By Derek Jenkins and Lindsey Millar
Killer of Sheep (1977),
dir. Charles Burnett
Driven more by a succession of starkly beautiful black and white images than any real plot, the true subject of “Killer of Sheep” is community, as filtered through the feverish consciousness of an insomniac butcher. No American film charts black experience with such lyrical and intangible exactness. Already ghostly and ethereal, Charles Burnett’s debut feature has haunted all discussions of ’70s American cinema for years: The victim of legal squabbles that shared no sense of the film’s urgency and transcendental power, the film was not distributed in theaters. Until very recently, movie lovers have been forced to take lucky critics at their word. In years hence, Burnett’s hardscrabble, here-and-there career will stand as the most nagging of missed opportunities. Do not miss your opportunity to see this powerful film on the big screen.
10 Items or Less (2006),
dir. Brad Silberling
Morgan Freeman lends gravity like a library lends books. We’ve grown accustomed to seeing him play wise, infallible monuments. And he’s in such high demand for his voiceover work because of the cushiony pleasantness and ingrained authority of his inflections. Mark my words: One day he will play George Washington in a racially adventurous biopic. And so to witness an actor of his talents strip all that away and construct a character unlike anything we’ve seen before is conversely thrilling. In Brad Silberling’s “10 Items or Less,” Freeman gives one of his most compelling performances since playing Fast Black in “Street Smart.” As an out-of-his-element actor shuffling through L.A.’s immigrant community with ingratiating ineptitude, he redeems a small film that sometimes tries too hard but makes up for it in spades by being so generously watchable.
Dog Soldiers (2002),
dir. Neil Marshall
Probably the best film of last year was only sort of about scary cave monsters. In an intellectual bait-and-switch familiar to fans of Romero and Cronenberg, Neil Marshall’s “The Descent” was less concerned with fetus-like bat-men than something altogether more serious — the social and personal resonance of deep grief. But it was still damn frightening. And it was so good that people began to get curious about where this guy Marshall came from, and his directing debut quickly attained cult status. Skillfully exploring group dynamics in crisis, “Dog Soldiers” follows British soldiers on a mundane training exercise in the Scottish countryside, and then takes a turn for the decidedly un-mundane when local werewolves start eating folks. Produced by Arkansas native David Allen (who’ll participate in a Q&A following the screening), it’s both an effective fright vehicle and a sturdy character study, awash in non-CGI special effects that recall Neil Jordan’s “The Company of Wolves.” If John Huston ever made a horror film, it surely would have looked something like this.
Bodies & Souls (2006),
dir. Christie Herring
Nestled among the documentary shorts program, you’ll find a small gem about Catholic nuns in rural Mississippi. Sister Manette Durand runs the only health center in Jonestown. Attending to the town’s many low-income families — many of them uninsured — Durand guides us through the day-to-day operations and numbing bureaucracy of social work, and in the process redefines the concept of worship: “There’s a tradition among sisters that you go to church every day if you can. ... I could go to church every day if I really put my mind to it, but the beauty of the people that I work with and the people that I serve, they show me the hand of God.” Some people live lives of quiet dedication.
The Accountant (2001),
dir. Ray McKinnon
“The Accountant” won a well-deserved Oscar in 2001 and has since gained quite a word-of-mouth reputation. In it Ray McKinnon gave us a Southern character as indelible as any before: a walking, talking, counting libido with a penchant for PBR, a rural crusader hell-bent on saving Southerners from the noxious influence of American culture-at-large. As much as any contemporary Southern filmmaker, McKinnon understands what it means to take the social and cultural traditions of our region and translate them into the language of film, and he does that without letting the act of translation become the substance of his work. Watching his films and performances is not like eating at a Cracker Barrel (though he seems to understand that Southern people eat at Cracker Barrels every day). Rather than simply ornamenting the screen with moon pies and hound dogs, he earns a deeper authenticity through his investment in the fundamental qualities of his characters, his clear sense of mission and his native understanding of the paradoxes inherent to Southern living.
Old Joy (2006),
dir. Kelly Reichardt
Film may be a purely visual and auditory experience, but every once in a while you leave a theater with the impression that you’ve tasted, smelled or touched. “Old Joy” is an immanently sensuous picture. No contemporary film has captured the zeitgeist with such hypnotic ease. Two old friends attempt to realign the diverging paths their lives have taken, journeying into the woods of the Pacific Northwest in search of a hidden bathhouse fed by a hot spring. Will Oldham glows as an aimless and frustrated dreamer, prone to emotional bouts with elemental metaphysics. And Daniel London, as Oldham’s straight-man friend, acts most expressively with the contours of his face, which seem to physically recede and flatten as the two friends grow further apart. “Old Joy” was recently released on DVD, but don’t let that keep you away. This is probably your last chance to catch it on the big screen. Give in to its subtle flow.
The Situation (2006),
dir. Philip Haas
The first fiction movie of note set in occupied Iraq, Philip Haas’ “The Situation” centers on an American reporter (Connie Nielsen) covering the war in 2004. Based on Wendell Steavenson’s noir-ish first person reporting for Slate, the film opens with a historical event: American soldiers detain a pair of Iraqi teen-agers out past curfew and end up throwing them into the Tigris, drowning one. From there it nominally follows a love triangle between the reporter, her Iraqi photographer and an American intelligence officer. At its heart, though, it worries over the questions that haunt our country daily: Why are we over there? And how are we going to get out? Haas, who’ll be in town from Thursday until Saturday, says he choose to do a feature film because he thought it was the best mode to explain the war. “I felt it could illuminate the situation with greater clarity than a documentary. If you get into it with a narrative, particularly with Iraqis, I thought it could have that visceral, emotional impact.”
Knocked Up (2007),
dir. Judd Apatow
The plot looks like thin sitcom fodder: a pot-smoking ne’er-do-well impregnates a beautiful upwardly mobile woman on a one-night stand and, against all odds, joins her as she prepares to have the baby. But by all early reports, Judd Apatow, who started in TV with the spot-on high school comedy “Freaks and Geeks” before helming the box-office smash “40 Year-Old Virgin,” has made a brilliantly funny movie — if the preview is any indication, it’ll have you rolling in the aisles. Seth Rogen (“40 Year-Old Virgin”) and Katherine Heigl (“Grey’s Anatomy”) star, with Leslie Bibb and Paul Rudd ably providing support as Heigl’s character’s sister and brother-in-law.