14 August 2012

Spellbound (1945) - Let My Love Open the Door

Doors abound in Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound

This 1945 thriller is a combination of the man-on-the run-story, which Hitchcock continually worked on perfecting, and the man-chasing-himself -without-knowing-it story.

Gregory Peck plays a man caught impersonating a noted doctor who has recently disappeared.  Once exposed, he claims to have amnesia and demonstrates the symptoms of a man with a deeply repressed trauma.  Ingrid Bergman plays the psychiatrist who tries to help Peck figure out who he really was, and, more importantly, why he insists on believing he murdered somebody.

Apparently, producer David O Selznick was very taken with the practice of psychotherapy and took a very personal interest in the project. The opening credits boast an expert advisor for the psychiatric elements of the plot.  A title card informs us that in the process of psychotherapy, "the analyst seeks only to induce the patient to talk about his hidden problems, to open the locked doors of his mind."

The film latches onto this like a man with a hammer.  The symbol of doors, closed and open, is bluntly wielded at times, but there are few more subtle uses that contribute to some of the film's best moments.   

Spellbound is most often remembered for its dream sequences, which were designed by Salvador Dali. There is a central dream landscape which contains clues to the murder mystery at the heart of the film. This dream sequence was supposed to be about 20 minutes worth of footage, but the finished film only features a couple of minutes what was intended.

One dream-like sequence, (I'm not sure if is a Dali concept,) placed early in the film, is composed of  a long hallway with doors opening endlessly. This image dissolves into the two leads embracing.

However, just prior to this moment, Hitchcock uses doors to frame Bergman and Peck as she comes to his room in order to find out more about him.  Bergman approaches Peck's door from the stairs.  From her point of view we can see the light spilling at the threshold, telling her that he is still awake.


She at first avoids the door, but then enters unannounced to find him awake in his bedroom, obviously troubled.  She remains standing in the study, and they begin to talk through an open doorway.  Hitchcock creates an uneasiness, coupled with an anxiety of discovery, by using carefully directed eye lines along with framing the scene using the doorway itself.  At an important moment, when Peck approaches Bergman, nearing the doorway, he even passes through a shadow.

Once he has completely entered the room with Bergman, his gaze shifts slightly. He is now looking directly at the camera, at us.  The result is hypnotic and signals that Bergman's trip down the twisting hallways of the troubled mind is about to begin.

Unfortunately, though Spellbound has its moments of suspense, it is bogged down by  intrusive explanations of psychotherapy.  Peck and Bergman are able to generate some great chemistry as tortured and tentative lovers, and there are a few nice visual elements, but there is not much else going for this minor Hitchcock film.

12 August 2012

Shadow of Doubt - Alfred Hitchcock - Homewrecker

Uncle Charlie always knows where the back stairs are located.  He's bright, outgoing, handsome and witty; one could never imagine him shying away from a conversation in public. However, he has a tendency to disappear out a window or a fire escape just when people are looking for him. 

Charlie's niece, and his namesake, begins to favor the back stairs as well. She wants to avoid her visiting Uncle Charlie who is always patrolling the parlor or dining room of her family's home, a two-story house with a nice lawn and quirky neighbors.  When she ambles up the front walk, there he is, guarding the front porch in his light-colored suit, smoking his cigar.  The wooden steps around the back of the house become her preferred entrance and egress.  

The two Charlies play out this sinister game amidst a sunny, but drab suburban setting.  Just the way Alfred Hitchcock likes it.  

In Saboteur, the film Hitchcock made before Shadow of a Doubt, the entire expanse of America was made claustrophobic.  Here, the suspense is telescoped to a pleasant neighborhood in Santa Rosa, and, eventually,  the family house itself becomes a prison.  The aforementioned back stairs, the garage and the dining room all transform into possible traps.

This situation is quite different from the original daydreams of the heroine, Charlotte Newton (Charlie, to her friends and family), when she conjures a visit from her mother's worldly, bachelor brother, Charlie Oakley.

