W ith "Avatar," Sherlock Holmes and Sandra Bullock powering down the home stretch, the movies finished their best year in history, topping the $10 billion mark at the box office.
Funny thing was, the business page headline was More Bucks, Less Movies. Studios are turning out fewer films, but bigger grosses on the ever-changing media landscape. The profit margin, it seems, comes from extra added attractions like 3-D surcharges, or $20-plus ticket prices in luxury theaters where you can get drinks and a meal to go along with the flick.
It's less about the content than the delivery system anymore, as all those folks in goofy 3-D glasses watching the big blue stars of "Avatar" can attest.
Still, just as movies provided flickering rays of hope during the Great Depression, they seem to be playing a similar role in these trying times at the beginning of a new millennium.
George Clooney's high-flying corporate downsizer in the poignant comedy "Up in the Air" is not only the leader in this year's Golden Globes, but the most relevant metaphor in this year's awards field.
Awards time is that brief season when the movie industry pretends it's more about art than commerce. Which, in turn, inspires everyone to become a critic.
"Seen any good movies lately?" I get that a lot, especially at this time of year. It's one of those occupational hazards if you go into this line of work.
What do you mean by "good," I always wonder, trying to instantly psychoanalyze the person asking the question before taking a stab at an answer.
It rarely works. "You loved 'Avatar'?" they say in disbelief. "Now 'Inglourious ?Basterds' - that was a movie!"
"What was it about Mr. Fox that you found so fantastic?" Or, "You didn't fall in love with 'It's Complicated'?" What's wrong with you?"
Tough job, but someone's gotta do it, is the inscription on the certificate when you complete the correspondence school course to become a professional film reviewer. This may be why so many early best picture awards have gone to "The Hurt Locker." In their dreams, critics must equate themselves with the film's nerves-of-steel bomb defuser in the streets of Baghdad. That's my best guess for all the prizes coming to Kathryn Bigelow's taut Iraq war drama, since critics seem to be the only people seeing it.
I checked out two more award contenders last weekend. One talked country, the other had a thick Italian accent, but they basically were the same story.
Namely: understanding women is one thing most men don't have a clue how to do. But the ladies will cut you some slack if you write a song or make a movie about how hard you're trying.
In "Crazy Heart," Jeff Bridges plays a broke-down country singer-songwriter driving his vintage Chevy Suburban from one roadhouse or bowling alley gig to another across the great Southwest.
Wearing the role of Bad Blake as comfortably as his jeans, Bridges also does his own singin' on the T- Bone Burnett soundtrack. As lovable as he is grizzly, a victim of too many wives and too many bottles, Bridges channels Kris Kristofferson's mannerisms and charm in this superb performance.
Having stopped writing songs years ago to spend more time wrestling with his demons, Bad's interview with a small-town reporter (Maggie Gyllenhaal) leads to a last shot at redemption.
While the role is guaranteed to get Bridges another Oscar nomination (it would be his fifth), he's hardly the Mickey Rourke in this year's race. Bad Blake may be one breath away from drowning, but Bridges is at the top of the wave, an effortless actor who's been surfing success for decades, eternally The Dude.
Daniel Day-Lewis, who prefers Oscar wins to mere nominations, won't add to his collection for his performance in "Nine," but he still fascinates. Like Bridges, he even sings in this fanciful portrayal of Italian film director Federico Fellini in Rob Marshall's sexy musical based on Fellini's classic "8 1/2."
Artistically paralyzed - suffering from a more glamorous version of Bad Blake's problem - "Guido" tries to bluff his way through his newest project despite its absence of a script. What "Nine" has instead is one blockbuster musical number after another from glorious co-stars Penelope Cruz, Marion Cotillard, Fergie, Judi Dench, Kate Hudson, Nicole Kidman and Sophia Loren.
Audiences and critics haven't taken to "Nine." All the slinky dancing, surreal visions and gorgeous Italian scenery can't get Guido off the hook for being a selfish cad, or as one of his women observes, "an appetite."
I actually found his problem - a man who never outgrew being a 10-year-old boy obsessed with beautiful women - pretty sympathetic.
You liked "Nine"?
Like the certificate says, someone's gotta do it.
* Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org