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AFI Fest A to Z: Hey Man, Yeah

Certified Copy

Certified Copy

Reviews are by Phil Coldiron, Mike D'Angelo, David Ehrenstein, Ernest Hardy, Aaron Hillis, Karina Longworth, Nicolas Rapold and Vadim Rizov. More information onthese and other AFI films can be found at afi.com/afifest.

CRITIC'S PICK  13 ASSASSINS Takashi Miike, the most prolifically gonzo filmmaker in Japan (and quite possibly the world), finally decides to sell out in high style — and turns in his most impressive effort since 1999's Audition. With the exception of one memorably nightmarish moment involving a nude, limbless woman writhing in permanent agony, 13 Assassins is just a straightforward, expertly choreographed samurai action flick, albeit with an atypical emphasis on the physical demands of the profession and a healthy disregard for its fabled code of honor. Setup's a bit pokey, as is often the case with Miike, but the entire second half of the movie is one long, kickass battle sequence, at once kinetically thrilling in the Kurosawa/Kobayashi tradition and as goofily absurdist — flaming oxen! booby-trapped buildings! — as something out of Jeunet & Caro. Makes you wonder what Miike might accomplish if he settled down and made just one film a year, rather than his usual half-assed three or four. (MD) (Nov. 7, 9:30 p.m., Chinese)

AARDVARK A blind guy walks out of an AA meeting and into a martial arts studio. Cinematographer Kitao Sakurai's debut as a writer-director stars nonactors Darren Branch and Larry Lewis, whose real-life relationship as a blind recovering alcoholic and his jiujitsu instructor is the basis for Aardvark's first half, an exploration of sensation and physicality, rich with character detail and boldly loose on plot. Then Darren's secret life of crime catches up with him, and Aardvark turns into a full-on noir of all-too-literal blind justice. Narratively, it's one joke (blind guys gets a lap dance; blind guy requests verbal confirmation that he's holding the right person at gunpoint), but stylistically, it's a knockout, with a final quasi-action sequence that bridges the film's opposing tonal tendencies: Euro-art slowness and low-budg, high-gimmick revenge flick. (KL) (Nov. 5, 7 p.m., Chinese)

AMIGO For a brief period in the 1990s, John Sayles achieved a truly miraculous amalgam of lefty political activism and thorny, impassioned human drama. Since peaking with Lone Star (1996), however, he's become increasingly bogged down in dreary righteousness. Set during the U.S. occupation of the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century, Amigo means to use this forgotten chapter of history to make pointed statements about our current adventures in the Middle East. Trouble is, it does so entirely via earnest platitudes and schematic irony. Somebody needs to stand over Sayles' shoulder at the keyboard and just slap him hard in the face every time he types the word "American." Seriously. Even Chris Cooper, who made his name in Sayles' early pictures, is unable to offer a morsel of genuine behavior. (MD) (Nov. 6, 9:45 p.m., Chinese)

BLACK SWAN Both self-conscious homage to epic backstage soaps and visceral body-dysmorphia horror, Black Swan stars Natalie Portman as Nina, a ballerina torn between fear and ambition. Nina bests both the ballet's aging star (Winona Ryder) and its new sexpot diva (Mila Kunis) to land the lead in her company's reimagining of Swan Lake, but the casting is contingent on Nina learning to embrace her own "evil twin." Vivid hallucinations — or are they?!? — ensue, involving bi-curiosity, hysteric violence, self-harm and self-preservation. A riff on diva cinema's greatest hits, Black Swan is Suspiria with less style, All About Eve but all about orgasm panic, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? with Ryder and Barbara Hershey (as Nina's infantilizing mom) splitting the Bette Davis role. Call it balletsploitation: It's a work of art only in that it's pitch-perfect trash. (KL) (Nov. 1, 7:30 p.m., Chinese)

