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September 2011

The Loss of It All

Melancholia (2011)

Christian Geisnaes/Magnolia Pictures

The Cannes Film Festival this year bestowed on Lars von Trier the rare distinction of being persona non grata after he expressed sympathy for Adolf Hitler. While his inflammatory Nazi talk was indeed inexcusable, Mr. von Trier was probably right drawing parallels between himself and a dictator reviled by the world. But unlike Hitler, Mr. von Trier does deserve our sympathies. After being taken to task by critics for systematically subjecting female protagonists to escalating cruelty throughout the “Golden Heart” and as-yet incomplete “U.S.A.: Land of Opportunities” trilogies, Mr. von Trier purposely did a 180 with “Antichrist,” in which the woman is the tormentor. But his critics only grew more vocal.

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The Early Bird Catches the Germ

Contagion (2011)

Claudette Barius/Warner Brothers Pictures

Even though on the surface it shares the global scale of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Babel,” Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion” doesn’t have the same preoccupation with the interconnectedness of the world. And while it involves a mysterious pandemic just as Alfonso Cuarón’s “Children of Men” and Fernando Meirelles’s “Blindness” did, “Contagion” doesn’t offer similar commentaries on the eclipse of humanity. What it is, is a hypochondria-inducing thriller that will likely have you keep off the handrails as you exit the theater, head straight to the nearest Duane Reade and stockpile bulk-size surgical masks, latex gloves and hand sanitizer.

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A Sargasso Sea Change

Jane Eyre (2011)

Laurie Sparham/Focus Features

In a world where movies focus on outcasts in superhero outfits and the nerd is currently king, it is a pleasure to note that there is at least one real man in Hollywood: That man is named Michael Fassbender, the Irish-German leading man willing to do many things for his art. These include playing a convicted terrorist in "Hunger," an adulterer willing to sleep with his girlfriend's teenage daughter in "Fish Tank" and a Nazi hunter who looks great in a black turtleneck in "X-Men: First Class." These roles are not the obvious route to pinup status. In fact, this career trajectory seems to belong to the new Harvey Keitel rather than the new Russell Crowe. But cinemagoers of the feminine type haven't had a man's man to admire onscreen since Mr. Crowe leapt, shotgun first, through the hotel floor in "L.A. Confidential." So Mr. Fassbender's work — whatever he does — is very greatly appreciated.

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The Mask of Sorrow

The Skin I Live In (2011)

José Haro/Sony Pictures Classics

“The Skin I Live In” seemingly has the key ingredients of Pedro Almodóvar’s greatest hits: sex reassignment, a crazed fugitive copulating in a tiger costume, Marisa Paredes and, most importantly, Antonio Banderas. Since packing up for Hollywood nearly two decades ago, Mr. Banderas hadn’t looked back. But in between the “Shrek,” the “Spy Kids” and the “Mask of Zorro” franchises, his career had been a blur. Unimpeded by a stumbling accent this time, Mr. Banderas delivers his finest performance in recent memory and reminds us of the world-class leading man he is.

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Weathering the Brainstorm

Take Shelter (2011)

Sony Pictures Classics

"Take Shelter," written and directed by Jeff Nichols, is a prescient film in this time of perpetual natural disasters, as it centers around a man preparing for a storm that may or may not come. While New Yorkers boarded up windows and stockpiled canned vegetables in preparation for Hurricane Irene, Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) is faced with an even more fraught dilemma: Predictions of this storm stem not from the weather report, but from within his own mind. Plagued with anxiety about his family's safety while inwardly acknowledging that he may be delusional, he begins to take dramatic measures to ensure survival in the face of impending doom. The film touches on many subjects — family, mental illness, masculinity, vulnerability — but never alights on any issue with enough significance to rise above what is, essentially, schlock.

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Beat All That You Can Beat

Warrior (2011)

Chuck Zlotnick/Lionsgate

Shamelessly ripping off “The Fighter,” “Warrior” is also about professional brawlers, inept parenting, overcoming substance abuse and sibling rivalry: Estranged years ago by an alcoholic father (Nick Nolte) now in recovery, the two Conlon brothers, Brendan (Joel Edgerton) and Tommy (Tom Hardy), will almost inevitably meet again in an Atlantic City mixed-martial-arts cage-match event called Sparta.

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Seoul Survivor

The Yellow Sea (2010)

Cho Won-jin/20th Century Fox

Such was the success of South Korean director Na Hong-jin’s debut, “The Chaser,” that Hollywood took notice and Fox International signed on to bankroll his next project. Despite the cash injection, Mr. Na doesn’t deviate too far from what made “The Chaser” such a hit with his follow-up picture, “The Yellow Sea.”

Sticking to the gloomy thriller genre, Mr. Na even puts faith in “The Chaser’s” two leads, casting Ha Jung-woo and Kim Yun-seok as chief protagonist Gu-nam and gangster Myun-ga respectively; and Mr. Na is richly rewarded for putting faith in the tried and tested.

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