30 Dec 2011 @ 11:00 PM 

Friday Minute
No. 236 | December 30, 2011

Where Has the Year Gone?

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.

Films of 2011 (Part I)

Pre-Oscar Season (films through September)

Standout Films

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.

Notable Films

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 Debt
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.

The Help
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.

Super 8
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.

The Trip
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.

Oscar Season (films from October on)

Notable Films

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.

J. Edgar
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.

Margin Call
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.

Hugo (2011)
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)


Posted By: John Farmer
Last Edit: 31 Dec 2011 @ 05:52 PM

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 17 Mar 2011 @ 6:00 AM 

Thursday Minute
No. 225 | March 17, 2011

Black-and-White Box Sets, Ten Letters

Our theme this week

Movies about crossword puzzles

Featured this week
Tuesday         —   Crossword Craze Cartoons

UPDATE (3/20):
The 34th annual ACPT is in the books, and you’ll find a recap here.

Wordplay (2006)


As I was saying Tuesday, crosswords have a long history, going back nearly a hundred years.  Generations have picked up the habit and passed it on, and today millions of people solve puzzles daily—in newspapers, in books, and increasingly, online.  For decades, the premier venue for American crosswords has been the New York Times.  Will Shortz, the clever and much-admired editor at the Times since 1993, is the prime focus of director Patrick Creadon’s 2006 documentary, Wordplay, though the film is very much an ensemble affair.  Some famous names are profiled, including Jon Stewart and Bill Clinton, who enjoy their daily battle of wits with Shortz and puzzlemakers.  Merl Reagle, one of the tops in the business, gives a behind-the-scenes look at crossword construction.  Five lightning-fast solvers are featured—Tyler Hinman, Al Sanders, Ellen Ripstein, Jon Delfin, and Trip Payne—who train for the big event of the year, the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.  The action culminates onstage at the finals, with an unbelievably thrilling finish.

Wordplay is the essential film about crosswords.  It’s a well-done, entertaining movie, and a very enjoyable look inside a community that deserves the rare attention it gets here.  It has a colorful cast of characters, with plenty of heart and plenty of smarts.  The film is hardly just for the converted.  It’s a treat for puzzle fans and non-fans alike.


American Crossword Puzzle Tournament
March 18-20, 2011
Brooklyn Bridge Marriott, Brooklyn, NY

Will Shortz founded the ACPT in 1978, when 149 solvers competed.  The tournament has grown since then, helped, in part, by the popularity of Wordplay, with nearly 700 attending in recent years.  Most participants go for the fun, not for the prizes, and white-knuckle finishes seem to be routine for the competition—I’ll never forget the finals in 2009, the year I attended.  The 34th annual tourney kicks off Friday night and runs through the weekend.  It’s not too late to join in on the festivities.  You can find all the details at the ACPT website.

Wordplay (2006)
Patrick Creadon, director
Patrick Creadon, Christine O’Malley, writers
Will Shortz, Merl Reagle, Tyler Hinman, Al Sanders, Ellen Ripstein, Jon Delfin, Trip Payne
Jon Stewart, Ken Burns, Mike Mussina, Daniel Okrent, the Indigo Girls, Bill Clinton

Wordplay (2006)
Meet Ellen Ripstein 

More about Ellen (WSJ, 3/13/2001)

Quote of note
Admiral Brindsen:  I suppose you’re one of those fellows who does the Times crossword puzzle in ten minutes.
Ffolkes:  I have never taken ten minutes.
—Admiral Brindsen (James Mason), Ffolkes (Roger Moore), Ffolkes (North Sea Hijack) (1979)


Posted By: John Farmer
Last Edit: 20 Mar 2011 @ 09:45 PM

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 11 Feb 2011 @ 6:00 AM 

Friday Minute
No. 213 | February 11, 2011

Best of 2010

Our theme this week
Top English-language films of 2010

Featured this week
(See Monday post for theme introduction)
Monday         —   Best Films of 2010 (#15 to #11)
Wednesday    —   Best Films of 2010 (#10 to #6)

Best Films of 2010 (#5 to #1)

