Adolf Hitler, Wannabe Artist

Where was I-before we were interrupted by Santa Claus, the transit strike that didn’t happen and the winter storm that did? Oh, yes: the avalanche of year-end movies. While nothing new is opening and the city still slumbers, it’s a good time to catch up. Like the shopping I didn’t do, the gifts I didn’t wrap and the cards I didn’t send, here are some absolutely, positively final thoughts on the holiday movies I didn’t review.

Did Adolf Hitler have any friends? Apparently-and what if one of them was Jewish? That’s the premise of Max , an unusual, engrossing and provocative film about the blurry lines between politics and art that suggests if Hitler had followed his true dream of becoming an artist-and if his (fictional) mentor, a Jewish art-gallery owner named Max Rothman, had not met with an ill-timed trick of fate-it would have changed the history of the world. A lot of “ifs” here, but they are cataloged with enough cinematic suspense and fervor to hold you spellbound.

Set in the bombed ruins of Munich following World War I, the film follows the parallel lives of two returning veterans, damaged in battle, with nothing in common but their love of art. Max Rothman (John Cusack) is a prominent Jew who lost an arm in combat, ending a promising career as a painter. Starting a new life by opening a gallery of modern art in a leaky, abandoned ironworks, he refuels his passion by financing the early exhibitions of George Grosz, Max Ernst and Paul Klee. One of the struggling wannabes who comes to his attention is the young Adolf Hitler (Noah Taylor), a shabby and cynical soldier who doesn’t smoke, drink alcohol or eat anything but vegetables. Their nation ravaged by war and disgraced by the punitive Treaty of Versailles, the working-class Germans of the postwar era were poor, unemployed, starving and powerless. Somehow they heard the trumpets of false hope in the angry diatribes of this scrawny, shredded ragamuffin, who saw the German people as an Aryan race of warriors and knights whose purity had been polluted by the canny, resourceful Jews. Still, in Max , Hitler’s first love is the crude, second-rate charcoals he shows Max Rothman, hoping for an exhibit. Max berates him for wasting his time on inflammatory speeches in parks and rathskellars instead of improving his skills with the brush and easel; he also encourages Hitler to work harder, advances him money for art supplies and advises him to “Get out of politics!” Hitler resents, envies and admires Max, all at the same time. The film has been carefully researched (if you see the interviews with Traudl Junge in the documentary Hitler’s Secretary , you see all of the future Fuhrer’s characteristics, mannerisms and photos illustrated in the phenomenal performance by Noah Taylor), and the cinematography by Lajos Koltei recreates both the colorful Dadaist movement and the deadly rise of Nazism in a spectrum of arresting visual contrasts. In fact, one of the most memorable things about Max is the extraordinary look of it: camera cuts between the chalky-white colors of Hitler’s world (somber and appropriate hues of gray as he screeches about the “Jewish question”) and the soft, buttery richness of the whispery synagogues in Max’s world. Menno Meyjes, best known as the screenwriter of Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple , wrote the haunting script and makes a stunning directorial debut.

In retrospect, it’s hard to hear lines like “You’re a bit lazy, Hitler!” and “The train’s leaving the station, Hitler, why aren’t you on board?” without laughing. In the end, Max reluctantly agrees to give Hitler’s drawings of flags, uniforms, chancelleries and swastikas an exhibition after privately declaring them “pure kitsch.” Hitler waits impatiently in a café with his latest sketches, unaware that Max has met with a cruel stroke of fate in a nearby square at the hands of the brownshirts. Disillusioned, Hitler thinks he’s been stood up. It is at just such moments, the film suggests, that history can fatally change course. Given that the character of Max is fictional, the ironies are more metaphoric than real, but the fine lines between history and fable are irresistibly woven, and there is nothing fictitious about the profound clash between the values of the artistic avant-garde and those of the emerging National Socialist Party: Indeed, after he ascended to power, Hitler labeled everything that Max promotes in the film “degenerate art” and persecuted the artists who produced it. This material is piquantly served by John Cusack in his best performance to date, as well as by Noah Taylor (eschewing all the clichés as a budding dictator who is more pathetic than terrifying) and a fine supporting cast that includes Molly Parker and Leelee Sobieski as Max’s glacial wife and larky, bohemian mistress, respectively. Max is a vivid, spicy footnote to history, and a movie that grips and holds you in rapt attention from start to finish.

