You have a grocery list, right? You also have a birthday list, a Christmas list, a work schedule and you even let Tivo list what you should watch. Over and over we catalogue our doings so as not to forget that six pack of Snapple or midday meeting, but what about films? One thing we rarely plan out is the movies we see from one week to the next even though we do, in fact, see plenty. I don’t know about you but I die a little inside every time I hear someone get to the box office window and ask the attendant “what’s good this week?” or choose solely based on the poster or, worse, title; “Hey look, a film called ‘Funny Games,’ that should be fun.” Lucky for you, then, that you came across this article. Here, you need not worry about taking shoots in the dark because I’ll casually dissect the bustling fall/winter movie season for you, sifting through the gold, the junk and the Jason Statham. So with this list in hand the only work expected from you, the reader, is actually seeing the movie. Just don’t come to me asking for a refund, these things cost enough as it is.
The bad news is that you’re already behind so stop what you’re doing right now and hit the theater. This week will be easy. Released a few weeks ago, the film is called “Happy Go Lucky” and it kicks off fall’s buzz worthy films. Except this is not some pretentious foreign film or social drama. Rather, this precious (and non pandering) product is about a character who faces the world in the most unexpected of ways: with laughter and endless amounts empathy. “Oh! What-chu-ma-call-it ding dang dilly dilly da da hoo hoo!” the lead character, Poppy, chirps.
The dialog fast, fun, real, surprisingly un-annoying and so shot out of a verbal cannon that the pacing attains a flurried naturalism from the most naturalist of directors, Mike Leigh (“Vera Drake”). This first must-see film I’m listing is so particular that it comes across as if Mr. Leigh synced up and pressed play on two great movies of his and the effect, besides wowing the audience with a manic sense of fun, is the director’s most stylized and stir-crazy film to date (more so than one of my ten all time favorite films, 1999’s garish “Topsy Turvy”). “Happy” is sometimes a gag, sometimes a gawk, sometimes tragic, and sometimes all at once; but always in control.
This astute dramedy observes the happy go… you know, protagonist (an impossibly robust Sally Hawkins who, as she interacts with a world full of angry men, both young and old, still retains her essential nature. I find myself wondering if it should alternatively be titled “Happy, Go Lucky” because that comma, followed by the swift and (now) mean “go lucky” part also captures the hot/cold tone of this picture. Here is a character that, whilst facing hostilities from all aspects of life, feels, connects and acts in a way only she can, which is thankfully a way few do. Not reacts mind you as, sadly, most roles for females are reduced to, but acts. And what a brilliant act this is. A-
Week 2 (October 24th)
Okay, so week one was a gimme. But you’re still not caught up so on to the tough decision: to “Saw” or not to “Saw?” “Saw V” (opening wide) is a perennial gorno franchise (one part porn two parts gore) where the antagonist (Jigsaw) has died, by my count, more than Rasputin and the blond guy from the first Die Hard at this point. Whether you see it or not depends on whether you’ve seen the other million “Saw” films. Oh, yes, there will be money made. On the other end of the spectrum is a film called “Changling” (limited), a Clint Eastwood picture where a mother tears down walls and possibly even buildings (Godzilla style) to find her missing baby. I hear Santa Angelina Jolie sets a new overacting standard and, as such, is guaranteed another Oscar nomination—I guess enough people in Hollywood have drunk the punch and now believe she’s a good performer. Still, how can any of us not see a movie in which a character screams “I want myyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy child back!” without an ounce of irony. Speaking of irony, there’s also the ear-bleeding tween megahit “High School Musical 3” coming out this weekend as well. Assuming any line in America is not attached to this film, the line you’ll find me in is… Verdict: Changeling (though only because I love Clint Eastwood… yes, even “Bridges of Madison County” Clint)
Week 3 (October 31st through November 7th)
Forgettable Halloween films “The Haunting of Molly Hartley” and “Splinter” and limp Kevin Smith comedies “Zack and Miri Make a Porno” (I’m so over Kevin Smith at this point) dominate the last week of October. And the following week is no better unless you have children and are forced to see “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa.” If that is the case then you have bigger problems than deciding what movies to see in any given weekend. So do you care about any of these films? Neither do I so how about we take this week off. Verdict: read a book, smell a flower, talk to your children and/or aging parents.
Week 4 (November 14th)
We blew past the first week of November and are now caught up. Yay. It was worth the wait because this week promises a powerful pair of titles to see. First off, it’s a Bond week and that’s like a national holiday for any likeminded anglophile. Daniel Craig has teamed up with Mark Forster for the latest Bond reboot “Quantum of Solace.” The film is about James Bond and that’s all you need to know. See it! That the director’s previous films include “Finding Nederland” and “Kite Runner” makes him the last bloke qualified for this machine gun totting/super emo revengin’ Bond. But, whatever, we’re going to see it anyway and we are probably going to love it. The second film release I must mention here is called “Slumdog Millionaire” (limited release) and this much talked about title tells the story of a poor Indian teen that defies the odds of a billion or so people to become a contestant on the Hindi version of “Who Wants to be A Millionaire.” Sounds lame but, trust me, this Danny Boyle film is on every film geek’s radar and will easily score a Best Picture nomination given the paucity of non-Batman Awards-y titles. See this film after “Bond” as a gesture of good will. Verdict (tie): Bond, James Bond of course but if you have a few hours left catch “Slumdog Millionaire” as well.
