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Location: New York, New York, United States

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Individual Mandate: Essential and a No-Brainer

One central fact that rarely gets emphasized in the health care debate/shouting match:  most people who lack health insurance very much want to buy it -- desperately, even.  When I lost my job nearly four years ago, health insurance was one of my biggest worries.  Luckily I did manage to get and maintain coverage.  Not everyone is so fortunate.

So the only people being "coerced" into purchasing insurance are the uninsured who want to stay that way.  How many people, really, do you think that could be?  Most of them will be young adults ages 27-35 who haven't thought a lot about it or are willing to roll the dice.  But they are rolling the dice with our money:  what  do you think happens if they are in an auto accident or get appendicitis or pneumonia or cancer?  They will get care...and someone will pay for it.

Nudging a significant number of young, healthy people into the insurance pool was the price the insurance industry asked for getting rid of the odious "pre-existing condition" as a reason for refusing coverage.  (Insurance companies will also now have to get rid of "recission" -- dropping coverage of an insured person when the person gets sick.  Nice, eh?)

So who will be paying the (far too small) $695 tax penalty for refusing to buy insurance?  How many smart people do you think will be in that group?  These folks are pigheaded, reckless, and disgustingly selfish.  They're getting off easy with the $695 penalty.  (And most will, I suspect, buy insurance in the end.)

The mandate was a conservative idea, a Republican idea.  It is about taking individual responsibility.  Somehow this got twisted around into a partisan mud pie fight.  Today's court decision may help more people to understand what this is really about.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Before "Girls": Lena Dunham's "Tiny Furniture"

Nearly every character in Tiny Furniture is annoying, irritating, exasperating – and that’s exactly what makes the film so funny and engaging.  Lena Dunham’s movie is the epitome of Semi-Autobiographical Micro-Budget Mumblecore:  made for the astonishing sum of $45,000, shot largely in her mother’s apartment, with her mother and sister playing her mother and sister, and Dunham most certainly playing a version of herself.  But it’s mumblecore with a difference:  it’s not only beautifully shot in widescreen HD (by Jody Lee Lipes), with each scene exquisitely composed and lighted; it is written and performed in a distinctive comic voice.  And Lena Dunham accomplished all this two years ago, at the preposterously precocious age of 23.

Continue reading my review on Cinema Sentries.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The White Bus

The White Bus is an odd short feature (or longish short film) by Lindsay Anderson, made in 1967 just before his greatest film, If... It shares with If... the actor Arthur Lowe and the cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek. Ondricek’s work is the principal reason to see the film. Like If..., the scenes alternate between black-and-white and color photography, seemingly at random. But all the images are striking.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Change of Pace: A Holiday Recipe

A spicy, delicious holiday favorite.

Tennessee Jam Cake

1 cup butter

1 cup brown sugar

3 eggs

½ cup yogurt (whole-milk yogurt) – or use sour cream or buttermilk

1 jar seedless blackberry jam or preserves (12 to 16 oz)

2 cups flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

¼ teaspoon salt

1 Tablespoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground cloves

1 teaspoon allspice

½ teaspoon nutmeg

½ teaspoon ground ginger

1 cup chopped pecans

½ cup raisins

Grease and flour a 13 x 9 inch pan. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Cream butter and sugar. Add eggs and yogurt and mix thoroughly.

Mix flour, soda, salt, spices, nuts and raisins. A third at a time, add to egg mixture and mix thoroughly. Add jam. Mix thoroughly.

Bake for 45-50 minutes. Allow to cool for ½ hour. Top with caramel frosting.

Caramel Frosting

½ cup butter

½ cup milk

1 cup brown sugar

2 cups confectioners sugar

½ teaspoon cinnamon

½ cup chopped pecans

Bring butter to a boil in a saucepan for about 2 minutes, stirring constantly, until it just starts to brown (not burn). Add milk and bring to boil again for 2 more minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and allow to cool for 15 minutes. Stir in sugar, cinnamon and nuts. Mix until smooth. Spread over cooled cake.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Making the Boys

Making the Boys (awkward title) has a great subject for a 45-minute documentary: the story behind the groundbreaking play and movie The Boys in the Band. It actually runs a bit over 90 minutes, so there is more than a little padding. Luckily, most of that padding is pretty entertaining, too.

