Given the scale of the carnage and destruction wreaked by contemporary warfare, a scale that has been ever ratcheted up since the first Neanderthal lifted the jawbone of an ass and used it as a weapon, it remains all but inexplicable that war is still utilized as an extension of foreign policy.

"War is the force that gives us meaning," wrote journalist Chris Hedges. And perhaps he's right. Whereas life can be mundane, routine, war is the crucible wherein all is intensified and survival is not only paramount but tested and tested again. Given the scale of the carnage and destruction wreaked by contemporary warfare, a scale that has been ever ratcheted up since the first Neanderthal lifted the jawbone of an ass and used it as a weapon, it remains all but inexplicable that war is still utilized as an extension of foreign policy. But perhaps it's an unavoidable truth that as a species we find something in war that we find nowhere else: hard-edged, high-risk, high-gain existential meaning. Everything is reduced down to one moment, one afternoon, one day and it can be an adrenalin-pumping, terrifying rush.

But rather than create a broad-stroke narrative about the geo-political aspects of the Iraqi war, or examine the efficacy of an eight-year policy called Iraqi Freedom, "The Hurt Locker" focuses on three men who are part of the Explosive Ordinance Disposal Squad of Bravo Company: Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), whose days are defined by searching for and dismantling IEDs (improvised explosive devices). It's when he is bent over a car trunk of ordinance, wearing a 180-pound protective suit, in 130-degree heat, with Iraqis watching from rooftops or standing in front of a small shops (one holding a remote detonator?), that he feels most alive. His willingness to risk all puts him at odds with the two other members of his squad, Sgt. J.T. Sanborne (Anthony Mackie) and Spec. Owen Etheridge (Brian Geraghty) who are 38 days short and counting, their rotation out of Iraq imminent.

Both men have been running along a precipice for almost a year and want only to be finished with their tour and go home, alive and whole. Sgt. James views the precipice as the one place above all others where he wants to be. He is as addicted to war as any drug addict is addicted to his or her drug of choice.

And so these three characters are revealed through action and not dialogue, the audience peppered with a series of intense setups, one IED dismantling after another, while director Kathryn Bigelow ("Point Break") clearly understands that the audience, like Sgt. James, is addicted to the adrenalin-endorphin-producing moments that only taut, intense filmmaking can produce.

What distinguishes "The Hurt Locker" from past films about Iraq — "Lions for Lambs," "The Valley of Ellah" — is its stunning verisimilitude. In contrast to its precursors, it is set in Iraq (actually Amman, Jordan) and is a harrowing depiction of soldiers struggling to survive in an environment so fraught with peril that it's unimaginable, in a place that is, culturally and physically, unrecognizable. It becomes self-evident that we have sent our young soldiers into harm's way; the questioned begged by the film (and never explicitly asked) is, Why? To what end? It is a question that they never ask.

If "The Hurt Locker" is flawed, it is in its development of character. And this is important. While the film is a character study, focusing in great part on Staff Sgt. James, little is ultimately revealed about the man. In a brief conversation with Sanborne and Etheridge he discloses only that he is married and has a child. Apart from those moments in the field, he remains remote and enigmatic and so that essential emotional bridge between the audience and the character is never fully constructed. In a film so intensely personal, it is a surprising omission.

Iraq must be, for the soldiers, inscrutable, and like Vietnam, a sea of the indecipherable, where every civilian might be an insurgent, every street an enemy sanctuary, every garbage bag on the roadside an IED.

To know how James absorbs all of that, or chooses not to, would have made the film even richer.

Nevertheless, "The Hurt Locker" remains the best film thus far about the Iraq war, defying the 20-year rule: two decades, at least, must pass before a movie can be made about a war and hope to be embraced by the audience, who has by then escaped the collateral fatigue long wars inevitably create.

Julie and Julia

What to say to those who have not seen "Julie and Julia" but bon appetit! This film is a joy to watch, a celebration of Julia (Meryl Streep) and Julie (Amy Adams), two women who embrace life and manage to square the compass and find in cooking, in the preparation of sauces and chicken and lobster, a happiness that up to that point proved elusive.

The film blends two books — "My Life in France," a memoir by Child, and "Julie and Julia," a book by Julie Powell — and through seamless editing offers a glimpse into the life of both women as they struggle to master the art of French cooking.

In the opening scene Julia and her husband Paul (Stanley Tucci) arrive in post-war France where he is posted as an American cultural attaché. Julia, feeling at a loss, enrolls in a French cooking school and unexpectedly, surprisingly, discovers she has a talent as well as a passion for cooking.

The film then jumps ahead in time to 2002, and introduces Julie Powell, a frustrated writer, stuck in a confining office job, who decides to cook all the recipes in Child's book, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," and keep a daily blog of her experiences.

Director Nora Ephron masterfully weaves the two parallel lives together, separated by 50 years, and creates a wonderful recipe for one of her best films to date.

It would be malpractice not to mention the many wonderful performances in "Julie and Julia," beginning, of course, with that of Streep. She inhabits Child. It is a stunning transformation. Child was a large and generous personality, effusive and expressive, hooting and laughing to the point of caricature. But never, not for a moment, does Streep allow her character to become any more or less than deeply human and transfixing and completely Julia. It's an unparalleled performance, subtle, nuanced and comic, one that is breathtaking in its craftsmanship. Ditto for the incomparable Tucci. He is masterful, nurturing constantly the chemistry between Julia and himself, able to speak volumes with one expression, capable of being absolutely still as a scene develops around him (recall his sterling performance in "The Devil Wore Prada," wherein he was also teamed with Streep). As well, Amy Adams, playing against Streep, though they never meet, is perfect as the neophyte who bubbles with passion for the art of a recipe and reacts to every obstacle with emotion that is authentic and spot on. She is a consummate actress.

If there is undiluted joy to be found in film, Ephron has captured it in this very special movie.

District 9

"District 9" is a strange though stylized science-fiction film that takes many of the assumptions of the genre and turns them upside down.

Sometime during the early '80s, a starship the size of a small city seems to have stalled out and now hovers above Johannesberg, South Africa. There is no sign of life. Eventually, the hull is penetrated and over a million starving, disoriented aliens are discovered inside and then transported to a shantytown on the outskirts of JoBurg where they live for some 20 years behind barbed-wire, forming a type of ET apartheid. They are tall, crustacean-looking bipeds, called, by the locals, Prawns.

The Prawns, though far more advanced technologically, seem surprisingly passive, and have been unable to negotiate with the powers that be to return them to the mother ship and have chosen instead to live passively in their sprawling ghetto. Of course, the film is filled with illogical holes; however, there is a story of sorts that holds the narrative together. But it has little to do with character, but more to do with a fugitive chase that takes an oblivious white administrator into the embrace of the Prawns when he discovers that he is morphing into a Prawn himself.

There is embedded in the film a not-too-subtle allegory regarding the 40 years of apartheid suffered by black Africans at the hands of the white ruling class, resulting in sprawling townships of grim poverty and violence. That is the setting for the film, to include a washed-out JoBurg that seems almost equally inhospitable.

Who is the audience for the film? Likely those sci-fi fans who will welcome director Neill Blomkamp's willingness to explore the many permutations of ETs arriving on earth, in some ways not dissimilar from "The Day the Earth Stood Still," only in the case of "District 9," everything is given a unique and intriguing twist.