Inception and Despicable Me are a few examples of the former, while The Kids Are All Right, The Girl Who Played with Fire and Cyrus were smaller-budget hits.
I only recently had the chance to watch Winter's Bone, the Sundance-acclaimed drama (it won the fest's Grand Jury Prize and Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award) that was originally released in June (it will be released on DVD and Blu-ray October 26). Easily one of the best films of the year thus far, it reveals with empathy-building clarity a community that more "mainstream" Americans — including those of us in the GLBTQ community — prefer to ridicule, if not outright ignore.
Set in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri, the gripping Winter's Bone follows the plight of 17-year old Ree (a star-making performance by Jennifer Lawrence, who was recently signed to play Mystique in next year's X-Men: First Class). Ree, responsible for the care of a disabled mother and two younger siblings, learns that her meth-making, drug-dealing father has disappeared after posting the family's house as bail following his most recent arrest. If he doesn't appear in court as scheduled, the house will be seized and Ree and her impoverished family members will be out in the cold. She takes it upon herself to track her father down, discovering friends and foes alike in the process.
As Ree navigates the harsh climate — physical and social — viewers are introduced to a largely unknown world populated by people commonly referred to as "hillbillies" or "poor white trash." The community has its own rules and power structure, and Ree learns the hard way what can happen when these aren't respected. However, a clan-ish concern for Ree also becomes apparent, as well as an overriding respect for the local, natural environment. There are domestic and wild animals everywhere in Winter's Bone. While these serve a variety of practical purposes, none could be termed "abused."
By film's end, Ree's semi-naïve adolescence has come to an end but she has gained a closer family and a deeper respect for her neighbors. These "backwoods folk," or whatever we may sometimes be tempted to call them, have a lot to teach us.
Summer is ending on a cinematic high note with Soul Kitchen, opening today in Los Angeles prior to a national rollout this fall. A comedy-drama by Turkish-German filmmaker Fatih Akin (Head-On, The Edge of Heaven), it won a special jury prize at the 2009 Venice Film Festival.
Soul Kitchen isn't only the film's title; it is the name of a restaurant owned and managed by Zinos Kazantsakis (winningly played by Adam Bousdoukos). Zinos has been toiling for years to build up his clientele through a combination of deep-fried "comfort food" and funk music. The restaurant is a local favorite, but things take a turn when a variety of forces conspire against Zinos: a talented if strong-willed chef alienates his customers; his back slips a disk; his girlfriend moves to China; and his imprisoned brother, Ilias (the hot Moritz Bleibtreu, who was seen in last year's excellent The Baader-Meinhoff Complex), is let out on parole. Oh, yeah, and a slimy real-estate shark is maneuvering to buy the restaurant for a greedy developer (Udo Kier of Andy Warhol's Dracula and Frankenstein fame, and memorable as "Hans" in My Own Private Idaho).
According to a producer's note, Soul Kitchen has its roots in a cinematic genre popular in 1950's Germany known as "Heimat" films. Heimat translates as "home," as in "a place of family and friends ... a place of escape and of magic where you fall in love or fail in love." The current movie has more of a 70's vibe to it via the music (by Kool & the Gang, Quincy Jones and Sam Cooke, among others), psychedelic closing credits and rapid-fire editing. It also boasts an amusing, relatively tame orgy — inspired by an aphrodisiac-laced dessert — that wouldn't be out of place in one of Warhol's or Russ Meyers' soft-core classics.
Even if it is occasionally predictable, Soul Kitchen serves up a tasty dish.
Winter's Bone: A
Soul Kitchen: B+
UPDATE: Winter's Bone is available on DVD and Blu-ray and Soul Kitchen is available on DVD from Amazon.com.
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.