Week 5 (November 21st)
See how fast that was! We’re more than halfway through this season’s must-see films. And so far I hooked you up with Clint Eastwood and James Bond. Leave tips on your way out of the theater, thanks so much. This week is going to be tougher for any non-tween audience member. First is the John Travolta/Miley Cyrus CGI film “Bolt” (about a super dog or something… who cares). Second is “Twilight.” We’re doomed! If you haven’t heard of the “Twilight” novel series then come out of your cave and let me catch you up: Mormon, amateurish young fiction author finds a way to preach to millions of female readers about the virtues of abstinence, good grades, and giving up everything to “serve” one’s male “master,” a vampire hunk named Edward. Total sappy melodrama fodder with one caveat: it’s melodrama with vampires, werewolves and virgins, oh my. Oh, and author Stephanie Meyer’s books have become so huge that many say their cultural impact rivals that of Harry Potter, a series that was actually well written but when has that ever mattered? The fact is we all got to bite the bullet (which is before we bite the dust) and watch (…or, rather, endure…) “Twilight” so as not to be too out of touch. Don’t blame me, blame the zeitgeist for this. Verdict: “::gritting teeth:: hello, um, I’ll have ::squeezing girlfriend’s hand:: two tickets for ‘Twilight’ please ::dies a little inside::”.
Week 6 (November 28th)
“For Christmases,” is a Vince Vaughn/Reece Witherspoon Christmas romance (didn’t Vaughn learn his holiday movie lesson after “Fred Clause?”). “Australia” is a Baz Luhrmann (“Moulin Rouge”) directed, Nicole Kidman/Hugh Jackman starring outback epic. This week also offers up the gay themed Gus Van Sant political biopic “Milk,” a film about a man (Sean Penn) becoming San Francisco’s first openly gay city official. In the ultimate bonehead marketing move of the year, this a film about homosexuals persevering and overcoming the odds on the political front that’s being released AFTER what is, or was, the most important GAY political issue of the year, the right to get married in California. One more addition this week is…. drum roll… Jason Stathem in “Transporter 3.” This weekend is so perfectly spread out that a definitive pick is impossible select. You have a big title for the romantic comedy crowd, one for those who dig epics romances and westerns, a genuine art house article, and, well, Jason Statham (a man who exists in a genre all to his own). Verdict: See “Milk” then see “Transporter” to reacquire your sexual orientation. Unless you happen to be gay, in which case do the reverse.
Week 7 (December 5th)
Hum, a “Punisher” film or a Nixon one. Is there a difference? The election will be over at this point but “Frost/Nixon” (limited release, opens wide on December 25th) hits theaters this week and will sadly face an audience that, if you’re like me, is burned out on presidential matters. The upside is that this is a Peter Morgan scripted film (“The Queen”) set during a time when reporters actually reported and presidents were the real deal (warts and all). Verdict: “Frost/Nixon”
Week 8 (December 12th)
It’s double D week! By that of course I’m referring to the pair Über prestigious/pretentious film releases “Doubt” (limited release) and “Defiance.” In one, a nun fights oppressive priests (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). And in the other, a trio of Jews lead by Daniel Craig (who, after this film and “Munich,” has become an honorary Jew), fight oppressive Nazis. The real movie would be to see Meryl Streep take on Nazis but she already did that in “Sophie’s Choice” and that didn’t turn out to well for her. Since we’re not going to see that any time soon, and since both films feel overwrought if their respective trailers are any indication, I’m divided here. This week also sees this year’s Cannes film festival winner “The Class,” (limited release) a film about a racially mixed French classroom in a tough neighborhood. Personally, I try to catch any film that wins the Palm de Or but this year’s winner will be a tough lesson for me to follow. Finally, the diametric opposite of that film is Keanu Reeves playing Keanu Reeves, whoops, I mean an alien, in the big budget remake of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (which is turning out to be this season’s “I Am Legend”). Verdict: Doubt is the safest bet though I’m going to catch every downbeat film released this week.
Week 9 (December 19th through December 26th)
Rounding out the final days of 2008 are a healthy handful of titles. Some are titles that nobody has heard of but are worth our attention nonetheless. One such film is “The Wrestler” (limited release) directed by Darren Aronofsky (“Requiem for a Dream,” “The Fountain”) about a retired bruiser trying to make his way back into the game… and life (he must have rented “Million Dollar Baby”). Sure, you may not want to spend the Christmas season watching a leathery Mickey Rourke hit the mat but from what I hear, you may be surprised. Expect Oscars. And speaking of Oscars, there’s “Revolutionary Road,” (limited release) the 50s-set suburban drama that reunites Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio on dry land. On the mainstream front, expect a number of strange sounding titles that include Will Smith in movie called “Seven Pounds” about a suicidal man who kills seven people in a car accident and seeks to atone for his sins and an Adam Sandler film about bedtime stories coming to life in “Bedtime Stories” (what an imaginative title). And who’s up for a film with Gong Li, Chow Yun-Fat and… John Cusack called “Shanghai?” More straightforward Christmas releases are the comic adaptation “The Spirit” (the poor man’s “Sin City”) and the popular novelistic adaptations of “Yes Man,” in which Jim Carrey is forced to say “yes” to everything (the inverse of “Liar Liar”) and “Marley and Me,” which I can imagine will make people cry, then suck, then make a lot of money. And though my fingers are crossed a on a release date for the on again off again Brian Singer epic titled “Valkyrie” and staring Tom Cruse as a Nazi soldier who attempts to assassinate Hitler (take that, Meryl Streep!), I’m betting it will see the light of day and suitcase bomb its way into our hearts. All that aside, one film has captured my interest and imagination above all others this is the dark auteur David Fincher’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Buttons.” I won’t even attempt to explain it (okay, I will: Brad Pitt grows old while his love played by Kate Blanchett grows young), I will however attempt to see this surreal film at all costs when it is released on Christmas day. Verdict: A shot of “Button” with a “Valkyrie” chaser is the best Christmas gift I could hope for.