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Spring movies offer surprises

Sun., April 13, 2014

NEW YORK – Sandwiched between the chest-thumping ambition of awards season and the swaggering spectacle of summer, spring movie-going is usually an afterthought, a limbo for films not bankable enough for July or highbrow enough for the Oscars. But it might actually be the best time of year for the movies. In springtime – particularly this year – the movies come alive.

It’s not that the movies of March and April have been so tremendous. Many of them are flawed. But imperfection isn’t something that should be papered over with big-budget engineering or test-screened away into sleeker products.

Instead, these leftovers and oddities offer something that can be harder to find later in the year when so many films come pre-packaged, whether as awards bait or box-office juggernauts: a sense of surprise.

Who would have thought a movie based on a toy line (“The Lego Movie”) would prove to be both inventive and slyly subversive? Who would have predicted a documentary made by a novice filmmaker about palling around with his brother’s rock band (“Mistaken for Strangers”) would turn out a comic but tender portrait of brotherhood? And how often do we see filmmakers with the talent and proclivity for darkness of Darren Aronofsky entrusted with a $130 million movie (“Noah”)?

Also coming this spring are two of the year’s best films: Jim Jarmusch’s “Only Lovers Left Alive” and David Gordon Green’s “Joe.” “Only Lovers Left Alive” is about two long-living vampires (Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston) who have passed the centuries soaking up culture. Languorous and pensive but also dryly comedic, it’s one of Jarmusch’s best.

“Joe,” based on the novel by Larry Brown, stars Nicolas Cage in a performance that will remind many of why they once put their faith in his talent. It’s a kind of modern-day Western, uprooted from the Mississippi of the book and placed in the backwoods of Texas, where Cage’s Joe is a former convict trying to stay out of trouble. The director Green uses nonprofessional actors (including an exceptionally raw performance from an elderly Austin homeless man, Gary Poulter, who died after production) and real locations that give “Joe” a naturalism you can feel.

But that’s far from all. Opening in some markets last week was Jonathan Glazer’s beautiful sci-fi horror “Under the Skin,” one of the most striking films to come along in some time. With Scarlett Johansson as a predator extraterrestrial, the movie looks at Earth (Scotland, specifically) through alien eyes. There is plenty to marvel at in the view, but also a lot to be disturbed by.

Like “Noah,” not everyone will go for “Under the Skin,” but few are likely to forget it. These are movies that provoke a response. Whether you’re on their side or not, that’s a good thing.

The same might be said for Lars von Trier’s much talked-about “Nymphomaniac” (with Charlotte Gainsbourg, Shia LaBeouf, Stellan Skarsgard) a far funnier film than you’d expect, given its reputation for graphic sex. Each of the two “volumes” of the film are on video-on-demand, so with the click of the remote, you can immediately decide for yourself about the latest sensation from one of cinema’s most interesting and infuriating directors.

But for a theatrical experience, the best thing right now might be Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” a movie that has become Anderson’s highest-grossing worldwide. With an Oscar-worthy performance by Ralph Fiennes as a fastidious concierge, it’s been called Anderson’s most superficial movie (for its candied set design) and his deepest (for its melancholy nostalgia of a more refined, pre-World War II era). It’s both.

Any Errol Morris documentary is an event, and that’s no different for his latest, “The Unknown Known,” in which he spars helplessly with former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. But the movie isn’t about Morris’ failure to get Rumsfeld to open up; it’s about Rumsfeld’s smug refusal to re-examine the past. It’s one of the most ironic films you’ll ever see.

With such rich offerings, 2014 is off to a very good start.

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