1. The Visitor. You’ve seen character actor Richard Jenkins in everything over the years but probably never paid much attention. You will now. His loneliness as a widowed college professor who is bored with life is palpable. He finds friendship and renewed meaning in his life when he discovers illegal aliens living in the New York apartment he owns but rarely visits.
2. Milk. Sean Penn is virtually unrecognizable in the title role of the late Harvey Milk, the nation’s first openly gay person elected to public office. Director Gus Van Sant mixes archival footage – including now-Sen. Diane Feinstein announcing the assassinations of Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone – with his new footage, and it’s often hard to tell the difference. While Milk never hid his homosexuality, he also made it clear that he represented more than just the gay population. The elderly, the disabled and minorities of all stripes helped elect him, and he stood for all of them. His message – “You can’t live on hope alone, but without hope, life isn’t worth living” – is as relevant now as when he first delivered it in the Castro in the 1970s.
3. Let the Right One In. A love story masquerading as a vampire movie. A lonely, bullied middle school boy finds understanding and friendship with a new neighbor in his apartment complex. Yet, this equally lonely 12-year-old girl only comes out at night. And, there’s an awful secret she can only hint at. She tells him she’s “been 12 for a long time,” but several townspeople will be murdered – although by reluctant predators – before the boy becomes aware of the truth his only friend hides. Subtitled.
4. Slumdog Millionaire. Told in flashbacks, this feel-good movie depicts our hero winning his way toward the top of the Indian version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” After a harrowing life (and no schooling) in the slums of Mumbai, how could this uneducated contestant get every single answer correct? Some powerful people grow suspicious, even as he becomes a national hero.
5. Jellyfish. Visually stunning Israeli film about the separate lives of three lonely women. These lives intersect long enough for some of these women to form tenuous connections. Melancholy and lovely. Subtitled.
6. Step Brothers. I saw it the day after seeing “The Dark Knight” and found this movie to be far superior. Raunchy and sophomoric … yet I laughed to the point I had to bite my lip to keep from laughing more (and bothering the pre-teen boys with whom I shared the theater). I even laughed in reading the premise: Two 40-year-old, unemployed men (Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly) become stepbrothers when one’s widowed father marries the other’s divorced mother. Neither is happy with the arrangement, and the bad behavior that ensues is hysterical. Richard Jenkins plays the dad, who cracks under the pressure of having two grown ne’er-do-wells under his roof.
7. Role Models. It begs to be seen twice, because you’ll miss much of it as you’re doubled over laughing. Paul Rudd and Seann William Scott play 30-somethings working in dead-end jobs for an energy drink company. Rudd’s character wonders what he’s doing with his life; Scott’s KISS-obsessed character would be content to continue dressing as the company’s Minotaur mascot until retirement. When Rudd’s character reaches his breaking point after a particularly bad day, the pair ends up being charged with a number of crimes based on one hysterical incident. They’re sentenced to community service and forced to mentor two nearly un-mentorable lads – one teen who’s hooked on a dungeons and dragons-like game and a foul-mouthed six-year-old from the ‘hood. You can see the end coming from a mile away, but it warms your heart, nevertheless. Jane Lynch gets the best lines as the founder of the program for “littles” in need of guidance from some “bigs.”
8. Elegy. Gorgeous movie with moving performances by stars Ben Kingsley and Penelope Cruz and supporting actors Dennis Hopper, Patricia Clarkson and Peter Sarsgaard. Kingsley plays an aging professor who likes his ladies young and his romances fleeting. He is surprised when Penelope Cruz’s Consuela seems to want a real relationship with him. How sad to watch as he sabotages their relationship at every turn with his own self-doubt. A lovely score – and be sure to watch for all the subtle ways the passage of time is depicted.
9. Man on Wire. A documentary in French (with subtitles) and English that shows both old still footage and current reenactments of an amazing act of daring. Philippe Petit and his accomplices rig a tightrope between the Twin Towers so that he can realize his dream of walking on a wire between the world’s tallest buildings. You know he achieves his dream – since much of the movie is comprised of interviews with a present-day Petit, but that doesn’t stop your heart from racing and your palms from sweating as he embarks on his brave, crazy stunt.
10. Doubt. Philip Seymour Hoffman furthers my case that he is the greatest actor America has ever produced and maybe the greatest the world has ever known. The movie is a little talky – always a risk when adapting a play for the screen, yet the performances by Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Amy Adams and Viola Davis make it worth seeing. You’ll never know the answer to the question, “Did he or didn’t he?” (hence, the film’s title), but the movie provides plenty of fodder for debate.
I.O.U.S.A. This documentary is mostly made up of talking heads. Cameras follow two economists on their traveling road show as they attempt to get Americans to pay attention to the most dire problem facing us today – our debt. It’s not an innovative or dynamic movie, yet it is must-see viewing. The film convincingly makes the point that our country, like Rome before us, is much more likely to be destroyed by our own hand than by a terrorist attack. See it – and then wonder why neither political party (save for the GOP’s Ron Paul) talked about this monstrous problem in this presidential campaign. This is a non-partisan movie that points fingers at every president and every member of Congress since the Civil War. This $1 trillion+ debt of ours may be the undoing of the United States.
Why the buzz?
The Dark Knight. I wish I had saved $7 by going to youtube and keying in, “Heath Ledger as Joker” and watching just his scenes. He deserves all the posthumous praise he’s gotten. At 2.5 hours, this was one, long sit – and the car chase scenes (is it the same one, just played repeatedly?) are mind-numbing.
Rachel Getting Married. Anne Hathaway deserves the good press and award nods she’s gotten as Kym, a recovering addict (and sister of the title character), but she also deserves a better movie in which to showcase her skills. The premise: Kym comes home from rehab for her sister’s wedding weekend. The plodding movie feels as if it unfolds in real time. At the rehearsal dinner, we hear every word of every toast. Where was the editor?! Along about the time the father of the bride and the groom have – I kid you not – a dishwasher-loading contest, you may be wishing you had been left off this guest list.
Gran Torino. And the Razzy for worst acting goes to … everyone in this mess! Did all the professional Asian actors have scheduling conflicts? It seems like Clint Eastwood told the first 12 Asians in line for the casting call, “You’re hired!” Without auditioning them. Clint himself becomes a caricature as he literally growls and snarls his way through the movie. Is there a heart of gold underneath his gruff, racist exterior? C’mon – what do you think?
Any serious film fan has to see …
Frost/Nixon, Revolutionary Road and The Reader.
They’re easier to admire than to love. I doubt, that years from now, as I’m flipping channels, I will stop and watch these flicks. Yet, you need to see them. In the way the over 40-crowd needs to take a daily multivitamin. You know it’s good for you, but you don’t necessarily enjoy it. I’m betting that when I stumble on “Role Models” in some future channel-surfing, I’ll be compelled to settle in and watch every minute of it.
There’s a serious flaw, in my opinion, in Revolutionary Road. One character is a certifiable nut job who gets out for occasional breaks from the mental facility where he’s being housed. He’s the only person who sees that the seemingly perfect Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) and April Wheeler (Kate Winslet) are really miserable. The insane-man-who-sees-the-truth has been around since the fool in King Lear, but it’s a cliché at this point. I think (?) we are supposed to be awed by this savant’s profundities, but the entire crowded theater roared with laughter each time he opened his mouth. I don’t think Sam Mendes intended him to be comic relief from all the histrionics in the Wheeler household, yet that’s exactly what he provided.
I can’t review what I didn’t see:
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. I think Brad Pitt’s acting is adequate, at best. In a recession, I’m not going to pay even matinee prices to see three hours’ worth of Brad.