HELI: From the first frames of Amat Escalante's Heli, a dusty and bleak dirge about how the US-led drug war has spread like an airborne virus into the most humble households of Mexican society, you can tell that this is a bad land. We see a close-up of a face, bloodied, with duct tape over its mouth and a boot on its forehead, bouncing gently against the bed of a moving pickup truck. Near the head, a pair of feet twitch weakly. The shot—as careful as a still life, with the faded paint of the bed of the truck, the rust peeking out, and the darker and more ominous rust-colored blood—is a distillation of Heli's mood: a careful study in color of the stark moments that are part of a stupid war that's far too dangerous for journalists and documentarians to safely get close to.
After the enigmatic truck ride, the film shifts to rural sprawl around an automobile factory where a young man named Heli lives a modest life with his father, wife, baby, and 12-year-old sister—but the ominous tone is set. With every knock on the door, every journey along an abandoned dirt road, arbitrary violence seems ready to explode. And it does.
Heli's young sister is dating an older teenager who stumbles across some stashed cocaine. When he takes the packets and hides them in Heli's house, hoping to sell them so he and his 12-year-old girlfriend can get married and run away, the dominoes (and people) begin to fall. Soldiers kick down the door, start shooting, and demand to know where the drugs are. (How did they know?) Heli, his sister, and her boyfriend are driven to a dark warren where, they're told, they will "get to know God in the valley of the damned." Heli's ordeal extends beyond his torture and release—he can't trust the cops. Those were the cops.
Escalante fills Heli with gorgeous desolation: factory workers' pre-shift calisthenics to tinkling music that sounds like the soundtrack to a carousel; a Mexican official giving a hollow speech about the importance of the rule of law while a giant bonfire of marijuana burns behind him; a black dog trotting down a gravel road under a blue-black sky. The paradox of Heli is this: It's a beautiful film that is difficult to watch. BRENDAN KILEY
ALIVE INSIDE: The scene in Alive Inside of 94-year-old Henry coming back from the dead may stay with you as long as you live. It is not describable; you must see it. There are at least three scenes of this magnitude in this new, inspiring, and terribly important documentary. It is the story of a social worker named Dan Cohen, who figures out almost by chance that we are doing aging wrong—turning humans into isolated and drugged vegetables—and that an iPod loaded with their favorite music will unlock a person every time. Cohen comes up against the nursing-home industrial complex in his quest to get iPods into the hands of 1.6 million American residents. Neurologists and doctors and nurses testify in support of him, to only slight avail. Look: The humans of this country are aging in unprecedented numbers. Bring them their music. You should probably listen to more music, too. JEN GRAVES
LEVEL FIVE: Chris Marker's Level Five, a multilayered effort—experimental film, historical documentary, love story—from 1997, has finally come to the US, much like Eric Rohmer's A Summer's Tale and Alain Resnais's Je T'aime, Je T'aime, two other French films that never saw a stateside run until this summer. As with Resnais's time-travel film, Level Five arrives from the past to consider the past, since Marker built it around Battle of Okinawa, and the director, like the Japanese citizens who took their lives in 1945, is no longer with us (Marker died at 91 years old in 2012). In the film, Catherine Belkhodja plays programmer Laura (the name's a nod to the Otto Preminger noir), who inherits an incomplete video game about the Okinawa tragedy from her late partner. By working on the game, she keeps his memory alive—she talks to it like Joaquin Phoenix talks to his operating system in Her—while developing a deeper understanding of the Okinawans who chose death over defeat. Level Five shares little connective tissue with previous video-game films like Tron, and it's more challenging than La Jetée, Marker's best-known work (which inspired 12 Monkeys), but it confirms Marker as cinema's most empathetic essayist. KATHY FENNESSY