No. 236 | December 30, 2011
Last we met, on this page at least, we were heading down the yellow-brick road with Dorothy to celebrate some joyous news with the Munchkins. That was May. May? May! So where have I been? Good question. Where have you been? Another good question. And where oh where has the time gone?
Long story short, my already full life became even more full and something had to give. That something turned out to be writing for this site on any kind of a regular basis. I had expected that I’d find time to add occasional posts, but that, I’ve learned, is harder to do when it’s not part of a daily or weekly routine. So the year has slipped away—pffft!—but before it is officially done, let’s take a look back at some of the movies of 2011.
For the record, this is not my list of ten best films of the year. No reason to stop at ten anyway, and slowpoke that I am, my moviegoing for the year remains a work in progress. I’m still catching up with a few films from November (and before), and some late-year releases are just hitting theaters (A Separation opens today).
Rather, this is a list of movies I’ve seen (so far) that made going to the theater worth the time and effort. It’s incomplete and somewhat arbitrary—I’ll have something a bit more definitive to say after I’ve taken in a few more year-end releases, sometime before Oscar time. Let me add this disclaimer: these are not necessarily great movies. Some are only arguably good, flawed but with enough redeeming value to make them worth noting.
I’ve broken out the list into two groups: one, films from before the deluge, i.e., before Oscar hopefuls hit theaters starting around October, and the other, films that have come out since.
The Tree of Life
Terrence Malick doesn’t direct many films—five features in 38 years (though he may be just a slow starter, with nearly as many in pipeline). What he lacks in number he more than makes up for with uncommonly rich, dense explorations of the beings who people his stories. His stories are not the linear narratives we’re used to getting at the movies. Nor are his characters revealed through the usual mix of dialogue and action. Malick’s works resemble photographed novels as much as they do cinema. Malick combines images, dreams, memories, and voiceovers to portray lives lived in the context of forces far beyond, and deeper than, ordinary experience. His latest, The Tree of Life, has divided critics and audiences (making it the kind of movie I tend to favor). A tour de force or tour de farce? Depends whom you read. I lean toward the former view. The story ostensibly is about a family in a small town in Texas, yet it takes time for meditations ranging from the origins of the universe to the ultimate demise of Earth. Within that grand sweep we see human life not as a thing in itself but an episode in the continuum. Few movies take such a wide perspective; 2001: A Space Odyssey, a very different film, is one. Malick, like Kubrick, contemplates the mystery of it all and gives his audience something rare, a chance to experience wonder.
Midnight in Paris
We think of Woody Allen as a New York director but he seems to have found new life in recent years making movies in Europe. Since 2005 he’s released four films shot in London and one in Barcelona. This year it’s the City of Light and Midnight in Paris is the best of the lot. (Rome gets its turn next year with Nero Fiddled.) Owen Wilson turns in a winning performance as Gil, an American writer in love more with the city than with his fiancée. His knack for time travel offers an escape as he hobnobs with greats from the city’s storied expatriate past—Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein, Porter, Picasso, Dalí, and Buñuel among them. The film is sweet and whimsical, more than a bit nostalgic, and for one interlude in which Gil steals the heart of Picasso’s mistress, wonderfully portrayed by the beautiful Marion Cotillard, it’s altogether touching.
Drive is a steely cool slice of L.A. crime drama propelled by an unflappable, razor-sharp lead performance from Ryan Gosling. The film borrows freely from a variety of sources, and influences such as Jean-Pierre Melville and Sergio Leone give the story a distinct non-Hollywood feel. The driver, never named, is a man of few words. He works as a mechanic in a shop run by gangsters, does stunt driving for the movie biz, and hires himself out for getaway work. A loner by nature, he gets involved with his neighbor (Carey Mulligan), who has a young son and a husband getting out of prison. Complications ensue and plans inevitably go awry. Among the strong supporting cast is Albert Brooks as a ruthless and surprisingly believable bad guy.
A comedy with great laughs and real people. See, that’s not so hard. Thank you, Kristen Wiig et al. More like this, please.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Werner Herzog’s 3-D documentary inside the Chauvet Cave in France, where some of the world’s great art has been sealed for thousands of years. Ever wonder, What is it to be human? This film holds part of the answer to that question.
The Company Men
A timely film about a corporate downsizing and for the unlucky duckies who lose their livelihood, what happens next. A fine cast led by Ben Affleck, Chris Cooper, Kevin Costner, and Tommy Lee Jones.
