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Diamonds in the rough

The Oscar-nominated, the Oscar-worthy and the Oscar-inspiring movies Atlanta hasn't seen -- yet

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Atlanta missed some of the best movies of 2006, whether they were Oscar-nominated or deserved to be. Here, film critics Felicia Feaster and Curt Holman fill in the gaps with movies (previously unseen by Atlanta audiences) that either were nominated, should have been nominated or, in one case, inspired an Oscar nominee. (Note: Some movies, as mentioned below, will in fact soon receive Atlanta premieres; others are available on DVD or will be soon.)

THE DEATH OF MR. LAZARESCU

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(Tartan Video)

Though some might consider Sacha Baron Cohen's mockumentary Borat this year's most extreme vision of Eastern European life, this fiction film from 39-year-old Romanian director Cristi Puiu tops Borat's vision of daily degradation by a long shot. But what passed for comedy in Cohen's film takes on the color of human tragedy in Puiu's extraordinary drama shot with the observational impact and visual style of a documentary.

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is an immersion in the pariah status of old age and the similar economic exile of life in a chronically resource-strapped Romania. It follows the point of view of 62-year-old Mr. Lazarescu (Ion Fiscuteanu) as alcoholism, poor health and old age conspire to kill him on one bleak winter night. As he is tended to by a host of neighbors and strangers, variously disinterested, amused and concerned by his plight, his situation takes on a nightmarish, Kafka-worthy despair.

The subject matter may sound obscure, but to mistake what the film has to say about old age, about the loneliness of illness, about the distracted callousness of the medical profession as something unique to Romania would be to miss its frighteningly universal message. 5 stars (FF)

INDIGÉNES (DAYS OF GLORY)

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On DVD: TBA

Clint Eastwood deserves the critical acclaim he's won for Letters From Iwo Jima as a spare, superb World War II tale from an unusual perspective. But Iwo Jima is equaled by Rachid Bouchareb's Indigénes (Days of Glory), which offers the same kind of classic WWII storytelling as Saving Private Ryan and other films (complete with a thrilling "impossible mission" at the climax). Indigénes offers the fascinating, neglected point of view of Muslim soldiers from French African colonies, willing to die for France as "the motherland" only to be denied promotion, have letters to French women censored and otherwise face discrimination from the white military structure. Indigénes features spectacular European battle sequences and sympathetic characters. While the present-day epilogue feels unnecessary, the film speaks powerfully to contemporary global issues. At a time when American and much of the "Western" world battles Islamist extremists, at times while demonizing all of Islam, Indigénes remembers a time when Muslims and the Allies were brothers in arms. 4 stars (CH)

Indigénes (Days of Glory) opens March 2 at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.

INFERNAL AFFAIRS TRILOGY

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(Weinstein Company)

In remaking the 2002 Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs, Martin Scorsese added deeper themes, A-list Hollywood actors and more flamboyant stylistic flourishes for The Departed. Scorsese's version did not, however, improve on the original, which has been newly repackaged on DVD with its two sequels to play up the connections to the multiple-Oscar nominee. The first Infernal Affairs (4 stars), released in 2002, is a cracking, labyrinthine tale of the cat-and-mouse game between an undercover cop (Tony Leung) and a highly placed police mole (Andy Lau), with even better suspense scenes than Scorsese's. The adequate Infernal Affairs 2 (3 stars), in 2003, offers itself as a "lost years" prequel, with younger actors reprising the lead roles but upstaged by Eric Tsang as a deceptively comic kingpin and Anthony Wong as a veteran police inspector. Infernal Affairs 3 (3 stars), also in 2003, proves more crisp and ambitious but also convoluted to the point of frustration, featuring both a present-day conspiracy and dense flashbacks that flesh out the female psychiatrist character. Only at the end do the pieces fall into place, leaving you to exclaim, "Oh, that's what was going on!" (CH)

MY COUNTRY, MY COUNTRY

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On DVD: March 20

(Zeitgeist Films)

The year saw a growth industry in documentaries about the conflict in Iraq: Why We Fight, The Ground Truth; two of them -- My Country, My Country and Iraq in Fragments (opening March 9 in Atlanta) -- were nominated for Academy Awards this year.

Directed by Laura Poitras, who worked alone in Iraq over eight months, My Country, My Country takes an unusual tack in looking at the Iraq War not from the vantage of soldiers or politicians, but through the eyes of someone on the ground, Sunni physician Dr. Riyadh. While tending to patients in his overcrowded practice, Dr. Riyadh also campaigns for a position in the new democratic ally-elected Iraqi government during that country's January 2005 elections. He visits American detention centers where he questions the wisdom of keeping 9-year-old boys behind bars. And he complains to soldiers about the firebombing of Fallujah and the devastating effect that onslaught has had on the Iraqi people.

The effect is just what you would want from a documentary film: mind-altering. 4 stars (FF)

OLD JOY

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On DVD: May 1

(Kino Video)

A high pick on many critics' top-10 lists this year, this variation on a Sideways theme about two men veering off course in the midst of a major life change is a poignant, heartfelt character study. Pot-smoking post-slackers Kurt (Will Oldham) and Mark (Daniel London) head off for an impromptu camping trip in the Oregon woods. It becomes a kind of symbolic goodbye to youth as Mark prepares to become a father and Kurt mourns how their friendship will inevitably change. Director Kelly Reichardt's deeply satisfying film features remarkable performances, an honest portrait of our sad, politically apathetic times and an equally plaintive, sweet soundtrack by Yo La Tengo. 5 stars (FF)

Old Joy opens March 16 at the Plaza Theatre.

RUSSIAN DOLLS

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(IFC)

French director Cédric Klapisch has a knack for conveying the angst and giddy pleasures of being an international twentysomething. In this beguiling follow-up to his 2002 art-house hit, L'Auberge Espagnole, Klapisch catches up with his wily protagonist Xavier Rousseau (Romain Duris) five years later. Xavier has embarked on his writing career after a desperate flight from corporate adult responsibility in L'Auberge. Xavier hustles from assignment to assignment, from sexual tryst to sexual tryst, and from a ghost-writing job penning the memoirs of a sexy supermodel to a co-writing gig in London with British roommate Wendy (Kelly Reilly) from his days in Barcelona.

Xavier epitomizes the global restlessness of a generation edging toward 30 that has too many options and too few role models for how best to settle down and be happy. Klapisch specializes in a film style of fast motion, fantasy interludes and split screens as energized and ADD as his protagonists.

Russian Dolls also exhibits Klapisch's life-affirming take on an awe-inspiring, exciting world but also the dread-inducing feeling that we are engaged in a feeling of making progress without making any progress at all. 4 stars (FF)

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