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Vulture Recommends: David Edelstein’s Films to See This Memorial Day Weekend

Photo: Universal Pictures

Film critic David Edelstein recommends you celebrate America by checking out a jingoistic military action flick, a political satire, and, you know, a ballet documentary.

1. Oslo, August 31st
This knockout Norwegian drama crosses the blood-brain barrier like … like … whatever the drug is, I haven’t tried it, thank God. The movie eats into your mind — slowly. The protagonist, Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie), is a cleaned-up junkie on his first trip to the big city for a job interview, after nearly a year as an inpatient. He’s 34, the love of his life is long gone, and his retired parents are in the process of selling their house to cover his frightening debts. Director Joachim Trier follows him for 24 hours, beginning with Anders in a motel beside an old Swedish girlfriend (barely glimpsed) on the morning of August 30 and ending with his return to a different bed under much different circumstances. Each moment of what follows is quiet — and momentous.

2. Battleship
This Navy-versus-aliens saga  is a cynical piece of manufacturing, but it’s also one of the more enjoyably terrible movies of the year. It opens with scientists discovering a “Goldilocks planet” in a far-off solar system to which they send out a “Whassup, homey?” signal. Bad move. Sometime later, three ships whiz past Mars and plunge into the Pacific.

Taylor Kitsch, fresh from fighting aliens on Mars in John Carter, brings his boyishly unshaven good looks to the role of Alex Hopper, an irresponsible lieutenant. U.S. Army Colonel Gregory D. Gadson — a former battalion leader who lost both legs in Iraq and has the no-B.S. charisma of Ving Rhames — plays a double-amputee who stages a one-man assault on an alien-commandeered relay station. The smug, reptilian aliens don’t have a prayer, assuming they even believe in God, which I bet you anything they don’t. I take no position on illegal drugs, but if you happen to find some lying around, I can’t think of a better occasion for them. Indeed, Battleship gives new meaning to the hero’s climactic exhortation to his troops: “Light ‘em up!”

3. The Dictator
Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest is a loose and silly and occasionally exhilarating political farce in the tradition of Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (obviously) and the Marx Brothers’ antiwar masterpiece Duck Soup. And it comes in at a fleet 83 minutes — just right. Baron Cohen plays Haffaz Aladeen, authoritarian ruler of a fictional African nation called Wadiya and a cross between Qaddafi and Kim Jong-il. A climactic speech delivered by Aladeen near film’s end is a triumph of the satirist’s art, a lecture to U.S. leaders on the advantages of dictatorship over democracy — the kind of backdoor, upside-down way of getting at the truth that makes artists like Baron Cohen so treasurable.

4. First Position
The kids who have it hard in Bess Kargman’s grueling and magical documentary have chosen (or been thrust into) one of civilization’s most unnatural modes of expression: ballet, in which bodies are wrenched and twisted and molded to do what bodies weren’t designed to do — and in the process to enlarge our sense of what’s physically and spiritually possible. This is yet another competition doc in the unending legacy of Spellbound (crossword puzzle fanatics, juvenile drag racers — everyone has his or her own competition doc), but Kargman is light on her feet, too, and she has chosen to follow a fascinating group of kids preparing for the 2010 Youth America Grand Prix — where not only medals are awarded but also scholarships and even positions in prestigious companies.

5. The Three Stooges
Peter and Bobby Farrelly’s The Three Stooges is a slavish imitation of the Stooges’ shorts with a trio of eerie replicants — yet wow. Just wow. The combination of childlike glee and grown-up precision is a wonder. The movie actually earns the right to exist, which is no mean feat. It’s clever of the Farrellys to make The Three Stooges both exceedingly violent and PG wholesome, with sweet little moppets (a girl who’s very sick, a boy who won’t leave her side) and a message of hope. In a (tongue-in-cheek) gesture to moralists who fear a spate of concussions and gouged-out eyes, the brothers add a coda warning children not to hit people over the head with lead pipes.

David Edelstein’s Films to See