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Brain-bending “Shutter Island” a stunner despite faults

Cat, meet Mouse: DiCaprio, Ruffalo and Kingsley star in the imperfect but riveting "Shutter Island."

Dry land, no matter where it’s located, offers some measure of comfort — a feeling of solidity, a foundation for the feet. Water does not. Its mysteries are limitless. Martin Scorsese means to capitalize on this elemental human fear early. Does he succeed? Please. The combination of the gray sky, choppy waves, an ashen-faced detective (Leonardo DiCaprio) and the score — which pulsates with supernatural menace — is dynamite. In these opening scenes, Scorsese yanks us around like marionettes. We’re right where he wants us.

He keeps on yanking throughout this long-delayed, atmospheric Gothic thriller/film noir send-up, perhaps having a chuckle as we labor to wrap our minds around the gnarled plot — much of Dennis Lehane’s tightly drawn novel is retained — and reason out characters who are beyond reason. “Shutter Island” is one of those films where everyone is hiding something; each line of dialogue seems designed to reveal everything and nothing. Listen, in particular, for Deputy Warden McPherson’s (John Carroll Lynch) greeting to the two federal marshals just off the boat: “Welcome to Shutter Island.” His eyes are a little teasing, but his tone says without saying: “You don’t know what you’re getting into.” Scorsese structures “Shutter Island” so that we don’t, either.

Here comes the tough part. To reveal too much of the plot would be criminal, so restraint will be the name of this game. No doubt you’ve heard lots of murmurs (some disgusted) about a twist; do not let anyone reveal it. Two U.S. Marshals, Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio, proving again he’s grown to deserve leading-man status) and Chuck Aule (a meh Mark Ruffalo) hop a ferry to Boston’s Shutter Island, the grim site of Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane. (Sublime character actors like the ever-creepy Jackie Earle Haley and Patricia Clarkson get cameos.) It’s their first case together, and they’re an odd pair: Teddy’s a visibly haunted man while nothing sticks to the low-key Chuck. They believe they’ve come to investigate the disappearance of Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer), locked away after drowning her three children. Though no one at Ashecliffe can or will explain her disappearance, chief psychiatrist Dr. John Cawley (Sir Ben Kingsley) has a theory. “It’s as if she evaporated straight through the walls,” he says. Kingsley’s slight smirk is cause for a few lost hours of sleep.

The investigation may be a sham. Patients and hospital staff may or may not have been coached. A recovering alcoholic, Teddy, still reeling from the death of his wife (Michelle Williams), may be a reliable or an unreliable protagonist. Rachel Solando may or may not have had help escaping her tiny, barred-in room. The only certainty is there is no certainty. So “Shutter Island,” essentially, is 138 minutes of known unknowns wrapped in a damn stylish package. Little Did He Know noir throwbacks rarely looked this good. The predominantly gray, chilly colors — of the island, the hospital itself — provide a terrific backdrop for such a twisted story about twisted people. Shots of Ward C, home to the most dangerous offenders, show a Gothic castle of untold horrors, where every corner is dark and puddled. Here “Shutter Island” very nearly swerves into horror territory. It comes closer with Scorsese’s envisioning of Teddy’s dreams, so bright they shatter the grimness. Not unlike Dario Argento in “Suspiria,” Scorsese uses the camera like a paintbrush, splashing rich reds and golds and greens against Ashecliffe’s walls and the island’s rocky shores. If despair is dingy, then horror is technicolor.

Sometimes the artistry goes too far at the expense of other elements. There are enough continuity errors as to be distracting (one stopped me cold during a white-knuckle scene). The music occasionally overpowers the characters — about whom, by the way, we learn virtually nothing. They are foreboding (Max von Sydow as Dr. Naehring is downright spine-chilling), and yet their emotional impact is nil. Even Teddy, whose story we come to know and whom DiCaprio imbues with repressed grief and palpable heartbreak, only registers faintly. Then again, “Shutter Island” isn’t out to warm our hearts. The film means to play brains and emotions like piano keys, and it does. And in a psychological thriller? Sometimes that’s more than enough.