Charlotte is bored in her safe little community and she has her well-travelled Uncle on her mind when, almost magically, she receives a telegram informing her that Uncle Charlie is on his way to stay with them for a while!   Her elation is infectious as she walks down the street, beaming and chanting, "I knew he'd hear me." 

Hitchcock literally dissolves this very innocent and youthful moment into the oncoming force of a locomotive, the train carrying the wayward Charles Oakley.  

He takes the young Charlie's bedroom for his stay at the family house, while young Charlie moves in temporarily with her much younger sister.  This displacement of the young woman grows as she learns more about her Uncle and his strange finances and idiosyncrasies - he always carries large amounts of cash and he doesn't like his picture being taken. 

Soon, some reporters arrive to do a story on the Newton family.  But are they really reporters?  Uncle Charlie seems very wary of them and when one of them snaps his photo, he insists on them surrendering the film. 

Uncle Charlie transforms from a charming bachelor, to an odd duck ,to a dark presence as the visit from the "outside" world that young Charlie so longed for takes up residence with more baggage than she ever anticipated.  Their boring household is now unsafe as the young Charlie learns a terrible secret about Charles Oakley. In fact, she literally has to watch her step - did those boards that tripped her come loose on their own?   
Hitchcock seemed to have found a very good collaborator in screenwriter Thorton Wilder.  Wilder's Pulitzer-Prize-winning play Our Town almost invented the idea of death lurking behind the ideal image of small town America. 

In the young Charlie of Shadow of a Doubt, one can see a bit of Emily Webb, the heroine of Our Town, who is cautious about marriage.  Indeed, when Charlie begins to receive the serious romantic attention of one of the "reporters" who seem hot on Uncle Charlie's trail, she is flattered, but halting.  The enormity of societal existence is being laid out to her very rapidly.  Life, marriage, money and death are all explained in cynical sermons by her Uncle, who intones:

"The cities are full of women, middle-aged widows, husbands, dead, husbands who've spent their lives making fortunes, working and working. And then they die and leave their money to their wives, their silly wives. And what do the wives do, these useless women? You see them in the hotels, the best hotels, every day by the thousands, drinking the money, eating the money, losing the money at bridge, playing all day and all night, smelling of money, proud of their jewelry but of nothing else, horrible, faded, fat, greedy women... Are they human or are they fat, wheezing animals, hmm? And what happens to animals when they get too fat and too old?"

This is quite a strain for the young Charlie as she finds herself desperately trying to avoid her Uncle, The house becomes strange to her, and ultimately dangerous.   For instance, she shares an intimate  moment of romantic revelation in the house's garage, only to later find the same location is a deadly snare.


It is not news to anybody that Hitchcock got a great amount of joy in pushing these macabre ideas to almost perverted ends.  His camera seems to take strange pleasure in robbing Young Charlie of her innocence.  He lingers on her broken spirit as she realizes evil in the world can survive and thrive, even in the knowledge and view of the righteous.  She sees evil, but can do nothing about it.

In a final toast, and a tender moment with his sister, Uncle Charlie reveals the secret he has learned, that the instinct to preserve the idea of  "home" and  "family", and by extension community, can provide cover for sinister doings. 

Shadow of a Doubt moves Hitchcock a little further into the psychology of domestic life being invaded and taken advantage of by sinister forces.  Rebecca and Suspiscion had already probed the infestation of marriage by psychopathic and cynical agents, but Shadow simultaneously expands this vision and turns it inward.  

27 June 2012

Movie Shot of the Week - Fantomas (1913)

19 June 2012

Movie Shot of the Week - The Fall (2010)

10 May 2012

The Cabin In The Woods - Review - Office Space Meets Evil Dead?

Who's watching? 

More than most films, when reviewing The Cabin in the Woods, the first question one asks is how closely one must hew to the guidelines set out by the film's creators.  

It is probably not news that producer Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Avengers) and director Drew Goddard (Cloverfield) have implored critics, podcasters and audience members to try their best not to spoil the many twists and turns that they have baked into their thriller satire.  

