andyk@lacitybeat.com

If you care about quality rather than quantity, it’s been a lackluster year for films. By my estimate, roughly 500 films have been released so far. Sure, there has been the occasional WALL*E or Tropic Thunder or Dark Knight, but the percentage, not to pull punches, has sucked.

Some of this is due to the ever-increasing practice of loading the end of the year with “quality” titles. “Quality” and “Oscar contenders” are hardly identical sets, let alone “quality” and “what the supposedly brilliant folks at the studios think are Oscar contenders.”  Nonetheless, there is some hope the final stretch will compensate for the lackluster nine furlongs we’ve limped through so far in this year’s Derby.

Have the last two years sapped everyone else’s tolerance for politics as much as they have mine? I was hoping the part of my brain commandeered by obsessive election concern could luxuriate a while in post-election bliss. But … nooooo.

We’re about to get a bizarrely high concentration of explicitly political mainstream features. My social conscience says I should be looking forward to classy productions like Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon (about David Frost’s 1977 interview with Richard Nixon) and Steve McQueen’s Hunger (about the 1981 Irish Republican Army hunger strike.) They may turn out to be brilliant, but I don’t think I’m capable of absorbing both of them.

I’m saving my “seriositude” eyeballs for Steven Soderbergh’s two-part, four-hour-plus Che, which you may have to travel to Los Angeles to see.  With no disrespect to Opie and not-the-guy-who-starred-in-Bullitt, Soderbergh is one of our most brilliant directors, even on an off day, and no one could physically be more perfect for the title part than Benicio del Toro. Sure, I could see Frost/Nixon and Hunger in the same amount of time, but those are less intriguing, in part because it’s easier to pick sides. (Nixon bad, hunger strikers good.) Che Guevara was a hero to my generation of lefties, and his reputation has plummeted in recent decades, so it will be interesting to see how Soderbergh views him.

By Christmas, I hope to have recovered enough for another more or less politically centered release. First up: Valkyrie, the rumor-plagued Tom Cruise movie about the German military plot to assassinate Hitler late in the war. Cruise’s personal life has tarnished his image, but he is a good actor (as well as a genuine movie star). If he really wanted to shake up his fans, he could have played Hitler – short, dark hair, good at ranting – but he’s more modestly taken the role of Claus von Stauffenberg, the leader of the plot. Despite several delays in its release, the movie’s strongest selling point is the reunion of director Bryan Singer (X Men) and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie, neither of whom has topped their last collaboration, The Usual Suspects, in the subsequent 13 years.

I have a guilty interest in The Day the Earth Stood Still – even though I think Robert Wise’s 1951 original is terrific, and I hate gratuitous remakes. There’s a strong chance that the fashionably requisite surfeit of CGI will destroy everything that made the old version work, but the idea of casting Keanu Reeves as a wooden, inexpressive alien (wow, who would have thought of that one?) may even trump the perfection of del Toro playing Che.

Then there is Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino, which has him, once again, in front of the camera as well as behind it. It’s a sentimental choice: That a 78-year-old actor can still be a credible tough guy – albeit a cranky old “get off my lawn” tough guy – well, it’s a ray of hope for the rest of us aging types. Few actors-turned-directors have been as adept at exploiting their star personas, and we can imagine Eastwood keeping it up into the next decade.

It’s necessary to approach The Wrestler with some trepidation: filmmaker Darren Aronofsky’s films have consistently failed to live up to his obviously lofty ambitions. And, while Mickey Rourke is an amazing actor, he’s had an extremely rocky career. In his early supporting roles, he consistently blew stars off the screen, but whenever he tried to position himself as a romantic lead, he stumbled. Here he gets to snog with Marisa Tomei, but his aging-professional-wrestler portrayal sounds more like the kind of character work he does best.

Finally, there’s the biggest oddball release of the year from a major studio … or maybe from anybody – The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. It’s been more than 80 years since F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote this uncharacteristically surreal short story about a newborn who is, in all respects other than time on earth, a little old man. Physically, he grows younger and younger, meeting his father and then his son in age. Eventually he regresses (progresses?) to infancy.

Does he then simply vanish? Fitzgerald managed to duck the issue by sticking to Button’s POV at the end – which is symptomatic of why no one has tried to film this tale before. It’s a classic case of a story that seems impossible to present visually (or at least photographically); in prose, Fitzgerald could get away with images that don’t translate to anything in the real world. So, sight unseen, we have to give courage points to director David Fincher for even attempting

Fitzgerald’s story as a feature, and to Brad Pitt for taking the title role (which, among other curiosities, should render him unrecognizable for much of the running time.)