Saturday, January 31, 2015

My Favorite Crime Flicks of 2014

These be my favorite of the recent flicks I saw last year, not necessarily films released in 2014, in alphabetical order, nerds. These also be the comments from the original Year in Flicks posts the selected films appeared in... 'cause I'm lazy.

Blue Ruin - Jeremy Saulnier - Dwight, a homeless, but seemingly carefree beach bum has his world turned upside down when he receives news that a particular man is being released from prison - end of beach life. Suddenly, Dwight is a man of action and as each new scene reveals, he's a man with a plan that he's been patiently waiting out. He follows the newly released convict and his family a short way away and clearly intends to do the newly freed harm, but after that... who knows? Dwight's plans don't seem to extend beyond the violent act itself and what's in store for the audience is a hell of an artfully delivered, white-knuckle thriller. Holy shit. Just kapow. Wham, bam and waaaaaait for it... waaaaaaaait for it... shazam. To knock this one out of the number one film of the year spot is going to take something fuuuuuuuuuucking special (but holy crap there's some gud shit due soon). My first reaction to this piece of bloody Americana was to shoe-horn it into a couple of complimentary-intended comparisons, like it was some kind of derivation of greater works, I think I called it Blood Simple by way of Shotgun Stories, but I rather regret even saying that now, as the film is its own thing and deserves to be encountered on its own terms. And those terms can be located within the voice of a bold and ridiculously assured film maker just beginning to speak.

Cheap ThrillsE.L. Katz - On the day that a new father, about to see his family evicted from their small, L.A. apartment, loses his auto-mechanic job, he stops by a bar for a quick, steeling drink before heading home to figure out his life. At the bar he runs into his dodgy high-school pal and agrees to commiserate for one more drink. The two are then drawn into the orbit of an obnoxiously rich couple who throw cash around indiscriminately for the pleasure of its affect on the two pals. Soon, one drink turns into a night of partying that rides the exhilarating/terrifying edge toward riches or doom for the hapless duo. This is one electrifying, sick picture that demands and collects everything from its cast. Pat Healy, Ethan Embry, Sara Paxton and the revelatory David Koechner draw our empathy, admiration and repulsion one beat to the next in a razor-sharp allegory for global economic exploitation. Buuuut, don't let the myriad one-to-one metaphoric parallels distract you from the immediate pleasures of this aptly titled morality conundrum because they are many, sweet and tart. The control that first time feature director Katz demonstrates is some veteran-level shit. Watch him squeeze a single scene in three different emotional directions and tease the hell out of your expectations with a sly edit, an unexpected texture, a tonal shift unexpected - yet organic - you only realize later it was swelling beneath surface from the beginning. Fucking loved this movie.

Cold in JulyJim Mickle - Michael C. Hall is Richard, a family man, in 1989 Texas, who shoots an intruder in his home in the middle of the night and feels good about defending his home and family for about fiiiive minutes before the father of the man he killed, (Sam Shepard) a baaad man just out of prison with nothing to lose, begins to terrorize Richard and his cozy little life falls apart. The fact that the film is based on the novel by Joe R. Lansdale ought to give you some clue that the above plot description (and for once the trailer, thank God) do not ruin the myriad of surprises this one has in store and keep it from being a Tejas-set Cape Fear-exercise. For everything it's got going for it, including one of the best original scores I've heard in years (by Jeff Grace), low-key, but spot-on (and just the right amount of) period details for flavor and a very game cast, it's got a throwback sensibility to this vein of down and dirty thriller that skates the edges of exploitation, but retains enough real heart and brains (but mostly heart... or guts) to keep it out of the tough-guys with guns bargain bin rack quality-wise. The result is a lean, tough mystery thriller with a helluva climax. Strong contender for year's top honors around these parts.

