The Last Month

November 24, 2004
A thought by James Berardinelli

Gripe time again... I like writing these downbeat little pieces - they help to get something off my chest.

It appears that 2004 is about to conclude with more of a whimper than a bang. I have never been so unenthused about a December release schedule than I am about this year's. And December is supposed to represent the pinnacle of cinematic excellence. Judging by 2004's twelfth-month slate, it might as well be September.

That's not to say there aren't some good movies on the horizon. In fact, two December releases - Hotel Rwanda and The Sea Inside are likely headed for my Top 10 list, and there may be more. The problem with December isn't quality - if you look for that characteristic, you will find it - it's juice. There's no sense of excitement or anticipation. Hotel Rwanda may be a great motion picture, but how many people are dying to see it? And how many movie-goers are counting down the days until The Sea Inside opens, even though it has the best male performance of the year (Javier Bardem, beating out Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles)?

The high-profile slate looks pathetic. Adolescents are probably eagerly awaiting the Lemony Snicket movie, but, for adults, it belongs in the "let's hope it's more family-oriented than kid-oriented" category. Maybe it will be a lot of fun, but I don't have the date circled. How about Martin Scorsese's The Aviator? I want to see it; I'm curious whether Scorsese returns to form or stays in his decade-long slump. But after three straight disappointments, I'm not primed for a can't-miss experience. The Phantom of the Opera? "Hate" isn't too strong a word to express my feelings about the Broadway musical. Seeing this will be one of those times when being a film critic turns into a job. Spanglish? I don't expect it to be great or bad - James L. Brooks deals in watchable fare a little above mediocrity. Closer has a top-flight cast and solid advance word, but it's likely to be one of those movies that's better once seen than looking towards. And I'm always wary of Wes Anderson's movies, so I reserve the right not to be too excited about The Life Aquatic. (I liked The Royal Tenenbaums but was unethused about Rushmore.)

There are three sequels, but none belongs to a high-energy franchise. Meet the Fockers brings together lots of talent, but, if it's not better than its predecessor, Meet the Parents, it will fall into the realm of easily-disposable entertainment. (Although it's kind of worth it all just to be able to say "Barbra Streisand is Mother Focker.") Ocean's Twelve might be able to match Ocean's Eleven, but that's hardly a reason not to wait for it on DVD. And Blade Trinity is the third (and hopefully final) chapter in a movie series that was long in the tooth after its first installment.

Maybe the most keenly felt absence this year is The Lord of the Rings. For three consecutive years, Peter Jackson treated us with a rare holiday gift. This year, there's nothing from the New Zealand director under the tree (unless you count the DVD release of The Return of the King special edition, which may be more eagerly awaited than anything on the big screen). We have to wait until next year, when Jackson offers his interpretation of King Kong.

Generally speaking, the weakness of December 2004 is a continuation of an overall cinematic malaise that has infected multiplexes and art-houses this year. There hasn't been much in the way of "greatness." I have awarded only one four-star citation, to Maria, Full of Grace, and that was what I have referred to in conversations as a "weak four stars" (meaning that I mentally debated whether it deserved four or three-and-one-half). And how many 2004 films have really galvanized audiences? Four? (Spider-Man 2, Shrek 2, The Passion of the Christ, The Incredibles)

So we come to December, and, while there is Scorsese, there's nothing from Spielberg, Jackson, or a host of other high-profile directors. I guess the mantra is "Wait until Summer." Then we at least will have the final Star Wars movie, a re-start to the Batman franchise, and an attempt to bring my all-time favorite comic book, The Fantastic Four, to the screen. But all of that is six months away. For now, we who haunt theaters have to deal with the dreariest December in memory, followed by the horror of moviedom's nuclear winter: January and February. Spring can't come soon enough.