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Indie Theater Roundup: 7 Movies to See This Week

Paul Giamatti (left) and Dustin Hoffman star in Barney's Version, opening today at the Embarcadero.

With Noir City 9 descending on the Castro for the next 10 days and San Francisco's 13th Independent Film Festival arriving in early February, the new year is already heating up for local cinephiles. Here, as always, are some of the finest selections currently playing at an indie theater (and, in this week's edition, a Loews cineplex) near you.

1
. Barney's Version
Where: Embarcadero Center Cinema, 1 Embarcadero Ctr., 415-352-0835
When: All Week
Why: Inspired by Mordecai Richler's 1997 comic novel, Richard J. Lewis' feature debut tells the story of Barney Panofsky (Paul Giamatti), a romantic everyman who leads an improbably extraordinary  life. With his father (Dustin Hoffman) by his side through four decades of misadventures and failed marriages, he boozes, strays and frequently prioritizes hockey over spending time with his wife and children. Yet Barney, portrayed in a smartly nuanced, Golden Globe-winning performance by Giamatti, is genuine and disarmingly sweet – a schlub, likable in spite of himself, who usually gets the girl even when neither he nor she really understands why.

2. The Company Men
Where: AMC Loews Metreon 16, 101 4th St., 415-369-6201
When: All Week
Why: In the nation’s time of economic distress, when loyal workers may be reduced to so many numbers on a spreadsheet, the corporate climate seems more cutthroat then ever. Nobody is safe. That is the most affecting lesson of Men, written and directed by ER and West Wing producer John Wells, in which mid-level executives hopelessly married to their jobs and a higher standard of living find themselves lost after getting their walking papers. How their individual stories play out is hardly surprising – tragedy seems as assured as the movie’s final glimmer of hope – but watching them fall, stripped of their wealth and ultimately their dignity, remains a bitter pill to swallow.

3. Last Train Home
Where: Red Vic Movie House, 1727 Haight St., 415-668-3994
When: Jan. 23-24
Why: It’s an annual tradition created by accelerated modernization, an expanding economy and the world’s largest populace: Each year, 130 million Chinese peasants, displaced from their villages to work in urban factories, crowd train stations to return home for the New Year. Lixin Fan’s insightful documentary focuses on a single family, the Zhangs, divided by the trend and struggling to cope with the strain.

4. Let Me In
Where: Red Vic Movie House, 1727 Haight St., 415-668-3994
When: Jan. 21-22
Why: Though the roar of fanboy discontent stirred by the announcement of an American remake has understandably died to a barely imperceptible murmur, those haunted by Tomas Alfredson’s 2008 Swedish import Let the Right One In, about the complicated friendship between a bullied 12-year-old and a childlike vampire, were right to bellyache about the prospect of Hollywood tampering. They needn't have. Matt Reeves' tender, stylishly shot retelling, highlighted by two of America's most promising young actors in Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Road) and Chloë Moretz (Kick-Ass), never strikes a false note.

5. Casino Jack
Where: Lumiere Theatre, 1572 California St., 415-885-3201
When: All Week
Why:
Not to be confused with Alex Gibney's 2010 documentary Casino Jack and the United States of Money, George Hickenlooper's comedy examines the shameless exploits of disgraced Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff, portrayed here by Kevin Spacey. Whether or not you're familiar with the most scandalous aspects of Abramoff's stranger-than-fiction story, the movie thrives less on revelation than on Spacey's tireless energy, and the offbeat, almost winsome charisma he brings to his notorious con man.

6. I Love You Phillip Morris

Where: Lumiere Theatre, 1572 California St., 415-885-3201
When: All Week
Why:
As he has since graduating TV's In Living Color, Jim Carrey owns the screen in Phillip Morris, and he is a gifted dramatic actor. As Steven, an enigmatic con man reminiscent of Matt Damon’s bogus corporate whistleblower in The Informant!, his manic eccentricities and transparent disingenuousness lend themselves to broad but effective comedy. In Steven’s quieter moments, when the character requires a certain gravitas, it’s hard to separate the leering prankster from his compassionate alter ego, but in a movie so fascinated with his outrageous duplicity, perhaps that's the point.

7. Blue Valentine

Where: Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, 1881 Post St., 415-929-4650
When: All Week
Why: The best of intentions can’t rescue a flatlining relationship, a lesson learned through tears, small explosions and passionless embraces by Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams), a still-young married couple watching the embers of their romance turn cold in Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine. Where did their passion go? Cianfrance leaves that question to our imagination, and Dean and Cindy's cold civility – as well as the riveting, award-worthy performances of Gosling and Williams – gives Valentine its withering power.