Grade: B+


Ah, it’s good to be back. How nice it is that the Internet is right where I left it!

M. Carter @ the Movies has been derailed briefly by a death in the family (Granny Emo, life’s going to be leaps and bounds less colorful without you around) and accompanying family get-togethers, but I hope to start back reviewing in the next few days. And this reviewer’s dance card is mighty full: “Shutter Island” (imperfect but I loved it anyway); “Set It Off”; “Julia”; “Onibaba”; “A Serious Man”; and more.

The only good thing about being away from movie films for any length of time? Separation just made my heart grow fonder for them.

An Interweb walkabout

Hello all! I’m interrupting this weekend of sadness — whoever put the “fun” in “funeral” didn’t have all his marbles rolling around — to give a shoutout to Kai B. Parker, new blogger extraordinaire at The List, who was so kind as to ask M. Carter to join a group post about hidden gems. You can read the post here, or click on the photo.

Here’s to hoping I can squeeze in a quick viewing of “Shutter Island” tomorrow…

Review: “Bright Star” (2009)

In this age of limitless Internet, online dating and instant gratification, “courtly love” has become a foreign concept … if anyone remembers it at all. (There’s a chance the English majors will keep it alive.) But Romantic poet John Keats, whom tragedy seemed to shadow, couldn’t get enough of the stuff. Neither, it seems, can Jane Campion. The New Zealand director’s “Bright Star,” a gorgeously lensed film about star-crossed lovers Keats and Fanny Brawne, is a love letter to a bygone era. Fret not that “Bright Star” is so out-of-touch as to be boring; it crackles with wit, energy and sexual tension. Some qualities never go out of fashion.

Understand upfront that “sexual tension” does not translate to “lots of sex scenes” and you’ll go far in understanding what makes “Bright Star” smolder. Sex is nowhere to be found. But forbidden passion, or passion tucked into the day’s hushed corners, is far more potent than even the steamiest beast-with-two-backs encounter. Of course, it helps if the undersexed lovers in question can generate real heat. Abbie Cornish (Fanny) and Ben Whishaw (Keats) can and do, right from the start. A plucky student of fashion, she has no need of poetry but feels a spark of affection for Keats, her next-door neighbor and a struggling poet. (This part is historically accurate — critics crushed “Endymion” upon its release.) She dispatches her younger sister Toots (Edie Martin) to fetch Keats’ book with this message: “My sister has met the author and she wants to read it for herself to see if he’s an idiot or not.” Who can resist a girl with gumption like that? Keats is a goner; the fun part is waiting to see how long until he realizes his heart’s lost to the cause.

At first, Keats isn’t sure how to take Fanny. She makes no bones about her distaste for poetry, yet there’s a softness in her that takes him by surprise: she embroiders a pillow slip for Keats’ brother, dying of consumption. Cornish and Whishaw are marvelous in this scene, sadness and tentative hope playing on their faces. Fanny says she’s entranced by the beginning of “A thing of beauty.” Her insistence that he teach her to understand poetry works and he warms to her — so slowly he realizes his affection only after his roommate/reader Charles Brown (a scrumptiously rakish Paul Schneider) jokingly sends Fanny a valentine. Reality quickly bursts their love bubble; Keats is sick and penniless and knows he can’t provide for Fanny. “I have a conscience,” he tells her, and Whishaw lets his anguish boil over. Fanny and Keats suspect their story’s finale will not be a happy one, but even in the 19th century love didn’t listen to reason.

Given the true ending to Keat and Fanny’s affair, “Bright Star” could have ended up a wailing melodrama that wallows in its own misery. While Campion does touch on the tragedy, she’s not interested in recreating “Romeo and Juliet.” She focuses instead on creating a vivid tale of first love and its transformative powers. In the process, Campion also creates an artful portrait of 19th-century Hampstead. Her attention to detail leads to some breath-snatching shots: Fanny, in a violet dress, reading poetry in a field of irises; Fanny and Keats kissing on a blanket with the rippling reeds behind them. Then there’s the best shot of all (one you’ll miss if you blink) of Fanny lying on a white bed with the white curtain swirling in the breeze of the open window. Visual poetry exists in this that struck me senseless. It’s a scene that somehow illuminates Fanny’s confusion over her growing passion for Keats and her rapture.