Thanks to the brave leadership of politicians and medical professionals, the societies of the world pull together, avert panic, and successfully combat a mysterious and deadly virus sweeping the globe. Oops…that’s a different film. This one’s from Steven Soderbergh, and sad to say, it may be a somewhat more realistic view of what could someday happen.
The film is a remake of a 2007 Israeli thriller and doesn’t achieve all that you might have hoped. Still, it’s a heckuva story, and with Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, and the busy Jessica Chastain, among others, you’re in good hands.
A Greek film that’s part horror, part comedy, about three older children living a totalitarian nightmare devised by their deranged parents. Unlike anything you’ve ever seen.
Hanna is a teenage girl living in the northern wilderness, where she is trained by her father to be an assassin. Saoirse Ronan does a terrific job in the title role. The film is uneven in spots and has some plot elements that don’t really work. Nevertheless, there’s plenty of action, some nicely photographed sequences, and a few moments of brilliance.
I can think of a few things wrong with this movie, but I enjoyed the performances, especially those of Octavia Spencer, Viola Davis, and Emma Stone. The racial divide of Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1960s may not be the same as it is today, but the divide now between the haves and have-nots feels as wide as ever, and for that reason, the film seems unusually timely.
A Canadian-made film set in the Middle East and largely in French. Two adult children travel back to the war-torn homeland of their dead mother to deliver letters to their brother and father and discover the truth about their family and themselves. It’s devastating.
Films about baseball typically are not great movies. This is no exception, though it is a cut above many of the others. The tale leaves behind old-fashioned notions of the romance of the sport. This one’s all about the science of numbers. Perhaps that’s the way the game is played these days, but also it’s part of the problem—for the sport and for the movie. A little more heart wouldn’t hurt.
Probably the best Steven Spielberg film this year, though J. J. Abrams directed this one. I liked the story of the clever kids, breaking curfew to make a movie. The extraterrestrials show up, and what started fresh begins to feel like something we’ve seen a few too many times before.
Errol Morris’s documentary on the fascinating story of Joyce McKinney, with a big juicy 1960s sex scandal, a kidnapping, Mormons, and dog cloning to boot.
Adapted from a British television series, The Trip follows the hilarious Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon on their travels through the Lake District of Northern England. They drive, they stop at one inn or another, and they eat. Not a lot more happens. But they talk, and their repartee and impressions account for some best laughs you’ll find on film this year. The movie feels a bit slapdash, and I can’t help but wonder what didn’t make it into the final cut, but one thing is sure: no one who sees it will think of Michael Caine the same way again.
The story is over the top—but Roland Emmerich was never one for subtlety. He took liberties—hey, like Shakespeare—so don’t come to this film looking for history. Whatever merits the Earl of Oxford–as–Bard authorship theory may hold (it does make for fascinating reading), at heart this film is a paean to the greatest writer of the English language who ever lived. That’s something special, whatever his name was.
A Dangerous Method
Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud at the birth of psychoanalysis, featuring the story of Sabina Spielrein, the patient, protégée, and lover who unites then divides them. Strong performances from Michael Fassbender and Viggo Mortenson. Keira Knightley plays the troubled and irresistible Sabina. It’s a period picture, but with David Cronenberg at the helm, working from a Christopher Hampton script, it’s not at all old-fashioned.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
The first of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy to get its English-language big-screen treatment, it delivers more or less what you’d expect (though not much more): quick storytelling from David Fincher, a pulsating score from Trent Reznor, and dynamite performances from Rooney Mara in the title role and Daniel Craig doing some very un-Bond-like detective work. The film is the kind of up-to-date genre piece that Hollywood should be making more of, if only it could kick its fantasy habit.
A film about the magic of movies, and made with more than a bit of magic itself. The story of Georges Méliès, the pioneer filmmaker who lost favor with audiences, ran a toy store with his wife at Gare Montparnasse in Paris, and late in life was rediscovered is one that deserves to be told, and now in fictionalized form it has. Martin Scorcese directed the adaptation of Brian Selznick’s inventive novel. Fine performances, with many comic touches and sweet moments. I am probably more fond of this film than any other I’ve seen recently, and it’s the rare 3-D film I’m glad to have seen in 3-D.
