Christmas is my favorite holiday and I, like many other Westchester residents, plan on eating Chinese food and hitting up the movie theater with my mom on the 25th. The problem is that, with studios trying cram in their movies for Oscar consideration, there are so many films to choose from. What are the must-sees? Which films should be avoided? I did my best to sort through the current fare, from safer bets, to calculated risks, to flat-out bombs.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Though I greatly admire both Fight Club director David Fincher and Jazz Age author F. Scott Fitzgerald, I never thought I’d see the two names together on one project — especially not one as hard-to-film as a story where a man ages backwards. Add in heavyweight actors Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett — along with some crazy-looking special effects — and you have a film that has to be at the very least interesting to look at.
Doubt and Frost/Nixon
The best thing about movies based on plays is that they come with built-in, meaty showcase scenes delivered directly into actors’ strike zones. Whether you’re looking for a severe, open-ended story about possible wrongdoing in a Bronx parish or a flashy tête-a- tête between a British talk-show host and Richard Nixon, you’ll find yourself awash in Oscar-worthy acting performances from basically every star in either movie: Amy Adams, Viola Davis, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Frank Langella, Sam Rockwell, Michael Sheen, and, of course, Meryl Streep. If your favorite actor is in that bunch, you won’t be disappointed by the performance.
Gran Torino: Anthony Michael Rivetti
It seems like Clint Eastwood is continually hedging his bets. First there were his two back-to-back Iwo Jima movies, and this year he came out with another pair of awards bait. The second, Gran Torino — about an old man (Eastwood) who has to overcome his attitudes about race to bond with his troubled Asian neighbor — has already racked up some nominations, though maybe not the ones you’d expect. (It received a Golden Globe nomination for “Best Song,” which Eastwood supposedly sings.) That’s not a great selling feature, but Entertainment Weekly calls the movie “at once understated and radical,” and since it may be Eastwood’s last acting role, it’s probably worth the admission.
Revolutionary Road: François Duhamel © 2007 DreamWorks LLC
A movie about how soul-crushing it is to live in the suburbs of New York City — that sounds like it was made for us! Plus, it sounds like Mad Men, and everyone loves Mad Men, right? The movie is directed by Sam “American Beauty” Mendes, so expect it to be, well, harsh — but well done, especially since marks-of-quality Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet play the diasaffected couple at the center of it all.
Wendy & Lucy
This is one of those movies that’s hard to find and few people have seen it — but those who have are really glad they did. Don’t let the Peanuts-ish name fool you: this isn’t some cutesy movie. Wendy (Michelle Williams) is a woman whose dream is kind of depressing to begin with: she wants to get a job at an Alaskan fish cannery. (Lucy is her dog, so in a way, I guess it’s a little like Peanuts.) On the way to AK, her car breaks down, and things go downhill from there. In these terrible economic times, I’d all rather see a downer like this as opposed to Confessions of a Shopaholic.
The Wrestler: Niko Tavernise
Certainly grittier than a feel-good flick like Slumdog Millionaire, The Wrestler — about a retired pro-wrestler dealing with his stripper girlfriend and estranged daughter as he tries to get back in the ring — is being hailed as its own comeback story, rejuvenating the career of actor Mickey Rourke. If director Darren Aronofsky’s previous films — like Pi or Requiem for a Dream — are any indication, the road back to the spotlight is going to be obsessive and emotionally distressing (but in a good way).
The Reader: Melinda Sue Gordon © 2008 The Weinstein Co.
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Defiance, The Reader, or Valkyrie
All of these movies take place during World War II. They all have great actors in what I’m sure are terrific performances. There has been Oscar buzz about almost all of them. But, really, how many WWII movies can you stomach, especially over the holidays? And how do you choose? I’d go with Valkyrie, because it’s directed by the man who did the first X-Men movies (the good ones), and because Tom Cruise wears an eye patch. Or The Reader because Kate Winslet is my hero, even when she’s rocking Bert-style eyebrows. Or Defiance because Daniel Craig is hot. (Jamie Bell, too.) Or The Boy in the Striped Pajamas because it looks the artiest, and because Vera Farmiga is underrated as an actress. Ah, just flip a coin.
This movie chronicles the rise of Chess Records in the ’50s and includes modern-day stars playing Muddy Waters, Leonard Chess, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, Etta James (Beyoncé!), and Chuck Berry. It’s gotten generally favorable reviews, but with such recognizable stars, characters, and music, it’s odd to me that there aren’t that many raves out there. Is everyone just all Dreamgirls-ed out and they don’t want to see another musical period piece, or is this a diamond being outside by all the other high-wattage stars out there?
Marley and Me
This movie, based on the bad-dog book of the same name, just looks dopey to me. But I’m not a dog person, and I know that some people love the book. But what if I tell you that the movie is longer than two hours? Are you willing to watch a puppy misbehave for that long? Or would you want to get up in the middle and, I dunno, play fetch?
I’ve heard that to understand the premise of the movie is to have the twist ending spoiled. As a result, all of the marketing behind the movie — all the trailers, commercials, etc. — has only alluded to vague aspects of the plot: One man changes the lives of seven strangers! Forever! And he has a dark secret! I appreciate the lack of spoilers, but how are we supposed to figure out if we want to see it? Will Smith is in it — is that enough?
The Spirit: Lionsgate/Odd Lot Entertainment
Comic-book movies are hot, and this one — about a hero who returns from the dead to protect his city in a noir-ish, hard-boiled detective kind of way — has the amazing talent of Frank Miller, visionary author of Sin City and 300 behind it. Unfortunately, Miller the director, not the writer — can a comic-book writer really direct? The trailer has some stunning visuals — but also some pretty cheesy lines of dialogue that I can’t tell if it’s supposed to sound hacky or not. (I’d save my money and wait for Watchmen in March.)
Jim Carrey can always be relied on for a few good laughs, and Zooey Deschanel is about one of the cutest/coolest actresses working today (check out her musical side-project, She & Him, for one of the most fun albums of 2008). But, really, nothing in this trailer makes me laugh, and the faux self-help premise of saying “yes!” to everything seems ten-years dated.
The Day the Earth Stood Still
Time magazine says it best: “they have made what must be the worst major release in what may be the most disastrous year in recent Hollywood history… Suffice it to say that these morons have, quite simply, turned The Day the Earth Stood Still on its head and what’s falling out of its pockets in that upended state is a stream of junk.”
Never heard of this one? Keep it that way.
Punisher: War Zone
I love comic-book movies but I must warn you: STAY AWAY. There is not one redeeming performance, scene, exchange, moment, or second in this awful picture.
This isn’t coming out until January, but I’m pre-railing against it. I hate to see movies where women waste their time tearing each other down, especially if it’s over something as silly as wedding. I know it makes it seem like I have no sense of humor, but I know what’s funny: monkeys acting like humans. Let’s see one of those movies this winter instead.
Happy holiday movie-viewing, everyone!