‘Disappearance at Clifton Hill’ (2020)
The director Albert Shin lays on the dread from the opening frames of this atmospheric Canadian thriller; something’s wrong here, even if we don’t yet know what. Abby (Tuppence Middleton) doesn’t know either, but she has spent most of her life haunted by the childhood incident that begins the film: a half-understood encounter at a lake during which she might have witnessed a kidnapping. Now, as an adult whose life is falling apart, she does what so many of us do: She ignores her own problems and becomes fixated on the increasingly peculiar details of a barely remembered incident. Shin has a way of unsettlingly creeping his camera and peering inquisitively into darkness (literal and figurative); the result is a solid, moody mystery about buried secrets and oddball history. Bonus: an appropriately odd appearance by the Canadian treasure David Cronenberg as a grizzled podcaster.
Just as it was fun to celebrate “Twilight” fans flocking to Robert Pattinson’s oddball Cronenberg collaborations in the years after that franchise folded, one can only delight in imagining viewers of “The Batman” on HBO Max clicking over to this Pattinson vehicle and being utterly befuddled. The genre (western) and title notwithstanding, this is something of an antihero turn for the actor, who seems to revel in the opportunity to play a cowardly doofus; the title character, hardly in distress, is played with verve and gusto by Mia Wasikowska. The directors David and Nathan Zellner orchestrate the events with cockeyed wit; it’s an odd movie, but an engaging one.
Elizabeth Olsen has been fully immersed in the Marvel world for so long that it’s easy to forget what an unpredictable actress she once was. That anything-goes quality was never more present than in this, her breakthrough role and film debut, in which she stars as a disturbed young woman trying to escape a Manson-like cult and resume a life of normalcy — or, at least, an approximation of it. The writer and director Sean Durkin builds his story slowly and deliberately, revealing the details of this woman’s life piece by unnerving piece. Olsen’s performance is a stunner, showing everything, telling nothing. And Sarah Paulson, as her concerned sister, ably navigates several tricky moments, while John Hawkes exudes charismatic menace as the cult leader.
‘Ash Is Purest White’ (2018)
The gifted Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke writes and directs this riveting crime saga, which traffics in the tropes of gangster pictures, but does so with the empathy of an indie drama. Zhao Tao is electrifying as a mob moll who takes the fall for her boyfriend, serving five years on a gun charge, and then finding that everything in her life has changed upon her release. Zhangke tells the story with authenticity and atmosphere galore, but with an emphasis on redemption and sacrifice over violence and revenge.
Dog owners, consider yourselves warned: There is a fair amount of violence (both physical and emotional), some of it inflicted on man’s best friend, in this Hungarian drama from the director Kornel Mundruczo. But every dog has its day, as the saying goes, and this tale of companionship, abandonment and reunion unfolds with quite a bit more gonzo energy and excitement than your average “Homeward Bound” movie, and its closing passages are thrilling and moving in equal measure.
Gemma Arterton, usually cast as various varieties of bombshell, stretches well as a cranky, reclusive writer — dubbed “the beast on the beach” by residents of the nearby seaside town — who takes in a refugee kid in the darkest days of World War II. It’s not hard to guess where this is going (imagine a film where a grumpy hermit is softened not one bit by a charming moppet), but the writer and director Jessica Swale tells her story with grace and good humor, and the casting is superlative; Arterton and Lucas Bond find the proper note of guarded affection as the writer and her charge, while Gugu Mbatha-Raw fills the role of The One That Got Away quite nicely.
‘Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off’ (2022)
The first time we see Tony Hawk, he’s out of breath, working his tail off on a move he can’t quite pull off. He keeps climbing back up the steps of a skate ramp, huffing and puffing, trying it again, again, again — just eating it, over and over — in silence, until he finally yells out in both pain and frustration. Because Tony Hawk does not give up, you see, and one of the virtues of Sam Jones’s documentary portrait is how it ties Hawk’s tireless stubbornness to the specifics of skateboarding, where a single move can shake up the entire sport. Hawk’s white whale was the seemingly impossible maneuver called “900,” which we see him try and almost land over and over at the 1999 X Games best trick contest; it’s like watching the climax of the movie “Tin Cup” in real life, but when he lands it, it’s electrifying. And by that point in the film, we feel like we understand why he acts the way he does. This is an uncommonly personal portrait, of a funny, charismatic, self-aware dude.
‘Muscle Shoals’ (2013)
Anyone who knows about soul music of the 1960s understands the importance of FAME Studios and Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Muscle Shoals, Ala., where the artists Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones and Wilson Pickett all traveled to capture a distinctive, blues-infused, Southern-fried sound. Greg “Freddy” Camalier’s entertaining documentary layers archival footage, studio sounds and new interviews to make the case for the region’s outsize influence on popular music, then and now.