By Anne Thompson and Ryan Lattanzio | Thompson on Hollywood December 5, 2013 at 4:03PM
Two of the year's most highly anticipated awards contenders arrive in theaters this weekend: the Coens' heavenly folk music tragicomedy "Inside Llewyn Davis" in limited release, and Scott Cooper's hardboiled noir "Out of the Furnace," which goes wide Friday.
More low-key releases include Penn & Teller's art doc "Tim's Vermeer" and clinical Austrian auteur Ulrich Seidl's refreshingly "Hope"-ful final installment in his "Paradise" trilogy, which kicked off at Cannes 2012 with "Paradise: Love." Trailers after the jump.
As rueful and unsentimental as any Coen effort, "Inside Llewyn Davis" spends a few days in early '60s Greenwich Village with its title character, a penniless folk singer couch-surfing his way through the dreary winter and from one thankless gig to the next. In the film's most mystifying sequence, the Coens take their libertine antihero, terrifically played by Oscar Isaac, on a surreal road odyssey to Chicago and back. DP Bruno Delbonnel's -- who we interviewed here -- soft focus and delicate lighting picture a world perilously on the brink of fading away. As a fellow chanteuse, Carey Mulligan steals every scene she's in. This aching, sad, warts-and-all character piece is among the Coens' best films.
Set in Pennsylvania Appalachia, "Out of the Furnace" is impeccably acted by a superb ensemble, especially Christian Bale and Casey Affleck as brothers Russell and Rodney Baze, respectively. Russell is a factory welder anchored by his deep love for a young teacher (Zoe Saldana), Rodney is a troubled vet who takes his aggression into the ring for bouts of rough-and-tumble fighting. Saldana, terrific, and Bale show palpable chemistry. We like these characters, and except for Woody Harrelson's too-familiar bad-ass criminal, want them to thrive.
A fascinating look at one genius inventor's obsession with recreating Vermeer's "The Music Lesson" over the course of 130 days, "Tim's Vermeer" played well in fall fests and recently made the Oscar feature documentary Oscar shortlist. In addition to following Tim Jenison closely as he (re)creates a masterpiece, the doc offers revelatory new insight into the methods of the 17th Dutch painter's madness.
Where predecessors "Love" and "Faith" (reviewed here) dwelled in sex and religion with bleak austerity, Seidl's German-language "Paradise: Hope" is a gentle conclusion to the trilogy about a dowdy young wallflower (Melanie Lenz) whose aunt plops her into a fat camp for kids. The boot-camp-style retreat inspires her coming-of-age -- and pubescent sexuality -- in an insular world where the line between children and adults is not easily drawn. It sounds creepy on paper, but Seidl finally allows his characters a bit of humanity and, of course, hope.
"Inside Llewyn Davis" Dirs. Joel and Ethan Coen, USA | CBS Films | Cast: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Adam Driver | 94% Fresh | The New York Times: "This is not a biopic, it’s a Coen brothers movie, which is to say a brilliant magpie’s nest of surrealism, period detail and pop-culture scholarship." | Our Cannes review, Telluride coverage and video interview with Oscar Isaac.
"Out of the Furnace" Dir. Scott Cooper, USA | Relativity Media | Cast: Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Zoe Saldana, Sam Shepard | 59% Fresh | The Dissolve: "'Out Of The Furnace' is a defiantly old-fashioned, well-crafted piece of storytelling whose power lies in its unadorned simplicity." | Our AFI FEST review, interview with Christian Bale and with Relativity production chief Robbie Brenner
"Tim's Vermeer" Dir. Teller, USA | Sony Pictures Classics | 87% Fresh | Film.com: "Teller manages a careful enough balance between painstaking technique and a larger cultural context over 80 brisk minutes to make even minor revelations feel like major moments." | Our TIFF review and interview with Teller
"Paradise: Hope" Dir. Ulrich Seidl, Austria | Strand Releasing | Cast: Melanie Lenz, Verena Lehbauer, Joseph Lorenz, Michael Thomas | 90% Fresh | AV Club: "This tale of a creepy pedophilic relationship is the most tender, nuanced, and deeply felt picture Seidl has ever made. What’s more, there’s no need to have seen the other two films, as 'Hope' works beautifully all by its lonesome."