Oscars and Indies

Must I write about the Oscars? Must I gnash my metaphoric teeth over lousy films nominated and good ones ignored? Must I ask just what the Academy was thinking?

Reality check: The Motion Picture Academy doesn’t have a single mind to think with. It contains hundreds of minds, of various levels of brightness, that choose who to vote for under the influence of sentiment, personal friendships, exposure to heavy advertising, and, odd as this may seem, what movies they actually liked. Margins of victory are top secret, but I doubt that anything like a consensus is common.

Nevertheless, the Academy tends to pick movies that are liberal, but not too radical, well-made, but not too innovative, and successful, but not huge hits. And they frequently make good choices. Of the five Best Picture nominees, I’ve seen all but Letters From Iwo Jima (a shortcoming I hope to soon correct). Two, Babel and Little Miss Sunshine, came in first and third in my Top Ten List. I liked The Departed and The Queen, but not as much as everyone else.

Little Miss Sunshine has one interesting advantage over the others. It might have qualified for indiefest, the annual celebration of truly independent cinema that opens this year on February 8 at the Castro, where they’ll be screening David Lynch’s new Inland Empire. (How’s that for a sneaky transition?) Inland Empire opens in a few select theaters the next day.

That’s also when indiefest moves to its main home, the Roxie. Additional screenings will happen at the Victoria Theater and, Berkeley’s California. Altogether, it will show more than 100 films and videos.

Recommendations for the Week of 1/26/07

Noir City, Castro, Friday through Sunday, February 4. I’m not highlighting any one particular movie here–I haven’t seen any of them. I’m just reminding you of 10 rare, black and white, 35mm double bills showing off the bleakest of Hollywood filmmaking.

Show People, Pacific Film Archive, Wednesday, 3:00. We remember Marion Davies, if we remember her at all, as William Randolph Hearst’s mistress and the inspiration for Citizen Kane’s talentless second wife. But King Vidor’s 1928 backstage-in-Hollywood comedy proves her a considerable talent. The story of knockabout slapstick versus self-consciously arty cinema must have seemed all too autobiographical to Davies, a talented comedienne whose lover and benefactor wanted to show off her class. Part of UC’s Film 50: History of Cinema class, Show People will screen with piano accompaniment by Bruce Loeb.

Some Like It Hot, Pacific Film Archive, Thursday, 7:30. Maybe this isn’t, as the American Film Institute called it, the greatest American film comedy yet made. But Billy Wilder’s farce about desperate musicians, vicious gangsters, and straight men in drag definitely belongs in the top 20. And its closing line has never been beat. Part of David Thomson’s A Thousand Decisions In the Dark series.

Ninotchka, Pacific Film Archive, Garbo’s first comedy and penultimate film is sweet, charming, romantic, and very funny. It also nails perfectly the absurdities of Communism–still well respected by many Americans in 1939. As Garbo’s character points out, “The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians.” But what else would you expect when Ernst Lubitsch directs a screenplay by Billy Wilder? Part of the Archive’s Lubitsch Touch series.

Psycho, Cerrito, Friday through Thursday. Contrary to urban myth, Alfred Hitchcock didn’t really want people to stop taking showers. He was, however, inspired by the television show he was then producing to make a low-budget movie in black and white. The last film in the Cerrito Classics‘ Alfred Hitchcock series.

Singin’ in the Rain, Stanford, Friday through Sunday. In 1952, the late twenties were a fond memory of an innocent time, and nostalgia was a large part of Singin’ in the Rain’s appeal. The nostalgia is gone now, and we can clearly see this movie for what it is: the greatest musical ever filmed, and perhaps the best work of pure escapist entertainment to ever come out of Hollywood. Take out the songs, and you have one of the best comedies of the 1950′s, and the funniest movie Hollywood ever made about itself. But take out the songs, and you take out the best part. On a double bill with An American in Paris.