Dom HemingwayRichard Shepard - After a dozen years in prison safecracker Dom Hemingway (Jude Law) is out and ready to reap the rewards of his silence from those he didn't rat out while inside. He's also got a score or two to settle, some family matters to see to and a little general catching up to do. Dom's a force of nature: unpredictable, volatile self-aggrandizing and self-destructive and his time inside certainly has not mellowed him. We follow Dom as he checks off his list of things to do and people to confront, never knowing what outcome is even desired never mind probable. And that is a big part of the appeal to this film. Yeah, like Dom, it's big and brash and outrageous, but it's also unclear where it's headed and that, in the hands of a solid film maker, is a huge thrill. This one goes toe to toe with the best of Shepard's other films The Matador and The Hunting Party and even punches outside its weight some. In fact, I think this one would make a terrific double feature with Sexy Beast. Tonally the two films are quite different, but it's not hard to imagine Law's Dom becoming Ben Kingsly's Don a few years down the line. Will that happen? Will Dom survive time, his enemies, his friends, himself? Will Dom's demise live up to the legend of his life that he creates and perpetuates seemingly more out of duty than desire, or will Dom take some serious critical inventory and set for himself new goals and new direction? Regardless, it's a helluvan entertaining film and one of the best performances of the year from Law, plus Richard Grant is, as always, fantastic.

Easy Money: Life Deluxe - Jens Jonsson - If you're not up on the plot at this point in the series (this is the third and climactic chapter in a trilogy) then I'm not going to spoil it for you. Instead let me just say, holy crap, these films are all great and of a piece (they should be - they're based on a trilogy of books by Jens Lapidus) and they are collectively one of my absolute favorite discoveries of the year. These are future classics, kids and I hope they spawn some more serious-minded epic treatments of international criminal underground for the big screen. Best moment: the heist. Fantastic tension delivered via sticking with the thieves inside for visuals while hearing constant updates from the getaway driver about developments outside simultaneously. Fucking lovely.

Enemy - Denis Villeneuve - A history professor with a beautiful, blond girlfriend discovers there's another version of himself out there - a film actor with a beautiful, blond (and pregnant) wife - and his obsession with this alternate him derails his life. Make of it what you will, this is one of the most haunting pictures I've seen in a long damn time. There is an ill ease cast over the film like a shroud that filters out hope and draws every ounce of menace from of the atmosphere keeping it in an invisible bucket that is only dumped out when the director is good and ready. But you won't be. Nope. Huh-uh. No way. The final shot of the film just might be my favorite... ever? Did I say haunting? That's not quite right, 'cause the specter that followed me for weeks after viewing had something damn near physical properties. I'm not familiar with the source novel The Double by Jose Saramago, but I feel pretty safe saying that this is a better adaptation (let alone a better film) than Fernando Meirelles's Saragmago stab at the uber allegorical Blindness. I haven't been this electrically perplexed by a talky since David Lynch's Mulholland Drive (though, I still prefer Lost Highway, baby). Which is not to say that I hold in the same regard... I'm not sure, but it's damn close and that's pretty special. Not a crime film, but noir at the core.

Nightcrawler - Dan Gilroy - Louis Bloom, a petty thief and sociopath finds a chance to realize his outsized ambitions as a freelance crime journalist, which is a plot line that has been used in plenty of films special and unremarkable ones alike. So what makes this one stand out? A sharp script and an electrically-charged lead performance from Jake Gyllenhaal. In fact Gyllenhaal is so damn good in the role, I'd seriously consider going to a motivational conference led by him as Lou. Hell, I want a book on tape from him almost as much as I want one by Kenny Powers. It works best/most as a character study and less as the media satire I've been a little puzzled to hear it interpreted as being. Many smarter and more eloquent types than me have heaped praise on this one, so I won't bother adding to the hubbub, but it's a serious contender for top honors over here.

On the JobErik Matti - A Filipino crime flick about inmates clandestinely released onto the streets to carry out assassinations and then smuggled back into prison with iron-clad alibis, On the Job is the first film of the year that I can't imagine not being one of the year's very best when it's all said and done. Holy shit, this was fantastic. It's simple and brilliant, and brutal and complex, and human and tragic, and thrilling and haunting. I think that covers it. Tackled from multiple angles - from the inmate/assassins, the cops, the politicians who are usually involved on the hiring or the killing end of these operations - it's a multi-faceted portrait of modern corruption in the clothes of an action thriller and satisfies on many different levels. Just go watch this shit. Now. Best moment: the betrayal/assassination - manhunt - finishing the job sequence in the middle of the picture is masterful action and suspense film making, as well as a feat of screenwriting and editing. Holy crap.

