New movie reviews: Critics' picks

Time Out critics head to the movies to bring you film reviews of the best new releases

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Appropriate Behavior

“I feel dead inside,” says Desiree Akhavan with the kind of grim conviction that would make even Morrissey look insincere. Given that this NYC indie is Akhavan’s movie debut as writer, star and director, you’d expect nothing less than 100 percent from the 30-year-old—even as the world her character navigates is confusing and ridiculous. She plays Shirin, an Iranian-American hipster trying to recover from a breakup with her girlfriend while finding her niche in boho Brooklyn. It’s shades of Girls, no doubt (Akhavan and Lena Dunham are buddies in real life, and the rising star appears in the new season). Existential conversations take place with a Park Slope Food Coop “walker” lurking in the background; Shirin’s first tentative hookups include an OkCupid date whose idea of going out for a drink is brown-bagging beer while sitting on a stoop. But Appropriate Behavior isn’t all knowing LOLs; there’s a satisfying depth and heart here too, that’s more in line with Annie Hall. Shirin’s abysmal online tryst cuts to an intimate sex-with-the-ex memory that’s blushworthy in all the right ways. Through flashbacks, we watch the couple’s relationship sputter into life and run a wobbly course to its ignominious end (“You’re ruining my birthday,” “You’re ruining my twenties!”). Shirin’s awkwardness may be fashionable, but it’s not affected—she’s genuinely scared to confess her fluid sexuality to her conservative Iranian parents, and doesn’t remotely fit in at her family circle’s bourgie Pe

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Ida

Tragedy hangs like smoke over this spectral, startling return to form for Polish-born, British-based writer-director Pawel Pawlikowski. First and foremost there’s the historical catastrophe of the Holocaust that drives the story, shot in b&w. But there’s also a pervasive, underlying layer of personal hardship and struggle: It doesn’t feel like a stretch to place Ida alongside, say, Roman Polanski’s Macbeth and Elem Klimov’s Come and See, films haunted by the loss of a spouse and a subsequent darkening in the filmmaker’s view of the worldview. First-timer Agata Trzebuchowska is quietly compelling in the title role of an apprentice nun who, on the eve of taking her final vows, leaves the convent for the first time to track down her last surviving relative. But Aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza) isn’t exactly what Ida was expecting: She’s Jewish, alcoholic, a bedhopper and a ruthless court justice whose once-powerful standing in the Soviet regime of early-’60s Poland is slowly but inexorably waning. Ida is a film built of snapshots: Few scenes run longer than a minute or two, and the dialogue is sparse and functional, in stark contrast with Pawlikowski’s poetic, chatty earlier works like My Summer of Love. In addition, the painterly, painstakingly composed camera angles are all self-consciously “off,” with faces and bodies confined to corners of the empty, TV-square frame. The effect is somewhere between incredible beauty and mounting discomfort: a direct reflection of how sheltered

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A Most Violent Year

In little over three years and three features, writer-director J.C. Chandor has launched himself into the rare company of uncompromising filmmakers with more than superheroes on the brain. Margin Call (2011), filled with gloriously terse business talk, got him Oscar-nominated. All Is Lost (2013) had virtually no talk but managed to distill the loner essence of its star, Robert Redford, like no one had before. A Most Violent Year, Chandor’s absorbing no-bull NYC drama, further clarifies what might be the most promising career in American movies: an urban-headed filmmaker attuned to economies of place and time, with an eye on the vacant throne of Sidney Lumet. Set in the chilly winter of 1981 (evoked with a minimum of perms and trench coats), the movie starts with a business deal, as Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac, finely anxious), an independent gas-company owner, hopes to close with some Hasidim for a precious piece of waterfront property. He leaves the deal with 30 days to come up with an astronomical sum of money, and it’s right at that moment that his problems mushroom: A politically minded city attorney (David Oyelowo) starts breathing down his neck with aggressive financial queries; Abel’s Brooklyn-born wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), the daughter of a gangster, grows fidgety; and his gas trucks keep getting hijacked on the parkway. The municipal stew is dense and unusually flavorful, of a kinship with James Gray’s The Yards and other films made for the last handful of adult

