Sam Rockwell ("Moon") and Tilda Swinton ("Julia") Make a Pair of Good Films Great

It'd probably take billions to get to the moon these days, but Duncan Jones manages to take you there for a reported $5 million. With a handful of functional-looking corridors and bays, some blinking instrument panels, and a fleet of miniatures, he evokes a lunar surface mine, complete with automated mining machines throwing off arching debris that lands in soft plops of moon dust. But even James Cameron understands that even the most otherworldly world only works on a movie screen because it resonates with the one we know, and undoubtedly the best money Jones spent for his debut Moon (Sony) was hiring Sam Rockwell.

Rockwell plays Sam Bell, the sole inhabitant of the mining base. Nearing the end of a three-year solo hitch with no company but computer/gofer GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey), Sam is a little crispy. He talks to himself a bit more than even he's comfortable with, and he hangs on every word of a message from his wife and young daughter back on Earth. He's distracted enough that he has a serious accident, a turn of events that leads to the discovery that he isn't alone after all. There's another Sam.

The two Sams are not so different, but then again they are, thanks to Rockwell's performance(s). Rockwell is exceedingly good at cocky—e.g. his Jagger-like strut through the second half of Charlie's Angels—but many of his best performances, even some of the cocky ones, are suffused with vulnerability, an effect perhaps best seen in the otherwise overbaked 2008 Chuck Palahniuk adaptation Choke. As the two Sams, he embodies the two extremes of essentially the same personality divided between two editions of essentially the same person, and his subtlety and skill make for an interesting mediation on the effects of isolation and time, as well as the irreducible things that make a human—any human—human. Plus, he gets to play ping-pong against himself. Nathan Parker's script, based on Jones' original story, is clever and sly, full of clues and realizations that only fully bloom as the plot motors forward; the facile ending is just one of the several small flaws that prevent Moon from rising above genre film status. But genre fan or not, you shouldn't miss Rockwell's excellent work here.

Like Rockwell, Tilda Swinton has become something of a star as a character actor. From her early work with British experimental filmmaker Derek Jarman, she graduated to starring roles in indies and a series of stand-out secondary roles in big Hollywood projects, regularly the best thing in anything she's in either way. (Speaking of genre films, if you haven't bothered with the kid-targeted The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, it's a must for Swinton's mercurial White Witch alone.) Julia (Magnolia) is a French production that barely made it to theaters and limped out on DVD this past summer. This column usually focuses on brand new releases, but Swinton's performance is so extraordinary that it shouldn't go unsung. Whichever actresses win big this award season, none of them are more deserving than her.

Julia (Swinton) is a drunk—not a cutesy movie drunk, but a regal whipsmart beauty turned degenerate alcoholic whose blackout swilling usually finds her waking up half-naked beside strangers in random corners of L.A. She loses her job and would be completely friendless except for Mitch (Saul Rubinek), a recovering alcoholic whose interest in her seems to be part AA sponsorship, part romantic. The only thing more desperate than Julia's situation is her solution to it: Fellow 12-stepper Elena (Kate del Castillo) enlists her to kidnap Elena's young son Tom (Aidan Gould) back from his wealthy grandfather. This, needless to say, cannot end well.

And it doesn't, at length and often in excruciatingly tense and depressing ways. In rough outline, Julia is built on that tiresome indie stock plot in which a tough broad gets tenderized by a child in trouble. In detail, Erick Zonka's direction is too unsentimental and Swinton's performance is too ferocious for that. Being no more together as a kidnapper than she is as a person, her plan goes awry and she finds herself adrift in Mexico with Tom. The boy does soften her; in one indelible scene, they cuddle in bed, here exposing a deeply buried maternal strain and him basking in the maternal affection he's never really known. But she's naked, just awake from another blackout hookup, and by the time she's dressed she finds herself negotiating more than one ransom.

Julia is, in fact, rather unpleasant, pathetic, even despicable, a car wreck of a human being. But Swinton's portrayal of her is so finely observed and so richly human that you can't not look. No one has ever captured on film the bleak ugliness of waking up hung over and chewing on a bad taste as well as she does here. Watching the lies wash over her features, the wheels spinning behind her high, pale forehead as she thinks of the next expedient thing to say, rivets. Even as she goes from not caring to caring, her lying skills become more necessary, but they come bundled with an alcoholic's deep denial, which retains its powerful hold right up through the final frames. At more than two hours, Julia meanders enough to expose the film's foibles and indulgences, but Swinton makes every second worth watching.