Year's end always seems like a great time for moviegoing. It must be something about reflection and renewal and gay heroes, disgraced politicians, aliens, fancy-pants acting, thawed hearts, canine companionship, celebrity-grade affluence, CGI-abetted jazz-age supernaturalism, conjugal distress and Tom Cruise as an eye-patched noble Nazi. Accordingly, 10 respectable suggestions.
In Milk (already in a gradual-rollout release), Sean Penn plays the activist and civil rights hero Harvey Milk, San Francisco's and the nation's first openly gay elected official. Josh Brolin plays Dan White, Milk's increasingly disgruntled fellow city supervisor, who murders him and San Francisco's then-mayor George Moscone in 1978. What, like that's a spoiler? Why do you think there's a movie? For a primer, rent Rob Epstein's excellent 1983 documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk, which has the added advantage of not being titled in a way that creates confusion with a breast-derived beverage.
Milk's profound story could bring unprecedented focus and gravitas to director Gus Van Sant, who likes to use his films as reasons to gaze longingly at men, just as Milk's impish humor could do wonders for the famously earnest Penn. Hey, that rhymes! Anyway, whether the role of a killer bigot and political mediocrity should be considered a step up, or down, or sideways, for Brolin, last seen on screen as our commander in chief, is for you to decide.
Speaking of sympathy for the presidential devil, and of the strange days of the late '70s, Frost/Nixon (Dec. 12 in limited release and nationwide on Christmas) is Ron Howard's film of Peter Morgan's play, dramatizing the then-momentous 1977 TV interview between British talk-show host David Frost and a post-Watergate but still very tricky Dick. Reprising their roles in the award-laden stage version, Frank Langella lends heft and humanity to the part of the ex-prez and Welsh actor Michael Sheen, so memorable as Tony Blair in The Queen (which Morgan also scripted), melts his Frost with a telling Cheshire cat grin.
But enough expressiveness! The Day the Earth Stood Still (Dec. 12) concerns an extraterrestrial, Klaatu, and his huge cycloptic robot, Gort, who touch down on Earth with a message for humanity from afar. As I dimly recall from the 1951 version, the message amounts to something like, "What the hell is wrong with you people?" Keanu Reeves stars and no, he's not the robot. He's the alien. Which works. For instance, when someone asks him, "Why have you come to our planet?" Keanu-Klaatu replies, in his ominously neutral way, "Your planet?" Not respectable, you say? Well, does it help that Jennifer Connelly's in it too? And apparently there's some sort of an environmental message.
In Doubt (Dec. 12), John Patrick Shanley directs an adaptation of his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play about ... well, let's just say a controversy in a '60s Catholic school and subsequent inquest into moral authority. This involves, among other things, Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman shouting at each other quite dramatically but always so very respectably.
Seven Pounds (Dec. 19) re-teams Will Smith and The Pursuit of Happyness director Gabriele Muccino for what someone oh, what the hell, let it be me surely will describe as The Pursuit of Heavy-handedness. Smith plays a very somber fellow who, as he puts it in the trailer, "did something really bad once." Because of this, he has the power to change the lives of seven strangers. And he is not afraid to use that power. Or maybe he is, and that's where the drama comes from. Be sure, though, that there will be redemption. There had damn well better be some redemption. Smith's co-stars include, appealingly, Rosario Dawson as the heart-thawing young woman and Woody Harrelson as a blind man. And a button-cute yellow Labrador retriever.
No, wait, sorry. I'm thinking of the destructively disobedient but adorably devoted dog in John Grogan's bestselling memoir Marley & Me, now a movie (Dec. 25) featuring Jennifer Aniston, Owen Wilson, the aforementioned pooch and thawed hearts all around. Yes, at first glance it may seem conspicuously holidayish and not so prestigious after all, Aniston and Wilson aren't exactly Serious Actors. But they do manage sometimes to be Affectingly Poignant Actors. Can I get a woof?
How about a WTF? The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Dec. 25) adapts F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1922 short story about a man who is born old and ages backwards. Weeeird. But classy weeeird. Having bounced around between screenwriters and directors, the project finally took hold with writer Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, Munich) and director David Fincher (Fight Club, Zodiac), thus ensuring much moviegoer anticipation. And in the title role, Brad Pitt brings something like the same golden-boy quality Robert Redford brought to the movie of Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby 34 years ago. That is, when he's not being freakishly aged and reproportioned by the latest computer wizardry. Cate Blanchett and Tilda Swinton also star. Are we talking respectability, or what?
Slumdog Millionaire (Dec. 26) is a tale of an Indian orphan (Dev Patel) from, well, the slums, who rockets toward victory in his nation's version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? But before he can achieve that final payoff, he must prove he hasn't cheated his way into the opportunity. This near-hysterically hyped crowd pleaser was directed by Danny Boyle, and there's no reason to figure he hasn't aced it. After all, the Slumdog story is said to involve two of Boyle's favorite things: young people wading through raw sewage (see also Trainspotting) and coming into cash by the millions (see also Millions).
And what of Revolutionary Road (Dec. 26), director Sam Mendes' take on Richard Yates' 1961 novel of suburban marital anomie? Two words: Winslet, DiCaprio.
Finally, in Valkyrie (Dec. 26), director Bryan Singer reunites with The Usual Suspects screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie for a thriller about the real-life Nazi colonel who tried to assassinate Hitler in 1944. Now, if the sight of Tom Cruise in that uniform and eye patch suggests a strenuously dignified comic book (yes, Singer also made a couple of X-Men movies and Superman Returns), concentrate instead on the supporting cast: Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Terence Stamp and Eddie Izzard. And just be glad that if there's one thing this isn't, it's a "holiday" movie.