The Christine Jorgensen Story

Newly released to video as part of MGM’s Limited Edition Collection, The Christine Jorgensen Story is no classic, to put it mildly, but it’s an amusing period piece, already dated by the time it was released. The subject matter must have been shocking or at least titillating in 1970: the true story of the first sex-change operation to get major press coverage. George Jorgensen, uncomfortable growing up as an “All-American boy,” went to Denmark in 1956 and returned to New York as Christine. The tabloids had a field day.

But the style of the movie is not sensationalistic, or even particularly exciting. It's a by-the-numbers Hollywood docudrama.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Shut Up, Little Man!

Shut Up, Little Man! is an amusing, occasionally disturbing documentary about the origins and aftereffects of a prankish set of “audio verite” recordings that went viral before “going viral” was even a term.

The recordings were made by Eddie Lee Sausage and Mitchell D, two young roommates in San Francisco in the late 1980s, at first in an effort to document for the police the loud and bizarre arguments in their next-door neighbors’ apartment, which were frequently disturbing their sleep. The endless drunken, profane quarrels begin to fascinate them, and eventually they shared the tapes with friends, who shared them with other friends…and an underground comedy/reality-show cult was born.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Best of 2010

1. The Social Network

2. The Ghost Writer

3. 127 Hours

4. Toy Story 3

5. Shutter Island

6. The Kids Are All Right

7. Inception

8. Winter's Bone

9. The Fighter

10. Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1980 [part 2 of 3 parts]


The Last Station

Green Zone

The King's Speech

True Grit

Blue Valentine

A Prophet

Best documentaries

1. Exit Through the Gift Shop

2. Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

3. Waiting for Superman

4. Casino Jack and the United States of Money

The Social Network is an amazing piece of work. It’s the first time David Fincher has worked with this kind of script – jazzy, motormouth, dialogue-centric in the patented Sorkin manner – and the results are exhilarating. The only depressing thing is that Fincher, who has made the best movies of three of the last four years, is currently expending his priceless talent on a why-bother remake of one of the worst movies of 2010: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer is nearly as good as The Social Network, but found a much smaller audience and relatively sparse year-end award attention except for Olivia Williams’s excellent performance. Rent it right away if you haven’t seen it.

I wonder if Martin Scorsese finally feels like an auteur now. Like some of the 1950s masterpieces of Sirk and Fuller and even Hitchcock (and juicy non-masterpieces such as Leave Her to Heaven, much admired by Scorsese), Shutter Island is a superlative job of direction applied to an extravagantly trashy and ridiculous script – and the movie is undoubtedly more interesting because of this style/substance tension.

I noted some hostility toward 127 Hours and The Fighter in Film Comment’s year-end critics’ poll, and neither made the top 50. I’d guess that this is backlash to their middlebrow themes of Life Affirmed and Dysfunctional Family Redeemed. But both movies are beautifully directed, in their very different ways, and their craft transcends and lifts their source material. Enjoying these two films along with sold-out crowds in theaters gave me a couple of my favorite filmgoing experiences this year.

I also experienced the two very worst films of the year in sold-out houses: Black Swan, repellent and purposeless, and Alice in Wonderland, an almost complete travesty of the source material and a stupefying waste of mountains of money. Both are the work of talented filmmakers who probably think they are doing great because the movies are boxoffice successes (and in one case, Oscar-nominated). Think again, fellas.

A note about Red Riding: It consists of 3 interrelated films made for British TV, crime thrillers about serial killers and corrupt government. All are entertaining, but part 2 stands out for its direction (by James Marsh, who made the documentary Man on Wire) and the lead performance of Paddy Considine. Andrew Garfield is featured in part 1, which is the next best. The 3rd film has to knit all the interrelated story strands together, but in the process it brings the whole work down to the level of a decent PBS Masterpiece Mystery. Part 2 is considerably more than that.

Other dramatic features worth seeing:

Another Year


Easy A


Knight and Day

Please Give

The Town

Wild Grass

Red Riding, parts 1 and 3 [1974 and 1983]

Other documentaries worth seeing:

Inside Job

Prodigal Sons


Smash His Camera


The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers

Who is Harry Nilsson (and Why is Everybody Talkin' About Him)?

Friday, March 26, 2010

Seeing Green

The two most recent movies I've seen are Greenberg (written and directed by Noah Baumbach) and Green Zone (directed by a genius who happens to be named Greengrass). They have little else in common, but both are flawed movies worth seeing.

