Dominik Moll's new film is a patient, savory psychodrama, fueled with domestic anxiety, spooky rhythms, and unsettled reaction shots. Hotshot techie Alain (Laurent Lucas) is setting up house with his childless gamine of a wife, Benedicte (Charlotte Gainsbourg). They are beset by impactions and disturbances, including a neighbor slapping his kid in the street and a stubborn kitchen sink clog, which turns out to be a semi-drowned lemming. When the boss comes over for dinner with his steely, beshaded wife (Charlotte Rampling), the young couple is set up for cataclysm, which comes, big time: infidelities, suicide, personality swap, an overall assault on the complacencies of marriage. Only the portentous music is in any way Hitchcockian; Moll's mystery achievement instead heads subtly into Lynch country, especially via a video feed from a motorized sewer camera, trucking into the secret darkness under every street. It might've all been an exercise if it weren't for Lucas, whose chiseled Daniel Day Lewis–ness is a high-contrast foil to the actor's phenomenal ability to radiate horror without moving a muscle. MICHAEL ATKINSON
Mountain Patrol (Kekexili)
This 2004 Chinese adventure eco-saga takes on the poaching of the endangered Tibetan antelope, skirting the thornier political questions while staying enthrallingly close to the ground. The sense of fundamental outrage does not evolve into asking who's slaughtering wildlife, and why—mostly starving peasants, for pelts to sell to Westerners—but instead basks before mountains saturated with unearthly tropospheric light. For better or worse, no film of the last decade, not even Malick's The New World, has displayed such a ferocious intimacy with extreme landscape. Storywise, Lu Chuan's film is a full-on elegy for a band of paramilitary volunteers that in the mid-'90s patrolled the titular highlands encompassing hunks of Tibet, Qinghai Province, and the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. The duty on the endless frontier is fraught with frustration, ethical muddiness, and butcher-block residue, with the terrain playing both victim and destiny dealer—an encounter with desert quicksand is just as viscerally roiling as it was in the matinee programmers of George Lucas' childhood. MICHAEL ATKINSON
It's that time of the year again. Five autumns later, and 9/11 movies are starting to amass behind the books, TV specials, and fall campaign themes ("We're not safe! Vote for me!") that will probably arrive every new September for another decade. Paul Greengrass took an early position with this April release, and it still looks like one of the most austere and focused films of the year. In part, especially compared to Oliver Stone's lesser World Trade Center, that's because the flight itself provides its own fixed narrative path. Like an old Hollywood potboiler set on a train, with clacking wheels and romantic clouds of steam, the cramped, claustrophobic reality of modern airline travel shapes the story even before the terrorists get on board. "Our modern life is essentially about systems . . . fragile things," says Greengrass on his commentary. Systems—it's a key word. Before the jet leaves Newark, United 93 shows us the methodical preparation of the flight crew, the early morning ritual prayers of the four hijackers, the yawning passengers habitually checking their cell phones, BlackBerries, and laptops in the departure lounge. Everybody has their routine, including the FAA and military authorities unable to respond properly, or fast enough, later that morning.
"A broken system is what this movie is about," per Greengrass, who cast real FAA officials and military officers essentially as themselves. Even the pilots flying United 93 are real pilots, and one of the flight attendants a flight attendant. They give the movie an integrity, a level of procedural detail that reflects Greengrass' documentary background. Strictly speaking, this and his prior Bloody Sunday are both docudramas faithfully reflecting real events; only here he has to make inferences about what the flight records, passenger calls, and black box can't tell. "It must've looked something like this," he says of the final decision among those 40 on board to resist the four in control of their aircraft. And unlike those terrorists, who trained for months in advance, this was a democratic, ad hoc assault, a kind of smart mob in the sky.
What took place on the ground is better documented, of course, as highly trained professionals stared helplessly at their radar screens and TV sets. This is what Greengrass calls "the central problem of 9/11—that people could not comprehend what was unfolding in front of them." One small system ("medieval religious rapture . . . a closed creed") defeated all the technology and might of "our conspicuous modernity." It's a disturbing thought, which still makes United 93 a disturbing and powerful movie today (still one of the year's best films).
Universal is also issuing a two-disc set, presumably with more extras. (Here, there's a 50-minute documentary about victims' families meeting the actors and actresses who played their loved ones—it's both moving and awkwardly sad.) Credit the studio, which acquired but didn't produce this British-made project, with good taste in the packaging, too. For the first time in memory, the DVD doesn't begin with any trailers for other titles. So we can change some systems at least. BRIAN MILLER
TV shows predominate this week: season one of the Comedy Central sketch series Stella, season five of Smallville, season two for both The Office and Grey's Anatomy, and a four-disc collection of the old Dick Cavett Show (with guests including Orson Welles, Marlon Brando, Katharine Hepburn, and Bette Davis). The ballet documentary Ballet Russes is a must for dance fans. A 25th anniversary edition of TAPS features Tom Cruise and Sean Penn at a very young age. Fox has a new collection of vintage Laurel and Hardy comedy shorts. Warner offers just about every Agatha Christie movie ever made (most starring Peter Ustinov or Helen Hayes). Speaking of 9/11 movies (above), The Great New Wonderful is an N.Y.C. ensemble piece that never reached Seattle theaters. With the World Cup over, soccer nuts may appreciate Goal! The Dream Begins. Czech master animator Jan Svankmajer is featured on a new collection from Kino, which has also dug up a series of B-movie noirs, including Budd Boetticher's Behind Locked Doors. The erstwhile Island County congressional candidate is featured in Serving in Silence: The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story. And there's a pretty good chance The Death of Mr. Lazarescu will top several year-end critics' polls, no matter that it's depressing and Romanian.