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, 1995

Like a long, slow drag of a cigar, Smoke is a patient pleasure. Adam Holender’s leisurely lingering camera and the film’s relaxed editing allow us to savor the actors’ performances and the thoughtful script uninterrupted, trusting in their ability to captivate us. And captivate us is exactly what novelist Paul Auster’s screenplay and the film’s superlative ensemble do.

The film kicks off in Auggie Wren’s (Harvey Keitel) Brooklyn smoke shop, where myriad customers linger to chat and unexpected friendships form. The serendipitous network around which Smoke revolves unfurls gradually, like a curling wisp of smoke: Auggie’s patron Paul (William Hurt), a writer's block-struck novelist grieving the violent death of his pregnant wife some years ago, has his life saved by Harold Perrineau’s Rashid, the estranged 17-year-old son of a struggling mechanic (Forest Whitaker). Ashley Judd and Stockard Channing also feature in Auggie’s portion of the film, one of its five loose vignettes (although the film flows much more fluidly than a chapterized structure suggests). Auster’s contemplative, dialogue-driven screenplay — along with the film’s unhurried editing and luxuriating cinematography — make Smoke a gorgeous example of the art of savoring, which is exactly what you want to do with this wonderful movie.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Ashley Judd, Baxter Harris, Clarice Taylor, Deirdre OConnell, Erica Gimpel, Forest Whitaker, Giancarlo Esposito, Harold Perrineau, Harvey Keitel, Jared Harris, José Zúñiga, Malik Yoba, Mary B. Ward, Mel Gorham, Michelle Hurst, Murray Moston, Stephen Gevedon, Stockard Channing, Victor Argo, William Hurt

Director: Wayne Wang

Rating: R

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I’m Not There is an unusual biopic in that it never refers to its subject, Bob Dylan, by name. Instead, Todd Haynes’ portrait of the singer mimics his constant reinvention by casting six separate actors to play as many reincarnations of the same soul. It’s an ingenious spin on a usually stale genre, one that liberates the film from the humdrum restrictions of a literal retelling of Dylan's life.

If there’s anyone who warrants such an inventive approach to biography, it’s Dylan, whose public and private personas are so numerous that it’s only by angling six different mirrors at him that Haynes can hope to catch some of his essence. Impressionistic editing toggles freely between these vignettes, each visually distinct: from the 11-year-old Woody Guthrie-obsessive (Marcus Carl Franklin) and the black-and-white Super 16mm-shot poet (Ben Whishaw) to the aging cowboy outlaw (Richard Gere), all by way of Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, and Cate Blanchett’s incarnations. To be sure, this is a somewhat challenging film, reflecting, in places, the enigmatic surrealism of Dylan’s lyrics and his refusal to be pinned down to one thing. But, as Blanchett’s embodiment says, “Mystery is a traditional fact,” and that’s no more true than of Dylan, making Haynes’ film a fascinatingly fitting spiritual biopic.

Genre: Drama, Music

Actor: Alison Folland, Andrew Shaver, Angela Galuppo, Arthur Holden, Ben Whishaw, Benz Antoine, Bill Croft, Bob Dylan, Brett Watson, Bruce Greenwood, Cate Blanchett, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Christian Bale, Danny Blanco Hall, David Cross, Don Francks, Eric Newsome, Gordon Masten, Heath Ledger, Jane Gilchrist, Jane Wheeler, Jason Cavalier, Jodie Resther, Joe Cobden, Julianne Moore, Kathleen Fee, Kris Kristofferson, Kristen Hager, Kyle Gatehouse, Larry Day, Maggie Castle, Marcus Carl Franklin, Mark Camacho, Melantha Blackthorne, Michelle Williams, Pauline Little, Peter Friedman, Richard Gere, Richard Jutras, Richie Havens, Roc LaFortune, Shawn Baichoo, Tim Post, Trevor Hayes, Tyrone Benskin, Vito DeFilippo

Director: Todd Haynes

Rating: R

There’s a vein of reality running through He Got Game that gives this Spike Lee joint a sense of pulsating immediacy. For one, the young basketball prodigy at its center is played by real-life pro Ray Allen, who shot the movie during the sport’s off-season period in 1997. The film also draws on a host of other ballers and ancillary figures — including coaches and commentators — to fully convince us of the hype around Jesus Shuttlesworth (Allen), a Coney Island high-schooler who’s been crowned America’s top college draft pick.

Lee takes this premise to much more interesting places than sports movies usually go. The plot is a melodrama of sorts, in which Jesus’ incarcerated father Jake (a top-tier Denzel Washington) must convince his son to declare for the governor’s alma mater in exchange for a reduced sentence. The pair are estranged — Jake is in prison for the death of Jesus’ mother — making this as much a tense examination of family and forgiveness as it is a sports movie. And what a sports movie it is: Lee makes his love of basketball not just abundantly clear but also infectious, opening the film on soaring, balletic images of the sport that suggest it’s no mere game, but something unifying, artistic, and ultimately salvatory.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Arthur J. Nascarella, Bill Nunn, Bill Walton, Charles Barkley, Chasey Lain, Denzel Washington, Hill Harper, Jennifer Esposito, Jill Kelly, Jim Brown, John Turturro, Joseph Lyle Taylor, Kim Director, Leonard Roberts, Lonette McKee, Michael Jordan, Milla Jovovich, Ned Beatty, Ray Allen, Reggie Miller, Rick Fox, Robin Roberts, Roger Guenveur Smith, Ron Cephas Jones, Rosario Dawson, Scottie Pippen, Shaquille O'Neal, Thomas Jefferson Byrd, Zelda Harris

Director: Spike Lee

Rating: R

Éric Rohmer movies are what you watch when you want to experience the thrill of someone putting into words something you might never have been able to express yourself. The magic of his characters is that they’re breezily candid, even if that honesty doesn’t protect them from committing the same contradictory foibles we all do. Pauline at the Beach is a dazzling example of that quality; it may even be more honest than usual, because it also tells a truth about its characters that they’re not even aware of themselves.

The most perceptive character is actually the youngest: 15-year-old Pauline (Amanda Langlet), who’s vacationing with her older cousin Marion (Arielle Dombasle). Having never fallen in love herself, Pauline receives a thorough education in the matter by observing the love triangle that Marion becomes entangled in with needy Pierre (Pascal Greggory) and predatory Henri (Féodor Atkine). Though the adults give the film its brilliantly articulate philosophical meditations on love — ranging from the idealistic to the dispassionate — their actions often fall short of their words. Shot through Pauline’s keen eyes, Rohmer’s film wryly reveals the decisive role that delusion and unchecked ego play in so many grown-up lives — ironically making the self-aware and measured teenager the most mature of all.

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance

Actor: Amanda Langlet, Arielle Dombasle, Féodor Atkine, Pascal Greggory, Rosette, Simon de La Brosse

Director: Éric Rohmer

Rating: R

, 1999

The bare bones of The Limey’s story — vengeful Cockney ex-con Wilson (Terence Stamp) flies to LA to investigate the suspicious death of his daughter Jenny — are gripping enough, but what Steven Soderbergh does with them elevates this neo-noir thriller into something utterly singular and stacked with layers upon layers of meaning. An icon of London’s Swinging ‘60s scene, Stamp is pitted against laidback symbol of ‘60s American counterculture Peter Fonda (as Jenny’s sleazy older boyfriend), giving their face-off grander cultural stakes. The extra-textual significance of the casting is deepened by Soderbergh’s ingenious references to the actors’ heyday: in flashbacks to Wilson’s happier past, for example, we’re shown the actual Stamp in his younger years (courtesy of scenes borrowed from 1967’s Poor Cow).

The Limey is also a brilliant showcase for editor Sarah Flack’s technical inventiveness: though the narrative is largely linear, the film cuts to and from scenes and sounds at unexpected points, giving the film an almost David Lynch-like sense of eerie fragmentation. Conjuring up a nightmare LA atmosphere isn’t all the editing does, either, as the film’s puzzle pieces are expertly reassembled to reveal an emotional gut-punch of an ending. In short, this high point in Soderbergh’s filmography is a must-see for any fan of cinema.

Genre: Crime, Drama, Mystery

Actor: Allan Graf, Amelia Heinle, Barry Newman, Bill Duke, Brandon Keener, Carl Ciarfalio, Carol White, Clement Blake, George Clooney, Joe Dallesandro, John Cothran, John Robotham, Johnny Sanchez, Lesley Ann Warren, Luis Guzman, Matthew Kimbrough, Melissa George, Michaela Gallo, Nancy Lenehan, Nicky Katt, Peter Fonda, Rainbow Borden, Randy Lowell, Steve Heinze, Terence Stamp, Wayne Pére, William Lucking

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Rating: R

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