BLUE VALENTINE Derek Cianfrance's Sundance hit crosscuts the first and last days of the relationship between Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams), young class-crossed lovers turned unhappily harried marrieds. A naturalistic (and fatalist) antiromance that acknowledges the evanescence of mutual adoration, performed by vanity-free actors and presented in grainy, deeply saturated imagery that always goes for the painterly over the descriptive, Blue Valentine is surface-oriented to a fault. Williams translates Cindy's coldness into blankness, and Cianfrance's camera keeps getting closer to her, as if her pores were windows to her soul. But the final scene crescendos superlatively. Inexplicably rated NC-17 by the MPAA, Valentine is adult in theme, but what's on-screen is relatively chaste. (KL) (Nov. 6, 6:30 p.m., Chinese)

BARNEY'S VERSION Paul Giamatti stars in this adaptation of Mordecai Richler's sprawling 1997 novel, about the life and loves of the titular schlub, a narcissistic romantic who drinks his way from bohemian decadence to bourgeois autopilot to angry, foggy old age. Highlights of the 40 years sped through in two-plus hours include the mysterious death of his best friend Boogie (Scott Speedman), two unhappy marriages and one great romance, with Rosamund Pike's Miriam. The performances are uneven (Minnie Driver's Canadian Jew accent is the worst, and Speedman often seems to be lost looking for the rhythm of his lines, even before Boogie turns into a junkie), but the central relationship drama is super compelling. Slip it in the A Man and His Mortality genre above the soggy pabulum of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, but Barney's Version never approaches the transcendence of the narratively similar Synecdoche, New York. (KL) (Nov. 6, 8 p.m., Egyptian)

CARGO Stranded-in-space thrillers need something going on when the suspense isn't cooking, even if it's just doom-chic design like Alien or, more recently, a head-scratcher concept as in Moon. Ivan Engler's calling-card feature about a carrier ship with a mystery load lumbers through bump-in-the-night whodunit for ages without getting its hooks in, and there's little in the filmmaking to tide us over between the plot dumps periodically delivered by a mutually suspicious crew. A virtual-reality complication comes as no surprise, though it might as well have emerged earlier. But our naive proxy, a medic (Anna-Katharina Schwabroh) jobbing for cash to join her sister on a paradise planet, has a certain guileless, bland appeal. (NR) (Nov. 5, 6:45 p.m., Chinese)

CASINO JACK The final film from director George Hickenlooper (Hearts of Darkness, Factory Girl), who passed away suddenly last weekend, Casino Jack is an overslick, telepic-esque telling of the long fall of Jack Abramoff. (Over)played by Kevin Spacey, the once-untouchable "superlobbyist" who played clients and politicians against each other for his own personal gain is given a fairly sympathetic gloss: He may be predatory and delusional, but he's also an American Everyman whose key mistake was staying drunk on Clinton-era economic optimism too long, only to be abandoned by the government officials who he thought had his back. It's fast-paced and stylish, but the performances are flat caricatures, and the script is laughably on-the-nose. "This isn't the '90s anymore," someone actually says. "It's post-9/11!" Spacey's sporadic narration is even worse. (KL) (Nov. 8, 7 p.m., Chinese)

CERTIFIED COPY Abbas Kiarostami's shape-shifter follows Elle (Juliette Binoche) and James (William Shimell) over an afternoon's worth of rural Italian countryside sparring. Initially, Elle just wants to argue with James about his new book, which posits that, in art, fake can be just as good as real. But when a café proprietor mistakes them for a married couple and Elle starts arguing with her new "husband," their debate on truth's value takes on a new dimension of (real?) emotional pain. What's happening here? Is this a married couple playing a game to revitalize their marriage, two bored intellectuals sparring for stakes, or just all-out epistemological allegory? Firm answers are unlikely (as hinted by a cameo from Buñuel screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere), but the film's hypnotic regardless, with two irritably virtuoso performances and gorgeous mise-en-scène elevated way above tourist porn. (VR) (Nov. 7, 6:15 p.m., Chinese)