The RoverDavid Michod - In a near-future gone to hell Australia a man's car is stolen by a gang of criminals on the run from a botched robbery that left bodies on the ground - one of the bodies belongs to one of their own whom they presume to be dead. The film follows the vehicularly bereft Eric (Guy Pearce) on his relentless and savage quest to retrieve his property. Eric soon nabs the gang's abandoned half-dead half-wit Rey (Robert Pattinson) and forces the non-literally-sparkling film presence to lead him to his compadres and his own titular(?) favored mode of transport. The gang has made the same mistake that the audience is invited to - underestimating Eric and his resolve to recover his property. Maybe it's the cargo shorts. The viewer will quickly change their opinion of the man in the short pants as his moxy and ruthlessness are revealed in layers - each one peeled in a perfectly shocking moment. But Rey is his own onion-like creation, at first underestimated due to his physical injuries and later because of his mental limitations, but the relationship between the two develops into something akin to a man and his loyal dog and I found the finale fucking riveting unsure where loyalties could/would come down, especially for Rey. The third star of the movie is the world itself. I've heard it described as post-apocalyptic, but I don't think that's quite accurate. It's a reduced society for sure, the functioning of the economy is one of the most fascinating features and the population are well-armed and wary of everybody else, but there are still ideas of a more cosmopolitan civilization operating somewhere. We get glimpses of it: well equipped police/military/private militia pop up once in a while, but protect and serve nobody we ever see and in the film's most jarring moment, a glittery Top-40 pop song blares on the soundtrack and is revealed to be something that one character is listening to (and singing along with) on a radio broadcast - indicating that the characters have an understanding of a better life being lived somewhere by people not altogether unlike themselves, though their actions and attitudes make it clear that they never expect to be touched by the good life and do not consider themselves citizens of anything larger than their immediate partners or selves. It's a beguiling and intriguing film, fierce and rich in it's textures and nuances. I'm looking forward to revisiting soon.

Starred Up - David Mackenzie - Eric (Jack O'Connell) a violent young offender is graduated early to an adult maximum security prison where his father (Ben Mendelsohn) is also incarcerated. The tension between the interests of immediate survival and long-term life-planning carries the film through harrowing sequences that aren't all violent, but which swim in the immediacy of violent probability. This is damn good film making - a gritty flick that works the tag 'thriller' just as hard on the emotional stakes of the father/son dynamic as it does on the life-and-or-limb front of life among the condemned. This one absolutely belongs in conversation with A Prophet, the best prison film I've seen... ever? O'Connell delivers a startling performance and Mendelsohn cements his reputation as an invaluable presence to anchor your crime drama with. One of the decade's best. Fucking-a.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

2014 in Books: The Second Half


Almost Gone - Stan Richards - Black out drunks, violence, transgressive sexual appetites, sociopaths, psychopaths, schizophrenics... New Pulp Press sure made their favorite things known with that first batch of books. Shit, Jon Bassoff is still turning out some of the best neo-mid-century-gold-medal-pysho-noirs out there, so take his word... or his branding for this one.

Awesome - Jack Pendarvis - Not a crime book. Still an awesome book. Love me some Pendarvis.

Big Ugly - Jake Hinkson - What did I just say about Jon Bassoff and New Pulp Press's favorite things? Well they introduced me to my other favorite neo-mid-century-gold-medal-psycho-noirist Jake Hinkson with his lurid dual-first-person debut Hell On Church Street. The Big Ugly is not quite as lurid, or at least it doesn't seem quite as perverse probably because the narrator is not the psychopath this time. This time it's a the voice of a victim turned player's that we hear the story told through and though a thoroughly sordid affair, our protagonist is a legitimate heroine and a compelling voice whose further exploits we may or may not be hearing again. Love the alt-Arkansas universe Hinkson is creating. Someday you'll be hearing it mentioned in scholarly texts next to Elmore Leonard's Detroit, Scott Phillips's Kansas, John Rector's Nebraska and Vicki Hendricks's Florida, and that's about as high praise as I can think of.