Casino Royale, Elmwood, opens Friday. The best James Bond flick since From Russia With Love, in large part because it doesn’t feel like a James Bond flick. (In fact, to a large degree, it feels like a James Bond book. And the book it feels like is, amazingly enough, Casino Royale.) Instead of gadgets, countless babes, wit, and incredible cool, you get a well-made and gritty thriller with several great action sequences (and a couple of babes). It just so happens that the protagonist, a newly-promoted, borderline psychotic government agent with a huge chip on his shoulder, is named Bond…James Bond.

The Departed, Lark, opening Friday. Alfred Hitchcock once said he didn’t mind plot holes as long as they went unnoticed until the audience was driving home. That’s exactly how my wife and I reacted to Martin Scorsese’s all-star remake of the Hong Kong police thriller Infernal Affairs. As long we were in the theater, Scorsese’s intense police thriller about two undercover moles–one a cop pretending to be a gangster, the other a gangster pretending to be a cop–riveted our eyes to the screen. Talking about the movie on the way home, the problems kept coming up. But Hitchcock was right. The Departed carries you along like a river, offering fascinating characters portrayed by some of the biggest and most talented male stars around, moral ambiguity, graphic violence, and surprising plot twists that heighten the suspense. So what if it’s full of holes. This is Scorsese’s least ambitious, and his best, film in years.

Big Screens–German and American

Technology will one day eliminate the image quality gap between home theater and real 35mm. But it will never eliminate the audience gap, because it can never replace the thrill of watching a movie while surrounded by hundreds of your fellow homo sapiens.

Or so I was reminded last Saturday when I caught Rear Window at the Cerrito. The Cerrito’s downstairs auditorium was packed, and enthusiastic. You forget how funny Rear Window is when you watch it by yourself or with a couple of friends (I know–I own the DVD). With a crowd, there was good solid laughter at every point where Alfred Hitchcock wanted it. And when things get scary in the third act, there’s nothing to enhance the dread like people gasping with fear all around you.

The weekend Cerrito Classics series is a big hit, and with good reason.

Speaking of watching movies properly, I made it to the Castro Tuesday for a bit of the Berlin & Beyond festival. The first movie I saw, the Swiss drama Going Private, was superb. As intimate as chamber music, Going Private sticks to one day, one location, and a cast of nine to explore the lives of the rich and insecure. The plot involves an investment banker in serious trouble and the small garden party he throws for his boss. Things don’t go well for anybody. Let’s just say it’s the sort of party you’d only want to experience at the movies.

My second treat of the night was the recently-restored silent epic Nathan the Wise. This tale of Jerusalem during the Crusades is spectacle of the Cecil B. DeMille/D.W. Griffith variety, with a large cast, huge sets, and oversized emotions. But the film’s call for peace and religious tolerance in the Middle East seems more relevant today than when the movie was made in 1921, or when the stage play was written by Gotthold Lessing in 1779. (Come February, Oakland’s TheaterFIRST will revive the stage play, little known in this country.)

Filmmuseum Munich Director Stefan Drößler spoke before the movie and answered questions afterwards. Dennis James accompanied the movie on the Castro’s organ, pausing or lowering the volume so we could hear the read-aloud English translation of the German intertitles.

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It’s too late to catch anything else at Berlin & Beyond, but here’s what’s worth seeing (and worth missing) this week.

Children of Men, Balboa and Presidio, opening Friday. Set in a dystopian, near-future Britain living under a Fascism that looks all too familiar, Alfonso Cuarón’s labor of love feels a bit like V for Vendetta. But it’s better. It’s 2027, with the human race slowly dying out due to mysterious, world-wide infertility, and the British government is rounding up illegal aliens the way the Nazi’s rounded up Jews. When one of these aliens turns up pregnant (the last successful birth was more than 18 years ago), an apolitical former radical (Clive Owen) is forced to think beyond himself. One of the rare thrillers that actually keeps you guessing what will happen next.

A Hard Day’s Night, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 3:00. When United Artists agreed to finance a movie around a new British musical phenomenon, they wanted a picture fast and cheap. Reasonable demands, as The Beatles’ popularity was limited to England and Germany and could likely die before the film got into theaters. Turns out UA had nothing to worry about. Part of the Archive’s Movie Matinees For All Ages series.