THE COMPANY MEN In a quietly meta performance nodding at his own career seesaw, Ben Affleck plays Bobby, a cocky young salesman downsized and forced to give up his home/Porsche/pride before returning to the workforce with humbled expectations. Writer-director John Wells' experience shaping ensemble TV hits like ER shows in Men's generous-to-a-fault intertwining of story lines featuring the mid-to-late-life crises of Bobby's former superiors (Tommy Lee Jones and Chris Cooper, both excellent). Men was purchased by the Weinstein Company after Sundance and given a cut and polish to bring all of its latent feel-good potential to the surface. Its sunshiney music cues and sudden happy ending make it tough to take seriously as a portrait of our still-unfolding economic catastrophe, but as an exploration of the relationship between money and masculinity, it's pretty fascinating. (KL) (Nov. 10, 7:30 p.m., Chinese)

FREE RADICALS "I'd like you to meet my friends," begins Pip Chodorov's voice-over to his avant-garde film documentary, which tributes professional collegiality and artistic method without getting too chummy or strident. Radicals sketches the work and driving ethos of a few filmmakers from both sides of the Atlantic: pioneer Hans Richter, dazzling innovator Len Lye and a candid, Methuselean Bob Breer. Also here are the usual suspects: New York avant house Anthology Film Archives and indefatigable godfather Jonas Mekas, Ken Jacobs (in leaner days eating spareribs from the trash), Peter Kubelka (explaining metric editing) and, in his final interview before his 2003 death, acknowledged master Stan Brakhage. With no intention of comprehensiveness, it's a film of homemade elegance not unlike the personal cinema that is among its subjects. (NR) (Nov. 5, 6:45 p.m., Chinese)

HAHAHA The more superficially entertaining of Hong Sang-soo's two films this year (Oki's Movie also is at AFI; see below), this Cannes Un Certain Regard prizewinner constructs a drunken (natch) ping-pong match between two old friends, who take turns regaling each other with anecdotes about their recent trips to the same city, unaware that their paths nearly crossed multiple times and they're frequently talking about identical incidents as seen from slightly different angles. The idea seems to cry out for farce, but Hong, bless him, sticks stubbornly to his own bemused brand of quasi-comedy, with consistently enjoyable if ultimately weightless results. As usual, the best recurring gag is structural: Each present-day interlude, depicted only in stills and voice-over, concludes with a toast; we hear their glasses clink so many times that it's a wonder the movie's epilogue doesn't take place in an emergency ward. (MD) (Nov. 6, 2 p.m., Chinese)

HEARTBEATS Like most young filmmakers, 21-year-old Xavier Dolan wears his influences on his sleeve, but at least he worships the right people: early Godard, Wong Kar-wai, Woody Allen at his most formally inventive. Heartbeats isn't nearly as personal or heartfelt as Dolan's debut, I Killed My Mother (still unreleased in the U.S.), but it confirms him as a natural-born filmmaker, poised to be the French-Canadian P.T. Anderson once he, too, manages to synthesize a style of his own. From a narrative standpoint, this romantic triangle is a threadbare tale of unrequited love and surly rivalry, but watching Dolan enthusiastically explore the medium's lush, seductive, expressionistic possibilities feels like gulping your fill at a watering hole in the middle of contemporary art cinema's New Austerity. (MD) (Nov. 7, 7 p.m., Chinese)

I WILL FOLLOW As a grieving woman (Salli Richardson-Whitfield) packs up the house of her late aunt in a single day, she's visited by a dozen different people — movers, family, friends — who trigger tears, comic relief and life-changing realizations. Aptly described by writer-director Ava Duvernay as a "mood piece," the film is deceptively simple as it gracefully cycles through its palette of emotions. (The aunt's backstory serves subtle commentary on the limits imposed by race and gender; she was a session musician renowned for disco work while dreaming of being in a rock band.) The entire ensemble is solid, but Michole White as the angrily grieving daughter is exceptional. (EH) (Nov. 5, 9 p.m. Egyptian)

