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.

Obvious Child: Pregnant with possibility

Nobody gives birth in the abortion-themed romantic comedy Obvious Child, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t any labor involved in watching it. A flat-footed attempt to say something serious about abortion, while also stuffing the rote plotline with crude bathroom and sex jokes, the movie’s only redeeming qualities are its sporadic moments of emotional truth and a blunt use of the A-word. It’s been awhile since an American film confronted the issue and, thankfully, Obvious Child avoids the pussyfooting that marred both Juno and Knocked Up, two popular comedies from the last decade centered around unwanted pregnancies in which the women couldn’t even say “abortion” let alone commit to having one. But while this film is more honest about the certainty of going through with the procedure, it’s also hampered by an overly familiar milieu of creative egoists who seem utterly disconnected from the social and political world beyond their hermetic horizons.

The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz tells a sad and enraging tale

The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz documents the sad tale of the information activist and brilliant computer programmer who committed suicide in early 2013. The movie presents damning evidence of death by intimidation, perpetrated by the United States government against one of its own citizens, orchestrated by a paranoid national security apparatus and an overzealous Federal prosecutor. The Internet’s Own Boy will leave you angry, suspicious, even shocked; it is both a searing work of protest and rage, and a deeply moving portrait of a gifted, likeable young man driven to despair by the very country he loved and sought to help.

Manakamana: An exultant work of engaging cinema

Manakamana is the name of a sacred Hindu temple in central Nepal. It is perched atop a mountain reached by a modern cable car which whisks pilgrims and tourists a mile and a half up and down the hillside, cutting what used to be a three day trek down to a 10-minute trip both ways. Manakamana is also the name of a documentary which captures this journey eleven times in eleven shots, each lasting the length of the ride, each viewed from the same locked down medium shot, the camera gazing objectively at each new set of passengers. There is no music, no narration, no wide shots or close-ups. We hear only the hum of the car, the rattle of the cable, the grinding of the gears as each ride reaches its destination, and the conversations among the riders. The film sounds like a total bore, except it is anything but. Manakamana might be the most invigorating film you’ll see all year, a work of both hypnotic calm and ecstatic imagination.