Seven Samurai, Red Vic, Sunday and Monday. If you think all action movies are mindless escapism, you need to set aside 3½ hours and watch Kurosawa’s epic masterpiece. The basic story–a poor village hires warriors to defend them against bandits–has been retold many times since, but Kurosawa told it first and told it best. This is an action film with almost no action in the first two hours. But when the fighting finally arrives, you’re ready for it, knowing every detail of the people involved, the terrain that will be fought over, and the class differences between the peasants and their hired swords. One of the greatest movies ever made.

Trouble in Paradise, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 8:40. What’s so fascinating and entertaining about witty, sophisticated crooks that makes us want to root for them? The perfect pre-code screwball, and yet another wonderful Lubitsch comedy about sex, love, money, and larceny. Part of the Archive’s Lubitsch Touch series.

Grizzly Man, SFMOMA, Saturday, 3:00. Werner Herzog’s fascinating nature documentary (well, more of an anti-nature documentary) about Timothy Treadwell, a failed actor and untrained naturalist who lived peacefully with Alaska’s grizzly bears for 13 summers until one ate him. You don’t learn much about bears here beyond “Keep your distance,” but you learn a lot about Treadwell, who comes off as manic, enthusiastic, charismatic, delusional, and paranoid. Part of SFMOMA’s Werner Herzog Retrospective.

Vertigo, Pacific Film Archive, Thursday, 7:30. What? I’m not recommending Vertigo? Everyone else thinks it’s a masterpiece, but it tops my short list of the Most Overrated Films of All Time. Vertigo isn’t like any other Hitchcock movie; it’s slow, uninvolving, and self-consciously arty. Part of the Archive’s A Thousand Decisions In the Dark series hosted by David Thomson.

North By Northwest, Cerrito, Saturday, 6:00, Sunday, 5:00. Alfred Hitchcock’s light masterpiece, not as thoughtful as Rear Window or Notorious, but more entertaining than both of them combined. Cary Grant plays an unusually suave and witty everyman mistaken by evil foreign spies for a crack American agent, and by police for a murderer. And so he must escape almost certain death again and again while chased from New York to Mount Rushmore. On the bright side, he gets to spend some quality time with a very glamorous Eva Marie Saint. Danger has its rewards. Part of the Cerrito Classics Best of Alfred Hitchcock series.

Babel, Cerrito, opens Friday. A stupid act committed by a boy too young to understand the consequences sends shockwaves around the world, affecting the lives of an American tourist couple in Morocco, an immigrant nanny in the United States, her family in Mexico, an alienated deaf-mute teenager in Japan, and the boy’s own family. Writer Guillermo Arriaga and director Alejandro González Iñárritu weave a complex, four-strand tale of love, tragedy, parental responsibility, and the borders–political, economic, linguistic, and emotional–that separate us all. In the end, Babel (an appropriate title for a film told in Arabic, English, Spanish, Japanese, and Japanese sign language) hails the incredible human ability to heal. The cast, which ranges from major international stars (Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Gael García Bernal, Kôji Yakusho) to complete novices, is uniformly excellent. Emotionally draining yet exhilarating, and filled with an intense love of humanity that never ignores our weaker selves, Babel is easily the best new movie I saw in 2006.

Night at the Museum, Cerrito, opens Friday. Yes, it’s predictable Hollywood family fare (Why must every children’s film preach that you should believe in yourself?), and half the jokes fall flat. But a cute idea, lively performances, and a reasonable number of jokes that remain standing keep it entertaining. And as much as I disapprove of product placement, it’s nice to see a movie that works as one big commercial for New York’s Museum of Natural History.

Coming Soon

Let me start with an apology. I only this week found out that a Werner Herzog Retrospective has been running at SFMOMA since November. I’ll list the few remaining films as they come.

The Holy Mountain

In more up-to-date news, the Castro will screen Alejandro Jodorowsky’s 1970′s cult favorites El Topo and The Holy Mountain on January 19th through the 22nd. I haven’t seen either film in more than 30 years. I remember them both being very weird, very violent, very sexy, and filled with a lot of Catholic symbolism–with the emphasis on weird. El Topo was the better known of the two, but I remember preferring The Holy Mountain.

