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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, host:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

CORNISH: Three films open limited runs today - squeaking into the box office just in time to be considered for the next Oscars - the Spanish drama "Biutiful," a romance called "Blue Valentine," and an English ensemble film titled "Another Year." Critic Bob Mondello says none offers much holiday cheer, but all have performances likely to be remembered at awards time.

BOB MONDELLO: You can't usually guess much about films from just their opening dates. But one week every year, the calendar tells you a lot - the week between Christmas and New Years. That's when studios open potential Oscar nominees that are downbeat enough to be completely out of sync with the season. Last year, Germany's "White Ribbon" opened after Christmas, telling a story about abused children abusing their elders. The year before, it was two films about Nazis - just not a cheery time. So it's nice that Mike Leigh's characters at least try to put on a happy face in "Another Year."

(Soundbite of movie, "Another Year")

Ms. RUTH SHEEN (as Gerri): You're nice and slim.

Ms. LESLEY MANVILLE (as Mary): Am I? Well, I've always been slim, haven't I?

Ms. SHEEN (as Gerri): Unlike me, middle-age spread.

Mr. JIM BROADBENT (as Tom): Shut up. You're perfect. Gorgeous in every way - and you know it.

MONDELLO: That's Tom and Gerri, a middle-aged couple with a strong marriage, a thriving garden, and a warm home that seems to attract damaged souls. Chief among the damaged, Mary, who is hard-drinking, belligerently chirpy, and always on the make.

(Soundbite from movie, "Another Year")

Ms. SHEEN (as Gerri): You've put for an ad in for (unintelligible).

Ms. MANVILLE (as Mary): Gorgeous girl - no, mature woman with cat. No, mature-ish. We don't want to put them off, do we?

MONDELLO: Lesley Manville plays Mary with brimming eyes and such an endless store of false bravado that you start waiting for her to come apart almost the instant you meet her. Because "Another Year" is directed by Mike Leigh, her collapse isn't so much a full-fledged breakdown as a barrage of ticks, quivers and frantic glances, pain that's echoed by a grand array of British character actors who've worked with Leigh in films with titles like "Happy-Go-Lucky" and "Life Is Sweet." In "Another Year," the sweet life is much sought after, but is enjoyed almost exclusively by Tom and Gerri.

Their solid marriage meets its opposite in "Blue Valentine," a devastating little indie drama about a young couple who are hopelessly unsuited for matrimony, but who met cute and were adorable together - at first. Cindy was a med student, Dean a high school dropout when they went on their first date. He was a charmer, and she was charmed.

(Soundbite of "Blue Valentine")

Mr. RYAN GOSLING (as Dean):You got any like, talents?

Ms. MICHELLE WILLIAMS (as Cindy): Like, hidden talents?

Mr. GOSLING (as Dean): Here. I'll play a song and you dance. I can't really sing. I have to sing goofy in order to sing. Like, I have sing stupid, OK?

Ms. WILLIAMS (as Cindy): OK.

MONDELLO: She starts a little soft shoe, concentrating on his silly voice when she should have been listening to lyrics about the pain of romance.

(Soundbite from movie, "Blue Valentine")

Mr. GOSLING (as Dean): (singing) You always hurt the ones you love. The ones you shouldn't hurt at all.

MONDELLO: Six years later, they're married - Dean drinking every morning as he heads to work, Cindy so frustrated by his lack of ambition that she's all frowns, except in public.

(Soundbite from movie, "Blue Valentine")

Ms. WILLIAMS (as Cindy): What are you doing here?

Mr. GOSLING (as Dean): Oh, you are awful friendly right now, aren't you?

Ms. WILLIAMS (as Cindy): No, I'm just surprised to see you.

Mr. GOSLING (as Dean): Oh, this is when smiles happen? This the smile room? You take off, you leave me, you don't tell me what's going on?

MONDELLO: "Blue Valentine" cuts back and forth between the pasts, limitless horizons and a marriage shot in suffocating close-up as Ryan Gosling, open to a fault, and Michelle Williams, emotions tightly held, let you feel the throb of remembered joy when they argue - and let you see glimmers of trouble in every kiss.

Solitary pain in "Another Year," marital pain in "Blue Valentine," and a pain that seems to embrace the whole world in "Biutiful," spelled B-I-U-tiful. It's from Mexican director Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu, the guy who brought us complicated tales of woe in "Babel" and "21 Grams." Here, things are simpler, centering on a stressed-out but loving father, played by Javier Bardem. The film's first scene has him whispering in the dark with his daughter about a diamond ring.

(Soundbite from movie, "Biutiful")

Ms. HANAA BOUCHAIB (as Ana): (speaking Spanish)

MONDELLO: May I put it on, she wonders.

Mr. JAVIER BARDEM (as Uxbal): (speaking Spanish)

MONDELLO: Yes, it's yours now, my love. Tender, sweet, a far cry from the Barcelona street life this father lives. Out there, he's a hustler recruiting illegal immigrants to push sweatshop counterfeits, never more than a half-step ahead of the cops.

(Soundbite of movie, "Biutiful")

MONDELLO: "Biutiful" hammers this earnest hustler with a world's worth of illness, corruption and betrayal until Bardem, tall and strapping at the outset, seems to whither physically under the onslaught. When that whispered opening scene is repeated at film's end and you understand the circumstances, it feels breathtakingly different. Your perception has been altered by a performance as beautiful in its anguished way as the vivid ones that light up "Another Year" and "Blue Valentine."

Together, their year-end cry of cinematic distress qualifies as an exhilarating testament to film acting, though probably not one you'll want to catch all in one burst.

I'm Bob Mondello.

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