The Wrappings of December

December 08, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli
The Wrappings of December

"It's the most wonderful time of the year…"

December is Hollywood's opportunity to make amends for the past 11 months. 2008 represents a classic case of "backloading." All of the big Oscar guns are being locked and loaded in the year's final month, instead of being spread across a 12-week period, as is usually the case. The result? A bland and relatively uneventful October, a dead November, and a cascade of quality as the finish line draws nigh. 'Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house not a creature was stirring except for the film critic trying desperately to assemble a Top 10 list.

Actually, my list is almost done, although it's tentative at the moment, since there are a handful of movies I haven't yet seen. But I can assure you it looks nothing like what it would have looked like a few weeks ago and only three of the "halftime Top 10" choices are likely to make it onto the end-of-the-year list. Gird your loins, faithful movie warriors - the year's best are coming. Even The Dark Knight, the brightest light to shine on the January - November period, is returning to theaters. Those who love the old pay-for-one-see-three routine at multiplexes can now treat themselves to THREE good movies, not one okay one and two throw-aways. (Not that I condone such a practice.)

Of my current Top 12, seven are being released between Black Friday and New Year's Eve. Six of those are in my current Top 10. My current #9 is an early-year release and its position is uncertain. It could topple and the Top 10 could end up being populated by seven December releases. Amazing. (I would say that, in addition to The Dark Knight, WALL-E and Iron Man are safe. There could also be a situation in which one December film knocks off another December film. Plus, even some of the December releases that aren't Top 10 fodder are still damn good movies.

The studios' decision this year to withhold many of the big Oscar contenders from Toronto and not to release them until December causes this to be an especially welcome month. But it makes me wish there was a tendency to spread the wealth a little. While I appreciate the holiday orgy, with so much good stuff out there, there's a danger that worthy things won't get the attention they deserve. A film struggling for attention at Christmas might have been greeted with great enthusiasm in the wasteland of mid-October.

Here's a sort-of preview that's part tease, part appetite whetter. There is at least one more four star film waiting in the wings, plus about a half-dozen ***1/2 ones. Kate Winslet does respectably in her two movies, although one is better than the other. Nazis figure prominently in no fewer than four year-end features (including both that open on December 31). The movies you're hearing the most about are, for the most part, the best movies, which is a change from the usual situation. Many are deeply depressing and in some cases controversial. One wonders whether all this dark material will find an audience in this economic climate or whether people are looking for pure escapism. Slumdog Millionaire or Revolutionary Road? Both are very good films, but one is an upper and the other is a downer.

This outpouring of cinematic quality has upped the competitive nature of December 2008 far above its recent years' counterparts. In general, December films don't vie for box office receipts the way summer films do (although, to be fair, Titanic was released in December). Movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still and Yes Man are expected to dominate in the money department. Instead, the currency craved by would-be Oscar contenders are favorable reviews, Top 10 mentions, and sold-out limited art house showings (this builds "buzz"). With so many prestige films out there, one can't help but wonder if a deserving movie will end up being missed. I hope not.

There's one other bad thing to note about such a full and fantastic December. Just as a kind of malaise often sets in for kids once the stocking are emptied and the Christmas presents unwrapped, so movie-goers have something similar to dread. It's called January.