Reviewers have approached this request with at least a modicum of  respect, excepting a few tongue-in-cheek attempts at humor.  For example, the Village Voice review should only be read by somebody who has seen the film, because it gives away the ending in the first sentence!

In the end though, Whedon and Goddard's much publicized entreaty for radio silence is strangely misplaced.  For The Cabin in the Woods is not really constructed as a whiplash inducing plot twister.  Indeed, if you are looking for that floor-dropping-out-from-under-you feeling induced by such mind-benders as The Sixth Sense, The Usual Suspects or The Matrix, you may be very, very disappointed.

Rather than a brain teaser, or labyrinthine philosophical puzzle, this masquerading horror film is actually more akin to an open-ended mid-term question that students are expected to elaborate on at length in blue books that will never be cracked by the professor.

Let's start at the beginning of the syllabus though.   The titular abode in the forest is the destination of five college friends seeking to blow off steam on a long weekend, but, right away, you sense that not all of them will be coming back. 

If you think you've seen this movie before, that's the point!  

Like Wes Craven's franchise engendering, genre-prodding Scream, Whedon and company know you've seen it all before and they aren't even going to try to pretend you haven't.  Almost everything in the opening sequences of the college romp into the deep woods is by the numbers...only it isn't.

The young, attractive cast of stereotypical slasher prey display some strange divergences from the norm in these pictures.  Chris Hemsworth's jock archetype, for instance, has a deep knowledge of economic theory and the stoner character, played with great aplomb by Franz Kranz, has a pretty rational and lucid handle on the increasingly weird situation in which the crew finds themselves.

Also, there is that creepy cabin, the road to which runs by an abandoned gas station, naturally attended by a sun-wrinkled, grouchy red neck who warns the students of the dangers ahead.  This harbinger of doom seems to be plucked right from central casting and the cabin seems constructed from the same wood as the forest cottage in Sam Raimi's ground-breaking film The Evil Dead. This all seems so perfect that we aren't scared as much as we are amused.

 Once the kids arrive at their destination a nice sequence unfolds.  One of the men discovers, behind a rather gruesome painting, a two way mirror that allows him to see into the adjoining room of one of the sexy coeds.  However, the scene doesn't go as we are expecting, and indeed it flips our expectations. Who is watching whom? Why would we watch?  Do we have the power to look away? 

However, we have already been tipped off to these questions and themes through the introduction of a completely different set of characters.  And here's where that spoiler question I talked about comes into play.  

Trying to honor the filmmakers as best I can, I'll just briefly explain that within the first few minutes, as we are getting to know these young lambs heading to the horror movie slaughter, we are also introduced to two bureaucratic engineer-types operating at some vast-Pentagon-like war room. Portrayed humorously by Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins complete with ties and white, short-short sleeve shirts these two seem to have wandered in from Mike Judge's workplace satire Office Space.  

"Somebody has a case of the Mondays!"

From the start, Cabin in the Woods is about the interplay of these two worlds and my guess is the filmmakers were relying on our continued interest in exactly how these worlds connect to buoy their experiment.  Unfortunately,  too many cats are let out of the bag too early.  We're ahead of the movie a bit through most of its running time, and, after a while, I got a little impatient waiting for these two worlds to intersect. It does happen, but it is very late in the game.

The collision of these two story lines unleashes a frenetic orgy of non-stop horror jokiness that is so blood- drenched that you can't help but giggle with delight at the pure audacity of it. However, I also couldn't help but think that it was overcompensating for the film's flimsy and slightly boring middle section.  

The Cabin in the Woods is amusing enough and has its moments that illuminate its themes brilliantly, but without showing a real flair for horror, or for conspiracy, we are left with bald satire that doesn't really have a strong enough spine. 

Some great filmmakers have tried to twist genres inside out with more successful results artistically.  Stanley Kubrick's The Shining and his thriller take Eyes Wide Shut are an example.  And Michael Haneke subverted the expectations of the horror genre with his movie Funny Games

It doesn't appear that Whedon and Goddard are attempting the same sort of experiments that Kubrick and Haneke did, and their movie is a lot of fun despite that, but I found myself wishing they had tried a little harder.  

