No. 211 | February 7, 2011
It’s never too late to take a look back, and with the Oscars coming later this month, this may be as good a time as any. I will forgo any lengthy introduction—none needed, really—except to say that the films featured this week are what I view to be the best of 2010. The number 15 seems to work best for the format of this site and allows me to avoid skipping some worthy films which would be the case if I limited the list to 10. The rankings are somewhat arbitrary. I might rank them differently on another day. The exception would be the top two films, which I think are head and shoulders above the other contenders, movies most likely to remembered and watched again many years from now.
For this week, I’ll just be looking at English-language films. I’ll take a briefer look at a few foreign-language movies next week.
Our theme this week
Top English-language films of 2010
A political thriller about the Plame affair in which a high-profile couple takes on the Bush regime and are fortunate to survive, Fair Game is a mostly fact-based document of what happened in one telling episode of a low, dishonest decade. In their third collaboration, Naomi Watts and Sean Penn offer first-rate performances as wife and husband Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson, who sacrifice careers for getting out the truth. At this moment, the nation may not have much passion for a film about the misconduct (not to mention, crimes) of our bygone leaders; we have more urgent problems, and we’d just as well be done with the past. Hardly a hit, the film fell short of $10 million at the domestic box office, and barely broke $20 million worldwide. But I’d guess the picture will stand as one of the better political films of our time. It’s not exactly an uplifting tale, not if you like to see justice prevail, though that’s not the fault of the filmmaking so much as history.
It’s a normal family in the usual way—dysfunctional. But a family headed by a lesbian couple is not something we’ve seen much onscreen before. Nic and Jules have two teenage kids, and when the biological father comes into the picture, life gets complicated. The title tells the story: the kids are better at coping than any of the adults. The acting is pitch-perfect, with a fine ensemble that includes Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, and Mark Ruffalo. I enjoyed the mix of comedy and drama, along with the interplay of the characters. It all felt very much like family. The writing, though, I found a bit uneven. Mark Ruffalo’s sperm-donor character is at times clichéd and in the end left dangling without a real resolution. But The Kids Are All Right was nevertheless one of the gems of the summer, and having just then seen a string of films that fell short of the mark, I left the theater this time smiling. For that, I remain grateful.
Andy is heading off to college and that brings some big changes to the lives of Woody, Buzz Lightyear, and their toy pals. Toy Story 3 tugs at the heartstrings, and though manipulative, it’s effective in the best Pixar tradition. It’s hard to argue with the success of the studio, the envy of the rest of Hollywood, but this film, as enjoyable as it was, seemed to be missing some of the spark that Pixar is known for. That may be because this is a sequel, a reprise of many characters we know very well, here in a new film for the third (and hopefully last) time. Two of the next three Pixar releases will also be sequels (Cars 2 this year, Monsters, Inc. 2 next year); if the focus of the company now is to mine old hits for new box office gold, that would be a shame. Pixar became Pixar because it was startlingly original. That’s its legacy, and I hope, its future.
Here’s an animated film that felt original from the first frame to the last. Maybe the trick is to dust off an old, unproduced script written by the great Jacques Tati. Director Sylvain Chomet brings the story to life, a whimsical and melancholy tale about an aging magician who befriends Alice, a young fan who believes his illusions are real. The illusionist is Tatischeff (Tati’s birth name), and the story is a personal one, intended to be a missive to Tati’s estranged daughter. The Illusionist is set in a series of European cities, primarily Edinburgh. A British-French production, the movie takes its time, in stark contrast to the hyper, breathless pace of much American animation. It’s not a story aimed at kids, but still one that kids can enjoy. My five-year-old son liked it some but thought it slow in parts. Children a bit older should find the film entertaining and worthwhile.
Movies about British royals have become staples of the holiday film calendar, and The King’s Speech is one of the finer examples. It’s an entertaining look at the troubles of George VI, the king with the stammer who needs the help of a commoner to learn to give a speech. The cast is superb throughout, led by Colin Firth as the king, Geoffrey Rush as his unorthodox speech therapist, and Helena Bonham Carter as the devoted queen whose faith in her husband hardly wavers and is never broken. The king’s ordeal, and his efforts to overcome it, are the focus of the story. Unspoken is the fact that his heroism, as important as it may be, does not compare on a personal level with the heroism of the many thousands who fought for their country, at great sacrifice, in the war to come. One quibble with the film is its utter respectability, as if the filmmakers knew they had a dynamite story, a real crowd-pleaser, and didn’t dare do a thing to risk it. A little more of the unexpected may have made a very good film even better.
No. 203 | December 30, 2010
Our theme this week
Recent movies based on stories of real people
I had included a quote from All the President’s Men when I previewed Fair Game in October, and now having seen the latter I’d say it’s as close to the 1976 Best Picture nominee as we’re likely to get these days. It doesn’t measure up entirely, but that may be more a reflection of different times and different outcomes to the stories than a problem with the filmmaking.
Both films are about wrongdoing in the White House, and both follow a couple of characters as they try to shed light on the truth. In the earlier film, the crime is a petty burglary at the Watergate complex, and Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s investigation of the burglary and its coverup lead to the resignation of a disgraced president. The new film is about lies that the Bush Administration told to lead our country into war against Iraq, and the efforts of two whistleblowers, CIA agent Valerie Plame (dead ringer Naomi Watts, in a first-rate performance) and her husband, Ambassador Joseph Wilson (a fine Sean Penn), to expose the truth. In the end, neither President Bush nor Vice President Cheney, who is the kingpin in this telling, is brought to justice. Scooter Libby, advisor to the vice president, is convicted in the scandal, but Bush soon commutes the sentence. Plame, meanwhile, loses her career as a CIA officer when her cover is blown by the White House as retribution for an op-ed that her husband wrote questioning the administration.
The story of All the President’s Men may have shaken people’s faith in our government, but at least the system worked. No feel-good equivalent is to be found in Fair Game‘s storyline. The film does try to leave us with a more positive message, but it’s only partly successful at dispelling the troubling sense we have watching a gross injustice go unpunished.
The Wilsons are not disloyal to the country. Rather, they are portrayed as true patriots. Yet the film is more than just about politics and justice. It’s a personal drama, and we get a look at the pressures that nearly tear apart the Wilson family. In this respect, Fair Game has a level of involvement not found in the earlier picture, in which Woodward and Bernstein have no life outside of their jobs.
Fair Game is recent history, a history still being written, and people with political agendas are actively working to skew reaction to the film. For more, this article by David Corn is worth a read.
No. 182 | October 18, 2010
If you’re a regular reader of MAD About Movies (and why wouldn’t you be?), you may have noticed that all of the movies featured on the front page up to now have one thing in common—each is a movie that has already been released. I find it much easier to write about movies that I’ve actually seen.
This week, however, something completely different. Each day will feature a movie I haven’t yet seen—and very likely, neither have you. All are movies that are not yet out, at least not here in the U.S., but are due to be released between now and the end of the year.
Recent weeks here have featured stars and movies from the not-so-recent past, so I’m rather interested in looking ahead for a change. The good news about doing this now is that end-of-year movies are typically among the year’s best. I won’t be surprised if a few of this week’s films make top ten lists and get recognition at awards time. (You may note that Jackass 3D has already opened, so it does not qualify).
Since I’ve yet to see the films, I’ll have less to say than usual (which is not only convenient but necessary, since I have some other pressing commitments). Also, despite the title above, don’t expect any predictions about who’ll take home statuettes on Oscar night. Yes, there are sites that will do that for you, but making predictions, or even caring who wins, before seeing the films seems to miss the point entirely of what movies are all about in the first place.
Without further ado, let’s get to it: a few of the movies I look forward to seeing later this year.
Our theme this week
Movies that open later in 2010
The Valerie Plame story: U.S. ambassador Joseph Wilson authored a controversial 2003 op-ed questioning evidence that the Bush administration had used to justify the invasion of Iraq; the White House retaliated by leaking his wife Valerie Plame’s status as a CIA agent to a friendly source in the media. It was a case of dirty tricks in high places, based on Plame’s memoir of the same name.
Reasons to see it
The Plame affair is one of the most important stories of the past decade, a window into the corrupt powers that led our nation into war under false pretenses and worked to destroy anyone who dared to get in their way. In this case, the media didn’t bring down the presidency when wrongdoing was discovered, but did the administration’s dirty work when needed. Director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity) has shown he knows how to make a good thriller (though slick effects aren’t needed here as much as telling the story straight). Naomi Watts is almost always worth watching. Sean Penn costars.
Release date (U.S.)
November 5 (limited)