What a treat it is that Cornish, Whishaw and Schneider don’t get lost in such shots. A superb character actor who deserves more parts like this, Schneider’s boorish charm nearly excuses his spotty accent. Whishaw handles himself well in a demanding role, embodying Keats’ hopeless fight to reconcile what his heart wants with what his head knows. Cornish, however, is the clear standout. She is fierce and vulnerable and enchanting; she turns one of poetry’s best-known muses into flesh and blood. “Bright Star” indeed.

Grade: A

A bang or a whimper?



The showdown between expectation and reality begins tonight…

Jeff Bridges radiates in lackluster “Crazy Heart”

Jeff Bridges embodies the ache of a drink-drowned life in "Crazy Heart."

Country singer Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) would smoke three cigarettes at once if he could, and after a few hours of daylight boozing he almost does. Mostly Bad just uses the smoldering butts to light new ones, a constant effort to busy his mind with nicotine. A man like that has a lot of hard stories in him, and any one he lets out is one you want to hear. Bad’s got a way of making everything sound like pearls of wisdom even when he was too drunk to learn his lesson.

A part like this requires a certain kind of actor, and that happens to be the kind of actor Jeff Bridges has been throughout his whole career: mumbly voice, weathered, closed-off face, tired eyes that look distant but take in everything. From Barney Cousins to Michael Faraday, The Dude and beyond, he has been finding the minute details that make his characters as long as he’s been playing them. Bad Blake may shame all the rest, and the role will be the one that wins the actor the accolades that have eluded him. Should Bridges nab that Best Actor Oscar, forget all the chatter about it being some placating “Lifetime Achievement Award.” He’ll deserve that statuette based on Bad Blake and Bad Blake alone.

Scott Cooper’s “Crazy Heart,” adapted from Thomas Cobb’s novel, is a showcase for Bridges, and don’t let anyone tell you different. He’s the center of most shots, the man everyone else orbits around (though Maggie Gyllenhaal and Colin Farell don’t waste their parts). And because he has such presence, that almost excuses some of the film’s more obvious flaws, like the underwritten secondary characters, the overreliance on twangy background music (not to be confused with Bad’s excellent concerts) and the recycled story, which sometimes feels like “Walk the Line.” (In fairness, the Bad Man Uplifted by Good Woman’s Love tale is older than time.) Unlike “Walk the Line,” “Crazy Heart” opens at a low point: Suffering that perpetual day-after-yesterday syndrome late-stage alcoholism brings, Bad’s broke and reduced to playing bowling alleys, the only places people still recognize him. His fans don’t get their money’s worth, since he plays so loaded on McClure’s he mumbles through every song. His refusal to bend to Nashville trends makes him a dinosaur; however, his more successful protégé Tommy Sweet (Farell) hasn’t given up. Tommy wants Bad to write new material, but with five marriages over and no life to speak of, Bad figures he’s got nothing left to write about.

Into this spiral appears Jean Craddock (Gyllenhaal), a Santa Fe single mother and freelance writer who wants to interview the musician. He latches onto her as his beacon of goodness, and her 4-year-old son Buddy (Jack Nation) gives him the shot at fatherhood he gave up 24 years ago, when abandoned his own son. Down is the only place this affair can go, naturally, yet Gyllenhaal generates so much spirit and warmth that she doesn’t seem like the crutch/muse/stray-collector Jean’s written to be. Through her eyes we see a flicker of life in Bad’s eyes. When he drawls “I wanna talk about how bad you make this room look,” her attraction to him feels … warranted. Farell, too, takes his flat character to higher levels, playing Tommy not as a showboating poser but a genuine talent with respect for his mentor. Only Robert Duvall, as Bad’s longtime confidante Wayne, seems wholly wasted. 

