Director Debra Granik continues her 'bone' fascination with "Winter's Bone", a slice of down-on-their-luck life that succeeds in presenting a young girl's scary waltz through a white trash netherworld of meth cookers and trouble-makers in the Missouri backwoods. Like her debut feature, "Down To the Bone", Granik seems completely in tune with a female versus the world attitude. In that film, relative newcomer Vera Farmiga gave an exhilarating performance as a single mother carrying on two lives... one of affection and dedication to her daughter and the other as a struggling drug addict. In "Winter's Bone", Jennifer Lawrence could be Farmiga 15 years earlier, posing a steely gaze and giving a riveting performance as a 17 year old desperately trying to track down her criminal father before his bond-hopping causes her to lose her home. But Lawrence delivers only half of the film's penetrating mood and atmosphere. As secondary characters, John Hawkes, Kevin Breznahan, Dale Dickey and Lauren Sweetster inhabit their roles with straight authenticity- right down to the black fingernails and bad teeth. One never knows just exactly where a scene is headed or where Lawrence's journey through backwoods purgatory will end. "Winter's Bone" defiantly bucks the expectation, expertly written and perfectly acted... none more so than in a quiet scene with Lawrence discussing the possibility of joining the army with a recruiter who reveals the naive child behind her otherwise worldly facade.
Another well written film that will most likely end up as one of the year's best, Mark and Jay Duplass' "Cyrus" extends the directing duo's range with an off-kilter romance that veers wildly into several genres without falling into disarray. Part black comedy, part psychological thriller, "Cyrus" proves that "Baghead" (their previous film) was no slouch effort and these guys can walk a tightrope with the best of them. Some have derided the relationship presented in the film between John C. Reilly and Marisa Tomei as unrealistic, but as the film unfolds and we get beyond the meet-cute set up, "Cyrus" shows that both of them are potentially damaged souls who happened to intersect at the right moment. It all felt entirely plausible to me. Enter Tomei's 21 year old son played by Jonah Hill (featuring probably his best performance yet) who makes it his goal to usurp their relationship in quiet (but altogether devious) ways and "Cyrus" morphs into a shaggy dog comedy with a black heart.