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This Week at the Movies

'Beasts of the Southern Wild' is a dazzling debut with a remarkable breakout performance, while 'Magic Mike' and 'Ted' are fun summer movies.

American cinema added a trio of quirky characters to its canon in three new films that, overall, made for one of this summer’s better movie-going weekends.

Benh Zeitlin’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is the discovery of the year. The film drew raves at both the Sundance and Cannes Film Festivals and it’s easy to see what all the hype was about.

Here is one of the most unique pictures you’ll likely see this year. Those who contend that great regional independent filmmaking is on the decline clearly haven’t seen “Beasts” – or, for that matter, 2010’s excellent “Winter’s Bone.”

The film features the best performance I’ve seen in a movie this year and it just so happens to be by a 6-year-old girl named Quvenzhane Wallis.

In the film, she plays Hushpuppy, a pint-sized force of nature with a shock of wild hair who lives in The Bathtub, a multiracial bayou community cut off by a levee that is comprised of broken down homes inhabited by hard-drinking, but affectionate, people who catch their own food and live by their own rules.

For a child actor, it’s amazing to watch the range of emotion that plays out upon Wallis’s expressive face. One minute, she is a charismatic child, assuring us that scientists in the future will one day know of her life in the Bathtub, and the next she conveys fierce survival instincts. It’s a stunning performance.

Hushpuppy lives with her father, an ailing alcoholic who practices tough love for his daughter out of concern that she will not be able to fend for herself once he is gone.

The Bathtub is threatened by a massive storm resembling Hurricane Katrina and the film’s second half is concerned with bureaucratic government relief efforts that upend Hushpuppy and her community.

There are some remarkable scenes in this picture, including an opening sequence during which the Bathtub’s denizens celebrate an unnamed holiday and another late in the film during which Hushpuppy and several of her young friends find themselves on a boat filled with call girls and musicians. That latter sequence is among the most haunting and beautiful I’ve seen in any movie this year.

“Beasts of the Southern Wild” is one of the best debuts I’ve seen in years and easily one of 2012’s best films so far.

While Hushpuppy was the most memorable character from this weekend’s selections, there were several others of note, including the titular character from Steven Soderbergh’s male stripper movie, “Magic Mike.”

The film’s star, Channing Tatum, apparently started out as an, ahem, exotic dancer and the picture is inspired by his life.

This is a fun movie filled with solid performances and a sense of humor about its subject matter.

Tatum makes for a convincing lead, but it’s Matthew McConaughey who steals the show as Dallas, an over-the-hill stripper and nightclub manager. The film kicks off with a hilarious sequence during which Dallas explains to his club’s female patrons what type of behavior is allowed when the dancers are on stage.

Some inevitable plotlines eventually make their way into the film. Magic Mike, whose passion is not for stripping but for making custom furniture, must question whether he wants to continue his wild life style or become serious with Brooke (Cody Horn), the sister of his protégé, Adam (Alex Pettyfer), who is also known as The Kid.

And Mike finds himself facing a conundrum once The Kid gets behind on payments to a group of not-so-understanding drug dealers.

“Magic Mike” is not a message movie, but rather a fast-paced and funny behind the scenes showbiz drama about a rarely covered topic.

And despite its subject matter, Soderbergh’s picture is far from being the crudest of the weekend. That honor belongs to “Ted,” an occasionally jaw-dropping comedy of epically crass proportions.

The picture, which was written and directed by “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane, tells the tell of a lonely boy who wishes upon a star that his teddy bear would come to life.

Years later, that boy has grown into John Bennett (Mark Wahlberg), a kind, but somewhat immature, man who still rooms with Ted (the voice of MacFarlane), his pot smoking, womanizing and foul-mouthed stuffed animal.

John is in a serious relationship with Lori (Mila Kunis), who is relatively understanding about her beau’s long-time friendship with his teddy bear, but wants to take the next step. Complications ensue.

Jokes fly at the audience left and right throughout the course of the film. On the whole, more of them hit their targets than miss.

There is one particularly unfortunate sequence that reminded me of a cultural stereotype perpetuated in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” It’s a bit cringe inducing. Then again, “Ted” aims to be an equal opportunity offender, much like an episode of “South Park.”

On the whole, the picture is good for more than few laughs and is significantly funnier than its premise would have led me to believe.

“Ted” may not reach the highs of, say, last year’s “,” but it’s certainly wittier than a majority of the other Hollywood comedies to be released this year.

“Beasts of the Southern Wild” is playing at Manhattan’s Sunshine Cinema and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. It will open on July 13 at Kew Gardens Cinemas.

“Magic Mike” and “Ted” are both screening at AMC Loews Bay Terrace 6.

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