Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Walter's Top Ten for 2011 (plus one)

 I’ll agree that 2011 was a better year than most for movies, and so I’ll definitely fill out my ten plus a couple of honourable mentions this year, though I don’t think I’ll follow your lead, Vic, and comment on 15. I’ll remind readers that I don’t list movies for objective quality but for subjective value. 

Then, I’ll clarify that I have not seen several potential candidates yet. Among these I would include: Hugo, The Descendants, Moneyball and Take Shelter. My guess is that any other movies I haven’t seen wouldn’t make it. And I’ll award honourable mentions to Win Win, In a Better World, A Separation, and The Beaver.

On to the top ten:

10. Tree of Life – Terence Malick and I will never quite get along because the whole visual poetry thing doesn’t work for me, but this was certainly a whole lot better than The New World (though, paradoxically, I actually liked the visuals better in that film – it just put me to sleep). Tree of Life drew me in by awakening a simultaneous inner reflection on my own boyhood while watching the one onscreen. This was impacting enough, combined with a few thought-provoking scenes, for this film to make my list. But the whole cosmic thing left me cold, and, I find the overall style alienating – makes me turn entirely inward and imagine life from this kind of alienated, disconnected position – as if I were a spectator of life rather than a participant. 

9. It’s Kind of a Funny Story – I always have to find at least one movie like this to include – a quirky indie comedy of psychological interest. My memories of it have faded too much for more comment, but I thought there were valuable insights and enjoyable scenes. 

8. Limitless – I thought this the best of the recent soft sci-fi crowd (together with Source Code and Inception)in terms of staying closer to the real range of possibility and therefore exploring more helpful territory. I think it was misunderstood by many, unless I’m wrong in seeing it as a very relevant tragedy on where our individualist, technological culture is headed. 

7. The Help – I appreciate a good, solid story that can be appreciated by a wide audience. Interesting, amusing and well-acted, and emphasizes the great point that helping relatively powerless people to tell their story and be heard is powerful. 

6. Margin Call – I like a dialogue-rich, focused kind of film (the opposite of Malick’s visual style mentioned above). This story pulls you into an unfortunately realistic world and lets you see it from a variety of perspectives. Each of these illuminates the problem and enables a deeper understanding of those we might see as the enemies in the financial scandals of recent years – without minimizing the horrific, self-centred damage that was done.

 5. The Way – Having recently done a pilgrimage (less famous than the Camino in Spain), I was very interested and not at all disappointed in this pilgrimage tale. There were a few moments that I might have wished for more of some kind of sparkle, but it’s a great example of how warmth and connection can happen among some prickly people under the right circumstances.

4. Incendies – Very powerful film that sacrifices a little credibility in order to hit with a very clear punch. That punch is so worthwhile and important that one forgives the credibility gap. If only we could all really believe that violence tends to make us all into victims and perpetrators unless we are enabled to escape the cycle of revenge. 

3. Midnight in Paris – Perhaps I rate it higher than it deserves to make up for all the Woody Allen slamming I’ve done in recent years. This was a very enjoyable and thoughtful film that was probably especially enjoyable for me because of the study abroad trips to Europe that we’ve been leading for years now. Plus the idea of important moments in creativity and cultural ideas arising in specific times, places, and real communities of friends is an important one to me.

2. Higher Ground – A well made depiction of the kind of personal journey in and sort-of-out of faith that really needs to be understood better by the church and society. There’s enough lightness and clever moments to keep the enjoyment up in an otherwise serious and bittersweet story. 

1. Of Gods and Men – Such a beautiful movie – a great tribute to the power of a humble community. It shows the potential of a monastic life to create inward depth and outward engagement in order to respond thoughtfully and intentionally to a chaotic and confused world. It probably didn’t need any help, but when I read about how the actors felt like they were formed into a meaningful community through their learning to sing together, this movie’s no. 1 spot was clinched. It was even better when I saw it the second time, and I look forward to seeing it again. 

