The best movies to see in February

This month Monitor film critic Peter Rainer enjoyed films such as ‘Free Solo’ and ‘Ruben Brandt, Collector.’

© Ruben Brandt LLC/Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
The animated feature “Ruben Brandt, Collector” is the first by by director Milorad Krstić, “which is astonishing,” writes the Monitor’s Peter Rainer, “given its intricacy and inventiveness.”

Oscars season may be over, but there are still many intriguing and well-made films to see in theaters. Here are the ones that impressed Monitor film critic Peter Rainer the most this month.

‘Apollo 11’ brings back awe of 1969 moon landing 

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the July 20, 1969, first manned moon landing, the documentary “Apollo 11” brings back once more the awe of that event. What makes this film different from numerous other such movies is that, in many instances, it utilizes footage never before seen publicly.  

The footage was not cropped, as is the case with so many similar documentaries, and the films were restored and scanned at the highest resolution possible. The result, according to the filmmakers, is the highest-quality digital collection of Apollo 11 footage available. The startling crispness of the imagery makes the experience of watching this film almost like seeing the mission for the first time.

Much of the commentary about this film has focused on the way the moon shot represented perhaps the last time the whole world was uplifted as one. This may be too nostalgic a view of that time, which, after all, was an era when the cold war and the space race were in full swing. Still, the transcendent hopefulness of the Apollo 11 mission strikes a necessary chord today. This was no Arthurian legend. It really happened. The transcendence it instilled, however fleeting, bears repeating. Grade: A- (Rated G.)

‘Ruben Brandt, Collector’ is intricate, inventive

The nightmares of renowned psychotherapist Ruben Brandt are of a special sort: They all involve imagery from famous paintings. And the characters in them are on the attack. To conquer his fears, he believes he has to steal the paintings – 13 in all – in order to defuse their power. 

This is the nutbrain premise for the extraordinary 94-minute animated film “Ruben Brandt, Collector,” directed by the Slovenian-born artist Milorad Krstić, who has lived in Hungary since 1989. This is his first animated feature, which is astonishing given its intricacy and inventiveness. 

In his quest to find peace of mind, Ruben (voiced by Iván Kamarás) recruits four of his patients, all thieves, to pilfer the offending 13 canvases from many of the world’s great museums, including the Louvre, Tate, Uffizi, Hermitage, and Museum of Modern Art. 

At times the imagery overload can be exhausting. Like some of Terry Gilliam’s movies, the surplus of ideas may be too much of a good thing. But “Ruben Brandt,” in its own wacko way, is also making a case for the power of art to both disturb and heal. When Ruben says that art is the key to the troubles of the mind, his meaning is double-edged. Ultimately, what I think Krstić is saying is that we need to look at the world’s glories whole. Beauty should not be locked away. Grade: A- (Rated R for nude images and some violence.)

‘Who Will Write Our History’ gives witness to Nazi atrocities

The documentary “Who Will Write Our History,” directed by Roberta Grossman, brings to life a relatively obscure but vitally important historical chapter from the Holocaust. In November 1940, not long after the Nazis imprisoned some 450,000 Polish Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto, a group of about 60 journalists and community leaders headed by the historian Emanuel Ringelblum banded together under the code name Oyneg Shabes to document the Nazi atrocities. 

Grossman mixes historical footage and present-day interviews with reenacted scenes from within the ghetto. (Joan Allen and Adrien Brody, among others, provide voice-overs.) The staged sequences are tastefully done, even if the actors look a bit too well-fed and well-groomed for their dire straits. Most important, all the words that we hear spoken, all the narration taken from the diaries, is word-for-word accurate, without embellishment.

What became of the archive after the Soviets liberated Warsaw? A prewar aerial map enabled workers to eventually uncover two of the three caches. (The third is believed to be located under what is now the Chinese embassy.) More than 60,000 pages of the archives are preserved at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw. Perhaps some day, the third cache will be uncovered. In any event, this film is itself an important act of historical reclamation. Grade: A- (This film is not rated. It’s in English, Yiddish, and Polish with English subtitles.)

'Free Solo' chronicles efforts of mountain climber to work without aid of ropes or harnesses

The impressive Oscar-winning documentary “Free Solo,” directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, is not the kind of movie you want to be watching if you have a fear of heights. It’s about Alex Honnold, a mountain climber whose goal is to scale the almost-3,000-foot sheer granite vertical face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park without the aid of any ropes or harnesses. 

Now I’ve long held the belief that people such as Honnold or Philippe Petit or Evel Knievel are not so much brave as lacking the ability to feel fear. And sure enough, a scientist in the movie does a brain scan of Honnold and discovers that his amygdala – the section of the brain researchers say is responsible for detecting fear, among other functions – is practically a no-show. Since it’s clear from the get-go that Honnold survived his climb, I suppose we can all breathe easier watching his quest, but the question for me remains: Why on earth would anybody do this? Grade: B+ (Rated PG-13 for brief strong language.)

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