Our local cinematic landscape can seem desolate, unsustainable. This is due in no small part to the entropy and transnational profit grubbing that have displaced art and showmanship in mainstream American movie making. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the ratio of interesting, inventive movies to the rest of them seems to decrease annually. Exceptions still sneak through to wide distribution, but they are rare, delicate creatures. And people are out there, on the grind, making movies with heart and imagination. There just isn't a way for those people to get their movies on big screens in places like Humboldt County. Enter the greatest blessing/curse of the modern era: Thanks to the chimera that is the Internet — the monster that so often takes but occasionally gives — even country folk like us are granted access to new release movies that will never see the light of a projector. See below for a few I've enjoyed through the modern miracle of streaming.
SNOWPIERCER got a lot of ink when it was released earlier this year, and with good reason. Despite some overly earnest, on-the-nose moments, its vision of a dystopian future Earth puts all recent YA franchises to shame. After some weather tampering goes terribly wrong, what remains of humanity is confined to a locomotive-cum-metaphor-for-society. As the train makes endless circuits around the globe, the underclass — confined to the caboose — with Curtis (Chris Evans) as their leader, attempts some social change. Directed by Joon-Ho Bong, best known for The Host (2006), Snowpiercer is notable for its engaging, constantly evolving aesthetic. The hatchet battles are nothing to sneeze at, either.
THE SACRAMENT. Ti West (The House of the Devil) has built a sturdy little catalog of horror pictures, this being the latest. Maybe because I've seen evidence that he knows how to compose a frame, I'll forgive the fact that this is a found footage movie (it actually works for this story). Patrick (Kentucker Audley) receives a letter from his sister, inviting him to visit her at the remote religious community she calls home. Jake (Joe Swanberg) and Sam (AJ Bowen), correspondents for Vice, decide to tag along and document the visit. Their visit to this new Jonestown starts innocently enough, but takes a dark turn. The Sacrament isn't without its flaws, but West's pacing imbues it with palpable dread, and some of its violence is truly, disturbingly unique.
HAPPY CHRISTMAS breaks with our genre theme, although it is tied to The Sacrament by its director. Joe Swanberg was/is one of the key figures in the deplorably named mumblecore genre. He scripts scenarios, outlines really, and relies on improvisation to flesh them out. Jenny (Anna Kendrick) returns to her hometown after a breakup to spend some time with her brother Jeff (Swanberg) and his frustrated novelist wife, Kelly (Melanie Lynskey). Jenny acts like an unchecked teenager, getting blackout drunk at strangers' houses, sneaking weed in the basement and accidentally incinerating frozen pizzas. But she also helps Kelly restart her creative process, and the two of them co-write a romance novel. Happy Christmas is as engaging as it is occasionally frustrating, perhaps because it rings true. R. 82m.
THE ONE I LOVE combines comedic relationship drama with a twisted science fiction bent and manages to pull it off. Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elizabeth Moss) take the advice of their weirdo marriage counselor to spend the weekend in a remote vacation home. Things go pleasantly enough until they discover a bizarre, unexplainable phenomenon taking place in the guest house. As they cautiously explore the goings on, the strain on their relationship changes and intensifies, culminating in inevitable conflict. Cleverly, carefully scripted and beautifully photographed, The One I Love plays refreshingly with genre, balancing playfulness and dread to enjoyable effect. R. 92m.
STRETCH. I include this mostly because it's a pretty good, silly action comedy, and they've become all but extinct. Patrick Wilson plays a degenerate gambler whose chauffeur income isn't really enough to keep his bookie happy. When he picks up a rich wacko (Chris Pine), there's a chance he could make enough money in one night to buy his way out of trouble. In the process, though, he finds himself in trouble of every color. Stretch leans pretty hard into the cheese, but harkens back to a bygone era and provides plenty of fun if not taken too seriously. R. 94m.
UNDER THE SKIN. We've had to wait a long time for Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast, Birth) to gift us with a new movie, but it was well worth it. A dusky woman of indeterminate origin (Scarlett Johansson) roams Scotland in a van, seducing unsuspecting men. There's more to it than that, but the experience is so singular, so enveloping that it defies description. For my bent sensibility, this is the highest artistic achievement of the year — also one of the most divisive. R. 108m.
ENEMY. I loved Denis Villeneuve's Prisoners unequivocally. His follow-up also stars Jake Gyllenhaal, this time in dual roles. Adam, a stuffy Toronto college professor, discovers an actor named Anthony who appears to be his identical twin. As the two encounter each other, their existences become uncomfortably intertwined and defined by paranoia. Like Prisoners, Enemy sustains a feeling of dread that infuses its autumnal visuals. It also has one of the weirdest, best, most ambiguous endings ever. R. 90m.
— John J. Bennett
EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS. Well, this looks exhausting. Ridley Scott's CG Bible epic starring the righteous rage of Christian Bale as Moses. PG13. 150m.
THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES. The last installment of short guys on the big screen. PG13. 144m.
HOMESMAN. Hilary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones ferry pioneer women gone mad back east in this grim period piece. R. 122m.
BIG HERO 6. A boy and his inflatable robot are out to save San Fransokyo with Disney-Marvel-level color and slickness. PG. 108m.
BIRDMAN. Excellent weirdness as a former superhero franchise star (ahem, Michael Keaton) grasps at a second act. While his character struggles, Keaton clearly still has his chops. R. 120m.
DUMB AND DUMBER TO. Dumbest. PG13. 109m.
HORRIBLE BOSSES 2. Very funny people saving a less funny script in this kidnapping-and-ransom caper. R. 108m.
THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY - PART 1. Fancy production and action can't salvage the puffed up script and yawning monologues. One more to go. PG13. 116m.
INTERSTELLAR. A beautiful, ambitious movie experience about a pair of astronauts (Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway) searching for habitable planets. Worth the three-hour investment. PG13. 169m.
NIGHTCRAWLER. A taut, well-crafted, character-driven film noir with Jake Gyllenhaal as a shady freelance news photographer. R. 117m.
PELICAN DREAMS. Documentary following a single bird after wildlife rehab. G. 80m.
ST. VINCENT. Bill Murray plays a grumpy neighbor turned mentor in this sweet, well-observed and well-acted story. PG13. 103m.
THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING. This sincere Stephen Hawking biopic/love story centers on the early years and loses momentum in the end. PG13. 123m.
— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill