We love it when a film festival sends over a stack of screeners. Props to the San Diego Jewish Film Festival, who provided us with the goods this year, and whose 19th season runs from Feb. 4 to 15 at the AMC La Jolla. We blasted through as many as we could and, here, share the best of those with you. A complete schedule can be found at www.lfjcc.org.
The Little Traitor: Based on Amos Oz's novel Panther in the Basement, this is the festival's opening-night selection. Precocious 11-year-old Proffy Liebowitz (Ido Port) bristles under the waning days of the British occupation of Palestine in 1947 but befriends Sergeant Dunlop (Alfred Molina), who declines to arrest him when he's out after curfew one night. The boy is ostracized by the Jewish community when their friendship comes to light, but that relationship with his so-called enemy will shape his worldview for the rest of his life. Molina shines in his role, anchoring the entire film.—Anders Wright
The Beetle: Director Yishai Orian tells his own whimsical story of the tug-of-war between his beloved, pregnant wife and his beloved, ailing, 40-year-old VW Beetle. The missus wants the dilapidated Bug gone before the baby arrives, so Orian embarks on an odyssey to find a solution that makes both of them happy. Ultimately, it's a race against time, and a sweet, satisfying piece of filmmaking.—David Rolland
The First Basket: David Vyorst's documentary about the popularity of basketball in New York's Jewish immigrant communities, and the subsequent short-lived Basketball Association of America, is like a well-told history lesson from Grampa. The shortage of Jewish ballers in professional leagues is well examined, and an interview with legendary Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach ups the credibility factor.—Todd Kroviak
The Monster Among Us: Almost exclusively through interviews with journalists, scholars and citizens of France, England, Holland, Germany and Belgium, this documentary explores how the intensifying battle between the Israelis and Palestinians has fueled a resurgence of open anti-Semitism across Europe, and not only among Muslims. In no way a feel-good film, this one includes lots of chilling images of hate and violence.
The Secrets: Naomi (Ania Bukstein) postpones her arranged marriage to study at an all-girls seminary, providing the vehicle for a pointed critique of orthodox Judaism's marginalization of women. Though it's a little rough around the edges, the film is an interesting look at how liberating religion can be when it gets a good dose of feminism.—Kelly Davis
The Deal: The fest's closing-night film stars William H. Macy as a sleazy producer who takes a quality art-house script and plays studio rep Meg Ryan into ponying up $100 million to turn it into an action film. Sure, it was once about British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, but the new version becomes a vehicle for recently converted action movie star LL Cool J, who is terrific in his few scenes.—Anders Wright
Coraline: Henry Selick's adaptation of Neil Gaiman's Hugo-winning novella is the first of the new 3-D movies that uses the tech to complement the story. Dakota Fanning voices the lonely little girl who finds a doorway to a parallel universe that turns out to be far more dangerous than her own, and Teri Hatcher is her mom—and her Other Mother, too.
Donkey Punch: If you don't know what the title refers to, Google it. And then you'll have a sense of what this movie about partying Brits who kill each other is really all about.
He's Just Not That Into You: A look at the dating adventures of young people in Baltimore—people like Jennifer Aniston, Scarlett Johansson, Jennifer Connelly, Kevin Connelly, Justin Long, Drew Barrymore, Ben Affleck, Ginnifer Goodwin and plenty of others. C'mon. No one that good-looking lives in Baltimore.
Pink Panther 2: Steve Martin dances on Peter Sellers' grave. Again.
Push: Dakota Fanning is a young girl with the power to get inside other people's minds. Along with Chris Evans, she's on the wrong end of a conspiracy, hunted by other weird psy-ops types. Director Paul McGuigan's last film, Lucky Number Slevin, was pretty sharp.
One time only
Groundhog Day: The first big movie that convinced us Bill Murray was more than a smug asshole is still pretty damn funny and charming, even if everyone has that early-'90s hair. Screens at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 4, at The Pearl Hotel in Point Loma. Free.
Break of Dawn: Part of USD's Deportation Nation conference, Isaac Artenstein's film is about Pedro Gonzalez, the host of the first Mexican-American radio show in L.A., who was targeted and taken down by the city's corrupt establishment. Screens at 6 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 5, in Mother Rosalie Hill Hall on the USD campus. Free.
Sword of the Stranger: Anime about a young boy and his dog on the lam who meet an unnamed stranger handy with a sword. One night only in theaters around the country, this screening includes interviews with the U.S. voice actors. Screens at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 5, at AMC Mission Valley and Edwards Mira Mesa. Tickets available in advance at www.fathomevents.com.
