I'd thought this was going to be my last installment, but I still have some major movies left to see–and screenings/screeners definitively lined up–and since the final list won't be published for over a week anyway, I'll keep this going one more round.

Saturday, December 1st

3:10 To Yuma (Academy screener):
I'd really hoped to see this during its theatrical run, because I'm a fan of the original and a semi-fan of director James Mangold (whose Heavy I still regard as one of the best filmmaking debuts of the '90s…a decade which saw quite a few amazing directorial debuts). But 3:10 To Yuma was released while I was in Toronto, and when I get back from 10 days at a film festival, it's hard to convince my wife that I need to go to the movies. So I was especially excited to see this disc show up in my mailbox last week, and I enjoyed the heck out of the movie, too. Maybe it's too ponderous at times, and maybe it overdoes the "sweat, dust and stubble" neo-Western ambiance, but 3:10 To Yuma is still crackling genre fare, graced by a stirring Marco Beltrami score (sounding like an updated Morricone) and some badass performances by Ben Foster and Russell Crowe (the latter playing as likeably straightforward a role as he's attempted in ages). The extended climactic shootout reminded me of the finale of Mangold's Copland, which was one of the best parts of that deeply flawed movie. And the theme of what money will buy–while not exactly original or overly profound–gives the movie a strong, beating heart.

Grade: B+

On the list? Somewhere between 15 and 20.

Sunday, December 2nd

The Kite Runner (Academy screener):
I'll cop to a little trepidation before I popped this one in my DVD player, because it's often hard for me to work up much enthusiasm for prestige-y literary adaptations set in global hotspots. But director Marc Forster and screenwriter David Benioff have made The Kite Runner as painless as possible–which may ultimately work to the movie's detriment. Forster and Benioff jump from incident to incident, starting in Kabul in 1978, where they tell the story of a friendship ruined by guilt over a momentary loss of nerve, then moving ahead 10 years to California, where one of the boys tries to make a life for himself as a writer, and finally spending the bulk of its final hour back in Afghanistan, where the boy makes a desperate attempt to set things right. I've only skimmed the book–which the film's publicists sent out prior to sending the screener–but the movie seemed a little unbalanced to me, giving short shrift to the portrait of pre-Soviet-invasion/pre-Taliban life in Kabul in order to zoom ahead to the parts where would people would either be speaking English or risking their lives to defy religious zealots. Still, even as the narrative improbabilities piled up, I appreciated what The Kite Runner tries to say about loyalty, valor and privilege. It's a too-breezy movie–no pun intended–but the story and situation are compelling regardless.

Grade: B-

On the list? Consigned to just-fine-land, somewhere in the 50s.

Monday, December 3rd

Waitress (Academy screener):
Seen now, away from the emotions surrounding Adrienne Shelly's death, does Waitress still play? Frankly, I'm not sure why it played so well for so many in the first place. Maybe I'm suffering from the same quirk-block that kept me from enjoying Juno, but Waitress's story of a small-town southern pie-maker trapped in an awful marriage smacked of the worst kind of indie-film hicksploitation, treating the bad-grammar-speakin' working-class as cute little toys to be flopped around a brightly lit playroom, reenacting familiar scenarios. The performances were fine; I enjoyed Andy Griffith's turn as a faux-crotchety old coot, and I thought Jeremy Sisto added a genuine note of malevolence as Keri Russell's abusive husband. But Russell's fellow wacky waitresses and their predictably wacky love lives drove me to distraction. Waitress isn't a bad movie per se–I liked the food-porn aspects, which were some of the most delectable since Like Water For Chocolate–but compared to something as smart and sensitive about Podunk life as the TV series Friday Night Lights, Waitress is pretty immature. (True confessions: I still got choked up by the ending. Go figure.)

Grade: C

On the list? Dear Lord, no.

Tuesday, December 4th

Sicko (commercial DVD):
I was a huge fan of Roger & Me way back when, but Michael Moore started to lose me during the run of TV Nation, which alternated relevant investigative journalism with obnoxious stunts draped in cutesy irony, to the point where it was hard to trust the former for the latter. Then came the rambling The Big One, which with its specious arguments and self-aggrandizing footage irritated me so much that I skipped Bowling For Columbine altogether. But I couldn't skip Fahrenheit 911, and although I was frustrated that Moore got sidetracked by conspiracies–and thus lost a vital focus–the movie's kaleidoscopic portrait of modern life made me respect Moore a lot more as a filmmaker, if not so much as a political thinker. I feel the same way about Sicko. Moore's arguments about the woeful US health insurance system are persuasive, but one-sided. I'm inclined to agree with Moore because I'm an old lefty myself, but I find it insulting that he plays so fast-and-loose with statistics (if he uses them at all), and that he'd never dare counter his string of anecdotes with opposing anecdotes, or let any strong opposing view get a fair hearing. That said, the anecdotes in Sicko are undeniably affecting, and as a cathartic venting of our common frustration with corporate bureaucracy, the movie works. (Oddly enough, earlier in the day I watched an old installment of the Dr. Kildare movie series in which Kildare tries to fund a clinic in a depressed small town by asking each of its citizens to kick in a dime a week. Yep, socialized medicine in a 1940 Hollywood movie.) Like Fahrenheit 911, Sicko is valuable as a sketch of modern life almost more than it is as pro-national-health-care propaganda. As in F911, Moore focuses on mixed-race couples and non-traditional families, all resolutely middle-class, as if to argue subtly that the real America is not what we ordinarily see in movies and on TV. More than the surface message of his films, this is Moore's real message, and one I can stand resolutely behind.

