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December 2009

Charm School of Hard Knocks

Precious: Based on the Novel 'PUSH' by Sapphire (2009)


Is “Precious” a race picture or a women’s picture? Regardless of what critics have to say, those associated with it seem to cling to the former. Back at Sundance Film Festival, the film scored a distribution deal with Lionsgate, and along with it eyebrow-raising endorsements from Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry. Certainly, Ms. Winfrey’s seal of approval could make the case for the film either as a race picture or a women’s picture because of the media tycoon’s mass appeal. But Mr. Perry’s support points to a middle-class black target audience.

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Out of Nowhere in Africa

White Material (2010)

The Times BFI 53rd London Film Festival

Isabelle Huppert has developed a very particular niche. With “The Sea Wall,” “Home” and now “White Material,” she is the go-to actress to hold a French family together in an unusual, isolated home environment, preferably in a foreign country. In “White Material,” the home is a coffee plantation in an unidentified African country, although it’s clearly based on Uganda. Maria Vial (Ms. Huppert) lives with her slacker teenage son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle), her ex-husband André (Christopher Lambert, of all people), his new African wife (Adèle Ado), their child, her ex-father-in-law (Michel Subor) and a variety of staff. War has broken out, with ethnic hatred stoked over the radio and people are starting to die. Fires have been started; there’s smoke rising in the distance; and bodies are starting to appear. Anyone with any sense is taking what they can carry and getting out.

In those circumstances, who would ignore a personalized warning to evacuate shouted from a helicopter? But nothing will make Maria budge: The coffee crop is one week from harvest. She personally hires a new group of workers and does her best to focus on the harvest, while simultaneously developing a peculiar relationship with the wounded leader of the rebellion, known as the Boxer (Isaach De Bankolé).

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My Summer of Loss

The Scouting Book for Boys (2009)

The Times BFI 53rd London Film Festival

David (Thomas Turgoose) and Emily (Holliday Grainger) are the only staff kids in a vacation trailer park in Norfolk, the unfashionable part of England that’s the butt of every joke. David’s dad (Tony Maudsley) runs the pub, while Emily’s mother Carol (Susan Lynch) runs the convenience store. David and Emily are teenagers at that awkward stage between childishness and maturity. Emily in particular flips between flaunting her sexuality and throwing epic temper tantrums. Especially now the summer is ending, they spend all of their time together, swimming in the public pools, playing in the arcade, dreaming of adulthood. Then Emily learns Carol wants her to go live with her dad and disappears.

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Meet Me in Boston

Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009)

Variance Films

"Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench" does not know whether it wants to be French New Wave, a musical, a documentary or film noir. It may be that writer-director Damien Chazelle wanted to see if he could incorporate all of these disparate ideas and tones in a cohesive way. The answer is, sadly, no. Shot entirely in black and white, we see the story — to put it crudely — of boy gets girl; boy loses girl; boy gets girl back. It is very simple and simply done.

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Victoria's Secret

The Young Victoria (2009)

Liam Daniel/Apparition

“The Young Victoria” breaks no new ground in the realm of period pieces. It’s concerned — as have been many of its predecessors with royals as subjects — with the burdens of monarchy such as the pressures to produce an heir, confront complex palace intrigue and find a way to connect with the outside world.

Yet it’s a work of high, refined craft from director Jean-Marc Vallée and screenwriter Julian Fellowes. With an appropriate emphasis on the quieter drama beneath the magisterial splendor and Emily Blunt’s terrific, empathetic performance as Queen Victoria, it achieves the challenging feat of making a narrative set in the early 19th century seem wholly contemporary, without needless stylistic quirks or anachronisms. Ms. Blunt’s performance succeeds because she makes the ultimate icon relatable, playing the longest reigning British monarch with the vulnerability and unease of anyone forced into a difficult position before he or she ready.

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King of the 3-D World

Avatar (2009)

WETA/20th Century Fox

James Cameron doesn’t make movies. He makes events. And “Avatar,” which comes hyped with a much speculated upon budget of around $500 million and the wonders of the filmmaker’s stereoscopic 3-D camera system, is perhaps his biggest yet.

With great power comes great responsibility — as another big-budget icon noted — and great responsibility brings the weight of enormous expectations. Well, ignore the bad buzz spurred by the mediocre first trailer and forgo your cynicism. The movie works spectacularly well, providing a vibrant experience on par with those provided by the legendary blockbusters of Hollywood’s past.

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All That Jizz

Nine (2009)

David James/The Weinstein Company

“Nine,” Rob Marshall’s adaptation of the Broadway musical version of Federico Fellini’s “8 1/2,” unfolds in a strange netherworld located somewhere between its two prior forms. It takes stabs at evoking the dreamlike psychological reverie of Fellini’s masterpiece but stops dead for clunky, poorly-integrated musical numbers. The dialogue alludes to the transformative power of cinema while the picture remains aesthetically earthbound, frozen by pedestrian prettified visual compositions and blatantly artificial stagecraft that hasn’t transitioned well.

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All Forgiven

Invictus (2009)

Keith Bernstein/Warner Bros. Pictures

“I am the master of my fate,” reads the William Ernest Henley poem from which Clint Eastwood’s “Invictus” takes its title. “I am the captain of my soul.” Those words helped Nelson Mandela through the insane ordeal of the 27 years he spent ensconced in a tiny prison cell and they lie at the core of the tale of reconciliation Mr. Eastwood presents here.

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Fleshing Out a Horror Hit

[REC] 2 (2009)

Magnet Releasing

The best horror sequels never know when to pull back — It’s their greatest trait. James Cameron showed genre filmmakers how to increase the quality with 2005’s “Aliens,” technically science fiction but still embraced by lovers of extreme tension and violence. In 1986, Rob Zombie deleted the black comedy from his previous film, “House of 1,000 Corpses,” for its nihilistic, superior follow-up, “The Devil’s Rejects.” And then there was “28 Weeks Later,” a descending roller coaster that traded its predecessor’s dependence on character exposition for one dynamite set piece after another. The formula is tried and true; of course, the film itself needs to actually be good. There’s no wonder why the increasingly-gorier “Friday the 13th” sequels don’t deserve to be in the same sentence as the aforementioned pictures.

“[REC] 2,” Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza’s supercharged continuation of 2007’s already-unrelenting cinéma vérité success, carries on the exemplary part-two tradition. Its characters’ names are inconsequential; in what ferocious, highly-stylized way each will be decimated by his or her infected neighbors is the film’s preoccupation. Though, this adrenaline rush’s blatant feeding of the horror-loving beast is quite endearing. As well as beneficiary, since the sensory uppercut fired by “[REC]” is slightly lowered to a powerful jab here, the downside of back-ending a film as unexpected and devastating as Messrs. Balagueró and Plaza’s 2007 gem.

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Strong Suit for Gay Marriage

A Single Man (2009)

Eduard Grau/The Weinstein Company

Fashion designer Tom Ford tries his hand at filmmaking with “A Single Man,” an adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s eponymous 1964 novel. Revolving around a middle-aged college English professor who becomes suicidal after a car accident claims his partner’s life, the film in a sense makes an even stronger case for the legalization of gay marriage than did last year’s “Milk.” But whereas Gus Van Sant’s biopic was an impassioned plea for equality, Mr. Ford’s melodrama makes you long for that one true love that seems to elude most mortal souls.

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