The Phantom of the Opera: San Diego Symphony accompanies the classic 1925 silent film. Screens at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Feb. 6 and 7, at Copley Symphony Hall Downtown.
Enter the Dragon: Here's the movie that made Bruce Lee a star, and it's still ass-kicking after all these years. Screens at midnight Saturday, Feb. 7, at the Ken Cinema.
Waiting to Inhale: Marijuana, Medicine and the Law: Documentary about the movement to legalize it. And by “it,” we mean pot, pothead. Screens at 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 8, at the Central Library Downtown. Free.
Crash: Paul Haggis' multi-character look at modern racism in L.A. suffered a backlash after stealing the Best Picture Oscar away from Brokeback Mountain. If you can let go of that, it's solid. Screens at 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 8, at Cafe Libertalia in Hillcrest. Free.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona: Penelope Cruz just netted a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her part in Woody Allen's latest. She's Javier Bardem's ex-girlfriend, who appears on the scene as he's trying to hook up a three-way with Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall. Screens at 6:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 9, at the Central Library Downtown. Free.
The Naked Eye: Examines the work of Len Stouman and his photographic animation technique. Earned a 1956 Best Documentary Oscar nom. Screens at 1 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 11, at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park.
When Harry Met Sally: Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan are longtime friends who'd be better off together. It's funny, it's sweet, and, yeah, we still have a crush on it. Screens at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 11, at The Pearl Hotel in Point Loma. Free.
Frozen River: Melissa Leo's Best Actress Oscar nom has given this one a second theatrical life. She's a desperate single mom who ends up smuggling illegal immigrants through a reservation in the Northeast. It's a dark movie and a terrific performance.
New in Town: Rom-com with Renee Zellweger and Harry Connick Jr. She's the big-city consultant who lands in a small Minnesota town and learns some Important Lessons. Call it the anti-Wendy and Lucy.
Taken: Liam Neeson is a former CIA man whose daughter gets kidnapped by white slavers in Paris. So he goes to the city of lights and kills everybody. Simple, yeah, but Pierre Morel, who last made the kinetic District B13, crafts a brutally violent guilty pleasure that shows us what the rest of the world thinks we Americans are like.
The Uninvited: Elizabeth Banks is everywhere. She was in Zack and Miri and played Laura Bush in W. Now she's a sociopath who kills David Strathairn's wife to get with him. Can anything stop her? Maybe his daughters. And maybe, um, the ghost in their house.
Underworld: Rise of the Lycan: The third installment in the Underworld franchise is actually a prequel explaining exactly why the vampires and werewolves have been up in each other's grills for so long.
Inkheart: A girl discovers that her writer dad (Brendan Fraser) can actually bring his characters to life. Too bad he's written some nasty villains, like Paul Bettany's Dustfinger.
Wendy and Lucy: Michelle Williams gives an amazing performance as a young woman on the brink. Kelly Reichardt's film moves slowly but is a tragic look at people living on the margins of society.
Notorious: Biopic about the Notorious B.I.G., the rotund rapper who was assassinated in 1997 at the tender age of 24 in the culmination of the now infamous East Coast / West Coast rap wars.
Defiance: The story of the Bielski brothers (Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell) is amazing: They took to the Bellarussian forests during World War II, fought the Nazis and eventually built a community of 1,200 Jews who survived the war.
Hotel for Dogs: Good road-trip tip—all Motel 6s take dogs. This kid-friendly movie, on the other hand, makes bitches out of actors like Don Cheadle, Lisa Kudrow and Kevin Dillon.
Last Chance Harvey: Emma Thompson is terrific as the woman Dustin Hoffman takes a shine to when he's in the U.K. for his daughter's wedding. A romance for The Bucket List set.
Paul Blart: Mall Cop: Rent-a-cops across the nation rejoiced when they learned their story would finally be told. Then they found out Kevin James is playing Blart.
Waltz with Bashir: Considering the violence in Gaza, there's no more timely film to see right now than Ari Folman's Waltz with Bashir. The movie is essentially an animated documentary, as Folman works to recover his memories as a soldier during the 1982 Israel-Lebanon conflict and discover why he repressed them in the first place.
Bride Wars: Sadly, not an R-rated movie about women in wedding dresses duking it out in a steel cage. No, this first film of 2009 is about two BFFs—Kate Hudson and Anne Hathaway—who become bitter rivals after they schedule their weddings on precisely the same day. For the 27 Dresses set.