The Blue Room - Georges Simenon - Had no idea there was a movie - I just figured it was time I read some Simenon and this was the only non-series book they had at the library. Anybody see the movie that just came out? I want to now.

Brown Dog - Jim Harrison - Love the voice, love the low-brow, barely-criminal/lazy-opportunist aspirations of the titular character and those who populate his social sphere. Wish to hell I could write like that.

Encyclopedia of the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List: Over Fifty Years of Convicts, Robbers, Terrorists & Other Rogues - Duane Swierczynski - Great snapshot portraits of the kind of thugs who've made the list since its inception and an interesting sketch of the progression of the nation's anxieties by decade.

Evil Eye - Joyce Carol Oates - Four different ways love gets fucked up. Oh wait, it says that on the book cover. Carry on.

The First One You Expect - Adam Cesare - Things go badly when artistic aspirations crossbreed with lust and commercial potential. Some funny shit happening here.

Flash Blood - Joseph Hirsch - The first Arklow book I read was Rolling Country where the detective was the lesser (though compelling) portion of a colliding dual-third-person narrative. This time out, Arklow is front and center, and in the first person. The character, like the author, seems to be more interested in nailing the craftsman-like approach to his spiritual vocation than in selling the specialness of the mystery before us. Fortunately for us, the mystery is pretty fucking mysterious and this book goes to some pretty great perversity by its conclusion.

Fourth of July Creek - Smith Henderson - This was just... swell. Great language, characters and innovative form that drives home the specialness of the novel as a medium without disappearing even for a moment up its own rectum. Heartbreak and humor on alternating pages. Quality shit.

Gravesend - William Boyle - Boyle's debut novel makes him a name to watch - serious-minded and concerned with some of the best things that make crime compelling ground for fiction: desperate characters, survivor's guilt, low-stakes transgression, betrayal, place - Boyle's got at least an eye and an ear for each not to mention heart and empathy to spare.

Incognito - Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips - You think witness protection is difficult for somebody like Henry Hill? Try being a no-shit superman forced to live like an everyman. Sometimes you gotta break some heads for the hell of it. More than just good concept, it's well explored and pulpy as hell.

King of the Perverts - Steve Lowe - A broken heart leads to all manner of gross-ass-shit in this quick and dirty tale of low morals in high stakes, low brow, best be high entertainment. Gross as it got, and as many fluids as were splashed about with abandon, a little piece of its heart was maintained. Neat trick.

The Last Projector - David James Keaton - Ack. The fuck? The nature of the novel, coupled with the previous appearance of many portions made for a particularly meta experience for me, but I suspect that folks brand new to the Keaton experience will have their own out of body/mind (perhaps more accurately - into many minds/bodies) experiences with this one. This book is a monster - dense, visionary, apocalyptic, reality-challenging and flat-out entertaining.

The Least of My Scars - Stephen Graham Jones - Fucking yikes. I think Jones has written the last relevant serial killer book of the decade. Everybody else should just give it a rest till 2020, then revisit this one and realize that they still don't have anything to add to the conversation and think about it for another ten years.

The Lonesome Go - Tim Lane - Gorgeous, haunted, noir-tinged Americana. Then there's the pictures. Damn. This is important, time-capsule-worthy work. If you're not reading Tim Lane, you're depriving yourself of good things. Quit it.

The Man With the Getaway Face - Richard Stark - Hell yes.

Matador - Ray Banks - An amnesia story with the Banks touches of grisly violence and humor born of well-observed character. The titular occupation and the character's struggle with classical form and crowd-pleasing seem a metaphor for the serious-minded and disciplined writer operating in the populist medium of crime fiction. The result is classy-ass pulp.

Mind MGMT vols. 2 - Matt Kindt - This.

Mind MGMT vo. 3 - Matt Kindt - These.

Name the World - Denis Johnson - Always dig his prose and atmosphere, but I'll be honest, this one didn't stick with me afterward.

One For My Baby - Barry Graham - Once again, Graham delivers big story with few words. I fucking love that. Armed robbery, politics and (as J. David Osborne put it - correction: Bart Lessard) emotionally resonant analingus. Grab yourself some Barry Graham and give it a go. Bold pulp.