The Ides of March
Intrigue behind the scenes of a presidential campaign, with pols and candidates more lifelike than we get on the reality TV known as cable news. George Clooney directed and stars as Governor Mike Morris, but the film belongs to the campaign manager played by Ryan Gosling, who’s having quite a year. An all-around fine cast, with Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Marisa Tomei, Jeffrey Wright and Evan Rachel Wood on hand to do deeds nefarious and otherwise.
Here, friends, is the love story of the year. Leonardo DiCaprio is a revelation as the one and only J. Edgar Hoover. Armie Hammer is Clyde Tolson, his colleague, confidant, and more. Naomi Watts is his lifelong secretary, the loyal Helen Gandy. A richly told tale directed by Clint Eastwood, probably on balance as good a film as any he’s made.
If you want a movie to help you understand the financial crisis of 2008, I’d recommend the documentary Inside Job. It shows how the 1% ripped off the 99% and gives you the who-did-what (plenty of bad guys, not a lot of good guys). Margin Call is the story of some of those crooks. You might not like them—a few are just rich assholes, after all—but you get a sense of the price they pay. The film doesn’t let them off the hook, but you can understand why they do what they do. That may not be a popular take in these times, but it’s an achievement. The cast is wonderful and the performances well worth the time.
My Week with Marilyn
Marilyn Monroe, as great a star as the movies have known, is brought to life in a remarkable performance by Michelle Williams. You can’t take your eyes off her. That’s the reason to see this movie, even if the film may be slight in other ways.
The Pause Button
As noted above, I’ll be back with another post or two early in 2012, recapping the year and looking at the Oscars (February 26). The regular schedule for posts about movies is on hold for the time being. I’d like to get back to writing more about movies when time permits, but that will not be very soon. I have a couple of ideas for other movie projects, and someday I will get to them too. Meanwhile, my next writing gig will not about movies, and will not be online, but it will keep me occupied for some time, and if and when there is news to share about that, I will let you know.
For you crossword fans, my 16-month series of Gram Cracker minipuzzles wrapped up earlier in December. It was a fun experiment, and in the end I’d say the puzzles turned out well. Hope it was fun for you solvers too. Once again, a big “thanks” to two-time ACPT champ Dan Feyer for his expert test-solving skills, a big help to me getting the puzzles ready for prime time. The Gram Crackers and other puzzles, as always, are at the MAD Puzzles page.
Martin Scorsese, director
Robert Richardson, cinematographer
Brian Selznick (book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret), John Logan (screenplay), writers
Asa Butterfield, Ben Kingsley, Chloë Grace Moretz, Sacha Baron Cohen
Quote of note
“If you ever wonder where your dreams come from, look around: this is where they’re made.”
—Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), Hugo (2011)
No. 171 | October 1, 2010
Our theme this week
Actors with posthumous nominations for Oscars
Featured this week (theme introduction)
Monday — James Dean (1931-1955): East of Eden, Giant
Tuesday — Spencer Tracy (1900-1967): Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
Wednesday — Peter Finch (1916-1977): Network
Thursday — Massimo Troisi (1953-1994): Il Postino (The Postman)
Australian-born actor Heath Ledger had a short but remarkable career. His credits include 10 Things I Hate About You, Monster’s Ball, Ned Kelly, Brokeback Mountain (earning his first Oscar nomination, for Best Actor), I’m Not There, and The Dark Knight, for which he won an Oscar, posthumously, as Best Supporting Actor.
Ledger’s roles had been a mix of good guys and bad guys, but as the Joker in the second installment of Christopher Nolan’s Batman series, he created one of the great villains of cinema history. Movies had already seen an iconic portrayal of the Joker—Jack Nicholson’s in 1989, still fresh in memory—but Ledger’s incarnation was something completely different. Nicholson’s Joker was a comic, over-the-top prankster, Ledger’s a dark, diabolical psychopath. Perhaps each decade gets the Joker it deserves. (The Ledger version was actually more in keeping with the character as originally visioned in comic books of the 1940s.)
