The Artist (PG-13, 2011, Sony Pictures)
A silent film about the death of silent films, and it vaults past the technologically massive likes of “Hugo” and “War Horse” to take home 2011’s Best Picture Oscar? If, studio executives forbid, “The Artist” ever got a sequel, it has a Hollywood ending already laid out for it. With that said, let’s hope it doesn’t happen, because the story of silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) — whose career spirals downward after talking pictures introduce a new wave of stars, including a woman (Bérénice Bejo as Peppy Miller) he helped discover — is perfectly fulfilled as is. Inevitably, some measure of thanks is owed to simple novelty: Watching a new silent film with all the visual and musical trimmings is a treat, and watching the familiar, contemporary likes of John Goodman, Malcolm McDowell and James Cromwell get fully into the act is a bizarre double treat. But what elevates the “The Artist” from merely amusing to great is its ability to actually understand the medium instead of simply mine its novelty. George’s downfall takes him to some very dark corners, and it’d make for an absolutely dreary story if presented along the lines of a contemporary production. But there’s little room for dry misery in a film where a soundtrack and the non-verbal mannerisms of the cast — including those of George’s dog (Uggie), who is as much a star of this story as any human being — carry all the weight. “The Artist” keeps it honest, but it just as consciously keeps it lively. It transcends form and novelty to give its own voice to the modern trimmings it supposedly lacks, and its status as a 2011 filmmaking hallmark is very genuinely deserved.
Extras: Cast/crew Q&A, three behind-the-scenes features, bloopers.
21 Jump Street (R, 2012, Sony Pictures)
There is nothing cute about a shameless remake that makes jokes about being a shameless remake while it tramples all over the memory of the thing it’s remaking. Fortunately, by the time “21 Jump Street” gets around to making this joke — and doing a funny job of it, it bears mentioning — it has pretty clearly established that it isn’t really trying to remake or desecrate anything. Instead, “Street,” reinvented as a buddy comedy and set briefly in 2005 before flashing forward to present day, is effectively a sequel that stands mostly on its own. Similarly, Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) — who are part of a resurrected program that infiltrates high schools with cops posing as students — are their own characters and not sorry reboots of Hanson and Penhall. With that established, “Street” becomes a legitimately funny movie about Schmidt and Jenko first and a reverent nod to the past only when a callback is appropriate. And without the baggage of trying and inevitably failing to overwrite the work Johnny Depp and co. already put in, the new “Street” just has a blast being itself. Some loyal fans will still seethe, perhaps more so because of how loosely related the movie is to the show. But considering how miserably the alternate strategy usually turns out, a funny movie that goes its own way is endlessly preferable to a needless retread that goes nowhere. Brie Larson, Dave Franco, Rob Riggle and Nick Offerman also star, and Ice Cube steals nearly every scene he enters as the magnificently straight-shooting captain of the program.
Extras: Tatum/Hill/directors commentary, deleted scenes, five behind-the-scenes features, bloopers, Ice Cube outtakes.
Bullhead (R, 2011, Drafthouse Films)
Jacky (Matthias Schoenaerts) has been ingesting an insane cocktail of steroids and testosterone supplements since a childhood incident made some degree of medication necessary. If you’re wondering exactly what that incident was, worry not: “Bullhead” will show you, and like most milestones in Jacky’s life (and despite “Bullhead’s” tasteful presentation), it isn’t pretty. Most of Jacky’s story as we see it takes place in present day, and his role in a messy new endeavor — involving murder, illegal deals, a meat mafioso (no joke) and a role player (Jeroen Perceval) who was Jacky’s childhood friend and who witnessed the earlier incident — ranges from ancillary to accidental. “Bullhead’s” choice to revolve around Jacky creates an arguable disservice for that storyline, which has enough characters, problems and intrigue to carry the film by itself but instead must split time with the other matters of Jacky’s present and past. But the time spent away from that story rarely feels wasted on the twitching, fidgeting and perennially socially overwhelmed Jacky, who toes the line between stoicism and wildfire anger with a level of fragility that’s completely engrossing. “Bullhead” doesn’t fully fill in the gaps of either story, but it paints quite a picture with what it does provide. Considering how good it is at showing things where words wouldn’t do justice, those gaps it leaves — and, subsequently, trust you to decipher and fill in on your own — feel like a product of purpose instead of oversight. Jeanne Dandoy and Robin Valvekens (as younger Jacky), among others, comprise an impressive ensemble cast. In Dutch and French with English subtitles.
Extras: Short film “The One Thing to Do” (also starring Schoenaerts), director commentary, behind-the-scenes feature, interviews, liner notes booklet with Michael Mann introduction.