Paul Greengrass directed the amazing United 93, which recreated some of the events of 9/11, electrifyingly blending hyper-realistic fidelity to facts with the intensification of brilliant editing and camerawork. He applied similar kinetic brilliance to two spy thrillers (the second and third Bourne movies) that would have been far more ridiculous and less consequential without him.

Now Greengrass and his Bourne star Matt Damon have come up with a blend of the two approaches in Green Zone: a fictionalized action-movie plot is set within the framework of an all too real situation -- the early months of the Iraq war. The results are a mixed bag, and the film actually works better as an illustrated criticism of flawed Pentagon policies than it does as a thriller. The cat-and-mouse climactic sequences never build to the intensity of either the Bourne films or United 93.

But there is much to enjoy and admire along the way: excellent performances by Damon, Brendan Gleeson, Greg Kinnear, Amy Ryan, and especially Khalid Abdalla as an Iraqi citizen caught up in the madness of the situation. No doubt Brian Helgeland's script oversimplifies, but it manages to convey with riveting clarity what is going horribly wrong in the Pentagon's handling of the incipient insurgency.

Now maybe Paul Greengrass should try making a movie without terrorists, spies, or guns in it. He's in danger of getting stuck in a rut. But whatever his next film is, I'll be in line to see it. He's one of the very best filmmakers around.

Noah Baumbach, from all evidence, is as unconcerned with things like cinematography and editing as Greengrass is obsessive about them. Even though Baumbach's Greenberg was shot by the sublime cinematographer Harris Savides (Elephant, Zodiac, Milk), it is not the work of a visual storyteller; it does avoid being downright ugly, like his best previous film, The Squid and the Whale. Luckily Baumbach is better as a writer, even though this script seems to me more contrived and less interesting than Squid.

Ben Stiller is wonderful in the title role, a lonely, emotionally erratic man whose habitual hostility keeps nearly everyone at a distance -- an unlikely center for an off-center romantic comedy, which is more or less what Greenberg turns out to be. Set at the fringes of Southern Californian wealth -- much of the action takes place in Greenberg's wealthy brother's house, but the main characters are precariously underemployed -- the movie at times resembles an indie version of a James L. Brooks comedy (As Good as It Gets, Spanglish). It also has an occasional resemblance to Larry David's comedy of discomfort and wince-inducing inappropriate behavior. I would certainly never have come up with those comparisons for Baumbach's Margot at the Wedding or The Squid and the Whale.

The other actors are also good, and the movie has its moments of hilarity and poignancy, but to me both the characters and situations seemed forced, as if they were cobbled together from bits of interesting observations about real people and relationships -- without being transformed into convincing art. It's also a rather sad, upsetting movie, and since it feels unfinished, suspended, the unhappiness may stick with you. Which may indeed be what is intended, and is not necessarily a bad thing for art to do, however imperfectly. Greenberg is flawed but worth seeing.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

The Ghost Writer

Roman Polanski's extraordinarily assured new movie is the best pop thriller in a long time. The plot, despite its topical references to politics and terrorism (specifically the Bush/Blair connection), is really just a MacGuffin. But the acerbic wit and sustained skill with which it is told is exhilarating. The cast is fine, too: Ewan McGregor, present in nearly every shot of the film, has one of his best-ever roles, and Olivia Williams stands out in support. Alexandre Desplat's Herrmannesque score is also a delight. Not to be missed.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Best of the Decade: 2000-2009


The Lord of the Rings


Spirited Away

Brokeback Mountain

Pan's Labyrinth


The White Ribbon

Band of Brothers


The Royal Tenenbaums

Before Night Falls


The Power of Nightmares

Capturing the Friedmans

Taxi to the Dark Side

When the Levees Broke

The Fog of War


Runners Up:



All Or Nothing

Catch Me If You Can

Children of Men


Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The Departed

Dirty Pretty Things


Hedwig And The Angry Inch



Minority Report


United 93

Walk the Line

I realize I cheated a little by adding an eleventh to my ten best, and a TV miniseries at that: the remarkable Band of Brothers, now being reshown on HBO as a prelude to its companion piece, The Pacific (we can only hope it's as good).

A Look Back at 2009

Ten Best Films of 2009

1. The White Ribbon
2. Precious
3. Coraline
4. A Serious Man
5. Avatar
6. Nine
7. Sin Nombre
8. Up
9. The Hangover
10. The Hurt Locker


District 9
Taking Woodstock
Bright Star
Julie and Julia
The Last Station

Worst Films (That I Saw):

Whatever Works
Two Lovers
The Lovely Bones

There have been the traditional complaints that the year just past was not a good one for movies. But when I made my year-end list, I came up with close to 30 that are worth seeing. And I only saw half a dozen or so I truly disliked. Here are notes on a few of my favorites.