Others of My Kind - James Sallis - A mixed bag. Man, I loved parts of this one, but felt left behind at the station on others. I love Sallis's minimalist style and his poet's instinct for the right amount of room to leave between lines, but this one didn't connect for me the way something like The Killer is Dying did.

Pilot Season - James Brubaker - Not a crime book, but damn, this collection of failed TV-pilot pitches serves as a hilarious and even moving portrait of a man losing his mind. Check it out.

The Rain King - Kevin Lynn Helmick - Big vision and big themes in not so many pages - again, conciseness of vision pays off swimmingly. Helmick's weird western is not unhinged, but rather tinged just enough with the supranatural to appeal to the poet I keep stuffed in a box under the stairs in my mind. Plus... I've got a soft spot for wry observations made by horses of a particular kind.

Reckoning - Rusty Barnes - After Barnes's story collection Mostly Redneck, I knew this guy wrote the shit I wanted to read. Somehow I still wasn't prepared for how affecting Reckoning was going to be. This one's more blue-collar than rural flavored, but his characters live in a world I know and Barnes brings that world, that in some ways is no more, to life, rather than preserved in amber or under rust, in one of my favorite reads of the year. So much heart, so much hurt. This guy. This guy.

Sex Criminals - Matt Fraction, Chip Zdarsky - Two of my favorite things. Can't go wrong, right? Can't believe where this premise took me and can't wait to read the rest of the series.

Street Raised - Pearce Hansen - Phew. Hardboiled with heart and no fat. I want to live in a world where Hanson will have a cult so, so fervent someday. I want to live in that world now, though. This dude is a crime writer's crime writer and you should check his shit out.

Sympathy For the Devil - Kent Anderson - War may be hell, but once through it, hell may be all your cut out for - yeah, yeah, that old chestnut, but damn, Anderson nails Viet Nam like nobody else I've ever read. The books reads like a collection of anecdotes - well-written and gut-level, alternately harrowing and hilarious - but pulls together for the most memorable climax to a war novel I've ever read. Can't wait to get on the follow-up, Night Dogs.

A Walk Among the Tombstones - Lawrence Block - The more Block I read, the more I admire the guy. You look at a body of work as large and a career as long and successful as his and think, the guy must just write a very successful formula, but you'd be wrong. The guy, bless him, has written his share of pulp, but he changes it up and brings real heart to the Scudder books as well as real darkness. It's not all AA meetings and luddite detectives, but you begin to appreciate where the imitators got their inspiration. Makes me a tad more optimistic about popular culture when I see that this guy was a success. He should be.

You Can't Win - Jack Black - I don't know how many times I'll read this book in my life, but it feels like there's still more to take from it. The language is precise and common, but delivered by a poet of the underworld, the stories are so fantastic, but grounded in reality and so much humanity - it could go on for a thousand more pages and not get old. I hope the movie is good, but even if it's not, I hope it brings more people to the wonderful source material. So rich.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

2014 in Crime Flicks: December

American Muscle - Ravi Dhar - John Falcon (Nick Principe) gets out of prison after ten years for his part in a robbery turned massacre, and while he is most certainly guilty of the crime, for him, there's no getting around the fact that he was betrayed by his brother and his woman (two different people). Once out he does what any self-respecting hardass would do - find every single person who ever did him wrong and kill the shit out of them... except for his lady 'cause he still has, y'know feelings. It's a bad movie, but it's not a total waste - it's got an eye for action and an ear for dialogue that leave the viewer wishing that the film makers had a functioning pair of both, and a budget to match. It's fast, cheap fun for about ten minutes, but overstays its welcome shortly thereafter. Virtues include brevity and a goofy willingness to go to the outer limits of taste and good form and not stop. It's exploitation done by folks who might be capable of more, and better, but were either not interested or not budgeted for it. It's all the worst and most tedious bits of Blood, Guts, Bullets & Octane, Hell Ride, Baytown Outlaws and Boondock Saints jammed in a blender and set on recycle, but with just enough wit leaking out to tease that there's something better to come. Hope so. Best moment: the first time a beautiful woman is overcome with lust upon meeting Falcon and wants to know if he'd like her number - he replies something to the effect of I'm not going to be out long enough to use it. Was a good line.