#5 — Another Year

another year

The Hepples are unusual creatures to build a movie around.  They’re a genuinely happy couple.  In a Mike Leigh movie, though, we should expect a fair share of misery, and the friends of Tom and Gerri (cute) are there to provide it.  Mary has the worst of it.  A coworker of Gerri’s, she takes comfort in the warm, cheerful support she finds in her visits to the Hepple home (not to mention, she has an unrequited crush on the son).  But in the four seasons that the movie spans, life gets ever more difficult for the lonely woman fighting age and a fondness for the bottle.  The ensemble cast is stellar, with Jim Broadbent and Ruth Shore as the embodiment of marital bliss, and Lesley Manville as the parasitic friend.  Another Year is a well-observed look at people we all can recognize, some who have the knack for rolling with whatever life throws them, and some who do not.

#4 — Somewhere


Sofia Coppola knows a thing about movie stars, and about being the daughter of a famous man.  She also knows something about making movies.  Somewhere is a meditation on celebrity, with Stephen Dorff in a strong performance as Johnny Marco, the pampered star.  Elle Fanning is a revelation as Cleo, his daughter, who comes for a visit and changes his life.  The film is a character study, a quiet peek behind the curtain.  One simple shot of Marco sitting in a make-up chair, his head encased in a mold, goes on for a minute or two.  Nothing happens, and that’s the point.  Somewhere isn’t interested in the glamor of the movie business, or even its dark side, but in its utter emptiness.  Altogether, a very assured work, and in parts, simply brilliant.

(Somewhere at MAD:  preview and review)

#3 — Inside Job

inside job

Inside Job is a heist film of the most epic proportions.  The grand prize isn’t just thousands, or millions, but billions—and even trillions!—of dollars, the greatest transfer of wealth in history.  The lucky winners in this real-life drama are the very top earners in society.  The losers:  the rest of us.  A documentary on the causes, events, and aftermath of the financial crisis of a few years ago, the film paints a devastating portrait of the rigged game that is Wall Street, where the superrich get even richer, aided and abetted by their co-conspirators, our elected leaders in Washington (where both parties share the blame) and leaders in academia, all bought and paid for.  Though it’s a sordid tale, Inside Job is actually not a strident film.  It’s rather measured and sober.  If you think terms like “collateralized debt obligation” and “credit default swap” are too complicated to get your mind around, you’ll find them explained in simple, understandable language.  The world still hasn’t gotten to its feet after the financial shock of 2008, but the real scandal is not what led to the crisis, but that those who were most responsible got away with it—and thrived.

#2 — Black Swan

black swan_v7

One of the standout films of the year, Black Swan tells the tale of a ballerina whose life and role merge in strange and tragic ways.  Natalie Portman is Nina, a dancer whose talent and technique is perfectly suited for the role of the White Swan.  She lacks, however, the passion and daring needed to dance the Black Swan.  She must dance both.  The film follows her journey from white to black, from innocence to experience, from naïf to artist.  The major obstacle is her overbearing mother (a fearsome Barbara Hershey).  Encouraging her development is the dance director (Vincent Cassel, an impressive impresario) and her rival for the role (Mila Kunis, delicious).  The film is a mix of reality and fantasy and paints an unforgettable portrait of an artist coming of age.

(Black Swan at MAD:  review)

#1 — The Social Network

the social network

In our bright and shiny new millennium the word “friend” no longer means what it used to.  More than anything else, online social networking is the reason for that change, and The Social Network is an account of the founding of Facebook, the biggest and most successful of the networking sites.  Not coincidentally, the film portrays friends whose relationships do not survive the launch of the new enterprise, however the word might be defined.  Jesse Eisenberg plays whiz-kid founder Mark Zuckerberg, and though it may be a stretch to say an Oscar-nominated performance hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves, his work does drive the story with an energy and ferocity that makes the whole thing click.  Zuckerberg’s main foes are the Winklevoss twins, crew mates from old money who are unbeatable racing backward on the Charles.  Andrew Garfield plays Zuckerberg’s friend (that word again) Eduardo Saverin, who lacks the same vision, gets screwed, and ends up on the other side of a lawsuit.  Justin Timberlake joins the story midway, in a pitch-perfect performance as entrepreneurial glamor boy Sean Parker.  Director David Fincher and writer Aaron Sorkin combine their exceptional talents to craft a compelling tale that grabs you in the first scene and never lets you go.  (Not bad for a film in which the most violent act is a computer being slammed on a desk.)  The Social Network is a defining story of our time, and the best movie of the year.

