Issue section: 

Million Dollar Baby - Sideways - American Cinema 1967-1980 - A Very Long Engagement - Closer - Dear Frankie - Ray - Yasmin

January is traditionally a bumper month of classy studio movies released before the Oscars. Hugely impressive is Million Dollar Baby directed by Clint Eastwood. A dirt poor waitress Maggie (Hilary Swank) is desperate to make it as a female boxer. Tired and grizzled gym owner Frank (Clint Eastwood) initially refuses to train her as he doesn't work with 'girlies'. A down at heel gym flunky - played by gruff Morgan Freeman - offers Maggie some useful tips. Admiring her pluck and determination Clint reluctantly takes her on and a fascinating relationship of substitute father and daughter emerges. The pain and shallow glory of this brutal sport are laid bare. With Eastwood's unflinching eye for emotional poignancy he brings home a story that goes beyond the 1930s boxing pic into something that packs an emotional punch.

The indie favourite for the Oscars is the irresistible Sideways directed by Alexander Payne. This mid-life crisis road movie set in the vineyards of California is as charming as it is well observed about unrealised ambitions and the 'American Dream'. School teacher, wine connoisseur and failed novelist forever walking under a pall of depression, Miles (beautifully played by Paul Giammati) organises a stag week for his best friend, the lustful unsuccessful actor Jack. Jack's agenda is clear: to get 'laid'. Miles is appalled by the idea. Romance ensues for both and we soon become absorbed into the film's richly detailed characterisation and delight in the small inspired comic moments.

Alexander Payne recently talked of being influenced by Hal Ashby of the 1970s and how the time was ripe now for the kind of realistic complex character actors of the New American Cinema to return to the cinema. Timely then that the NFT has a season devoted to this wonderfully politically charged and innovative period - The Wild Bunch: American Cinema 1967-1980 (Part One). Are we witnessing a sequel to that period, the return of Hollywood's repressed?

The major US-French studio picture for the Oscars is A Very Long Engagement (by Jean Pierre-Jeunet of Amélie fame) based on the bestselling novel. It tells the tale of Mathilde (Tatou) who in the 1920s finds it hard to accept that her beloved fiancé was killed in battle. In her search for the truth she uncovers the humiliation meted out to deserters and the barbarity of war. Typically from Jeunet the style is jaunty, ironic, sensual and luscious but his whimsical tone jars badly with the seriousness and essential tragedy of the work, undermining the story's ostensible intent. It is a sort of anti-war film lite.

No Oscar season can be without its middlebrow star-studded literary/theatrical adaptation, and Mike Nichol's Closer is this year's model. It is a story of self-deception, infidelity and emotional exploitation along the faultlines of monogamy among a quartet of egotistical lovers. Based on Patrick Marber's biting stage play, it retains a theatrical air, is a bit dated and lacks the sustained ironic humour of the original production.

Lizzie (Emily Mortimer) keeps up a charade that her deaf nine year old child's absent father is a seafarer to preserve the illusion of the nuclear family for his eyes. Lizzie's pretence extends to having to buy the services of a taciturn sailor to pose as the boy's father. Dear Frankie by Shona Auerbach is a small gem of a movie, emotionally complicated and subtle with painterly compositions. It steers free from mawkishness to offer a sly look at modern family life.

At last a superb biopic, Ray, about Ray Charles, featuring an Oscar-winning magnificent performance from Jamie Foxx in a film that is a true labour of love.

Look out for Yasmin on Channel Four this month, written by Simon Beaufoy (Full Monty) it is a brilliantly told story about the experiences of British Muslims after the 9/11 tragedy.

Correction from December issue
Citizen Kane was based on media mogul William Randolph Hearst, not Howard Hughes. Well done to everyone who spotted the (ahem) deliberate mistake.