Five Greats preview: Our guide to the season’s must-see movies

In the days and weeks ahead, several tremendous (dare we say Oscar-caliber?) films will be arriving in Bay Area theaters. They're poignant, affecting, and moving. But one thing they aren't is funny. Maybe that's because of the depressed mood of the country right now; or maybe it's just the tastes of our Adam Sandler–hating film critics. Even Mickey Rourke — Mickey Rourke! — is more tragicomic than funny in The Wrestler. So if you're looking for escapist holiday fluff, these movies aren't for you. If you do want to see films that make you think and feel, then read on.

The Wrestler
Opens Thursday at the Metreon.
The Wrestler may be plenty visceral, but it's no more a sports movie than professional wrestling is a competitive sport. Chronic overreacher Darren Aronofsky's relatively unpretentious follow-up to the debacle that was The Fountain is all about showbiz. You want to make a comeback saga, you get a washed-up star — in this case, Mickey Rourke, for whom Aronofsky and screenwriter Robert Siegel conceived the movie. Rourke gives a career performance as Randy “The Ram” Robinson, an amiably broken-down wrestler who was himself a star of the 1980s. Aronofsky dotes on the details of the Ram's routine (securing meds, getting a perm, visiting the tanning parlor), especially his preparations for a bout. The most gruesome bout is one in which a younger, more degenerate fighter introduces the Ram to the strategic use of a staple gun. It's this bloody mess, 20 minutes into the movie, that triggers the Ram's heart attack, landing him in the hospital with a doctor's warning that it's past time he retired. The Wrestler's vivid concern with the mortification of the flesh is given a spiritual dimension by the veteran stripper who goes by the nom de pole Cassidy (Marisa Tomei, Hollywood's go-to gal for an Oscar-quality lap-dance). Not nearly as successful is the extended subplot which has the Ram's attempted reconciliation with his abandoned, fabulously hostile and disapproving daughter (Evan Rachel Wood). Rourke's character may be larger than the movie, but this time, the Ram gets ground up in the mechanics of the plot. (J. Hoberman)

Wendy and Lucy
Opens January 30 at San Francisco theaters.
Modest but cosmic, Kelly Reichardt's Wendy and Lucy is a movie whose sad pixie heroine, Wendy (Michelle Williams), already skating on thin ice, stumbles and, without a single support to brace herself, slides into America's lower depths. Introduced calling for her dog, Lucy, Wendy loses first her liberty (briefly), then Lucy (again), and finally, her car in the course of a dead-end road trip from deepest Indiana to the Alaskan frontier. Wendy does encounter a few locals, notably a pitiless garage mechanic (Will Patton) and a sympathetic security guard (Walter Dalton), who charitably allows her to use his cellphone as her contact with the dog pound. But, save for Lucy, Wendy is alone; the movie is essentially a solo turn. Trembling throughout on the verge of a tearful breakdown, but far too dignified to allow her character to choke up, Williams delivers a sensationally nuanced performance that, were it not so resolutely undramatic, would constitute an aria of stoic misery. Spare, actor-driven, socially aware, and open-ended, Wendy and Lucy has obvious affinities for Italian neorealism. Reichardt has choreographed one of the most stripped-down existential quests since Vittorio De Sica sent his unemployed worker wandering through the streets of Rome searching for his purloined bicycle, and as heartbreaking a dog story as De Sica's Umberto D. But Wendy and Lucy is also the most melancholy of American sagas. (J. Hoberman)

Gran Torino
Now playing at San Francisco theaters.
Like many characters Clint Eastwood has played in his six-decade screen career, recently widowed Korean War vet Walt Kowalski is a man outside of his own time hurled by circumstance into direct conflict with the present. That transition occurs when the racist Walt steps across the property line in his economically depressed Detroit suburb and into the lives of the Hmong immigrant family next door, including the introverted teenage boy, Thao (Bee Vang), who, menaced by a local gang, has made an unsuccessful bid at stealing Walt's car. But if Gran Torino seems at first glance to be a gently un-PC, geriatric crowd-pleaser of the Space Cowboys variety, it soon becomes clear that Eastwood is merely using the bass line of a butt-kicking Clint Eastwood action movie to play a series of complex variations on his career-abiding themes. “The thing that haunts a man most is what he isn't ordered to do,” Walt says, and the thing that has long haunted Eastwood is the legacy of American violence and the false heroic myths on which that legacy has been written. I'm not sure if Gran Torino is Eastwood's “best” film, to whatever extent such trivial distinctions matter. But it seems like one of Eastwood's most personal, right down to his raspy warbling of the self-penned end-credits song. Above all, it feels like a summation of everything he represents as a filmmaker and a movie star, and perhaps also a farewell. “That,” future generations of fathers will someday tell their sons, “is what Clint Eastwood was all about.” (Scott Foundas)

Opens January 9 at San Francisco theaters.
Steven Soderbergh's superlatively crafted, dramatically compelling, emotionally distant account of Che Guevara's participation in the Cuban revolution of the 1950s and the disastrous Bolivian uprising a decade later is an anti-biopic that seeks to humanize its subject with a shocking absence of human interest. History is not personalized. Che is both action film and ongoing argument. The two parts are best seen together: The second may be more realized, but its tragic futility is only comprehensible in the light of what has come before. (J. Hoberman)

Waltz with Bashir
Opens January 9 at the Embarcadero.
If Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman had simply edited his own and his former IDF comrades' memories of the infamous 1982 Sabra-Shatila massacre in Lebanon into a talking-heads doc, he'd have gotten a few respectful nods from critics and a brief tour of the marginal film-festival circuit. Instead, he and his creative team animated the soldiers' testimonies into a vintage graphic novel, creating a surreal record of recovered memory whose deceptive emotional flatness amps up the terror of bearing witness to the murder of helpless Palestinians by Christian Phalangists. Waltz with Bashir is a giant anxiety attack of singular beauty and sorrow that also shatters the myth of invincible Israeli masculinity. (Ella Taylor)

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