The White Balloon. This subtly complex film from Iran enriches the childhood comedy genre that's become so facile and pernicious in our own country. Set during the hours prior to the Iranian New Year in Teheran, the movie follows a 7-year-old girl's efforts to purchase a special, "pudgy" goldfish; she's successively thwarted by some duplicitous snake charmers, a dishonest shopkeeper, an inconvenient sewer hole, and the general insensitivity of the adult world. The movie delivers a blatantly frustrating narrative in which our hopes and expectations remain just out of reach, as screenwriter Abbas Kiarostami (Through the Olive Trees) questions the effect of those privileged cinematic fantasies, both big and small, that too easily reward the characters and the audience. At once realistic and subversive, The White Balloon portrays what it feels like to not get what we want.
Land and Freedom. Having mastered his focus on the individual labors of working-class Brits, director Ken Loach (Ladybird, Ladybird) heads for epic territory with this engrossing historical drama. The film's Liverpudlian protagonist (Ian Hart) initially believes that his loaded rifle will help the Republican anti-fascist cause in Spain, but amid the intellectual infighting of his militia, he discovers that the war takes place as much in group meetings as on the battlefield. The movie's ultimate tragedy is that a hero's hard-won enlightenment can't by itself change the realities of power, and in depicting rich philosophical debates without taking sides, Loach draws his characters and their struggles with such insight that the movie's bloody skirmishes manage a cumulative, almost unbearable force.
Kicking and Screaming. This first feature by 25-year-old auteur Noah Baumbach (son of Village Voice film critic Georgia Brown) is yet another comedic melodrama that examines the post-graduate angst of some overly educated slackers. Baumbach may have set out to update Jean Renoir for the twentysomething set, although in giving his ensemble cast (Josh Hamilton, Eric Stoltz, Parker Posey, Olivia d'Abo) an abundance of familiarly arch dialogue and existential traumas, he doesn't offer much that can't be found in Metropolitan or Bodies, Rest and Motion, etc. Still, despite a fundamental emptiness at its core, the movie is worth seeing if only for its unexpectedly romantic and thoroughly heartbreaking final shot, which seems guaranteed to remind you of the one who got away.
Lamerica. Measuring the costs of the new Europe in human terms, director Gianni Amelio's gritty epic compares contemporary Italy to the near-Third World environment of Albania. A heartless con artist named Gino (Enrico LoVerso) drives to Albania to enlist the help of Fiore (Michele Placido) in a scheme to exploit the country's government subsidies; as Gino becomes aware of the old Fiore's weakened condition and the widespread suffering around them, the two men form a gentle friendship while struggling to return to Italy. The acting, modeled on the low-key, naturalistic style of classic neo-realism, is nothing less than astonishing: Placido's weathered expressions seem to represent all the wrinkles of despair, resilience, and hope in the story.
Georgia. Helped in no small part by another transcendent Jennifer Jason Leigh performance, this harrowing backstage musical posits smooth proficiency against harsh realism in artmaking and life. The movie's folksinging title character (Mare Winningham) is the epitome of bourgeois success, having a picture-perfect house and family, a beautiful voice, a profitable career, and a carefully maintained talent for avoiding pain; Georgia's sister Sadie (Leigh), meanwhile, is a bar-band drug addict who lives intensely, sings in a screechingly off-key style, and seems headed the way of Janis and Courtney. Detailing the diametrically opposed lifestyles and stage personas of the two characters, the film builds gradually to a devastating sequence that crosscuts between each sister's cover of the classic "Hard Times." Who's to say which sibling is the more accomplished performer, the more "healthy" person? Anticipating the film's considerable box-office potential, Miramax bought the movie even before its first New York screening, which means that Georgia will likely screen here by early next year.
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