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April 2011

In Feudal Japan, Rounding Up an Ocean's 13

13 Assassins (2010)

Magnet Releasing

Takashi Miike has more than cemented his reputation as the sickest filmmaker known to man. Fans gush (and hurl) endlessly over each and every Miike defilement of all that is sacred, but rare is the mention of his fairly conventional and humble beginnings as Shohei Imamura’s assistant director. We actually got a sneak peek of his classical sensibility in “Audition” of all things, up to the point when the movie finally breached the boundaries of decency and earned cinematic infamy. His new film “13 Assassins,” though, is that true classical jidaigeki feudal epic that those who have seen “Audition” know he has in him. And Mr. Miike executes (pardon the pun) it so beautifully that it’s breathtaking.

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Kung Fu Hustler

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010)

2011 Tribeca Film Festival

It’s a good thing that Tsui Hark has never jumped on the “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” bandwagon. Although to be fair, he probably didn’t see any point in impressing audiences outside Hong Kong after his pair of underwhelming Hollywood one-two punch Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicles, “Knock Off” and “Double Team.” Poor Mr. Tsui. Even Mr. Van Damme has since redeemed himself with “JCVD” (which incidentally features a character who is an obnoxious hot-shot Hong Kong filmmaker, presumably based on you-know-who). Will Hollywood learn to forgive?

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Crucified on a Cross, Not Pitied

Confessions (2010)

Japan Society

“Confessions,” the official Japanese entry in the Best Foreign Language Film category for this year’s Oscars, made the shortlist of nine but fell short of a nomination. Curiously, the film has much in common with the eventual victor, Denmark’s “In a Better World.” Each tackles the subjects of revenge and vigilantism through the delinquency of a fair-haired juvenile mastermind and his social-misfit accomplice. But whereas “In a Better World” offers a cop-out ending with no actual harm done, “Confessions” serves up shattering collateral damage far and wide.

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When the Job's Away

My Piece of the Pie (2011)

Chantal Thomine-Desmazures/Studiocanal

With “My Piece of the Pie,” Cédric Klapisch seems to want to strike a happy medium between the hyperkinetic, post-E.U. “L’auberge espagnole” and the mature and hence snoozy “Paris.” The result recalls lighter Robert Guédiguian fare (think “Marius and Jeannette”), which entertains without offering anything of substance on its blue-collar protagonist disenfranchised by the global recession.

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Unearthing a Secret Carried to the Grave

Incendies (2010)

EOne Films

Nominated for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Film category, Denis Villeneuve’s “Incendies” uses Middle East unrest as a framework for classic Greek tragedy. What transpires is a brutal and compelling meditation on war, survival and reconciliation, even when its core Sophoclean aspect starts reaching really far into daytime soap territory.

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The Blood of the Nocturnal Covenant

Stake Land (2011)

IFC Midnight

Wrapped up somewhere within vampire apocalypse road movie "Stake Land" are two or three inspired touches. It's incredibly frustrating, then, that these are buried underneath an amalgam of earnestness and unoriginality. So derivative is Jim Mickle's third feature that at times it feels as if he and co-writer Nick Damici watched "The Road" and "28 Days Later" and simply decided to replace the cannibals and zombies with vampires.

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The Lincoln Lawyering

The Conspirator (2011)

Claudette Barius/Roadside Attractions

Robert Redford’s “The Conspirator” suffers from some of the the same wooden, point-and-shoot didactic dramatics that characterized the Academy Award winner’s “Lions for Lambs.” Yet it offers a valuable look at an iconic historical event from a never-before-seen perspective, molded to an evocative portrait of high-society Washington D.C. on edge in the wake of the Lincoln assassination.

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Taking Another Stab at Meta-Horror

Scream 4 (2011)

Gemma La Mana/Dimension Films

In reviving the “Scream” franchise some 11 years after its second sequel, director Wes Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson have improbably found the way to territory that’s even more meta than before. The self-aware characters in the first three films always seemed to know they were pawns in a horror-movie game. In “Scream 4,” the protagonists must grapple with the genre’s rules and those of the franchise reboot, as a new generation’s revival of the Ghostface killer parallels the filmmakers’ resuscitation of this late-’90s cinematic icon.

All the self-reflexivity and layered mirror effects make for an experience that’s of a fun and lighthearted tongue-in-cheek variety, with some notably clever wink-wink twists. In the 15 years since the first film’s release, however, Messrs. Craven and Williamson have forgotten that beneath the dense, fourth-wall-shattering aesthetic of that groundbreaking initial effort was a genuinely scary slasher flick.

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Mourn This Way

To Die Like a Man (2009)

Strand Releasing

“To Die Like a Man” opens with a Weerasethakulian prologue, during which two barrack buddies wander away from their regiment for a little butt sex in the woods. The remainder of the film, though, is purely Almodóvarian. And we’re not talking about the irreverent 1980s Almodóvar here — think the melodramatic, utterly joyless Almodóvar of the last two decades. It’s a story about an aging tranny (Fernando Santos) with a thieving junkie boy toy (Alexander David) and a fugitive biological son (Chandra Malatitch). When her implants cause her breasts to ooze blood, she decides to sashay into the countryside à la “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.” There are also occasional nods at Tsai Ming-liang and Todd Haynes, but we’re still mostly left in Almodóvar territory.

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The Monty Half-Empty

Your Highness (2011)

Frank Connor/Universal Studios

It’s hard to fathom precisely how the makers of “Your Highness” may have pitched the film to the studio executives: Think “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” with excessive vulgarity and gore? Picture a live-action “Shrek” sans the lovable green ogre? Envision newly minted Oscar Swan queen-Mother Leia transforming herself into Fiona the Warrior Princess? Consider an Oscar co-host-daytime soap star-Yale professor dabbling in a film that revolves around a severed penis instead of a severed arm? And how about it all in a vehicle starring the next Seth Rogen-Zach Galifianakis?

Who in his or her right mind would green-light a movie with such a premise?

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