Finally, a special mention for an older movie that I missed when it first came out. Amal (2007) is a great Canadian-made movie set in India that tells a humble tale of a humble and honest man (an auto-rickshaw driver) layered over a story of less than humble and honest folks. Great story that has not received the attention it deserves. It also provides a rich taste of life in contemporary New Delhi. Contains some lovely and memorable scenes such as the old, dying man singing in a café.

Saturday, 28 January 2012


Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan, who have had another great year (Jane Eyre, Drive, respectively) are two of the best young actors of our time and their brilliant raw performances in Shame will only enhance their reputations, not least because of the unsympathetic characters they play in this cold dark film.

Fassbender plays Brandon, a sex addict living alone in a cold white apartment in Manhattan. It is clear from the start that Brandon gets no pleasure from his addiction, or, for that matter, from the rest of his life. His emotions, such as they are, generally vary only from anger to frustration to self-loathing. When his sister (Sissy, played by Mulligan) moves in, Brandon is not amused. But something happens when he watches Sissy sing at a bar one night. Is he remembering something? We don’t hear much about their past, but there are hints that it was far from good. Is there any hope for these two broken and desperately lonely people?

Rated NC-17 in the U.S., Shame is not for those who are offended by sex or nudity (or dark dramas about sex addiction). But it is a haunting powerful film by Steve McQueen, featuring great acting, cinematography and music. ***+. My mug is up.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

The Adventures of Tintin 3D

I read many of the Tintin graphic novels (in French) back in my high school days. I loved them, especially appreciating the artwork and the sense of wonder and mystery in the clever convoluted plots. Now here comes a Tintin film directed by Steven Spielberg no less (the director who has more films in my top 150 than any other director). Still, I resisted seeing the film (for a month anyway) for two reasons: 1) it’s in 3D; 2) the animation bears little resemblance to the artwork in the graphic novels. As it turns out, those are my two primary complaints about The Adventures of Tintin, though there is one more major complaint and some minor ones (which I will get to in due course).

The Adventures of Tintin provides exactly what it advertises: a nonstop thrill-ride of pure old-fashioned adventure (like Indiana Jones). The animation is remarkably realistic, which is amazing and beautiful but obviously not aimed at fans of the novels, because, as I said above, it bears little resemblance to the novels’ artwork. Given that the novels’ artwork is key to their brilliance and popularity, this seems both strange and tragic. The 3D only highlights the difference (and you all know what I think of 3D, though, as in Hugo, the 3D was not highlighted in as distracting a manner as I had expected).

If I could set aside the distraction caused by the changes made to the artwork, I would say this is a very well-made animated film with good acting (voices), lots of comedy and lots of action and adventure (though the sense of mystery I was hoping for was barely noticeable). But, alas, I could not stop there. I would have to go on to point out (no doubt risking the exasperation of some readers) that, given the realistic animation style, The Adventures of Tintin has far too much violence for a film aimed at children. I was rather shocked by how quickly and easily Tintin uses a handgun. I suppose that must be the case in the graphic novels as well (I haven’t opened one in at least a decade) but at least there is no feel of realism there. Since I encouraged my children to read Tintin at an early age, I cannot imagine that the novels had the same violent feel as the film. Still, this violence is nowhere near as offensive as it is in the Narnia films (Tintin is, after all, not a child).

So, in spite of all the flaws mentioned above, I am still going to give The Adventures of Tintin a solid *** for providing an enjoyable film-viewing experience. My mug is up.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Like the British miniseries, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is painstakingly slow-moving. This is, of course, not a criticism. In fact, when you add intelligent dialogue and brilliant acting to that, you’ve got a winner. But there’s more. Tomas Alfredson has managed to perfectly recreate the feel of John le Carre’s 1974 spy novel, with its dark grey and brown palette and its dour performances. Those performances convey the real dreariness and horror of being a British Cold War spy, unlike a certain Bond fellow who usually treats it all rather lightly.

In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, George Smiley, recently dismissed, is called back to hunt for a mole at the very top of MI6. Gary Oldman’s performance as Smiley is particularly outstanding, but he has lots of excellent support, notably from Colin Firth, John Hurt, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy.