I will give them this though, they really go for broke with the ending of this movie, and, while not a real twist, it is delightfully subversive. 

And unlike that Village Voice reviewer, I'll keep it confidential!

19 April 2012

Movie Posters - Invasion of the Bee Girls

07 April 2012

Moneyball - Visual Strategy - Ghosts of the Past

Moneyball is an interesting film.  It is not entirely successful, but at the very least, (unlike many Hollywood films these days,) it takes its shots and design seriously.

Here are just some of the shots which emphasize the weight of the game's past on the shoulders of Billy Beane, played by Brad Pitt.

In these cases, the old photos of baseball's great teams and players loom heavily in front of him, behind him, and over his shoulder.

28 March 2012

There Are Two Sides to Every Story!

03 March 2012

Orca (1977) - Great Locations, a Good Score and an Odd Ending Saved This Sinking Picture

In 1977, movie mogul Dino DeLaurentis hopped on the killer shark train and fast-tracked a high seas leviathan horror picture that now occupies a strange position in the B-cinema archives.

The resulting movie, Orca, a tale of a vengeful killer whale in mortal combat with a grizzled fisherman, sank at the box office and was harpooned by the critics, but it strangely never entered the realm of Ed Wood-dom, the kind of movie that is so bad it's good.

Instead - if reading comments on YouTube clips of the film or on various message boards is any indication - the film has attained cult status as a kind of eco-horror show.

Watching it today, it is difficult to understand the vitriol it faced from its harshest critics.  After the visceral thrill ride of Steven Spielberg's Jaws just two years earlier, many must have thought the lugubrious pace of Orca to be interminable and inexcusable for a killer fish picture. 

And the story really is ridiculous.  Richard Harris plays salty Captain Nolan, (an obvious rip-off of Robert Shaw's Quint from Speilberg's movie,) a fisherman who has his sights set on corralling a great white shark for possible sale to an aquarium.  His plans are foiled by the unexpected appearance of a killer whale that literally blasts the great white out of the water.

After a local scientist, (Charlotte Rampling) doing research off the coast of Nolan's fishing village, lectures Harris on the uniqueness of these creatures and their limitless intellectual capacity, Nolan decides to try and catch one.  This leads to an all out battle between man and giant predator that strains credulity to the breaking point and then pushes further.

It would seem that this movie would be ripe for midnight screenings, especially since it includes a scene in which the titular orca demonstrates knowledge of how to dismantle a natural gas line and then even knocks over a lantern to ignite the fumes.

Why then, is Orca not so bad it is good?  There are a couple things working to save it.

First, and foremost, is the haunting score by legendary film composer Ennio Morricone. Yes, that Ennio Morricone.

Right from the opening frames, where the titles alternate with some type of sonar tracking device, Morricone's simple notes are almost a counterpoint to  John Williams' famous opening bars of the Jaws soundtrack.

Second is the beautiful location in which the film takes place.  Filmed in Newfoundland, the vistas and colors of the fishing village are stunning.

 For years, Orca was only available on a pan and scan VHS transfer, but now it can be seen on DVD with its original widescreen presentation.

And there are some really good shots as well - shots that would probably be iconic in a better movie.

Lastly, the screenplay, despite hampering the film on a scene by scene basis, charts a story with an epic sweep that Morricone's score helps to buoy through to the end. Rather than throwing together a shark-eats-swimmers gore fest, the writers of Orca, (who also penned many Sergio Leone films,) tried to fashion a revenge tale that cobbles together elements of Moby Dick and Greek tragedy.

When the film is this realm, it is actually not bad, and Richard Harris is very good as a man who is deeply troubled by his action, (the movie contains a stunningly horrific scene in which Captain Nolan, in his zeal to capture a killer whale maims and kills a female whale and its baby,) and therefore obsessed with this creature that is more and more unpredictable. 

