Not every film that wins big prizes at Cannes or Sundance goes on to real success. But Laurence Cantet's The Class, which won the Palm D'Or, has gained plenty of traction. The film, which verges on being a documentary, is the frontrunner for the Best Foreign Language Oscar, and for good reason. It's set over the course of one school year in a classroom in a low-income, immigrant-heavy section of Paris and stars an actual teacher, François Bégaudeau, as Mr. Marin, an instructor trying to corral a couple dozen kids from different nationalities into actively studying French. The kids, well, they pretty much play themselves. All of the high-school-aged actors are non-actors—Cantet and Bégaudeau spent a solid school year working with them before shooting the project. The sense of verisimilitude you get from The Class is palpable, and the way the job and kids wear down on the guy in front of the class is painful to watch at times. These aren't necessarily bad kids—they're just very real, defiant and loud and rebellious, often horrible to their instructors and each other, simply because that's how many kids survive the shark-infested waters of high school. Marin may have the best intentions, but when his own frustrations boil to the surface, the students swarm, like there's blood in the water, and you know things can't end well for someone.
Of course, these kids are speaking a different language, and sure, they come from an array of places, but it's clear from the onset that they aren't any different from kids in classrooms anywhere in the world. And like most high-schoolers, the deck is stacked against them—and the people trying to teach them. What makes The Class so good is that it doesn't suggest that the kids themselves are blameless, but its indictment is of a crumbling system that can barely contain them. You're tempted to say, “Teacher, leave those kids alone,” but you know if he did, things would only get worse.
Fired Up: Two high-school football players spend the summer at cheerleading camp—a healthy combination of totally gay and George W. Bush.
The Oscar Nominated Short Films: You want to see all the Oscar-nominated films before the ceremony? Here's your chance to catch 10 of 'em. Screenings are divided between live-action and animation, with additional shorts added to bolster the running time. Of the nominated films, there isn't a stinker in the bunch. Opens Feb. 20 at the Ken Cinema. See our feature on Page 20.
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.Tyler Perry's Medea Goes to Jail: Perry's been cranking out—and usually starring in—two movies a year for a while. Reprising his most popular character, crazy senior citizen Medea, this time he takes his shtick behind bars.
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Coming to Light: Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indians: Curtis photographed and recorded Native Americans in the early part of the last century. This doc takes a look at his life and his own changing attitudes about the people he documented. Screens at 1 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 18, at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park. Free with museum admission.
Arusi: Persian Wedding: Director Marjan Tehrani documented the trip her brother and his fiancée, Heather, took to Iran to hold a traditional Persian wedding, using that union as a starting point to examine the relationship between that nation and ours. Screens at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 18, at the Central Library Downtown. Free.
True Romance: Sure, Tony Scott directed it, but it's a Tarantino movie all the way. Christian Slater marries hooker Patricia Arquette, steals a ton of coke from her pimp and heads to Hollywood to try to unload it. Along the way, they run into Dennis Hopper, Brad Pitt, Christopher Walken, Val Kilmer and Samuel L. Jackson. Screens at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 18, at The Pearl Hotel in Point Loma. Free.
A Thousand Years of Good Prayers: The San Diego Asian Film Festival presents Wayne Wang's latest film, which didn't get an opening in San Diego last year. It's a lovely little movie, as Mr. Shi travels from Beijing to the U.S. after his daughter's divorce. He's got a plan to get her back on track and save her marriage, but she couldn't be less interested. Screens at 6:30 and 8:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 19, at UltraStar Hazard Center.
Bullitt: The studio had a hard time buying bad boy Steve McQueen as a San Francisco cop when they made this movie back in 1967. But the result is a cop flick that's rippling with muscle and featuring one of best car chases on film to date. And, yeah, that's really McQueen behind the wheel. It's POP Thursday at the Museum of Photographic Arts, so drinks are at 7 p.m. and the film rolls at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 19. Free with museum admission.
