Ever since word got out about Maggie Gyllenhaal’s performance as a wide-eyed masochist in Secretary (opening September 20), she’s been pegged as indie film’s latest offbeat sexy starlet. The 24-year-old has completed two features in the meantime, both scripted by Being John Malkovich‘s Charlie Kaufman and coming out this December: Adaptation (“as this odd girl,” she says) and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (“as another goofy girl”). But the label has grown old. “I did everything I could to make those parts as interesting and real and as human as possible, but it’s still a trope,” she says of the small follow-up roles. “It’s still the young girl who has sex with the main guy and doesn’t do much else.”
In Secretary, though, Gyllenhaal tweaks stereotypes as Lee Holloway, a self-destructive ugly duckling who finds her inner swan through a relationship with, of all people, her sadistic boss (James Spader). Gyllenhaal is first glimpsed crawling across an office floor, handcuffed and carrying a letter in her mouth; with apple cheeks and a mischievous grin, the actress conveys not simple subservience but a state of bound bliss.
“I go from somebody who has no sense of their body or sexuality to somebody who is lying naked and feels beautiful,” Gyllenhaal says of the part that helped earn Secretary a Special Jury Prize for originality at the 2002 Sundance festival and effectively launched her career. This fall, the recent Columbia grad will receive the Independent Feature Project’s Gotham Breakthrough Actor Award (previous recipients include Michelle Rodriguez and Janet McTeer) and will set out for her first major studio assignment in Mike Newell’s Mona Lisa Smile.
Prior to Secretary, Gyllenhaal’s most noteworthy credit was for John Waters’s Cecil B. Demented as Raven, “the Satan-worshiper with a heart of gold,” she fondly recalls. She showed up briefly in a few films directed by her father, Stephen Gyllenhaal (Waterland), and written by her mother, Naomi Foner (A Dangerous Woman, also helmed by Dad), and she acted in Donnie Darko, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, her younger brother and fellow thespian-of-the-moment.
Though she’s shied away from Hollywood in the past, Gyllenhaal gravitated to the Newell project, set at a college campus in the 1950s: “The girl I’m playing is an intellectual and she’s sexy and has to find a way to balance those two things,” she says. “And those are contemporary issues that myself and a lot of my friends struggle with. How do I feel about being sexy? Where does it come from? What’s put on and what’s real?”
In Secretary, Gyllenhaal confronted many of those concerns. “I went through a similar transformation to the character,” she explains. “When I had to do the scenes where I was confident and graceful and attractive, I was terrified. I felt much more comfortable playing somebody who was not so happy with the way she looked.”
The film also called for spankings (“It did hurt,” she confesses) and total nudity. Though she was scared at first, “I made a point of getting involved in how it was shot so we’d all be on the same page, so it just wouldn’t be, ‘Oh, look at the naked girl.’
“A lot of people want to fantasize actresses as just visceral, very sexy, not-thinking things,” she continues, “and it’s much more difficult to add into the equation someone who is visceral, but who also works from an emotional place and an intellectual place and can be a collaborator in the making of the movie.
“It took me so long to convince Steve Shainberg, the director of Secretary, that I was not just something to mold,” she adds. “That I wasn’t just this doe-eyed little actress that he could push in one direction and, magically, I would do exactly what he wanted.” (In a phone call, Shainberg acknowledged, “It took a while for her to teach me that her intelligence had to be paid attention to.”)
Gyllenhaal just traveled to Acapulco for John Sayles’s next film, Casa de los Babys, in which she plays one of six women who journey to an unnamed Latin American town to adopt a child. “I’m just a regular girl,” she says of the part, a welcome shift in her career. “For a long time, I’ve been playing characters who are sweet on the outside and dark on the inside, but now I’m more interested in bridging the two, like a real person who is a little bit sweet, a little bit dark, a little bit scared, and a little bit courageous.”
A selective preview by Michael Atkinson, Dennis Lim, and Jessica Winter
Adapting a darkling Ruth Rendell novel, Gallic mezzobrow Claude Miller bakes up a nutcake in Chabrol country, wherein a Gorgon-like mother kidnaps an abused child as a gift to her estranged novelist daughter.
IGBY GOES DOWN
Tarantino crony Burr Steers makes his directorial debut with this middle-road non-indie, in which misanthropic blue-blood teen Kieran Culkin escapes from a military school and hightails it to New York, where he meets ditsy debutante Claire Danes. Bill Pullman, Susan Sarandon, and Jeff Goldblum pull up the rear.
