As Israeli tanks and troops roll across Gaza, there's no more timely movie to see than Waltz with Bashir. There aren't many movies better to see, either. Ari Folman spent four years making this animated documentary, which begins with the director realizing that he has virtually no memories of his own involvement in the 1982 Israel-Lebanon War.
But why would Folman have blocked out those younger days? Did he do or see something terrible? He sets out to discover the answers by interviewing old friends who were also in the war, hoping that their experiences will help jar his memories loose. The result is a history lesson of a quarter-century-old conflict and the effect it had on the young soldiers who survived it. Much of the film has a soft and dreamy feel, though the episodes of violence are sharp and frightening. And although Folman doesn't tell this story from anyone's side but individual Israelis, it isn't pro-war—everyone involved is generally able to look at what happened objectively, and they seem to see the young men they were during that time as almost different people than themselves.
Waltz With Bashir is lovely to look at, but it's emotionally harrowing, an investigation into the past that's both individual and political—the men remember their fallen comrades with a terrible sense of guilt and responsibility, and Folman learns why his psyche has protected him all these years. It's entirely unique, as well, not only because it's an introspective documentary rendered with animation, but also because it informs larger issues through deeply personal disclosures. It's not always easy to watch, but it's certainly worth watching. With another Israeli ground war in full swing, it's hard not to wonder if, 25 years from now, another former Israeli soldier will be trying to figure out what he can't remember about his wartime experiences in the Gaza Strip in 2009.
Bride Wars: Sadly, not an R-rated movie about women in wedding dresses duking it out in a steel cage. No, this first film of 2009 is about two BFFs—Kate Hudson and Anne Hathaway—who become bitter rivals after they schedule their weddings on precisely the same day. For the 27 Dresses set.
Ciao: Two gay men are brought together by the death of a mutual friend. It's sincere, but slow moving.
Gran Torino: For all the buzz, Clint Eastwood's new film, which he directs and stars in, is flawed. Yes, his cranky old guy, Walt Kowalski, manages to be the funny kind of equal-opportunity offender who finds some salvation by taking a good-natured Hmong neighbor under his wing. The problem is that it turns out he's right about everyone he dislikes. Black, white, Asian, his own relatives—they're all awful people in the world of Gran Torino, justifying Walt's latent racism. Nice.
Not Easily Broken: After a couple whose marriage is already on the skids are involved in a car accident, they have to really decide if they want to make things work. Taraji Henson, who is so good in Benjamin Button, is the wife.
Revolutionary Road: Sam Mendes directs his wife, Kate Winslet, and Leonardo DiCaprio in what might be called American Beauty: The Early Years. It's another look at the unspoken seamy underbelly of American suburbia in the 1950s, but it just doesn't hold together. Unpleasantville.
The Unborn: Poor Casey was abandoned by her mom when she was a child. Turns out it was because of a nasty family curse that comes in the form of a demon that wants to possess her. What, we wonder, is Gary Oldman doing in this movie?
The Wrestler: Yes, Mickey Rourke is just as good as you've heard, playing Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a washed-up wrestler who was big 20 years ago and is now the old man on the high-school gym circuit. Occasionally, it veers toward sentimentality but never goes over the edge. Marisa Tomei, too, is great as the stripper he'd like to get closer to, and Evan Rachel Wood is perfect as the daughter who can't find it in herself to forgive him. See our review on Page 19.
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L.A. Confidential: Curtis Hanson's take on James Ellroy's epic novel of police corruption and violence, set in L.A. in the 1950s, might have taken Best Picture if it hadn't come out the same year as Titanic. Screens at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 7, at The Pearl Hotel in Point Loma. Free.
Dreams With Sharp Teeth: This incisive documentary about sci-fi writer Harlan Ellison screens at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 8, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in La Jolla.
Jaws: Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the restaurants. Screens at 8 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 8, at Sea Rocket Bistro in North Park. Free.
The Sound of Music sing-along: We'd like to see a mash-up between The Sound of Music's “The Hills are Alive” and the creepy cannibals of The Hills Have Eyes. And sure, why not make it a musical? Screens at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 9, and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 11, at the Birch North Park Theatre.
