Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
dir. Sidney Lumet

It may sound like a limited endorsement (his previous films were last year's Find Me Guilty and the 1999 Sharon Stone vehicle Gloria), but old-timer Sidney Lumet is back with the best thing he's done in years: an intense, gripping thriller centered on a toxic relationship between two brothers. Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a payroll manager with a frustrated trophy wife (a sultry, underused Marisa Tomei) and a secret drug addiction, and Hank (Ethan Hawke) is a hapless, divorced father struggling to scrape together child support. Driven by a combination of financial factors and what might be described as severe daddy issues (dad is played by Albert Finney, with chunks of scenery between his teeth), Andy manipulates his brother into robbing their parents' jewelry store. It's not giving away too much to say it's the most disastrous holdup since... Lumet's own Dog Day Afternoon. But while that movie had flashes of compassion for its character's predicament, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is a thoroughly cynical piece of work. The bad choices in this film are not the result of good intentions, and the notion of family as refuge from an unforgiving world is turned on its head.

Lumet and screenwriter Kelly Masterson present the action in nonchronological fragments, often returning to the same moment to show it from a new perspective. The structure seems gimmicky at first, but eventually feels right; the movie doesn't document a slow descent, but a rapid downward spiral that sends shards of the story and its characters' lives flying in all directions. As we zip back and forth between the days leading up to the robbery and its panicky aftermath, the sense of disintegration is palpable.

Rather than let the material play out as a straight crime flick, the director and writer heighten the pitch, going for something grander and darker. The emotions are primal, the body count soars, and the underlying themes of jealousy, guilt, and choice feel weighty and ancient. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is essentially an urban take on Greek tragedy, without the catharsis. It's also so perversely fun that a few false notes—a pushy score and certain moments that veer toward a cheaper kind of melodrama—don't nag as much as they might have. Lumet's major coup here is in making the viewer's anxiety a ticklish, almost masochistically pleasurable sensation. What happens in the movie is unhappy stuff, but there's mischief in the way each colossally bad decision leads to another, and you may find yourself smiling at how deftly Lumet and Masterson send these slippery bastards scrambling toward their fates.

The movie wouldn't work nearly as well as it does without Hoffman, who makes Andy both monstrous and almost touching. He nails a delicate speech in a latter-day opium den, confessing that his "parts don't add up"; a tiny moment where he tries to open a door without leaving fingerprints is a miniature master class in physical acting. Hawke is a fussier performer, and his desperation feels stagy at times. Still, any movie with enough balls to suggest that the pig-snouted Hoffman and the fine-boned Hawke emerged from the same gene pool deserves respect in my book. JON FROSCH

American Gangster
dir. Ridley Scott

A multitude of cinematic sins can be laid at Sir Ridley Scott's feet, ranging from his creation of the MTV blue-light flash style of filmmaking, to how his early success in commercials paved the way for the ascent of the Great Satan Michael Bay, or even that his fondness for smoke machines conceivably sped along global warming by a decade or more. (See also: Tom Cruise in Legend.) What ultimately differentiates Scott from his legions of numbskull imitators, though, is the surprising amount of passion and enthusiasm he pours into his immaculate images. No matter how insanely detailed his tech-noir trappings, there's a genuine pulse lurking deep below.

American Gangster, Scott's first film since the misguided but enjoyable A Good Year, feels like one of the rare cases of the director just phoning it in. Despite an intriguing true story and the seemingly surefire combo of Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, everyone involved seems to be coasting.

Steven Zaillian's script follows the rise and fall of New York drug kingpin Frank Lucas (Washington), a small-time bodyguard who hits pay dirt with an ingenious scheme involving American casualties in Vietnam, and the one honest cop in the city (Crowe) who vows to take him down. It's potentially fascinating stuff, but even the usually dependable Crowe is stuck in one-note white-bread good-guy mode. (The one exception is Josh Brolin, who brings a hilariously skuzzy energy to his role as a graft-happy detective.) Scott's gift for composition and the occasional flash of wickedness from Washington keeps this from being a bad film, precisely, just a disappointing one. ANDREW WRIGHT

Martian Child
dir. Menno Meyjes

The title character in Martian Child is what would result if Jack Klugman's single, tattered vocal cord impregnated Anne Heche and she gave birth to an albino bug. The bug child walks around all day rasping about Mars, or hiding in a box and demanding Lucky Charms, or thieving, or totally freaking out while he waits for a real family ("Boo hoo! Where's my mother ship?").

