The Descent
dir. Neil Marshall

Writer/director Neil Marshall first raised horror-fan eyebrows with 2002's Dog Soldiers, an overly jokey, shot-on-spare-change Welsh werewolf saga that nevertheless carried a few tantalizing hints of something greater, primarily when the swiftly dwindling band of protagonists found themselves trapped in the direst of straits.

It's hard to imagine, however, that even the savviest watchers could have anticipated anything like the bump up in quality for Marshall's second film, The Descent. The story of six female spelunkers trapped several miles below the surface of the earth, the movie is, from the get-go, hugely claustrophobic and skin-crawlingly intense. And then the flesh-eating monsters come out. Hyperbole be danged: This is the best, purest horror film in years.

Narratively speaking, Marshall brings the hammer down, in what should serve as a model for aspiring genre filmmakers. The pace is ruthlessly swift, the characterizations (particularly Shauna Macdonald's grieving, possibly delusional mother and the gorgeous Natalie Mendoza's overly gung-ho trailblazer) are quickly but satisfyingly sketched out, and anything extraneous gets chucked over the side. Marshall's influences are easy to spot: the imploding, shifting group dynamics of Carpenter and Romero here, Tobe Hooper's sudden bursts of lens-smearing carnage there, and the inventive relentlessness of early Spielberg everywhere (speaking of which, a moment involving a night-vision camcorder stands as the best creature reveal since Roy Scheider nonchalantly slung chum over the bow in Jaws). Rather than feeling derivative, however, Marshall's exhilaratingly grueling film stands as a worthy successor, and one that, in a few instances, maybe even improves on the form. For fans used to picking the rare burst of inspiration out of legions of otherwise humdrum fright flicks, this comes perilously close to mainlining. ANDREW WRIGHT

Little Miss Sunshine
dir. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

A monster hit at Sundance, where it was picked up for a record-breaking $10.5 million, Little Miss Sunshine is brazen enough to truck in well-worn indie film trappings. Which is to say it's a dysfunctional family road trip comedy built upon a mountain of character quirks. Call it Indie Filmmaking 101.

Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Alan Arkin, and Steve Carell star as motivational speaker father, beleaguered mother, loony grandfather, and gay Proust-scholar uncle, respectively. The plot sends them tripping from New Mexico to California, where youngest daughter Olive (Abigail Breslin) is due to compete in a pre-teen beauty pageant. Along the way, wounds are healed, emotional crises are addressed, and fraying bonds are finally cemented.

The proceedings start out strong, as directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris introduce each character via a beautifully constructed montage—no surprise, given they cut their creative teeth directing many heavily rotated music videos over the years. But it's during the less frenetic moments when Little Miss Sunshine, despite its catchy title, fails to stand out. Fully embracing every convenient character kink to be found in writer Michael Arndt's screenplay (oldest son Dwayne has taken a vow of silence, grandpa is a heroin-addicted WWII vet, uncle Frank is suicidal and gay, etc.), Dayton and Faris keep things moving at an impressive clip. Unfortunately, the expediency does little beyond gloss over the script's glaring flaws, most notably the lack of a properly cathartic third act.

At its best, the film achieves a sort of hipster whimsy; at its worst, it's forced to create gross caricatures in order to lend its characters a semblance of humanity in comparison. Little Miss Sunshine takes us from dusty New Mexico to sunny California. It's a hectic, occasionally hilarious, trip. But once we arrive at our destination, the message turns out to be one of healing through mockery. How do you heal the rifts in your family? According to this film, by finding families worse than your own. Sunshine indeed. BRADLEY STEINBACHER

The Night Listener
dir. Patrick Stettner

In The Night Listener, Robin Williams displays not even a hint of his usual coked-out toddler steez, impersonates Lawrence Welk a delightful zero times, and puts a smile on the face of exactly no cancer kids by never wearing a clown nose or putting a bedpan on his head. In fact, for most of the film, he's morose nearly to the point of catatonia, making The Night Listener the most consistently bearable Robin Williams movie ever.

But that doesn't mean it doesn't totally suck genie-ass. Williams is Gabriel Noone, a sort of gay Garrison Keillor, nationally beloved for the soothing yarns of gay love he spins on his radio show, "Noone at Night" (gaaay!). Having recently separated from his much younger, hotter boyfriend Jess (Snakes on a Plane star Bobby Cannavale—sorry, but no way could Robin Williams snag a babe like that), Gabriel finds distraction in mentoring, over the phone, a 14-year-old syphilitic child-prostitution victim (Rory Culkin) who just wants his memoir published before he dies of AIDS, and who may or may not exist entirely in the mind of Toni Collette.

The Night Listener is a wholly unthrilling thriller—a mystery that solves itself in the first 20 minutes, then spends the next 71 just double-checking. Collette, as Donna, the film's ambiguous villainess, looks creepy enough, but she's hardly menacing in the Misery kind of way that's so obviously implied. Donna terrorizes Gabriel not with imprisonment, crazed grins, or shattered ankles, but just constant, irritating phone calls. Maybe the thought of a gay Robin Williams staring grumpily at a telephone for an hour and a half is chilling to you. Well, congrats. At least he's not wearing suspenders. LINDY WEST

Lower City
dir. Sérgio Machado

Everything about Lower City is spun to make you think of City of God, from the setting (Brazilian cities) to the personnel (some coproducers) to the title. It plays the exotic sex-and-violence card, but Lower City is no City of God. Or Y Tu Mamá También. Or even Chocolat.

