Frozen River. Many times, people write about some text that they find too dark and depressing. The joke is that I agree with them, but they conclude that the text is bad while I end up liking it. Frozen River is so relentlessly downbeat that it even got to me. It almost works like a horror movie, in terms of the amount of dread it inspires ... you just know something bad is about to happen. As many have noted, this is largely because while Frozen River is a slice-of-life film, rather like a 21st-century rural version of kitchen sink realism, it also has a plot that moves forward. The characters may be stuck, but that doesn't mean "nothing happens." So you have people leading dismal lives, and you have events conspiring to make the continuance of those lives at least as dismal in the future. Nominated for two Oscars (best screenplay and best actress Melissa Leo), and I suppose it could conceivably win the writing nod (Leo is excellent, but she's up against Streep and Winslet), which will impress those who prefer their movies to be low-budget (this one cost about $1 million). 7/10.
Zodiac. If I needed any reminders why I'm not very excited about that Benjamin Button movie, Zodiac is one. I am not a big fan of David Fincher. I've seen four of his movies now, and haven't really liked any of them. His Alien movie wasn't much good, I really really hated Se7en, and found Fight Club watchable without ever wanting to watch it again, despite the possibility of revisiting it after knowing the "secret." Now along comes Zodiac, which was about as watchable as Fight Club, but after sitting through all 2 hours and 37 minutes, I'm not sure why I bothered. The police procedural was good enough to keep my attention, even though we all know how it ends, and Robert Downey Jr. and Chloe Sevigny are good as always. But the primary theme of the movie is obsession, with the central obsession of the film being that of cartoonist Robert Graysmith, played with appropriate oddball intensity by Jake Gyllenhaal. Yet the film never bothers to explain to us exactly why Graysmith is obsessed with the case. He's on the peripheral of the events that take place in the Chronicle, he likes to solve puzzles, and then suddenly the identity of the Zodiac killer is all he cares about. But nothing in the film convincingly shows how that obsessive leap takes place. His wife (Sevigny) calls him on it late in the movie, and he gives some lame speech that does nothing to suggest the depths of his obsessions ... she says "that's not enough," and soon afterwards, she leaves him, taking their kids along with her. She's right ... it's not enough, nor is this movie. (I'm reminded that Graysmith also wrote the book Auto Focus, which was turned into another movie with fine acting where I found myself wondering at the end why the movie was made in the first place ... claiming that you've exposed the real killer of Bob Crane is not enough.) #29 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the best films of the 21st century. 6/10.
Bullet in the Head. Arguably John Woo's most ambitious film, at least until Red Cliff. Long before I had a blog, I had an obsession with Hong Kong films, and John Woo was my favorite. I put up with some of his more problematic idiosyncrasies because they fit in the with whole exotic foreign-film aspect of the movies. Almost two decades later, I have a bit more distance, and I can see that the schmaltzy beginning of this movie and the overblown ending are a bit much. It's still a terrific film, excruciating to watch as it progresses and the various characters are driven further over the edge. There is some great acting here ... Tony Leung may be incapable of a bad performance, and he looks v.young here, Simon Yam is, well, Simon Yam, and I think Jacky Cheung is impressive as the guy with the bullet in his head. There are other Woo films that are more pleasurable to watch, but this is as good as any of them. 9/10.