In the heart of the film, there is a great scene where Harris goes down to a jetty because somebody has told him that a fin was spotted there.  He goes at dusk and looks out at the water, but he sees nothing - only the gentle water. He smirks and then turns away to leave. There is the smallest splashing sound, and he turns around again.  He waits, looking out over the dark water for a long moment.  He is just about to turn again, when he hears more gentle splashing and sees the water roiling just a bit.  Then, as he strains to see in the gathering darkness, there is the movement of white and black under the surface of the water.  When the film is focused like this, it is compelling.  

However, when the film is trying to shoehorn in spectacular explosions and orca attacks on Harris's crew, the results are eye-rolling.  (I won't go into the horrible expository dialogue.)

The finale of Orca certainly turns the tables on the ending of any of the Jaws films. I remember being surprised and troubled by it when I saw the movie as a kid.  But the sequence seems rushed, and the execution of it is edited badly and shot clumsily.

The idea of the climax taking place in the icy north Atlantic is a good one, but the actual scenes were shot in Malta, using iceberg mock-ups, so the power of it is diminished and the visuals are almost laughable.  More unfortunate is the fact that this is the worst part of the picture transfer on the currently available DVD and streaming options.

The way the ending is handled is symbolic of the way the rest of the film is handled. Somewhat mythic and poetic ideas, choked off by attempts to also deliver a monster movie.

The movie is currently available on Netflix streaming.

20 February 2012

Movie Posters - Orca (1977)

20 January 2012

Sundance 2012 Filmmakers on Twitter

Sundance is in full swing this weekend.   If you like following your film festivals on Twitter, you may want to follow some of the filmmakers that are active Twitter users.

This is a list of filmmakers, writers, editors, etc who have films in this year's Sundance film festival.

Rick Alverson The Comedy   http://twitter.com/ralver

Mark Webber The End of Love  http://twitter.com/likemark

Ira Sachs Keep the Lights On  http://twitter.com/irasachs

Ava DuVernay Middle of Nowhere  http://twitter.com/avadva

Lena Dunham (Screenwriter) Nobody Walks  http://twitter.com/lenadunham

Colin Treverrow Safety Not Guaranteed  http://twitter.com/colintrevorrow

James Pondsalt   Smashed   http://twitter.com/jamesponsoldt

Jamie Travis  For a Good Time Call  http://twitter.com/jamietravis

Marshall Lewy California Solo  http://twitter.com/marshalllewy

Spike Lee Red Hook Summer    http://twitter.com/spikelee

Laurence Thrush The Pursuit of Loneliness  http://twitter.com/growthfilms

Michael Birbiglia Sleepwalk With Me  http://twitter.com/birbigs

Carrie Preston That's What She Said  http://twitter.com/carrie_preston

Tim Heidecker & Eric Wareheim Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie  http://twitter.com/TimHeidecker & http://twitter.com/ericwareheim

Terence Nance An Oversimplification of Her Beauty http://twitter.com/terencenance

Rodney Ascher Room 237     http://twitter.com/rodney_ascher

Ice T Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap  http://twitter.com/finallevel

Joe Berlinger Under African Skies  http://twitter.com/joeberlinger


Todd Sklar 96 Skybox Alonzo Mourning Rookie Card   http://twitter.com/rangelifeent

Craig MacNeill  Henley  http://twitter.com/craigmacneill

Eileen Meyer (Editor) The Thing  http://twitter.com/eileeneditor

11 January 2012

9 Films About Money

(Edward Hopper's New York Movie)
The scene of a couple hunched over the kitchen table, sorting through the bills and balancing the checkbook is familiar enough reality for most people, but on the screen it seems to to be represented mostly in commercials for politicians and tax attorneys. In fiction, do we need a break from household financial  drudgery?

In our popular culture, the familiar incantation is "People go to the movies to escape!"  From what, exactly, the masses are fleeing is tough to pin down, and no doubt changes with the times.  But for Americans, one issue seems to be almost deliberately elided on the silver screen: Money. 

The independent film circuit showcases a number of ventures into these areas, but Hollywood tends to shy away.  Outside of releases in the heist and crime genres, it is the rare major motion picture in which money fuels engine of the plot, or serves as an overarching antagonistic force which helps the film thematically.

