"The Dark Knight Rises" (WB): Beginning with a misguided memorial tribute to the late Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) and concluding with the kind of finale you might expect to see in the "Oceans" or "Bourne" series, "The Dark Knight Rises" would rise to the occasion sooner if director Christopher Nolan had shaved off about 30 minutes. In IMAX, with wall and skin shaking volume and vibrations, and enough special effects to shame the summer movie competition (talking to you, Spider-Man), "The Dark Knight Rises" may be the end of the trilogy, but it would appear that it's far from the end of the franchise.
As we've come to expect with anything regarding the Batman, nothing is ever as it seems. Ruthlessly brutal, virtually indestructible and often indecipherably masked and muscled villain Bane (Tom Hardy) rigs an ingenious plot to elude his government captors and kidnap nuclear physicist Dr. Pavel (Alon Aboutboul). Bane and his multiple (and surprising!) accomplices plan Gotham's reckoning in the form of a multi-mega-ton atomic bomb. The bomb-making components just happens to be stored at Applied Sciences, run by Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), employed by reclusive and eccentric millionaire Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), aka Batman.
In addition to having to decide whether to come out of retirement (guess what he chooses), Wayne finds himself at odds with faithful manservant Alfred (Michael Caine), becoming acquainted with driven (and orphaned) detective John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and romantically entangled with millionaire Miranda (Marion Cotillard) and (possibly bi) feline-like cat burglar Selina (Anne Hathaway) , one of whom turns out to be good and the other very, very evil. He also suffers greatly at the meaty hands of Bane, is visited (and tormented) by his mentor Ra's Al Gul (Liam Neeson) and championed by Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman). As you can see, they've crammed all this and more into nearly three hours of suspense and action (including fight and chase scenes that go on far too long). But as farewells go, the Dark Knight's long goodbye is almost worth every minute.
"Beasts of the Southern Wild" (Fox searchlight): In director and co-screenwriter Benh Zeitlin's full-length feature debut, "Beasts of the Southern Wild," pint-sized philosopher Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) is fascinated with heartbeats and the way pieces of the world fit together to make it whole. But in the days leading up to and following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in her NoLa neighborhood known as The Bathtub, she has other things on her mind.
Hushpuppy lives with her ailing father Wink (Dwight Henry) in a pair of trailer/tree houses following the departure of Hushpuppy's mother. They get around on water in the back half of a pick-up truck that has been converted into a sea vessel. Hushpuppy goes to The Bathtub equivalent of a school, run by Miss Bathsheeba (Gina Montana) when she's not exploring (or destroying) her surroundings.
In a narrative monologue, Hushpuppy shares what she knows about the water, the giant warthog-like pre-historic beast known as the aurochs, her missing mother, the fabric of the universe, survival and father/daughter relationships. She may only be six years old, but she speaks with the wisdom of the ages.
With the exception of Wes Anderson's equally quirky "Moonrise Kingdom," there is no other movie in theaters that achieves this kind of wide-eyed wonder and woe. Alternating between gritty and surreal scenarios, "Beasts of the Southern Wild" turns the tragedy of Katrina into a fireworks-fueled fairy tale and a lesson in ecology. As Hushpuppy, young actress Wallis makes an enduring impression, leaving audiences to look forward to what will come next for her.