Automata - Gabe Ibanez - Jacq (Antonio Banderas) an insurance investigator who looks into claims of a robotics corporation's products malfunctioning finds a troubling case of self-repairing/altering machines who are breaking their own operating protocols in this surprisingly rich picture that is a spiritual heir of Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick. The atmosphere is thick with existential dread and the effects are special enough to carry this one to levels your average straight to video Dylan McDermott robot movie don't achieve. Finally a movie shooting for the Blade Runner benchmark that isn't an embarrassment. Best moment: ladybot with a screwdriver.

Black Rain - Ridley Scott - Two American cops (Michael Douglas and Andy Garcia) burdened with the task of delivering an extradited Japanese prisoner home, promptly lose their charge upon arrival and take it personally and insist upon sticking around and making big, ugly American pains in the asses of themselves until they have the satisfaction that the baddy is visited by justice. Douglas as a cop really should be its own movie genre - always surly, always named Nick, or Vic or Rick, ridiculously coiffed and aftershave so strong you can smell it from the screen - but I guess I'd call them a guilty pleasure, 'cause when this one popped up on Netflix, I was powerless to stop watching it again. Still, I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as I had as a teenager, so maybe that's progress. Scott can still make turds gleam, but he can't turn it in to The Yakuza of the 80s. Best moment: bring me the head of Andy Garcia.

Die Hard - John McTiernan - Armed men take 30 hostages on the upper floors of the still-under-construction Nakatomi Plaza in Los Angeles while a lone, barefoot, off-duty policeman fucks up their plans one rooftop, elevator shaft, air duct, C4 charge, and machine gun at a time ho-ho-ho. And you thought your holiday get togethers were difficult. There's many reasons this one is so beloved and resilient - no number of diminishing-returns-turned-franchise-theme-one-eighties-sequels can dim the pleasure of the original - not least the vulnerability Bruce Willis brings to the hero. In fact you could contrast Willis's self-doubt and confusion with Alan Rickman's psychotic focus and cocksureness (or for that matter, Willis's own psychotic focus and cocksureness in the latter films of the franchise) for a fun discussion of 20th century, first-world masculinity, but it's not necessary in order to enjoy the film. Glad this one didn't end up as a Frank Sinatra or Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle. Best moment: guess we're gonna need some more FBI guys.

El Infierno - Luis Estrada - Benny (Damian Alcazar) returns home to Mexico after years trying to establish a life for himself in the United States to find drug cartels violence has swallowed up everything he once knew including his younger brother who grew up to be a vicious, but celebrated killer. He takes the only job he can find following his brother's footsteps and becomes an enforcer for the local cartel, enjoying the notoriety and money even as he understands it can't end well. Several scenes of shocking violence that could have played so effectively for horror and tragedy are unfortunately emotionally blunted by a prevailing comedic dissonance - I'm not sure if the film isn't working or if I'm not getting what the goal is, but it felt like two competing films vying to own the screen... Also adding to that feeling, the epic running time. Still, had many memorable and effective sequences. Best moment: a tale of two brothers.

Out of Time - Carl Franklin - The semi-corrupt police chief of a quiet Key community (Denzel Washington) gets in way over his head on account of never having watched a crime movie before. I actually enjoyed this one a lot more than I thought I would (giving it another chance after enjoying the Franklin/Washington collaboration Devil in a Blue Dress last month and of course being a big fan of Franklin's One False Move) its laid-back approach to high tension paves an effectively slippery slope for its protagonist to find himself at the bottom of, but good night has the guy really never ever seen a potboiler before? The incident that fucks up his sweet gig is sooo painfully obviously a set up, the femme fatale's eye shadow is actually called foreshadow. Believe it or not that, along with one or two other elements that don't quite work, are nits I chose not to pick in favor of this low-stakes thriller with a surprisingly sharp script and deft direction. It's no Hitchcock throwback and it's no No Way Out, but what it is I'd be happy to have more of. Best moment: ah, the pleasures to be had watching two big-screen heavyweights (Washington and Dean Cain - heh) throwing carefully veiled threats at each other over beers.