THE KING'S SPEECH The common fear of public speaking and the uncommon circumstance of being the king of England come together in this delightful example of just how enjoyable the biopic genre can be. Colin Firth breathes charm as George VI, who won the title after his spoiled-rotten brother Edward VIII (Guy Pearce) abdicated to marry the woman he loved. As Hitler had invaded Poland, George was required to speak, but was paralyzed by a stammer he'd had since youth. Enter the very unorthodox speech teacher Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). Rush hams soulfully. Helena Bonham Carter likewise has a fine old time as George's wife, later known and much-beloved as the Queen Mum. (DE) (Nov. 5, 7:30 p.m., Chinese)

LOVE AND OTHER DRUGS Anne Hathaway bares her breasts in Edward Zwick's rom-dramedy, frequently and casually and with the confidence of a one-time Oscar nominee who knows that a role in which her romantic viability is undercut by a debilitating disease is a pretty sure shot at nomination No. 2. Should you decide that you cannot wait for the screen grabs to make it to Mr. Skin, be forewarned that Love and Other Drugs, an unfunny sex farce and a relationship study without a shred of genuine human behavior, also includes the following: period-defining montages set to both Spin Doctors and "Macarena"; an Inconvenient Boner set piece forcing Jake Gyllenhaal to scamper across several frames holding a pillow in front of his pelvis; a pull-over-on-the-highway make-up-cute; and a sex scene in which an orgasm evolves into a Parkinson's tremor — or maybe, even more tastelessly, vice versa? Ask yourself: Is it worth it? (KL) (Nov. 4, 7:30 p.m., Chinese)

MADE IN DAGENHAM The 187 female machinists at Dagenham's Ford factory plant assembled car-seat upholstery by hand without a template; Nigel Cole's blandly inspirational recap of their 1968 strike, though, is strictly prefab. Thrill to the preordained beats as Rita O'Grady (Sally Hawkins) overcomes her natural timidity and unfortunate haircut to demand equal pay. She also teaches her husband (Daniel Mays) that it's her right not to get beaten; he gratefully agrees and sexism is eradicated forever. You've seen this before: After an initial euphoric burst, the strike gets rough and everyone hates Rita until she wins everything. Both dour and lazy, the fictionalized saga is undercut by grainy archival footage of the actual plant and the real ladies, shamefully relegated to a token minute's reminiscence over the end credits. (VR) (Nov. 8, 8 p.m., Chinese)

CRITIC'S PICK  THE MYTH OF THE AMERICAN SLEEPOVER First-time director David Robert Mitchell has collected a remarkable group of kids for his slightly clumsy but hugely endearing high school nostalgia piece, which plays like a gentler, sweeter, essentially timeless version of Dazed and Confused. Scattered across a neighborhood's worth of summer parties, hangouts and, yes, sleepovers, various Michigan teens bounce from one awkward flirtation to the next, constantly mindful of their place in the hierarchy and forever uncertain whether to choose caution or adventure. That tenuous sense of push-pull is the heart of the movie, which starts off ungainly but slowly grows into a modest, gossamer joy. (MD) (Nov. 9, 7 p.m., Chinese)

NOTHING'S ALL BAD A neurotic exhibitionist pervert and his gorgeous gigolo son; a lonely, sexually repressed widow and her mastectomied daughter. Around these four begging-for-analysis individuals, writer-director Mikkel Munch-Fals crafts his first feature, Nothing's All Bad, a yarn of depravity, dysfunction and absurd coincidences. Munch-Fals is a major critic in the Danish film community, but his writing here would suggest that his viewing is limited to works from the ongoing cycle of melodramas wallowing in the seedy underbelly of suburban America (Solondz, Field, Jenkins, Mendes), but his directing brings in ideas about space from Antonioni and color from Fassbinder's reading of Sirk and shows a true critic's sensibility by playing out the incredibly silly climax exclusively in knowing looks — at once a triumph of physical performance and an acknowledgment of his film's failure. (PC) (Nov. 9, 9:45 p.m., Chinese)