Grade: B

On the list? Not high up, but somewhere in the 40s. Moore's rep with me continues to rebound

Wednesday, December 5th

Paprika (commercial DVD):
There's no confusion like anime-induced confusion. Ever since I staggered my way through Akira back when I was a college freshman (that was 1989, kids), I've had a complex relationship with the form. Even the Japanese animation I love–pretty much everything produced by Studio Ghibli, basically–tends to make me sleepy, because the imagery and the storytelling rests so close to the subconscious that I find it easy to cross over to dreamland. I haven't seen any of the previous films by Paprika director Satoshi Kon, but the movie's story of dream-invaders and the surrealist mania they provoke seems very much in step with the mind-trip subgenre of anime. A literal parade of weirdness, Paprika doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but nearly everything about it is visually stunning, from the dynamic character designs (like something out of classic American adventure comics) to the inventive use of framing and screen space. After a while, even lines like, "This whole festival was put together by 23rd-graders with lots of chutzpah and one panda!" start to develop their own weird integrity.

Grade: B

On the list? Somewhere in the low 40s, making it there on spectacle alone.

The Walker (screener DVD…sent for awards purposes): Nobody much raved about this Paul Schrader political murder mystery when it screened in Toronto, but over the last couple of weeks I'd started to hear rumblings from friends that the movie's been underrated thus far, and that Woody Harrelson's lead performance–as a dandyish gay escort for congressmen's wives–is a real sleeper. In truth, I'm not entirely sold on what Harrelson does here. His Virginian lilt is overdone, though he does deliver his weary Oscar Wilde-ian quips with the proper sting, and portrays the character's mounting desperation and frustration with as much range and depth as he's shown on film since The People Vs. Larry Flynt. (Or maybe even White Men Can't Jump, which is a much stronger movie and performance than its silly title indicates.) Ultimately though, this movie wants and needs to be about the difference between how a professional homosexual's public life differs from his life private–sort of like behind-the-scenes with one of the Queer Eye guys. Instead, Schrader skirts the D.C. gay subculture and emphasizes a dully wonky homicide investigation. A certain intensity–and an essential raison d'etre–are missing.

Grade: C+

On the list? No. It's a shame that The Walker is going to get buried here during the bustle of awards season, but it would be a bigger shame if the movie was as good as it might've been.

Thursday, December 6th

Reservation Road (Academy screener):
As movies about parents coming to grips with the tragic loss of a child go, Reservation Road is strangely remote, focusing more on the disconnected moments of pain and irony than on a long wallow in mourning and misery. Maybe that's because the movie is more plot-driven than mood-driven. After divorced dad Mark Ruffalo runs over Joaquin Phoenix's son on a dark country road, Phoenix retains Ruffalo's services as a lawyer, unaware that he's the hit-and-run driver. Ruffalo's guilt and Phoenix's obsession intertwine, pulling the story to an overheated climax that replaces the quiet contemplation of absence in the first part of the film with a ridiculously shrill mano-a-mano. Once the pot boils over, it makes an awful mess.

Grade: C+

On the list? No. Maybe in ten years this movie will look a lot better, but right now it seems like default arthouse fare.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street (critics' screening): I'll have a lot more to say about this movie and Stephen Sondheim in general in a piece running a week from now, but for now I'll just say that whatever's wrong with Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd–and there's not much wrong at all, in my opinion–was mostly a little off in the original, too. Sweeney's always had a fitful second act, and it's always been more of an intellectualized exploration of class conflict than an emotional powerhouse on the scale of Sondheim's Into The Woods or Sunday In The Park With George. I agree with the general contention that Helena Bonham Carter's singing voice isn't up to par, which makes some of the trickily witty lyrics hard to understand, but she does justice to the slower songs, and matches well with Johnny Depp, whose more pop interpretation of Mr. Todd is a refreshing change from the operatic excess that's often common to the role. The biggest mistake Burton makes is to excise a couple of key songs: "Kiss Me," which in the theatrical version deepens the relationship of the two young lovers and makes them less disposable than how Burton treats them; and, most damagingly, "The Ballad Of Sweeney Todd," which frames the story and gives it the strong ending that the movie lacks. But otherwise, Burton's trims and tightening make a musical that can seem exhausting on stage come off as fleet and gripping. And the best songs do survive. Just for the chance to see the second act's "Johanna" visualized so splendidly, I was reduced to gushing like the Sondheim fanboy I am.

Grade: A-

On the list? Top five, baby.

Next week (really the final week this time): The Diving Bell And The Butterfly, The King Of Kong, La Vie En Rose, The Namesake, Rescue Dawn, The TV Set and There Will Be Blood (for real this time).