Acting aside, there are other things “Crazy Heart” gets right, like the cinematography (the stunning, arid landscapes of Texas, Santa Fe and Arizona give Barry Markowitz plenty to work with) and the music. Nobody bests T-Bone Burnett at churning out to-the-marrow gems like “Fallin’ & Flyin'” and the achingly exquisite “The Weary Kind.” Songs like these have a slow, whiskey burn doing down, and they cannot exist separately from the film. They are the film, and so is Bridges’ performance of them. Whether he’s singing “I used to be somebody / Now I’m somebody else” or “this ain’t no place for the weary kind,” he’ll crack your heart right open. You couldn’t stop him if you tried.

Grade: B-

My name is Carter, and these dudes wanna fight me*

Everyone’s favorite warring fellows, the Boys Ross, have invited M. Carter @ the Movies and The Mad Hatter to celebrate Oscar season with — what else? — some feelings-hurtin’, in-your-face, no-holds-barred fisticuffs over at the Metro Film Fight Club. Click on the photo or this link to jump into the fray, and do kindly leave a comment or two (warning: it takes awhile on Metro’s site) to salve our wounds. Let the verbal beatdowns commence! 

*Oh, a “Get Carter” reference! How delightfully clever and original. I’ve NEVER heard that one before.

No. 28: “The Station Agent” (2003)

“It’s funny how people see me and treat me, since I’m really just a simple, boring person,” notes reclusive dwarf Finbar McBride (Peter Dinklage) in Thomas McCarthy’s oberservant indie “The Station Agent,” and you might be tempted to apply that observation to the movie. Resist the urge. Sure, “The Station Agent,” a little-seen Sundance darling anchored by three stellar performances, is a gently unassuming little movie where nothing much happens, but it packs an emotional punch that will leave you smarting for days.

A few minutes into “The Station Agent,” this claim might seem far-fetched. Here, after all, is a movie that consists, primarily, of three characters doing one thing: talking. And talking. Eating and talking. Drinking. Drinking and talking. Then talking some more. To be fair, there’s very little action here, and zero melodrama. But McCarthy has a sly way of hiding real breakthroughs, real relevations, in conversations that sound like they’re full of offhand comments. Credit the actors — Dinklage, who’s quickly becoming a first-rate character actor, the always-faultless Patricia Clarkson and promising newcomer Bobby Cannavale — for creating characters so human, so intriguing, so affecting, that we’re drawn completely into their world.

That world centers on Finbar, a train buff and unrepentant loner who drops out of life altogether when his sole friend dies and Finbar inherits a run-down train station in middle-of-nowhere New Jersey. He figures he’s done with people, done with the world, but he’s wrong. Enter Joe (Cannavale), a motormouth extrovert operating his sick father’s hotdog/coffee stand near the abandoned station. More than a bit intrigued by this curious hermit, Joe tries his hardest to draw Finbar out but has little luck until Olivia (Clarkson), a klutzy but well-meaning divorcee and artist still mourning her young son’s death, enters the picture. (The picture of distraction, she nearly runs him over with her car … twice.) After much fumbling, much stumbling and awkwardness, the trio strikes up a most improbable friendship that threatens to do away with their self-imposed exiles.

Of course, that plot summary doesn’t begin to do justice to such a stirring film. Why? All the poignancy, all the layers of meaning and the little truths and the sock-you-in-the-gut insights, exist in these three understated but phenomenally effective performances. Dinklage, Clarkson and Cannavale aren’t the kind of actors to spoon-feed meaning: You have to do the work, do the digging and the excavating, but the emotional payoff is well worth all the effort. Take Dinklage, for example. He plays Finbar as tight-lipped and wary, the kind of man who’s drinking alone even when he’s in a bar jam-packed with people. He keeps people at arm’s length because he’s learned that his smalls size makes the world feel … entitled — entitled to pat his head and grin, entitled to talk down to him, entitled pry into the most private details of his life to feel out his “normalcy.” But behind that wariness there’s a fire in his eyes, a kind of tamped-down rage, that makes this hermit anything but boring. In fact, Dinklage is the opposite; he’s smoldering, ready to ignite when it’s least expected.