Mush-head Zhang Yang (Shower) gets hardscrabble with this Kiarostami-esque reenactment of Chinese star Jia Hongshen’s collapse into junkiehood and derangement, and his eventual recovery—starring Jia himself and his intervention-performing parents as themselves.
A buzz-heavy and nihilistic German filmization of the notorious “Stanford Prison Experiment,” in which students are confined and assigned roles as either guards or inmates; despite their self-knowledge, they descend into savagery. A Lord of the Flies for criminologists, it could butter bread on either side of the political fence.
Returning to the hyperstylized domestic clamor of Sitcom and Water Drops on Burning Rocks, François Ozon assembles a bustling Croisette full of French screen goddesses (Catherine! Isabelle! Virginie! Emmanuelle!) for a musical homage to Sirk and Cukor; too bad the endless shrieking, fainting, and hair-pulling emulate a drag-queen rendition of The Women.
THE FOUR FEATHERS
In the sixth filmed version of A.E.W. Mason’s colonialist potboiler, Heath Ledger is the coward who must prove himself in the British battle against Africa’s indigenous population. Without C. Aubrey Smith, what’s the point?
Fire-breathing literalist/production-tale wellspring/master visual poet Werner Herzog returns with his first fiction film in 11 years (and the first released here since 1985), a historical pageant about Jewish freak-show strongman Zishe Breitbart, who performed for Hitler. Tim Roth plays Nazi showman Hanussen.
Smug and ungainly as Steven Shainberg’s s&m office farce can be, it’s more than salvaged by the dazzlingly peculiar chemistry between pro-pain drone Maggie Gyllenhaal (see essay) and spanky bossman James Spader.
THE TRIALS OF HENRY KISSINGER
Condensing Christopher Hitchens’s enraged deposition (originally an epic Harper’s article) into 80 lucid minutes, this indispensable primer on U.S. foreign policy convincingly transforms the revered elder statesman into a Machiavellian tyrant-as-apparatchik.
BIGGIE & TUPAC
His methodology poised as always between performance art and stalking, Nick Broomfield investigates the eponymous rappers’ murders by gate-crashing the underworlds of organized crime and police corruption. The filmmaker’s deadpan-scurrilous approach, combined for the first time with an unexpectedly heartfelt tone, pays unique dividends.
Filling out yet another obscure corner of the Holocaust experience, this doc tracks the path of thousands of German Jews who sought refuge in Japan-occupied Shanghai during the ’30s.
Writer-director Paul Greengrass’s harrowing panorama of the 1972 Derry massacre in Northern Ireland evokes the vérité immediacy of Michael Winterbottom’s best work, anchored by James Nesbitt’s superbly nuanced performance as idealistic MP Ivan Cooper.
When auteurs die, sometimes their scripts live on—here, a Kieslowski-Piesiewicz screenplay gets incarnated by Tom Tykwer, which is kind of like Spielberg doing Kubrick. Cate Blanchett stars as an avenging widow who falls in love with a guard in an Italian prison.
Quickly mutating from the Laurence Olivier of our day to the Vincent Price, Anthony Hopkins does Lecter again, this time in a “prequel” that was, of course, already superbly filmed in 1986 by Michael Mann and—as the definitive Hannibal—Brian Cox.
HOW TO DRAW A BUNNY
Investigating the apparent suicide of pop/performance/mail-art provocateur Ray Johnson, John Walter’s doc operates as a red-herring murder mystery. Reveling in Johnson’s sheer elusiveness, the film does full justice to its subject’s ultimate unknowability.
BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE
Volksy provocateur Michael Moore uses Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold’s 1999 shooting rampage as the springboard for a gun-control screed at turns incisive, funny, strident, and half-cocked.
Technically rough-hewn but emotionally acute, Arthur Dong’s digital-video doc visits with biblical literalists and their estranged gay children.
“Are you aware of Adam Sandler?” Paul Thomas Anderson asked Rolling Stone a few years back. “I mean, are you truly fucking aware? He is headed for a level of genius in creation and acting that I just cannot wait to see keep going.” PTA facilitates said genius in this rom-com Cannes prizewinner.
THE RULES OF ATTRACTION
Stuck in a virtual career limbo since 1994’s riotous Killing Zoe, Roger Avary returns to adapt Bret Easton Ellis’s sophomore novel of campus anomie and narcotic comedy. James Van Der Beek pollutes his Dawson’s Creek profile with support from Eric Stoltz and Swoosie Kurtz.