Also coming to the Castro is Noir City, opening January 26. As usual, Eddie Mueller offers ten double bills of mid-20th century pessimism, all while avoiding the movies you already know (unless you have Mueller’s encyclopedic knowledge of the genre). I won’t comment on what’s playing because, while a couple are vaguely familiar names, I’ve never seen any of them.

Two years ago, Mueller moved Noir City to the Balboa to protest the Castro’s firing of programmer Anita Monga, who also works for the festival. According to Mueller, “We went back [to] the Castro because as much as people enjoyed the festivities at the Palace of Fine Arts, we got the message that people wanted to…see vintage films in a vintage theatre while that experience was still possible. A blazing marquee, popcorn, the organ, a single huge screen — that’s how people want to experience these films, and I can’t argue with them.”

Moving north, the Rafael will not be screening Christopher Guest’s recent comedy For Your Consideration. I have to say that because the Rafael is running its annual For Your Consideration series of movies selected by their countries of origin for possible Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominations. The only connection between this series and Guest’s movie is, of course, the Academy Awards. Home for Purim, apparently, doesn’t qualify.

I haven’t seen any of the films screening in that series, so I’ll tell you about these ones, instead:

Touch of Evil, Pacific Film Archive, Thursday, 7:30. Orson Welles made few Hollywood studio features, but as this noir proves, they represent his best work. True, he lacked the freedom in Hollywood he found in Europe, but the bigger budgets–and perhaps even the studio oversight–resulted in better films. Like this one. As a corrupt border-town sheriff, Welles makes a bloated, scary, yet strangely sympathetic villain. Janet Leigh is a lovely and effective damsel in distress (although Psycho apparently didn’t teach her to stay away from seedy motels). As the hero, a brilliant Mexican detective, Charlton Heston is…well, he’s miscast, but not as badly as some people say. The first movie in David Thomson’s A Thousand Decisions In the Dark series.

Ninotchka, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 3:00. Garbo’s first comedy and penultimate film is sweet, charming, romantic, and very funny. It also nails perfectly the absurdities of Communism–still well respected by many Americans in 1939. As Garbo’s character points out, “The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians.” But what else would you expect when Ernst Lubitsch directs a screenplay by Billy Wilder? Part of the Archive’s series on The Lubitsch Touch.

Rear Window, Cerrito, Saturday, 6:00; Sunday, 5:00. Alfred Hitchcock at his absolute best. James Stewart stands out while sitting down as a news photographer temporarily confined to his apartment and a wheelchair, forced by boredom to amuse himself by spying on the neighbors. Then he begins to suspect that one of them committed murder. As he and his girlfriend (Grace Kelly) begin to investigate, it slowly dawns on us that they’re getting into some pretty dangerous territory (something they don’t realize until it’s almost too late). Hitchcock uses this story to examine voyeurism, urban alienation, and the institution of marriage, and to treat his audience to a great entertainment. Part of the Cerrito Classics Best of Alfred Hitchcock series.

Winter Journey, Castro, Friday, 3:30. Inspired by Schubert’s Winterreise song cycle, Hans Steinbichler’s film takes you into the mind, soul, and life of a dangerously depressed and out-of-control man. Josef Bierbichler stars as Franz Brenninger, a businessman swamped by debts, a wife who is going blind, and an addiction to prostitutes. As his destructive behavior and belligerent attitude alienates both his business partners and his family, he falls for a hoax so obvious it’s almost funny. But Steinbichler, working from a script he wrote with Martin Rauhaus, doesn’t let you laugh much; the journey he takes you on, like Brenninger’s mental state, is unrelentingly depressing. Part of the Berlin & Beyond festival.

Nathan the Wise, Castro, Tuesday, 6:30. Eleven years before Hitler came to power, Manfred Noa made this movie about a Jewish merchant who councils religious tolerance between Christians and Muslims at the time of the Crusades. I haven’t seen this silent film (or even heard of it before I saw the Berlin & Beyond schedule), but I’m looking forward to doing so. Based on a 1779 play by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. As part of Berlin & Beyond, Dennis James will accompany this silent film on the Castro’s Wurlitzer organ.

