Sometimes movies slip through the cracks and, for better or worse, I catch up with them. Here's a handful, from the shirtless to the offensive to the gloriously ecstatic.
Mud, directed by Jeff Nichols
Ordinarily, two boys who happen upon Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon in the same movie have probably gone to heaven — but in Nichols's latest, their starriness is just off. He's missing some of his front teeth, and one of her eyes is black. The situation is trouble. The movie is set in rural Arkansas on and near the Mississippi River, and tells of the hard times that have befallen the titular gentleman, a handsome, drawling drifter played by McConaughey. When we meet him, Mud has been sleeping in a boat that's stuck in a tree. Two teenage friends discover him and find themselves enlisted in abetting his attempt to stay hidden from the family of criminals seeking revenge for the man he killed. The boys also enable his reunion with Juniper, the woman in whose name he did the killing. She's played by Witherspoon as the sort of fallen angel who mopes through a Piggly Wiggly parking lot in a pair of short-shorts and espadrilles.
Most of the film is presented from the point of view of the boys, namely Ellis (Tye Sheridan), a moody 14-year-old whose parents' marriage is on the rocks. He likes a senior at his school, and has but one friend, a ball of mischief whose roughness still retains a soft edge. (His name is Neckbone, and his terrific scowls and better twang are courtesy of Jacob Lofland.) What Nichols does with his assortment of stories and the characters within them feels just right. The movie has a loose country-saloon kind of rhythm that tenses up as the boys risk their safety to help Mud try to quixotically right his wrongs. All anyone gets is disillusionment.
I could have lived without the heavy artillery of the climax — this movie is better than its riverside shootout and some of the other clichés, like snakebites and abusive thugs, that lead to it. But one reason the movie's been a quiet hit, holding steady at the bottom of the box office top 12 for almost a month, is that there's nothing out now like it. Mud’s got a couple of movie stars in good form, a real sense of place, and a handful of strong actors in small parts — Sam Shepard, Sarah Paulson, Ray McKinnon, Joe Don Baker, Paul Sparks, and an uncharacteristically sane Michael Shannon. There might be too many people for it to keep any kind of dramatic center, but there's no other American film this high up on the chart that offers this much naturalism and this deep an appreciation for the innocent delusions of kids.
Nichols's previous movie, Take Shelter, which featured Shannon as a man falling apart as he prepares for the end of the world, was much stronger. It deserved a bigger audience, for Shannon's ticking-time-bomb acting and Nichols's assurance as a teller of resonantly personal stories. This new film is easier on you. Its tidiness is making it something people want to see. So is McConaughey, who insists here on keeping things light even as the material darkens. He's Gatsby to Witherspoon's trashed Daisy. This is him evoking and tweaking, once more, his involuntarily sleazy take on Paul Newman. The movie's title even pokes at the Newman thing. It's soiled, scuffed Hud.
The Iceman, directed by Ariel Vromen
It's a sure sign that a gangster movie is terrible when even Shannon fails to raise a pulse. The slashed throats, the explosions of rage, the agita: It's for nothing if the people behind the film don't know why you should care. Vromen and his co-writer, Morgan Land, were obviously struck by the real-life story of the New York–New Jersey mob hit man Richard Kuklinski, which they've re-created from a decent documentary and a recent nonfiction book about Kuklinski's murderous exploits. The result shoehorns an interesting story into a formula that explains what happens anytime you disappoint or double-cross people near the top of organized crime: They will totally show up at your daughter's birthday party.
When the circles around Shannon's eyes get so dark they turn into caves, you want to walk inside. He plays Kuklinski as both stone-cold and lava-hot. At either temperature, he's psychotic. But rather than the movie giving itself over to the character and the performance, it tries to build a thriller around it. There's no dramatic focus, just lots of conversations about someone being in need of a whacking and exchanges in which someone calls Kuklinski a "Polack."
It's the frippery that Vromen likes: the '70s setting, the facial hair, the wigs, the itchy fabric, the disco; the opportunity to film people being murdered and corpses being chopped up; the chance to tell his buddies he got actors like Ray Liotta, John Ventimiglia, and Robert Davi to play the same mobby parts they almost always do and for folks like Chris Evans, David Schwimmer, and, as a clueless Mrs. Kuklinski, Winona Ryder to play the sort of parts you wouldn't have expected. In Evans's case, I didn't know it was him in the role until one of his final scenes. But he's so anonymous under all that hair that I didn't feel I actually missed anything. This is a movie that fails to rise even to the clichés of its subgenre. It's so self-contented that it cheapens the crimes, their perpetrators, and their victims.
Something in the Air, directed by Olivier Assayas
Set outside Paris after the May '68 student revolt, Assayas's latest idyll watches a group of high schoolers attempt to prolong the legendary unrest of their university peers. The early scenes bristle with hotheaded leftists talking about tearing down the institutions. There's a calamitous brawl between the kids and the police in which the cops' nightsticks appear to be making convincing contact with young bodies. The tear gas is soupy enough to allow for some mystery: Is it a smoke screen for stage combat? It's happening too fast for an answer.
