November and chilly breezes rush from the West: It's the movie studios combining the holiday heft of wanna-be blockbusters like Little Nicky and Dr. Seuss' How The Grinch Stole Christmas with the first salvos of "prestige" movies like Quills (which stars Geoffrey Rush as the Marquis de Sade) that are presumptive contenders in the Oscar race.
While hundreds of millions of dollars are spent in production costs and advertising for movies like The Grinch, the stakes grow ever higher for even the most modest release of an art film. At least a dozen movies opened on a recent weekend in Manhattan, taxing even the resources of the plump, stately New York Times. When David Gordon Green's George Washington played as part of the New York Film Festival in September, it received one of the most positive, most incandescent reviews written by Elvis Mitchell in his tenure as one of the paper's three lead critics. When the film opened commercially, the Times' customary synopsized version of a festival review was nowhere to be found: too much new stuff! Get 'em while they're hot!
I'm having to agree with Roger Ebert, although I saw the movie first: George Washington is undoubtedly one of a handful of great non-mainstream movies released this year. There are as many ways to say "I love you" as there are lovers, but here is my favorite way in ages, from writer-director David Gordon Green's remarkable, graceful and quietly dazzling directorial debut. In a verdant yet rusticated North Carolina backwater, a young girl looks on the boy she considers a repository of all manner of future greatness, stares fixedly at him as she describes him to himself, ending her adoration with, "I hope you live forever."
How many convincing ways are there to say, "I love this movie"? Ebert tried at least half a dozen ways in his reports from the Toronto International Film Festival, and I'll try just this one. The 24-year-old Green and his assured cinematographer, Tim Orr, are collectors of glowing images, nonjudgmental inhabitants of space. They have confidence in audiences as much as in their storytelling skills. Green's story is composed of vignettes, its flow unimpeded by too much plot, rich with intense performances. Several adolescents, some teenagers, mostly African American, some white, talk about their lives while lives continue to spin around them, in the corners and background of the frame. Green and Orr know how to take the measure of a face, speaking or not, and of the full moment a face deserves in motion, or still.
The economics of movies like 102 Dalmatians and Unbreakable can be readily parsed on the business pages of daily newspapers. Against that backdrop, the small movie seems more and more endangered, titles good and bad keep getting released. Among the potentially good films are A Time for Drunken Horses, a harsh but beautiful story of childhood in the Kurdish regions of Iran. A sick young boy gets a chance at survival, but only if his eldest sister agrees to marry an Iraqi man who has agreed to help care for the boy.
Miramax had been scheduled to release Merchant-Ivory's Henry James adaptation, The Golden Bowl, this month; while no release date has been firmly set, Merchant-Ivory took the film back over issues of length, and will be co-releasing the film without cuts. Nick Nolte, Uma Thurman, Kate Beckinsale, Jeremy Northam and Anjelica Huston star.
Speaking of gorgeous period films, there looks to be plenty of ivory lace and mannered chatter to choose from this winter. Director Philip Kaufman (The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Henry and June) illuminates the notorious life and times of the Marquis de Sade in Quills, which stars -- in addition to Geoffrey Rush in the title role -- Kate Winslet and Michael Caine. Buzz rumors that The House of Mirth, based on the novel by Edith Wharton, may be Gillian Anderson's breakout film -- she stars as socialite Lily Bart in an ensemble piece, which includes Jeremy Northam, Anthony LaPaglia, Laura Linney and Dan Aykroyd. Not one to be left out, Thomas Hardy gets his share of the cinematic fun in The Claim, based on his novel The Mayor of Casterbridge. Milla Jovovich, Sarah Polley and Wes Bentley ignite this literary warhorse.
A Good Baby has Henry Thomas as a North Carolina recluse who happens upon a babe in the woods and sets out in search of its mother. Another makeshift-family drama occurs in The Weekend, with Gena Rowlands, Jared Harris, Deborah Kara Unger and Brooke Shields all converging at the home of a man they all loved.
From the director of My Life as a Dog and The Cider House Rules comes Chocolat, which stars Juliette Binoche as a single mother who opens a chocolate shop in a provincial (read "small-minded") French village. The villagers are shocked by her seductive sweets, but tourist Johnny Depp becomes a loyal regular.
Abstract-expressionist Jackson Pollock gets his paint-splattered moment in the sun with the biopic Pollock, starring Ed Harris as the cranky 20th century painter. And artist Julian Schnabel (Basquiat) returns to direct Before Night Falls, a biography of exiled Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, which also stars Sean Penn and Johnny Depp.
Magical realism is alive and well in The Day Silence Died, a Bolivian film by Paolo Agazzi that chronicles the arrival of radio to a remote South American village. Another promising foreign film is But Forever in My Mind, an Italian comedy set in the 1960s and starring Silvio Muccino.
The humble and oft-maligned hairpiece is the subject of Barry Levinson's new film, An Everlasting Piece, a rare departure from his usual terra firma of Baltimore. In contemporary Belfast, a Roman Catholic and a Protestant are the unlikely co-owners of a toupee business.
One of the weirdest and most anticipated releases this winter, Shadow of the Vampire, takes its flight of fancy from the making of F.W. Murnau's 1922 horror watershed Nosferatu. In some of the best casting we've seen all year, Willem Dafoe dons the batlike ears and shadowy watchfulness of Max Schreck; John Malkovich plays F.W. Murnau.
While The Yards, one of the more impressive releases this season, has come to the Inland Northwest and gone, but its director, James Gray, succinctly identified the quandary facing both studio output and arthouse movies today.
"I think the problem is that there is a real obsession with what is considered formal innovation. I feel like that's almost a product of a kind of terrible capitalist mode of thinking in which everything is product-ized and thus you must always have a 'new and improved' version of the product. In other words, no movie can be made in a traditional style."
But truly, all movies are made in the same style nowadays: work on it for years, open it on Friday in a sea of sharks, cross your fingers, pray.