Cannavale, on the other hand, has the most verbally expressive role — Bobby almost literally never stops talking — yet with tiny gestures he reveals a man whose world has shrunk to two people. Joe has become a drowning man reaching out to anyone and everyone to pull him out of solitude. (The scene where Finbar cruelly dismisses him will make your heart twist painfully.) The more Finbar pulls away, the tigher Joe wants to cling to him like a life preserver. He sees a chance for connection and won’t let it go. And Clarkson, a undervalued actress if ever there was one, is the queen of understated performances; this, if possible, is one of her best. Like Finbar, she is unsociable and lonely, but she reveals Olivia’s hidden pain through her distracted actions: She doesn’t answer her phone or return calls, she drives all over the road, she doesn’t refill medications, she forgets to eat or even buy groceries. These details are slight, but they sting as sharply as “The Station Agent” does.

Review: “The Hurt Locker” (2009)

Stand SSG William James (Jeremy Renner) on any grocery store cereal aisle and he’s utterly lost, overwhelmed and frozen with indecision. Put that same man in front of a bomb half-buried under sandy rubble on a Baghdad street and watch his eyes come alive. To call SSG James an “adrenaline junkie,” however, is to suggest he’s fix-focused and remorseless. Renner, coming out of nowhere with a fearless performance, gives this seemingly careless soldier complexity, including a desire to understand his fixation. “You know why I’m that way?” he asks Sgt. JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie). There’s no real answer for a question like this, James seems to understand, and even if there was, it wouldn’t do anything to kill the adrenaline buzz.

Too often in war films we don’t get characters as human and as layered as SSG William James; instead, we get caricatures — hunky heroes (here’s looking at you, Ben Affleck/Capt. Rafe McCawley) or mouthy wild cards like Robert Duvall’s napalm-loving Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore. With “The Hurt Locker,” director Kathryn Bigelow seems intent on changing that without skimping on the tension, the action or the explosions. Using hand-held cameras, she creates a war film that feels not shaky or low-budget but surprisingly intimate. What this technique can do is perfectly amazing: every grimace, every bullet wound, every bead of sweat gets up-close-and-personal treatment. These cameras transplant viewers to the streets of Baghdad, staring down the barrel of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) wired with enough firepower to KO a city block and everyone in it. Bigelow’s reliance on this technique infuses every frame of the film with nail-biting intensity. When an IED blows, we feel the vibrations and taste the sand. This is war at the hot, dirty ground level.

Yet as impressive as Bigelow’s vision is, it’s scriptwriter Mark Boal’s characters that make “The Hurt Locker” one of the most personal and psychologically intriguing war films ever made. Renner’s SSG James is a commanding figure, but so are his fellow soldiers. James steps in as team leader of the Bravo Company’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) unit, and the company members — Sgt. Sanborn and Spc. Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty, nicely capturing the anguish of a man not prepared for what he’s seeing), still smarting from witnessing the original team lead’s death — immediately distrust James. He’s reckless to a fault, pulling off his headset to dismantle an IED hidden in an abandoned car. When a cabbie is mistaken as an insurgent and gets roughed up, James is dependably cavalier: “If he wasn’t an insurgent before, he is now.” He doesn’t rely on his team members for intel and charges head-first into unknown situations. Both Sanborn and Eldridge sense a recklessness in their superior that frightens them, and they know James isn’t in this for patriotic reasons. Mackie, a remarkably subtle actor, communicates his wariness and weariness through his eyes; in a later scene with Renner, he is more blunt about his feelings: “I’m not ready to die.”

Renner is alternately fierce and quietly devastating, but never does he shy away from showing us a man acutely aware he has a problem but likes the charge too much to stop. Renner also finds an undercurrent of pride in SSG James, a thoroughly ordinary father/husband (to Evangeline Lily, whose few scenes are poignant) in civilian life but an extraordinary soldier.

