With the Oscar nominations fresh in our ears, one of the big Best Picture contenders finally arrives in Utah theaters.
"Zero Dark Thirty" is rightfully a Best Picture nominee, because it's one of the sharpest, most thrilling and most thought-provoking movies of the year. Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, the team that made "The Hurt Locker," depicts in chilling detail the legwork, false starts and dogged analysis behind the hunt for terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden. It starts with waterboarding, which is not shown as something that works but as an example of the nation's panicked response to 9/11. From there, Bigelow and Boal show how brains and determination paid off after many years. The focus here is on Jessica Chastain, starring as a CIA agent at the center of the search, in a performance that is as tight and intelligent as the film.
The big studio opening this week is "Gangster Squad," a stylish but derivative cops-and-robbers movie set in '40s Los Angeles. It stars Josh Brolin and Ryan Gosling as L.A. cops charged with a deep-undercover mission to root out gangster Mickey Cohen (played by a scenery-chewing Sean Penn). Director Ruben Fleischer ("Zombieland") cribs from the gangster canon, particularly from Brian De Palma's "The Untouchables," for a good-looking but empty experience.
The other studio movie this week is "A Haunted House," a broad parody of the "Paranormal Activity" found-footage horror films and their ilk. It was not screened for critics.
The best on the art-house slate is "The Central Park Five," a riveting documentary about a recent case of injustice – the arrest and conviction of five teens for the brutal 1989 rape and beating of a woman jogger in Central Park. Directors Ken Burns (yes, that Ken Burns), Sarah Burns (his daughter) and David McMahon (her husband) present the case with journalistic clarity and barely concealed anger, with an urgency that's unusual considering Ken Burns' trademark gentility. It's also a page-turner of a story, fascinating from start to finish.
Lastly, the German drama "Barbara" is an intriguing character study of a Cold War-era doctor (Nina Hoss), contemplating escape to the West when she's reassigned from Berlin to a rural East German hospital. Hoss' performance, as a caring doctor torn between personal needs and professional duty, is quite engaging.