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Black Sea

Submarines are such scary places that it’s hard to make a mess of a movie about them. The challenge lies in coming up with a fresh twist on the milieu that doesn’t tread on familiar WWII territory. Kudos, then, to screenwriter Dennis Kelly for this engrossing modern fable, in which a group of disgruntled employees of an ocean salvage company rent an ancient Soviet sub to retrieve lost Nazi gold from the floor of the Black Sea. The grizzled crew all have equal shares, but then they realize that the loss of a shipmate or two would mean a fatter payday for everyone else. Law brings unexpected gravitas to his role as the embittered captain whose desire to wreak revenge on his heartless bosses may be clouding his judgment, and the excellent supporting cast vividly captures the script’s intercrew animosities. Detailed set design also contributes to the oppressive claustrophobia of this undersea Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which oozes atmosphere. If Black Sea runs a few fathoms short of classic status, it’s because director Kevin Macdonald pumps the brakes just when things are picking up. Still, the film’s old-fashioned storytelling makes it a worthy addition to the sub subgenre.

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Selma

Do we dare watch Ava DuVernay’s civil-rights drama as a mere piece of historical re-creation (expert though it is), and not as a newscast of what’s happening right now? There’s nothing “finished” about the issue of American racism and fittingly, Selma, unlike so many great-man biopics, lures us into a crucible of unsettled arguments and shifting strategies as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s landmark 1965 Alabama march becomes a reality—at a terrible cost. The film plays like a better episode of Mad Men, pitch-perfect in its details yet fully lived-in: a universe of rolled-up shirt sleeves, sweat-laden brows and screams that don’t sound canned. Meticulously researched and elegantly scripted by debuting screenwriter Paul Webb, Selma toggles between moments big and small, though everything feels necessary. The 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963, an act of homegrown terrorism largely responsible for the drive to action, isn’t announced so much as eased into, as four impeccably dressed girls descend a stairway, chatting about hairdos. We see King (David Oyelowo) grousing about his fancy tie; attended to by a soothing wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo); and trotted out to accept his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. His work is far from done: Even as his team makes its way down to Alabama to set up headquarters, King’s reputation precedes him, as does a punch in the face in the hotel lobby. Selma truly takes off, though, in its wonky instances of back-and-forth: Oyelowo brings massive convi

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Citizenfour

In June 2013, after several months of coded messages back and forth, U.S. security worker Edward Snowden summoned three people to a hotel room in Hong Kong to reveal who he was and what he wanted. Two of the three were journalists: freelancer Glenn Greenwald and The Guardian’s Ewen MacAskill. The third was documentary maker Laura Poitras (The Oath), who has now turned 
the behind-the-scenes story of Snowden’s revelations into this movie. Her film’s quiet, matter-
of-fact sobriety is as chilling as 
the information Snowden revealed—that the U.S. and U.K. governments were spying on their citizens to an extent beyond most paranoiacs’ wildest nightmares. Even if you know Snowden’s story, it’s doubly striking when heard here, straight from the horse’s mouth and shared for 
the first time. Partly, Citizenfour 
serves as a concise refresher of 
a complicated story that has 
been developing for over a year. 
Poitras offers helpful background, 
opening her film with the testimony of other whistle-blowers and repeated high-up denials of
their allegations. But Citizenfour is at its most eye-opening—and essential—simply as a portrait of the then-29-year-old at a point of absolute no return as he spends almost a week hiding out before disappearing into an entirely new existence. He talks about his motivations, about leaving his girlfriend a note in their Hawaii home saying that he had gone on a long work trip, about cutting all ties with friends and family, about the near-inevitability

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Woman on the Beach

Three has always been a magic number for South Korea’s Hong Sang-soo: This is a director who loves, loves, loves an emotionally messy ménage à trois. So it’s no surprise to see another romantic trio forming at the beginning of Hong’s latest, or that this bitter comedy is located squarely in his thematic comfort zone. Anyone lucky enough to have caught any of Hong’s previous work knows that Director Kim (Kim Seung-woo), a filmmaker, will make a play for the attractive girlfriend (Ko) of his underling (Kim Tae-woo). Per usual, psychological pole-positioning takes place over socially awkward, alcohol-fueled dinners, and the male of the species—self-centered, oversexed and borderline infantile—gets soundly skewered. “But there are some good ones out there, right?” asks Kim after his conquest declares that Korean guys are the pits. Her sad smile speaks volumes.Newcomers intoxicated by Hong’s amorous pileups and power plays will hopefully treat the movie as the gateway to an incredible back catalog. But by the time the protagonist introduces another female into the mix, Woman on the Beach will elicit a “Haven’t we seen this before?” from the converted. The familiarity of the proceedings doesn’t necessarily breed contempt, as the director’s ability to nail narcissistic immaturity still yields rewards. When a potential third love triangle turns into a false alarm at the end, however, the broken cycle signals that one battered romantic is ready to move on. It’s a lesson the director m

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Mommy

Cinema doesn’t come much more exuberant and raw than French-Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan’s Mommy. It’s the tale of Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), a wild teen with severe ADD, his love-hate relationship with his mother, Die (Anne Dorval), and their stuttering new neighbor, Kyla (Suzanne Clément). Songs by Dido and Oasis boom out over the brilliant musical interludes, but they never drown out the very real compassion and love that Dolan shows for the flawed but lovably irrepressible characters at the heart of his unkempt melodrama. As Die fights to keep Steve out of trouble and Kyla becomes a secondary mother figure to him, Dolan fits everything but the kitchen sink into the confines of his cell phone–style screen ratio. Mommy may feel crass and bombastic, but Dolan finds joy in the most unexpected places. You simply can’t ignore his heartfelt and winning belief that there’s no one definition of what makes a real family. This is Dolan's fifth feature – he's still only 25 – and he does terrific work again with the actresses Dorval and Clément, both of whom appeared in his 2009 debut I Killed My Mother as well as in some of his subsequent films. This is melodrama and then some, and songs by Dido and Oasis boom out over musicial interludes and montages. It's anything but minimal, but none of this drowns out the very real compassion and love that Dolan shows for all these characters, none of whom behave brilliantly all the time but who all struggle to get along in life as best

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Gone Girl

Transformed into the kind of wickedly confident Hollywood thriller you pray to see once in a decade, Gillian Flynn's absorbing missing-wife novel emerges—via a faithful script by the author herself—as the stealthiest comedy since American Psycho. It's a hypnotically perverse film, one that redeems your faith in studio smarts (but not, alas, in local law enforcement, tabloid crime reporting or, indeed, marriage). No secrets will be revealed here, apart from an obvious one: Director David Fincher, also the maker of Seven, Zodiac and The Social Network, is more than just your everyday stylish cynic. Five years of matrimony haven't been kind to the Dunnes, a pair of formerly dazzling NYC writers rocked by layoffs, family illness and a resentful move to a Missouri dead zone. We learn this early on, after the disaster that kicks off the movie: Nick (Ben Affleck, never better) stops home after a neighbor phones him about his cat that's slipped out the front door. Inside, he finds shattered glass everywhere but no Amy (Rosamund Pike, delivering a ghostly yet dominant turn that's the year's biggest surprise). Has she been snatched? Cops gather, along with news trucks, Amy's snobby Manhattan parents and a dawning sense of media frenzy in need of a culprit. Nick, who's a touch too aloof, comes in handy in this regard. Toggling between the developing investigation and flashbacks to the couple's happier days in a Brooklyn brownstone (as did Flynn's original structure), Fincher brews an om

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Boyhood

Looking at it one way, Boyhood represents a spectacularly cheap way of saving on actors’ salaries: To capture his rambling yet absorbing Texas family drama, director Richard Linklater (Bernie, Before Midnight) received agreements from several performers—including his eight-year-old daughter, Lorelei—to shoot a movie with them over 12 years in dribs and drabs. Teenage voices drop, waists thicken and, in one turn nobody could have predicted, moppet Ellar Coltrane, playing the younger child of a divorced couple, develops into a magnetically internal student and heartbreaker. Cool as it sounds, this long-game gimmick doesn’t automatically guarantee profundity. Linklater, the least pretentious and most relaxed of American filmmakers, would probably say so himself. But amazingly, depth is what he achieves, by letting the years play out in an uninterrupted three-hour flow, and lingering on moments that most films would cut for pace. Boyhood feels unprecedented in its intimacy; the process is quietly radical (with a hat tip to François Truffaut’s 20-year Antoine Doinel series that began with The 400 Blows in 1959), but the unassuming script even more so. We’re introduced to the clan in impressionistic bursts. Olivia (Patricia Arquette), a single mother heading back to college, preps her kids for relocation to Houston, while cool dad Mason (Ethan Hawke) shows up in a muscle car on weekends for trips to the bowling alley. You root for their reconciliation, but the plot has other plans,

