I wasn't able to post a review for every film I saw this year, so here are a bunch of mini-evaluations for the ones I didn't get to:
The Visitor (***1/2)
Tom McCarthy's touching drama The Visitor is a modest film whose heart runs deep. It gently comments on issues of racism and impenetrable bureaucracy in a post-9/11 world, but the story is always about the characters. Veteran character actor Richard Jenkins is superb as a lonely, soft-spoken college professor who gradually finds his way back to human society. The two musical styles used throughout the film (classical piano and African drums) smartly define the mood of each scene.
Matteo Garrone and Roberto Saviano's blistering expose on the notorious Italian crime syndicate known as the Camorra, draws inspiration from the works of Martin Scorcese and numerous trailblazers of European cinema. The result is a cross between Goodfellas and City of God; a remarkably well-made crime drama, but not quite as accessible to Western audiences. Marco Onorato's hand-held camera work is strikingly effective, as is the Schoonmakerian editing by Marco Spoletini.
A remarkable true story does not always make a remarkable film, as is the case with Edward Zwick's Defiance. When it isn't focusing on the action, the narrative is either very dry or trying too hard to be dramatic. The subject matter may command respect, but that doesn't stop it from falling prey to the cliches of “Holocaust movies”. That said, Zwick does have a flare for terrific action sequences, making the most of the film's visual and audio elements. James Newton Howard produces a lovely score, and Eduardo Serra's cinematography is fluent and nicely-lit.
Frozen River (**1/2)
In Frozen River, Melissa Leo is excellent as a desperate mother who resorts to human smuggling in order to make ends meet. Leo's performance aside, the film doesn't seem to meet its full potential. It moves at a very slow pace, and some of the acting is as bleak as the story itself. As is to be expected with a first feature, the camera work and editing are a bit stodgy, but rookie director Courtney Hunt still shows promise as a filmmaker, handling the narrative with care and caution.
In Bruges (***)
Martin MacDonough's In Bruges is a fine example of dark comedy acted to perfection. Colin Farrell stands out in particular, as a hitman who can't sit still, plagued with guilt from a botched job. He and his costar Brendan Gleeson are superb together, hitting all the comedic and dramatic notes with impeccable timing and chemistry. The violence does start to get a little over-the-top in the climax, ending in true Shakespearean form, but this fresh and funny gem is still one of the year's most underrated films.
Wendy and Lucy (***)
Despite a brief runtime of only 80 minutes, Wendy and Lucy isn't for those with a short attention span. This minimalist story is told with a muted quality that forces the viewer to be on the look out for every subtlety. Carrying the weight of the entire film is Michelle Williams, who gives a sublime performance as a cash-strapped wanderer. Her financial struggle is particularly meaningful in the current economic climate, and even though she is running from society, she learns there is no escape from the cruelties of a world plagued by the necessity of money. This is low-budget independent film making at its best.
Watch for my personal ballot tomorrow, as well as final predictions on the 21st!