West of Memphis
Damien Wayne Echols, Lorri Davis, John Mark Byers, Pam Hobbs, Henry Rollins, Jason Baldwin, Jessie Misskelley
West of Memphis
“It’s more of my life than I would like it to be,” admits John Fogleman, former Crittenden County deputy prosecuting attorney, “because frankly, I’d like to not have those three eight-year-old boys’ pictures in my mind.” The pictures he means are grisly, three eight-year-old boys left naked, tied up, and dead near a creek in Robin Hood Hills, West Memphis, Arkansas in 1993. Almost before the brutal loss of Stevie Edward Branch, Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore could sink in for the small rural community, police quickly named three suspects, teenagers Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, Jr., and Jason Baldwin; prosecutors went on to argue the murders were part of a Satanic ritual.
The case basics are introduced in Amy Berg’s West of Memphis, which focuses more of its energy and time on the legal wrangling that followed, much of it chronicled previously and at length by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Paradise Lost trilogy. The new documentary focuses more specifically on the work of a legal team starting in 2007, to free the West Memphis Three (in this it includes credited footage from Berlinger and Sinofsky’s films), as well as the diligent efforts by Echols’ wife Lorri Davis, who provides the film with an effective emotional center. Cynthia Fuchs
The Raid: Redemption
Iko Uwais, Joe Taslim, Donny Alamsyah ,Yayan Ruhian, Pierre Gruno, Tegar Setrya, Ray Sahetapy
The Raid: Redemption
For as much as the phrase “nonstop action” gets thrown around, The Raid: Redemption is one of the few movies that may just achieve the literal definition of that term. The plot and characters are tissue-thin: a drug kingpin is holed up inside a fortress-like Jakarta highrise, and a SWAT team must battle their way up to reach him, floor by grueling floor. It’s all just the setup for a relentless 100-minute buffet of flying fists, feet, and blades that’s almost too frantic to be believed, showcasing the indigenous Indonesian martial art pencak silat. Gareth Evans’ direction is the perfect antidote to the quick-cutting, zoomed-in slurry that bloats most Hollywood action sequences. Instead, Evans films much of the ridiculously-brutal action in long, wide takes, making sure that every last elbow-to-the-face is in frame. Simply put, this instant classic is one of the best action movies of this or any other year. Pat Kewley
Helen Hunt, John Hawkes, William H. Macy, Moon Bloodgood, Adam Arkin
The life story of poet and journalist Mark O’Brien has already won one Academy Award, in 1997, for Jessica Yu’s Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien. That short documentary introduced audiences to a remarkable individual whose worldview was shaped by a life mostly confined to an iron lung. Perhaps the biggest lesson of O’Brien’s life was how he chose to not view his life as confined. Saying “everybody becomes disabled unless they die first,” O’Brien didn’t let the effects of post-polio syndrome interrupt his desire to live fully, and he created public awareness around the desire of disabled individuals to be active participants in their communities.
Ben Lewin’s The Sessions brings O’Brien’s story to the screen in a feature length adaptation of O’Brien’s essay called “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate.” The main plot of The Sessions does concern O’Brien’s decision (at age 38) to hire a surrogate in order to have a first sexual experience. But Lewin uses that scenario to explore nearly all of the issues raised in Breathing Lessons, including O’Brien’s sense of humor, his Catholic faith, and his yearning for companionship. John Hawkes and Helen Hunt give career-best performances as O’Brien and surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene, and the tremendous supporting cast includes William H. Macy (as Father Brendan), Moon Bloodgood, and Adam Arkin.
