Last month the honorable task fell to me to review two of the year's most anticipated movies for Cinematical, Francis Ford Coppola's Youth Without Youth (9 screens) and Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood (51 screens). In retrospect and with a comfortable critical consensus in place, moviegoers can easily see that Youth Without Youth is a "bad" movie and There Will Be Blood is a "good" movie. But in that first moment, when the movie is freshly unspooling, there's nothing to go by but your own anticipation, experience and gut reaction. And these were two of the toughest movies I ever saw. In each review I said something like "these movies may have their flaws, but they're too rich and complex to be easily dismissed."

December is jam-packed with notable movies, each vying for a spot on our personal top ten lists or on our awards ballots. There are many more movies than usual and there is a heightened sense of anticipation for each movie. It's easy to get befuddled, our heads packed with too many images and opinions. I didn't much like Margot at the Wedding (85 screens), and I liked Persepolis (7 screens) very much, but I had a hard time recalling either movie a few weeks later, mainly from overload. (Critics who cover film festivals usually experience this same phenomenon.) What I really needed was more time to ponder each movie, or at least a second chance to see certain movies.

That's where the Academy screeners come in. These special DVDs are messengered to voters' houses and we sign our lives away, swearing an oath in blood not to copy, loan or do anything else with them. I received more than 60 screeners this year, a record. But for some reason, I received screeners for movies I had no interest in seeing again, movies that I felt I had nailed with one viewing, like The Brave One, The Golden Compass, Lust, Caution (12 screens), Atonement, In the Valley of Elah (2 screens), Dan in Real Life (244 screens) and Into the Wild (81 screens). The screeners I really needed, the ones for Persepolis, There Will Be Blood and Youth Without Youth, did not arrive. (Certain studios simply opt not to send out screeners of certain movies, depending on their own unique brand of studio logic.)

So without a chance to see the films a second time, I found myself pondering them over the holidays and the past several weeks. I think I wanted to like Youth Without Youth more than I actually did. Francis Ford Coppola is such a tragic figure in film: the boy genius who made crazy masterpieces in his 30s, and in his 40s withdrew behind a series of retreads and studio assignments. I keep wanting to find some sign of his genius and/or madness in his films, but mainly they just seem cold or impersonal. Like One from the Heart and Bram Stoker's Dracula, Youth Without Youth contains some dazzling imagery, stuff that no ordinary director could ever begin to conceive of. But today the thought of sitting through it again makes the blood drain from my head.

I have been thinking about There Will Be Blood as frequently as I did last September with The Assassination of Jesse James (7 screens), which eventually earned the #1 slot on my ten best list, but I'm still not sure about it. I'm still wrestling with two major problems. Firstly, it's a message movie. I have an aversion to message movies because they tend to get overpraised; critics approve the message but they rarely pay any attention to the art or craft of the movie that delivered it. Paul Thomas Anderson based his movie (loosely) on a novel by Upton Sinclair, who was a "message" writer if ever there was one. And though the talented filmmaker did a good job of burying his message (much better than say, Paul Haggis ever will), it's impossible to watch the film and not think of Bush and the Middle East. I think Anderson knew that, and I think that's part of the reason critics are so excited about the film.

The other problem I had was the performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, which has impressed everyone and about which I went into in detail in my review. It's a very artificial performance, and one that makes it difficult to sit through a 160-minute movie, but the more I think about it, the more I realize the madness of it fits in with the madness behind Anderson's entire vision. And indeed, just the very idea of adapting a novel by Upton Sinclair -- of all people -- is slightly bonkers. This elevates There Will Be Blood to the level of crazy masterpiece, something Coppola (or Stroheim or Griffith) might have made in their headstrong youth. One thing is for sure: Paul Thomas has far and away surpassed his namesake Wes. I gave Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited (37 screens) a high rating when it opened, but now it has all but faded from my memory.

Meanwhile, during the December crush I had a chance to see Blade Runner (9 screens) again, in its "final cut" version. It was my fourth time on the big screen in any version, and perhaps my tenth or twentieth time overall, counting home video. Now that's a film that can be appreciated its first time, holds up more than once and gets better and better. To me, that's the essence of a great movie. Atonement may win a bunch of awards, but it's not a great movie. No Country for Old Men is a great movie. The real test of a movie, past awards season, is how often you think about it and how badly you want to see it again.

categories Columns, Cinematical