Villains always have more fun than poor Batman, and maybe that’s why there are so many of them. In The Dark Knight, the mob is an everpresent threat to Gotham City, and to eliminate them once and for all, Batman teams with police lieutenant Jim Gordon and district attorney Harvey Dent. The Joker makes an offer to the criminal bosses—he’ll kill Batman for them—but when they refuse, he kills the leadership and takes control of operations. The Joker’s reign of terror begins. During the next couple of hours, we see bombs blow up buildings, a hospital explode, a boatload of passengers held hostage, desperate chases through a virtual war zone, lots of killing, and all kinds of other fun stuff. Nolan is adept at amping up the action, and as far as comic book films go, The Dark Knight is one of the better examples, a sleek feast for fanboys that offers plenty for the rest of us too. That said, the movie, in my mind, has been overpraised (it’s a tendency with Nolan’s movies), and to whatever degree it serves as a current-day parable for the so-called war on terror, it has serious shortcomings.
What sets apart the film most of all is Heath Ledger’s great performance. In January of 2008, a half-year before the film opened, the actor was found unconscious in his SoHo loft, and he died that day. Cause of death was ruled an accidental combination of prescription drugs. Word of his performance preceded release of the film, and the reaction, once it debuted, was overwhelming. The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, and won two, including one for Ledger.
No. 142 | August 9, 2010
What’s in a name? Take, for example, Angelina Jolie’s character in her new movie, Salt. Salt is an unusual name itself, but the name that caught my interest was her given name, Evelyn.
The name Evelyn is fairly popular, ranking 39th for baby girls born in 2009. It’s more often a woman’s name (speed-reading promoter Evelyn Wood, track star Evelyn Ashford), though occasionally a man’s (writer Evelyn Waugh). The name is not a combination of Eve and Lynn, but may in fact derive from the Latin (avis), meaning “little bird.” It sounds so sweet and innocent.
When it comes to movies, it’s a different matter. Evelyn is a name given to characters who are anything but sweet and innocent. (This was once pointed out to me by a friend of mine. She had reason to notice: her name is Evelyn too.) When you look at the history of Evelyns in movies, you’ll find an undeniable pattern. Most likely, a character named Evelyn is someone with a sinister side. She may have a past she’d like to forget or a secret she’d like to conceal. She may not abide by the law or conform to conventional morality. You may even question her sanity.
Evelyn, for better or worse (and often the latter), is not a woman to be taken lightly.
Our theme this week
Evelyns at the movies
Who is Salt? Salt is a killer. She kills with machine guns, a broken bottle, handcuff chains—whatever it takes. She’s not a psychopath, just the latest action hero from Hollywood: a CIA agent—or KGB double-agent, depending on whom you believe—in the spy thriller, Salt.
The film uses just about every cliché of the genre, yet it manages to have a fresh feel with Angelina Jolie cast as the lead. It’s hard to imagine another actress playing the part (maybe Michelle Yeoh, though maybe not). The role originally was written for Tom Cruise, in fact, but when he pulled out of the project Jolie stepped in, and the character of Edwin A. Salt became Evelyn—a name befitting the tough-as-nails, take-no-prisoners, lie-through-her-teeth spy who could give Jason Bourne or James Bond a run for the money.
Ultimately, the box office will determine Evelyn Salt’s fate. But in her debut, the new film directed by Phillip Noyce, as she seeks to escape custody with a dive from a helicopter into river waters below, you get the feeling we’ll be seeing her again.
No. 129 | June 30, 2010
Our theme this week
Howard Hughes and the movies
The Rocketeer is a 1991 film based on a 1980s comic book series set in 1930s Los Angeles. With a storyline mixing old Hollywood and early aviation, it’s no surprise to see an appearance by Howard Hughes. In this film Hughes (Terry O’Quinn) is a secondary character, and he’s more of a comic book figure, as you might expect, than one drawn from real life.
The object of pursuit among various parties is a specially designed, jet-powered rocket developed at the company run by Hughes. The rocket is stolen by gangsters, who hide it in an aircraft hangar while they get away. Stunt pilot Cliff Secord (Bill Campbell) discovers the device and later uses it to perform a daring rescue at an air show. With the jet pack strapped to his back and a helmet over his head, Secord flies through the air like a souped-up superhero. The crowd is wowed and the press calls the anonymous flier the Rocketeer.
Not only are the gangsters after Secord, so are the Nazis. If the prototype rocket were to fall into the wrong hands, it could shift the balance of power among nations. Or something like that. The bad guys do kidnap Secord’s girlfriend (Jennifer Connelly), and that, of course, leads to another heroic rescue for the Rocketeer. The rocket doesn’t survive, nor does one end of the Hollywoodland sign, but world order, thankfully, is restored.
