Mad Dog and Glory (John McNaughton, 1993)
I've been saying for a long time that Bill Murray was giving really good performances before he started getting noticed as a "serious" actor. Movies like Groundhog Day and What About Bob? and the sorely underrated Quick Change (which Murray also co-directed) have really great acting in them even if they're lighter than movies like Rushmore or Lost in Translation. This is a movie often cited for one of Murray's overlooked performances, and as an underrated gem of a comedy, so it seemed like a good bet. Plus I can't get enough of McNaughton's Wild Things. This is a nice, unassuming little film, but it doesn't feature especially outstanding work from Murray (he's perfectly good, but not great, in a supporting role), and it's sort of predictable and pleasant but not fabulous. The most notable aspect is the casting of Murray as the scary gangster and Robert De Niro as the shlub. There's some amusingly dry humor and a couple of heartbreakingly awkward sex scenes between De Niro and Uma Thurman, but it's not one to go rushing out to watch because it's an undiscovered masterpiece.
The Memory of a Killer (Erik van Looy, 2003)
I'm trying to get through some of the screeners that have piled up in the last few months, and this is one I've really been meaning to see, as it got many positive reviews and even ended up on some top ten lists. It's interesting how fairly conventional thrillers can garner such high praise when rendered in a foreign language. Not that this is a bad movie - it's suspenseful and exciting, even if it goes on a little long - but if it were an American movie starring Harrison Ford (for example), I doubt critics would have been as kind. Van Looy does a good job at creating characters and developing a mystery, but he uses the same kind of overcooked visuals that flashy American directors often rely on, resorts to the old "little girl in peril" action movie motif and, in the end, tells a pretty conventional revenge story. He tells it well, and I enjoyed the film, but I think some people are just a little too impressed with characters who speak Dutch and French.
The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick, 1998)
After seeing Malick's new film, The New World, a couple of weeks ago (it won't open in Vegas until January 13 but it's my pick for the best film of 2005), I felt I really ought to see this film, which at the time it came out seemed like something I would never want to see unless strongly pushed (a three-hour World War II movie? Not for me). But this is a clear precursor to The New World, and has many of the same elements that made that film so effective for me. It's only about WWII so far as The New World is about early American colonies, which is to say not a whole lot. It's more about how beautiful and mysterious nature is, and how humans with their war and their colonization tend to fuck it up, but also how sometimes the beauty of human existence and the beauty of the natural world can inform each other in unexpected and poignant ways. Or, if you're less charitable, you could sum up Malick's style as one IMDb poster did, as "Oh look! A leaf!" Obviously I think there's more to it than that, and this movie has plenty of moments of transcendent beauty, both in the jungles of Guadalcanal and in the interactions of the dozens of characters in the film. The sheer number of those characters made it hard for me to really connect with the film in the way I did with The New World, and at times it seemed like Malick himself got a little lost among all the various soldiers. But this is a movie worth seeing for the cinematography alone, and it's really rewarding and rich if you stick with it through the initial confusion and allow it to envelop you like a breeze.