Handpicked By The Amoeba Staff

Films selected and reviewed by discerning movie buffs, television junkies, and documentary diehards (a.k.a. our staff).

Before The Devil Knows You're Dead

Dir: Sidney Lumet, 2007. Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Marisa Tomei, Albert Finney, Michael Shannon. Drama.

Maybe it sounds odd to call a movie "great" if by the end it makes you feel like your soul was taken away, but Before The Devil Knows You're Dead is such a work. With an amazing ensemble cast and a non-linear script that reveals new facts about the characters all the way until the final shot--this is a film that reminds you how powerful dramatic fiction is supposed to work.

Through the different character's perspectives, the film is about the build-up and aftermath of a botched jewelry store robbery in the suburbs. Opening with the violent event, we soon find out afterwards that brothers Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke) planned the robbery together as a victimless crime in response to some urgent needs for money. But these aren't your typical, slick movie heist-men whatsoever. Andy is a somewhat well-off business accountant seeking escape for a more fulfilling life, while Hank is a single father who's desperately behind on child support. Part of what makes the film work so well is how the script gradually unfolds and clues the audience into new details as it plays, so the only other plot point worth mentioning here is that the store they rip off happens to be owned by the men's parents, Charles (Albert Finney) and Martha (Amy Ryan).

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Posted by:
Paul Losada
Feb 18, 2009 12:49pm

Paranoid Park

Dir: Gus Van Sant, 2007. Starring: Taylor Momsen, Gabe Nevins, Daniel Liu. Mystery.

Gus Van Sant is nominated for Best Director at this year's Academy Awards for his moving bio-pic Milk, but that wasn't the only film Van Sant directed this year. Last March his indie film Paranoid Park opened around the country in a limited release. The film flew under the radar when it was in theaters and it was later overshadowed by the big budget Milk, but Paranoid Park is a beautiful film that deserves its time in the spotlight. The film is another one of Van Sant's dreamy, meditative character studies similar to his two previous films Last Days and Elephant. Visually the film has a slow entrancing rhythm that is accentuated by an eclectic, beautiful score. The cast is mainly non-professional actors that Van Sant found on the internet, and their performances bring a delicate honesty to the story.

The film is about a young teen named Alex who wants to hangout at the local skate park but, in doing so, he experiences a life altering accident. As the film progresses we see Alex internally struggling with this enormous secret he has, a secret that soon isolates and estranges him from almost everyone he knows. Van Sant is less interested in moving the plot along than he is in observing and capturing his characters' state of mind. In Paranoid Park Van Sant captures that middle school state of mind like no other director has, as the film unfolds we slowly start to realize that Alex is carrying that burden of knowledge that so many adolescents learn in their mid teens:  that life can be overwhelmingly difficult and often unfair. My favorite scene in the film is when Alex meets a good friend for coffee and, in their conversation, his friend just might provide him with a solution of how to lift the burden that is weighing so heavily on his conscious. Invest time in this film and let it cast its quiet spell on you.

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Posted by:
Eric Kench
Feb 18, 2009 12:38pm

In The Bedroom

Dir: Todd Field, 2001. Starring: Marisa Tomei, Sissy Spacek, Tom Wilkinson, Nick Stahl. Drama.

In Hollywood films about revenge a grieving family or friend or lover typically realizes that the only way to bring closure to the loss of a loved one is to turn vigilante and mete out the justice they were denied and we are usually meant to cheer them on as populist heroes. But in the 2001 film In the Bedroom, the "grieving family avenging a loved one" plot may be a familiar one but its execution is decidedly not because the cheap and manipulative tactics that get us as an audience fired up for spilled blood are nowhere to be found. This story of a middle aged couple dealing with the tragic death of their son and falling apart as their anger consumes them is the rare film where the idea of grief is not just a pretext for something “bigger.” The visceral, teeth-gnashing sense of loss that death brings—especially the grief that follows unexpected violent death—is allowed to unfold and hang in the air like the slow heavy unstoppable force of nature that it is and it’s unforgettable. This is the rare film about grief and death and vengeance that has no room for histrionics. It has no false notes. The director, Todd Field, is shockingly assured for what was his first feature length film and the incredible cast including Tom Wilkinson, Sissy Spacek, Nick Stahl, and Marisa Tomei hit rare notes of emotional honesty in their work.

Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek play Matt and Ruth Fowler, a well off middle aged couple getting on in their years in their small coastal Maine town. Matt is a town doctor and Ruth is the high school choir director. Their son Frank (played by Nick Stahl) is home for the summer before he starts college in the fall. He is seeing Natalie, a woman twice his age (played by the gorgeous and intriguing Marisa Tomei) with two small children, and this situation is cause for his mother’s concern and his father’s shy sense of pride in his son becoming a man.

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Feb 18, 2009 12:18pm

Hannah And Her Sisters

Dir: Woody Allen, 1986. Starring: M. Caine, M. Farrow, B. Hershey, W. Allen, D. Wiest, M. Von Sydow, R. Jenkins. Drama/Comedy

Many consider Hannah And Her Sisters to be the third and best installment in Woody Allen's realistic New York "dramadies" (the other two being Annie Hall and Manhattan). While not as stylish as the previous two, and perhaps even slightly marred by some distinctly 1980's hair and wardrobe choices, the film is one of the director's most mature and dense with ideas while still balancing his knack for comedic writing.

As indicated by the title, the multiple-storied movie focuses on the love lives revolving around Hannah (Mia Farrow) and her sisters Lee (Barbara Hershey) and Holly (Dianne Wiest). Hannah's husband Elliot (Michael Caine) is torn by his romantic feelings for Lee, eventually leading to an uneven affair that also has Lee re-evaluating her life with ex-professor and current lover Frederick (Max Von Sydow). Meanwhile, Hannah's ex-husband Mickey (Woody Allen) is a worsening hypochondriac who starts questioning the meaning of life after receiving news he might have a potential brain tumor. He also develops an interest in Holly, who is feeling secure and confidant in anything except her career or love life.

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Posted by:
Paul Losada
Feb 18, 2009 11:58am

Billy Elliot

Dir: Stephen Daldry, 2000. Starring: Jamie Bell, Gary Lewis, Jamie Draven, Jean Heywood, Julie Walters. English. Drama.

Billy Elliot stands out as a musical, a family drama and fiercely insightful look into the sacrificial toll on striking coal miners in Northern England in 1984. Stephen Daldry's direction alternately charms and punches with equal power until you are pulling at your own hair as Billy dances out his frustration through the run down back alleys, over cobble streets and finally into a brick wall furiously, fruitlessly and against all odds.

Billy is the youngest son of a widowed coal miner with an older brother not long in the mines himself, and an invalid grandmother. Coming from the tough and tumble Elliots, eleven year old Billy is naturally enrolled in boxing at school but somehow finds himself drawn to the girls' ballet lessons. Their teacher, the no nonsense Mrs. Wilkinson, sees potential in Billy and encourages his newfound passion and determination not knowing that Billy has kept it a secret from his family. All the while the coal miners' strike puts constant pressure on the Elliots, backing them into financial and emotional corners. When Mrs. Wilkinson procures Billy an audition at the Royal School of Ballet Billy must battle his family for the chance to be something different. Not only from what they know but what they themselves are fighting for.

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Posted by:
Jessica Kaman
Feb 17, 2009 5:05pm

Lords of Dogtown

Dir: Catherine Hardwicke, 2005. Starring: Heath Ledger, John Robinson, Emile Hirsch, Nikki Reed. English. Drama.

I'm slightly envious of Stacy Peralta for not only conquering the professional skateboarding world but also for his career as a filmmaker. These two industries, in the general sense, do not correlate, but he manages to find the bridge. The result? A fantastic documentary about the legendary Z-Boys skate team in 1970s Venice named Dogtown Z-Boys, a 2004 documentary chronicling the evolution of big wave surfing called Riding Giants, and a biographical feature film about the Z-Boys journey titled Lords of Dogtown. Peralta penned the screenplay himself, with Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen and Twilight) directing.

