They come every year at this time - late November, December - the movies that say, "Look at me, Oscar - I'm big, I'm important, and gosh-darnit, you should vote for me."
Some go down in flames, like "Australia," bless its computer-generated heart.
Others, like "Milk," connect with the national mood. Defeat Prop. 8! Hail Obama! Long live Sean Penn's smile lines!
The rest is noise - some of it great noise.
The best new film in theaters is "Cadillac Records," Darnell Martin's saga of Chicago's Chess Records, with Adrien Brody as Leonard Chess, Jeffrey Wright as Muddy Waters, Mos Def as Chuck Berry, Beyonce Knowles as Etta James - and yes she can!!! Segregated, repressed, they pour all that pent-up lust, fear and anger into music that still makes you want to do things I can't say on "Sunday Morning."
Now let me bring down the room.
"Doubt," from the play. Weighty, somber, intense, about a priest who might have done something bad. We don't know; John Patrick Shanley lays out points of view that can't be reconciled. His hand is heavy, but it sure knocked me for a loop; and Meryl Streep rules, even if she sounds like Edith Bunker.
Other new releases aren't great but have great acting. "Revolutionary Road" stars that fun "Titanic" couple, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, only now it's the fifties. She's suffocated by suburbia; he goes with the conformist flow. See Winslet push DiCaprio into scary/vulnerable places he has never been! See their marriage hit an iceberg.
Clint Eastwood is a sort of martyred Dirty Harry in "Gran Torino," a racist old cuss who finds a surrogate family in a couple of Asian-American teenagers and attempts to atone both for his country and his old hawkish ways. It's affecting, but critics who call it a masterpiece must be grading on a meathead-vigilante-movie curve.
Mickey Rourke is a more compelling meathead in "The Wrestler:" The old freak makes a comeback as an old freak making a comeback, a pro wrestler with nothing to live for but the ring. The bouts here make the ones in "Raging Bull" look like Japanese tea ceremonies, and Rourke has the face of a great, battered lion. He's in masochistic ecstasy. "I bleed, therefore I am!"
Brad Pitt's face is considerably prettier. In the leisurely fable "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," he's born old and wrinkled and ages backwards, which means we spend an hour and a half waiting for Pitt to look like Pitt, and the next hour and change thinking, "Is that all there is?"
There just isn't much going on in that face. He and Cate Blanchett bask in each other's radiance like two Greek statues and muse on the fleetingness of life … but the movie itself? Way too long.