I mean, is there anything cuter than an abused child with severe emotional problems? That is a rhetorical question, which means shut up. Dennis, the squeaky bug boy, gets himself adopted by John Cusack, a science-fiction writer who knows just a leeeetle bit about alienation himself, if you know what I mean!!! I mean that he was once nerdy. They have a rough time, then a better time, then a bad time, then a great time. Martian Child makes its point—which is basically, "Unconditional love! Go for it!"—with an uninspired combo of whimsy ("A little martian chose you to teach him about being human!") and blunt force (Cusack's publisher demands, "Why can't you just be what we want you to be?").

This movie is so full of lessons it might have been based on a very pink bestseller called Everything I Need to Know in Life I Learned from This Crazy Albino Bug. The only thing that kept me awake was the possibility that the bug child might actually be from Mars. But that's stupid, because everyone knows that Mars doesn't exist. Nice try, nerds! LINDY WEST

dir. Rob Stewart

Rob Stewart, the boyish director and star of this film, can be a cheeseball. But he is so in love with sharks, and sharks need his love so much, and so many other people love to hate sharks, that this movie ranks up there, despite its occasional stinky ripeness, with the best of the rile-'em-up, change-the-world documentaries. Every man, woman, and child should be strapped into a chair and shown it.

Because: Did you know that 90 percent of the world's sharks have been killed in recent years, largely by being hauled onto a boat, having their fins sliced off while they shuddered, and then being thrown back into the water, where they immediately sink to the ocean floor and bleed to death? You will see this happen many, many times in Sharkwater. If you love living things, this will be punishing to watch. If you love only yourself, you still might be moved to consider that sharks are at the top of the food chain in the world's largest ecosystem—the one that allows you to feed and drink and breathe.

And if you are immune to all these things, that's fine, because Sharkwater is a straight-up action flick (it's a shark movie!). Between impassioned voiceovers and extended shots of sharks moving through glimmery water like pretty angels, Stewart spends his time underwater hugging sharks (briefly!), being chased across borders by a Central American shark-poaching-mafia gunboat, narrowly avoiding arrest by a corrupt government, and nearly losing his leg. What did I tell you? JEN GRAVES

Wristcutters: A Love Story
dir. Goran Dukic

How quirky is too quirky, anyhow? Finally seeing the light of day after a much-buzzed screening at last year's Sundance, Wristcutters: A Love Story hangs on to the edge of enjoyably oddball without falling into molar-decaying twee.

Working from a novella by cult writer Etgar Keret, director Goran Dukic posits a universe where all of the world's suicides are condemned to work dead-end jobs in a grayscale, noticeably SoCal-ish region of limbo. When a recent addition (Patrick Fugit) ventures into uncharted territories in search of an old girlfriend, he runs into a slew of eccentrics, including an emo hitchhiker (Shannyn Sossamon), who insists that she's there due to a clerical foul-up.

It's much less arch than it sounds, thankfully, with an ingenious use of found locations and a winning sense of its own absurdities. Fugit and Sossamon are, admittedly, a shade pale as the leads, but they're more than compensated for by a superb supporting cast including Miranda July fave John Hawkes, Will Arnett, and Tom Waits at his most beatifically craggled. The rate of invention does sputter a tad during the last act (right around the time when someone discovers a literal black hole under a car seat), but when it's cooking, Dukic's sharply muzzy debut favorably recalls the all-too-brief post–Repo Man era, when the possibilities of indie film seemed head-bustingly limitless. Oh, and the ending? Dead solid perfection. ANDREW WRIGHT