The Big Year (PG, 2011, Fox)
As one passerby in “The Big Year” remarks, only Americans could turn birding — the inside-baseball term for bird-watching — into a competition. But every January, a cadre of birders trek around North America in a madcap, yearlong quest to photograph as many species of birds as nature, outside obligations and sheer determination allow. It’s called The Big Year, its only prize is pride, and this particular year, it will intertwine the lives of two rookies — bumbling programmer Brad (Jack Black) and self-made business maven Stu (Steve Martin) — and a veteran (Owen Wilson as Kenny) who fears his world record could be endangered. “Year” comes based on a novel that itself is an infectiously enjoyable open love letter to compulsive birding. Impressively, the movie is as well — so much so that it arguably defies precise classification. “Year” is neither darkly nor fall-down funny, nor is it even built around gags or slapstick. The object of the movie may not even be to make people laugh. But before you dismiss that notion as a gross misuse of the word “comedy,” it’s important to draw a distinction between a movie designed to make you laugh and one capable of commanding and holding a smile nearly without pause for 100 minutes. In lieu of repackaged laughs that could fit into umpteen other comedies, “Year” offers a uplifting, deeply likable and contagiously fun look at a pursuit you may not even know exists. Be glad the birding class of 2012 has built an insurmountable lead by the time you see this. Had it not, and if “Year’s” portrayal is at all faithful, you might be tempted to escape the daily doldrums and ride with them.
Extra: Extended and theatrical versions.
Drive (R, 2011, Sony Pictures)
Say this for “Drive:” In the long, winding vein of movies about drivers for hire (Ryan Gosling) trying to save an innocent heroine (Carey Mulligan as Irene) caught inside a bad mob deal over which she had no control and barely any ties, it inarguably marches to its own beat — debatably, to a fault. To delve further into “Drive’s” story wouldn’t be to spoil it — because what you read above is, details aside, all there fundamentally is to it. Stuff happens — quite violently, in fact — and between the bloodshed, “Drive” looks awfully pretty and speaks with great care while that stuff happens. But at no point does Gosling’s unnamed character come into meaningful focus. It doesn’t make much sense why he goes to such grisly lengths to protect Irene, and when “Driver” wraps its business, it’s hard to discern what all the thousand-yard stares and contemplative moments (to say nothing of the mournful Brian Eno song that plays three separate times) were trying to say. Maybe they aren’t saying anything, and maybe “Drive” is just that rare action movie that hangs out at the intersection between pretentious art film and narratively empty violence run wild. It’s ability to hang at that intersection makes it novel, and that novelty makes it a more interesting movie than the same story would have been under conventional circumstances. But that doesn’t mean you won’t hate it as much as others loved it, and it certainly doesn’t mean this rare combination need ever become the norm. Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman, Oscar Isaac and Christina Hendricks also star.
Extras: Director interview, four behind-the-scenes features.
Thunder Soul (PG, 2011, Lions Gate)
It’s a plot straight out of a feel-good summer movie: A music teacher assembles a band of unseasoned, occasionally undisciplined high school musicians and turns them into a force of funk nature that transcends high school competitions and sends tremors though the musical landscape at large. But thanks to the efforts of Conrad “Prof” Johnson, there’s nothing fictitious about the Kashmere Stage Band, which changed the face of stage music and put a charge in music that resonates to this day. “Thunder Soul” brings the band back together to play one more time for Prof on his birthday, and if you’re wondering why, how does “just because” sound? Part history lesson, part retrospective, part can-they-still-play mystery (some haven’t touched an instrument in 30 years, after all) and all kinds of heartfelt, “Soul” ultimately is a wondrous celebration of how the work of one person can set in motion a ripple that shapes impressionable lives and creates bonds durable enough to pick up right where they left off decades earlier. That this incredible teaching moment also changed the face of music? That’s simply a bonus — a thrilling one, as “Soul’s” relentlessly infectious soundtrack makes crystal clear, but a bonus just the same.
Extras: Filmmakers commentary, new footage from the 1974 documentary “Prof & The Band.”
Limelight (NR, 2011, Magnolia)
You know how sometimes, when something goes completely sideways, no one wants to talk about it? “Limelight” does not have this problem. At all. “Limelight” begins in earnest as a portrait of Peter Gatien’s relentless ascent to the top of New York’s nightclub scene, where he managed four clubs and 15,000 nightly customers at his peak in the 1990s. But then Rudy Giuliani happened, and when a crackdown on ecstasy allegedly turned back the curtain on a system of organized, club-sponsored drug trafficking that made “The Wire’s” corners look like Sesame Street, all hell broke loose. Had “Limelight” been saddled with telling the story all by itself, it might be a pedestrian case of just another downfall of a club kingpin who felt a little too invincible for his own good. Fortunately, the movie has help, and from everywhere. Gatien speaks, former patrons speak, former partners and employers speak, and his adversaries — in business and government — speak as well. The flurry of dirt and accusations is documentary crossfire at its finest, and when you combine that bitterness with a wistfulness of an era gone by — the credits reveal what The Limelight nightclub has turned into today, and it’s alternately gutting and hilarious — it’s a mess of personal feelings unleashed for the camera. Who’s lying? Who isn’t? Who knows. “Limelight’s” closing moments include a considerable roundup of people who declined to talk, and the message here is too muddled to pass for damning insight. As entertainment, though, it passes with flying colors.
