This week's big release, George Clooney's The Monuments Men, is a dud. So what else should you see instead? Options include a pair of well-received foreign imports (Gloria  and Stranger by the Lake ), as well as a tribute to a 1980s comedy classic courtesy of SF Sketchfest . Read on!
Gloria  The titular figure in Sebastian Lelio's film is a Santiago divorcee and white collar worker (Paulina Garcia) pushing 60, living alone in a condo apartment — well, almost alone, since like Inside Llewyn Davis, this movie involves the frequent, unwanted company of somebody else's cat. (That somebody is an upstairs neighbor whose solo wailings against cruel fate disturb her sleep.) Her two children are grown up and preoccupied with their adult lives. Not quite ready for the glue factory yet, Gloria often goes to a disco for the "older crowd," dancing by herself if she has to, but still hoping for some romantic prospects. She gets them in the form of Rodolfo (Sergio Hernandez), who's more recently divorced but gratifyingly infatuated with her. Unfortunately, he's also let his daughters and ex-wife remain ominously dependent on him, not just financially but in every emotional crisis that affects their apparently crisis-filled lives. The extent to which Gloria lets him into her life is not reciprocated, and she becomes increasingly aware how distant her second-place priority status is whenever Rodolfo's other loved ones snap their fingers. There's not a lot of plot but plenty of incident and insight to this character study, a portrait of a "spinster" that neither slathers on the sentimental uplift or piles on melodramatic victimizations. Instead, Gloria is memorably, satisfyingly just right. (1:50) (Dennis Harvey)
The Monuments Men  The phrase "never judge a book by its cover" goes both ways. On paper, The Monuments Men — inspired by the men who recovered art stolen by the Nazis during World War II, and directed by George Clooney, who co-wrote and stars alongside a sparkling ensemble cast (Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh "Earl of Grantham" Bonneville, and Bill Fucking Murray) — rules. Onscreen, not so much. After they're recruited to join the cause, the characters fan out across France and Germany following various leads, a structural choice that results in the film's number one problem: it can't settle on a tone. Men can't decide if it wants to be a sentimental war movie (as in an overlong sequence in which Murray's character weeps at the sound of his daughter's recorded voice singing "White Christmas"); a tragic war movie (some of those marquee names die, y'all); a suspenseful war movie (as the men sneak into dangerous territory with Michelangelo on their minds); or a slapstick war comedy (look out for that land mine!) The only consistent element is that the villains are all one-note — and didn't Inglourious Basterds (2009) teach us that nothing elevates a 21st century-made World War II flick like an eccentric bad guy? There's one perfectly executed scene, when reluctant partners Balaban and Murray discover a trove of priceless paintings hidden in plain sight. One scene, out of a two-hour movie, that really works. The rest is a stitched-together pile of earnest intentions that suggests a complete lack of coherent vision. Still love you, Clooney, but you can do better — and this incredible true story deserved way better. (1:58) (Cheryl Eddy)
"Oscar Nominated Short Films 2014: Documentary " This year, the Oscar-nominated docs are presented in two separate feature-length programs. Program A contains The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life, about a Holocaust survivor; Karama Has No Walls, about protestors in Yemen during the Arab Spring; and Facing Fear, about a gay man who encounters the neo-Nazi who terrorized him 25 years prior. Program B contains Cavedigger, about environmental sculptor Ra Paulette; and Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall, about a dying prisoner being cared for by other prisoners.
Stranger by the Lake  Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) is an attractive young French guy spending his summer days hanging at the local gay beach, where he strikes up a platonic friendship with chunky older loner Henri (Patrick d'Assumcao). Still, the latter is obviously hurt when Franck practically gets whiplash neck swiveling at the sight of Michel (Christophe Paou), an old-school gay fantasy figure — think Sam Elliott in 1976's Lifeguard, complete with Marlboro Man 'stache and twinkling baby blues. No one else seems to be paying attention when Franck sees his lust object frolicking in the surf with an apparent boyfriend, one that doesn't surface again after some playful "dunking" gets rather less playful. Eventually the police come around in the form of Inspector Damroder (Jerome Chappatte), but Franck stays mum — he isn't sure what exactly he saw. Or maybe it's that he's quite sure he's happy how things turned out, now that sex-on-wheels Michel is his sorta kinda boyfriend. You have to suspend considerable disbelief to accept that our protagonist would risk potentially serious danger for what seems pretty much a glorified fuck-buddy situation. But Alain Guiraudie's meticulously schematic thriller- which limits all action to the terrain between parking lot and shore, keeping us almost wholly ignorant of the characters' regular lives — repays that leap with an absorbing, ingenious structural rigor. Stranger is Hitchcockian, all right, even if the "Master of Suspense" might applaud its technique while blushing at its blunt homoeroticism. (1:37) (Dennis Harvey)
Top Secret!  After the sleeper smash of 1980's Airplane! (and the TV failure of 1982's Police Squad! series, which nonetheless led directly to the later, successful Naked Gun movies), the Madison, Wisc.-spawned comedy trio of David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker had one more exclamation point up their collective sleeves. That resulted in this hit 1984 parody of Cold War spy movies (and Elvis Presley musicals) starring Val Kilmer (in his perpetually open-mouthed film debut) as hip-swiveling American rock star Nick Rivers, who is dispatched to East Germany on a diplomatic entertainment mission. Instead, he gets yanked into major intrigue that includes kidnapped scientists, Omar Sharif, an elaborate Blue Lagoon (1980) spoof, and of course extremely realistic cow disguises. It also features this immortal exchange between Nazi-Commies, as they're torturing captured Nick: "Do you vant me to bring out ze LeRoy Neiman paintings?" "No — ve cannot risk violating ze Geneva Convention!" Herrs Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker will reunite on the Castro stage to screen and discuss their incisive political classic as it enters its fourth decade of cultdom. The 30th anniversary afternoon program Sat/8 is co-presented by SF Sketchfest (www.sfsketchfest.com ), Midnites for Maniacs, Noise Pop, and the Jewish Film Festival. Castro . (Dennis Harvey)
Vampire Academy  Bloodsuckers go to high school in this adaptation of the YA series directed by Mark Waters (2004's Mean Girls). (1:45)