CRITIC'S PICK  OKI'S MOVIE It's a pity that Hong Sang-soo's movies come and go in the States so swiftly, especially since his latest might be his most accomplished yet. Set at a film school seemingly plagued by bad ideas — romantic and professional — four nested stories play out affairs of the heart that unexpectedly cut to the quick, among them the comic misadventures of a pompous young director. His off-balance, Rohmeresque encounters and another student's musings on two boyfriends of very different ages are the highlights of the film, which also delivers Hong's comic specialty: scenes of drunken mortification that feel like one's most bumbling what-if daydreams thrown on-screen. (This time it's the young director's post-screening Q&A, which hilariously falls under the category of "worst-case scenario.") The abrupt daisy-chaining of the characters' lives and their personal films keeps you on your toes, but it's all in the service of drawing out intimately felt insights. (NR) (Nov. 6, 4:15 p.m., Chinese)

OUTRAGE After a few years spent indulging himself with goofy, self-referential postmodern "comedies" — you really have to see 2007's insane Glory to the Filmmaker! to believe it — Takeshi Kitano returns to the ultraviolent yakuza genre that made his reputation. Alas, his heart doesn't seem to be in it anymore. Where his earlier films walked an arresting line between brutality and tenderness, Outrage seems content to merely serve up gruesome carnage à la carte, gradually excising various body parts until the film's entire sprawling ensemble cast is dead, horribly mutilated or (usually) both. For a while, the sheer absurdity of this over-the-top spectacle makes for fine black comedy, but well before the finale, Kitano's empty parade of functionally anonymous butchery becomes monotonous, numbing, even dull. He's reached an aesthetic dead end. (MD) (Nov. 8, 9:15 p.m., Chinese)

CRITIC'S PICK  PINK SARIS Veteran British documentarian Kim Longinotto makes portraits of strong women who lay down the law — or just throw down. Rural Indian women's rights advocate Sampat Pal Devi probably could do either: She's like a frontier sheriff as she settles disputes and leaves men dumbstruck in her wake. Bride beatings, Romeo-and-Juliet romances and other village affairs are settled in the open; she turns shame back against male wrongdoers and teaches girls respect. Sampat is savvy about her public on a small scale (a typical rousing one-liner: "This man's an idiot. That's all there is to it") and on the media stage: The title refers to the dazzlingly dressed gang of supporters she convenes for protests. But instead of belting out a girl-power anthem, Longinotto also shows Sampat's own deeply wounded private side, in a wrenching wind-down. (NR) (Nov. 9, 7:10 p.m., Chinese)

POETRY Lee Chang-dong's latest feature won the Best Screenplay award at Cannes this year, but like his equally acclaimed Secret Sunshine, Poetry throws a bunch of tonally disparate elements together and dares you to assemble them into something coherent — an approach easily mistaken for profundity. Yun Jung-hee is a marvel as Mija, an elderly woman who impulsively signs up for a poetry class and struggles to find inspiration in everyday beauty. Her distractions include, in no particular order: a diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease, which has begun to plunder her memory; negotiating a financial settlement to compensate the family of a young girl who committed suicide after being gang-raped by a group of school bullies, including Mija's grandson; and an old man with cerebral palsy for whom Mija cares, who keeps demanding a mercy fuck from her. How does this all fit together? That's the poetry, I guess. (MD) (Nov. 10, 6:45 p.m., Chinese)

PRECIOUS LIFE The story of a poor family from Gaza whose desperately ill son receives treatment in an Israeli hospital by a politically progressive Jewish doctor, Life may be another documentary celebrating life-affirming instances of Israeli/Palestinian cooperation, but it's elevated above the pack by its powerful illustration of the difficulty humans can have assimilating information that defies stereotype and expectation. A hospital scene between the film's director, Shlomi Eldar (a respected reporter/activist), and the child's mother is excruciatingly tense as it captures such a moment while planting seeds for epiphanies — joyful and painful — to come. (EH) (Nov. 6, 9:30 p.m., Chinese)