Damages: The Complete Fourth Season (NR, 2011, Sony Pictures)
Not even a few minutes old, the fourth season of “Damages” makes it clear a key character is in some serious — potentially fatal — trouble. Want to find out what happens next? You will … in roughly nine episodes or so. First, though, “Damages” has to whisk us three months backward to meticulously piece together who’s in trouble, how he or she got there and (eventually) where things go from there. For “Damages” fans, none of this is new, because this marks the fourth time in four seasons the show has effectively spoiled part of its season finale during the season’s very first scene. Fortunately, and once again, it teases in exactly the right way — enough details to sketch out the situation, but not nearly enough to telegraph the often brilliant revelations that ink those lines solid. The serial format and masterful execution of a potentially disastrous gimmick is all thats needed to elevate “Damages” beyond being just another show about lawyers and clients way in over their heads. But it’s the mine-laden relationship between ruthless attorney Patty Hewes (Glenn Close) and former protege, former adversary and current wild card Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne) — now entering its fourth rodeo, set three years after the third — that keeps the gimmick from showing any age whatsoever. Season four takes on another thorny topic in private militaries and the contracts that love them, and as usual, the supporting cast it ropes in (John Goodman, Chris Messina, Judd Hirsch, Derek Webster and an absolutely terrifying Dylan Baker) is first-rate all around.
Contents: 10 episodes, plus deleted scenes, outtakes and two behind-the-scenes features.
The Sarah Silverman Program. The Complete Series (NR, 2007, Comedy Central/Shout Factory)
Sarah Silverman isn’t exactly an obscure name in comedy, nor is she really the quiet, shy type on stage. But if you’ve never heard of “The Sarah Silverman Program,” you might be surprised to learn not only that it exists in the first place, but that it ran for three seasons and 32 episodes. Also surprising: It isn’t a crude sketch or standup show, but a silly sitcom starring an alternate-universe Silverman, an alternate-universe version of her sister (Laura Silverman), a mustached cop (Jay Johnston) and two token gay neighbors with red hair (Brian Posehn and Steve Agee). Though Silverman’s fingerprints are visible here and there, “Program” — a quirky mix between “Strangers With Candy’s” absurd melodrama, “Curb Your Enthusiasm’s” experiments in poor social behavior and musical numbers for the heck of it — is appealing enough to enjoy even if you typically loathe her comedy. It isn’t as brilliant as either of those two aforementioned shows, but it’s never dull and — especially when Posehn and Agee are on screen — often very funny.
Contents: 32 episodes, plus the original pilot commentary, writers/producers interview, behind-the-scenes shorts, audition footage, 2007 Comic-Con panel footage, musical performances, karaoke and animatics.
The Perfect Family (PG-13, 2011, Virgil Films)
If you’ve seen your share of movies, you need not be a pessimist to already know any movie called “The Perfect Family” has no such thing waiting in store. On the surface, the conflict is all but gift-wrapped: Eileen (Kathleen Turner) is a finalist for a Catholic Woman of the Year award, but her chances of winning ride partly on her presentation of a recovering alcoholic husband (Michael McGrady), a son (Jason Ritter) who wants out of his marriage and a pregnant daughter (Emily Deschanel) who wishes to marry and raise her child with another woman (Angelique Cabral). All the things the church loves, in other words. Initially, and almost shockingly, “Family” resists letting the obvious themes run the show. It’s a story about the family and particularly Eileen, who lets her own flaws fly in pretty amusing and honest fashion. Perfect or not, Eileen’s family is plenty easy to like, and “Family” looks primed to be a refreshing, reasonable and funny take on the tired dysfunctional family bit. But an unfunny thing happens en route to that happening: Those themes mount a comeback. Eventually, they take a commanding lead and strip “Family” of its sense of humor while reducing it to the very simple and preachy thing it seemed to be working so hard to avoid being. Eileen never becomes unlikable, and Turner stems the damage with her delivery. But without any help from the script, all she can do is salvage the scraps of what should have been a considerably more interesting (and funnier) finish to a promising beginning.
Extras: Turner commentary, photo gallery.
A Thousand Words (PG-13, 2012, Paramount)
Whether it’s at home, at work or in the back of the line at a coffee shop, Jack (Eddie Murphy) will say absolutely anything to manipulate a situation for his personal gain. But one con too many prompts a mystical tree to spring in his yard. For every word Jack says or even writes, the tree loses a leaf, and with each leaf lost, Jack’s health worsens. So Jack goes silent in order to stay alive, and that’s the good news about “A Thousand Words.” The bad news? The rest of the cast doesn’t have a tree of its own. “Words'” opens with a terrific first-scene tease of things to come, and there’s no shortage of clever places to take this idea. But while he has his voice, Jack is obnoxious even with the understanding that anyone the universe wants to shut up or die must be annoying. And once Jack goes quiet, his verbal obnoxiousness transfers over to just about everybody else. (Murphy, meanwhile, has nothing to do but mug furiously for the sake of doing so, further wasting his talent.) “Words” looks at all the funny, clever places it could take its premise and shrugs, opting instead for cheap and easy jokes that could slot into just about any mailed-in comedy with a little tinkering. “Words” caps off its sorry, cynical attempt at comedy with a wildly self-congratulatory round of spiritual about-facing for Jack that’s unintentionally funnier than any joke it tells on purpose. When a significant portion of your spiritual awakening entails bonding with your barista and valet, you have no business imparting wisdom on anyone.
Extra: Deleted scenes.