As always, the movie distribution companies have picked the last three months of the year to jam in the majority of films they deem to be significant pictures with a chance of award recognition.
Of course, there is still a good amount of dreck being released upon an unsuspecting public, but for discriminating moviegoers, there are multiple options for quality time at the cinema.
In the last 21 days, I've seen 10 movies. Someone had to do it. Don't try this at home.
* Comedian and television talk show host Bill Maher has teamed up with director Larry Charles on "Religulous," a funny and scabrous take on organized religion and its negative effect -- to say the least, according to Maher -- on human history. Maher has long espoused the idea that religious folks are basically silly naifs or extremists hell-bent on destroying the world or both. I don't agree with his blanket dismissal of people of faith, but Maher's anti-religion case is presented here with logic, conviction and -- most of all -- humor.
* Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen play gunmen for hire in "Appaloosa," a Western that while not the equal of modern classics like David Milch's HBO series "Deadwood" and Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven," is one of the most accomplished films of 2008. Reunited after explosively facing off a few years back in David Cronenberg's "A History of Violence" (written by Josh Olson), Harris and Mortensen this time are on the same side of the law, two gunslingers that troubled frontier towns call upon to restore order when things get rough. In this case, "rough" is played by Jeremy Irons as the leader of a band of thugs. Confident direction by Harris, terrific guy chemistry between he and Mortensen, and an assured, leisurely pace are the hallmarks of this fine genre entry.
* Jonathan Demme turned the clock back 20 years to return to his indie roots with "Rachel Getting Married," a drama starring Anne Hathaway as a wounded drug addict who upsets the proverbial family apple cart on a weekend furlough from rehab to attend the wedding of her sister, played by the talented Rosemarie DeWitt ("Mad Men"). There is much to recommend in this film -- the aforementioned DeWitt, the lovely music, the loose energy of the indie production -- but in order to enjoy it, moviegoers will have to put up with two hours of the most painfully self-absorbed character in the history of cinema. Hathaway turns in a tour-de-force performance as the damaged Kym, dealing with tragedies both real and imagined. It's a very in-your-face, warts-and-all portrayal of a young woman who I never want to encounter again as long as I live.
* Michael Cera and Kat Dennings co-star in the sweet "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist," a seeming cross between "Before Sunrise," the Judd Apatow oeuvre, and "After Hours," for the iTunes generation. It's not quite a classic of the form like "Say Anything" or "The Breakfast Club," but it's solid and fun.
* Actor Clark Gregg -- recognized by recent network TV viewers as Julia Louis-Drefyus' ex-husband on "The New Adventures of Old Christine" but well-known to film fans as a member of David Mamet's repertory company (and a founding member, with Mamet, of the renowned Atlantic Theater Company) -- makes his directorial debut with "Choke," his own adaptation of the novel of the same name by "Fight Club" author Chuck Palahniuk. The Internet Movie Database describes the movie like this: "A sex-addicted con-man pays for his mother's hospital bills by playing on the sympathies of those who rescue him from choking to death." Rockwell plays the con-man, Anjelica Huston plays his mother, Kelly Macdonald plays a mysterious doctor, and Gregg steals the movie as the ridiculously earnest actor/manager of some sort of colonial theme park. Trust me: depraved hilarity ensues.
* Director Fernando Meirelles directed one of my favorite movies of the last 20 years in "City of God," an incendiary, "GoodFellas"-like portrait of the lives of the residents of a Brazilian favela, and then followed that up with the geo-political dramatic thriller "The Constant Gardener," another fine effort. Unfortunately, the gifts that informed both of those films have not been employed to their best use in "Blindness," his new filmic essay on human nature that examines what happens to the denizens of a major metropolis when its residents startingly lose their ability to see. What follows is, sadly, not very illuminating -- no pun intended. Chalk this up as the year's biggest disappointment, for me, given that I expect every Meirelles picture to be in contention for my favorite movie of any given year.
* Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe team up with director Ridley Scott for "Body of Lies," a CIA-set actioner that the filmmakers hoped would recall the great "paranoid thrillers" of the 1970s, including "The Parallax View" and "Three Days of the Condor." Writer/director Stephen Gaghan covered similar terrain to better effect, imho, in "Syriana," while Scott's brother Tony also dabbled in the genre in both "Enemy of the State" and "Spy Games."
* Keira Knightley stars as Georgina Spencer, the much buzzed-about Duchess of Devonshire in "The Duchess," opposite Ralph Fiennes as the insensitive, loutish Duke. The actors do a fine job of elevating overly familiar material (royal dude needs male heir and employs stable of beauties to deliver one) into a story worth watching, with Knightley really shining as a woman generations ahead of her time.
* Ricky Gervais is one of the funniest people on the planet, although the filmmakers of "Ghost Town" only allow moviegoers glimpses of his brilliance in this romantic comedy which also stars Greg Kinnear and Tea Leoni. Recommended for the flashes of Gervais genius. If you're unsure, wait for cable, knowing that HBO will be broadcasting Gervais' new comedy special in mid-November.
* Samuel L. Jackson, Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington star in "Lakeview Terrace," a domestic thriller directed by Neil LaBute. Imagine this summer's horror "The Strangers," with fewer creepy moments and a better villain (Jackson). Or don't. Either way: Cable or DVD is fine here.