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Movie Madness (Some of it Genius) for the Holidays

How can anyone keep up with all the movies opening this time of year? I can't — and it's my day job.

Between the popcorn flicks and the kiddie stuff and the art films that need to open before December 31 to qualify for the Oscars, it's madness, I tell you, madness. I've already praised The Diving Bell and The Butterfly, The Savages and No Country for Old Men; let's take the rest, from my least to most favorite.

The Golden Compass is deadly.

I Am Legend is a decent thriller, with Will Smith as the last human in New York against bald, feral vampires. (The best thing is seeing a metropolis depopulated, a lovely fantasy if you've been fighting holiday-shopping crowds.)

Atonement has the Oscar buzz: It's a faithful adaptation of Ian McEwan's novel that crams in all the big themes, the shifts in perspective, and the final act of narrative rug-pulling that knocked me for a loop. (Well, it did on the page. The movie is a more arm's-length experience.) But as a working-class martyr, James McAvoy will certainly make millions of teenage girls — and teenage girls at heart — sob almost as hard as they did when a certain ocean liner went down.

The Kite Runner is brisk and bland, but if you've read the novel, you know it has a great melodramatic hook: As a boy, the Afghan narrator stood by and did nothing when his little friend, the son of his father's servant, was raped by bullies. As a grown-up, he has a chance to redeem himself by returning to Kabul to rescue his friend's son from Taliban rapists. The link between totalitarianism and homosexual aggression is provocative, to say the least; the uplift comes in the closing scene, with the camera soaring and swooping along with the kites.

It's back to Kabul again in Charlie Wilson's War, based on George Crile's book about a congressman, played here by Tom Hanks, who got the funding for a covert CIA operation in Afghanistan. That helped the Afghans devastate the Soviet occupiers, which helped precipitate the fall of the Soviet empire, which led, ironically, to al-Qaida getting its hands on a lot of American weapons. It's momentous stuff, told by writer Aaron Sorkin and director Mike Nichols in a lickety-split style that makes the history lesson go down easily. Philip Seymour Hoffman steals the show as the CIA guy who hates Commies and his clueless bosses in equal measure.

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, a broad satire of musician biopics like Walk the Line, proves that (a) the conventions of biopics really are lame, and (b) you can get a lot of laughs out of basically one joke if your lead is John C. Reilly.

Reilly has a stronger singing voice than the stars of Sweeney Todd, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, but Tim Burton's film of Stephen Sondheim's masterpiece is spellbinding anyway. Most directors open up Broadway musicals, adding meaningless busy-ness to make them more "cinematic," and they end up diluting them. Burton constricts the space and concentrates the melodrama; he finds the perfect balance between the funereal and the ferocious. He scales Sweeney Todd to his stars, almost fetishizing their ghoulishness with his close-ups. And oh, the blood. Against the monochrome black-and-gray backdrop of Victorian London it geysers out, phosphorescent: It's Burton's way of cackling, "You're a long way from Broadway, folks!"

Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood is even freakier. It's a psychodrama with the epic scale of an Old Testament parable. It wouldn't work without an actor as intense and magnificent as Daniel Day-Lewis, who plays Daniel Plainview, a monomaniacal oilman.

Day-Lewis looms as large as the derricks that dominate the unruly Central California landscape. He wears a thick, curly mustache, and his face is long and straight, like a Balinese mask. His eyes are slits; they sparkle only when he trains them on his principal antagonist, a self-styled young preacher named Eli Sunday, played by Paul Dano.

In There Will Be Blood, Plainview's lust for oil corrodes every family tie. The movie is transfixing, with an astounding classical score by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood that steeps you in bad karma. The showdown between Plainview and Eli had preview audiences hooting in derision. I think it's bonkers but brilliant--the sick-joke fate of a capitalist titan. Anderson has made a mad American classic.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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