RiffTrax Live!, Rafael, Tuesday, 7:30. I admit it–I’m a fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000, the long-running TV show that made fun of bad movies. Now three of the show’s creators come to the Rafael to perform their comic commentary before a live audience. What’s the movie? They’re not saying.

Valerie, Castro, Sunday, 6:30. Agata Buzek plays a once-successful model now penniless and down on her luck. To make matters worse, it’s Christmastime, she’s homeless, and she must keep up appearances. A story like this requires us to care about Valerie, or at least find her fascinating, but Buzek never manages to draw us in with anything stronger than mild curiosity. In fact, a security guard played by Devid Striesow brings more warmth to the story than does Buzek. Part of the Berlin & Beyond festival.

Lapislazuli, Castro, Friday, 1:00. Some plots just don’t work if you take them seriously. Count “Modern teenage girl befriends freshly-thawed Neanderthal” in that category. Yet director Wolfgang Murnberger and his co-authors want you to sincerely accept the idea that meeting a less-evolved boy is the cure for alienated adolescence. Come to think of it, considering the utterly unfunny comic relief villain, I doubt they could have pulled it off for laughs, either. Part of the Berlin & Beyond festival.

Lady Windermere’s Fan, Pacific Film Archive, Friday,7:00. What could be more promising than Ernst Lubitsch directing the film version of Oscar Wilde’s play? On the other hand, silent film isn’t the best medium for Wilde’s witty dialogue, especially when the intertitles avoid direct quotes from the script. The result is a witless, lifeless melodrama. Bruce Loeb accompanies, on piano, this disappointing selection in the Archive’s Lubitsch Touch series.

Moulin Rouge, Castro, Thursday, 7:00. Did this frenetic yet lifeless absurdity really resurrect the movie musical, or did it just happen to come out the year before Chicago? Okay, the whimsical, neo-Méliès art direction evokes a pleasant fantasy of Paris at the start of the 20th century, but the songs–all pop hits from the 1980′s and ’90′s–destroy that mood. The dance numbers are so heavily edited that we can’t tell if anyone in the cast can actually take a step. I don’t object to the lightweight plot (Top Hat is no War and Peace), but the ingénue’s fatal disease feels like a tacked-on attempt at depth. On a double-bill with To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, as part of the Castro’s Big Gay Movie Night.

Charlotte’s Web, Elmwood, opening Friday. New rule: If a movie makes me cry, I have to give it an A. By the end of the latest version of E.B. White’s classic children’s tale, my tear ducts were in full spigot mode, despite such “hip” additions to the tale as fart jokes (hey, the film is set in a barn). The story, concerning a piglet destined for the slaughterhouse and a kindly spider who befriends him, deals honestly with issues seldom touched in big-budget Hollywood family fare, including our own mortality. The technology of computer animation makes us believe that a spider and pig can talk; the art of computer animation makes us care what they say.

Army of Shadows, Roxie, opening Friday. Resistance is a dirty and almost inevitably deadly job, but in Nazi-occupied France, someone had to do it. Jean-Pierre Melville’s dark 1969 adventure, recently restored and introduced for the first time to American screens, occasionally confuses those who don’t know the history (or the geography). But the rewards are well worth the effort. The suspense set pieces, including a night-time novice parachute jump and a rescue attempt by ambulance, are nerve-wracking, but not nearly so much as the protagonists’ constant moral dilemmas. Nothing gets romanticized in this spy story.

Best Films of 2006

I have two hands with five fingers each, and therefore must pick my Top Ten Films of 2006. But first, some ground rules: To qualify, a film must meet three criteria:

First, it had to play its first open-ended, Bay Area release in 2006. Films that only played festivals don’t qualify, but I’ve already given you my Top Ten Festival Films of the year.

9: Army of Shadows

Second, I had to see it. That disqualifies Pan’s Labyrinth, Letters From Iwo Jima,Children of Men, Duck Season, and many other quite-possibly excellent movies.