The Warriors: Still badass after all these years. A New York gang is framed for murdering the city's top gang leader, and they must make their way back to Coney Island while the rest of the city's wayward youth guns for them. The first of the Ken Cinema's midnight-movie series, this one screens on Saturday, Jan. 10.
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai: Citizen Video is into Jim Jarmusch these days. Can you blame them? So much so, though, that they're pairing the dude's terrific hit-man movie with Branded to Kill (screening on 1/25), the movie that Jarmusch himself puts it next to. What's Ghost Dog about? This one's way out there. Forest Whitaker is the assassin who follows the ancient ways of the Samurai. Oh, and all the music is by kung-fu movie fanatic RZA. Screens at 4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 11, at the Whistle Stop in South Park. Free.
America: Freedom to Fascism: You think you hate paying taxes now? Just wait until you've seen this doc, which takes a close look at the Fed and the IRS. You'll laugh so much you'll cry—and you'll definitely want to cry. Screens at 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 11, at the Joyce Beers Community Center in Hillcrest. Free.
Adaptation: The second Charlie Kaufman / Spike Jonze joint earned Chris Cooper a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Nic Cage plays Kaufman (and his fictitious brother Donald Kaufman, too), who's having trouble adapting The Orchid Thief, a book by New Yorker writer Susan Orleans (Meryl Streep). Smart, clever and seriously weird. Screens at 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 11, at Café Libertalia in Hillcrest. Free.
For Your Eyes Only: Maybe the best of the Roger Moore era of James Bond flicks, if only because it actually has an edge. The movie opens up, in fact, with Bond standing at his wife's grave. Later, he has to retrieve an encryption device and bed some ladies. Screens at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 14, at The Pearl Hotel in Point Loma. Free.
The Reader: Kate Winslet is amazing as a grown woman who has an affair with a 15-year-old boy in post-war Berlin. Their paths cross again years later when she's on trial for war crimes.
The Spirit: Remember how much you loved Sin City? Frank Miller's cinematic take on Will Eisner's groundbreaking cartoon will make you like it less.
Valkyrie: He's the greatest fighter pilot, the best race-car driver, the superest future cop, the coolest hustler, the awesomest drink mixer and the sharpest sports agent. So why can't Tom Cruise kill Hitler? Huh? Why? Why?
Bedtime Stories: Remember that stupid Adam Sandler movie this summer, where he was a former Mossad agent-turned-New York gigolo hairdresser? Made $200 million worldwide. How much can he rake in with a family-friendly flick?
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: Director David Fincher directs Brad Pitt as a man born old and growing young. Beautifully shot, the film is less about youth no longer being wasted on the young than it is about the decades long love story between the characters played by Pitt and Cate Blanchett, who are going in different directions.
Marley & Me: Jennifer Aniston bonds with Owen Wilson over a stinky dog.
Seven Pounds: Will Smith's annual December movie is a feel-good film that doesn't feel all that good. He's an IRS agent trying to atone for past sins by giving, perhaps too generously, to strangers. Rosario Dawson is wonderful, though, as a girl with a weak heart, both literally and figuratively.
Doubt: Best. Catholic. Priest. Abuse. Movie. Ever. John Patrick Shanley adapted and directed his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play and landed a couple of acting heavyweights for the leads. Meryl Streep is a nasty nun who goes after popular priest Phillip Seymour Hoffman, because she A. doesn't like him, and B. thinks he might be getting a little too close to one of his altar boys.
The Tale of Despereaux: Matthew Broderick is Despereaux, a mouse who reads, and he's teamed up with a rat (Dustin Hoffman) and a bumbling servant (Tracey Ullman) in this animated take on the classic children's story.
The Day the Earth Stood Still: Remake of Robert Wise's groundbreaking 1951 sci-fi thriller about an alien who's come to earth to save it—from us. The update has crazy FX and Keanu Reeves, and no, he doesn't play the robot.
Frost/Nixon: Ron Howard is restrained in his take on the Broadway play about the interviews between lightweight talk-show host David Frost and President Nixon. Both Michael Sheen and Frank Langella reprise their stage roles as Frost and Nixon, respectively—Langella delivers a masterful performance of Mr. Not-a-Crook himself.
