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Indie Theater Roundup: 7 Movies to See This Week

January is traditionally a time for Hollywood studios to empty their storage lockers, tossing out the trash (like last winter's Bride Wars) and dusting off movies previously unreleased due to scheduling conflicts. No matter. The city's indie theaters remain a premier destination for cinephiles in search of top-flight documentaries (What's the Matter with Kansas?), cheerfully twisted fantasies (The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus) and Oscar front-runners like The Hurt Locker and A Serious Man.

1. What's the Matter with Kansas?
Where:
Opera Plaza Cinema, 601 Van Ness Ave., 415-771-0183
When: All Week
Why: Were working- and middle-class Midwesterners acting in their own best interests by helping elect George W. Bush to consecutive terms in the Oval Office? Filmmakers Joe Winston and Laura Cohen, adopting the premise of Thomas Frank's bestselling book, want to know. They travel to the heart of Middle America, once home to left-wing movements like the Populist Party, to determine the causes and effects of the region's newfound loyalty to the GOP.

2. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
Where: Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, 1881 Post St., 415-929-4650
When: All Week
Why: Terry Gilliam's 12th feature, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, will be remembered as Heath Ledger’s last film – he brings manic intensity to his role as Tony, an amnesiac on the lam – and also for the spirited performances of the men who replaced him after his death: Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell. Depp, who shot his scenes in a single day, is particularly effective here, bringing an appealing sense of mischief to the fantastical world of Parnassus.

3. Bitch Slap
Where: Lumiere Theatre, 1572 California St., 415-885-3201
When: All Week
Why: Where else are you going to see a "cat-fighting, pile-driving, go-go dancing, bronco-busting, bumping & grinding, philosophy-touting, breast-augmenting, femme-tastic fight-fantasy of epic proportions"? The makers and stars of Bitch Slap will attend a question-and-answer session on Sunday at 7:30 p.m., then stick around to introduce the 10 p.m. screening.

4. Whip It
Where: Red Vic Movie House, 1727 Haight St., 415-668-3994
When: Jan. 12-14
Why: Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut is smartly cast and heartfelt, however formulaic. For those curious about the world of all-girl roller derby, the movie, based on Shauna Cross’ semi-autobiographical novel, breaks down the rules of the game before tossing us into the mayhem, and the action is appropriately hard-hitting. Less so are the trials and tribulations of Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page, of Juno), a restless 17-year-old living in small-town Texas under the watchful gaze of her conservative, beauty pageant-obsessed mother (Marcia Gay Harden).

5. Crazy Heart
Where: Embarcadero Center Cinema, 1 Embarcadero Ctr., 415-352-0835
When: All Week
Why: Best known as The Dude to Lebowski lovers worldwide, Jeff Bridges delivers one of his most memorable performances as Bad Blake, the hard-living country singer stumbling toward a shot at redemption in writer-director Scott Cooper's promising feature debut. Maggie Gyllenhaal co-stars as a journalist and single mother who gently encourages him to clean up his act.

6. Broken Embraces
Where:
Clay Theatre, 2261 Fillmore St., 415-346-1124; Embarcadero Center Cinema, 1 Embarcadero Ctr., 415-352-0835
When: All Week
Why: Penélope Cruz, who earned an Oscar nomination for her fiery performance in director Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver (2006) and took home the statuette for her supporting role in last year’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, commands the screen here with a presence both authoritative and graceful. Lena, the sought-after beauty she plays in Broken Embraces, may be more vulnerable than some of her most memorable characters – Lena is battered, emotionally and physically – but thanks to Cruz, who projects strength effortlessly, there is no doubting her fortitude.

7. A Single Man
Where: Embarcadero Center Cinema, 1 Embarcadero Ctr., 415-352-0835
When: All Week
Why: An official selection of the Toronto, Tokyo and London film festivals, former fashion designer Tom Ford's directorial debut, about a homosexual English professor contemplating suicide after the death of his lover, gives Colin Firth (BBC's Pride and Prejudice) what he has long deserved: a richly conceived starring role worthy of his talents.