There's a black guy and a white guy—I can't be bothered to remember their names—and they're best buddies. They do everything together: drink, fight, defend each other's honor, go to cockfights, call each other "brother." They also co-own a boat for small-time cargo shipments and smuggling. On one of their river runs, they pick up a prostitute, both fuck her, and both fall in love with her. Their rivalry tears them apart, yadda yadda, until, in the only interesting scene in the film, they beat the teeth out of each other on a midday backstreet while deadpan spectators watch from their windows and doorways. The movie mostly drags; the only response it arouses is indignation at the way the filmmakers treat Ms. Prostitute. She's not a character, she's just a fuck-basket, doing both boys for fun and other boys for money. She doesn't have any ideas, any gumption, any desires other than getting laid and getting paid.

Lower City isn't even shot well. For all the time the trio spends on rivers and in the urban underworld, there isn't a single memorable image. City of God plays to some orientalist/tropicalist fantasies of North American liberals, but it remains a great movie because it's less a story about individuals than a story of an aggregate of people trapped inside the physical, economic, and moral architecture of a poor neighborhood. Lower City is about particular people, floating through the Brazilian underclass. The problem: For all their sex and recklessness and lower passions, those people are pretty boring. BRENDAN KILEY

dir. Lee Daniels

Shadowboxer has a number of startling sights. There's the sight of Cuba Gooding Jr. bedding Helen Mirren in the middle of a forest. Of Stephen Dorff's flaccid and condom-bedecked sausage dangling post-coitus. Of a broken pool cue being plunged, sharp end first, into an unwilling cornhole.

That last sight, thankfully, is snipped away from our eyes before it gets too grisly. But it speaks to just the sort of film Shadowboxer is: brutal, irrational, and unafraid of offending. The plot, paper-thin as it is, finds contract killers Rose (Mirren) and Mikey (Gooding Jr.) at a crossroads in both lives and career; she's dying of cancer, he's little more than a killer robot in need of constant direction. When they're hired by lunatic Clayton (Dorff), via a third party, to kill off Clayton's family, the pair are forced to choose a direction and run toward it. They whisk Clayton's wife Vickie (Vanessa Ferlito) and her newborn son to Connecticut, and set them up with a proper home. Then things start to get silly.

First-time director Lee Daniels employs an arsenal of visual gimmicks—everything from saturated colors to jelly on the lens—but no amount of gussying up can cover the fact that the story he has to tell lacks imagination. The tale of the hit man struggling to go legit is one we've seen a number of times (Grosse Pointe Blank, Panic, et al.), and even with Daniels's bizarre casting choices (don't get me started on Joseph Gordon-Levitt making out with Mo'Nique), Shadowboxer can't survive its own unoriginality. At one point Rose describes how she was transformed from a '60s Weather Underground–like radical into a professional killer, and you can't help but wish Daniels had chosen to show us that story instead. BRADLEY STEINBACHER

Only Human
dir. Dominic Harari and Teresa Pelegri

If Little Miss Sunshine sounds too sophisticated for you, you might consider Only Human, a flatfooted Spanish family romp that throws everything in but the kitchen sink. Actually, scratch that. The kitchen sink is the setting for an extended comic sequence about defrosting soup. (And no, it's not funny. Not even when the soup flies out the window and conks a man square on the head, causing him to experience the semifictional but much beloved condition known as retrograde amnesia, and the inability to distinguish a prostitute from his loving wife.) Other supposedly hilarious topics include foot fungal powder, a blind old man putting his face in his granddaughter's fiancé's crotch, and a 6-year-old who sucks her mother's thumb.

Leni (the pretty redhead Marián Aguilera) loves boinking her man Rafi (Guillermo Toledo, who is not pretty—but this fact provides one of the few amusing lines in the movie, so all is forgiven). She wants to bring him home to meet her mom, but there's a hitch: She's Jewish, and he's Palestinian. Since her grandpa is a concentration-camp survivor who fought for Israeli independence, and her brother is born-again Orthodox—with all the zeal and subpar Hebrew that epithet implies—this doesn't go over well. But by the time the movie builds up to the inevitable precoital occupation-versus-terrorist blowout, we've been far too distracted—by amnesia, the sitcommish acting, and, oh yes, the duckling in the bidet—to care. ANNIE WAGNER

The Mostly Unfabulous Social Life of Ethan Green
dir. George Bamber

Gay people learn to stick up for their kind, and after this state's obtuse high-court ruling with regard to gay marriage I wish I could write a review that sticks up for this gay romantic comedy, but I have nothing supportive to say. The Mostly Unfabulous Social Life of Ethan Green is so thumbs-down that not even the preview audience who saw it for free the other night laughed much. (And people who arrange their evening plans around free admission to screenings of low-budget gay movies are, if you'll allow a stereotype here, easy to please.) The actors are indistinguishable, the dialogue is rushed and not at all clever, and the plot isn't worth mentioning.

But quickly: There's a guy named Ethan and he's gay and attentively reading Finding the Boyfriend Within while trying desperately to find the boyfriend without. He dates this guy, he used to date that guy, etc. There are, for the I'm-just-going-to-see-this-movie-because-there-might-be-shots-of-man-parts contingent, shots of certain man parts, but the parts are always calves and pecs and never the good stuff, and the rest of what's happening is so rote that—well, you know how when you're having sex with someone and you wish they would shut up because the more they talk the less sexy they are? That's the best way to describe it. And while it's funny in theory to see two characters carry on a conversation while one of them is on his back with his face between his legs, what actually happens is desensitization followed by boredom followed by annoyance that the movie is still plugging along. I'll leave it to other people to decide whether gay people make good parents, but this much is sure: They make lousy romantic comedies.CHRISTOPHER FRIZZELLE