But despite the fact that the screenplay is well-written and well-paced, it is also the film’s biggest flaw. A slow-moving spy film should not require the many sudden leaps of logic which Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy contains. At least three times it was impossible for me to figure out how Smiley got from point A to point B in his investigations. The sold-out crowd around me (it was opening night) shared my opinion on this, as I heard person after person say they were hopelessly lost and could not figure out what was going on half the time. As a lover of spy films, I wasn’t lost, just frustrated. Without this flaw, TTSS would surely have made it into my top ten films of 2011. Another easy ***+. My mug is up.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

The Artist

Let me reverse my usual pattern and start by saying that The Artist is easily the most overrated film of the past year. I think film critics are drawn to films about filmmaking, especially if a film seems innovative and if there are lots of references to classic films. There were two such films released at the end of 2011 (Hugo and The Artist) and I believe critics were unduly fond of these two films (however good they might be) because they are well-made innovative films about the silent film era (weird coincidence?).

In the case of The Artist, Michel Hazanavicius has actually made an old-fashioned black & white silent film. I love black & white films, so that’s not an issue for me, but having viewed about a dozen silent films, I can safely say that silent films are not my thing (though Metropolis is wonderful and some of the comedy classics from Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin are definitely entertaining). Partly this is because I particularly appreciate films full of well-written intelligent dialogue (though I confess there isn’t much dialogue in some of my favourite films of 2011), especially in the case of dramas. The Artist, though it contains lots of comedy, is primarily a drama (a classic love story, to be precise). By necessity, that love story has been simplified to accommodate the restricted dialogue of a silent film.

Having complained enough, let me hasten to add that The Artist is a masterful and magical simplified love story. French actor Jean Dujardin’s acting is exceptional in the lead role and amazingly well-suited to silence (even his accent is not an issue), and Berenice Bejo is perfect in the role of Peppy Miller. The cinematography is gorgeous. The mixed score, while occasionally too distracting (as it is in silent films in general), has a fair number of magical moments, especially near the end when the theme of Vertigo is woven in.

All in all, I was thoroughly entertained and entranced and give The Artist an easy ***+. But is The Artist worthy of all the acclaim and awards it has received (i.e. of being the best picture of 2011)? IMHO, it’s just a little too simplified to say yes.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Vic's Top Ten (Fifteen) Films of 2011

What a great year for film! Only one film made in 2009 and 2010 (combined) made it into my top 150 films of all time. This year, there were five such films. In the past two years, I struggled to find ten films worthy to be in my top ten films of the year. This year, there were twenty films fighting to get into my top ten. I finally gave up trying to limit myself to ten films and will be doing a top fifteen this year (sixteen actually). Even so, there are seven films which I watched in 2011 which were not 2011 releases but which also might have had a shot at my top ten (Never Let Me Go, Mr. Nobody, Enter the Void, Lebanon, The Illusionist, White Material and Blue Valentine).

This was the year of Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, each of whom starred in two films in my top six. It was also the year of Ryan Gosling, whose films didn’t quite make it but two of which were among those twenty I mentioned (The Ides of March and Drive). Also in that twenty were Anonymous and Young Adult.

It’s a long list, so let’s get to it:

15. The Beaver. Mel Gibson is fantastic as a man dealing with his depression by speaking through a beaver hand-puppet. Jodie Foster directs and stars as the wife and Anton Yelchin is great as the son in this underrated drama featuring a well-written original screenplay, excellent cinematography and very good music.

15. Source Code - The plot may be illogical and the ending questionable, but this was my favourite sci-fi film of the year and I enjoyed almost every minute of it. Jake Gyllenhaal continues to impress as an actor and Duncan Jones, who made one of my favourite films of 2009 (Moon), continues to impress as a director.

14. Midnight in Paris. Woody Allen’s best film in fifteen years, Midnight in Paris is a wonderful romantic comedy starring Luke Wilson as a man whose visit to Paris takes him on a journey to what he believes was the golden age of the 1920s. Full of witty, intelligent dialogue, fascinating characters and great music.

13. We Need to Talk About Kevin. Tilda Swinton deserves an Oscar for her portrayal of Eve, the mother of a boy serving time for committing a high school massacre. Lynne Ramsay’s film, based on Lionel Shriver’s controversial novel, provides a mother’s perspective on the question of nature versus nurture in the making of a sociopath. Fascinating and very well made.

12. The Time That Remains. A subtle cry for justice, The Time That Remains is a darkly funny epic tale chronicling the Israeli occupation of Palestine since 1948. This poetic thought-provoking film was directed by, and stars, Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman.

11. Jane Eyre. A gorgeous traditional re-filming of Charlotte Bronte’s novel, Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre has the feel of a 1930s epic romance. Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender are excellent as Jane and Rochester.

10. Beginners. Ewan McGregor and Melanie Laurent are flawless as Oliver and Anna, two lonely, hurting people, haunted by their fathers, who try to make a lasting connection. Christopher Plummer, as Oliver’s gay father, provides outstanding support. Beginners somehow manages to be both a subdued melancholy film and a very funny one.

9. The Descendants. George Clooney is wonderful as an Hawaiian lawyer who finds himself needing to relate differently to all the people around him after his wife has a boating accident, leaving her in a coma. The Descendants was made by Alexander Payne, a master of satisfying character development.

8. Margin Call. A haunting intelligent film with a great ensemble cast, Margin Call tells the story of one fateful night in an investment firm at the beginning of the 2008 financial crisis. While humanizing those responsible for the crisis, it exposes the dehumanizing impact of money on all of us who are among the rich.

7. Hugo. A delightful old-fashioned adventure film with a beautifully-realized setting (a Paris train station in the 1930s), Hugo is about fixing broken people who have lost their purpose in life and about the wonder of film. Too bad it had to be in 3D.

6. Moneyball. A classic-style film written by the formidable Aaron Sorkin and featuring a brilliant performance by Brad Pitt as the manager of the Oakland A’s (baseball team) in 2002, Moneyball is moving and funny and all about relationships (not baseball).

5. Take Shelter. A spellbinding psychological drama which may, or may not, be about a coming apocalyptic storm (and about global warming), Take Shelter features awe-inspiring performances by Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain as a couple struggling with the effects of mental illness on a loving young family.

4. The Way. A funny, inspiring and beautiful film about a man (played by Martin Sheen, whose son, Emilio Estevez, directs) who decides, on the spur of the moment, to do a famous pilgrimage in northern Spain. Along the way, he meets a number of lonely people who have lost their way and who are, like himself, searching for community and God.

3. Incendies. A haunting, expertly-crafted film from Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, Incendies is the story of a woman who struggles for dignity in a world torn apart by religious violence. An insightful and poetic reflection on Middle Eastern violence.

2. The Tree of Life. Yet another profound and sublime work of cinematic art, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life uses breathtaking cinematography and classical music to create a poetic theological film about the meaning of life, specifically the life of Jack, an architect reflecting on his childhood in small-town Texas. Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain are wonderful as Jack’s parents and Hunter McCracken is amazing as the adolescent Jack.

1. Of Gods and Men. A profound and sublime work of cinematic art, Of Gods and Men tells the true story of nine French monks caught up in the Algerian Civil War of 1996. With one beautiful scene after another, this film depicts what loving others and following Jesus is really about while showing both Christianity and Islam in a positive (and even compatible) light.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Higher Ground

Having grown up as part of an evangelical, charismatic subculture, I felt a weird emotional response while watching a movie like this (and there are very few movies like this). I’m not sure if I can describe it well – there’s a deep vulnerability as I watch a culture that feels simultaneously close to home yet notably at odds with the larger culture in which I’ve also been submerged. Maybe it’s a vulnerability that comes when I’m forced to see different parts of myself through one, public lens. And when you add to this that I had no idea where the movie would eventually lead, the vulnerable feeling - even tension - was multiplied. For these same reasons a few years back, I decided I couldn’t even watch Jesus Camp after seeing the trailer.

