Ridiculously sub-zero temps (or at least sub-zero wind chills) have provided me with ample opportunities to catch up on my movie viewin’. While putting together a new VHS stand earlier this week, I was bombarded with titles I taped while living in Watertown that I still haven’t watched: among them, Croupier, The Vertical Ray of The Sun, The Right Stuff, The Goodbye Girl… and I can’t even find or remember what tape I put Head on! (Not Head On, a disappointing coming-of-age gay film from a few years back). And yet, I still want to rent more. Anyway, here’s what I’ve seen since returning from Iowa.

Love Liza: Phillip Seymour Hoffman plays a graphic designer shlub whose wife commits suicide and leaves him a note that he can’t bear to read. Instead, he finds solace in increasingly dangerous dosages of sniffed gas fumes. With a screenplay written by Hoffman’s older brother, Gordy, (whom I met in Rochester), this is a peculiar tale, more for the dazed, unexpectedly dark comic tone than for the depressing, offbeat premise. Hoffman is effortlessly good (you can’t imagine anyone else in this role) and Kathy Bates tackles her difficult, minimal part well. This is exactly the type of film you’d expect from director Todd Louiso by way of his meek record store clerk in High Fidelity: a little eccentric, a little sweet, relentlessly indie, and not quite all there. My favorite part was Hoffman’s absurd, impromptu road trip to Louisiana with his sketchily acquired model plane.

Marion Bridge: Quiet, understated Canadian film about three daughters dealing with their ailing mother and past demons. It has subtly sound performances, lovely cinematography, and a thoughtful, original script. Molly Parker stands out as Agnes, the prodigal alcoholic daughter who is as real and fleshed-out a female character as I’ve seen in awhile. This reminded me a little of Mike Leigh’s films, only with more optimism and a few less stereotypes. It didn’t move me as much as, say, The Station Agent, but it came close.

Teknolust: I couldn’t make it through Lynn Hershman-Leeson’s stilted first feature, Conceiving Ada, which had the terrible misfortune to waste Tilda Swinton. Fortunately, Swinton’s fabulous in this more relaxed, much funnier follow-up as an endearingly mousy scientist and her three self-created genetic clones. With Henry Fool-ers James Urbaniak and Thomas Jay Ryan in supporting roles, not to mention such quirkaholics as Karen Black and the increasingly weird Jeremy Davies, this is almost everything I wanted Hal Hartley’s last film to be. Don’t miss the indescribable dance routine the clones put on for their creator, or when one of them, the sex-bot Ruby, hilariously tries to ingest what is for her a new kind of “succulent protein”.

This Little Life: Honest and sad little British film about a couple that give birth to a prematurely born baby. Like Lilya 4-Ever (only gentler), it’s not an easy one to watch, but you will get so caught up in the tiny details and struggles the characters endure that you’ll have no difficulty making it to the challenging but pretty apt conclusion.

Cold Mountain: The season’s bloated literary adaptation / historical epic Oscar bait is Anthony Minghella’s first film since the similarly crafted and still underrated The Talented Mr. Ripley. It’s no masterpiece, but it exceeded my expectations nonetheless. Jude Law gives his first interesting lead performance to date and his best overall since Ripley’s Dickie Greenleaf. Nicole Kidman is fair as the fragile southern belle Law leaves behind, but Renee Zellweger is shockingly great as the coarse, uneducated mountain girl who sort of becomes Kidman’s maid and companion. Even though she’s often just comic relief, Zellweger is so striking and likable that if she gets an Oscar nomination, it’ll be her first that’s truly deserved.

Big Fish: Anyone calling this Tim Burton’s masterpiece obviously hasn't seen Ed Wood (or can’t grasp how brilliant, in an anarchic way, Beetlejuice still is). It’s a relief after the boring Sleepy Hollow and the atrocious Planet of The Apes remake, and it features a solid turn from Ewan McGregor in his best role since Moulin Rouge. Not at all as corny or brainless as Forrest Gump, I found it really affecting at the end, and I marveled at Burton’s phantasmagoric delight in all of the flashback sequences. The present day scenes with Billy Crudup and Albert Finney are a little heavy-handed and joyless by comparison.

Owning Mahoney: Wow, a year with two lead performances by Phillip Seymour Hoffman. This dry-verging-on-bland effort about gambling from the director of Love and Death on Long Island ringers truer than Casino, at least. It could use some of Shattered Glass’ intensity, as it’s also structured around a lie that grows exponentially through the course of the film. This is perhaps Hoffman’s best role to date (next to The Talented Mr. Ripley, which is its diametrical opposite) because you can barely sense any sort of character mask on him, apart from the one he hides his addiction behind.