Extra: Deleted scenes.
In Time (PG-13, 2011, Fox)
Time literally is money in “In Time.” Turn 25, and you have a year to live, but because time is now a currency, you can add to that balance or spend it foolishly. If you can do it with money in our world, you can do it with time in theirs — especially if, like Will (Justin Timberlake), you receive a century’s worth simply for helping a stranger whose fatigue with being nearly immortal (and living a sheltered, risk-free life to stay that way) compels him to give his time away. The stranger wants Will to use his time well, and with that table-setter, “Time” has a staggering cluster of allegorical roads down which to take this idea. Unfortunately, it chooses the one — a scramble amongst criminals, authorities and the rich to take from Will what he was given — most probably expect it to take. “Time” runs pretty wild with the implications of its concept and its upheaval of the notions of wealth, aging and what it means to truly live. But while it’s loaded with clever little ideas, it spends too much time on a flat big idea that devolves into just another good guy/bad guy chase across town. Replace time with money, and the general storyline could be any old movie about the corrupt and powerful chasing a guy who found a fortune they feel is theirs. You can’t say that about the smaller details, which makes “Time” fun to watch anyway. Given the number of horizons that lay at it feet, though, it’s disappointing you can say it at all.
Extra: Deleted/extended scenes.
The Double (PG-13, 2011, Image Entertainment)
A U.S. senator is murdered almost in cold blood, and all signs point to it being the work of a familiar killer. Problem is, the assassin — a Soviet code-named Cassius — is supposed to be dead. The retired federal agent who declared him dead (Richard Gere) is pulled back in and teamed with a rising star (Topher Grace) whose thesis about Cassius got him in the door. There’s more to the story than that, but delving any further would constitute a spoiler, and this is not a movie that can really afford to take that kind of hit. “The Double” has two excellent surprises in store, and it surrounds those surprises with fallout and buildup that’s pretty good but only pretty good. Specifically, it lets surprise No. 1 out a little too early and builds on it in a way that’s conventional and almost functions as stalling toward the inevitable result of that surprise. Surprise No. 2 provides a nice twist on that inevitability, but by the time it arrives, we’re halfway past the climax and out of good uses for it. Ultimately, though it looks good and plays all the right thriller notes, “The Double” probably feels like a movie you’ve seen before — even if the concept brought forth by those surprises is new to you.
Extras: Filmmakers commentary, interviews.
Dream House (PG-13, 2011, Universal)
Will (Daniel Craig) has a loving wife (Rachel Weisz), two loving children, and what should be a lovely future in a beautiful new house. But what’s up with the creepy teenagers Will caught throwing a morbid party in his basement one night? And what’s all this talk about a murder taking place in this house five years prior? Will sets out to investigate, and when “Dream House” reaches its halfway point, it gives him a surprising answer that considerably alters the meaning of everything that transpired during those first 45 minutes. That’s great, because “House” starts slow and kind of lumbers forward until it reaches that fork. Problem is, it ends slowly as well. While “House” rebuilds its deck in a memorable way, the excitement needle gradually reverts back to its original position while Will makes sense of these revelations. The back half, like the front half, lumbers along conventional lines for the most part, but this time, there’s no shocker waiting to rewrite all that preceded it. A few glances into Will’s well-being aside, it’s a thriller-by-numbers with a good idea but limited ability to take it places. Naomi Watts also stars.
Extra: Four behind-the-scenes features.
— “To Kill a Mockingbird: 50th Anniversary Collection” (NR, 1962, Universal): The year’s first significant anniversary celebration goes to “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which doubles up on celebrations as part of Universal’s 100th Anniversary Collector’s Series. In addition to digitally-restored DVD, Blu-ray and digital copy editions of the film, this set — packaged inside a 44-page booklet containing storyboards, production notes, photos, posters and more — includes commentary with the film’s director and producer, a feature-length conversation with star Gregory Peck, the feature-length making-of documentary “Fearful Symmetry,” a retrospective with star Mary Badham, footage of Peck’s Best Actor and AFI Lifetime Achievement Award acceptance speeches and more.
— “The Comic Strip Presents…: The Complete Collection” (NR, 1982, Entertainment One): Chances are, unless you really know your sketch comedy history, Britain’s “The Comic Strip Presents…” has eluded you. At long last, it’s no longer a hassle or legally dubious to see what shook up British TV in the early 1980s — and launched the careers of Adrian Edmondson, Jennifer Saunders and Robbie “Rubeus Hagrid” Coltrane. The nine-disc set includes all 39 episodes, plus live performance footage, a retrospective and the two-part “First Laugh on Four” documentary.