The kids don't have much political intelligence, just will and unbridled energy. Their commitment produces newsletters and graffiti on the exterior of their school. A security guard is hospitalized trying to catch them, and after the incident with the guard a bunch of them head to Italy for the summer. This is Assayas in a wistful, watchable mode. His breeziness blows the kids' artlessness around the movie. A lot of the film is built around one character, a painter named Gilles (Clément Métayer). He and his classmates do a lot of falling in love with each other and slowly out of love with revolution. It's as if it has started to feel like homework to them. That's where the movie gets its light wisdom. Assayas makes the quiet but bold assertion that you can trust young people to start a revolution, but you can't count on them to keep it going because, well, fashions change. His entire filmography is a robust salute to the upsides of fickleness.
Peeples, directed by Tina Gordon Chism
A little Craig Robinson goes a long way. On The Office he was sparingly used as a reality check for all the neurotics around him. The movies are still figuring out that he's a secret weapon, not a star. Here he is in a romantic comedy about a grown man in a professional rut (he performs naughty songs for kids) who crashes the Hamptons manse of his girlfriend's family on the weekend planned for a hamletwide reading of Moby-Dick (don't ask). What ensues is poor, undereducated Robinson trying to impress the girlfriend's uptight attorney father, who's played by David Alan Grier. But the girlfriend (Kerry Washington, being an amazingly good sport, again) appears to be ashamed of him, too.
I'm ashamed of this movie. There were so many directions for Chism, making her first film, to take her premise. But she either truly believes or has been convinced by the marketplace that affluent black people are inherently risible, that they've lost touch with their jive essence and just need a couple of "urban" nincompoops to ease their racial suppression. Robert Townsend's "The Bold, the Black, the Beautiful" farce on his old sketch show explored the complexities of success and selling out in broad strokes but with finesse. At the moment, Chism has no touch for this kind of comedy at all.
Peeples is being sold as a Tyler Perry production, but this isn't as defensive about affluence as his movies tend to be. Her film is being willfully stupid, which in a lot of ways makes her achievement worse. In a family full of allegedly smart people, no one has any wit or ideas. Aside from a few scenes with Malcolm Barrett, who's got some of Dave Chappelle's open-minded lasciviousness, there's no fun here. By the time the whole family is onstage singing one of Robinson's kiddie songs — "Speak it, don't leak it!" — it's fair to complain that the movie's leaked all over you.
Stories We Tell, directed by Sarah Polley
In which Polley discovers — or has her family recount the discovery — that the man she was raised to believe was her father was, indeed, not. This would be a documentary of pure self-indulgence, but Polley, who's also an actor, understands that the subject isn't herself but her mother, Diane Elizabeth, a Canadian actress who turns out to have lived a fascinating life of secrets. She died when Polley was 11 and kept to herself the paternity of her youngest child. Polley hires an actress named Rebecca Jenkins to flit around the movie's Super-8 footage as Diane, who really is the life of parties we see.
Meanwhile, Diane's husband, the man who raised Polley and is also an actor, stands in the booth of a recording studio and reads from his memoir. Occasionally, Polley, seated at a sound board, will interrupt and ask him to start over. He's revealed to have been a disappointment to Diane, and in those recording sessions you feel a current of resentment pass through her. They're the only encounters that don't feel like therapy. Everywhere else, what Polley's done in getting Diane's husband, friends, former lovers, and her other children to talk about this woman's complexity is something stranger than mere documentary. It's a kind of oral surgery.
Post Tenebras Lux, directed by Carlos Reygadas
Reygadas makes a sort of movie I love: nightmares with a touch of God. Even if I dislike what he'd doing, ultimately I'm thrilled he's doing it, that he's pushing toward some bold, new, openly strange place. His first films, Japón and Battle in Heaven, are ponderous and willfully weird as Reygadas burns off his movie love — crime and sex and art and slowness. Silent Light was a metaphysical romance set among Mennonites and shows Reygadas in full artistic control without all the cruelty and airlessness of his younger self (he's only 41 now).
Post tenebras lux is "after darkness, light" in Latin. (That light could refer to the Satanic glow of the horned creature who pops up once or twice in a Mexican family's home carrying a toolbox.) There's narrative in this movie, but no order: just Reygadas's experiment with the disintegrated boundaries of art-cinema with exquisitely framed and photographed tableaux. The scenes have no organic connection but they achieve coherence just the same.
When the movie drops in on a gang of English soccer kids warming up for a match and the camera spins around their stomping legs, it's like watching a testosterone cancan or being inside a pale, bony, and especially slow panopticon. There's also a trip to a swinging, mixed-gender bathhouse whose stalls are named after French artists (you won't believe what goes on in the Duchamp chamber). Later, an abuela holds an envelope at what must be a graduation party and tells the kid waiting to receive it that he should grow up to be a great businessman. Based on the way his hand keeps reaching prematurely for the envelope and how he has to be reminded to give granny some sugar before he runs off to divide the cash, I'd say he's off to a very good start.
Reygadas isn't imposing an orthodoxy. He isn't raging against anything. He's feeling his way toward some higher filmmaking principle. This is visionary filmmaking from a director who has fit himself with a figurative blindfold. At the risk of burying the lead here, I've checked the movie-showtime sites, and the film appears to have vanished from the country's artplexes — after only a couple of weeks! But I'm determined to think that that's not because audiences hated it but because it should be playing at museums instead.