The Baader Meinhof Complex Like its contemporary war, Vietnam, the German student movement of the 1960s will continue to exist as fertile ground for storytelling, probably forever. In his unflinching, non-glamorized account of one of those stories, director Uli Edel presents the true tale of a group of radical college kids who believed their country was teetering on the verge of a return to fascism and turned to violent protest — mostly fire bombs — to prevent such a thing. Edel's stylized, name-taking exploration lends itself to hero worship, but he doesn't back down from casting attention on the killing of innocents and the often despicable nature of the radicals (terrorists?). Edel's choices guide the film into difficult territory of unanswerable questions and moral incertitude that proves energizing and fascinating.
The Black Balloon A kind of Australian What's Eating Gilbert Grape, this charming family drama stars accented Toni Collette as Maggie Mollison, a put-upon but lionhearted mother struggling to keep her family together with a teenage boy (Rhys Wakefield) entering the throes of lust and another son (Luke Ford), whose journey into adulthood has the added challenge of severe autism. It's a formula that could easily be mashed into schmaltz but thanks to the authentic guidance of writer-director Elissa Down and the captivating presence of young Gemma Ward, The Black Balloon stands strong.
Fantastic Mr. Fox What a wonderful film. Directed by Wes Anderson and co-written by Noah Baumbach, the short, sweet and challenging tale of a formerly wily fox (George Clooney) secretly casting off his domesticated life for fits of chicken-stealing glory boasts exquisite stop-motion animation as its gimmick. It's Anderson's mature telling, however, that elevates the material from a four-quadrant children's film to a piece of art that demands watchers rise to his level. By turns dark, neurotic and gleeful, Fantastic Mr. Fox would have easily snuck its way into my 2009 top 10 list had I seen it then.
Red Cliff Here is a simple endorsement: There is no reason for any fan of either John Woo or war films in general not to own the nearly five-hour international version of Red Cliff — on Blu-Ray if you can swing it. The thing is enormous, and enormously rewarding. Adapted from an ancient text, it's the most expensive movie ever made in China and it's all on the screen. The plot concerns a relatively small faction of outnumbered mountain people who defend their village against the raging forces of General Cao Cao. Woo's work here, for all of his early-career shoot-'em-up brilliance, will be the director's legacy.
Sanjuro and Yojimbo Speaking of Asian directors' legacies, the Criterion Collection continues to sew up that of Akira Kurosawa with the release of these two films from the clutches of that $400 box set from last year. Yojimbo's impact has been well-documented. Sanjuro offers a wealth of lesser-known goodies, like Toshirô Mifune's strutting, downright comical performance as the infamous rogue samurai with a tenderness that serves as the film's twist.
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