No sappy ode to education, this bristling classroom drama feels so real, you'll get that back-to-school queasiness in the pit of your stomach. The fact-based, subtitled story of teacher François and the tough, multiculti Parisian adolescents he's in charge of explodes with hot-button issues. There's in-class violence, a Chinese boy whose mother is deported, and an Algerian girl who questions François on his use of white-bread names in his sample sentences. Semi-improvised by real students and teachers for vet director Laurent Cantet, this Cannes grand-prize winner has you rooting for its unlikely heroes.
LAST CHANCE HARVEY:
Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman make late-blooming romance so fresh, they transcend the curse of the cloying old-farts-find-love genre. In this witty, touching story, a subtle Hoffman is Harvey, a divorced New York jingle writer about to lose his job. In London for the wedding of his almost-estranged daughter (Liane Balaban), he meets middle-aged Kate. In Thompson's stunningly affecting performance, Kate is levelheaded and open, yet painfully self-protective. Little-known British director Joel Hopkins makes the sudden attraction between two guarded people seem ageless.
We're up for anything that the irresistible quick-change artist Viggo Mortensen wants to do. While waiting for his grungy apocalyptic survivor in The Road (postponed from '08), catch him in this taut indie as sexy (in a bespectacled, non-Aragorn way) John Halder, a professor in Hitler's Germany. Decent but spineless, Halder caves when the Nazis press him to write propaganda, while a pretty student (Jodie Whittaker) seduces him away from his wife and kids. Will his conscience kick in to save his Jewish best friend (Jason Isaacs)? Mortensen manages to make us care about this not-so-good German with the troubled and troubling soul.