The Avengers (PG-13, 2012, Disney)
The movie that’s many years and multiple Marvel Studios movies in the making is finally a tangible thing, and it is nothing short of a Hollywood miracle that it’s resisted every urge to devolve into disaster en route to getting here. For the few who don’t know, “The Avengers” is a catch-all sequel to numerous Marvel movies, and it bands together those films’ heroes — Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Captain America (Chris Evans) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth), along with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) — and fills their plate with a calamity to end all calamities. This, of course, is the point where all those heroes should get in each other’s way and create a big-budget mess to end all messes. But rather than rebel against chaos, “The Avengers” embraces it. There are no windy introductions, no unnecessarily long winks at the audience and no melodramatic bridges toward understanding. Only The Hulk gets any kind of lengthy exposition, but it’s central to the storyline and more interesting than the entirety of The Hulk’s previous movie, so it works. Everywhere else, “The Avengers” play fast and loose. Our heroes fly into frame, they get in each other’s way, they bicker in genuinely funny fashion, and when the job calls for it, they improvise and use their respective gifts to tag team to magnificent effect. “The Avengers” makes the smart play by not overloading the screen with as many villains as it has heroes, and the action is just crazy enough to thrill without letting the story lose control. As a case study for superheroes coexisting not so peacefully, it’s a riot that flies by despite the 143-minute runtime. And as a showcase for how gaudy special effects and a relentlessly clever script can play nice together, it’s as good as they get.
Extras: Director commentary, deleted scenes, three behind-the-scenes features, second screen content, bloopers, music video.
Delicacy (PG-13, 2011, Cohen Media Group)
It is no trivial feat to walk into an Audrey Tautou film and more or less steal it from her, and it’s exponentially more difficult when you’re nowhere to be seen during the first third of what already has shaped up to be a very good movie. But that’s how great a character Markus (François Damiens) is after he ambles into his boss’ (Tautou as Nathalie) office and walks out, a minute later, wondering if everything he previously knew was wrong. Without spoiling too much (which, considering how much happens before Markus even appears, means saying almost nothing), “Delicacy” is both aptly and ironically named — a tale of two socially delicate people who accept their condition with all the fragility of a kicking and screaming child. That dichotomy makes for a fun movie all by itself, but the way “Delicacy” carries it through — with equal parts comedy, grace and complete honesty, and through two characters who are equally relatable in spite of immense differences — is impressive all the same. This, unarguably, is Nathalie’s story first, foremost and from start to finish. But it’s Markus — his mannerisms, his realization that the world is full of people just as complicated as he, and his determination to embrace that in spite of himself — that elevates “Delicacy” from something great to one of the year’s best.
Extras: Tautou Interview, behind-the-scenes feature.
Detachment (NR, 2011, Tribeca Film)
Henry (Adrien Brody) is a substitute teacher, and the purpose of his day is to take a classroom of teenagers — who don’t know him, don’t trust him, and will readily terrorize and grind the souls of the regular teachers they actually do know — and try to get them to believe in anything whatsoever. You’ve seen this movie before, and it always ends with a passionate teacher overcoming impossible odds and lightning a fire under students who finally have someone believing in them. But by the time Henry faces off with a student who threatens his well-being before introductions are even made, “Detachment” has made a thousand proclamations that it most emphatically is not that movie. The kids are impenetrable, as evidenced by the bloodbath of screaming, crumbling, raging faculty left in their wake. But Henry is a fortress as well — unflinching when challenged, unafraid to throw a kid out of class and send him nowhere in particular, and so emotionally impassable as to send his students reeling instead of the other way around. “Detachment” doesn’t take any cheap and easy roads toward its construction of what must be any educator’s worst nightmare, nor is it simply a harrowing mess with no point beyond bringing nightmares to life. This, simply, is the story of Henry — the man, his objective, and the tightrope he walks between idealism and absolute black-hearted contempt for all he can and cannot help. It plumbs the depths of its characters’ personal darknesses, and with respect to the name, detached is just about the last thing “Detachment” is when it reaches the bottom. Sami Gayle, Betty Kaye, Marcia Gay Harden, Christina Hendricks, Lucy Liu and James Caan also star.
Extras: Interviews, Tribeca Film Festival premiere footage.