However, Higher Ground is no Jesus Camp (from what I’ve heard I’m glad I didn’t put myself through that, though it may have been a fine, if biased, film). It’s hard to imagine the skill and sensitivity required to have made a film that manages to be both appropriately sympathetic and appropriately critical at the same time. Corinne (Farmiga) is believable and easy to relate to. She’s an honest, struggling believer trapped in a culture that didn’t (and often still doesn’t) have room for an intelligent, critical-thinking woman with obvious leadership gifts. She had an amazing friend who was an oasis for a time (and who added some lovely colour to the film). Her marriage is stuck in realistic and complicated ways. They struggled with intimacy, weren’t growing in the same direction, and the movie largely avoids placing blame.

That avoidance of over-simplifying is the saving grace of a film like this. With the exception of the therapist (figures – helps provide me with a “how not to do therapy” clip) there are no real villains (well - maybe also the pastor's wife). There are many moments of soft humour that worked very well for me and helped lighten the story. The acting was solid and not overplayed. From reading some reviews, I suspect it is fair to say that for those who don’t have a lot of history with this subculture, the movie may be slow or flat, but I strongly recommend it to anyone who wants to revisit some of their evangelical history.

In the end, my feelings of vulnerability and tension transformed into the validation and warmth that accompanies a story well told that hits home. In my own story, I feel that along the way, by the grace of God, I found some practices (like the freedom to lament) and an open-minded and supportive community that made evangelicalism less of a trap for me, but surely many have experienced stories like Corinne’s.
For this, I give it **** - the final half star is added for the subtle nod the pastor gives in the final scene.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

A Dangerous Method

David Cronenberg proves once again why he is one of Canada’s best filmmakers. This time he takes on Carl Jung’s early years of psychoanalysis and his relationship with Sigmund Freud. At the centre of the film, however, is Jung’s relationship with one of his early patients, Sabina Spielrein, who became a psychoanalyst herself.

A Dangerous Method boasts gorgeous cinematography, a good score and an intelligent provocative screenplay (focusing on sex of course). It also features outstanding performances by Michael Fassbender (as Jung) and Viggo Mortensen (as Freud). Keira Knightley plays Sabina and I was not as impressed by her performance, though it is likely just because I am not a Knightley fan.

All in all, A Dangerous Method was a fascinating film to watch and to think about (I have always enjoyed psychoanalysis). I wished it could have continued into Jung’s later years, but to catch a glimpse of the early years with Freud is a great start. A solid ***+. My mug is up.

P.S. I should mention that there are some rather disturbing scenes in this film.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Certified Copy

Certified Copy is a bizarre and confusing film, and yet it is for that very reason that it is also endlessly fascinating. Written and directed by Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, Certified Copy stars Juliette Binoche and William Shimell as a late-middle-age couple talking about their fifteen years of marriage as they walk the streets of a town in Italy. The only problem is that apparently they just met.

Shimell plays James Miller, a British writer who is in Italy for a book launch. Binoche plays Elle, a French shop owner who has lived in Italy for five years. Elle has a twelve-year-old son who tells her, at the beginning of the film, that she has a crush on the British writer. She leaves James her address, he comes to her shop on a Sunday afternoon and they proceed to spend the next few hours together, having this bizarre conversation. I noticed very early on that something in their behaviour toward each other was off. Soon it is clear that Kiarostami is doing something very strange with this film as James and Elle begin to talk as if they have been married for fifteen years.

We were unable to figure out what Kiarostami was up to (i.e. what was really going on). The idea that James and Elle are pretending, one way or the other, doesn’t really wash. The background theme of copies and originals (are originals more valuable than copies?) obviously has a major role, but it’s not clear how it relates to the central mystery (are James and Elle a copy of an original couple?).

Nevertheless, the dialogue is intelligent and well-written (if not as profound as it could be), the acting of Shimell and Binoche is impeccable, the cinematography is both excellent and unique (full of unusual angles and shots, including the way it focuses on one person even when others are talking in the scene) and Certified Copy is just fun to watch, so I am giving it a solid ***+. My mug is up.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Le Havre

No one makes quirky comedy dramas like the French. Le Havre is a prime example, though it was written and directed by Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki. Le Havre tells the story of an older man (Marcel Marx, played by Andre Wilms) in Le Havre who befriends an African boy who arrived in the French port city illegally (inside a shipping container).

