"Argo" (R, 120 minutes, Warner Home Video): This captivating, expertly machined political thriller is serious and substantive, an ingeniously written and executed drama fashioned from a fascinating, little-known chapter of recent history. It also happens to be extremely funny, crafty and enormously entertaining. It's two, maybe even three, films in one - all of which work as enjoyably on their own as they do in concert. Ben Affleck plays Tony Mendez, a CIA expert in disguises and "exfiltration," who at the height of the Iran hostage crisis in 1979 is called on to get six American diplomats out of Tehran, where they've been hiding in the Canadian ambassador's residence. His scheme is so crazy, it just might work: He'll impersonate a movie producer who arrives in Iran to scout locations for his upcoming science-fiction flick. After some legerdemain with paperwork and spending a day or two chatting up the new revolutionary government's cultural ministers, he'll depart with the Americans in tow, each of them playing someone on the film's crew. Working from a well-crafted script by Chris Terrio, Affleck (who also directs) threads viewers through the dauntingly tricky geopolitics and tonal shifts with an utterly flawless sense of control.
"Anna Karenina" (R, 130 minutes, Universal): In a jewel box of a theater, the curtain goes up, the music swells and the camera itself swoons as the players take their places in Joe Wright's ingenious, intoxicating adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's novel, in which the dense tale of love, adultery, politics and aristocratic manners has been brilliantly reimagined as light opera. Wright stages "Anna" (played by Keira Knightley) with equal parts precision, playfulness and passion as lively tableau vivant gradually gives way to tragic waltz. While Wright's self-conscious theatricality and dollhouse aesthetic conjure comparisons to Baz Luhrmann and Wes Anderson, he outstrips both those filmmakers in moral seriousness and maturity. Like the masterpiece that inspired it, "Anna Karenina" poses some of life's toughest questions - about how to be good, how to be bad and the costs of both - but with nuance and sensuousness that make even its most profound truths levitate on flights of soaring imagination and pure poetry.
Also released Tuesday
"Game of Thrones: The Second Season"