Frost/Nixon provides an ideal platform for the acting talents of Frank Langella, Doubt draws unflattering comparisons to the brilliant play it's based on, and Michelle Williams delivers a stunning performance in the heartbreaking Wendy and Lucy.
My favorite male and female performance of the year are contained within this list. And proving again that this has been an uneven awards season, an animated dog moved me more than a grumpy old nun.
Frost/Nixon (Universal Pictures) Not having seen the play – which I still regret – I can only work with what I have in front of me. But unlike Doubt (see below), Frost/Nixon feels like a movie, rather than a play somebody tried to push onto the screen. I give a lot of credit for that to Ron Howard, whose high level of competent craftsmanship remains his great talent. Like his Apollo 13, Frost/Nixon is exceedingly entertaining and thoughtful, and if it never quite pushes for greatness, at least it's not as dully “significant” as Apollo 13 was. The three best things about the movie are the three things everybody talked about when the play premiered. First is Peter Morgan's screenplay. Second is Michael Sheen, who as David Frost morphs from a winking playboy to somebody who stumbles toward grace without losing his basic immaturity. But the film begins and ends with Frank Langella. He's not someone I automatically love – I thought his work in Starting Out in the Evening was solid but a little showy. But if you're going to play Richard Nixon, being showy is part of the deal, and Langella has the man down cold. Anthony Hopkins captured all of Nixon’s twitchy paranoia, but Langella does that and looks like the guy – not just in the face but the eyes and the demeanor and the whole essence. Beyond all that, though, this isn't a parody or an imitation – you get the sense that Langella has thought a lot about the man and tried to sum him up. He does that wonderfully. Even more than Oliver Stone's Nixon, Langella gives the former president a real emotional arc that's both tragic and sympathetic but doesn't excuse him. (Most important: Watch how charming his Nixon can be.) The rest of the movie isn’t as inspired, but Howard keeps it rolling along. I wish there was a greater sense of modern-day relevance with the issues at play, and I wish Howard didn't shape the thing so much to be a rah-rah David-vs.-Goliath entertainment. But really, the movie isn't his – it's Langella's.
Doubt (Miramax) The play is terrific, the movie is just OK. The reason for both is John Patrick Shanley, who wrote the Tony-winning play but then let others direct it for the stage. He directs the film version, and his style is both too spare and too over-dramatic for the simplicity of his tale to come through. As a movie, Doubt just feels too obvious – a did-he-or-didn't-he? plot about a priest and a young boy and the cranky old nun who fears the worst. On stage, that plot became a springboard for a study of moral certainty, religious faith, tradition versus progress. And it was a good little detective story, too. Am I biased against the film because I knew how the story would work out and so the surprises weren't there? It's a good question – this is why I tend not to like to know the source material so that I can evaluate the film on its own terms. But nevertheless, the play was about ideas, and too much of the movie is about acting. I think both Meryl Streep and Amy Adams are hindered because the roles hew too closely to their types – they don't surprise you. As for Philip Seymour Hoffman, the man is on an amazing streak of great performances. This isn't up to Synecdoche, but he's the only lead in the film who really got to me. (Viola Davis is terrific in her one-scene role.) The movie opens up the play and adds more material, but I didn't find myself enjoying many of the new wrinkles. The core of the story remains fascinating, but the movie feels like a revue of the play rather than a fresh new version of it.
Wendy and Lucy (Oscilloscope Pictures) Michelle Williams is so terrific in this film that there's no chance she's going to win an Oscar for it. The movie's too small to get noticed, and, unlike other recent Best Actress winners, her transformation from glamorous to ordinary is so complete that people may forget that she ever was glamorous. Kelly Reichardt's last film, Old Joy, felt a touch too schematic for me – another discussion of the fallout of the '60s and the problems of maintaining friendships over the course of a lifetime – but it's one of those rare movies that has actually stayed with me. Wendy and Lucy has no political undercurrents, no grand point to make, and so therefore it's a purer, richer and better experience all around. In a year when just about every other week had an indie featuring dead-end characters tooling around quiet corners of the country, Wendy and Lucy transcends its era to get at the legitimately timeless. In fact, there's something deeply profound, yet very postmodern, about runaway Wendy's search for her lost dog across a sleepy Oregon town sinking into poverty. Williams makes Wendy just another drifter – Reichardt provides very little clues into her life, and she doesn't intentionally beat the character down so that we'll feel like she's had a hard life. By comparison, Ballast is a Bruckheimer popcorn movie, Paranoid Park a Scott Turow airport read. At last, here it is: an American indie that moves beyond its own precious austerity to say something moving and tell a heartbreaking story. That it's sure to vanish from theaters as quickly as Old Joy did is a real shame and yet somehow fitting for a movie about a person that people tend to forget because they never stop to notice.
Gran Torino (Warner Bros.) For two acts, I think this is the most interesting movie Clint Eastwood has made during his 21st-century comeback. Not the best or the most accomplished – just the most interesting. Playing a recently widowed old grump who hates all foreigners and still talks about his time in Korea, Eastwood is an unrepentant jerk – unlike many filmic misanthropes, there's no real attempt to make us love the character deep down. And nobody other than Eastwood could have gotten away with the unremitting racist language the character uses – it's funny both in the delivery and in the shock that, hey, he's actually saying this stuff. Eastwood has been rewriting his myth for two decades now, and so Gran Torino feels like the final chapter as he asks what the lasting value of his generation will be – these angry, close-minded war veterans who have seen their way of life get eroded right out from under them. It feels more emotional and personal than his war movies or Mystic River. The problem, though – the really big problem – is that the film just isn't that good. This is also the clunkiest film of his in quite some time – slow to get started, with a lot of false notes. (I think it's safe to conclude the man knows more about World War II than he does urban gangs.) It's a loopy movie, and it features him at his funniest since … well, I guess In The Line of Fire. But the third act is where it all falls apart – not because it's bad, but because he demonstrates that he's not really rewriting his myth as much as he's just rehashing it.
Che (IFC) For a while, it seemed like Steven Soderbergh had come up with a biopic that handles the biopic problems and a war movie that doesn't just adhere to the Saving Private Ryan style of war movie that's been the norm for the last 10 years. Dispassionate, almost clinical, Che moves along at a deliberate pace. The first half – about the Cuban revolution – is a striking, absorbing intellectual feat. Benicio Del Toro isn't trying to make him an obvious inspirational figure, so the movie's distant gaze keeps the man as an enigma, letting the meticulous execution of the rebels' plans be the story. And Soderbergh has figured out how to stage battle scenes in a new way – matter-of-fact without being dull about it. Finally, it hit me what filmmaker was influencing him most – Terrence Malick, who wanted to do a Che movie himself. Unfortunately, the second half – the failed takeover of Bolivia – is less striking and more meandering. It feels like Malick in that it's more atmospheric, although without the ponderous voiceovers and close-ups on plants. The one biopic problem Soderbergh can't quite lick is the inevitable first-half-hero/second-half-tragedy structure that Lawrence of Arabia pretty much pioneered. And Soderbergh's chilliness leaves Che such an enigmatic figure that eventually you do want at least some sense of his interior life. For most of it, that didn't bother me – let the actions speak for themselves and thank god Soderbergh doesn't try to glamorize the guy. But this film ends up being mostly a supremely impressive technical exercise – as a craftsman, this is Soderbergh at his best. The film leaves you with a lot to chew on but not a lot to really embrace.
Milk (Focus Features) I think it's entirely possible to support what this film is saying and still think the film itself is just average. Sean Penn reveals his gift for charisma that he hasn't put on display since Sweet and Lowdown, but I don't find the performance to be a revelation – he doesn't suggest a full life or a complex personality. Mostly, you just like this guy named Harvey Milk, which might be part of the point: At a time when openly gay men were still treated with suspicion, being personable was probably as important a quality as anything else. But despite what I'd heard, this thing is very much a biopic, with all the inherent story limitations: First, this important thing happened to him, then this, then this, then this, then this, and then the movie’s over. After years of minimalist movies, director Gus Van Sant doesn't particularly reinvent the wheel here, which I found to be a disappointment – maybe its low-key approach is also part of the point, but Milk ends up feeling a little dull. Of a good cast, Emile Hirsch is the one real delight. But my hunch is that this movie will be more important for the political points it ends up scoring down the road than for anything it does now.
Changeling (Universal Pictures) The greatest achievement of this movie is that director Clint Eastwood has done the seemingly impossible and made Angelina Jolie seem like a regular human being. Action heroes or impossible sex toys (or, in her Oscar-winning role, a trite "crazy" person) – that's Jolie on screen, but here her 1920s mom is reserved and emotional. For a while, I thought Changeling was going to improve on Mystic River, telling a true-crime story with such attention to detail to the crime and the period that it becomes an almost unconscious commentary on sexism and government corruption that transcends eras. Plus, as obvious it is, Changeling's fight-the-power tendencies really work – you're actually cheering Jolie on to defeat the male power figures around her, and her principled stand against these crooked cops is rousing in all the right ways. But eventually, the film suffers from ending overkill – there are several legitimate stopping points for this movie, but Eastwood, perhaps to tell the full true story, just keeps on going. This one is kinda like his Flags of Our Fathers – expertly made, slightly dry, impressive enough, not a game-changer. I preferred it to Gran Torino, though.
Australia (20th Century Fox) You've got two choices: You either celebrate director Baz Luhrmann's audacity as part of the package or you lament that a guy this talented can do so many things that are so terribly irritating. Starting slow and not really rousing itself until about 30 minutes in, Australia is every movie ever made – it's Wizard of Oz, Titanic, Pearl Harbor, Far and Away, Crocodile Dundee, Ten Canoes and Dances With Wolves all at once. But it's mostly just a mess – if Moulin Rouge sustained itself because of its chutzpah, and Romeo + Juliet because of its source material, Australia just flaps around from one great idea to the next. Because he thinks in terms of grand sequences, Luhrmann doesn't care so much about pacing – this damn thing crescendos so many times you may just get tired of the whole thing. Hugh Jackman manages to do a good job despite the fact that performances mean next to nothing – his hunky cowboy never winks at the camera, much like Javier Bardem's sexpot in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. But I don't think Luhrmann has ever provoked Kidman's best work – here (as with Moulin) she's just terribly gorgeous and not much else. Human beings barely register, and the nods to Aboriginal rights struck me as vaguely condescending. (I found the kid insufferable.) A bold, infuriating movie.
Bolt (Walt Disney Pictures) It feels like a Pixar movie, all right – it's got a wised-up sense of humor that isn't glib, it's smart, it's emotional, it's stunningly animated. But although I don't know where in its development John Lasseter got involved, I noticed a couple similarities to his Pixar movies specifically – an interest in childhood innocence and a deep commitment to the bond between a child and his or her closest possessions, in this case an adorable dog. But Bolt also feels a little too much like Lasseter's Cars – it tells a pretty done-to-death story in a rather conventional way. But like Cars, this movie is exceptionally poignant – and it has a great song smack-dab in the middle of the story that really helps. I wish the whole thing was as perfect as its first 10 minutes or so, but there's a lot to enjoy after that. And the characters are pretty durn cute.
Consumables is a regular overview of popular culture.