Denzel’s Winner

Denzel Washington makes a triumphant directing debut with Antwone Fisher and plays the role of a Navy psychiatrist whose kindness, patience and guidance turn a troubled sailor into a solid citizen and a remarkable writer. Antwone was born to an inmate in a women’s prison and spent a painful childhood in orphanages and abusive foster homes, developing a rebellious personality and a scalding reputation for violence. In the Navy, his angry brawls and insults almost got him dishonorably discharged-until a therapist helped him to discover the source of his rage and break free of a hateful past. The book he wrote about his hellish personal drama and eventual redemption has been turned into a stoic, careful and inspired film with a warm emotional impact. The screenplay is by Antwone Fisher himself, and newcomer Derek Luke positively shines in the title role. Mr. Washington quietly distills astonishing honesty from his actors, and gets an especially jolting performance out of the electrifying jazz singer Novella Nelson as the hateful foster mother who poisons the boy’s childhood. The result is a fine film that proves the past is never too bleak-or the future too hopeless-to discover a productive new life, and a home and family to share it.

Sandra’s Turkey

Bad movies know no season, and this year I predict that a piece of Christmas trash called Two Weeks Notice will find its way into the garbage faster than the leftover bones from your two-week-old turkey. Sandra Bullock plays an environmental lawyer who fights for landmark buildings; Hugh Grant weakly impersonates a heartless corporate tycoon who’s tearing them down. (No, it’s not Donald Trump, and to avoid litigation, they even invited Himself to appear in a cameo.) True to form in third-rate romantic comedies word-processed by hacks, the two stars hate each other on sight. Somehow, for reasons only the screenwriter knows, he hires her as his chief counsel, and they fall in love and spend the rest of two torturous hours screaming their heads off. Her contract is iron-clad, so she decides to make his life so miserable he’ll fire her. The rest is all sight gags and idiot jokes that pass for dialogue. She gets her hair caught in his belt buckle. She beats up a Swingline stapler. She slides across the deck of his yacht dead drunk. This is the kind of movie where the big scene is a man shot out of a cannon into a vat of ice cream. One disgusting scene involving diarrhea in the middle of a traffic jam has to be seen to be believed. I give Two Weeks Notice less time than that. Color it gone.

Hours Is a Drag

On the “close but no cigar” shelf, file The Hours , an arty, well-intentioned but meandering disappointment that fails to live up to the critical drooling it’s been getting. I admit it features the kind of juicy star turns that drive critics to premature Oscar predictions, so if good acting is all you require to justify the bloated price of today’s movie tickets, there’s plenty of it. Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore know how to seize control of the camera, but this feverish adaptation of an overrated literary tome by Michael Cunningham that I could never bring myself to finish never really works. How three women from different eras, impacted by Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway , cope with depression, suicide and madness makes for a fanciful premise. But the film jumps around so much in time and setting, with the daunting energy of an inattentive cocker spaniel, that it’s really more about editing than anything else. Each story has a passionate kiss between women that signifies the pent-up repression from which all three long to escape, and every character is keenly aware of the limiting measurements of time, whether they’re in Sussex, England, in 1941, Los Angeles in 1951, or New York City in 2001. But as one character observes, “No matter what you start with, it ends up being so much less.” One man’s personal velocity is another man’s movie.

Stephen Daldry, in his first film since Billy Elliott , more than lives up to his deserved reputation as a gifted and forceful director, but he never finds the key to connect the dots that link three different periods, lifestyles and time zones to a central theme. In an impressive cast that also includes Toni Collette, Miranda Richardson, Claire Danes, Allison Janney and Eileen Atkins, the three stars are mesmerizing-Ms. Kidman perhaps too much so. Disfigured beyond recognition as the doomed and terminally haunted Virginia Woolf, hiding behind a swampy veil of sallow flesh, sour grimaces and a fake nose the size of a shoehorn, she throws her ravishing beauty on a funeral pyre for art. But all I could think about was Jimmy Durante. And if you believe the virile, robust, two-fisted Ed Harris as a gay man ravaged by AIDS and Jeff Daniels as his lover, you must be one of those optimists who buy George Bush’s last-ditch promises of an economic-recovery package that will put a chicken in every pot. There are so many suicides in this film it makes you think a few dismal and cynical thoughts of your own. Fragmented and stinking vaguely of literary pretentiousness, The Hours is a stretch-it’s missing the spinal fusion that might have held it together with the kind of cinematic coherence I found sadly lacking.