HER. Almost 15 years are gone since Spike Jonze brought his sweetly cracked sensibility to the big screen with Being John Malkovich in 1999. In the intervening period, Jonze directed a second Charlie Kaufman screenplay (Adaptation, 2002) and adapted Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are (2009). This is the first time he's directed his own original material, and it proves to be well worth the wait.
Theodore Twobly (Joaquin Phoenix) ghost-writes other people's feelings at BeautifulHandWrittenLetters.com. He lives in a sprawling not-too-distant-future metropolis and is in the final stages of a divorce. Adrift and lonely, he buys a new operating system with the promise of artificial intelligence. The OS turns out to be a she (voiced by Scarlett Johannson), who names herself Samantha. Sam proves invaluable to Theodore's life, and as her awareness and experience grow, they fall in love. This complicates things incalculably.
It's no surprise that Her is visually stunning, immensely imaginative and more than a little weird; it's just what Spike Jonze does. What I wasn't expecting was the depth and detail of his writing about love, relationships and loneliness. There are a number of dialogue-dense scenes, but they never feel overly talky or verbose. Instead they play as real conversations between real people, with all the humor, play and casual devastation that entails. The cast, especially Phoenix, bring the words to life with astounding care and commitment. Her is a singular thing, intense psychological realism recast as science-fantasy. It stumbles on some false endings, but that's a minor misstep when measured against its many successes. R. 126m.
LONE SURVIVOR. The title may be a giveaway, but it didn't keep me from perching on my seat with my heart in throat for the duration. A vivid, bruising exploration of the bond between soldiers, it succeeds both in its breathtaking action sequences and greater emotional resonance.
Based on actual events, Lone Survivor describes the ill-fated Operation Red Wings. Four Navy SEALS hiked into a remote Afghan outpost to capture or kill a Taliban leader. Challenged by communications failures, woefully underestimated enemy forces and discovery by goatherds, the men soon find themselves surrounded, outgunned and fighting for their lives.
The narrative acknowledges the complex, stupid brutality of war, but the focus is the commitment, tenacity and inter-reliance of the SEAL team. Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Ben Foster and Emile Hirsch are utterly convincing as four men who don't always get along, but fight and die for each other without hesitation. Director Peter Berg gets grandstandy sometimes, but this material suits his style, and the result is as heartbreaking as it is exhilarating. His stunt team deserves some special mention: The SEALs are too often forced to hurl themselves off precipices and down boulder-strewn hillsides, and the action is captured with backbreaking authenticity. R. 121m.
INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS. Textbook Coen brothers, this: from the not-completely-likeable protagonist, to the crackling, bleakly funny dialogue, to the collection of mythological weirdoes encountered on the hero's journey.
Oscar Isaac plays the titular mope, a folk singer trying half-heartedly to cobble together a career in the Greenwich Village scene in 1961. He crashes on couches of friends whose kindness and patience he strains with his irresponsibility and sadness.
Not much happens in the course of this narrative. It hews closer to the character studies of the Coen canon (think A Serious Man, 2009) than to the adventures. I'm Coen faithful, so I approach everything they put out with cautious optimism. That said, I appreciated this one more than I enjoyed it. Like O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), Inside Llewyn Davis is a T-Bone Burnett-curated showcase of American music, with more than a few songs performed in their entirety, with no visual embellishment. The technique is mature and self-assured, but it invites the usual criticism that the Coens challenge the goodwill of their audience.
I anticipate returning to this movie and enjoying it, but on first viewing I found it alienating; beautiful, dark and unique, but maybe too self-consciously difficult. R. 104m.
NEBRASKA. Alexander Payne has made a career of expanding the small truths in mundane moments. His work can be overly precious, somehow disingenuous in its lack of artifice. But he really gets it with this one, and I may have to reconsider previous judgments.
When Woodrow Grant (Bruce Dern) is convinced that he's won a million dollars in a bogus sweepstakes, it becomes the thrust of his existence. To humor his increasingly confused dad, David (Will Forte) volunteers to drive him from Billings, Mont. to sweepstakes headquarters in Lincoln, Neb. Along the way they detour through Woody's hometown and get a close look at the way greed can distort and destroy relationships.
Dern and Forte both give riveting performances, but June Squibb, as matriarch Kate Grant, is impossibly hilarious. The warm black and white photography serves the story beautifully, and I can't deny the honesty and emotional detail of the storytelling. R. 115m.
AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY. Julia Roberts scraps with her pill-popping mother Meryl Streep in the screen adaptation of Tracy Letts' play about a dysfunctional Midwestern family. R. 121m.
DEVIL'S DUE. The honeymoon is over when a young couple finds themselves pregnant with demon spawn. R. 89m.
JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT. Chris Pine takes up Tom Clancy's evergreen hero Jack Ryan. This time the CIA analyst is in spy-mode chasing down a Russian conspiracy. Kenneth Branagh doubles as director and villain. PG13. 105m.
THE NUT JOB. An urban squirrel voiced by Will Arnett attempts to rip off a nut store. With Brendan Fraser, Liam Neeson and Katherine Heigl. PG. 86m.
RIDE ALONG. Ice Cube is a scowling cop with plans to terrify his sister's mouthy fiancé Kevin Hart by taking him on patrol. R. 89m.
AMERICAN HUSTLE. David O. Russell takes a stellar cast, including Bradley Cooper and Amy Adams, back to the '70s for an ambitious and entertaining ABSCAM-inspired caper. R. 138m.
ANCHORMAN 2: THE LEGEND CONTINUES. Will Ferrell and his street-fighting news team keep it classy and skewer infotainment. Goofy fun that's mustache and shoulder pads above the competition. PG13. 119m.
FROZEN. Kristen Bell voices a girl who braves the snow to save the kingdom from her sister's frosty spell. Standard Disney Princess fun with a Josh Gad as a slapsticky snowman. PG. 108m
THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG. Impressive beards and exciting action as Bilbo and the dwarves go after a treasure-hoarding dragon. Director Jackson ups his game with this sequel. PG13. 161m.
THE LEGEND OF HERCULES. Twilight alum Kellan Lutz gets a tan and hits the gym for a fantasy origin story of the demigod hero. PG13. 99m.
PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: THE MARKED ONES. More demonic possession and "found footage" when young Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) bumps into things that bump in the night. R. 84m.
SAVING MR. BANKS. Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson bring engaging characters and affecting drama to what might have been merely Disney propaganda. PG13. 125m.
THE WOLF OF WALL STREET. A raucous cautionary tale of greed, girls and schadenfreude with Leonardo DiCaprio as double-breasted douchebag Jordan Belfort, a self-made '80s stock tycoon who runs afoul of the Feds. R. 180m.
12 YEARS A SLAVE. Chiwetel Ejiofor is a free-born American sold into slavery in this crushing period piece based on a true story. With a sinister Michael Fassbender. R. 134m.
CAPTAIN PHILLIPS. Tom Hanks is beset by Somali pirates in a riveting drama. PG13. 134m.
DALLAS BUYERS CLUB. Matthew McConaughey gives a top-notch performance as an ailing, HIV-positive man who smuggles treatment drugs. R. 117m.
GRAVITY. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are adrift in space — the best of sci-fi with a real human story. PG13. 90m.
— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill