ABEL (Diego Luna)
Young Abel (Christopher Ruiz-Esparza) is not well. We meet him the day he leaves the hospital but we don’t know why he was there, just that he will need sleeping pills (“How many do we give him here?” “I don’t know, two or three?”) in order to rest. Upon returning home with his mother to his older sister and younger brother Paul (Ruiz-Esparza’s real-life brother) something is off about Abel. His father ran out on the family two years prior and Abel just stares at a hole in the wall and draws circles in his hand, all speechless. When he does finally speak, it’s as his own father. What transpires is a thoroughly tense and often funny examination of family that features a fantastic debut performance by the elder Ruiz-Esparza and a very promising feature debut from actor Diego Luna.
ANOTHER YEAR (Mike Leigh)
Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter are visited by Mike Leigh in this gorgeous, engaging Rohmerian drama of a couple, Tom (Jim Broadbent), an engineering geologist and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), a hospital psychologist, whose life, careers and marriage are all in perfect shape. They are, however, surrounded by people much less fortunate, both financially and romantically. Not least of all is Mary (a stunning performance by Lesley Manville), a coworker of Gerri’s for over 20 years. Mary is a mid-40s party girl who had two unsuccessful marriages and has spent her career as a hospital secretary. She often clings to Gerri for emotional support, with Gerri unable to leave her work at the hospital. But she does so with calm and consideration, a true friend. The film is a funny and sad portrait of loneliness, sadness and desperation with flawless performances, a rich score and a screenplay from Leigh (in his usual outline-then-let-the-actors-define-it way) that is honest and detailed.
KABOOM (Gregg Araki)
The Araki of old has returned, which is good and bad. With films like Nowhere and The Doom Generation Araki really cornered a market on gay, supernatural, thriller camp like nobody’s business. Those films (and those in that era) were throwaway junk, for sure, but became a virtual ‘Find the Cameo’ of has-been celebrity cameos that ranged from funny to ironic to horrible, sometimes simultaneously. Then came Mysterious Skin, a work of astonishing clarity, depth and seriousness but still with flickers of Araki’s bent and skewed charm. Evidentially it was a one-off though as Kaboom is a return to his sex-filled, gaytastic freakshow.
BIUTIFUL (Alejandro González Iñárritu)
In his first film without writing partner Guillermo Arriaga, Iñárritu plumbs the depths of the most unrelenting misery porn of his career. The level of depravity, despair and gloom that pervades this gloopy drama makes Precious look like a charming Disney princess movie. Javier Bardem plays Uxbal, a clairvoyant who communes with the recently dead, making money off the family of the recently deceased. He’s also a middle-man in a Chinese sweatshop organization. He has a wife who cheats on him with his brother. He has quickly spreading cancer and a few months to live. Yeah, it’s a feel-good movie. He scrambles to earn money for his family in preparation for his demise (much like Walter White in the television show “Breaking Bad”) through all sorts of unsavory, illegal and immoral avenues. Now there’s nothing inherently wrong with amoral characters or depressing material, per se. But what Biutiful does is not provide one iota of empathy for its lead. At no point does the end justify the means here, no matter how much the film would like us to believe it. It would much rather have us wallow in this wretchedness than find anything profound to say about it.