At the film’s beginning, Bigelow provides what seems like an ominous warning: “War is a drug.” But by the end of “The Hurt Locker,” New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges’ quote seems less like an admonition and more like a thought-provoking, very uncomfortable question. In war, Bigelow seems to prompt us, who do we really want on the battlefield — the soldier longing for home whose head isn’t quite in the game, or the reckless fighter who just can’t get enough, the one dashing right into the smoke wearing the grin of a junkie with an empty needle in his vein? Only the boldest director would dare shine a light into that dark corner of the human mind, and only a movie as good as “The Hurt Locker” would make us consider the repercussions of our honest answer.

Grade: A

Best films of 2009: Redux

Well, that’ll learn me not to make a yearly best list without seeing all the films out there. And thank you, Kathryn Bigelow, for that most useful little lesson.

Redoing these lists isn’t something I normally do (whether out of obstinance or laziness I don’t know), but Bigelow’s tense and amazing “The Hurt Locker” blasted its way into my heart and left behind an uneasiness that lingered for hours after viewing. In short, it demanded its rightful spot in my list … and with a film this outstanding, I’m more than happy to oblige.

(Oh, and “Hangover” — I’m sorry we had to break up, but … I found someone better.)

1. “Inglourious Basterds”

Never underestimate a Jew hunter (Christoph Waltz) who speaks softly and carries a HUGE pipe.

With most directors, it’s hard to know if they know when they’ve created a masterpiece. Not so with Quentin Tarantino, who concludes “Inglourious Basterds,” a gloriously loud, darkly comic and explosively complicated epic, with what seems like a statement of his genius. Really, though, can we blame him? “Inglourious Basterds” works as a brilliant piece of revisionist history, a kickin’ action flick, a layered character study (the most intriguing character being, of course, Christoph Waltz’s fabulously wily Col. Hans “Jew Hunter” Landa) and a technicolor work of art. Bravo, Mr. T. Bravo.


2. “The Hurt Locker”

Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie show the spoils (and horrors) of war in "The Hurt Locker."

Roger Ebert, in his review of “Up in the Air,” insisted it was “a movie for this time.” It’s an apt and accurate observation, indeed, and it also applies beautifully to Kathryn Bigelow’s gripping “The Hurt Locker,” which throws us right in the uncomfortable, bloody, unsentimental middle of the War on Terror. Relative nobody Jeremy Renner gives the performance of the year as SSG William James, a reckless adrenaline junkie willing to sacrifice everything — including the safety of his fellow soldiers — to get his next fix. That performance and Bigelow’s confident direction make “The Hurt Locker” not just a great war movie, but one of THE great war movies.


3. “Up in the Air”

Airports are home to George Clooney, who makes for a most touching aimless drifter in "Up in the Air."

To watch “Up in the Air,” Jason Reitman’s gutsy and achingly beautiful third film, is to witness a director coming into his own — though “Thank You for Smoking” and “Juno” hardly felt like the work of a novice — at the precisely correct moment. With “Up in the Air,” Reitman shines an unwelcome light onto the harsh yet strangely hopeful world of corporate downsizing, unemployment and the speedily tanking economy. The never-better George Clooney becomes the face and voice of this world, a drifter who eventually learns what we all know: Any man who insists he’s got life all figured out is twice as clueless as the people he’s lecturing.


4. “Precious”

Gabourey Sidibe (left) and Mo'Nique deliver powerhouse performances in the gritty "Precious."

Films don’t get much rougher or rawly acted than Lee Daniels’ “Precious,” adapted from Sapphire’s best-selling novel “Push.” At times difficult to watch, “Precious” nonetheless introduces us to newcomer Gabourey Sidibe, who is a revelation as the Bronx-born Precious. The teen, rendered practically mute by the horrors of her life, endures unspeakable emotional and physical abuse at the hands of her vicious mother (Mo’Nique, who most assuredly deserves a Best Supporting Actress nod). Sidibe — and Daniels — manage the impossible here: to find hope in a life where none, rightly, should exist.


5. “Up”

Dreams deferred, then recovered, come to vivid life in Disney-Pixar's touching "Up."

