ANNUAL MANUAL- The best of the rest: What to look for as '08 winds down

Looking back on last August's list of the movies I was most anticipating in the rest of 2007, I see that I missed four of what would be my top five favorites at the end of the year: Atonement, There Will Be Blood, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and Juno.

I'm hoping I'll do as badly this year, because in reviewing the list of what's scheduled for release before December 31-– at least in Los Angeles to qualify for awards-– I find relatively little to get excited about.

Actually I can come up with a much longer list of films I'm not looking forward to, including inspirational sports movies (The Perfect Game, The Longshots, Hurricane Season); remakes (Brideshead Revisited, The Women, Death Race); sequels (Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, Punisher: War Zone, Saw V, High School Musical 3: Senior Year, Transporter 3; and even the latest Star Wars [animated], Harry Potter and James Bond installments); and the reteaming of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino (Righteous Kill).

That's right, I'm not just looking for "prestige" pictures being released for the Academy's consideration, but for plain old entertainment as well. I need a laugh as much as anyone in these trying times, and some of the vaunted award bait (Australia, Seven Pounds, The Duchess, Body of Lies, The Soloist, The Road) have failed to whet my appetite thus far, although I'm sure some of them will start sounding better as I wade through the late-summer releases.

But we have another four months to kill, so let's try to think positive.

Old (usually) reliable filmmakers– The Coen Brothers, coming off three Oscars for No Country for Old Men, return to comedy with Burn After Reading, with a CIA agent's memoir the MacGuffin pursued by George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, and Tilda Swinton. Clint Eastwood, four years after two Oscars for Million Dollar Baby, proves it's still a country for old men (as directors) with Changeling, which puts Angelina Jolie in another institution, like her Oscar-winning Girl, Interrupted role. Spike Lee, who will probably win a Lifetime Achievement Oscar in the next ten years to make up for being routinely snubbed by the Academy, is back with Miracle at St. Anna, about black soldiers in World War II. Woody Allen– with three Oscars on his mantle but more misses than hits in the last decade– keeps churning out a movie per year. The latest, Vicki Cristina Barcelona finds Penelope Cruz, Scarlett Johansson, and Rebecca Hall fighting over Javier Bardem, who also has an Oscar for No Country for Old Men, to bring this paragraph full circle.

Making offense– There should be some good offensive comedies coming up, starting in August (Pineapple Express, Tropic Thunder) and continuing with Hamlet 2 and Choke. Kevin Smith's latest, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, sounds like it could drift into sentimentality, but it may be good for some raunchy laughs first.

Presidential material– Oliver Stone takes on W (played by Josh Brolin) before the election, while Ron Howard brings Peter Morgan's (The Queen) play Frost/Nixon, about the historic post-Watergate TV interview, to the screen at the height of an award season in which Frank Langella's take on Tricky Dick could be a contender. Another political figure, who didn't make it as far, was San Francisco's slain Supervisor Harvey Milk, played by Sean Penn in Gus Van Sant's film, which also stars Brolin.

Que Cera Sera– After his breakthrough year with Superbad and Juno, Michael Cera has the promising-sounding Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist and Youth in Revolt on the way.  But will he be making a big-screen spinoff of Arrested Development?  That's what I really want to see!

Play? Right!– In addition to Frost/Nixon, John Patrick Shanley's Doubt, with a non-singing Meryl Streep, also comes from the stage, where it won the Tony and Pulitzer Prizes. The Reader is, appropriately, based on a book, but it was adapted by playwright David Hare.

Documentation– Bill Maher is funny when he sticks to politics, less so when he rants against religion, but we'll see how he does when teamed with Borat director Larry Charles for the mocking documentary Religulous. One doc I can vouch for is American Teen, a real drama that plays like a John Hughes movie. It's one of the year's best pictures of any kind.

Reunions– Together again, for better or worse, are the Titanic team of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in Revolutionary Road (not to be confused with last year's disappointment, "Reservation Road") and Unfaithful couple Diane Lane and Richard Gere, falling in rather than out of love in Nights in Rodanthe, from a novel by the author of The Notebook.

World war anew-  Ed Zwick's Defiance, with Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, and Jamie Bell, and Mikael Hafstrom's Shanghai, with John Cusack and Gong Li, take place during World War II – although the main characters of both are trying to stay out of the war for different reasons.

OK, one more superhero– I'm superheroed out (and summer isn't over yet), but there's one coming for Christmas that sounds intriguing. Frank Miller, author of Sin City, makes his solo directing debut with The Spirit. Gabriel Macht, who's been working toward this breakthrough for a long time, plays the title role, and the cast includes Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Eva Mendez, and several more good people. It may not be great art, but it should at least be fun.

The final five:

Fernando Meirelles' Blindness wasn't received too warmly at Cannes, but the trailer looks intriguing, and Julianne Moore is always worth watching, even if her movies aren't.

Crossing Over sounds like another all-star, multiple-plotline movie on the order of Crash and Traffic. This one deals with immigration and stars Harrison Ford, Sean Penn, Ray Liotta, and Ashley Judd.

With RocknRolla, Guy Ritchie returns to the gangster milieu of his pre-Madonna films and hopefully returns to form as well. Gerard Butler, Tom Wilkinson, and Thandie Newton star.

To show I'm not completely immune to uplifting, sentimental films, I'll mention The Secret Life of Bees, about Dakota Fanning being rescued by her nanny (Jennifer Hudson) and taken to live with three sisters (Queen Latifah, Sophie Okonedo, Alicia Keys) in South Carolina in 1964.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button could be another Willy Wonka or maybe a Won'ty Wonka, as Brad Pitt plays a man who ages in reverse, getting younger while Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton, etc. get older. If you think it sounds foolproof, you don't know Jack. David Fincher directed from a story by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

These are the films I most want to see in the rest of this year, but that doesn't mean they belong on your must-see list. Our tastes and interests aren't exactly the same, and besides, except for American Teen, I haven't see any of these yet. I may hate them when I do see them.

It wasn't nearly as hard as usual to cram everything I wanted to mention into ten slots, and there are only a handful of titles I'm really enthusiastic about. I hope that means we have a lot of pleasant surprises in store in the next few months. and most of my favorites will again come out of left field.

HookTip: Not happy with what's playing in Charlottesville? Look west! There's two independent movie theaters in Staunton– the Visulite and the Dixie– which sometimes play art house fare that skipped our movie houses.



One Arrested Development movie please!