In tough times, we need the arts to help pull
us through.

January and February are the best months at the Lake Theatre, Oak Park’s “cinema paradiso.” It’s the best time to see a movie, period, because cabin fever sets in right after Christmas, and “going to the movies” gives people a reason to go out. The theater itself is warm and inviting, and you can’t beat the smell of popcorn on a Saturday night. It’s a kind of home away from home, and the movies themselves offer a two-hour lift from the arctic wasteland we’re buried in.

More to the point, it’s affordable culture, which offers relief during tough economic times.

January and February provide an extra bonus: The best films of the year are released at that time to vie for the Academy Awards. The Lake thus far has featured Oscar hopefuls The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Slumdog Millionaire and Milk. The only Best Picture (why “picture”?) nominees we haven’t seen yet are The Reader and Frost/Nixon. We didn’t get Doubt (several acting nominations), which is curious because Oak Park and River Forest have large Catholic populations (is there any other kind?) and this is a movie that generates plenty of Catholic discussion.

Awhile back The Lake hosted Rachel Getting Married, a very interesting Jonathan Demme film, boasting a strong performance by Best Actress nominee Anne Hathaway. Revolutionary Road, currently playing at The Lake, was stiffed by the Academy, but should have been one of the nominees. Gran Torino also suffered the grand snub. If there were a separate Oscar category for “Most American Picture,” Clint Eastwood’s film would win. It gets at the core of our character. Revolutionary Road would finish a close second. The Wrestler, which features a terrific performance by Mickey Rourke, would finish a close third.

Most people seem to think Benjamin Button or Slumdog Millionaire will win the most awards. Slumdog was, by far, the “Best Cinematic Experience” I had all year (another future Oscar category?) and I highly recommend it. Button is also worth your time, even though it’s long and essentially follows in the footsteps of Forrest Gump.

It may be no coincidence that the two Oscar front-runners are the most upbeat of the bunch. Last year (and to a great extent this year), most of the critically acclaimed films have probed the dark side of our collective soul. Maybe it’s a reflection of the times. Maybe by next year, that will change.

Films are an integral part of our cultural life, more accessible to a mass audience than live theater or music. Movies may be decidedly middle-brow, but there’s nothing wrong with that, and they’re still an art form. They are, in fact, a uniquely American art form.

But whether high-brow, middle-brow or low-brow, they qualify as culture, and especially during an economic downturn, we need culture to see us through the tough times. The price is right and now is peak viewing time.

Here’s a tip if you’re looking to save money on concessions: Maple Tree restaurant, just down the street from The Lake, sells less expensive candy in the display case by their cash register, and that isn’t the only movie-related service they offer.

I had dinner there before going to see The Wrestler last Friday night. An elderly couple was just finishing dinner and when the waitress brought out a doggie bag, they asked her to keep it in “the fridge” until after the movie. When the waitress said, “I hope you enjoy the film,” the husband stuck out his chin and replied, “We haven’t seen a good one yet.” But they clearly weren’t about to stop trying. I’m betting he’d like Gran Torino.

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