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Young Dais (left) leads different street gangs against a common enemy in Tokyo Tribe.

I watched even more movies this year (more than 300!) than usual, which afforded me more opportunities to see weird and wacky smaller films. This week, I’m doing my customary clearing of the decks by writing about those movies that I found interesting but didn’t get to address in these pages or on our blog. Many of these are available on disc right now, so fire up your Netflix queue.

 

About Elly

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Asghar Farhadi won an Oscar four years ago for A Separation, but years before he did that, he made this film that wasn’t released in America until this year. This moody suspense thriller is about a group of couples who go out for a beach vacation on the Caspian Sea, though one wife named Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani) has an ulterior motive: She’s trying to fix up her friend Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti) with a German émigré (Shahab Hosseini) revisiting his homeland, whose marriage to someone else has been long arranged. When Elly mysteriously disappears, the web of lies that Sepideh has woven for herself starts to unravel in ways that damage all her friends. The disappearance is highly reminiscent of Antonioni’s New Wave classic L’Avventura, but Farhadi’s skill at using the ominous weather to add to the drama and dole out information to us at just the right pace is all his own. The director isn’t operating at the same pitch here as he did later in A Separation and his French-language The Past, but you can still savor his storytelling mastery and his disguised critique of his country’s oppression of women in this genre exercise.

 

Girlhood

This French movie is not a sequel to Boyhood, though the American football game that opens the film might make you wonder whether you’ve somehow gotten hold of the wrong one. A scintillating newcomer named Karidja Touré portrays a black Parisian high-school girl named Marieme, whose poor study habits and underprivileged, abusive family have gotten her fast-tracked to a trade school with the other lowest academic achievers. Instead, she joins a gang, committing petty crimes and engaging in fist fights with rival gangs from other neighborhoods. Director Céline Sciamma’s previous films dealt with white girls struggling with their sexuality, so tackling this subject is a new challenge for her. She shows how the gang gives Marieme a sense of belonging without ignoring the violence that comes with it. There’s an intoxicating scene when the girls stay in a luxury hotel (paid for with stolen money) and revel in their youth as they lip-sync to Rihanna’s “Diamonds.”

 

Nasty Baby

This movie’s big plot twist polarized its audiences. For some viewers, it ruined things. For me and others, it turned this film into a great, sick joke. Sebastián Silva writes, directs, and stars in this as half of a gay Brooklyn hipster couple (the other half is played by TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe) who are trying to conceive a baby with the help of their friend (Kristen Wiig). This starts as a comedy, but then an hour in, it takes an abrupt and violent turn into a spiraling nightmare of trouble. This is Silva’s first American movie, though he made two English-language ones in his native Chile, as well as The Maid, which made my list of the best movies of 2009. He follows the logic of these characters remorselessly. We see them at their best while making the baby, but a sudden crisis brings out their selfish sides. Mark Margolis turns up as an elderly gay neighbor who turns out to be someone you don’t want to mess with. He brings this plot to an untidy but effective resolution.

 

One & Two

Hard to categorize this one. IFC Films released this on their horror label, but this sits uneasily between science-fiction and supernatural thriller. It takes place on a remote, walled-off 19th-century American farm inhabited by a devoutly Christian father (Grant Bowler), an ailing mother (Elizabeth Reaser), and two teenaged kids (Timothée Chalamet and Kiernan Shipka) who can teleport themselves. This movie probably would have drawn better reviews if the big plot revelation hadn’t so closely resembled the one in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village. The voiceover narration here is wholly unnecessary, too. Still, writer-director Andrew Droz Palermo does well to incorporate the special effects into the rustic period setting and even depicts the father — who effectively tortures his kids to stop them from using their powers — with a degree of sympathy. Shipka is best known as Sally Draper on TV’s Mad Men, and she looks like the real deal in the lead role, a girl trying to come to grips with her talent as she gets back to her sundered family.

 

Phoenix

A former cabaret singer named Nelly (Nina Hoss) who was facially disfigured in the Holocaust returns to bombed-out Germany after the war to look for her pianist husband (Ronald Zehrfeld) who might have sold her out to the Nazis. When she finds him, he mistakes her for a stranger who looks like his wife and pays Nelly to impersonate herself to get at her inheritance from her murdered relatives. This plot is wildly improbable, but then, Christian Petzold’s movies tend to hinge on such improbabilities. They also tend to star Hoss, who gives yet another fantastic performance for him as a woman trying to learn how to be herself again and put her life back together. Her story exists in neat counterpoint with her best friend (Nina Kunzendorf), who isn’t nearly as ready to start fresh as she seems. This movie is worth seeing just for its final scene, when Nelly reveals everything to her husband and their friends by singing Kurt Weill’s “Speak Low.”

 

Spring

This is like Before Sunrise but with a man-eating succubus involved. Lou Taylor Pucci plays an aimless Southern Californian who’s inspired by his mother’s death and a brush with the law to take a long-delayed backpacking tour of Italy. There, he meets an insanely hot girl who says she’s local but has an unplaceable accent. (She’s played by German actress Nadia Hilker.) It’s only after they have scorching sex together that he discovers why she changes countries every 20 years and how to stop her from sprouting tentacles. This is one of those films that shouldn’t work but does, less a horror movie than a supernatural romance that meditates on attraction and faith in another person more successfully than most. American directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead find some picturesque spots in Italy that aren’t the sun-dappled piazzas that we usually get in movies set there. The lyrical final scene when our hero holds his girl and tells her what mortality is like while waiting for the sunrise when she might possibly eat him is beautifully done.

 

Tangerine

I wasn’t as high on this as others who thought it was one of the year’s best movies, but I do admire it quite a bit. When an L.A. prostitute named SinDee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) gets out of prison, she and her cooler-headed best friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor) spend a blazing hot Christmas Eve trying to track down SinDee’s pimp (James Ransone) to see if he cheated on her while she was inside. Much has been made of the transgender actresses portraying the transgender lead roles, as well as the fact that this movie was entirely filmed on an iPhone 5S. Me, I was surprised at how incidental these things were to my enjoyment. Director Sean Baker loves the seedy L.A. atmosphere and the marginal people in it, and he turns this into wonderfully profane farce (the word “bitch” is gleefully thrown around) that builds up to an exquisitely orchestrated meeting in a donut shop with an Armenian cabdriver (Karren Karagulian) who’s both the girls’ chauffeur and customer. Trans people can use a buddy comedy, and this fits the bill perfectly.

 

Tokyo Tribe

I’m always up for a Japanese gangsta rap karate musical. Based on a manga comic by Santa Inoue, this demented piece from the twisted mind of Sion Sono takes place in a near-future Tokyo that’s controlled by 23 warring gangs — one gang wears baseball jerseys, a nod to Walter Hill’s The Warriors. When an obese mafia lord (Riki Takeuchi) decides to wipe them all out with a private army that he’s been hiding, uh, somewhere, it’s up to a former gang leader-turned-pacifist (Young Dais) to unite the gangs. Pretty much the entire movie is rapped. Not speaking Japanese, I can’t judge the rhymes, but some of the professional rappers in this cast definitely have better flow than other cast members. In any event, it couldn’t have been easy to find actors who can rap and do the martial-arts stunts — the onscreen narrator (Shôta Sometani) actually does both at the same time at one point. This is a mess, but it isn’t like anything you’ve seen. Damned if I wasn’t genuinely moved by the ending, too, when the victorious gangs take turns rapping about putting aside their beefs and living in peace. Anybody who liked Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq should check this out.

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