Film critics often devote their columns at this time of year to making lists of the pictures they liked best and least, a practice I abandoned a few years ago because it proved so frustrating. In a small market like New Orleans, a year-end column is necessarily as much preview as it is review, especially for a weekly with a deadline before Christmas Day when the last (and usually some of the best) movies are released — in New York and Los Angeles, often not arriving here until January or February. Seven of the first nine films I reviewed in 2008 (Atonement, Charlie Wilson's War, Juno, There Will Be Blood, The Savages, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and Persepolis) were 2007 movies that went on to capture nominations in last year's awards races. For 2008, the Golden Globes have nominated The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, Revolutionary Road, The Reader and Slumdog Millionaire for best drama. Only the last of those has opened here. The best I can do, then, is to offer some upcoming titles you will likely want to see and the names of some earlier films you might want to order from Netflix or pick up at your local video store. Put all of the above in one category or the other.
By the time you read this, Doubt will have opened. Put it on your list and don't be bothered by critics who have complained its cinematic direction is heavy-handed. It is. But the film's themes and performances by Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Viola Davis are well worth seeing. Don't miss Milk, with its terrific title performance by Sean Penn as America's first openly gay public official. In the days ahead look for The Wrestler, which has landed Golden Globe acting nominations for Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei, Last Chance Harvey, which did the same for Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson and I've Loved You So Long, with its nominated performance by Kristin Scott Thomas. Not on the Golden Globe honor roll is Gran Torino, but some critics have hailed Clint Eastwood's performance as the one that will finally win him a Best Actor Oscar.
For your video list, include the Golden Globe-honored films Burn After Reading, Vicky Christina Barcelona, Happy-Go-Lucky, In Bruges, Pineapple Express and, most essentially, Rachel Getting Married, with its revelatory lead performance by Anne Hathaway. Not all of these pictures are available for home viewing yet, but all should be soon. You might want to rent the otherwise disappointing Tropic Thunder to check out the nominated performances by Tom Cruise and Robert Downey Jr., both of which are memorable.
The list above should prepare you for the award season. To your video lineup I want to add a list of worthy films I reviewed in 2008 that were either holdovers from 2007 or have so far been denied award attention. Start with last year's winner of the Oscar for Best Documentary. Taxi to the Dark Side tells the story of an innocent Afghan cabbie who became one of the first victims of Dick Cheney and George Bush's felonious "harsh interrogation techniques" when he was beaten to death in Bagram Prison. Add The Counterfeiters, which won the 2007 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film for its story about how concentration camp inmates sought to thwart Hitler's attempt to destroy the British and American economies with bogus currency.
Also seek out Son of Rambow, a gentle, touching comedy about two lonely grade school boys who form an unlikely friendship to make their own action movie; Choke, the quirky story of a sex-addicted med-school dropout (Sam Rockwell) who works as an actor at a colonial reenactment theme park and cares for his senile mother; Frozen River, with Melissa Leo as a working-class mother who turns to crime in hopes of providing a larger trailer for her two sons; Trouble the Water, the brilliant documentary about a Ninth Ward couple who rode out Katrina and selflessly assisted their neighbors in the process; The Fall, a wildly imaginative, one-of-a-kind picture about the unlikely friendship between a lonely little girl and a movie stuntman; and The Band's Visit, a heart-stirring fantasy about an Egyptian musical ensemble that becomes lost in the Israeli desert and has to rely on the remarkable kindness of strangers. Last, rent and watch back-to-back The Wackness and Elegy, two pictures starring Ben Kingsley that together demonstrate his astonishing range as a performer.