Gran Torino: For all the buzz, Clint Eastwood's new film is flawed. Yes, his cranky old guy, Walt Kowalski, manages to be the funny kind of equal-opportunity offender who finds some salvation by taking a good-natured Hmong neighbor under his wing. The problem is that it turns out he's right about everyone he dislikes. Black, white, Asian, his own relatives—they're all awful people in the world of Gran Torino, justifying Walt's latent racism. Nice.
Revolutionary Road: Sam Mendes directs his wife, Kate Winslet, and Leonardo DiCaprio in what might be called American Beauty: The Early Years. It's another look at the unspoken seamy underbelly of American suburbia in the 1950s, but it just doesn't hold together. Unpleasantville.
The Wrestler: Yes, Mickey Rourke is just as good as you've heard, playing Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a washed-up wrestler who was big 20 years ago and is now the old man on the high-school gym circuit. Occasionally, it veers toward sentimentality but never goes over the edge. Marisa Tomei, too, is great as the stripper he'd like to get closer to, and Evan Rachel Wood is perfect as the daughter who can't find it in herself to forgive him.
The Reader: Kate Winslet is amazing as a grown woman who has an affair with a 15-year-old boy in post-war Berlin. Their paths cross again years later when she's on trial for war crimes.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: Director David Fincher directs Brad Pitt as a man born old and growing young. Beautifully shot, the film is less about youth no longer being wasted on the young than it is about the decades long love story between the characters played by Pitt and Cate Blanchett, who are going in different directions.
Marley & Me: Jennifer Aniston bonds with Owen Wilson over a stinky dog.
Doubt: Best. Catholic. Priest. Abuse. Movie. Ever. John Patrick Shanley adapted and directed his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play and landed a couple of acting heavyweights for the leads. Meryl Streep is a nasty nun who goes after popular priest Phillip Seymour Hoffman, because she A. doesn't like him, and B. thinks he might be getting a little too close to one of his altar boys.
Frost/Nixon: Ron Howard is restrained in his take on the Broadway play about the interviews between lightweight talk-show host David Frost and President Nixon. Both Michael Sheen and Frank Langella reprise their stage roles as Frost and Nixon, respectively—Langella delivers a masterful performance of Mr. Not-a-Crook himself.
Yes Man: Jim Carrey dips back into the well (over-the-top funny with a sweet spot) that made him an A-lister, playing a dude who decides to say “yes.” To everything.
Milk: Sean Penn delivers yet another tremendous performance as the first openly gay elected politician in the country, Harvey Milk, who was assassinated, along with the mayor of San Francisco, in 1978. Gus Van Sant directs, but the movie is all Penn, and it is nothing if not timely in light of Prop 8.
Slumdog Millionaire: A young, uneducated Indian man is tortured by police who want to find how he knows all the questions he's gotten right on Who Wants to be a Millionaire? The answers are all in his life story, which is full of poverty, abuse, hopes for true love, and the crossroads between coincidence and destiny.
Twilight: Never heard of Twilight? It's like Harry Potter, with vampires, for tweens and their moms, all of whom react to it like desperate meth addicts. If you have heard of Twilight, you know we're telling the truth.
Quantam of Solace: Remember how awesome the Daniel Craig '06 James Bond franchise reboot was? Well, even though the new one takes place about 20 minutes after Casino Royale ended, this one isn't awesome at all.
Rachel Getting Married: The herky-jerky handheld camera in Jonathan Demme's new movie mirrors the emotional turmoil of Kym (Anne Hathaway), just out of rehab to attend her sister's wedding. There's Oscar buzz surrounding Hathaway, who is equal parts toxic and pathetic but ultimately someone worth pulling for.
Reuben H. Fleet Science Center Space Theater: After undergoing significant renovations, the Fleet is re-opening its dome Imax theater, complete with a kick-ass new screen. Three films will run in rotation initially: Wild Ocean, Van Gogh: Brush with Genius and Animalopolis. Showtimes and prices can be found at www.rhfleet.org.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show: No, it's not a time warp—the love-it-or-hate-it camp classic continues its midnight run in its 37th year of release. When the lead character of the film is a transvestite scientist named Dr. Frank-N-Furter, you know you're in for some seriously trashy viewing. And, of course, this is the one movie where you want the audience shouting at the screen. Screens Fridays at midnight at La Paloma Theater in Encinitas.