third anarchically hilarious H and K cameo). There’s a happy ending too, of course, in which Kumar learns that you can grow up without giving up your joie de vivre. Or your weed.

Like Harold and Kumar co-creators and co-writers Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, Alexander Payne, director and cowriter of The Descendants, is on top of his game with his latest, his best feature since the one-two punch of Citizen Ruth (1996) and Election (1999). The Descendants is a funny, moving story about a man learning how to be more than just a “backup parent” to his daughters while coming to terms with the loss of his wife. The script, which gives all but the most minor characters at least one emotional scene in which they reveal their true face, could easily have played as stale or melodramatic, but the film is shot through with the volatility, tension, and occasional grace of real life. As the father and teenage daughter, George Clooney and Shailene Woodley both give outstandingly truthful, nuanced performances.

The Skin I Live In isn’t director Pedro Almodovar’s best work—that remains the brilliant four-film streak that started with All About My Mother in 1999 and ended with Volver in 2006—but it’s still one of the most engaging movies of the year. Unfolding like a telenovela, with overlapping tales of horrific disfigurement, kidnapping and torture, experimental surgery performed without the consent of the patient, unacknowledged children, fraticide, suicide, and rape, both real and imagined, the story centers around the almost inhumanly beautiful Vera (Elena Anaya), a captive in the luxurious but sterile home of a mysterious doctor (Antonio Banderas). Vera is studiously impassive, but as flashbacks explain how she got that way, she begins to feel like the personification of womanhood in a paternalistic world.

Melancholia, the latest from director Lars von Trier, is a slow, somber trek to the end of life as we know it, and another of the best films of this year. The first hour or so takes place at the opulent wedding thrown for Justine (Kirsten Dunst) by her rich stiff of a brother-in-law (Kiefer Sutherland) at his enormous country mansion. Justine struggles to play the happy bride, but her new union is crushed by the weight of her own chronic depression. Without histrionics or blame, Dunst and costar Alexander Skarsgård give that slow-motion collapse a dignified anguish that makes it feel both tragic and inevitable.

Meanwhile, we take the measure of all the people closest to Justine, from the dutiful, nerve-shot sister who tries to scold her into behaving to the icy mother and pathologically antic father who leave her to drown in her own sorrow. Only her adoring young nephew’s nickname for her, Auntie Steelbreaker, hints that she may be more than just a fragile, “difficult” woman.

There are also hints that she may be clairvoyant, but Justine’s depression seems to be a burden, not a gift. Then the speculation about a planet on a fatal collision course with Earth, which was just a faint rumble in the background of Justine’s wedding, turns out to be true. Back at her sister’s mansion, where she had gone to recuperate, Justine climbs out of her black hole and takes charge, preparing the crumbling household for the calamity she seems to have spent her whole emotional life preparing for.

That turns out to be a majestically gorgeous event, but then, this whole film is gorgeous. Its glowing light and artfully composed, often slow-motion deep-focus widescreen shots of beautiful people, landscapes, and interiors make you ache for the loveliness of life even as Justine rejects it.

Himself a depressive, von Trier seems to be saying that only depressed people see things clearly, and that death is not just inevitable but magnificent. But statements like those are too reductive to do this film justice. Like any good fable, Melancholia leaves you with a headful of dreamlike images—Justine’s panicked sister running through the lawn with her son, her feet leaving deep prints in the grass; the huge planet looming larger on the horizon as the air grows so bright it seems almost liquid; Justine sunbathing at night in the light of the planet, first in her bridal gown and then in the nude—whose significance can’t be condensed into words.

Written for TimeOff

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