Having never read Janet Fitch’s Oprah-club novel, this sounds to us like the work of Danielle Steel’s idiot cousin: A feminist poet (Michelle Pfeiffer, oy vey) poisons her slimy ex-boyfriend with the titular herb and goes to prison for life, leaving her 12-year-old daughter to a series of nightmarish but life-instructive L.A. foster homes.
In the newfangled, too fab Ed Wood-Larry Flynt-Andy Kaufman tradition, here’s an absurd rendition of the sad, whacked life of TV star/”orgasm addict” Bob Crane, played with open-faced guilelessness by Greg Kinnear. Paul Schrader directs with his customary ambivalence; Willem Dafoe co-stars as Crane’s sex-prowler crony.
Wildly successful in Japan, Hideo Nakata’s thriller tracks a psychic newswoman investigating a videotape that leaves viewers dead days after watching it; now Gore (The Mexican) Verbinski gives J-horror the Hollywood treatment, with help from Naomi Watts in her first post-Mulholland Drive role.
Alexander Sokurov raises the bar on formal gorgeousness once more, touring the Hermitage in a single, 87-minute digital video take that becomes a hold-your-breath costume-drama capsule of Russian history.
If Lina Wertmüller’s 1974 desert island classic was possibly the most outrageously misogynist film ever made by a woman, then Guy Ritchie’s remake should be merely testicular. Giancarlo Giannini’s son Adriano plays the socialist caveman to Madonna’s snooty socialite.
Filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering avoid a deconstruction primer, and instead offer an absorbing demonstration of the French thinker’s theories: In a series of interviews, Derrida, ever aware of the camera, is encouraged to systematically dismantle the documentary apparatus.
The resident artist of countless freshwoman dorm rooms finally gets her biopic close-up after a decade of development hell, with director Julie Taymor and star Salma Hayek emerging victorious over the likes of Madonna and J.Lo.
JACKASS: THE MOVIE
As Freddy Got Fingered has already proved, uprooting small-screen guerrilla chaos into theaters is a tall order, but Johnny Knoxville rolls the hibachi and the Port-a-Potty into the multi-plex anyway, abetted by guest conspirators Spike Jonze and Henry Rollins.
THE TRUTH ABOUT CHARLIE
Jonathan Demme reunites with Beloved herself, Thandie Newton, to remake Stanley Donen’s thriller Charade; Mark Wahlberg stands in for Cary Grant (?!) and Anna Karina lights up a torch-song cameo.
ALL OR NOTHING
After his triumphant Topsy-Turvy leap into costume drama, Mike Leigh trudges back to the kitchen sink for this clanking pileup of cartoon-ensemble melodrama.
Samira Makhmalbaf, still assisted by her dad, Mohsen, creates a bizarre, neo-realist parable about nomadic teachers searching for students in a desert wasteland. The Iranian tide continues to rise, though this remarkable film is already two years old.
THE WEIGHT OF WATER
Kathryn Bigelow does Anita Shreve—anybody for John McTiernan’s take on Anne Tyler?—with a shot at Reisz’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman, interweaving the threads of a 19th-century murder and Catherine McCormack as a maritally troubled journalist researching the case.
Karen Moncrieff’s modest and for the most part becomingly awkward debut shades in its Lolita template with more tact and acumen than the dubious self-expression-as-therapy setup would lead you to expect.
Marshall Mathers III becomes “Jimmy Smith Jr.” in Curtis Hanson’s week-in-the-life veiled biopic about an angry Detroit urchin with hip-hop aspirations. The oedipally minded shall note that a girl named Kim (Basinger, that is) plays Mom.
FAR FROM HEAVEN
Three all-time greats loom imposingly over Todd Haynes’s eagerly anticipated suburban melodrama: Douglas Sirk’s unnerving housewife-gardener weepie All That Heaven Allows (the avowed template); Fassbinder’s interracial, age-gap-amplifying remake, Fear Eats the Soul; and Haynes’s own masterpiece Safe, which likewise featured the fearless Julianne Moore as an existentially panicked homemaker (this time in 1957 Connecticut).
Brian DePalma returns from gun-for-hire land, writes his own screenplay, and makes a comprehensively DePalmian movie—for better or worse. Rebecca Romijn-Stamos is a con woman turned international star wrapped up in Cannes diamond heists and Antonio Banderas’s watchful paparazzi. The question, as always: Is he joking?
HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS
The literate kids’ franchise plods on. Kenneth Branagh joins the overacting horde of Brit check-cashers, which is a wonderful way of keeping him occupied.