THE PRINCESS OF MONTPENSIER Bertrand Tavernier's handsome but painfully dull costume drama, adapted from a 1662 novel by Madame de La Fayette, opens with one of those historical-context scrolls that Monty Python justly attempted to kill decades ago. ("1568. It is a time of great strife in Europe. Le blah blah blah.") Pretty but bland Mélanie Thierry plays the title role, swooning over the hunky Gaspard Ulliel while fending off the respectfully amorous advances of various other incarnations of Gallic masculinity, including Lambert Wilson as her tutor and Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet as the earnest husband to whom she's been brokered. The film is scrupulously accurate, immaculately designed, ably acted, highly intelligent. All it's missing, really, is even a microscopic hint of the wit and fire that, say, Jacques Rivette brought to his magnificent The Duchess of Langeais. Bring a date if you want to ensure that they refuse to see anything but Jackass and Saw sequels from that day forward. (MD) (Nov. 6, 3:15 p.m., Chinese)

PULSAR Samuel's lovely live-in girlfriend Mireille takes an internship in New York, leaving him alone in Brussels, pining and progressively dependent on the feeder pedals of Skype, chat and e-mail. Distance leads to insecurity leads to paranoia, and Samuel soon becomes convinced that someone has hacked into his wi-fi network, preventing him from getting online and even impersonating him in correspondence with Mireille. Pulsar is directed by Alex Stockman, a Belgian film critic–turned-filmmaker, and ambiguity is its best asset: As Samuel slips deeper into delusion, the film becomes increasingly enigmatic in structure, and its final few minutes are puzzling in the best way. But Stockman never solves the inherent problem of his material: It is boring to watch people send and receive e-mails. (KL) (Nov. 6, 4 p.m., Chinese)

PUTTY HILL A skate-park junkie overdoses in an impoverished Baltimore suburb, uniting family and friends at the young man's wake to sing heartfelt karaoke in a shabby, wood-paneled hall. This vaguely Big Chill–esque narrative is mainly a device to connect the lived-in moments within writer-director Matthew Porterfield's impressionistic follow-up to Hamilton, which takes a slackly structured amble through the prefuneral lives and rituals of its fringe ensemble — tattoo artists, teenage girls, elderly homebodies and other sympathetic souls, all played by nonprofessional locals. Evocative sound design and heart-rate-lowering long takes accentuate the titular district's moody milieu of wooded lakes, abandoned houses and paintball fields (gorgeously shot by Murder Party director Jeremy Saulnier), punctuated by Porterfield's off-camera interviews of his "characters" — an ambitious, sporadically seamless integration of documentary methods. As a communal portrait, the naturalistic rigor doesn't always ring true. But as a no-budget American indie swimming in a sea of navel-gazing mediocrity, Putty Hill is downright inspiring. (AH) (Nov. 5, 9:30 p.m., Chinese)

CRITIC'S PICK  RUBBER "All great films contain an important element of No Reason," declares a key character in Rubber's pre-credits prologue. "The movie you're about to see is an homage to No Reason." A bizarro genre-bender in which a tire with inexplicable motor skills and psychokinetic powers goes on a killing spree, Rubber twins its synth-suspense-scored violence with a parallel plotline about the increasingly desperate fates of a band of tourists who have been carted out to the desert to watch the tire's exploits through binoculars. Director Quentin Dupieux indulges in genre conventions while skewering them; the voyeurs get what's coming to them, but the final images confirm that Hollywood is his real target. A masterpiece of absurdist horror aesthetically inspired in equal parts by When Inanimate Objects Attack schlock and the epic desert impressionism of Zabriskie Point, Rubber is the must-see film of the festival. (KL) (Nov. 5, 9 p.m., Chinese)

LE QUATTRO VOLTE Michelangelo Frammartino's droll, picturesque look at an Italian country hamlet is a bit like an old-fashioned children's book: drinking in a shepherd's routine, a goat's shenanigans, the hubbub of a harvest celebration. Bearing the burden of praise from multiple international film festivals, the film draws on the approved wait-and-see style, but Frammartino doesn't just want to ennoble man and beast — he has a bit of a sense of humor, and he's clearly got Jacques Tati and Otar Iosselliani on his mind. So, yes, the old shepherd will make his labored way down a shady forest path, representing the passing of one age of man, but there's also a series of orchestrated comic set pieces at a village crossroads — presided over by a hectoring dog, host to a ramshackle Catholic procession in clattering Roman dress, and ill-advised parking spot for a truck wheel-anchored by a single cobblestone. (NR) (Nov. 9, 4:30 p.m.)

