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William Tecumseh Sherman’s famous declaration, “War is hell,” long ago became a historical commonplace, but Samuel Maoz’s Lebanon revivifies it with blunt force and appalling details. This Israeli film is also preeminently a striking tour de force, a masterful formalist achievement. It is a war film, but one that plays out on a scale that’s singular. Almost all of Lebanon is set inside the very cramped confines of an army tank. What Maoz has accomplished working within these severe spatial limitations is remarkably impressive, an accomplishment that’s both aesthetic and emotional. Whether his film succeeds more broadly and deeply is a question that’s a little more difficult to answer.

Life During Wartime

By a substantial margin, the all-time best-renting movie at Mondo Video was Happiness, Todd Solondz’s film about the sexual and emotional difficulties of a New Jersey family. A cause celebre in 1998 when its original distributor refused to release it, it had a reputation as an “extreme” movie: Nothing offensive or disturbing was ever shown, but it contained descriptions of actions and displays of unvarnished emotions that can be hard to sit through. Many reviewers and audiences, even (especially?) fans of the director’s earlier Welcome to the Dollhouse, condemned it, whether because they felt that Solondz despised his characters or because it contained a sympathetic portrayal of a pederast. (Neither is accurate.)

Animal Kingdom

“I’m having trouble finding my positive spin,” a grieving mother tearfully says at one point in David Michod’s Animal Kingdom. She might well feel that way since she’s just lost her second son to gunfire in a matter of weeks. Her situation is even more out of the ordinary than that; she’s the matriarch of a small-time but lethally violent Melbourne, Australia crime family fighting an intermittent war with the cops.

I'm Still Here

When Joaquin Phoenix made his widely discussed nearly silent appearance on the David Letterman Show last year, did anyone really believe it was anything other than a put-on? I mean, for more than a day? Show business is far too slick these days for anyone to ever melt down that way in public. And the whole thing became substantially less plausible when the world learned that Casey Affleck, who is married to Phoenix’s sister, was making a documentary on Joaquin and his bid to retire from acting and become a hip-hop artist. Still, there are those who cling to the idea that I’m Still Here, as the finished film is called, is the real deal—Roger Ebert, for one.

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