The Skeleton Twins (2014)
Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig's comic rapport is the foundation of "The Skeleton Twins," a bittersweet comedy which lets the two of them bounce off each other for an amiable 90 minutes without actually breaking a sweat — or any new ground, for that matter.
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Eduardo Moreno/Open Road Films
The Green Inferno (2014)
Eli Roth's latest think piece on international relations is a gleefully nasty culture clash between youthful Western arrogance and a simple tribal lifestyle, somewhere down a crazy river. In "The Green Inferno" a group of handsome white-bread students — naive dim bulbs to a man and led by an out-and-out creep — set about protesting against rain-forest deforestation in the Amazon, and end up on the receiving end of a cannibal holocaust. At first it's all high-fives and banter and chaining themselves to bulldozers; but then later there's running and screaming and explosive diarrhea.
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Kerry Brown/Roadside Attractions
A Most Wanted Man (2014)
Anton Corbijn and John le Carré apparently got on like a house on fire producing "A Most Wanted Man," but make an odd-couple pairing. The best le Carré adaptations — assuming you buy that films can capture the author's Olympian monotony of civil-service espionage in the first place — rely on the innate thrill of a great actor in a bad suit retrieving a folder from a cabinet and returning to the desk. Mr. Corbijn likes to film the rites of tradesmen doing their thing, although for the most part seems keener on the poses they strike while doing so than the dirt under their fingernails. Between them, these two not-quite opposing instincts build a reasonable facsimile of the author's tale, and then pretty much admire each other to a standstill.
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Anyone coming to "Snowpiercer" as a fan of Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette's graphic novels may be in for an attack of sugar rush. Bong Joon-ho's film — less an adaptation than a parallel-universe tribute act — strips out the dour Holocaust-haunted imagery and discursive chat of the original in favor of broad sci-fi pastiche, night-vision axe fights and Tilda Swinton's comedy teeth.
The result loses something in translation, but gains a few thousand watts in the caboose. Question much (or any) of the logic behind the last of humankind riding a vast train around an uninhabitable ice-bound Earth, and it crumbles in your hands. Instead the film would prefer you to grasp its grand parable, restated at regular intervals: that political revolution requires the seizing of the proverbial engine car from the gilded layabouts in first class, something Curtis (Chris Evans) and his fellow peasants from the slum carriages at the back of the train set about doing.
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Jan Thijs/Sydney Film Festival 2014
The Young and Prodigious T. S. Spivet (2014)
Exactly what a film director is supposed to do with 3-D remains an open question, but "The Young and Prodigious T. S. Spivet" presents Jean-Pierre Jeunet with an open goal. The charts, diagrams, schematics and unlikely doodads of Reif Larsen's illuminated source novel are freed from their planar life and sent spinning in all directions, direct from the imagination of young Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet — a rare example of the technology perhaps adding something to the inner life of the character. Limiting the 3-D to just those flights of fancy might have made the point more effectively; instead it gets diluted by the usual cavalcade of pollen, protrusions and projectiles threatening to bean you between the eyes.
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David Koskas/Lucky Red
Grace of Monaco (2014)
Future scholars mapping the course of the celebrity biopic as the genre headed for the rocks will immerse themselves in "Diana," "Rush," "The Fifth Estate" and "Grace of Monaco," and be forced to concede — before they pass out — that the one with Nicole Kidman as Grace Kelly bucked the trend — just not in ways that made the slightest difference. Olivier Dahan's film limits itself to a brief window of Kelly's time as fairy-tale princess, sparing audiences from the dreaded template of rise and fall; and it puts its subject in a functioning historical context, rather than just fetishizing her inner pain. It even features a performance you can't look away from, although that happens to be Tim Roth's portrayal of Prince Rainier as a monarch chafing under the weight of history, who might at any moment stab Charles de Gaulle with a fish knife.
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The Two Faces of January (2014)
Enough of author Patricia Highsmith's intuition for the dire fallibility of menfolk lingers in "The Two Faces of January" to give the film a certain residual bite, despite the tendency of writer and director Hossein Amini to desiccate most of the juice out of everything. No surprise that the scriptwriter of "Drive" is prone to flat and emphatic point-making — although Mr. Amini handles his script with kid gloves compared to Nicolas Winding Refn's self-annihilating injection of TNT — but at least this gives more unhindered screen time to Viggo Mortensen and Oscar Isaac, cutting a dash across early-1960s Athens and Crete in nice linen suits while coming to detest each other.
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Niko Tavernise/Columbia Pictures
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)
Some superhero stories can shoulder excess baggage with ease, but by rights a Spider-Man film should drill down to their simplest essences: the transformed human body; the exhilaration of flight; urban strife; youthful revolt; hubris. "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" isn't really into simple essences, obliged instead to do that modern thing of providing $200-million-worth of mild legal highs, via scripts in which all relevant bullet points are actioned. The only properly new element is an air of collective panic about Disney, judging by the fractured clip from the next "X-Men" film shoehorned into the end credits of this one to try and bolster a mutual defense. Would-be wild and crazy cinema with all strings attached, "ASM2" is an average superhero film in every way, and so has to shoulder its share of the blame for the fact that the average is now decaying with a pretty rapid half-life.
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Erik Aavatsmark/Vertigo Média
Norway's natural environment was a big factor in "Insomnia," Erik Skjoldbjærg's 1997 debut in which Stellan Skarsgård struggles with a murder case and the extended daylight hours, and comes off worst on both counts. It's at the heart of "Pioneer," too — the director's new film set in the early 1980s — right at the moment when exploitation of the North Sea oil lying offshore is about to alter the country from top to bottom. Part paranoid conspiracy thriller and part blue-collar procedural, it maneuvers deep-sea diver Petter (Aksel Hennie) into position as the fly in the ointment for those awaiting Norway's transformation into one of the world's richest countries. They duly set about removing the irritant obstacle; a plot whose fidelity to real events hinted at in the credits is hard to judge, but whose broad authenticity for those caught up in the transformation at the time would seem tough to deny.
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Christian Geisnaes/Magnolia Pictures
Upholding the tradition by which Lars von Trier spooks the massed ranks of the tabloids with talk of pornography before then unveiling films that prove as arousing as a kick in the knee, the four-hour, two-volume "Nymphomaniac" is merciless and hilarious in close proximity. The story skips between an intellectual investigation of a woman's insatiable libido and a stylized erotic farce, threatening to cast its vote against optimism altogether and decide that no peace between the sexes is possible or perhaps advisable. Along the way, Volume I — with its droll laughs at regular intervals — becomes Volume II, which plunges into darkness headfirst. Large themes are invoked; large genitalia are inspected. Large theories are inevitable.
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