Beyond the performances, the most outstanding aspect of The Sessions is its thoughtful treatment of sex and intimacy. O’Brien’s meetings with Father Brendan and his “sessions” with Cheryl powerfully depict the both the spiritual and physical dimensions of sex. The tone of the film is surprisingly light, but its insightfulness about the effects of physical intimacy stands in bold contrast to the “no-strings attached” depictions that permeate most Hollywood films. Thomas Britt
Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson, Toni Collette, Danny Huston, Jessica Biel, Michael Stuhlbarg, James D’Arcy, Michael Wincott, Kurtwood Smith, Richard Portnow
Hitchock is an Anglophile’s and a cinephile’s wet dream, bringing together two of the UK’s finest actors to portray two of cinema’s most intriguing, if not important figures. A concentrated character study, the film captures a snapshot of director Alfred Hitchcock and his wife/behind-the-scenes collaborator, Alma Reville, during the period of time when Hitchcock was filming Psycho. Helen Mirren plays the long-suffering, whip-smartReville to Anthony Hopkins’ demanding, obsessive genius Hitchcock. Both Hopkins and Mirren morph into their characters – equally convincing and compelling as they deftly flit between dark corners of the psyche, sublime cynicism, and wry comedy. Hitchcockoffers a “rear window” to one year in the couple’s decades-long partnership, lending insight into the couple’s slightly dysfunctional relationship, as well as what made each half of the duo tick. Lana Cooper
Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell, Michael B. Jordan, Michael Kelly, Ashley Hinshaw
Far from the adolescent power fantasy it could have been if not in the hands of Max Landis and Josh Trank, Chronicle is a deeply personal real-world take on Stan Lee’s axiom of “With great power, there must also come great responsibility” with a little dash of the old “nature versus nurture” chestnut thrown in for good measure. The characters, clearly existing in a post-9/11 world, never cease to feel real, and their predicaments, even when complicated with superhuman abilities, are always relatable. In a year where bullying and teenage social cliques hit the newsmedia hard, Chronicle could very easily become a social document of the same importance as The Laramie Project or Stand By Me, and it deserves that status. Kevin Brettauer
John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, Alan Tudyk
Wreck-It Ralph came tailor-made to appeal to a certain demographic. Namely, 20- and 30-somethings that grew up playing video games. Oh yeah, and if they wanted to bring their kids along to see the movie, that was okay, too. To say it came loaded with a heavy burden of expectations from that demographic is an understatement. But director Rich Moore, with a background in high quality tv animation, met and went beyond those expectations.
The movie’s animation is spectacular, with three distinct, detailed looks for the three main game environments, and the character designs are equally superb. The voice work is also excellent, with John C. Reilly, Jack McBrayer, and especially Sarah Silverman delivering nuanced, enthusiastic performances. Not to mention the film’s unsung hero, Alan Tudyk, who plays the sneaky King Candy with a slightly crazed Charles Nelson Reilly impersonation. What really makes Wreck-It Ralph so successful, though, is its storytelling chops. No plot detail is wasted, and bits that seem like throwaway gags early on return later as essential to the story. It’s this smart writing that makes the movie such a satisfying experience. Chris Conaton
The Cabin in the Woods
Kristen Connolly, Chris Hemsworth, Anna Hutchison, Fran Kranz, Jesse Williams, Richard Jenkins, Bradley Whitford, Brian White, Amy Acker, Tim De Zarn, Tom Lenk
The Cabin in the Woods
The Cabin in the Woods sat on the shelf for three years due to MGM’s bankruptcy problems, but when it was finally released, it turned out to be worth the wait. After nearly a decade of working on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, it was pretty obvious that writer/producer Joss Whedon had no interest in doing a traditional horror movie. Along with co-writer and first-time director Drew Goddard, the partners came up with a film that lovingly embraced the horror genre while simultaneously satirizing it. They even managed to symbolically indict and deify the horror-watching audience in the process. That may make it sound like Cabin in the Woods is too full of itself to be fun, but the opposite is true.
Goddard, Whedon, and their cast are clearly having a blast, and their joy leaps off the screen, even as terrible things are happening to the characters. From the opening scene of middle-aged office workers (Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins) discussing their weekends, it’s clear that something odd is going on with this movie. But then the young college kids show up to take the requisite weekend jaunt to a remote cabin, and we’re back on familiar ground. A huge part of the fun of Cabin in the Woods is watching how these two disparate sets of characters intersect, and figuring out exactly why. Eventually, of course, it all goes horribly awry, in a crazy, over the top third act that pays off absolutely every plotline and gag set up throughout the movie. Whedon had a hell of a 2012, but Cabin in the Woods may be his purest triumph. This movie is Whedon and Goddard unfiltered, doing whatever they felt like without any sort of studio mandate and succeeding with everything they tried. Chris Conaton