Favorite of the month: The TV Set (2007)

What could be more fun than watching Sigourney Weaver as a stone-hearted bitch of a TV executive? How about the underrated David Duchovny as a compromised sitcom writer with Faulknerian delusions? This movie is a sneaky gem, a smart, scruffy painfully funny dressing down of the inside games people in the TV industry play. The best part about the movie is the way it refuses to pin down its characters. You’re never quite sure how much of Duchovny’s soul he is willing to sell, or how much of it Weaver would gladly eat in order to boost a Nielsen rating. The movie probably failed at the box office precisely because it refused to play by the rules it skewers.

New Release of the Month: A Mighty Heart (2007)

Angelina Jolie’s star power and director Michael Winterbottom’s gritty, shoot-from-the-shoulder style make for an uneasy blend in the initial scenes of this film based on the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, but the rigorous approach to details, place, language and international tensions ultimately results in a moving, powerful drama. Please don’t shy away from this film simply because we know it doesn’t have a happy ending, but instead watch it for its authentic rendering of the intimate interplay between the characters, and for what is in the end–a convincing portrayal by Jolie of Marianne Pearl, a brave and all-too-human woman whose husband was an early tragic sacrifice in Bush’s so-called “war on terror”.

Classic of the month: The Palm Beach Story (1942)

Rudy Vallee has one of the funniest scenes a human being has ever had in the history of cinema in this picture–and I say that without reservation. And this in a film made by a writer-director, Preston Sturges, who created perhaps the greatest series of comedies in the history of cinema (although Woody Allen, rightfully, would argue with that statement). Okay, hyperbole aside, Sturges wrote witty, cutting, rapid-fire dialogue for a retinue of dames, dummies, stooges, losers, winners, eccentrics, screwballs, aristocrats and bums involved in outlandish plots of goofy intrigue, cornball coincidences, mistaken identities and get-rich-quick dreams and schemes. Watching this film is like spending 90 minutes with your funniest, sharpest friend on a speedboat to a great party and you’re already working on your second martini.

Documentary of the month: To Be and To Have (2002)

This patient, respectful documentary by Nicolas Philibert takes us inside a one-room French schoolhouse in rural Saint-Etienne Sur Usson, where the dedicated Georges Lopez has the job of teaching his 13 students that life is so much rewarding if lived with a love of learning. This documentary is not for the fan of talking head smorgasbords or quaking YouTube aesthetics. It’s a quiet, watchful, real-time film, with sensitive camerawork capturing the intimate expressions of the kids and the admirable attentiveness of Lopez, a teacher we all could have used.

Under-the-Radar: Talk to Me (2007)

In this film based on a true story, Don Cheadle stars as ex-con Petey Greene, who cut a deal to get out of prison and get on the radio as one of the first AM talk and music jockeys, a man who pulled no punches on the air about the state of the black man and woman in one of the most violent and racist cities in America: Washington, D.C. He is reluctantly recruited by Dewey Hughes, a black radio executive played with style by Chiwetel Ejiofor. As the black man who has made it in the white man’s world, he is the antithesis of Petey’s ghetto jive talker. Watching these two characters verbally duke it out on screen is a marvelous and rare event in cinema: Two black actors not dressed in female fat suits. Director Kasi Lemmons engages us with thoughtful arguments about black on black racism and sets the bar higher for other films about the black experience.

Give this a miss: Zoo (2007)

Zoo is about the infamous horse-sex case in Enumclaw, WA in 2005, which resulted in the death of man from a perforated colon after being penetrated by a stallion (no, I’m not kidding). Filmmakers Robinson Devor and Charles Mudede have crafted a picture that is atmospherically beautiful and moody, but artistically and emotionally remote. If their goal was to detail the specifics of the incident that led to the man’s death on that fateful night, or to illuminate the secretive world of the zoos, or zoophiles—their motivations, their private conflicts—or to argue for a more tolerant attitude toward alternative sexual pursuits, then they botched it, badly.

Zoo is coy about delivering basic information, relying on the voiceovers of actors and, in some cases, actual participants in the horse sex incident, commenting elliptically on the lifestyle of zoos and their hidden desires, but both they and the filmmakers constantly dance around the elephant in the room: That their predilection toward bestiality is a bizarre sexual obsession practiced by misfits who came to Washington state because, at the time, sex with animals was not against the law. If Devor and Mudede had engaged with the political, moral and legal aspects of what went down on that summer night two years ago–if they had applied a bit of journalism, or even coherent storytelling to a serious exploration of the events–then they could have made an accessible and quite fascinating film without sacrificing any of the craft or imagination on display here. But instead, with its murky titillations and teasing long shots, Zoo runs ridiculously close to soft-core porn.