A CHRISTMAS TALE
Ignore the icky-cute title of this wine-fueled, snow-swept, droll family saga. Mathieu Amalric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) is Henri, a drunken outcast son called home because Maman (Catherine Deneuve) needs a bone-marrow transplant. His feuding siblings and flirting in-laws are touching and wickedly funny (as Henri and his mom have a cigarette, she tells him--imagine the Gallic shrug here--that he's the kid she never loved). Director Arnaud Desplechin (the equally astute Kings & Queen) gives dysfunction a seductive French twist--the perfect escape from your own family's holiday-itis.
ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO
The not-so-dirty secret: It's a rom-com--brash, sweet, and very funny. Zack (ubiquitous Seth Rogen) and his BFF, Miri (almost-as-ubiquitous Elizabeth Banks), are so broke, they produce and star in skin flicks (e.g., Star Whores, a hilarious spoof), eventually waking up to mutually hot feelings. Writer/director Kevin Smith brings both his Chasing Amy gushy side and his Clerks-esque flair for crude slacker 'tude. No leers, not much sex, just big, knowing laughs and--helpful in this tanking economy--the idea of porn as an alternate career.
SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK
Our favorite brainiac screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation), directs, too. In this dizzying drama, Philip Seymour Hoffman is spot-on as schlubby, soul-tortured Caden, a Schenectady, NY, theater director. His painter wife (the indomitable Catherine Keener) bolts; a meek assistant, Hazel (Samantha Morton), turns siren; and Caden spends 17 years creating a play-within-a-play-within-a-play. The literary term synecdoche (a part represents the whole) only hints at the mind-bending twists ahead. In Kaufman-world, buying a house whose walls are literally in flames seems only natural.