Peaky Blinders Season 2 - Steven Knight - The Shelby family and its titular gang led by middle son Thomas (Cillian Murphy) fight to keep and expand upon their bloody-won legitimacy entering into dangerous partnerships with the likes of a Jewish gangster (Tom Hardy) the IRA and the loathsome agent of the crown Sam Neill. The second season barrels on on the head of steam built up by the first and the blackmail of Thomas by the copper is worked out in a particularly pleasing season-long game. Continuing to love this show - and with my current favorite flavor (Boardwalk Empire) running out, this is primed to be my new jam. And speaking of jams, the divisive score of the show kept me ever in its favor with a load of PJ Harvey keeping Nick Cave company. Best moment: Thomas smokes a cigarette in a field and lets loose with an uncharacteristic howl - I almost had it all. Given the circumstances, it's an effective moment of poignancy and avenue in for the audience.

The Retrieval - Chris Eska - Will, (Ashton Sanders) a young slave with a grim job - he's an integral member of a gang of bounty hunters seeking quarry (primarily runaway slaves) on the bleeding edges of the war between the states - is torn between survival instincts and moral choices. The plot and themes are familiar from every undercover agent movie ever, but feel fresh and particularly compelling with the innovation of the setting and inversion of the typical genre sympathies. This atmospheric period piece is pulled off swimmingly on its low budget by a good costume department, sharp cinematography and aces location shooting in the wild plus a well deployed supporting cast including Tishuan Scott, Keston John and Bill Oberst Jr. Looking forward to the next offering from Eska. Best moment: the opening scene of Will approaching a house at night with the low rumble and far off flashes of cannon fire setting the scene - it's beautifully effective mood setting.

The Sacrament - Ti West - Two video journalists from Vice magazine (AJ Bowen and Joe Swanberg) travel to Africa to check out the commune that has so entranced one of their sisters. Inspired by the story of the Jonestown cult, menace hangs off the camera throughout the brief running time in one of the least-annoying uses of the found-footage style in recent memory. The slow boil that leads to the inevitable bloodbath is effective both at alternating tone and for avoiding plot beats too close to the Jim Jones story. Best moment: human torch.

Starred Up - David Mackenzie - Eric (Jack O'Connell) a violent young offender is graduated early to an adult maximum security prison where his father (Ben Mendelsohn) is also incarcerated. The tension between the interests of immediate survival and long-term life-planning carries the film through harrowing sequences that aren't all violent, but which swim in the immediacy of violent probability. This is damn good film making - a gritty flick that works the tag 'thriller' just as hard on the emotional stakes of the father/son dynamic as it does on the life-and-or-limb front of life among the condemned. This one absolutely belongs in conversation with A Prophet, the best prison film I've seen... ever? O'Connell delivers a startling performance and Mendelsohn cements his reputation as an invaluable presence to anchor your crime drama with. One of the decade's best. Fucking-a. Best moment: family therapy and fisticuffs.

True Grit - Joel Coen, Ethan Coen - Mattie Ross sets off from Arkansas into Indian territory, either less vulnerable or less daunted by said vulnerability than you'd think, to find and kill the man who killed her father, dragging in her wake Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) a crusty, cruel US Marshal and LaBouef (Matt Damon) a comically sincere Texas Ranger only ostensibly after the same thing. Taken from the source novel by Charles Portis, this version works in conversation with the first big screen adaptation starring John Wayne as much as the novel does with the popular myth of the American west. Alternately subversive and sincere the story is best viewed as straight up adventure that reinvents the rugged frontier hero as a 14 year old girl and invites you to decide her merit as you see fit. Hailee Steinfeld is terrific in the central role and the Coens, as usual, stock their pond with more fantastic supporting performances than your average bumper-crop of Oscar-bit hams including Barry Pepper, Josh Brolin, Dakin Matthews and even J.K. Simmons as the disembodied voice of just one more otherwise formidable male personality who recognizes they've met their match in Mattie Ross. Best moment: seeing a man about a horse.