RABBIT HOLE An adaptation of David Lindsay-Abaire's play about a couple torn apart by the grieving process following the accidental death of their only child, Rabbit Hole is precisely the sort of prestige item Hollywood used to regularly turn out; the fact that it's a smaller-scaled indie is one indication of how times have changed. Doing a 180 from his sexually cutting-edge past (Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Shortbus), director John Cameron Mitchell has a real feel for actors, and he brings the very best out of the preternaturally chilly Nicole Kidman as a woman so discombobulated by tragedy that she seeks to form a friendship with the young man who inadvertently killed her son. Aaron Eckhart comes through solidly as well in a seemingly simple drama that leaves a subtle emotional aftertaste. (DE) (Nov. 7, 8 p.m., Egyptian)

A SCREAMING MAN If you believe that a father in Chad would sell his son to the army in order to regain his position as a pool attendant — not because he's been fired, but because he's been "demoted" to a position guarding the hotel gate, with the son replacing him poolside — then you might agree with this year's Cannes jury, which awarded A Screaming Man its equivalent of third prize. Director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun has a keen eye for wide-screen composition, but he leans ridiculously hard on the weathered visage of his impassive lead actor, slowly tracking into his sorrowful face whenever he thinks the film needs a shot of emotion. Worthiness only gets you so far, and it's hard not to imagine how much more urgent and purposeful this scenario might have been in the hands of, say, the Dardennes. (MD) (Nov. 6, 7 p.m., Chinese)

SHIT YEAR Cam Archer's elliptical, surreal story of a fucked-up year in the life of an aging actress embodies the stereotypes that come to mind for folks who loathe art-house fare. Shot in black-and-white (which beautifully compliments Ellen Barkin in the lead role), the film is filled with close-ups on faces and body parts, cuts to therapist sessions in sci-fi-like environs, meandering voice-overs and leaps back and forth across the time line. Barkin is great as the searching, bitchy lead, and small parts afford underused actresses like Theresa Randle and Melora Walters some camera time, but this tale and its characters might have been better served by more conventional storytelling. (EH) (Nov. 6, 6:45 p.m. Chinese)

CRITIC'S PICK  TWO GATES OF SLEEP Writer-director Alistair Banks Griffin's meditative, gorgeously poetic film has already been both heralded as a nod to Terrence Malick and labeled an exercise in tedium. The story of two poor rural brothers who must overcome all manner of obstacles to honor their late mother's wishes for her burial, the film is absolutely measured, filled with long takes while being largely void of dialogue. It's also filled with visuals that telegraph volumes about the lives of its characters — the weathered, ramshackle house they live in; the burned-out ruins of their old home, to which their mother is repeatedly drawn before dying; the close-ups of a deer being skinned and gutted. The film gives a condescension-free, clear-eyed look at poverty and struggle that befits characters who stoically face life's harshness and bleakness head-on, with their own brand of grace. (EH) (Nov. 6, 1 p.m., Chinese)

CRITIC'S PICK  UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES Even before the first image, the sound of a forest resting at night — chirping, the rustling of branches and a barely perceptible wind — confirms we're firmly in Apichatpong "Joe" Weerasethakul's Thailand. Kubrick needed the whole universe to symbolically depict birth and resurrection; for his tale of a dying man's last days, all Joe needs is some natural lighting, trees and a cave. The inexplicable is regular terrain for him, his grandiosity tempered by a gentle restraint that's hypnotic rather than cloyingly twee. Don't worry about why men are showing up reborn as monkeys or catfish are ... well, you'll see. It all will make intuitive sense. Just as his protagonists have many lives, Joe, too, seems to be saying goodbye and gearing up for another reincarnation. In the meantime, this is his most linear, incident-filled work yet, making a perfect introduction for beginners. (VR) (Nov. 6, 8:45 p.m., Chinese)