High movie season is in full swing--and I am setting to work on my top-ten list for the year. To whet your appetite, here are some recommendations among the movies now out in theaters, with a couple of DVD pics thrown in:
Doubt - This is my favorite of the films that opened around Christmas. It's based on a prize-winning play that I had the good fortune to see on Broadway a couple of years ago, and this version features a first-rate cast (Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, and Viola Davis). It's the best and most courageous film exploration of issues of faith and doubt that I can remember, never shying away from the hardest questions. A strong candidate for my top-ten list.
Frost/Nixon - Another film based on a play that I had the good fortune to see on Broadway, featuring the same two lead actors. I liked the play but thought it to be based on a sort of thin premise, the famous set of interviews of Nixon by David Frost. Turns out the story is much better told on the big screen. It's perceptive and fascinating. Another contender for my list.
I've Loved You So Long - This meditation on the life of a woman newly released from prison is movingly and carefully told and features a stunning performance by the great Kristin Scott Thomas. It made me reflect a lot on how what we know about someone can color what we don't. Yet another contender for my list.
Slumdog Millionaire - I thoroughly enjoyed this underdog story of a "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" contestant who grew up as an orphan on the streets of Delhi. It doesn't go too deep, but manages to depict some amazing realities on the way to just being good fun, and the performances of the child actors are particularly wonderful.
Happy Go Lucky - This is a sure-bet for my top-ten list, and if it is still playing near, you don't miss it. This character study of a true cock-eyed optimist had a profound and complex effect on me which included making me grin and laugh aloud for the entire length of the movie. Never have I found a character simultaneously so annoying and so inspiring. Brilliant.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - Won't make my list, but this one really did move me. A very affecting reflection on time and the fleetingness of life.
Milk features wonderful performances (especially by the great Sean Penn) and one of the more effective biopics I can remember, lovingly capturing the time and Harvey Milk's inspiring brand of activism.
Finally, while I was snowed in and couldn't make it to the theater (aagh!) I saw a couple of wonderful films on DVD. The Rape of Europa is a fascinating documentary about the incredibly organized effort of the Nazis to steal all the European art and architecture the regime deemed worthy and destroy the rest. I had no idea of the scale of this effort, and this exhaustive retelling is sobering and fascinating. A must-see. And my fears that Under the Same Moon (La Misma Luna) would be sappy proved unfounded--I loved this immigrant story for its faithfulness to the roots of Mexican storytelling, its wonderful use of music to support the story, and the excellent performances of the three main characters, especially the kid. Having just returned from Mexico, I especially enjoyed its authentic sentimentality.
I'm going to make an effort starting with 2009 movies to incorporate a rating system onto my blog and do more short posts. But first I have to see all the remaining 2008 films that made it onto other lists and complete mine, which I'll release just before the Oscars. Stay tuned!