Finally, I had to really, really like it. So much for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.

So, with the rules established, here are the best movies of 2006:

10: Casino Royale: Yes, I’m putting a James Bond movie in my Top Ten. But this one’s not like any other James Bond movie. It’s opening in a couple of theaters this week, so see my recommendations below for details.

9: Army of Shadows: What? Another spy movie? And how can a film from 1969 make 2006′s Top Ten? It wasn’t released in the Bay Area (or anywhere else in the U.S.A.) until 2006. That’s how. See this week’s recommendations below for why it’s so good.

8: Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple: A lot of good documentaries came out this year (along with some mediocre ones), but Stanley Nelson’s sobering look at religious fanaticism on the left stood out. Once again, more details in this week’s recommendations below.

7: United 93

7: United 93: Unlike a conventional thriller, Paul Greengrass’ harrowing 911 retelling doesn’t comfort us with glamorous movie stars or witty dialog. And we know going in that no one gets out of it alive. The result is the most nerve-wracking experience I’ve ever had in a movie theater.

6: Tsotsi: Last year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar winner didn’t get to the Bay Area until spring, so I’m including it this year. Writer/director Gavin Hood asks for no sympathy for the violent young thug at the film’s center (Presley Chweneyagae), even as he shows you the dire poverty that created this scary young man. A tense, vicious, yet ultimately beautiful film about humanity and redemption.

5: Flags of Our Fathers: I still haven’t seen Clint Eastwood’s companion piece, Letters From Iwo Jima, but this one stands on its own as a great study of the horrors of war and the absurdity of wartime propaganda.

4: Half Nelson: Filmmakers Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden create a work about high ideals and low achievements that avoids clichés, melodrama, and easy answers. The best American-set drama of the year.

2: An Inconvenient Truth

3: Little Miss Sunshine: Not quite as funny as Borat (which turned up number 11 on my Top Ten List), but thanks to a much better story, still the best comedy of the year. And I’m glad it’s a comedy; a drama about this supremely dysfunctional family would be unbearably depressing.

2: An Inconvenient Truth: The day before this surprisingly entertaining PowerPoint demonstration premiered, only tree-huggers and scientists worried about global warming. Now even the man who stole Al Gore’s job has had to admit that there might be a problem. Has any other film had this positive an effect on society?

1: Babel: Ignore the reviewers who didn’t like this multithreaded masterpiece. Filmmaking didn’t get better than this in 2006. I babble more about Babel in this week’s recommendations, below.

And now, this weeks’ recommendations–and warnings:

Casino Royale, Balboa and Parkway, opening Friday. The best James Bond flick since From Russia With Love, in large part because it doesn’t feel like a James Bond flick. The plot, in the second half of the movie, even resembles that of the book to a large degree. Instead of gadgets, countless babes, wit, and incredible cool, you get a well-made and gritty thriller with several great action sequences (and a couple of babes). It just so happens that the protagonist, a newly-promoted, borderline psychotic government agent with a huge chip on his shoulder, is named Bond…James Bond.

Summer In Berlin, Castro, Thursday, 8:00. Alcohol, motherhood, the struggle to earn a living and the boyfriend from hell strain two women’s friendship in this quiet character study. Screenwriter Wolfgang Kohlhaase and director Andreas Dresen treat everything–even threats of violence–in a matter-of-fact manner, allowing for both quirky humor and a sense of every-day reality. Opening night of the Berlin & Beyond Film Festival.

Jaws, Cerrito, Wednesday and Thursday, 9:00. Steven Spielberg thought this out-of-control production would end his still-new career. Instead, it put him on the top of the Hollywood pyramid; and with good reason. By combining an intelligent story (lifted by novelist Peter Benchley from Henrik Ibsen’s play, An Enemy of the People), brilliant editing, and a handful of effective shocks, Jaws scares the living eyeballs out of you. A Cerrito Flashback.