The White Ribbon is an austerely beautiful, chilling, haunting film about mysterious acts of violence in a rural German village in 1914 (and about the villagers’ rather disturbingly stern customs of raising and disciplining children). Its stunning black-and-white visuals and its disquieting narrative are mesmerizing. It has changed my attitude toward its director rather dramatically: having found some of his movies irritating and emptily provocative (The Seventh Continent, Funny Games), I thought he was a somewhat less hateful Lars Von Trier-style poseur. Now I want to see more of his work.

(My only caveat is that The White Ribbon is being shown mostly in small art houses with tiny screens. I was lucky enough to catch it on the enormous screen at Alice Tully Hall during the New York Film Festival. Far more than most “arty” foreign films, this one gains exponential power when its remarkable images are projected big and bright.)

Purely as a piece of moviemaking, Precious is messy and uneven. But it packs an emotional power few recent films can match. And the performances are amazing.

There have been several entertaining and highly praised 3-D fantasy movies this year. Most of them were computer-generated. But for me the standout was Coraline, a bewitchingly dark story based on a children’s book – and crafted via “old-fashioned” stop-motion animation. It’s a brilliantly sustained piece of storytelling, and often quite beautiful. (Another stop-motion film, Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, was charming but, to me at least, it was a far less potent movie. And I’m a big fan of Mr. Anderson’s earlier – live-action – films.)

I have often found the Coen brothers’ films slick and clever and empty (and sometimes much worse than that: vide Burn After Reading). But A Serious Man is to my mind by far their best film, a fable that starts dark and spirals steadily into even darker places – while remaining disconcertingly hilarious. The brilliant cast manages to stay just this side of disastrously overdoing it.

There may not be much more to say about Avatar. Yes, the technology is more accomplished than the dialogue. And subtle it ain’t. But James Cameron has a gift for big, emotional spectacle, and he is firing on all cylinders here.

I was taken aback by the many vicious reviews Nine received. I found it enormously entertaining and fantastic to look at, with a dazzling megawatt cast. No, it’s nowhere near Fellini’s , its brilliant source. No, the songs are not the greatest ever written. But it is very skillfully done on its own terms.

Sin Nombre is a brilliantly directed thriller about the dangerous path taken by countless undocumented immigrants from Latin America to the US. Tragic and intense, it is not a sentimental tale of phony Hollywood hope. It’s basically a high-voltage melodrama, but the excellent cast and direction raise it to another level.

Up is yet another delightful Pixar concoction. Hilarious, touching, a technical marvel.

The Hangover is a put-your-brain-in-neutral summer farce, but it is powered by an ingenious narrative engine and a pitch-perfect cast. It manages both to celebrate and to satirize some of the more testosterone-crazed bits of our culture.

Some will think me perverse to put The Hurt Locker (by far the most highly praised movie of the year) at the tail end of this list, right under The Hangover. Maybe I am too averse to jumping on bandwagons, even virtuous ones. Although The Hurt Locker is splendidly directed by Katharine Bigelow and acted by Jeremy Renner and others, the script seems to me very flawed – both contrived and fuzzy. Are the ambiguities intentional, or just unclear storytelling? (Nearly everyone I talk to about Renner’s encounters with an Iraqi boy seems to have perceived the events differently; why is this so foggy?) Nonetheless, well worth seeing.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Read this Book: Pictures at a Revolution by Mark Harris

The book is over 400 pages (plus 75 pages of notes -- the level of research is phenomenal), yet I found myself wishing it were 2,000 pages or more -- it's that gripping. If you are a movie buff and love to read behind-the-scenes Hollywood lore, this must be one of the best books of its kind ever.

I do have one brief comment about a portion of the content. Harris spends considerable time discussing the decision to remove from "Bonnie and Clyde" (before shooting) all references to Clyde's bisexuality and to a menage a trois involving C W Moss, Clyde and Bonnie.

There seem to be at least two vestigial bits of this remaining in the finished film, and they are not mentioned in the book. I checked my DVD copy last night to be sure.

Near the beginning, in Clyde's "I ain't no loverboy" speech, he says: "There ain't nothin' wrong with me - I don't like boys!" - and as he says it he bumps his head, hard, on the car window he's leaning through, giving the distinct impression that "liking boys" has come up before.