The Do-Deca-Pentathlon (R, 2012, Fox)
In 1990, two brothers waged battle in a 25-event Olympiad that, two decades later, is an object of family legend and a squeaky hinge for wounds that keep swinging open. At long last, the bitterness has reached its inevitable summit: a rematch, and a chance to create two more decades of brand-new acrimony. The potential for silly hijinks is, naturally, endless. But anyone familiar with “The Do-Deca-Pentathlon’s” screenwriters should already know to expect no such thing. Jay and Mark Duplass are masters at taking ideas rife for broad comedy — a slacker spearheading a camping trip, straight male friends filming a love scene, a road trip transporting a puffy purple chair across the country — and turning them instead into uncomfortable and borderline miserable examinations of human discontentment. “Do-Deca-Pentathlon,” which explores sibling rivalry, poisonous resentment and the slow dispiriting tumble from the promise of youth to the dreamless grind of adulthood, is no exception. There’s still something of a comedy hovering above these raging themes, but it’s akin to someone who laughs to mask a tantrum, and it won’t fool anyone. But “Do-Deca-Pentathlon” doesn’t want to fool anybody, even if its two brothers (Steve Zissis and Mark Kelly) very obviously want to fool everybody. Establishing that distinction isn’t easy, and the movie’s ability to do so is a testament to the care put into a script that finds its own niche between comedy and tragedy. (Whether you like or dislike that niche is, of course, up to you.)
Extras: Two features starring the real-life brothers who actually created and competed in the 1990 competition. (They seem much happier than their fictional counterparts.)
Damsels in Distress (PG-13, 2011, Sony Pictures Classics)
One can only wonder what Lily’s (Analeigh Tipton) college life would have been like if she’d simply stood in a different part of the room when Violet (Greta Gerwig), Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore) spotted and sought her out. But she stood where she stood, and they found her. And just like that, the slightly lost transfer student is part of their bizarre group, which seeks to rescue fellow students from depression, stupidity, low standards and any other human condition they may not even know afflicts them. The girls call it helpful. The rest of us, of course, might call it nosy and snobby, and while “Damsels in Distress” absolutely refuses to make it official, you get the feeling it takes our side on this one. But that’s the beauty (or aggravation) of the whole thing: You get the feeling, but don’t truly know. From the open, Violet and her crew put on the bizarre, contrary airs of a group of women who behave like they’re simultaneously from 50 years in the past and 20 in the future, and “Distress” holds that note with a tone that’s subversive quirky comedy here, stuffy coming-of-age period piece there and a rambling ball of dueling self-importance and self-depreciation in between. For all the girls aspire to do, “Distress” isn’t about what is done so much as what is said, and the line between cleverness and emptily pretentiousness is practically folding over on itself. That certainly makes for an original movie, but it’s one as easy to loathe as it is to love.
Extras: Cast/director commentary, deleted scenes, cast/director Q&A, two behind-the-scenes features, bloopers.
American Horror Story: The Complete First Season (NR, 2011, Fox)
Buying a house isn’t exactly something you can just undo. But it only takes one episode of “American Horror Story” to wonder what would compel the Harmon family (Connie Britton and Dylan McDermott as Vivien and Ben, Taissa Farmiga as daughter Violet) to do anything short of everything to renege on this deal. The Harmons live in a house — famously known (except to them, apparently) as The Murder House — with a rich history of death across multiple generations. And from the instant they arrive, neighbors, creeps and criminals begin descending on the home (which Ben, a psychiatrist, bafflingly opens up to patients as his office) at a crazy and eventually tiresome clip. The house’s effect extends to the family itself, and pretty much everyone who ventures near its walls seems to suffer from some measure of chemical imbalance. For the Harmons, that means taking a miserable event from its past, compounding it with present and illusory new misery, and then drowning it inbuckets of newfound misery from all those uninvited guests. Ball it all up, and “Story” reaches a level of unpredictability that television rarely ever reaches — and perhaps television has its reasons. “Story’s” grim first episode is intriguing, but grimness soon gives way to relentless melancholia. And as that compounds and every weird person alive ambles to the door, “Story” isn’t so much unpredictable as exhausting. Surprises are great, but it helps to ground them in something — a single likable character, a single reason to not take a wrecking ball to this house and split — that gives those surprises some weight. Jessica Lange, Kate Mara, Frances Conroy and Evan Peters also star.
Contents: 12 episodes (commentary on the pilot), plus five behind-the-scenes features.