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The Theory of Everything

At its best (which is often), director James Marsh’s affecting biopic of the cosmos-rattling astrophysicist Stephen Hawking plays deftly against schmaltz. Hawking, a great wit, has always seen the dark humor in his bodily predicament, the ALS-like disease that began robbing the intellectual explorer of his muscular function as early as his university years. The Theory of Everything embraces that irony: This is a Hawking profile in which you’ll see the wheelchair-bound, speech-impaired scientist happily rolling around his living room dressed up like a Dalek from Doctor Who, his children squealing. More substantially, it’s a movie that delivers science in an approachable Neil deGrasse Tyson–like way, one that might turn young people onto big theoretical ideas—as well as turn them onto the enjoyment of problem solving with the right partner. An early scene has a thoughtful professor introducing ruffled Cambridge student Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) to a lab where all the action happens; it’s a lovely moment of quiet inspiration. The film is filled with snazzy visual metaphors: A swirling cup of coffee becomes a symbol for dark and light matter. A formal dance, where Stephen twirls with the future love of his life, Jane (Felicity Jones), twinkles with glowing lights and a hint of the universe falling into place. The film is their story (the script is largely based on the second of Jane Hawking’s two memoirs), and even though it smooths out some of their domestic unease and eventual d

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The Imitation Game

Hidden codes, secret meanings and mixed messages pulse through the reliable, old-fashioned, buzzing copper wires of true-life period drama The Imitation Game. Snappy and not too solemn, but perhaps not as much of a psychological puzzle as it could have been, the film gives us key episodes in the tragic life of Alan Turing. He was the mathematician whose biting antisocial intelligence briefly ran in step with the needs of the British war effort in the 1940s when he was employed to help break the Nazis’ Enigma code at Bletchley Park. Turing’s wartime achievements, kept under wraps for years, counted for nothing when his homosexuality fell foul of the law in the early 1950s, sending an already fragile personality into free fall. Benedict Cumberbatch, no stranger to roles with a hint of sociopathic genius, delivers a performance with more complexity and knots than the film around him. The script tends to spell out its themes, repeating a corny slogan: “Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of, who do the things that no one can imagine.” Cumberbatch, though, defies the film’s simplicity. His Turing is awkward, determined, at times comically standoffish (a description that could just as easily apply to his portrayals of Stephen Hawking, Julian Assange and Sherlock Holmes). Mainly, the film lingers on the war period and the code-breaking years, where it’s most comfortable as an ensemble, getting-the-team-together drama. Director Morten Tyldum and writer Graham Moor

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Mr. Turner

Twice before, first with Topsy-Turvy and then with Vera Drake, Mike Leigh has punctuated his bittersweet studies of contemporary life with period dramas. Now, with Mr. Turner, the British director of Naked and Secrets & Lies takes us back to the 19th century and the later years of the celebrated, groundbreaking, difficult painter J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851). Sad and joyful, Mr. Turner offers a wonderfully rich tapestry of experience, digging deeply into a complicated, contradictory life. Timothy Spall—a veteran of Leigh’s films—plays this eccentric, determined London bohemian like a bronchial, cantankerous, randy old toad with a bad back. He grunts and grimaces and gropes through life. Leigh, meanwhile, explores Turner’s life unburdened by any sense of purpose other than an intense, contagious fascination with this man, his work and, increasingly, the inevitable, slow, irresistible trudge toward death. We observe Turner’s fondness for his elderly father; his sexual relationship with his meek housekeeper (Dorothy Atkinson); his rejection of his children and their mother; his arm’s-length acceptance by the lions of the Royal Academy; his late-life relationship with a Margate widow (Marion Bailey); and the mockery of the crowd when his work turns experimental. “Vile” and a “yellow mess” concludes Queen Victoria at an exhibition. The presence of royalty in a Mike Leigh film is just one of its many welcome surprises. Mortality hangs heavily over Mr. Turner, which covers roughly 25 y

