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Brits, Betrayal, and Babies: New Movies for the New Year

This is the time of year when grown-ups go to the movies. The studios try to come up with a mix of titles that will have something for anyone with a few bucks to spend and a taste for popcorn. Here are a few.

Atonement, Joe Wright’s film of Ian McEwan’s celebrated novel is just the ticket for the anglophile moviegoer. The first hour, the most effective part, is set in a country house, in 1935. The housekeeper’s son, Joe, (James McAvoy), has been put through Cambridge by his mother’s employers. Joe and the lovely daughter of the house, Cecelia (Keira Knightley), come to realize that they’re meant for one another. Also in residence is Briony, Cecila’s 13-year old sister, a clever child with a vivid imagination. She misunderstands her sister’s romance and accuses Joe of a crime. Cambridge or not, he’s of the working class and Briony’s word is accepted. Three lives unravel as a result. The film follows Joe through the war while Cecilia and Briony, estranged, serve as nurses. After the war Christopher Hampton’s script gets lost in some post-modern story telling and the vitality of the film seems to leak out. Despite some bravura film making centered on the evacuation of Dunkirk, the love story comes to feel more willed than felt. Still, even with its flaws, this is a lovely and romantic movie that seems to please crowds and critics more than it pleased me.

The painter Julian Schnabel has made The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, based on the international best seller. It’s the story of a French magazine editor’s ghastly stroke that resulted in “locked in syndrome.” He can hear and think but he can’t speak or move. He has some control of one eye. He signals by blinking and manages to dictate the book that is the basis of this fierce and unforgettable movie. This is not one of those triumph-of-the-human-spirit routines that breed on television. It is a story of deprivation and confinement of the harshest sort. A version of transcendence is achieved if not earthly happiness. With this movie, his third, Schnabel establishes himself as a top international director. The film is in French with English subtitles that may limit its appeal to a general American audience. If you miss this one because of the language or the subject matter you’ll be making a mistake. Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography delineates the range of moods with an easy assurance that draws you into Schnabel’s web. The script, by Ronald Harwood, tells you what you want to know just when you need to know it. This is one of the best movies of the year.

Sidney Lumet began his career as a child actor in the Yiddish theatre. He’s now 83 and after some 50 movies and surely even more TV dramas, he’s at the top of his game. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. from a script by Kelly Masterson, is the tale of a robbery that goes wrong and destroys a family. It’s told in a fractured time sequence that seems just right for the story of troubled brothers (Ethan Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman) who fail at the crime as they have failed at much else. Albert Finney is their father and Marisa Tomei is Hoffman’s wife. All the acting is first rate. The movie feels like the retelling of an ancient myth, Greek perhaps, set down in New York. There’s some vivid sex and grim violence but this one grabs you from the start and just doesn’t let go.

Walk Hard: the Dewey Cox Story is a fitfully amusing parody of musical biographies of pop stars on the order of Johnny Cash and Ray Charles. The protean John C. Reilly is the hard walker here and he’s committed to his task. No cornball trope or hot singer from Rickey Nelson to Bob Dylan is left unmocked. The picture sometimes feels like a skit that got out of hand. Still, Reilly is hilarious as a man without an original thought who is convinced he’s some sort of genius. I think this one will have a healthy life on cable and in DVD. If you’re looking for something light-hearted in the midst all the darkness in the theatres, you could do worse. Jake Kasdan directs from a script by him and Judd Apatow, who is the comedy man of the moment.

Juno is a story of a teenage pregnancy though it’s neither earnestly instructive nor farce. Juno is 16 and understands birth control, but…well, you know. Played by Ellen Page, Juno is an odd kid who can’t help seeing the humor in her situation. She calls a clinic and says, in her teen-age deadpan voice, “Hello, I’d like to procure a hasty abortion.” She soon changes her mind – one of her specialties. Juno gets mixed up with a childless couple (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman) that makes Juno seem sensible. Garner, who looks as if she might explode from her raging mommy hormones, wants the baby more than she wants her husband. Directed by Jason Reitman from a sweet script by Diablo Cody.

My Oscar nomination predictions from this list: For best picture, Atonement and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. For best actress, young Juno herself, Ellen Page.