Tiny Furniture (dir. Lena Dunham, 2010)

In the first scene of Lena Dunham’s splendid film Tiny Furniture, Aura (played by Dunham) watches glumly as her mother snaps photographs of miniature dollhouse decor.  Later in the film, when we see these photographs blown up to poster size, the petite tables and chairs (“tiny crap” as Aura begrudgingly puts it) appear deceptively large subjects.  This is a fitting visual metaphor for Aura’s self-inflicted misadventures throughout Tiny Furniture.  Returning home to the chic, conceptual sanitation of Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood after four years at a liberal arts college in Ohio, Aura is struggling with having been dumped by her boyfriend and with re-acclimating to a “real world” that is very little like most people’s real world.  Dunham’s eye for the pretension of Manhattan is spot-on: From a restaurant named Clandestino, to a loathsome YouTube artist whose crowning achievement is “Nietschian Cowboy,” to an old friend with a questionable British accent (Laurie Simmons, nailing lonely-little-rich-girl with both comedy and gravitas), to an absurdly over-achieving family (played by Dunham’s own absurdly over-achieving family), Aura’s surroundings are truly ridiculous.  But so is Aura, and Dunham makes sure not to let her deeply self-pitying protagonist off the hook.  As Aura attempts to mend her wounded confidence by systematically pursuing a number of equally charmless men, we get a merciless and mercilessly funny portrait of a young woman navigating the rocky (though, of course, not dire) terrain of her own self-esteem.

Cold Weather (dir. Aaron Katz, 2010)

Let it not be said that genre isn’t difficult.  Perhaps even more difficult is the skillful blending of genres into one film, a practice that requires a pitch-perfect sense of tonal shift.  This is the main problem at hand in Aaron Katz’ otherwise aesthetically pleasant and modestly ambitious SXSW import, Cold Weather.  A twenty-something doldrums film that undergoes a clumsy metamorphosis into a tongue-in-cheek caper, Cold Weather follows Doug and Gail (Cris Lankenau and Trieste Kelly Dunn), a brother and sister duo who uncover a tepid mystery in the lush, liberal and hardly noir city of Portland, Oregon.  Unearthing the seeds lurking within crunchy granola is a funny enough premise, but Katz’ mid-film transition to the slightly precious and distractingly dull whodunit lacks finesse.  It also brings to light the true challenge of plotting a mystery (serious or silly) that can retain an audience’s interest.  Indeed, if the film’s final scene is any indicator, the laborious slog of a mystery in Cold Weather might not even retain Katz’ interest.

Animal Kingdom (dir. David Michôd, 2010)

The glory days of armed robbery are a thing of the past, or at least according to the brilliant opening credit sequence of David Michôd’s Melbourne-located crime film, Animal Kingdom.  The grainy, black-and-white surveillance images of masked marauders holding up a storefront communicate a haunting, perversely nostalgic lost time when a group of men worked as a unit toward a Machiavellian end.  The rest of Animal Kingdom shows us in elegant, menacing strokes the violent dissolution of that group of men.  Joshua (or “J” as he’s called by his uncles, played with engrossing numbness by James Frecheville) is welcomed into the lion’s den of his extended family after his mother dies of a heroin overdose, and he quickly becomes complicit in his uncles’ criminal exploits.  Of which there are currently very few, as it turns out, as J’s uncles are more in a cornered-dog state of dodging the police than planning jobs.  In Animal Kingdom, as in the natural kingdom the film is named after, beings live and die quickly and senselessly.  Not only does this create a refreshingly edgy narrative structure, it also shaves away a number of characters with taut yet elegiac assurance, leaving J to fend for himself against the truly ruthless species.  Terrific performances abound, not only from the solidly famous Guy Pearce and Jacki Weaver, but particularly from Ben Mendelsohn as J’s uncle “Pope,” who emerges as one of the most sinister, relentlessly malevolent villains in recent memory.  With Animal Kingdom, Michôd has created an urban Serengeti past its prime – the dominant beasts have gradually lost their hard-won territory, and now, terrified, wait to die.