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Still Alice

Alzheimer’s disease is a Greek tragedy: Preordained by genetics (if not the Fates themselves), the neurodegenerative disorder is an unfathomably cruel death march down a tunnel that disappears behind you and gets darker with every step. Still Alice, adapted by married couple Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland from Lisa Genova’s 2007 novel of the same name, is the rare film possessed with the courage required to shine a light into that abyss knowing full well that down is the only way out. For illustrious Columbia University linguistics professor Dr. Alice Howland (an astonishingly controlled Julianne Moore, whose career-best performance lacks so much as a hint of stagy artifice), the first symptoms are subtly ominous. Just 50 years old, Alice is too young to assume that a momentary lapse might be an early sign of dementia. And then, over the length of a single devastating close-up, Alice learns that the rest of her life will be devoted to what she later refers to as “the art of losing.” After that bombshell diagnosis, there’s only one direction in which Still Alice can go, and the film directly confronts the inevitability of its story. Profoundly moving but never exploitative, the script homes in on the mundane exchanges that form the foundation of our closest relationships—the particulars of a Pinkberry order, the shorthand of a text, the delay before a hug—and demolishes that bedrock in a series of masterfully precise explosions. Perhaps owing to the fact that Glatzer

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Inherent Vice

Ever since Boogie Nights, the untamable Paul Thomas Anderson has thrilled us with the mania of self-made men—porn stars, game-show hosts, oil prospectors and cultists. Now, for a change, the director grabs you by the nose: Inherent Vice, Anderson's sexy, swirling latest (based on Thomas Pynchon's exquisite stoner mystery set at the dawn of the '70s), is a wondrously fragrant movie, emanating sweat, the stink of pot clouds and the press of hairy bodies. It's a film you sink into, like a haze on the road, even as it jerks you along with spikes of humor. "Go back to the beach, you smell like a patchouli fart," growls Josh Brolin's flat-topped L.A. detective, Bigfoot Bjornsen, to our dazed hero, Doc (Joaquin Phoenix), an unlikely private eye but one you can't help rooting for. We're in a semifictionalized version of California, sort of like the real thing but scented with hallucinogenic behavior, weird restaurant menus and Manson-era paranoia. (Maybe that's not so altered at all.) Inherent Vice is the first time that Pynchon's elaborately dense prose has made it to the screen, and for good reason. With this novel, a recognizable thrust could be seen: an us-versus-them hippie fantasia decked out in the trappings of noir. Anderson doesn't so much adapt the book as hawk it up on the screen proudly, in faithful chunks. (His screenplay is said to have received the author's blessing.) And the movie he's ended up with is astounding: literary, loose-limbed and simply impossible to make h

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Nightcrawler

It's no news to anyone who watches TV—especially local crime coverage—that the beat has devolved into a cesspool of gore, jittery witnesses and "hot content." What was once prophetic in movies like Network and Broadcast News is now commonplace. Writer-director Dan Gilroy's supercharged Nightcrawler, a viciously funny film, starts from that premise and wisely avoids making the same points. Instead, it twins the frenetic, sleazy hunt for shocking footage with the career ambitions of a closet psycho who, naturally, rises to the top. Closer in spirit to the media-amplified perversity of Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, Nightcrawler feels like a major portrait of a sick, insatiable appetite. The hungry wolf at the center is Louis, impressively played by a wire-thin Jake Gyllenhaal, who right off the bat doesn't feel like your everyday L.A. loner. Bug-eyed, upbeat and frustrated by his nighttime excursions fencing stolen goods, he strolls up to a burning car on the highway, the rescue in progress. As he watches the swarming cameramen (freelancers who provide smut to stations for quick payouts), a light bulb goes off over Louis' head. Soon enough, he's out there with his own camcorder, getting closer than anyone—he nearly runs over a victim with his car—and sneaking through bullet-strewn homes without permission Initially, Nightcrawler plays like a darkly comic how-I-made-it story. Louis marshals an impressive (if slightly cracked) discipline to his new passion.

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Comments

1 comments
Linda R
Linda R

What kind of movie list is this? I want to see an alphabetical list of reviews for movies currently in theaters. This is just a mishmash