International Social Action Film Festival: With more than 40 short docs and one sharp full-length, War Dance, this marks the first edition of this fest. Screenings run from Friday, Feb. 20, through Sunday, Feb. 22, at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park.
The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover: Derek Jacobi's film, about what happens when the wife of a boorish restaurant owner takes a lover, is sweetly disturbing in its use of love, sex, murder, food and cannibalism. UCSD's ArtPower! Film is presenting it as a “Foovie”—meaning there's a serious meal included with your $20 admission. Screens at 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 20, at The Loft at UCSD.
Delhi 6: A new Bollywood film about a young American-born Indian man who visits the old country and his ailing grandmother for the very first time and finds he has a greater connection to his heritage than he suspected. Screens at 9 p.m. Friday, Feb. 20, and 5:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 22, at UltraStar Poway, and at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 23, at UltraStar Del Mar. Tickets: www.goldspiritfilms.com.
AMC Best Picture Showcase: The Oscars air on Sunday, Feb. 22, but you can catch all five Best Picture nominees on Saturday, Feb. 21. Consider it your nomination marathon. A mere $30 buys you all five films plus endless popcorn. It all goes down at AMC Mission Valley. Starting times are in parenthesis: Milk (10:30 a.m.), The Reader (1:05 p.m.), The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (3:45 p.m.), Slumdog Millionaire (7:15 p.m.), Frost/Nixon (9:45 p.m.).
Religulous: Bill Maher travels the world interviewing people about a God he does not believe in. Screens at 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 22, at Café Libertalia in Hillcrest. Free.
Eszter's Inheritance: Based on the 1939 novel by Hungarian writer Sándor Márai, this film looks at the tragic life of Eszter, a well-to-do woman recounting how the lover she spurned 20 years ago returned and ruined her. Screens at 6:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 23, at the Central Library Downtown. Free.
Midnight Madness: This all-night scavenger-hunt movie plays like an '80s classic and is best known for being Michael J.Fox's debut. Also, keep your eyes open for Paul Reubens in his pre-Pee Wee Herman days. Screens at 9 p.m. Monday, Feb. 23, at Soda Bar in City Heights. Free.
Black Fox: The True Story of Adolf Hitler: Part of a Len Stouman film retrospective, this movie, narrated by Marlene Dietrich, earned him the 1962 Best Documentary Oscar. Screens at 1 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 25, at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park.
Bella: Mexican star Eduardo Verástegui is Jose, a one-time soccer phenom whose career was abruptly shattered. He's reminiscing about the day he had an encounter with a waitress, Nina (Tammy Blanchard)—in the restaurant where they worked—that helped both of them put the trials and tribulations of life into perspective. Screens at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 25, at the Central Library Downtown. Free.
Azur & Asmar: Michel Ocelot's fairy-tale foray into CGI animation is gorgeous to look at, if not entirely gripping.
Confessions of a Shopaholic: Isla Fisher is the shopaholic, a New Yorker with an advice column in a film that's obviously been dumped into theaters in February in the hopes that women will take pity on it. Director PJ Hogan made Muriel's Wedding.
Friday the 13th: Is this prequel about the dude with the hockey mask or the guy with the long fingers? Who cares?
The International: Tom Tykwer's new film is gorgeously shot and edited, especially a huge shoot-out in New York's Guggenheim Museum. But it takes itself so seriously that it feels tragic when the logic behind it just doesn't hold up. Plus, the enormous international conspiracy is far more interesting than the good guys—Clive Owen and Naomi Watts—trying to take it down.
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.
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.
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. Pierre Morel 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Vicky Christina Barcelona: Will Woody Allen ever make another film in New York? After shooting the last two in the U.K., he moved his act overseas. Scarlett Johanssen and Rebecca Hall are tourists in Barcelona who find themselves infatuated with mysterious brooding painter Javier Bardem. When his crazy ex-wife (Bardem's real-life honey, Penelope Cruz) enters the picture, the whole trip becomes a total bummer.
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.