Later, at about the 42-minute mark, C.W. Moss and Buck Barrow are playing checkers, and Clyde is kibitzing. He sits behind CW, his arms around him, showing him moves, while he all but nuzzles CW's neck. At the same time, Bonnie paces back and forth in boredom and sexual frustration, finally pulling Clyde into the bedroom for a brief, unsatisfying talk about whether he is really interested in her physically.

The second scene, especially, is subtle, but the implications seem pretty clear, especially in light of the bisexual ménage a trois in the original version of the screenplay.

As I say, a small point, but I was surprised by its omission.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

2008 at the Movies: The Best and the Worst

Although it was remarkable in many other ways (elections, the economy), 2008 was a fairly typical year for movies: no indisputable masterpieces, but quite a few solid achievements (along with some ripe stinkers). And unlike 2007, when the heavily praised (and awarded) No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood seemed to me seriously flawed and a misuse of great talent, this year the most acclaimed movies are mostly pretty good.

There are a few that I think have been overrated: 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Happy-Go-Lucky, and Waltz with Bashir, to name three, but those are still reasonably good movies, as is the likely Oscar-winner, Slumdog Millionaire. Slumdog is a fine evening’s entertainment, even though it’s a bit thin and superficial and predictable. But there are at least twenty movies I liked better in the past year. Here are some of them.

Best Features of 2008

1. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
2. Milk
3. Paranoid Park
5. Synecdoche, New York
6. Rachel Getting Married
7. The Edge of Heaven
8. The Dark Knight
9. In Bruges
10. Frozen River


Wendy and Lucy
Gran Torino


Taxi to the Dark Side

Man on Wire

Moving Midway

Trouble the Water

Biggest Disappointments: Che; Revolutionary Road

The Worst (that I saw): Speed Racer; Sex and the City; Mamma Mia!

Twice in a row now, David Fincher has delivered the movie of the year. Zodiac and Benjamin Button couldn’t be more different – one a deliberately chilly and alienating thriller, the other a large-scale, smash-hit Hollywood romantic fantasy. What they share is Fincher’s mesmerizing sense of composition and rhythm. Button’s script is of variable quality – but Fincher ensures that the film is constantly gripping and profoundly moving. The central idea – what it really means to live and die – is powerfully rendered through masterful visual storytelling. Claudio Miranda, in his first major feature as cinematographer, delivers an extraordinary-looking film. And the score by Alexandre Desplat (The Golden Compass, The Queen) is beautifully effective.

Sharing honors with Fincher as director of the year is Gus Van Sant, with two fine and very different movies. Milk is a superior biopic, a superior political movie, and a superior period piece, and it has more first-rate performances than any other movie this year. It’s also an audience pleaser – you can feel the energy in the theater as you watch. Paranoid Park, in contrast, is one of Van Sant’s I-don’t-really-care-if-you-enjoy-this “experimental” movies, in the same vein as Elephant, Last Days, and Gerry. This one has a somewhat more conventional narrative than those three, but it's definitely an “art film” in the best sense. Van Sant is a poetic visual stylist and a brilliant editor of sound and image. Paranoid Park (a moody tale of violent death and teen anomie) and Milk (the story of a gay rights hero) demonstrate his gifts in pleasingly different ways.

WALL-E doesn’t quite match the narrative grace and wit of the last Pixar movie, Ratatouille, but its first hour is stunningly beautiful and innovative. The second half, still entertaining and funny and thoughtful, is a bit more conventional and contrived. But this story of a lovesick robot on an Earth desolated by pollution is a wonderful movie.

Synecdoche, New York, Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut, is a mysterious and beautiful thing. It doesn’t always work (though viewers may well differ widely about which parts do or don’t ring true), and it certainly won’t be everyone’s cup of oddness. But the breadth of its ambition and imagination is exciting in itself, and often enormously moving. Kaufman is still learning as a director, and this might have been better in someone else’s hands, but it’s a startlingly personal fantasia. Synecdoche is much better experienced than described: Philip Seymour Hoffman (as marvelous here as he is disappointing in Doubt) plays a stage director whose biggest production turns out to be his own life story – and eventually the play, enormous in scope and years in preparation (never quite ready for an audience) becomes indistinguishable from his life, and vice versa. And perhaps it all takes place in his head during the moment of his death. Or not. At any rate, this deserves to be seen.

