SCREEN GRABS Two of the year’s more Oscar-hyped performances hit theaters this week, from two reliably excellent performers. There’s Gary Oldman under a whole lot of makeup as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, the latest period drama from director Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride & Prejudice), who handles this populist history lesson in his default style balancing the flashy and conventional. The movie, which portrays the legendary statesman as he assumes post of Prime Minister and rallies a reluctant Britain into WW2, could be better. But Oldman’s turn is indeed the kind of flamboyant transformation that wins little golden men. 

Then there’s Kate Winslet as an unhappy wife (to Jim Belushi!) and mother commencing an affair with lifeguard Justin Timberlake on 1950s Coney Island in Woody Allen’s latest, Wonder Wheel. Much as we love Winslet, this is not among her finer hours, nor Woody’s—though legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro does work some visual wonders with a screenplay that often feels like a dismal off-off-Broadway play circa 1962. You know, the kind where salt-of-the-earth characters spout ersatz poetry de la tenement in rare moments when they’re not yelling at each other. “I gotta migraine!” clam-joint waitress Winslet frequently shouts, and you might get one, too. 

Other major openings include Bull Durham director Ron Shelton’s Just Getting Started, a geezer-buddy action comedy vehicle for Morgan Freeman and Tommy Lee Jones. But for many the big attraction will be Guillermo del Toro’s latest:

THE SHAPE OF WATER
Sally Hawkins stars as a mute night janitor at a government scientific facility in early 1960s Baltimore. She develops a curious empathic connection to a captured humanoid sea creature (Doug Jones in heavy prosthetics) that’s being held for research there. Michael Stuhlbarg and Michael Shannon represent different sides of the surrounding Cold War political milieu, while Octavia Spencer and Richard Jenkins play Hawkins’ respective workplace and domestic allies. This beautifully crafted fantasy falls somewhere between del Toro’s more personal Spanish-language films (like Pan’s Labyrinth) and his American popcorn spectaculars. You’ll either find it enrapturing, or a lush but essentially silly Creature from the Black Lagoon that ramps up the inter-species romance. Opens Friday in Bay Area theaters.

THE OTHER SIDE OF HOPE
Syrian refugee Khaled (Sherwan Haji) has landed in Helsinki, not entirely by choice, while trying to find the sister he lost while fleeing their war-torn native land. Immigration authorities are not particularly sympathetic, but when his fortunes hit rock-bottom, he finds an unlikely haven in the nondescript restaurant recently bought by a dour traveling salesman with poker winnings (Sakari Kuosmanen), and staffed by an equally laconic crew stiffed by the previous owner. This latest by Finland’s leading filmmaker Aki Kaurismaki is his best in years, a potentially precious little fable whose inner warmth is well-cloaked in a healthy dose of his characteristic deadpan humor. It’s a secretly sentimental feel-good movie with a perfect poker face. Opens Friday, Opera Plaza, SF. More info here.

SHADOWMAN
Vancouver-born Richard Hambleton made a splash in the exploding NYC art scene of the 1980s, anticipating Banksy with his guerrilla street-art paintings of eerie, life-sized silhouette figures. For a brief while, his notoriety and celebrity rivaled that of Basquiat and Haring. Unlike them, he didn’t die tragically young—instead, he simply disappeared into a two-decade black hole of addiction and occasional homelessness. Before dying at age 65 just a few weeks ago, he did live long enough to re-emerge into the public spotlight, partly via this new film by veteran documentarian Oren Jacoby. it charts the stormy path of a fascinating, enigmatic figure whose art seemed inextricably bound with his self-destructive tendencies. Opens Friday, Roxie. More info here.