(The Social Network at MAD:  review)


The easiest way to see the Top 15 write-ups in a single view is to click the “Best of 2010” tag below.  But for a list of my movie picks, sans comments, here you go:

  1. The Social Network
  2. Black Swan
  3. Inside Job
  4. Somewhere
  5. Another Year
  6. Never Let Me Go
  7. The Fighter
  8. The Ghost Writer
  9. Winter’s Bone
  10. Blue Valentine
  11. The King’s Speech
  12. The Illusionist
  13. Toy Story 3
  14. The Kids Are All Right
  15. Fair Game

A handful of other movies worth a mention:  Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (best surprise of the year and best-ever gamer flick), Machete (unadulterated fun), Exit Through the Gift Shop (the utterly watchable art of street art), Inception (an infuriating film yet one fascinating to read about), True Grit (not extraordinary but the best of the Coens in recent years).

A handful of performances worth a mention (in films not covered this week):  Jeremy Renner (The Town), Nicole Kidman (Rabbit Hole), Michael Douglas (Solitary Man), Diane Lane (Secretariat), Eli Wallach (Wall Street:  Money Never Sleeps).

Coming next week:  a brief look at foreign-language films.

Inside Job (2010)
Charles Ferguson, director
Chad Beck, Adam Bolt, writers
Svetlana Cvetko, Kalyanee Mam, cinematographer
Matt Damon, narrator

Another Year (2010)
Mike Leigh, writer-director
Dick Pope, cinematographer
Jim Broadbent, Ruth Sheen, Lesley Manville

Quote of note
“You are probably going to be a very successful computer person.  But you’re going to go through life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a nerd.  And I want you to know from the bottom of my heart that that won’t be true.  It’ll be because you’re an asshole.”
—Erica Albright (Rooney Mara), The Social Network (2010)


Posted By: John Farmer
Last Edit: 12 Feb 2011 @ 09:10 AM

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 27 Aug 2010 @ 6:00 AM 

Friday Minute
Entr’acte | August 27, 2010


from The Last Waltz

This week, selections from concert films worth remembering.

The Last Waltz (1978)
Martin Scorsese, director
Van Morrison, songwriter
Van Morrison, The Band

Final Friday Five, the monthly mini-quiz

1.  Fred Astaire and his sister, Adele, were inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame in 1971.  How many films did Fred and Adele make together?

a.  6
b.  2
c.  1
d.  0
e.  4

2.  Match the dance with the film in which it was performed.

Street dance

Zorba the Greek (1964)
Step Up (2006)
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921)
Mulholland Dr. (2001)
The Red Shoes (1948)
Pulp Fiction (1994)

3.  Mick Jagger has acted in several movies.  Which one of the following roles was not a Jagger performance?

Ned Kelly in Ned Kelly (1970)
Turner in Performance (1970)
Vacendak in Freejack (1992)
Andy Warhol in Basquiat (1996)
Luther in The Man from Elysian Fields (2001)

4.  Casting for David Fincher’s English-language adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, due out at the end of 2011, has made news the past few weeks.  Daniel Craig will play the male lead, Swedish journalist Mikael Blomkvist.  Stellan Skarsgård and Robin Wright will co-star.  Little-known Rooney Mara will play the title character.  What is the name of “the girl with the dragon tattoo”?

5.  A recent article called “The Worst Movie Year Ever?” decried the woeful Hollywood films of 2010.  Who was the author?

a.  Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
b.  A.O. Scott, New York Times
c.  Joe Queenan, Wall Street Journal
d.  Peter Rainer, Christian Science Monitor
e.  J. Hoberman, Village Voice

Answers here.


Posted By: John Farmer
Last Edit: 27 Aug 2010 @ 02:59 AM

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 26 Aug 2010 @ 6:00 AM 

Thursday Minute
Entr’acte | August 26, 2010

“While My Guitar Gently Weeps”

from The Concert for Bangladesh

This week, selections from concert films worth remembering.

The Concert for Bangladesh (1970)
Saul Swimmer, director
“While My Guitar Gently Weeps”
George Harrison, songwriter
George Harrison, Eric Clapton


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