INHERENT VICE. Writer/director — we could probably use "auteur" here without irony or too much embarrassment — Paul Thomas Anderson is one of my big three. After Tarantino broke my head open with his exuberant crime pastiche, P.T. Anderson and Wes Anderson (no relation) shepherded me back to a more reasonable place. Each is a master of a singular style, unafraid to explore the darkness; but their stories are defined by introspection and deeply felt emotion. Paul Thomas Anderson in particular combined the wild and woolly cinematic techniques of the American '70s with his own narrative sensibility and sensitivity early on. Because I so adore his early work (Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia), it has been bittersweet to watch him mature as an artist.
Gone are the whip-pans and intricately constructed tracking shots, gone the potentially silly but moving Aimee Mann sing-alongs. For them Anderson has substituted narrative intensity, a deceptive intimacy with his characters and a crystalline visual style that belie the expanding scope of his backdrops. There Will Be Blood (2007) was stunning, but it didn't feel like a Paul Thomas Anderson picture. Then came the almost-inscrutable, breathtakingly beautiful The Master (2012), which may not have been that likeable, but confounded and impressed.
And now, to complicate or elucidate things, depending on one's perspective, he's adapted Thomas Pynchon and created a sublime, hilarious, sad, rambling SoCal druggie detective story for the ages.
There are so many plot elements in Inherent Vice that even a cursory summary would overrun my word limit here. Suffice it to say this: Gordita Beach, Calif., 1970. Larry "Doc" Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) agrees to help his ex, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) locate the rich, married, currently missing developer Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), with whom Shasta has been carrying on. That's the through-line, and the uninitiated would be wise to cling to it. Because surrounding it are Nazi biker gangs, ex-Communist actors, drug smugglers, Black Panthers, a dental cartel, interests in Las Vegas, fascist cops, saxophonists-cum-narcs, crooked dry-out clinics and a hundred other nifty details. The story is definitively shaggy, like its protagonist, and a viewer might miss some of the fun by getting too hung up on plot details. They matter, but the story will still pay off without every infinitesimal connection.
That's the neat trick of Pynchon's novel, which might be articulated even better in Anderson's adaptation. While the world of Inherent Vice is densely, crazily populated and defined by large-scale events, the story is told on a smaller, simpler scale. As Phoenix shows us, with his constant twitching and sighing and grunting and glances over the shoulder, this is a piece about paranoia. It's a glimpse at the death of something, the subordination of well-intentioned hippie culture by a heavy-handed outside world. The moment could be seen as the birth of the modern era of surveillance and the culture of fear. But that's another discussion.
This is also an exquisitely crafted, impeccably detailed, superbly acted period detective story. Phoenix gives one of the greatest comic performances in many years, aided in no small part by Josh Brolin as Christian "Bigfoot" Bjornsen, a lost-soul flattop cop longing for justice and a TV movie deal. Not only does Brolin do a hilarious send-up of classic Hollywood tough guys, his character, as Sportello's foil, is vitally important, one of the chambers of the narrative's beating heart.
Inherent Vice is that rare modern marvel: a movie with enough layers, enough complexity to merit multiple viewings, that can also make us laugh out loud, eyes glued to the screen, waiting gleefully for whatever might happen next. R. 148m.
SELMA. This is probably the right moment for a movie about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his accomplishments, though on any given day it might feel like we've gone backwards as a country in the five decades since the movie's events. And there may be no actor better suited to play the man than David Oyelowo. But this telling of the story, with its literality and toothless malice, doesn't quite get the job done.
After the bombing death of four little girls in Alabama and President Johnson's putting-off of King's entreaties to push through voting rights legislation, King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference take to the streets of Selma. They plan a peaceful protest, a march from Selma to Montgomery, to bring attention to the legacy of hatred and inequity in the American South.
Director Ava DuVernay's movie succeeds more than it fails. The performances are excellent, the atmosphere is effective and the feeling of a legacy of systematic wrongdoing is palpable. But by insisting on such a narrow focus, by telling us only King's part of the story, she sacrifices some narrative gravitas. The bigoted population of Selma becomes nothing more than mindless drones, and the moments of hideous violence — which are a critical element here — are pulled away from, diminishing the overall impact. It's still well made and well told, but it feels more like a missed opportunity than an achievement. PG13. 128m.
— John J. Bennett
AMERICAN SNIPER. Clint Eastwood directs Bradley Cooper as a Navy SEAL sniper struggling to adjust to life back on the homefront. R. 132m.
BLACKHAT. Chris Hemsworth takes a break from the gym to do some hacking and battle international cyber terrorists in this action thriller. R. 135m.
FOXCATCHER. Steve Carell makes everybody uncomfortable as the wrestling coach/benefactor/creeper to a pair of Olympics-bound brothers (Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo). R. 129m.
PADDINGTON. A South American bear moves in with a London family and dodges a museum taxidermist in a live-action adaptation of the children's stories. PG13. 128m.
WEDDING RINGER. A matrimonial buddy movie in which Kevin Hart plays a best-man-for-hire who suits up for the wedding of an awkward dude played by Josh Gad. R. 101m.
THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES. Oakenshield's beard, that's a lot of swordplay. Peter Jackson wraps up the Tolkien saga(s) with drawn-out battles and less zip than the previous installment. PG13. 144m.
THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY - PART 1. Fancy production and action can't salvage the puffed up script and yawning monologues. One more to go. PG13. 116m.
THE IMITATION GAME. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Alan Turing in a biopic about the mathletes and cryptologists trying to crack the German code in World War II. PG13. 114m.
INTO THE WOODS. As soon as the singing starts, interest wanes. Some of that is down to personal taste, but there's a problem when such a strong cast can bore in an otherwise compelling scenario. PG. 124m.
NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM: SECRET OF THE TOMB. Ben Stiller is back on duty as a museum guard with more antiquities, more problems. Try not to tear up when you see Robin Williams. PG. 98m.
TAKEN 3. Liam Neeson is back stalking, shooting and growling into phones. Whoever killed his wife and framed him, he's going to hunt them down and (spoiler!) kill them. PG13. 109m.
UNBROKEN. Angelina Jolie directs this biopic about Olympiad and World War II POW Louis Zamperini's survival. Should make you feel terrible for complaining about your relatives over the holidays. PG13. 137m.
WILD. As author Cheryl Strayed, Reese Witherspoon narrowly escapes Eat Pray Hike territory to honestly explore self-reliance, love and loss on the Pacific Crest Trail. R. 115m.
WOMAN IN BLACK 2: ANGEL OF DEATH. The sequel picks up 40 years later with the ghost haunting World War II evacuee children. PG13. 98m.
— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill