By Steve Greene | Criticwire October 3, 2012 at 1:19PM
We're starting to sound like a broken record, but here we are again: Documentaries have taken the top spots in our look at the best-reviewed films among this week's new releases. This time, Eugene Jarecki's "The House I Live In," an examination of America's drug war, takes the top spot as the Criticwire Pick of the Week.
The Sundance award winner examines the way the targets of conviction and incarceration for drug offenses tend to belong to specific American demographics. A few reviews have seized on the idea that the film presents its thesis in a manner that resembles a TV procedural, but most agree that Jarecki's blend of anecdotal details and facts is pretty damning evidence. The AV Club's Noel Murray explains that the film "connects anecdotes to hard data, making a compelling case that the drug war has never been about drugs, but about controlling the underclass.
And for those with a less conspiratorial bent, Jarecki shows how the drug war has become a self-sustaining business, where the government seizes money from dealers and uses it to buy more prison beds, necessitating more arrests." Kim Voynar from Movie City News writes that the film has "a great deal of ground to cover in a roughly 90-minute documentary, but Jarecki is up to the task, weaving the many threads of his story together into a very effective, very engaging and cohesive whole."
In a week ripe for big-picture discussion, another American institution under heavy examination in a new documentary is the health care system. "Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare" is Matthew Heineman and Susan Frömke's assertion that the country's methods of fight illness may not be prioritizing patients' well-being. Rather than single out a particular piece of legislation decry, the Boston Phoenix's Tom Meek describes that "Escape Fire" is "more a condemnation of the US health system in general, like Michael Moore's Sicko, sans the self-aggrandizing." Yet, where some critics see effective impartiality, others see a misstep in the films final blunt call to action. While acknowledging the importance of maintaining focus on the healthcare issue, DVDTalk's Jason Bailey also asserts that the film "is--unavoidably, it would seem--somewhat rambling and unfocused…It doesn't help that the picture is constructed in an episodic, vignette-heavy style, which allows the filmmakers to cover more ground, but does the picture's momentum no favors." Both "The House I Live In" and "Escape Fire" are tackling seismic social issues with less-than-straightforward narrative methods. It appears that the relative value of these films lies in its ability to capture the successes (but mostly failures) of an institution in a comprehensive fashion.
While lost children and sibling discontent aren't exactly unmined plotlines in the indie world, one film that's combined these two elements to great acclaim is Ursula Meier's "Sister." The two central characters are pre-teen Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein) and his troubled older sister Louise (Léa Seydoux) who must each navigate their own difficult life situations, with or without each other's assistance. In his Indiewire review from Berlin earlier this year, Eric Kohn saluted the film for carving out a distinct visual style without turning into an excercise in emulating the Dardenne brothers' skill. Of their approach to the subject, Kohn says that "Meier applies it in a distinctly engaging fashion by avoiding tricky camerawork and simply observing Simon's life until the cracks in his confidence slowly grow clear." Echoing Meier's similarity to (but ultimate distinction from) the Belgian directing pair, Patrick Gamble concludes his CineVue rave with this sentiment: "Full of hidden depths, 'Sister' is truly magical, thrusting the audience through a gamut of emotions and brilliantly immersing the viewer into this fascinating setting where the rich frolic high above the poor, like gods with little concern for those less privileged below."
Aside from those big three, there are a bevy of promising releases that would been the featured critical darling on any number of other weekends. Despite the relative disappointment of his other recent outings, "Frankenweenie" has put a number of critics in favor of a Tim Burton film again, including Drew Taylor at The Playlist. Andrea Arnold's version of the classic "Wuthering Heights" tale has drawn a number of A+ grades from the members of our Criticwire network. Some critics, like Movies.com's Monika Bartyzel, weren't quite as enthusiastic in their praise -- but still admired the film's ability to buck literary adaptation trends. The reissue of Ted Kotchoff's 1971 film "Wake in Fright" dropped jaws at Fantastic Fest, four decades after its original unheralded American theatrical run. "Decoding Deepak" (released by SnagFilms, Indiewire's parent company) hits theaters after making its world premiere back at SXSW 2012. Even a film like "V/H/S," which hasn't fared quite as well with recent reviews as its original festival returns, was still a buzzworthy offering at Sundance back in January.
October is here, and with it comes one of many packed release weeks soon to come.
A full list of new releases and their accompanying Criticwire averages can be found on the next page.