The film, while written with obvious yet needed nostalgia, is action-packed full of skateboarding glamour, parties, competitions, strained friendships, and the intensity of male adolescent energy. The plot is loose and without any specific thread other than to chronicle the history of what happens to the Zephyr Skate Team from the beginning of their surfing days to the point where they meet again after the start of their separate careers. The lack of any overbearing plot creates an enjoyable, fast-paced energy that captures a certain spirit of the pioneering skate culture from the 70s.

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Posted by:
Tiffany Huang
Feb 17, 2009 4:31pm

Sunshine

Dir: Danny Boyle, 2007. Starring: C. Curtis, M. Yeoh, R. Byrne, C. Murphy, B. Wong, H. Sanada, T. Garity, C. Evans. Science-Fiction.

Danny Boyle knows how to engage you. He knows, more than most other directors, how to scoot your butt to the edge of the seat, whiten your knuckles as they grip the armrest and give you a stress headache from furrowed brows. The man just keeps pushing it higher, faster, and closer to the edge. What edge? Any edge - that's the kicker - you don't know where the edge is or where it's coming from. It could be around the corner or RIGHT THERE. Seriously, you could fall at any moment.

Sunshine is a perfect heart pounding pulse kicking, monster mouth drying example. The stakes? Only the planet and all mankind. The risk? Dying alone in space in a myriad of painfully awful ways including murder and knowing in your last moments that history died with you.

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Posted by:
Jessica Kaman
Feb 17, 2009 4:24pm

Angel Heart

Dir: Alan Parker, 1987. Starring: Mickey Rourke, Robert De Niro & Lisa Bonet. Mystery/Thriller.

A New York private eye (Rourke) is hired by a mysterious man (De Niro) to locate a missing crooner named “Johnny Favourite.” But as every new piece of the puzzle falls into place and voodoo works its magic -- things get more dangerous and unnerving.

Alan Parker (Pink Floyd’s The Wall) directs a film on a tight-wire, fusing Raymond Chandler with the world of the Faustian supernatural. With simple, but confident strokes, he brings such gravity to a tale that becomes otherworldly. Taking many liberties from the source material novel Falling Angels by William Hjortberg, Parker’s screen adaptation expands the scope of the reality, while doing justice to the way people really speak in the Big Apple and the Big Easy.

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Posted by:
Seamus Smith
Feb 17, 2009 3:34pm

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Dir: Michel Gondry, 2004. Starring: J. Carrey, K. Winslet, E. Wood, T. Wilkinson. Drama, Romance, Tripped-out Kaufman Comedy.

LOVE FOUND & MEMORY LOST?!

BOY MEETS GIRL Mild-mannered, sheepish, shy Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) meets his polar opposite in wild, weirdo, eccentric Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet) and romance ensues, again...

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Posted by:
Joey Jenkins
Feb 17, 2009 3:32pm

Barfly

Dir: Barbet Schroeder, 1987. Starring: Mickey Rourke, Faye Dunaway, Alice Kringe, Frank Stallone & Jack Nance. Drama.

Written by American poet of the gutter, Charles Bukowski (based on his own experiences), Barfly is an urban fairy tale of two wanderers who are always in search of the next bottle. “Henry” (Rourke) is a writer who spends all his time drinking and fighting, occasionally fitting in some poems here and there. “Wanda” (Dunaway) is a boozer who lives off the generosity of various old men. Once these two meet, it is one of cinema’s most wonderfully strange love stories.

Bukowski’s script is very slice of life, but not the lives of most. With colorful characters and exceptionally quotable dialogue, the screenplay is on par with any of his works of poetry, novels or short stories.

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Posted by:
Seamus Smith
Feb 17, 2009 3:25pm
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