After critic and blogger Tom Garvey asked about popular movies that use money as a driving force, I took a look through the past 30 years or so of popular film. 

Indeed, there are no films that use money and class in precisely the same way the novelists  Eliot, Trollop or even our American giant of that era Henry James did.

However, there are a few mega-hits in which money is consistent and conspicuous in both plot and theme.  These are films that appear in the box office range of #1-20 or so for their given years.  

(The Country Club as societal microcosm.)
This 1980 film sits atop the pantheon of movie comedies, and its tagline - "The snobs versus the slobs " - is just as famous.  It is a still a delight to watch Ted Knight's smug, privileged judge being slowly driven insane by Rodney Dangerfield's boorish, working-class climber.  However, we sometimes forget that the real plot of the film involves Danny, a young caddy trying to get some money to attend college,  ingratiating himself to the wealthier members.   

(Marrying well? )
Dudley Moore's iconic performance as the alcoholic multi-millionaire playboy does not age as fast as the rest of the movie does, (nor does Sir John Gielgud's turn as the understated butler.)  However, the other thing that remains fresh about this comedy of attraction between classes, is the way money is talked about quite openly by Arthur and the object of his affection, Liza Minelli.  When the chips are down, and it looks like Minelli won't be marrying into Arthur's family fortune, her father weeps like a baby.

Trading Places (1983)

 Another comedy from the eighties.  Mortimer and Randolph Duke perform a Pygmalion-like social experiment by switching the financial fortunes of two very different individuals.  When Dan Aykroyd's lock-jawed, Harvard-educated broker loses his money, he becomes persona non grata, almost immediately.  Eddie Murphy's hustler is given entree, a nice home and a great salary and goes on to succeed admirably. We also get a lesson in commodities trading, (video above) prompting a memorable breaking of the fourth wall by Murphy

(Like father?)

Oliver Stone's slight homage to the classic film Sweet Smell of Success, introduced us to Gordon Gekko. Some argue that rather than simply reflecting the reality of arrogant traders, the movie served as a kind of Dress for Success manual for the corporate raiders and hedge fund wizards of the next few decades. (In a smart scene in the 2000 film BoilerRoom, group of young brokers sit around watching Wall Street and mimicking of Michael Douglas's iconic performance.)  Budd Foxx, Gekko's protege, starts off the film asking his Dad, a blue collar worker for a small airline, for money to support him in his apprenticeship in New York City. 

(The best shot in the film.)
The War of the Roses may be the darkest film on this list and it's a comedy!  I recently re-watched it and couldn't imagine it being made today.  It approaches that kind of fiction about class and money that reigned in the novels of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  We are dazzled by the beauty and wealth of the Roses, but then we are flinching at the deadly battles over the couple's communal wealth.

(Sweet dreams, America?)

Ah yes, this movie prompted so much public discussion, outrage and dismissal at the time.  Roger Ebert correctly places it in that class of films that put acceptable people in unacceptable situations so that we can safely watch it play out . For instance, the idea of a lonely businessman hiring a hooker is a pretty unsavory prospect for a night at the theater, but looking at Richard Gere and Julia Roberts amidst high society ain't so bad.  Still there was something so delightfully wicked about Robert Redford, (of The Great Gatsby fame,) confidently proposing that anybody can be bought. 

(Into the financial abyss.)
"Show me the money!"  Indeed. Tom Cruise's idealistic sports agent finds himself immediately down on his luck after he is ousted from a top agency.  Coming along with him to form a start-up is a single mom (Renee Zelwegger) who, inspired by Cruise's farewell speech, leaves her good job as an accountant at the former firm.  Soon, the two of them find their bank accounts drained and their hopes for a financial and romantic future pinned on their one free agent client.

The Perfect Storm (2000)
(A life and death decision.)
The 90-foot wave that threatens to swallow the crew of the Andrea Gail in this disaster epic is nothing compared to the debts, bills and lost wages that are awaiting the fishermen back on shore.  What drives George Clooney's crew ever further into the Atlantic?  The promise of a big catch and more money.  And, tragically, this is also what drives them back into the fateful storm.

