Suspicious Minds

Steve Dietl/Bleecker Street

Elvis & Nixon (2016)

Extrapolating entirely from a photo of Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley shaking hands in the Oval Office, “Elvis & Nixon” reimagines the events leading up to the curious meeting between the king of rock and roll (Michael Shannon) and the disgraced former president (Kevin Spacey). Suffice it to say, there’s less value to the history lesson on offer here than, say, the one from “Frost/Nixon.”

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Sinking Into Despair

Jeremy Pelzer/Pinewood Pictures

Pressure (2015)

Most of us don’t spend our time thinking about the world’s infrastructure. We turn a button on the stove; and there is gas with which to cook dinner. “Pressure” is about the men who are on the front line of making that happen. That front line happens to be at the bottom of the ocean, where they travel in submersibles only loosely tethered to larger ships. They walk in diving suits along the sea floor to do underwater welding, if necessary. This is an amazing place to work; and the underwater setting, at the edge of human endurance, is a great place for telling an interest story. Unfortunately “Pressure” buckles.

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Modern Life Is Rubbish

Universal Pictures

Trash (2015)

Depictions of child poverty in well-meaning screen entertainments are bound to end up fudging the heart of the matter, since catching even five percent of the true grinding horror would bring an audience to its knees. "Trash" can't really do anything about that, substituting instead a YA tone of earnest adolescent adventuring in a landscape of adult corruption and violence — ultimately the easier option.

Although Andy Mulligan's source novel described a slum of imprecise location, Stephen Daldry's film plants its flag in Rio de Janeiro, giving the greedy politicians and murderous cops an imminent Olympic bonanza as extra rationale for lining their own pockets and ignoring the kids rummaging through their garbage mountains. Three of those — Raphael (Rickson Tevez), Gardo (Eduardo Luis) and Rato (Gabriel Weinstein) — find evidence of high-level corruption in a discarded wallet somewhere in there, and the chase is on.

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Fully Steamed Ahead


Snowpiercer (2014)

Anyone coming to "Snowpiercer" as a fan of Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette's graphic novels may be in for an attack of sugar rush. Bong Joon-ho's film — less an adaptation than a parallel-universe tribute act — strips out the dour Holocaust-haunted imagery and discursive chat of the original in favor of broad sci-fi pastiche, night-vision axe fights and Tilda Swinton's comedy teeth.

The result loses something in translation, but gains a few thousand watts in the caboose. Question much (or any) of the logic behind the last of humankind riding a vast train around an uninhabitable ice-bound Earth, and it crumbles in your hands. Instead the film would prefer you to grasp its grand parable, restated at regular intervals: that political revolution requires the seizing of the proverbial engine car from the gilded layabouts in first class, something Curtis (Chris Evans) and his fellow peasants from the slum carriages at the back of the train set about doing.

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A Mountain to Climb

Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival

Beyond the Edge (2014)

In a world full of C.G.I. helicarriers, men walking away from explosions without batting an eyelash and women fighting crime with only their leather trousers holding their dignity together, an old-fashioned story of incredible human achievement is a radical invention. Since the tragic avalanche on Mount Everest a few months ago that took the lives of 12 Sherpas, "Beyond the Edge" is even more so its own kind of superhero movie.

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Wanted and Desired

Guy Ferrandis/Mars Distribution

Venus in Fur (2014)

Roman Polanski revisits his fascination with the psychosexual realm in a big-screen adaptation of David Ives’s Off-Broadway two-character piece “Venus in Fur,” which itself is a meta-reimagining (think Charlie Kaufman) of Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novella “Venus in Furs” that famously spawned the term masochism.

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Pipe Dreams

Erik Aavatsmark/Vertigo Média

Pioneer (2014)

Norway's natural environment was a big factor in "Insomnia," Erik Skjoldbjærg's 1997 debut in which Stellan Skarsgård struggles with a murder case and the extended daylight hours, and comes off worst on both counts. It's at the heart of "Pioneer," too — the director's new film set in the early 1980s — right at the moment when exploitation of the North Sea oil lying offshore is about to alter the country from top to bottom. Part paranoid conspiracy thriller and part blue-collar procedural, it maneuvers deep-sea diver Petter (Aksel Hennie) into position as the fly in the ointment for those awaiting Norway's transformation into one of the world's richest countries. They duly set about removing the irritant obstacle; a plot whose fidelity to real events hinted at in the credits is hard to judge, but whose broad authenticity for those caught up in the transformation at the time would seem tough to deny.

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Danish Blue

Christian Geisnaes/Magnolia Pictures

Nymphomaniac (2014)

Upholding the tradition by which Lars von Trier spooks the massed ranks of the tabloids with talk of pornography before then unveiling films that prove as arousing as a kick in the knee, the four-hour, two-volume "Nymphomaniac" is merciless and hilarious in close proximity. The story skips between an intellectual investigation of a woman's insatiable libido and a stylized erotic farce, threatening to cast its vote against optimism altogether and decide that no peace between the sexes is possible or perhaps advisable. Along the way, Volume I — with its droll laughs at regular intervals — becomes Volume II, which plunges into darkness headfirst. Large themes are invoked; large genitalia are inspected. Large theories are inevitable.

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Coming of Age on the Scrap Heap

The Selfish Giant (2013)

Agatha A. Nitecka/57th BFI London Film Festival

"The Selfish Giant" claims to be inspired by an Oscar Wilde short story, but only the title appears to be. Arbor (Conner Chapman) is 12 and almost out of control. He lives with his overwhelmed mother (Rebecca Manley) and a drug-dealing older brother (Elliott Tittensor) who cannot be stopped from selling his A.D.H.D. medication. They sleep on the living room sofas, but their house is much nicer than that of Arbor’s best friend Swifty (Shaun Thomas), whose parents are settled Travelers (i.e. Gypsies) with no money and far too many children. Swifty is good with horses, which brings the boys to the attention of Kitten (Sean Gilder, well known from the British version of "Shameless"), a scrap dealer who also organizes illegal horse-and-trap races and the significant bets which are placed on them. Both Arbor’s and Swifty’s mothers are desperate for money, and both boys feel that they are useless in school. One thing pretty much leads to another.

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Dead Ringers

The Double (2013)


Sometimes the scheduling at film festivals and the sheer volume and variety of consumed material causes some unlikely connections and comparisons to emerge that would otherwise pass unnoticed. “The Double” received its 57th BFI London Film Festival press screening directly after Terry Gilliam’s latest, “The Zero Theorem,” and for the first half an hour it felt like we’d been left stranded in Mr. Gilliam’s universe. Both films are notionally very different, but the opening act of Richard Ayoade’s second feature will draw comparisons with “Brazil” in the way it posits its hero amidst an unforgiving and absurdist bureaucratic nightmare.

In fact, “The Double” recalls several films visually and tonally, notably some works of Roman Polanski’s and Orson Welles’s “The Trial” in particular. Some may be surprised by Mr. Ayoade’s cine-literacy and visual expressiveness, certainly in comparison with his first film, “Submarine,” which was generally rooted in the humble origins of small-scale British comic drama, despite its lush cinematography and Wes Anderson-esque flourishes. This redoubling of cinematic flamboyance from the former comedian and actor may raise some eyebrows in Britain; while not being as incongruous a cultural rebirth as Takeshi Kitano’s was to Japanese audiences, it’s still roughly akin to Americans imagining, say, that Aziz Ansari had directed a film like “Black Swan.”

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