Veerle Baetens and band sing Belgian bluegrass in "The Broken Circle Breakdown"

While you all were watching Gravity this past weekend, I was at Chris Kelly’s Modern Cinema festival. It’s good to have this annual event back, and we can look forward to enjoying it year round now, as the former Star-Telegram film critic announced that the festival will hold monthly screenings starting next month, skipping December, but returning in January. I missed the opening selection, A.C.O.D. (which is supposed to be quite funny), but I saw plenty of other notable films.

Daniel Radcliffe plays a college-age Allen Ginsberg in Kill Your Darlings, and Chris Kelly was selling his performance as a total transformation from Harry Potter. I’m not so sure about that; the Ginsberg we see in this movie is quite a bit like the boy wizard, smart and studious but willing to break the rules. (Compare Emma Watson in The Perks of Being a Wallflowerthere’s a total transformation from her role in the Potter movies.) Still, Radcliffe is very good playing a gay Jewish American poet, and he has quite a bit of company in this movie based on an episode in Ginsberg’s life when Lucien Carr, a fellow student whom he had fallen for, murdered his ex-boyfriend. First-time director John Krokidas gets some terrific performances from Radcliffe and Dane DeHaan as Carr (he’s usually cast as creepy loners, but here he’s playing someone more seductive and charming, and he’s good). There’s also Ben Foster as William Burroughs, mumbling unintelligibly in a very Burroughsian way, an unrecognizable and bearded Michael C. Hall as the ill-fated and somewhat pathetic ex, and Elizabeth Olsen providing some welcome female presence as Jack Kerouac’s put-upon girlfriend. Krokidas has to juggle the murder plot with the boys’ school hijinks, and he doesn’t pull that off very smoothly, but he gets so much else right (including the stifling moralistic atmosphere of the period) that you can let it go. This is a filmmaker to watch.

The Broken Circle Breakdown begins with five bearded guys on a stage, wearing Stetsons, playing guitars, fiddles, and banjos, and singing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” with a credible twang. Look at them and you think, they could be from around here. But then we see the lead singer in a hospital talking to his daughter in Dutch, and you realize that they’re in Belgium. The movie’s based on a stage play co-written by lead actor Johan Heldenbergh, who portrays a bluegrass musician in Ghent. The story hops around in time showing his courtship and marriage to a tattoo artist/singer (Veerle Baetens) and their struggle to cope as their six-year-old girl (Nell Cattrysse) is stricken with cancer. The film reminded me of Declaration of War, Valérie Donzelli’s French drama from last year, a similarly themed piece that also had a musical number. Director Felix van Groeningen takes a much more somber approach to the material here. The English-language numbers like “Country in My Genes” do much to keep the proceedings from becoming too heavy, but towards the end this thing just becomes an extended wallow in misery. Then again, this movie isn’t like anything else you’ve probably seen, and it’s the best musical I’ve seen all year.

(SMTX)FTW-300x250-NOV17the Meg Rosoff novel How I Live Now, but I do have the urge to read it now that I’ve seen the movie version. Saoirse Ronan stars as a sullen American teenager who’s sent to live with her young cousins in the English countryside during a distant and mysterious world war. Then a nuclear bomb destroys London and Britain is placed under martial law, and she has to find her way back to her family’s farm to be with the boy she has come to love (George Mackay). I always liked Saoirse Ronan, so much so that I gladly bought a ticket to The Host. This movie is much better than The Host, you’ll be happy to hear. The inevitable comparison for this postapocalyptic thriller set in England is Children of Men, and director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland and the underrated The Eagle) can’t generate the same level of detail or the hellish momentum that Alfonso Cuarón did. Still, he does keep the proceedings moving and balance the movie’s thriller plot with its teen romance well enough, and he comes up with some lovely things like his depiction of the nuclear blast, with the animals fleeing and a rush of wind blowing through before the sound reaches the children. The movie industry has been casting about for another girl-centric teen flick with a science-fiction/action bent in the wake of the Twilight and Hunger Games series. This one is pretty good.

The odd spelling of the title Le Week-end comes from being the French word for “weekend.” (It’s one of those foreign-derived words that drives French language purists insane.) This drama is being compared to Before Midnight, and I think this British movie just might be the better one. Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan play a longtime couple who spend a weekend in Paris as a last-ditch play to save their marriage. Any time you rest so much of the movie on two actors, said thespians have to be good to keep your interest from flagging, and these two are good as they reckon with their professional accomplishments and the job they’ve done raising their now-grown son (whom we never see). Broadbent is a pleasure to watch in just about everything, and there’s a great scene near the end when the couple’s American friend (Jeff Goldblum) toasts them at a dinner party. That scene is going in my year-end post on the year’s best movie dialogue.