Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist 7.9

It’s the oldest storyline in cinema – Average Joe thinks he loves bodacious bombshell, not noticing the ‘friend’ who secretly loves him, and only after a series of misadventures does he realize where true happiness lies – but when the leads are endearing, the side characters entertaining and the rock score energizing, it’s still a formula that’s hard to beat. In short, a really good date movie and, for the rest of us, a happy time all around. Michael Cera reprises all his roles of last year, with similar success.

The Duchess 5

A bit of fashion fluff, with lovely period rooms and an Oscar wardrobe of pretty dresses for Keira Knightley. Unfortunately, humor is lacking, as is much in the way of drama.

Pineapple Express 4

While being high may be quite the pleasant state, it is probably not good to write an entire screenplay in that condition. How else to explain the el stupido factor of this film from the usually reliable Judd Apatow factory? The male bonding that made the other films sort of sweet was so heavy here as to be icky. But worse was the glorification of socially unredeeming acts – drug dealing to minors, murder, gang violence, reckless car chases – that didn’t produce a plot to care about and, worst of all, weren’t funny. I laughed out loud during the 20-minute setup, establishing the familiar stoner characters, but not once the rest of the way.

The Visitor 8

A sweet movie, perhaps a little overacted by Richard Jenkins, who didn’t have to be such a sad sack in his work but who, nevertheless, gave a haunting performance. Best were the starring roles given to the Arab son, Tariq, and mother, Mouna, both of whom lit up the screen. The immigration part of the story was all too real, as we know from experience with our own deported Jamaican housekeeper in New York; and the ending, with some shreds of hope in a sad and very frustrating situation, hewed closer to life than any other movie seen this year.

Tropic Thunder 7

An essentially good-spirited movie, more studio-like than the Judd Apatow flicks and consequently less fun, but smiles and pleasures kept popping up, not least in Tom Cruise’s almost-total disguise as studio boss Lev Grossman. Robert Downey Jr’s dialogue-swallowing failed to enthrall, but the trailers preceding the feature totally worked.

Frozen River 7.8

Another story from the desolate, barren, culture-free northern fringe of America, where folks are just getting by, or trying to, by hook or crook, in this case crook. Melissa Leo gives a sensational performance, lying to her son, batting her eyes at a cop, exhibiting the determination of desperation, constantly balancing the need to cut corners with a conscience.  The Indians on the  Mohawk ‘res’ are treated sensitively, starting with the phlegmatic Lila, who puts the plot in motion and, in the story’s subtle arc, finds her sight and her way. In the end, it is the bleakness of the northern New York border town and the emptiness of the frozen river that stick, a black-and-white film despite its color.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona 8

Scarlett Johansson was a caricature and Javier Bardem was a mythical (or metaphorical) male, but they set the stage for Rebecca Hall’s Vicky, who portrayed a conflicted heart to perfection (ironically, a similar role to Johansson’s in Lost in Translation, with Barcelona replacing Tokyo). Perhaps never having seen her before helped convince me. The narrator’s voiceover didn’t bother me, as it did some reviewers;  it made clear the film’s status as fable, obviating our questions on its more outrageous, or questionable, points. Penelope Cruz dominated the screen, matching Bardem’s suavity. But even this returned the focus to Vicky, the one real person, and her dilemma. Woody Allen gave us people to talk about, as he used to.

Man on Wire 8

A down-to-earth retelling of what has to be one of mankind’s greatest achievements. Climbing Everest or robbing Brinks seem mundane compared to walking on a wire suspended between the twin towers of the World Trade Center. I cringed in my seat, not surprisingly, at photos of Philippe Petit peering off the roof, and smiled out loud at video of his other feats, on Notre Dame and the Sydney Harbor Bridge. What made the movie truly rich, though, was the cast of characters who formed his team, especially Jean-Louis Blondeau, now with white hair and black eyebrows, cooler than any American could ever be, and their relationships, more interesting and real than, say, Ocean’s Eleven. Petit himself, wirewalker, magician, storyteller, provocateur, made you wonder why it took someone 33 years to make this movie.

Chris and Don 7

A story about love, Hollywood, art, being gay in mid-20th-century Europe and America, and, in subtle subtext, aging. Christopher Isherwood was the hook, the famous name, and it helped that he was so good looking and, apparently, charming, on top of being British and a good writer. But Don Bachardy was the real story, and it was mainly through his eyes and words that the movie was told. Only 12 years my senior, he seemed to be the eyes of age, perhaps because his English accent, absorbed from his relationship with Chris, hasn’t aged naturally. But for every scene of him doddering around his flat, there was another of him biking to the market, doing crunches at the gym, which showed him remarkably fit. What is truly remarkable, though, is the fact that this 17-year-old boy, whom Chris picked up while cruising a Malibu beach, not only carried out a lifelong relationship with a man 20 years his senior, from a different social universe, but turned into a major artist himself. With pictures to show and quite a story to tell.

Dark Knight 7.8

Far more enjoyable than I had any reason to expect, because there was this underlying story of human relationships, motivations and emotions that carried on through the cartoon razzmatazz. The fact that three earthbound characters – played skillfully by Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman – knew Batman’s identity provided the link between those two worlds. And the fact that the Joker’s acts of violence, though hardly realistic, were all so technically primitive also countered Batman’s flights of fancy. But minute-after-minute there was a surprise, a new bit of deviltry, another wrinkle to fathom, and this kept the mind totally engaged and the enjoyment quotient high. And in terms of realism, was this really that much farther-fetched than The Departed?