Inside Llewyn Davis, Joel & Ethan Coen

Here's cockeyed humanism at its best. This marvelous, surreptitiously soulful movie, about a gifted but unlikable folk singer in early 1960s New York, stars Oscar Isaac as Llewyn Davis, the remaining half of a semi-successful folksinging duo who's trying to make it on his own. Llewyn can definitely sing (and Isaac can, too), but the material he chooses leans toward traditional weepers about mourning dead lovers. He's able to land only the tiniest gigs in folk clubs (and in the movie's opening scene, he gets beaten up in the alley behind one, for reasons that aren't clear until the end). He crashes in the apartments of anyone who will have him, and even some who won't. And he has an extremely contentious relationship with a fellow folk singer on the scene (Carey Mulligan); she need only lay eyes on him before cutting him dead with a withering look — she takes just like a woman, yes she does. Inside Llewyn Davis also features one of the finest marmalade-cat performances seen on-screen since The Long Goodbye. And although the Coens are always consummate craftsmen, they don't always show the lightness of touch, or the depth of feeling, they do here.

The Selfish Giant, Clio Barnard

One of the most touching movies about friendship between men — or boys — I've ever seen, this debut fiction feature from British director Clio Barnard stars child actors Conner Chapman and Shaun Thomas, neither of whom has worked professionally before, as best mates Arbor and Swifty, kids growing up poor on the housing estates of Bradford. One a hyperactive scrapper, the other kind and with a knack for handling horses, the boys balance each other out. Their connection is mostly unspoken, though it finds its chief outlet in bickering and teasing. Each, for different reasons, is ill-equipped to make his way in the world, but together they're oddly graceful — their friendship is a kind of ragged poetry. Arbor persuades Swifty to help him collect junk to sell to the local scrap-metal dealer (played by Sean Gilder, in a performance that takes a wrenching turn, with just one line, late in the movie). Electrical cable, in particular, is highly prized but also difficult to collect — or steal. So these schoolboys, driven partly by the desire to help their families and partly by some unspoken need to define themselves, become working men, toughening up in ways they're not quite ready for.

This is also the most delicate kind of social realism; it never feels like a screed. Barnard films the landscape matter-of-factly, and she's open to all its rough, rusty beauty. If The Selfish Giant is at times painful to watch, in the end it gives back much more than it takes. It's generous and steadfast, like true friendship itself.

Jimmy P. (Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian), Arnaud Desplechin

This is a superb, engrossing picture, strange in all the right ways, and I long to see it again. Benicio Del Toro — freed at last from the tyranny of playing bit-part heavies in American thrillers and action movies — is James Picard, a Blackfoot Indian who has lost his way in post–World War II America. He's a veteran, but he's treated like an outsider in his own country. He suffers devastating headaches and bouts of blindness. And he drinks too much, which doesn't help anything. Sounds like a job for … French genius pixie Mathieu Amalric, playing Hungarian-born ethnologist and psychoanalyst George Devereux, the man assigned to treat Picard at Topeka's Menninger Clinic in 1948. Jimmy P. is based on Devereaux's book Reality and Dream, and though the picture is very much unlike any movie Desplechin has made before (aside from the fact that it's the fifth time he and Amalric have worked together), it shows the Desplechin touch — it's structured in a way that feels slightly meandering, though by the end, the main characters' inner lives have drifted into clear focus.

Del Toro carries so much existential suffering in his eyes that it appears to have sunk deep into the pads of his cheeks. He's like a prizefighter who stays on his feet long past the point where his mind and heart can take it. And Amalric's Devereux, by turns mischievous and compassionate, matches him move for move — this is one of the most unexpected and inspired movie pairings in recent memory.

Only God Forgives, Nicolas Winding Refn

Two years ago, Refn's Drive, also starring Ryan Gosling, swerved into the festival like a 1970 Dodge Challenger. The picture had energy (and gasoline) flowing through its veins, and plenty who saw it here fell in love on the spot. The follow-up isn't in the same league. Kristin Scott Thomas and Ryan Gosling play a mother-son duo with what might politely be called unresolved issues. Gosling's Julian has long played second fiddle to his older brother, Billy (Tom Burke) — the two of them live in Bangkok where, we learn, they assist mom in a drug-smuggling operation. One day Billy up and decides to murder an underage prostitute; he's subsequently killed. Scott Thomas — who, in her pink lipstick and flossy blond dye job, looks a bit like a tall Kristin Chenoweth — flies into town in a rage, seeking revenge.

I've outlined the plot more sharply than it's drawn in the movie. This picture is mostly about posing Gosling just so in front of exotic, orangey Oriental-print wallpaper, or allowing the camera to travel lovingly across the length of a sword about to perform horrible deeds. The violence isn't particularly graphic, yet it's rather nasty in the way it's suggested. A colleague and I watched a few scenes through what New York's David Edelstein calls FingerVision. We also giggled quite a bit. Only God Forgives — despite Scott Thomas's camp-o-rama performance — takes itself too seriously. And the violence may cause a bit of squishy discomfort as you're watching it, but the memory of it doesn't linger much past the last frame. The wallpaper, on the other hand, is unforgettable.

The Immigrant, James Gray

As with nearly all of James Gray's films, critics at Cannes seemed strongly divided on his latest. For me, it's yet more evidence that Gray is a director who can tease rich, subtle colors out of melodrama.

Marion Cotillard plays Ewa, a Polish immigrant newly arrived in the United States, who is befriended by Joaquin Phoenix's Bruno. He runs a cabaret/brothel and persuades Ewa to join his bevy of salacious beauties. Bruno may try to possess her, but it's his cousin, Orlando (Jeremy Renner), who charms her.

Gray has a knack for wrapping big themes into an intimate embrace, and The Immigrant feels both epic and fine-grained. Shot partly on location on Ellis Island, it's glorious to look at, rendered in muted brick-and-mortar tones that nevertheless have a glow about them, as if lit from behind by lantern light.

The performances are incandescent, too: Phoenix, always a bit of an eccentric, modulates his quirks here, and Renner, with his tough little newsboy mug, is a scamp with a soul. Cotillard, deft and subtle, is best of all. The new world Ewa has entered is hardly welcoming, but she strides into it with an explorer's spirit. The Immigrant is a story about the way determination can mutate into a kind of rough magic, turning a place where you're not wanted into one you can call home.

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