The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)
(A true light of hope in a bleak film.)
This was supposed to be the Rocky of urban class issues, but audiences tended to leave the theater in shock.  The relentless penury of Will Smith's aspiring stockbroker pushed viewers and some critics to the edge.  THIS is what it takes to pull yourself up from the grasp of poverty?  While watching in amazement at the resourcefulness of the protagonist, it still made many people ask: "Isn't there an easier way for a man like this to succeed?"

So there you have it.  Some big hit films about money.  I also noticed some things about hit films and how they handle class - specifically comedies.  More about that soon.

02 January 2012

A Few Small Films of 2011 That Stayed With Me

1. The Trip

"Everything's exhausting when you're past 40."

Two British stars take a trip to the North of England together in this Michael Winterbottom project that  was edited down from a BBC series. 

The Trip is a long form improvisation with a spine created around the imagined (or real)  middle-career and middle-aged malaise of the actor Steve Coogan.  Divorced, in the middle of a break-up with his American girlfriend, Coogan calls his friend Rob Brydon, a comedian and impressionist, to accompany him on an all-expense paid trip to visit restaurants in the North of England for a magazine piece he has been commissioned to write by the Observer.

Their talents are on full display with Coogan playing broody and barely amused to Brydon's optimistic, playful needling.  Several of the movie's centerpieces involve the two men dueling with their impressions of iconic stars such as Michael Caine or Sean Connery. These can go on for a bit, but one of them will always hit on something deeper in their own relationship as friends or the others career. 

The pair travel through the desolate, but beautiful moors and end up in the Lake Country, while the deeper themes of time passing us by and the desperation to make some type of mark on the world start to present themselves more clearly.  Finally, the two are walking in the footsteps of immortal poets like Coleridge and Wordsworth, but rather than things getting burdened with too much pretension, the biting humor of Coogan and Brydon constructs a sturdy engine fueled with just enough gallows humor to keep us moving along.

2. Bellflower

I wasn't sure what to think of this film once it finished, but I was feeling many things.  Bellflower is a rambling interestingly-shot trip through depression, jealousy and anger as could only be properly filmed by the twenty- something renegade filmmakers who made it.

Evan Glodell, the director and writer, puts himself in the lead as the slacker Woodrow who spends his time fixing up a muscle car named Medusa.  He also tries to build the perfect flamethrower with his friend Aiden.  Their shared buddy fantasy is that they will be prepared for an imagined Road Warrior-type apocalypse.  However, after Woodrow gets mixed up with a new girl, he and Aiden's lives become very difficult, very fast.

Flawed, but with a raw artistry and vision, there is no doubt that these guys have something here, but what it is, I'm afraid I  or any critics I have read elsewhere can't describe fully.

3. Another Earth

Yes, the science fiction elements are shaky of course.   If you have seen the ads or the poster for Another Earth, you would know that an identical planet to the size of the Earth would create all sorts of gravity issues if we could see it looming in the sky like that. Best seen closer to the fantasy end of science fiction (think Twilight Zone) Mike Cahill's film is really about coming to terms with ourselves as we are, with all of our history and finding a way to move forward.

Earth's citizens become aware of another planet, one that seems remarkably similar to their own, drifting closer to them This unleashes the  imagination  of woman who caused a fatal car accident that derailed her promising young life, (she was on her way to an MIT scholarship) and wrecked the family of another man.  She tries to find a way to somehow make retribution. 

One can easily forgive some of the science flubs, but the credibility issues with the young woman's strange plan to make amends seems a bit more outlandish than the huge doppleganger planet that hangs in the sky.  However, the haunting tone and the camera's love of the beautiful Brit Marling, (also a co-writer on the film,) makes for a hypnotic experience.

And the first contact of  our NASA with the sister organization of that other Earth is a spine-tingling sequence matched only by the finale, which is closest thing to the chills I received when I first saw some of the classic Rod Serling masterpieces.

