Milk (2008): There's a line in The Laramie Project about the murders of Harvey Milk and George Moscone and the so-called "Twinkie defense," and as we were rehearsing, Mr. Y. gave us some background on it. So I knew the basic story, that Harvey Milk was the first gay man elected to a major public office in America and that he was assassinated. However, I didn't know who the murderer was, and I didn't figure it out until a few minutes before it happened in the movie, so it still came as a shocking surprise. The fact that the murderer was an elected official and colleague of the victims, rather than someone on the fringes, made it even more shocking. With that said, however, Milk didn't really resonate with me emotionally except for a few particularly poignant moments. However, it's a very well-crafted movie and the acting is phenomenal across the board.
Frost/Nixon (2008): As excellent as Sean Penn was as the titular Harvey Milk, I'm retroactively disappointed that Frank Langella didn't win the Oscar for Best Actor as the semi-titular Richard Nixon. On the DVD, there's a featurette about the actual Frost/Nixon interviews in which they show actual clips from the interviews; incredibly, Frank Langella playing Nixon demonstrates more humanity, humility and believability than the actual Nixon conveyed in the actual interview. Frank Langella playing Nixon seems like a real person with dimension and depth, whereas Nixon himself seemed more like an actor (and not a skilled actor) reciting pre-scripted lines. It's mind-boggling. Again, excellent performances across the board, and while I'm not sure that the docudrama format was the best choice, it did give the superbly talented and grossly underrated Sam Rockwell a chance to shine.
The Reader (2008): After watching the two preceding films, I realized that there was only one Best Picture nominee from 2008 (for the Oscars that were awarded in 2009) that I hadn't seen yet, which was The Reader. I didn't really care for it, but I did think that casting Kate Winslet was a stroke of genius because the character has very few redeeming qualities and yet, watching her stand trial for war crimes, somehow I didn't want her to be convicted.
Batman (1989): After watching all that dramatic, realistic Oscar-bait fare, I needed to cleanse my mental palate with something a bit fanciful. I'd seen part of this movie before and had a hard time taking it seriously. Watching it this time, I suddenly realized that Batman as a character, and particularly in this movie, is a lot like the Phantom of the Opera, which makes me like him more. I appreciate now that this movie was trying to be darker and more serious than the previous iterations, but when compared to Christopher Nolan's Batman movies, it does come across as kind of goofy; however, I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing because it gives this movie a kind of charm and a kind of entertainment value that Nolan's versions don't have. As excellent as Nolan's Batman movies are and as enjoyable as they are for their action and suspense and complex characterization, for me they are not much fun to watch. I'm not going to compare Jack Nicholson's Joker interpretation to Heath Ledger's; that's been done to death by now, and I think they're both valid interpretations.
Sweeney Todd (2007): I'd seen this one before, of course, but watching Batman put me in the mood to watch more Tim Burton, and the newly discovered parallel between Batman and the Phantom of the Opera put me in the mood for musicals, so I got this one out of the library and watched it again. When I first saw this movie, I had been working at my former job for over a year and I felt weary and disillusioned, embittered and anxious about the future. Watching Johnny Depp protray Sweeney Todd and listening to him sing the songs, it was like he was literally giving a voice to all my pain and frustration. Of course, I have to give some credit for that to Stephen Sondheim and his lyrics, but I identified with Sweeney Todd in a way that I probably wouldn't have if I'd had the chance to watch it back when we'd studied Sondheim in History of Musical Theatre class. I imagine that, in some quarters, the debate still continues as to whether Burton should have hired someone with prior musical experience to play Sweeney Todd, but I'm so glad he didn't because the raw, unfinished, unpolished quality to Johnny Depp's singing voice really accentuates Sweeney Todd's disjointed state of mind, his maniacal desperation and his world-weary anguish.
District 9 (2009): Ah, a science fiction movie that's also a Best Picture nominee; would it be too dreadful a pun to say that this movie combines the best of both worlds? This is a very imaginative, well-made, and thought-provoking movie. I found it difficult to watch, yet at the same time, I was completely transfixed by it. It raised at least as many questions as it answered, which is one possible definition of art. Another possible definition of art is that it is open to interpretation. The treatment of the aliens as a metaphor for apartheid was very apparent, and yet you could apply it to racism in general or any form of discrimination, really. I found it very telling that the public believed that the main human character contracted his "condition" from sexual contact with the aliens. I was very touched by the uneasy friendship that develops between the main human character and the main alien character, as well as by the relationship between the alien and his son. It wasn't the most entertaining movie I've ever seen, but it was certainly one of the most memorable.
The Four Feathers (2002): This movie, which stars Heath Ledger, was one that I have wanted to see since it came out originally in 2002, and I really wish that I had gotten around to it before he died because as well-done as the movie is, it's really hard for me to watch Heath Ledger being so young and beautiful and full of life. For some reason, in this movie it was really distracting to me. Which is too bad because I think that this is a really excellent and underrated movie: it feels like a vintage Hollywood epic, yet it has a contemporary sensibility and works on multiple levels. It deals a lot with that same philosophical question that I am constantly contemplating: what is courage? The main character is a soldier in late 19th-century England who only joined the army to please his father and resigns his commission rather than go to war; therefore his friends brand him a coward. Yet, in resigning his commission, he takes a stand. He stands up for what he believes, even though he knows that he will probably have to endure scorn and ridicule for it, and refuses to obey simply for the sake of obeying. When he tells his fiancée what happened, she immediately turns on him saying, with the wide-eyed horror of a 19th-century woman to whom impropriety was a worse fate than death, "What will people say?" to which he responds, "Who cares what other people think?" Rather than stand by him and face the inevitable public ridicule, she abandons him, breaking off the engagement and mocking him with the white feather which symbolizes cowardice. Yet she's the one who's afraid to stand by him and stand up for him, so who's the more cowardly? Ultimately, he fights not for the sake of the empire or the sake of saving face but for love of his friends, three of whom, by the way, also mocked him with white feathers for his supposed cowardice for refusing to fight in a war he didn't believe in. To me, his acts are courageous because they come from the heart.
ADDENDUM: Revolutionary Road (2008): My trend of watching critically acclaimed movies from 2008 took an almost sadomasochist turn with this suburban drama starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, which is superbly acted but severely depressing. Apart from the acting, the one good thing about this movie is that it is based on a novel that was written in the 1950s, so it demonstrates that life wasn't necessarily better and people weren't necessarily happier back then; they were just better at suppressing their feelings.