Three Buried Gems

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You're right. It's the worst summer in movie history. Except for a few lonely lurkers in the art-house shadows, crying for your attention. And no, we do not mean Sexy Beast, a dull, predictable and unattractive caper film that is the inexplicable "quality" hit of the season. Our raves go instead to an internationally eclectic group that includes:

Divided We Fall
WHERE IT'S FROM Czech Republic

WHO MADE IT Director Jan Hrebejk and screenwriter Petr Jarchovsky

WHAT IT'S ABOUT A biblically named couple, Josef and Marie (Boleslav Polivka and Anna Siskova), who, during World War II, agree to hide David (Csongor Kassai), a concentration-camp escapee. Josef and Marie desperately want a child, which, for medical reasons, they are unable to conceive. Will Marie fall for David's soulfulness? And what about the increasingly harsh Nazi occupiers?

WHY IT WORKS There's something slyly funny about all these people stirring about in cramped quarters. But there is something scary about the delicacy of their situation too. A sudden noise, a door left unlocked, a nosy neighbor--almost anything could fatally unhinge it. Hrebejk and Jarchovsky know how to balance farce against fear, human complexity against moral imperatives, without falling into Life Is Beautiful sentimentality. The result is a lovely movie, one that allows its characters unexpected spurts of growth and regression, darkness and grace.

The Anniversary Party

WHO MADE IT Writer-director-stars Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh

WHAT IT'S ABOUT The dicey, dusk-to-dawn celebration of their sixth wedding anniversary by Joe and Sally Therrian (Cumming and Leigh). Nothing very dramatic happens: some drugs are done; some half-nude swimming is indulged in; some contingent truths are told about the Therrians' relationship, which is troubled by the rise of his career, the decline of hers and the question of having a child. Their guests are largely played by the auteurs' acting pals; all the characters have something to do with show biz. In other words, egos can go from bluster to fragility, from savagery to sympathy, in the blink of an eye--without revealing which is the real emotion, which the fake.

WHY IT WORKS There is something realer than real in everyone's playing. You feel that their edgy suburban twaddling may be the way Hollywood heavies really behave in private. Some of the "actors' moments" linger too long, but a shadowy anger and misery underlie the sometimes choked-off wit of this free-form chamber piece shot on digital video. Everyone in the cast has his or her solo, and all rise brilliantly to their occasions, notably Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Beals, Mina Badie and a divinely neurotic Jane Adams.

With a Friend Like Harry

WHO MADE IT German-born Dominik Moll

WHAT IT'S ABOUT The eponymous deus ex machina (Sergi Lopez), who cheerfully greets a hard-pressed chap named Michel (Laurent Lucas) in the men's room of a highway rest stop. Harry claims they were at school together. Michel can't recall him, but he lets him into his life anyway. And why not? He has a miserable job, a sarcastic wife, three whining daughters and an auto that lacks air conditioning. Harry has mysterious amounts of time and money to lavish on them. Michel suddenly gets a new car, his grasping parents soon disappear, and the rest of his family begins gratifyingly to perk up. By the end of the film, Michel and his family have everything they ever wanted and some boons they never imagined.

WHY IT WORKS This criminal comedy remains deliciously deadpan about the wages of psychopathy. We don't doubt that Michel and his brood deserve a somewhat better life. We can't help admiring the high, dry wit with which their (fairy) tale is recounted. We briefly wonder if Michel, as well as Harry, should pay some sort of price for his good fortune. But, nah--that would interfere with the knife-edged perversity of the piece, the sense we derive from it of fate's inexplicable workings, presented neither doomily nor ironically, but as a supercool form of realism.