Boyhood: Moment to moment

Time unfolds before us like a map. We can't see where the roads lead, nor can we be sure they won't bring us back to where we started, but we know only one contains a dead end. Richard Linklater’s beautiful, breathtaking Boyhood explores these roads, the creases and wrinkles of this map, and it concerns itself, at least in the material presented on screen, with the very ebullience and promise of young life. But the movie's overwhelming power and poignancy comes from the knowledge that a person’s time on the planet will most certainly end, and that our only real task is to live in those moments, in the inconsequential in-betweeness, that makes up the arc of our journey.

I Origins: Seeing may be believing

I Origins contemplates the argument for and against the concept of intelligent design by telling a story of science, love, loss and speculation. It is first set seven years in the past of an amorphous near-future, and then in this future’s present. It doesn’t look much different then our current world. In fact, it looks very much like a diaphanous, dreamily focused independent art house film, attuned to the visual shorthand of commercials but with delusions of profound significance. This isn’t necessarily a detriment to the movie’s own intelligent design, which offers thoughtful and even, at times, convincing manipulation of some far-out ideas.

A Most Wanted Man: Hoffman's last movie a tepid misfire

John le Carré’s disgust with the post-9/11 regime of the Bush Administration was the basis of his 2008 novel “A Most Wanted Man”, now a film starring Philip Seymour Hoffman in his last role before he died. Hoffman plays Gūnther Bachmann, the archetypal le Carré protagonist, an embittered loner with an aching desire to perform at least one act of compassion before a well-aimed bullet or too much drink takes him out of action. As the head of an international anti-terror spy unit based in Hamburg, Germany, where the 9/11 terrorists plotted their attack, he must contend with the reactionary tactics of both the German and American governments. Their strategy of torture and imprisonment, driven by a thirst for vengeance and a need to fill the waiting cells in Guantanamo, starkly conflicts with Bachmann’s more patient technique of surveillance and persuasion. That clash, which doesn’t end well, is infused with a relentlessly sour atmosphere of lies, distrust and the requisite soul-smashing doublecross.

Cannibal: The Clean Plate Club

In the new Spanish movie Cannibal, director Manuel Martín Cuenca's approach to his subject matter is so austere it’s almost anorexic. Where a horror film or gross-out comedy might apply blood-drenched gluttony to scenes of butchery and flesh-eating, Cuenca opts for one quiet–and quietly dazzling–sequence involving a nude woman splayed on a table, followed by the off-screen thwack of a hatchet and then a single rivulet of blood spilling into a metal pan (that sound also off-screen, an auditory suggestion of this killer’s seasoned professionalism). This less-is-more strategy continues through the film’s first fifteen minutes or so, which also involves the refrigeration, frying and consumption of body parts, and a symbolic cleansing in a car wash. We also learn our protagonist is an old-school tailor, equally skilled at manipulating a large pair of fabric scissors as he is with a meat cleaver. He and the milieu of his existence are rendered with impeccable taste, clarity and calm. For a cannibal, he is especially appealing and fastidious.

As It Is In Heaven: Why Lord?

Dieting websites state that during a 30-day water fast a person loses about one pound per day. A reasonably trim and healthy young man or woman will begin to look fairly scrawny, even gaunt, by the end of the fast, and certainly weakened by the ordeal. But the dozen or so individuals who undergo the fast in As It Is In Heaven appear to handle it quite well. The only evidence of their self-enforced starvation can be seen in the dark patches under their eyes, as if they stayed up all night cramming for a test or, as is possible with this film, they just emerged from a 24-hour prayer circle. You see, the movie is not about a fad diet, it’s about a religious cult. But very little of what happens in this film (in a film in which very little does happen) is believable. And this in turn presents a problem for a film that is all about belief.

Life Itself: Roger Ebert heads for the exit

The late film critic Roger Ebert would have appreciated seeing the movie made from his memoir, Life Itself, available on both theater screens and television at the same time. He was enthusiastically democratic about movies. He loved exposing everybody to all kinds of films–the silly and the sublime, the blockbusters and the indies–and his enduring legacy was his ability to talk and write intelligently about movies without coming off as pompously intellectual. The popular movie review program he hosted with Gene Siskel, At The Movies, may have dumbed down the critical process for art house snobs, but it showed that smart talk about motion pictures could be exciting, funny, and even enlightening for the great unwashed masses. He helped make it okay to have an opinion about a picture. But does that mean he deserves to have a feature documentary made about his life?

Venus in Fur: Polanski's spirited romp

Director Roman Polanski has often preferred to work in enclosed spaces. He discovers madness lurking in hallways, ghosts in bedrooms, menace just outside the frame. The odd guest sometimes arrives, bringing sexual tension or the promise of psychodrama. Maybe the Devil himself will knock at the door. Repulsion featured Catherine Deneuve going quietly insane in her London flat; Knife in the Water, a diabolical threesome on a pleasure boat; The Tenant, a smug newcomer (Polanski) in an apartment building convulsed by suicidal paranoia; and in the aptly named Cul-de-sac, an isolated couple dealing with a pair of criminals. Even in his more spatially expansive Chinatown and The Pianist, the horrors–incest and extermination–were intensely claustrophobic. It’s no surprise to see that his latest picture, Venus in Fur, takes place entirely on a theater stage, with only two actors engaged in a spirited joust about language, feminism, role-playing and humiliation. The stakes, ultimately, are not very high, but the movie makes for lively and witty entertainment.