Oil & Water: A captivating journey

I know what you’re thinking, do we need another documentary about big American oil companies exploiting third world countries for their priceless petroleum? In the case of the new film, Oil & Water, the answer is a resounding yes, because the story it tells is often very different from what we’ve come to expect from the more predictable, David vs. Goliath narratives: big oil wins, the poor indigenous population loses. Movies such as Crude, Big Men and Sweet Crude have drilled into this subject matter with varying degrees of success. The locally produced Sweet Crude tended to lose its way with too many competing story lines; Big Men needed reams of on-screen text to keep its audience oriented. So it is a refreshing surprise to encounter Oil & Water, also made by a Northwest production team, but one that skips over the pitfalls of advocacy polemics for a more personal, engaging and consistently engrossing approach.

Jimi: All is by My Side: Foxy André, Electric Jimi!

There is a lot of Jimi Hendrix’s story missing from the film, Jimi: All is by My Side, but what’s there is outstanding. Concerned with the time Hendrix was discovered by Linda Keith (Keith Richards’s girlfriend at the time) while he was playing backup in soul and R&B bands, up through his breakout year in the U.K., and ending right before his superstar-star making debut at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, the film steers clear of the usual biopic pit stops in favor of an impressionistic, illusive approach. The result is a visually and sonically rich immersion in time and place, buoyed by archival film snippets, old photographs, evocative sound cues, and a free associating editing design. Those qualities alone are enough to make this a daring and satisfying cinematic experience, but when you also add in André Benjamin’s dynamic performance and a supporting cast full of sharp, hard-hitting characters, Jimi: All is by My Side ranks as one of the best films of the year.

White Bird in a Blizzard: Lost and found

Shailene Woodley anchors the erratic but frequently arresting White Bird in a Blizzard, adapted from the novel of the same name, which author Laura Kasischke loosely based on a true story. That story, the disappearance of a teen girl’s mother, is brought to life here in scenes veering from comedic deadpan to flirty seduction to outright sadness. Navigating the tone is a major challenge with the film, but thankfully Woodley is on hand to guide us. The actress radiates a surface of strength and maturity, while masking a thin-as-eggshells fragility.

Words and Pictures: Speechless

Words and Pictures, recently released on home video, is the kind of small-scale dramatic comedy tailor-made for the cozy screen of the empty nester’s home cinema. It features the sexily rumpled Clive Owen and the beautifully tart Juliette Binoche engaging in a spirited debate about language and art, two cerebral topics unsuited to both the multiplex and the increasingly myopic arena of the art house. As an added bonus the picture is directed by Fred Schepisi, whom devoted cinephiles will remember for the galvanizing Australian New Wave classic, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, the baby-eating dingo thriller, A Cry in the Dark, and the supremely well-acted Six Degrees of Separation. Two smart, imminently watchable actors, a sophisticated director, and a story about ideas. There is only one thing souring this perfect scenario: the movie is awful.

Willow Creek: A scary-as-hell, low-budget masterpiece

Just when you thought the found-footage gimmick had finally been pounded into eternal irrelevance by the half-dozen Paranormal Activity sequels, which were inspired by countless horror films riffing on unearthed VHS tapes, which themselves were the evil spawn of The Blair Witch Project, along comes a micro-budgeted little surprise called Willow Creek. Directed by renegade provocateur Bobcat Goldthwaite, set in the wilderness of Northern California, and centered around the silliest of modern-day monsters, Sasquatch, Willow Creek turns out to be a truly frightening, intensely unforgiving experience. The fact that it accomplishes this, not by applying a new twist to the found-footage cliché, but by polishing the cliché with gripping effectiveness, makes this video-on-demand thriller one of the “finds” of the decade.

The Two Faces of January: Face Off

January may have two faces, but the faces Viggo Mortensen tries on in this film are legion. He smirks, smiles, grimaces, gloats, pouts, frowns, laughs, cries, and sleeps. And all this in the service of a character who could be an expert con man, a desperate swindler, or a cuckold in the making, but instead turns out to be someone much less interesting, a rather unlikeable fool. The Two Faces of January is that kind of film. Varnished with the gloss of a high-toned thriller, teasing us with a serpentine plot that implies it will turn around to bite all of the characters on the ass, it is actually only a mildly diverting, ultimately simplistic bauble. One in which none of the more tantalizing story possibilities ever come to pass.

The Rover: A man and his car

The Rover is a post-apocalyptic, outback western that barely arrived in local theaters before vanishing into the dust. It is now on home video, where one can perhaps better appreciate the film’s somber pacing, moody soundtrack, and grimly compelling atmosphere. Its two main characters, however, remain stubbornly inscrutable; motivated by an unconvincing alliance that leaves nothing but bullet-ridden bodies and unanswered questions in their wake.