SF CINEMATHEQUE PRESENTS STAN BRAKHAGE: METAPHORS ON VISION
Arguably the greatest of all U.S. experimental filmmakers, and certainly among the most prolific, Brakhage (1933-2003) spent five decades carving out a unique cinematic oeuvre that at various points embraced collage, hand-painting and scratching on celluloid, in-camera editing and much more. This special event marks the republication of his 1963 tome Metaphors on Vision, one of the key written statements about avant-garde film. Thomas Beard of Light Industry will discuss the book and present a screening of Brakhage’s 40-minute 1958 Anticipation of the Night, which Brakhage described as an attempt to embody an infant’s formative recollecting thought process. This represents the last in a series of SF shows honoring famed distributor Canyon Cinema’s library and the 50th anniversary of its founding. Fri/8, YBCA Screening Room. More info here.

DER FAN 
A German cult movie almost completely unknown in the US, Eckhart Schmidt’s 1982 feature starts off as a downbeat study of an odd, friendless teenage girl (Desiree Nosbusch) whose only real focus in life is her obsession with a not-particularly-impressive pop star called “R” (Bodo Steiger, lead singer of a band called Rheingold at the time). She does manages to meet him, realizing her dream—to a point. But Simone won’t be satisfied by a one-night stand, and the film moves into horror terrain as her fixation assumes truly disturbing dimensions. This envelope-pushing rarity will be screened in an English-dubbed 35mm print one time only, as part of the Alamo’s “Weird Wednesday” series. Wed/13, Alamo Drafthouse. More info here

MIDCENTURY PRODUCTIONS AT THE ROXIE: AGITPROP 2 AND NOIR NOEL

Two single-day Roxie programs from guest curator Don Malcolm will spice your Yuletide cheer with a double dose of gloomy foreboding. 

On Saturday an impressively diverse triple bill benefitting the ACLU features political protest cinema of myriad eras and nationalities: There’s soon-to-be-blacklisted Abraham Polonsky’s classic 1948 Hollywood thriller Force of Evil, a tale of systemic corruption starring John Garfield; Karel Kachyna’s 1970 Czech The Ear, a Kafkaesque nightmare that so disturbed government authorities they banned it for two decades; and English director Peter Watkins’ controversial 1971 Punishment Park, depicting a near-future fascist US in which dissidents are hunted for sport in a desert survival “game.” Sat/9, Roxie. More info here.

Wednesday brings two vintage French films whose Christmas settings belie hearts of darkness. Returning after its prior play in one of Malcolm’s “The French Had a Name For It” series is Marcel Bluwai’s 1962 Le Monte-Charge aka Paris Pick-Up. It’s a fine, intricately plotted latterday noir programmer in which a newly released ex-con (ever-magnetic Robert Hossein) who lucks out with a gorgeous Italian woman (Lea Massari) on an otherwise cheerless Christmas night, only to discover himself implicated in her husband’s murder. New to Roxie audiences will be Christian-Jacque’s 1941 Who Killed Santa Claus?, a poisoned seriocomic bon-bon from Vichy-era France revolving around the mystery of the murder of a small village’s “Pere Noel.” Just a few months following its release, star Harry Baur (whose wife was Jewish) would be arrested and tortured the Gestapo, dying soon thereafter. Wed/13, Roxie. More info here

THE ROXIE MIXTAPE #4
Winnowed from 126 submissions, the fourth edition of this annual Roxie program showcases fourteen recent short works that span the breadth of the Bay Area filmmaking community, from live-action narrative and animation to documentary and experimental work. Veteran artists featured include Marian Wallace, who contributes an absurdist mystery, Project Y; and Jay Rosenblatt, whose new The Kodachrome Elegies pays tribute to the preferred amateur film stock of a pre-video and pre-digital era. Among other seletions are Luz Olivia’s hand-processed 16mm Nothing To Write Home About, Darryl Jones’ stop-motion animation There’s Always a Way, and politically pointed shorts from Nelson Murray (The Clock and the Compass) and Noemie Serfaty (Treasure Island). Most if not all the directors will be present at this two-part evening with intermission. Thurs/14, Roxie. More info here