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October 2010

Hit Man and Miss

Wild Target (2010)

Nick Wall/Freestyle Releasing

In a just world, Bill Nighy would be accorded the national treasure status he so deeply deserves. While his firebrand “Love Actually” performance, as boozing singer Billy Mack, attracted some notoriety, the British thespian never has become a household name.

That’s unlikely to change with the release of “Wild Target” – Jonathan Lynn’s acute, precisely pitched absurdist satire about a fastidious hit man – but we fervently wish it would. Never less than hilarious – crafted in the classically deadpan British style – the movie’s a grand, quick-witted entertainment, a throwback in the best, most welcome sense.

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Royal Road to Learning

The King's Speech (2010)

Laurie Sparham/The Weinstein Company

The English royal family in a period film is a tried-and-tested setting for the British to examine their feelings about difficult subjects such as class, grief, entitlement, sex and the rights of women. These movies are also easy to sell internationally. To these ends, there has been a long parade of "royal" films — "The Young Victoria," "Elizabeth," "Elizabeth: The Golden Age" and "The Madness of King George" among them. While "The Queen" is the only one that has addressed any of these issues in a contemporary setting, "The King's Speech" is yet another period piece, albeit an expertly constructed. From another angle, it is an update of "Mrs. Brown," with Geoffrey Rush playing Billy Connolly and Colin Firth in the Judi Dench role — although there is even less sex in this movie than there was in that one.

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Dead in the Blackwater

Route Irish (2010)

Joss Barratt/Sixteen Films

The most dangerous road in the world, Route Irish connects Baghdad's airport to the Green Zone. On this road, an ambush in early September 2007 kills four private security contractors, among them Frankie (John Bishop). Frankie's best friend Fergus (Mark Womack), an ex-soldier and former private contractor now in minor trouble with the law, attends the funeral despite resistance from his widow Rachel (Andrea Lowe). At the wake, he joins Frankie's family to meet two representatives of the contractor, Haynes (Jack Fortune) and Walker (Geoff Bell). It is unfortunate, they explain, that Frankie was in the wrong place at the wrong time. But Fergus is big enough and ugly enough to know better.

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Play by Ear

The Arbor (2010)

54th BFI London Film Festival

About the late British playwright Andrea Dunbar’s turbulent life in a working-class housing project, Clio Barnard’s “The Arbor” is an unprecedented documentary told almost entirely through reenactments instead of conventional routes such as a dramatized biopic or an adaptation of Dunbar’s semi-autobiographical play.

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He Ain't a Heavy, He's My Brother

Conviction (2010)

Ron Batzdorff/Fox Searchlight Pictures

“Conviction” shouldn’t work. The film follows the inspirational courtroom drama template down to the smallest detail, so much so it often comes across as a film-school exercise in formulaic screenwriting. Hilary Swank plays another in her long line of big-screen martyrs, characters defined by the grand moral cause that leads them to sacrifice their lives (often literally). The whole thing, even the thick Bahstahn accents on display, has Oscar bait written all over it.

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Get Mad and Get Even

I Spit on Your Grave (2010)

Steve Dietl/Anchor Bay Films

Consider this not a recommendation, but, rather, a warning: "I Spit on Your Grave" gets the job done. The film succeeds on nearly every level its architects, director Steven R. Monroe and screenwriter Stuart Morse, no doubt intended. When remaking one of the more notorious of '70s-era exploitation pictures (the same-titled 1978 button-pusher from director Meir Zarchi), the main goal, theoretically, is to up the ante. Mr. Monroe's take on "I Spit on Your Grave" most certainly accomplishes that. The drawn-out rape scenes pour over viewers' eyes like thick, slow-oozing acid. There's nary a sympathetic character save for the film's heroine, Jennifer (Sarah Butler), a city-bred writer unfortunate enough to pick a rural getaway with deviant redneck neighbors, five scumbags-in-flannels that defile her and leave her humiliated, decimated and mostly naked body to die. This makes her five-part revenge all the more satisfying in a pro-girl-power way, and extremely nauseating for those with weak stomachs.

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Flame With Anger

Stone (2010)

Ron Batzdorff/Overture Films

A cry of wounded, existential despair set against the backdrop of a bleak Michigan prison town, John Curran’s “Stone” explores nothing short of the disintegration of a soul. The metaphysical, religiously tinged Bergmanesque narrative comes disguised in a standard Hollywood inspirational drama sheen, but let there be no doubt of this: The picture is darker, more brazen in its ambiguity and less afraid of experimenting with downbeat sensations than you’d expect of a movie starring such top talent as Robert De Niro, Edward Norton and Milla Jovovich.

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Love at Second Bite

Let Me In (2010)

Saeed Adyani/Overture Films

A swell of cacophony overwhelms most horror movies — an overwrought, heavily amplified soundscape of screaming, earsplitting terror. “Let Me In,” which deserves immediate comparison with the genre’s all-time classics, opts for a different approach. Matt Reeves’s remake of last year’s superb Swedish film “Let the Right One In” generates its terror in silence amid falling snow, in a world aglow with the yellowed haze of streetlamps permanently dimmed.

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An Affair to Remercier

Leaving (2009)

Laurent Champoussin/IFC Films

Kristin Scott Thomas has never won an Academy Award, and she won’t for her work in “Leaving,” her latest. But let’s be clear: The “English Patient” star is among the finest actors of her generation.

Here, the 50-year-old grabs hold of a sharp — if trashy — screenplay from writer-director Catherine Corsini and lifts it far above standard adultery drama territory. This is not “Fatal Attraction” or “Unfaithful,” movies predicated on guilt, cuckolding and the thrill of misbehavior. Rather, in its star’s able hands, the picture becomes the effective story of a woman opening up and finding the strength to advocate for her desires for the first time.

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To Mark Their Territories, Pols Piss on Democracy

Gerrymandering (2010)

Gary Griffin/2010 Tribeca Film Festival

The world of politics has always consisted of shady backroom schemes and secretive deals behind closed doors. But the process of legislators redrawing district lines to guarantee their future in office, also called "gerrymandering," is one of the more public and generally accepted political machinations. It also might be one of the most insidious, according to "Gerrymandering" — a new documentary by Jeff Reichert — which argues that the American redistricting process represents a profound impediment to genuine democracy and voter empowerment.

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