Scorn in the U.S.A.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2013)

Ishaan Nair/IFC Films

Mira Nair's latest film, "The Reluctant Fundamentalist," is an investigation into Americanness wrapped in the veneer of a brash thriller, and — given recent events in domestic terrorism — eerily timely. Based on Mohsin Hamid's book of the same name, the story focuses on Changez (Riz Ahmed), a young man who is implicated in a high-profile kidnapping in Pakistan. Through conversations with a journalist, Changez retraces the steps that have led him from a sleek financial firm in New York to a radical professorship in Lahore. Jumping between moments of classic suspense and romance, Ms. Nair zeroes in on post-9/11 racism and its potentially radicalizing effects, namely on young men who feel increasingly alienated from the American dream — whatever that may be.

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Follow the Cult Leader

Sound of My Voice (2012)

Fox Searchlight Pictures

"Sound of My Voice" — the first feature film directed by Zal Batmanglij — is an artsy, indie movie about attractive people and cults. In the shadow of Sean Durkin's "Martha Marcy May Marlene," the subject matter might seem familiar, but Mr. Batmanglij took a markedly different approach. Gone are the quiet, languorous shots — Mr. Batmanglij's film has more urgency, more flashy twists and a healthy amount of science fiction.

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This Bird Has Flown

Norwegian Wood (2010)

Soda Pictures/Red Flag Releasing

How do you make a movie that feels like 1967? Is it a special type of film stock? A perfectly chosen soundtrack? A kaleidoscope of peace signs and bell-bottoms? In the case of “Norwegian Wood” — the film adaptation of the Haruki Murakami novel — director Tran Anh Hung tapped into something much more nuanced and ethereal in his treatment of the story of two lost college students in love (or lust) in 1960s’ Tokyo.

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Woman of Destiny

The Lady (2011)

Magali Bragard/Cohen Media Group

"The Lady," directed by Luc Besson, is a biographical melodrama set against the last 30 years of tumult in Myanmar. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, here played by Michelle Yeoh, is the lady in question: the daughter of assassinated Myanmar revolutionary, Gen. Aung San. Buoyed by her British husband and thousands of supporters, she endured years of house arrest and intimidation by the military junta and in turn became a leader in the ongoing fight for democracy.

From a Westerner's perspective, the film is a fascinating look at an oppressive dictatorship and the woman who stood in its way, although it never quite escapes the trappings of a typical Hollywood-style biopic, replete with clunky acting and an overly aggressive musical score. Perhaps Mr. Besson would disagree, but audiences are sophisticated enough to appreciate the gravity of a massacre or the wistfulness of returning home without grand, sweeping music at every cue. "The Lady" is at its best when it does away with the bells and whistles and focuses on the story itself.

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Peking Duck and Cover

Beijing Besieged by Waste (2011)

DGenerate Films

Part documentary, part photographic survey, part exposé, "Beijing Besieged by Waste" is artist Wang Jiuliang's highly personal look at the urban Chinese landscape in the face of extreme growth and general disregard for the environment.

Spurred by an interest in the destination of his own trash, Mr. Wang embarks on a journey to the outer rings of Beijing — home to dozens of poorly regulated, hazardous landfills. At each site he is faced with an endless ocean of trash, yet wisely stays away from imbuing the scene with any sort of grotesque beauty. Aside from the occasional landfill sunset, his palette is dull: all grays, browns and blacks.

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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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Love Makes the Center of the World Go Round

Love Etc. (2011)


In the era of "Jersey Shore," "Super Size Me" and "Kate Plus 8," there is nothing particularly unique about a film that follows its subjects for a year of their lives. Moreover, to focus such a film on the idea of romance seems like well-worn territory. And yet Jill Andresevic's feature debut "Love Etc." keeps the format fresh, light and surprisingly meaningful. The documentary — which chronicles the ups and downs of five relationships — accomplishes the feat of communicating something very real and honest about love while never taking itself too seriously.

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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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Hand-Wringing Migration

Last Train Home (2010)

Zeitgeist Films

"Last Train Home," a cinema vérité-style documentary by Chinese-Canadian director Fan Lixin, burrows so deeply into the lives of a select few migrant Chinese workers that it might take the viewer some minutes to readjust to their own familiar world after the credits roll. Set in southern and western China, "Last Train Home" follows Zhang Changhua and his wife Chen Suqin, who work in a clothing factory in Guangzhou, while their children live with their grandmother in Sichuan.

Mr. Zhang and Ms. Chen are just two out of 130 million migrant workers who eke out a living in the cities and send money back to their families in the countryside. If they can scrape together enough savings, they attempt to travel back to their hometowns for Chinese New Year (along with the rest of the country). The film calls it "the world's largest human migration." Mr. Fan deftly presents major issues such as overpopulation and urban poverty, but these matters hum under the surface of the beautifully woven-together narrative: an unsparing portrait of parents trying to survive, while simultaneously pushing their children to achieve bigger and better things.

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Bullish in a China Show

The Founding of a Republic (2009)

China Film Group

Last October, the People's Republic of China commemorated its 60th anniversary: an event marked by small-scale celebrations across the country, a massive parade in Beijing and the release of a star-studded historical epic, "The Founding of a Republic." The film follows the struggles of Mao Zedong (Tang Guoqiang) and the Communist Party as they win a civil war, secure control of China and send Chiang Kai-shek (Zhang Guoli), the leader of the rival National Party, to Taiwan in exile.

I actually had no grand plans to see the film — I wandered into a movie theater and requested tickets for whatever was playing next. I sat in my (assigned) seat and waited for some melodrama or kung-fu film to fill the screen. It turned out to be "The Founding of a Republic." And while the film lacks some cinematic energy, it provided good food for thought about China's view of itself, its roots and its legacy. Like most stories of revolution, it's always a nice reminder that nations are not born in in a vacuum, and some of the more interesting moments of the film revolve around the construction of a national identity, by highlighting arguments over the design of a new flag, anthem and governing body.

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