The Edge of Heaven was too little seen in its limited theatrical engagements, but it’s available on DVD – and you should rent or buy it as soon as you can. It accomplishes in an extraordinarily gripping and moving way what some earlier, over-hyped movies like Crash and Babel attempted — telling multiple stories whose characters and plots gradually merge into one narrative. It takes place among the Turkish immigrants in Germany, as did Fatih Akim’s previous Head-On, also worth checking out. Akim’s beautifully controlled and perfectly cast film takes on love and lust and cultural identity in ways you won’t soon forget.

Rachel Getting Married is a welcome return to form for director Jonathan Demme, and a splendid opportunity for Anne Hathaway to display her acting chops. In fact, all the performances are excellent. The intensity falters a bit in the extended post-wedding scenes at the end, but this is a fine and powerful movie.

As for the rest of my top 12: The Dark Knight, the year’s biggest blockbuster, tries almost too hard to avoid superhero movie clichés. But while the result is a bit heavy and self-serious, it’s often brilliant and visually breathtaking. And Heath Ledger’s performance is already a legendary piece of acting: disturbing and funny and utterly original. In Bruges unfortunately failed to find much of an audience in theaters, although people seem to be discovering it on DVD. It’s the striking film debut of writer-director Martin McDonagh, the brilliant playwright known for startling slapstick violence and lacerating wit. Both are in evidence here, and Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, and Ralph Fiennes do remarkably vivid work.

Frozen River and Wendy and Lucy could both be seen as movies for the New Depression, with characters who teeter on the edge of poverty and despair. Both are directed by women and both are anchored by wonderful actresses: Melissa Leo as a struggling mother who becomes a smuggler of immigrants in Frozen River, and Michelle Williams as a drifter whose cross-country odyssey comes to a grinding and heartbreaking halt in Wendy and Lucy. Both movies are deeply touching. Frozen River has a more conventional melodramatic narrative, and more humor. Wendy and Lucy bears the very original stamp of director Kelly Reichardt, who made the festival hit Old Joy. Like that earlier movie, the new one is a miniature, a pitch-perfect short story.

Gran Torino may seem like an appendage on such a distinguished list. But this new minimalist melodrama from Clint Eastwood deserves recognition for his wonderful lead performance and his steady and skillful direction. The script and the supporting cast are uneven, but this is Clint’s best since Unforgiven.

My list of best documentaries includes movies released in theaters in 2008, so Taxi to the Dark Side, which won the 2007 Oscar, tops my list: it played at festivals during 2007 but only reached theaters in early 2008 for a very brief, limited run. (As with the foreign film Oscars, the year a film is eligible can get confusing, and can be different from the year the movie actually gets released in the US.) Despite the fact that President Obama has pledged to reverse many of the detention policies that are detailed in the film, it remains a powerful document and reminder of the disturbing occurrences at Guantanamo and in American prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan. Don’t let squeamishness keep you from seeing this extraordinary film, the best nonfiction feature of either 2007 or 2008.

The Oscar documentary category seems to have noticeably improved, after having ignored fine films in some previous years. The nominators are apparently expanding their universe and including more movies that really are among the best around. Two of this year’s documentary Oscar nominees also made my list: Man on Wire, the amazing story of the Frenchman who walked a tightrope between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in the early 1970s; and Trouble the Water, a fine and deeply personal account of the aftermath of Katrina. And finally, Moving Midway (out on DVD in mid-February) is a lovely, funny, and also admirably personal account of how plantation life in the Old South permeates parts of our culture – while running headlong into 21st-century attitudes when the director’s relatives decide to move a plantation house away from encroaching suburban sprawl.

As for the most noteworthy disappointments and duds: Steven Soderbergh’s Che deliberately avoids being a traditional entertainment or a fully detailed biography – and although the first half has its moments, the second half of this four-hour-plus anti-epic becomes quite stupefying. Revolutionary Road is a misguided attempt to adapt the highly acclaimed novel of late-1950s suburban alienation; I recommend reading the book – and watching the comparable but vastly superior Mad Men – instead.

Speed Racer, for all its very expensive and flashy visuals, is all but unwatchable. We can hope that the Wachowski brothers find their way again soon, but after the third Matrix film and this one, they do seem lost. Sex and the City takes what was often fizzy and delightful in 25-minute doses on HBO and transforms it into sheer lead that goes on and on for 140 minutes. And Mamma Mia! is incompetent as well as ridiculous. I understand it’s now the biggest movie hit ever in the UK. Boggles the mind, eh?