The Italian Jobs

Sean McElwee

Spin Me Round (2022)

The Jeff Baena strolling players, Aubrey Plaza first among equals, return for “Spin Me Round,” a dark screwball farce screened at SXSW in which rich people are always the ones having all the fun. Mr. Baena also returns to Tuscany, where he put Ms. Plaza into a 14th Century convent for “The Little Hours” without changing her comedy one bit; and to black comedy, after 2020’s “Horse Girl” used the director’s same basic style to be serious about mental health and trauma. But the course correction to swap these destinations back and forth in Mr. Baena’s cosmos of unnerving, petulant characters simmering with eccentricity might be only an inch or two.

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Bad Old Days


Gone in the Night (2022)

Starting off as an indie drama before sliding over into thriller territory and then getting slightly fantastical on top, “Gone in the Night” doesn’t have the voltage to jolt any of those departments into vivid life, although it stitches them together with the best of intentions. It hinges on middle-aged characters feeling fragile and insecure in the face of their mortality when confronted by the vigorous young; a solid theme slightly dented by the casting of Winona Ryder and Dermot Mulroney, both of them carrying the quarter-century since they dated in “How to Make an American Quilt” with ease and apparently holding up splendidly.

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The Art of the Steal

Scott Grossman

The Thief Collector (2022)

No one really knows what their neighbors are getting up to, which used to be proof of life’s rich tapestry but these days is another hot coal of paranoia in our overheating stove of unhappiness. There were some rich tapestries in the New Mexico home of deceased elderly couple Jerry and Rita Alter when their house was cleared in 2017, plus artifacts from a life of world travel and a lot of Jerry’s own fairly average art and writings. And also Willem de Kooning’s 1955 painting “Woman-Ochre,” brazenly stolen 32 years earlier from the University of Arizona and found hanging out of sight in the Alter’s bedroom behind the door, like a $160-million private joke. Allison Otto’s frothy and initially amiable documentary “The Thief Collector,” screened at SXSW, grapples with the question of what the Alters may or may not have done to get the painting there. But since there’s an unavoidable Alter-shaped hole at the middle of the story, some of the historical shadows being cast over them might be coming from a more recent cultural feeling: that eccentricity must be just the visible sign of something worse.

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Unlucky Numbers


To Leslie (2022)

There's a section in critic James Monaco’s old book “American Film Now” where he goes out on a shaky limb and plots the then-superstars of movie acting on a diagram of distinct personality types. This comes to mind every time Andrea Riseborough acts in a film and is immediately, defiantly, unclassifiable. Michael Morris’s “To Leslie” catches Ms. Riseborough still barreling forward on the momentum of 2020, the year of Prime Video’s series “ZeroZeroZero” for which they might have melted down a few of the TV acting trophies into one statue just for her. “To Leslie,” written by Ryan Binaco, might garner her a few more plaudits, although this is a showier turn with plenty of awardable elbow room: an English actor charging at full-scale West Texas alcoholic destitution.

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Thick as Thieves

Low Spark Films

Emily the Criminal (2022)

The U.S. economy looks all set to claim another scalp in "Emily the Criminal," when it forces Emily (Aubrey Plaza) to turn to crime as a way to unblock her cash flow crisis. Already hassled and disrespected in the low-waged catering trade, her interviews for other employment are tripped up by a prior conviction for aggravated assault: hide it and the interview ends badly, own up and there's hardly an interview at all. More profitable, and precarious, opportunities come her way via a syndicate of well organized Middle Eastern gentleman and their fake-credit-card operation. Suitably trained, Emily becomes expert at the art of buying something expensive on a dodgy card and getting out before the alarms go off.

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Body Double

Sundance Institute

Dual (2022)

"Dual" is a darkly funny entry in doppelganger cinema that could have been titled "Dead Ringers" or "Enemy" or "Black Swan," since there are some limits to the themes that get tackled in this area. But "The Clone Wars" would be ideal. Set in an imprecise nowhere of coniferous forest and pinched English accents – and actually made in Tampere, Finland – the seemingly prosaic society in Riley Stearns's film can offer you a clone of yourself. Useful should you, say, be suffering from a terminal illness and want it to take your place, or if you just fancy committing suicide. The new you can be rustled up in the lab in an hour, like knocking together a casserole.

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Herd Ingenuity

Inti Briones/Sundance Institute

The Cow Who Sang a Song Into the Future (2022)

The natural world rebels under the negligent care of humans in Francisca Alegria's "The Cow Who Sang a Song Into the Future," a low-key magic realist drama of bereavement and renewal set around and eventually under the waters of Chile's Cruces River. Several anxieties mingle in the plot, although the tone is languid and contemplative and the soundtrack occupied by roughly as much silence as dialogue. But cows do sing and a corpse does walk, in a film whose air of mildly mystic evocation comes from artistic restraint, poetic intent, and perhaps Covid-19 inconvenience.

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Bullet Time

Sundance Institute

2nd Chance (2022)

Pacifists and advocates of non-lethal force will feel a headache coming on while watching "2nd Chance," a documentary by Ramin Bahrani telling the rise and fall of the Second Chance company of Michigan and its founder Richard Davis. In the aftermath of a 1970s attempted mugging of Mr. Davis that turned into a back-alley gun battle when he resisted ("I shot two men many times. Unfortunately I was fighting three.") the victim wondered whether a better, lighter bulletproof vest than the flak jackets on the market at the time might be possible. The answer was yes, and a design of woven nylon proved to have real commercial potential. With Second Chance in business as a supplier of vests, Mr. Davis developed a party piece to prove his product's effectiveness, wearing one and then shooting himself in the chest from a range of half an inch.

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Sex Education

Sundance Institute

Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power (2022)

Important questions need meaningful debate, which means passionate advocacy, which means polemics that present carefully angled opinions as facts without balance. This isn't the system failing, it might be the system working – as long as the person getting the lecture recognizes it for what it is: One set of views to be thrown into the intellectual mulching machine, grist for the mill between your ears, to be endorsed or modified or just given the boot. Nina Menkes's documentary "Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power" describes the way images of women in film have made direct and very negative alterations to way society (meaning men) treats women in real life, and presents that topic not as a question for debate but as an established fact. Which is entirely its right, even though the correct term in this contested territory must remain "opinion," no matter how firm the assertion in the title.

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Thicker Than Water

Sundance Institute

Nanny (2022)

Horror fiction can resonate with dark social undercurrents before the same tensions break out in mainstream venues; it's one of the qualities that keep the genre invigorating. Once those tensions are front-page news, though, using them in a horror film can be a Catch 22. Hammer them head-on with blood and violence and the hook just seems familiar; take an oblique sideways angle and you might not be giving the mood of the moment due weight. Nikyatu Jusu's "Nanny" does a little of both, a handsome and well-acted story of immigrant sadness and the spirits duly unleashed, appropriately angry at the indignities foisted onto working class mothers but not able to call down a thunderbolt to smash the situation.

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