Yes Man: Jim Carrey dips back into the well (over-the-top funny with a sweet spot) that made him an A-lister, playing a dude who decides to say “yes.” To everything.
Australia: Baz Luhrman comes from a land down under, where women glow and men plunder. The glowing lady, in this case, is Nicole Kidman, who plays an uptight Brit, while Hugh Jackman is the looter. Of course, all three are from Australia, the setting for Luhrman's epic romance adventure. Sort of like a landlocked Titanic.
Four Christmases: Reese Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn are a married couple whose vacation plans fall through, so they're forced to spend the big day with their insane families. Just like, you know, the rest of us.
Milk: Sean Penn delivers yet another tremendous performance as the first openly gay elected politician in the country, Harvey Milk, who was assassinated, along with the mayor of San Francisco, in
1978. Gus Van Sant directs, but the movie is all Penn, and it is nothing if not timely in light of Prop 8.
Bolt: Disney's latest animated adventure takes a page from Pixar's playbook. John Travolta is a TV-star dog who takes a fantastic journey outside the studio, where he learns he doesn't have the powers he thinks he does.
Slumdog Millionaire: A young, uneducated Indian man is tortured by police who want to find how he knows all the questions he's gotten right on Who Wants to be a Millionaire? The answers are all in his life story, which is full of poverty, abuse, hopes for true love, and the crossroads between coincidence and destiny.
Twilight: Never heard of Twilight? It's like Harry Potter, with vampires, for tweens and their moms, all of whom react to it like desperate meth addicts. If you have heard of Twilight, you know we're telling the truth.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas: During WWII, little Bruno meets a boy wearing striped PJs who's on the other side of a fence. Turns out Bruno's dad's been transferred to Auschwitz, and the little fella has to learn the hard way that Jews aren't so bad after all.
Quantum of Solace: Remember how awesome the Daniel Craig '06 James Bond franchise reboot was? Well, even though the new one takes place about 20 minutes after Casino Royale ended, this one isn't awesome at all.
Madagascar 2: Escape 2 Africa: Stranded animated animals try to make it back to NYC but wind up in Africa. Zack and Miri Make a Porno: Believe it or not, Kevin Smith's new film is his most adult yet—in more ways than one. Yes, Zack (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks) set out to make porn to pay their bills, but they fall in love along the way. It's got Smith's trademark rat-a-tat raunchy dialog, and Rogen and Banks are great together.
Happy-Go-Lucky: Mike Leigh's new one is a change in direction from his recent work. Instead of exploring the seamy underbelly of the human condition, he looks at Poppy (Sally Hawkins), an effervescent schoolteacher who won't grow up. She's sort of infectious, sort of annoying, but the effect she has on everyone around her is far more real than, say, Peter Pan.
Rachel Getting Married: The herky-jerky handheld camera in Jonathan Demme's new movie mirrors the emotional turmoil of Kym (Anne Hathaway), just out of rehab to attend her sister's wedding. There's Oscar buzz surrounding Hathaway, who is equal parts toxic and pathetic but ultimately someone worth pulling for.
Vicky Christina Barcelona: Will Woody Allen ever make another film in New York? After shooting the last two in the U.K., he moved his act overseas. Scarlett Johanssen and Rebecca Hall are tourists in Barcelona who find themselves infatuated with mysterious brooding painter Javier Bardem. When his crazy ex-wife (Bardem's real-life honey, Penelope Cruz) enters the picture, the whole trip becomes a total bummer.
Reuben H. Fleet Science Center Space Theater: After undergoing significant renovations, the Fleet is re-opening its dome Imax theater, complete with a kick-ass new screen. Three films will run in rotation initially: Wild Ocean, Van Gogh: Brush with Genius and Animalopolis. Showtimes and prices can be found at www.rhfleet.org.The Rocky Horror Picture Show: No, it's not a time warp—the love-it-or-hate-it camp classic continues its midnight run in its 37th year of release. When the lead character of the film is a transvestite scientist named Dr. Frank-N-Furter, you know you're in for some seriously trashy viewing. And, of course, this is the one movie where you want the audience shouting at the screen. Screens Fridays at midnight at La Paloma Theater in Encinitas.