4. Senna

Know nothing about NASCAR and even less about Formula One racing? Then you actually might want to check out this documentary about Senna, Brazil's legendary Formula One racing champion.  

An aggressive driver on the track, Senna is portrayed as a gentler and more contemplative man out of the car.  Though the film doesn't hide that he was an intense character,  he comes across as humble and self-aware.  While he obviously dated some of the world's most beautiful women, the filmmakers seem uninterested in his romantic life and only fleetingly feature his family.  The politics and rules of the international governing body of Formula One racing provide the obstacles and Senna emerges as a pure competitor who must somehow negotiate his way through this thicket to the championship, despite sometimes being the best driver. Unfortunately, the movie becomes a little bit of a hagiography in this area, with only a hint of Senna's own infractions.

With the high decibel roar of the exclusive Formula One footage to serve as a pillar, the story eschews the static documentary convention of the talking head, and Senna instead uses actual period interview audio and a few voiceovers to thrillingly recreate the fast rise and short life of this athlete dying young.  Senna was killed in an accident at the age of 34 and the footage taken from his racing car allows us to be right next to him until the very moment of his fatal collision. 

5. Buck

A kind of serene twin to Senna, the documentary Buck shows us another man was born to be the best at what he does. Rather than Senna's high octane pace, this film ambles along and waits until its last moments to throw you.

Buck Brannaman travels the country running training camps and seminars for horse owners. He is a protege of a famous horse trainer who was the inspiration for the novel The Horse Whisperer, which was made into a movie with Robert Redford.  Buck himself served as a consultant on that film, and his own horse was used for many of the stunts.

With beautiful sunsets and mountain vistas as a backdrop, director Cindy Meehl gradually reveals Buck's past.  His brother and he were young prodigies who performed rope tricks around the country, managed by their increasingly abusive father. Buck's gentleness and understanding of horses is almost magical, but the film has an ace up its sleeve that leaves the sage cowboy and the audience off-balance.

6. Five Days Gone

Playwright Anna Kerrigan made her first feature film by scraping together 60,000 dollars and securing an interesting location - a large estate out in Western Massachusetts.  Five Days Gone starts in a New York City bar as two sisters, who never knew each other existed, meet for the first time after their successful father has recently died. 

While one sister, Camden, grew up with her father and all the money that that entailed, Alice, played by the writer Kerrigan, grew up poor, never really knew her absentee Dad and doesn't seem to really care. Camden and her reluctant husband, invite Alice and her boyfriend to stay for a weekend at the family estate, recently inherited..

A few days on the grounds of  the house, and a slow tension builds, with hints of Chekhov or Turgnev (Kerrigan admits these are her influences.) The sparks come a little too slowly and there are some inconsistencies in the characters that seem engineered to create some needed conflict.   However, the performances of Kerrigan as the skeptical Alice and Brooke Bloom as the nervous Camden, keep moving the film into the territory where it is at its most interesting: as a tentative coming of age story about family and class.

Five Days Gone Trailer from Anna Kerrigan on Vimeo.

 7. God Willing

Remember that 60 Minutes piece years ago about the Jim Roberts cult? You know, the sketchy church that seduces away bright young college students into a Spartan, separatist lifestyle that prohibits them from ever talking to the their families again and has them riding bicycles and eating out of garbage cans?  

Well, that cult still exists and is as active as ever.  Only now, bereaved family members who have had children seduced into the organization can connect with each other over the internet.  As a network, the families can run surveillance on the nomadic cult if they suddenly pop up in a metro area.  They share photos online so that families can see if their sons or daughters are hiding out in the houses the cult members rent.

Filmmaker Angeline Griego followed this group of family members closely, and her film, God Willing, documents the attempt of one woman in particular to make contact with her daughter.   It is as suspenseful as any Hollywood thriller - the cult has been known to completely blow town at the slightest hint they are being watched.

As they circle their target, the family members talk about what they know about the cult and about their loved ones, some of whom have been out of touch for decades

God Willing - Trailer from About Time Productions on Vimeo.