So the other day I go to look up what new films have opened in the Lodi/Stockton area over the weekend, and what do I find? “Burlesque” and “The Warrior’s Way.” If you’re not familiar with these titles, let it suffice to say that these are not the kinds of films one would either hope or expect to see opening in the month of December, when the air is supposed to be heavy with Oscar buzz.
Things have gotten so bad lately that no self-respecting moviegoer would be caught dead in a multiplex these past few weeks, unless to see the new “Harry Potter” flick. So what’s to be done? There’s always the art houses, but even they aren’t offering much these days (“127 Hours” is showing at Tower in Sacramento, but I think I’ll wait a couple weeks for it to open wider).
My suggestion: Do what I did and use the down time to catch up on some notable movies that came out earlier in the year and are now available on Blu Ray/DVD. Even if you can’t catch up with everything by the holidays, you can always add a few titles to your Christmas wish list for later viewing. So, in lieu of a review of a terrible new film, please accept these quick recommendations for some slightly less new, but far more worthwhile, titles.
Also: a look at my own little wish list for the holiday season.
The best film I’ve seen in the past couple months, hands-down, is “Un Prophete” (★★★★ out of four). Winner of the Grand Prix at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival and already regarded as an instant classic of world cinema, “Un Prophete” is the engrossing story of a young Muslim man who becomes involved with the Corsican mafia during a six-year stint in a French prison. I don’t have enough space to get into the subtle pleasures of director Jacques Audiard’s eye-opening portrait of the criminal underworld, but let it be said that its reputation as a modern-day “Godfather” and the “best damn prison movie ever” is not unfounded. Another (near-)great crime flick to enjoy for the holidays: “Animal Kingdom” (★★★ 1/2), an Australian thriller that uses its story (that of a teenage boy forced into a life of crime by his extended family) to vividly illustrate the point that, in the end, people are merely animals — and, when pushed, they will behave as such with startling ferocity. Look for Jacki Weaver, as the ruthless but perpetually sunny criminal matriarch, to nab a well-deserved Oscar nomination.
Less impressive but also less dark: “The Kids Are All Right” (★★★), a charming if disposable slice of life about a lesbian couple (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore) whose almost-grown children decide to contact the man (Mark Ruffalo) who served as both kids’ sperm donor. The whole thing plays out rather predictably, but the performances (particularly by Bening and Moore, who are both shoe-ins for Academy Award nods for Best Actress) are enough to make it worth a look. If your tastes run toward the stranger end of the spectrum, also check out “Leaves of Grass” (★★★ 1/2), writer/director Tim Blake Nelson’s philosophically dense dramedy about twin brothers — one an intellectual Ivy League professor, the other a pot-growing hick, both played by Edward Norton — caught up in a criminal scheme that eventually spirals out of control. It’s like the Coen brothers’ “Fargo” and Cameron Crowe’s “Elizabethtown” had a baby. That likes to smoke weed.
Finally got around to seeing the Swedish version of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (★★★), based on the first in the wildly popular trilogy of novels by Stieg Larsson. I wasn’t as blown away by this competent but unimaginatively filmed character-based serial-killer thriller as most others were, but I’ve no doubt that David Fincher will knock our socks off with the American adaptation. Also slated for an American reworking: “Red Riding,” a five-hour, made-for-British-television account of the real-life Yorkshire Ripper murders, to be directed by Ridley Scott. I’ve only seen the first installment of the British version, “Red Riding: 1974” (★★★ 1/2), but its brooding atmosphere and pointed critique of a hopelessly corrupt police force have left me wanting more. The next two chapters, “1980” and “1983,” are waiting on top of my DVD player.
All I want for Christmas
Sure, “True Grit” and “The Fighter” will both open wide before the year is out, but other titles are less certain. Some will probably expand wider over the course of the coming months, and some may never show within a 100-mile radius. Regardless, these are the movies, slated for some kind of limited release, that I most want to see before finalizing my “best of the year” list. Hey, a guy can dream ...
• “Another Year” — It’s a Mike Leigh movie. Isn’t that alone reason enough to be counting the days?
• “Biutiful” — Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu (he of the disjointed “Amores Perros,” the searing “21 Grams” and the just-plain-stupid “Babel”) isn’t the most consistent filmmaker, but he’s got clear potential. Perhaps it took a Cannes-honored performance by Javier Bardem as a depressive to once again realize that potential.
• “Black Swan” — Darren Aronofsky’s portrait of a ballerina on the brink hasn’t been getting the kind of buzz I had hoped for, but anything by the director of “Requiem for a Dream” and “The Wrestler” has got to be worth a look.
• “Blue Valentine” — It isn’t the controversial NC-17 sex scenes between Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling that got me interested in seeing this mature examination of a failed relationship, but I gotta say... it doesn’t hurt.
• “The King’s Speech” — Colin Firth will win an Oscar for his performance as the verbally challenged King George VI, and I must see for myself if the whole stuttering thing is part of a broader, layered performance, or if it’s just a gimmick. The critics say it’s the former, but what do they know?
• “Rabbit Hole” — This family-copes-with-tragedy melodrama wouldn’t be on my radar were it not the first semi-mainstream film by gay-cinema pioneer John Cameron Mitchell. I’d curious to see what such a visually creative filmmaker can do with grim material like this.
• “Somewhere” — Sofia Coppola’s new film was a huge hit at the Venice Film Festival, but previews suggest it could be too low-key for its own good. Then again, she hasn’t made a bad film yet ...
• “The Tempest” — Director Julie Taymor has been having one hell of a time getting her Spider-Man show up and running on Broadway, but let’s hope this Shakespearean adaptation (which comes more than a decade after her amazing “Titus”) is good and successful enough to end her year on a bit of a higher note.
Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at email@example.com.