Army of Shadows, Pacific Film Archive, Thursday, 7:30. Resistance is a dirty and almost inevitably deadly job, but in Nazi-occupied France, someone had to do it. Jean-Pierre Melville’s dark 1969 adventure, recently restored and introduced for the first time on American screens, occasionally confuses those who don’t know the history (or the geography). But the rewards are well worth the effort. The suspense set pieces, including a night-time novice parachute jump and a rescue attempt by ambulance, are nerve-wracking, but not nearly so much as the protagonists’ constant moral dilemmas. Nothing gets romanticized in this spy story.

Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, Parkway, Thursday, 9:15. Full disclosure: My stepfather won an award for cutting the sound effects on this early Ray Harryhausen sci-fi adventure, and the trophy still sits on my mother’s mantelpiece. Aside from the brilliant sound effects, the movie is an okay but unexceptional exercise in 1950′s paranoia. And Harryhausen’s stop-motion effects, so brilliant when animating monsters and mythological beasts, really wasn’t the best approach for spaceships and collapsing buildings. A Thrillville presentation.

Casablanca, Oakland Paramount, Friday, 8:00; San Jose California, Friday and Saturday. What can I say? You’ve either already seen it or know you should. Let me just add that no one who worked on Casablanca thought they were making a masterpiece; it was just another movie coming off the Warner assembly line. But somehow, just this once, everything came together perfectly.

Vertigo, Cerrito, Friday through Sunday. What? I’m not recommending Vertigo? Everyone else thinks it’s a masterpiece, but it tops my short list of the Most Overrated Films of All Time. Vertigo isn’t like any other Hitchcock movie; it’s slow, uninvolving, and self-consciously arty. Even if I don’t classify it as such, it’s the first selection in the Cerrito Classics‘ “Best of Alfred Hitchcock” series.

North by Northwest, San Jose California, Monday through Thursday. Alfred Hitchcock’s light masterpiece, not as thoughtful as Rear Window or Notorious, but more entertaining than both of them combined. Cary Grant plays an unusually suave and witty everyman mistaken by evil foreign spies for a crack American agent, and by the police for a murderer. A great movie for introducing pre-teens to Hitchcock.

The Queen, 4Star, opening Friday. The Queen works best as a study of a totally bizarre one-family lifestyle. Helen Mirren is perfect, brittle yet human, as the monarch Bette Midler once called “the whitest woman in the world.” Concentrating on the week after Princess Di’s death, the film focuses on Elizabeth’s failure to react to or understand her subjects’ affection for her son’s estranged ex-wife. But there’s a coldness to The Queen, as if the film, like its central character, is keeping everyone at arm’s length.

Babel, 4Star, opening Friday. A stupid act committed by a boy too young to understand the consequences sends shockwaves around the world, effecting the lives of an American tourist couple in Morocco, an immigrant nanny in the United States, her family in Mexico, an alienated deaf-mute teenager in Japan, and the boy’s own family. Writer Guillermo Arriaga and director Alejandro González Iñárritu weave a complex, four-strand tale of love, tragedy, parental responsibility, and the borders–political, economic, linguistic, and emotional–that separate us all. In the end, Babel (an appropriate title for a film told in Arabic, English, Spanish, Japanese, and Japanese sign language) hails the incredible human ability to heal. The cast, which ranges from major international stars (Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Gael García Bernal, Kôji Yakusho) to complete novices, is uniformly excellent. Emotionally draining yet exhilarating, and filled with an intense love of humanity that never ignores our weaker selves, Babel is easily the best new movie I’ve seen this year.

Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, Red Vic, Friday through Monday. Dangerous, tyrannical, and megalomaniac religious leaders don’t just exist on the political right. Stanley Nelson’s documentary takes us into the heart of the left-leaning, San Francisco-based Christian cult that ended in mass murder and suicide in 1978. Nelson shows us, and survivors tell us, why people followed Jim Jones, how the good things he did (including creating what was perhaps Indiana’s first integrated church) attracted so many, how he robbed his followers of their facility for critical thought, and finally, how he robbed them of their lives. Through archival footage, photos, and audio recordings, Nelson does more than tell you what happened; he makes you feel it, understand it, and shiver all the more for the reality of it.

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