The Rocketeer is a retro adventure story, in a way like the Indiana Jones series, though that’s not a fair comparison. It’s a much more contrived tale, with more action than imagination, and more earnest belief in its own conceits than it rightfully earns. Perhaps a wink and a nod along the way would have been a better approach. It is, in any case, a good-looking film. I have a soft spot for art deco, a motif amply employed, and the cars and the planes and the clothes of the ’30s make for some pretty pictures.
No. 126 | June 25, 2010
Our theme this week
Heist films generally fall into two groups. The first are the dark, dramatic stories, some of them film noir, with roots that go back to early gangster films. Later came the lighter tales, clever and stylish, aiming mostly to entertain, and often with a comic tone. Like Monday’s featured films (both original and remake), today’s belong to the latter category.
The original Italian Job is a beloved favorite of film buffs and car buffs, as famous for its cliffhanger ending (see below) as it is for giving the Mini Cooper a virtual starring role. The real stars are two icons of British cinema, a young Michael Caine, as Charlie Croker, the gangster who organizes the caper, and Noël Coward, in his final screen appearance, as Mr. Bridger, the kingpin who runs his criminal empire from a jail cell. The plot involves an audacious plan to create massive traffic gridlock in Turin, Italy, while Croker’s gang robs a $4 million shipment of gold bullion from an armored car. The Minis are crucial since they can carry off the gold using routes unavailable to larger vehicles—over stairways, on rooftops, and through city sewers. The crooks transfer the loot to a 36-foot Harrington Legionnaire, which takes them into the Alps for their final getaway. Well, almost.
The unresolved end works like a charm, and Paramount, to its credit, never made a sequel. Thirty-four years later, though, it released the remake. Same title, same showcase for Minis, same sort of armored car robbery during a traffic jam, but a different story. The Italian job of the title is set in Venice and is only the prologue to the main plot. A successful heist and aquatic getaway is spoiled when one of the crooks double-crosses the others. A year later, in Philadelphia, the team reassembles, then travels to California with plans to recover the gold they had rightfully stolen. Bring on the armored car, the Minis, and—hard as it is to imagine in Los Angeles—a traffic jam, and one more heist later, the gold is the hands of the crooks who deserve it. A hit film, though not the landmark of the 1960s original, The Italian Job remake stars Mark Wahlberg as Charlie Croker, Donald Sutherland as John Bridger, Charlize Theron as Bridger’s daughter, Stella, and Edward Norton as Steve, the inside man. Others rounding out the team of thieves are Jason Stratham, Mos Def, and Seth Green.
The two films make for an interesting comparison of how the times, and Hollywood, have changed. For the remake, the budget, the effects, the action have all grown bigger. The characters, not so much. Still, it’s not a bad piece of entertainment, though not nearly as memorable as the original.
Interested in how that cliffhanger ending might be resolved? Brit scientists are on it.
“Handsome Rob. Premier wheel man. Once drove all the way from Los Angeles just so he could set the record for longest freeway chase. You know he got 110 love letters sent to his jail cell from women who saw him on the news?”
—Charlie Croker (Mark Wahlberg), The Italian Job (2003)
1. Virgil Thomson is the only composer to win a Pulitzer Prize for Music for a film score. What was the film?
2. Dennis Hopper never won an Oscar but he was nominated twice. Name the two films for which he earned his nominations.
Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
Cool Hand Luke (1967)
Easy Rider (1969)
The American Friend (1977)
Apocalypse Now (1979)
Blue Velvet (1986)
Red Rock West (1993)
3. John Wayne starred in five films directed by Howard Hawks. Name the one film of Wayne’s from the list below that was not directed by Hawks.
Red River (1948)
Rio Grande (1950)
Rio Bravo (1959)
El Dorado (1966)
Rio Lobo (1970)
4. Three about Toy Story 3!
a. When his toy friends reset his mode at Sunnyside Daycare, Buzz Lightyear begins speaking …Russian? …Spanish? …Hindi?
b. Lotso assigns Buzz and his friends to …the Butterfly Room? …the Silkworm Room? …the Caterpillar Room?
c. The animated short film playing in theaters before Toy Story 3 is called …Black and White? …Day and Night? …Merry and Bright?
5. The promotional artwork (below) for a picture opening this week fails to show the faces of the two megastars appearing in the movie. That’s odd, to say the least, considering the many millions of dollars the producers spent on casting those two so they’d attract people to theaters. Name the movie and the two stars.