There’s something about youthful dreams that never, ever get old. Disney-Pixar’s “Up” takes this never-aging concept and runs with it in “Up,” a sweet, very funny and often heartbreaking look at an elderly man’s (voiced by Ed Asner) stubborn refusal to let go of his late wife’s dream to travel the wilds of South Africa. How he goes about achieving that decades-old goal boggles the mind in terms of bright, gorgeous animation. But visuals aside, what “Up” does so wonderfully well is tap into our secret hope that it’s never too late to try again for the heart’s strongest desire.


6. “(500) Days of Summer”

Joseph Gordon-Levitt memorably discovers that not every love is eternal in "(500) Days of Summer."

Try as we might, humans can’t force love — or, at the very least, our memories of it once it’s vanished — to follow a neat-and-tidy timeline. Neither will it conform to the molds we attempt to force it into. “(500) Days of Summer,” a painstakingly constructed yet fragmented tale of love lost, drives home these points through Joseph Gordon-Levitt, a 20something convinced a coworker (Zooey Deschanel) must be The One. He’s wrong, very wrong, we learn in the opening credits, and thus “(500) Days” becomes a different kind of love story — the painful kind, but the one most likely to stick with us once the credits roll.


7. “Star Trek”

Eric Bana adds "villainy" to his already-full resume in "Star Trek."

Summer blockbusters often get snubbed come Oscar time (remember what happened with “The Dark Knight”?) on the basis they lack any substance beyond the visual pyrotechnics and the glitter. Count “Star Trek” out of that lot, for this is the other kind of summer blockbuster — the one that has it all, from the visuals to the special effects to great acting (found everywhere, but especially in the performances of Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and Leonard Nimoy) and first-rate writing. “Star Trek” is a treat for the senses, all of them, and a much-needed shot of epi to the dying “Star Trek” franchise.


8. “Two Lovers”

Joaquin Phoenix plays a beautifully damaged shell in the superbly acted "Two Lovers."

James Gray, with “Two Lovers,” does something most extraordinary: make a movie about a romantic triangle that eschews melodrama and focuses instead on affecting character growth. At the center of this character study is Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix), a shifty soul reeling from his fiancee’s departure who falls for two women: the beautiful but equally unstable Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the kind daughter-of-a-family-friend who senses Leonard’s troubled nature and wants to help him. The strong performances lead to a resolution that’s poetic, somehow unspeakably sad and not the least bit maudlin.


9. “The Informant!”

James Bond ain't got nothin' on whistleblower Mark Whitacre, a spy of his own creation, in "The Informant!"

A story about one of the world’s biggest (and strangest) tattletales, Mark Whitacre (wonderfully portrayed by Matt Damon), sounds intriguing enough. Then in marches Stephen Soderbergh to direct, and, well, it’s all over from that moment on. Soderbergh, with his trademark verve and style, transforms the story of Whitacre, who blew the whistle on ADM’s price fixing racket, from a corporate thriller to a jaunty but deeply sad venture into the mind of Whitacre, who concocted such an elaborate, crazy scheme even he couldn’t wrap his fragile little mind around it. Credit Damon, at his best, for taking a buffoon and turning him into an oddly sympathetic Everyman.


10. “Brothers”

Tobey Maguire and Jake Gyllenhaal anchor the subtle "Brothers" with strong performances.

“Brothers,” much like “The Departed,” offers solid proof that remakes should not be discounted out of hand. Based on a Danish film, Jim Sheridan’s “Brothers” stands as a fine creation on its own, a penetrating look at the effect war — particularly in the realm of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder — has on families. Tobey Maguire is sheer dynamite as Capt. Sam Cahill, who escapes an Afghani prison camp but comes home to his wife (Natalie Portman) and worried brother (Jake Gyllenhaal) a broken, dangerous man. “Brothers,” with its wrenching but never showy performances, makes us feel the knife edge of his desperation and the way it slices clean through his family harmony.

Honorable mentions: “The Brothers Bloom” for its first-rate cast (Ruffalo, Weisz, Brody); “Jennifer’s Body” for its clever dialogue, genius reversal of the teen-girl-as-hapless-victim sentiment informing most horror films and a career-making performance by Amanda Seyfried; and “Zombieland,” which glides in on sheer gross, witty fun.