Peace, Free Love and Understanding

Sydney Film Festival 2016

The Commune (2016)

The Copenhagen of the 1970s lurked groovily over the horizon like a seven-day saturnalia to anyone peering toward the source of all the noise from the wrong side of the North Sea at the time. But Thomas Vinterberg revisits the environment of his childhood in "The Commune" and is careful to make it seem brittle, awkward and potentially corrosive to domestic harmony, full of the same misjudged fumblings toward happiness as everywhere else. Based primarily on a play by Mr. Vinterberg and Mogens Rukov and more distantly on the director's own experiences, its characters are either helplessly insensitive or just hard of thinking, as well as adrift in an ocean of beige.

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Magnolia Pictures

Little Men (2016)

Ira Sachs's "Love Is Strange" had moments of inspiration from top to bottom; but the most finely honed of all was the last one, when the story of two longtime companions in their 60s ended by drifting dreamily down the generations and following a pair of teenagers on a wordless glide through New York, skateboarding into a future of infinite possibilities. His new film "Little Men" starts with the relationship between two 13-year-old boys and looks up at the adult world of labor and gentrification from there, admitting that the possibilities might not be so infinite in practice. Life goes messily on anyway.

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Dickman & Throbbin Ride Again

2015 Busan International Film Festival

The Virgin Psychics (2016)

Sion Sono's gonzo gangster-cannibal-hip-hop fantasia "Tokyo Tribe" had its tongue in its cheek and death on its mind; "The Virgin Psychics" puts mortality to one side and gives Eros its day, but without feeling the need to calm down. Originally a manga by Kiminori Wakasugi (and already brought to TV by Mr. Sono in 2013 with a bunch of the same actors as here), it's a relentlessly ribald sci-fi burlesque about a group of young virgins with shared prenatal connections who all acquire lascivious superpowers at the same time. They then get caught up in a particularly carnal version of the end of the world on loan from some cheapo 1970s porn parody - which for all the resulting difficulties certainly looks like more fun than the Midwich Cuckoos ever got up to.

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It's Time to Listen; It's Time to Fight

2016 Sundance Film Festival

A Flag Without a Country (2016)

Bahman Ghobadi's new sort-of documentary "A Flag Without a Country" declares itself to be scripted from the lives of its subjects, making it a spiritual cousin of "No One Knows About Persian Cats" - his 2009 film about two Iranian musicians trying to leave the country - which blurred the distinctions between invented characters and nonactors playing themselves into a continuous smudge. It worked then in urban Iran, and it works again now in beleaguered Kurdistan, where a much thinner helping of anything resembling a narrative is balanced by wider humanitarian concerns. "Flag" and "Cats" may share some kindred drollery, but it feels like Mr. Ghobadi has found a suitably fissile material for his method in the faces of Kurdish children scanning a horizon only just far enough away to conceal the ISIS fighters hurrying toward them, as if the interlocking sadnesses of northern Iraq were now dense enough for documentary truth to become bent by gravity on its way out.

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Penthouse and Pavement


High-Rise (2016)

J. G. Ballard's 1975 novel "High-Rise" famously cold-opens with a hot sentence about a dead dog; Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump's film adaptation opts to cut directly from the urbane sophisticate Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) glancing at the animal to the spit-roasting aftermath. The elision makes for a decent cinematic effect, showing not telling; but also sounds a warning shot about conventionality, a distilling down of Ballard's haunted prose into nothing more adventurous than good old black humor. Mr. Wheatley's taste for unsympathetic British grotesques also starts to crop up early before running rampant across the narrative by the end, joining a handful of Ballard's dots about the inhabitants of the island without getting much of a grip on his social science.

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Live. Let Die. Repeat.

Columbia Pictures

Spectre (2015)

Consistent screen universes are a mixed blessing — as proved by the smell of burnt wiring hanging over the film called "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" — and it might have been better in the long run if James Bond had not caught the history bug. "Spectre" ties Daniel Craig's four Bond movies into a final fixed alignment, concluding the chain of events initiated in 2006 when Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) walked into "Casino Royale" and commented on his ass; and also gives the guy yet another layer of familial pain for the ongoing motivational pot. But in the process the film has a mild personality crisis, scared rigid at the prospect of there being any corner of Bond fandom not addressed by the current product and trying to build a machine that could appeal to every single vested interest in existence. A crazy, ambitious, expensive quest. And doomed.

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Minimum Overdrive

Linda Kallerus/Broad Green Pictures

Learning to Drive (2015)

In the same way that the feel of an average Sundance festival film is usually apparent before the opening credits have wound up, Isabel Coixet's "Learning to Drive" wears its origins as a New Yorker article on its sleeve. A gentle meander through the social and emotional lives of two decent middle-aged adults in a multicultural New York, it's a soft-centered comedy of manners in which understanding your wayward spouse might be less tough than grappling with the Department of Motor Vehicles, but more likely to lead to a quiet life.

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Bernd Schuller/Thimfilm

13 Minutes (2015)

A lone individual assembling his bombs without obvious radicalization or a network of coconspirators tests the character of all nations, even when that nation is Nazi Germany and has already thrown its character into the trash. Oliver Hirschbiegel's willingness to look the Third Reich in the eye — proven in "Downfall" — carries over into "13 Minutes," the less showy story of Georg Elser's failed attempt to assassinate Hitler motivated by nothing more complex than basic unease: no allies, mania or contingency plans involved. No wonder the gentlemen poking hot wires under Elser's fingernails can't figure him out.

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Holy Family Business

Gilles Bruno Mingasson

Last Days in the Desert (2015)

The weathered figure emerging from the wilderness after five weeks of contemplation and fasting in "Last Days in the Desert" is referred to either as Yeshua or by the all-purpose epithet of Holy Man; but there's no ambiguity in Rodrigo Garcia's film about who he actually is. And he's also clearly Ewan McGregor, an actor whose skills at underplaying inner conflicts don't get much of a run out these days but which potentially suit the son of God and his inklings of an appointment at Calvary pretty well. If you happen to think that a hyperbolic screen Jesus is the wrong approach, then Mr. Garcia's sober and sedate film may be right up your aisle.

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That's Amour

Agatha A. Nitecka

45 Years (2015)

After "Weekend" cast a nonjudgmental eye over the couplings of people savoring their early decades on Earth, "45 Years" looks with equal tolerance at a married couple hovering around their seventh — in the process confirming Andrew Haigh as one of current British cinema's rarely-spotted authentic humanists. With the domestic industry's choices too often amounting to use of the heritage card, indulgence in histrionic aggro or a swing the other way into micromanaged oxygen starvation, Mr. Haigh once again proves to be one of those searching for a fourth way.

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