Thirty years after Marguerite Duras directed her in Nathalie Granger, Jeanne Moreau portrays her as the older woman in the replenishing May-December affair that Duras recalled in her memoir Yann Andrea Steiner.
Convincingly acted (by Kyra Sedgwick, Fairuza Balk, and especially Parker Posey) and evocatively shot (on DV, by the estimable Ellen Kuras), Rebecca Miller’s Sundance-lauded triptych has a clear-eyed, tough-minded composure, though the film occasionally drowns in an abundance of expository voice-over.
TALK TO HER
Not without its share of filigreed set pieces and dazzling snatches of absurdist wit, Pedro Almodóvar’s dispiriting melodrama studies a travel-guide writer, a nurse, and the comatose women they love. Baggy, meandering, and clinical as a hospital ward, the film also carries an acrid whiff of clueless gynophobia.
At first this scanned like the ultimate bad idea: Soderbergh remaking Tarkovsky? But the remake has a chance if it’s not turned into a comedy or a horror film, which is a slim possibility. George Clooney and Natacha McElhone replay their doomed marriage aboard the space station.
Atom Egoyan’s film-within-a-film centers on the production of an epic based on the Ottoman Turks’ genocide of Armenians between 1915 and 1923. At Cannes, the movie met mostly with shrugs, save for the Turkish government, which condemned it as propaganda.
Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman pens a comedy about a screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman who struggles to turn Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief into a film. Spike Jonze directs and Nicolas Cage plays the tormented scribe; we can only assume that neither Charlie Kaufman nor John Malkovich was available.
A button-down politician (Ralph Fiennes!) is hot for a housekeeper he mistakes for a socialite (Jennifer Lopez!) in what we sorely wish was a Buñuel remake.
DEVILS ON THE DOORSTEP
Wen Jiang’s acclaimed WWII tragicomedy takes place in an occupied Chinese village saddled with a mysteriously deposited Japanese soldier—who furiously begs to be executed—and his disloyal Chinese interpreter. Lengthy, rich, and ironic.
THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS
Another giga-franchise continues. Can this monster be sustained?
THE WILD THORNBERRYS
One of the most original and charming of the post-Ren & Stimpy new wave of cable cartoon shows, this larky odyssey follows a guileless family (with Tim Curry doing a priceless dad) of wildlife filmmakers across the globe. Parents will be thankful.
GANGS OF NEW YORK
Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited dream project about warring gangs in 19th-century Manhattan could either be a world-beater or a folly. The paint-by-numbers revenge plot isn’t encouraging, but the visual sweep, textures, momentum, and energy are guaranteed to impress. Leonardo DiCaprio—who?—is the fresh-faced hero, and Daniel Day-Lewis is the mobster in the Dr. Seuss chapeau.
Alexander Payne’s movie about menopausal angst has little to do with Louis Begley’s novel, but it does have Jack Nicholson justifying his reputation as the self-torturing Everyguy protagonist. Hope Davis and Dermot Mulroney co-star.
A musical? Now? The Bob Fosse chestnut, itself based upon a 1926 play by Maurine Dallas Watkins (first adapted as 1942’s Roxie Hart), finally gets filmed with—singing their own parts!!—Richard Gere, Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Lucy Liu, Taye Diggs, and John C. Reilly! Who’s going?!
Based on Michael Cunningham’s novel—a tri-part, generation-spanning riff on Mrs. Dalloway—Stephen Daldry’s follow-up to Billy Elliott assembles the starriest cast of the season: Meryl Streep, Ed Harris, Julianne Moore, and, bravely assuming the Virginia Woolf mantle, Nicole Kidman.
Anchored by an impeccable Philip Seymour Hoffman performance and improbably buoyed by a clutch of Jim O’Rourke tunes, Todd Louiso’s film (from a Sundance-winning script by Hoffman’s brother Gordy) examines the nuances of a young widower’s grief.
Roman Polanski’s sober filmization of pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman’s experience of the Holocaust from the Warsaw ghetto to the camps, is detailed more in terms of iconic destruction and discombobulating absurdity than in images of wholesale death. The fearful eyes of Adrian Brody star.
CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND
This is our kind of biopic, based on Chuck Barris’s cock-and-bull memoir—a comedy about the man’s double life as game-show impresario and CIA operative. Sam Rockwell plays Barris, with support from Julia Roberts, Rutger Hauer (!), Drew Barrymore, and George Clooney, who also directs.