Marcel makes his meager income shining shoes on the street and steals (i.e. buys on credit) bread and fruit from the neighbourhood shops on his way home to his wife, Arletty, who does all the cooking and cleaning. Marcel is both loved and tolerated by his neighbours, but things change when Arletty is diagnosed with cancer and Marcel befriends the boy. Both of these events elicit sympathy from most of the working-class community, even the local hard-nosed police inspector (played by the brilliant French actor Jean-Pierre Darroussin), and soon everyone is helping Marcel keep the boy out of the hands of the authorities.

This quirky film works on various levels. It is beautifully filmed and acted, it has many scenes which bring a smile to your face, it’s a wonderful representation of a compassionate community and it questions the way refugees and immigrants are treated by the French government, a very timely issue in western Europe today. For all of these reasons, Le Havre is an excellent film, though it was, for me, just a little too simple and too odd to take it to the four-star level.

Le Havre gets a solid ***+. My mug is up.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

It’s hard enough evaluating a film after you have read the book. If you have both read the book and seen an earlier version of the film (in the book’s original language), which also happened to be one of your favourite films of the previous year, a fair evaluation is almost impossible.

I definitely enjoyed David Fincher’s version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (TGWDT). It was very well made and the acting was as good as it was in the original, with both Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara doing an outstanding job in the lead roles and Stellan Skarsgard and Christopher Plummer excellent in major supporting roles. Steven Zaillian did a good job with the screenplay (especially the dialogue). The cinematography was great. I appreciated the film’s dark atmosphere and very adult feel, as is only appropriate in a film like this. If anything, the sex was more graphic than in the Swedish original while the violence was under-played, which was quite unexpected for an American film. All in all, I was pleasantly surprised by how well Hollywood (let’s say Fincher) handled this remake of a European film (though I don’t suppose it was based on the film as much as the book). Even the changes to the book were not unwelcome (unlike the masses, I did not think Larsson’s book was particularly well-written).

Nevertheless, Fincher’s version of TGWDT lacked something. Perhaps it was the odd combination of accents (Craig’s was British; others, I assume, were meant to be Swedish). Perhaps it was the hurried feel to the solving of the central mystery. Perhaps it was the lack of real chemistry between the two protagonists, who seemed much more sure of themselves in this version. As a result, I didn’t find myself caring as much about either of them as I did with their counterparts in the original. The entire film felt different than the original, which has its good (e.g. more stylish, polished) and bad points, but the magic that put the original in my top ten last year was not here.

If you want a hint as to what TGWDT is about, I refer you to my review of the original from May, 2010.

Fincher’s TGWDT gets a solid ***+. My mug is up, but I preferred the original.

Friday, 6 January 2012

Take Shelter

Wow! Yet another top five contender in one of the best film years of the last decade. It’s been a while since I started a review with “Wow!”, so you know Take Shelter is getting an easy four stars.

Take Shelter is unlike anything I have seen before and that’s high praise right there. On the surface, it seems to be the story of a man (Curtis LaForche) whose vivid nightmares of a coming storm are the beginning of a steady descent into madness, following the path of his mother who had become schizophrenic when she was his age. But from the opening scene, we are never quite sure if that is the whole story. By the time the credits roll at the end of the film, we are even less sure. Between that opening scene and the credits, the intensity in Take Shelter builds with each passing minute. In the last few minutes of the film, I was regularly holding my breath. While I would not call Take Shelter a horror film, it’s one of the scariest films I have seen in years.

Take Shelter is primarily about two people: Curtis and Samantha, an ordinary Ohio couple in their mid-thirties with a six-year-old hearing-impaired daughter. Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain play the couple and their acting is awe-inspiring. They are completely believable as the happy and loving couple whose lives are sliding into crisis. Some of the scenes between them are among the best scenes of the year. Of course, those scenes owe a lot to the screenplay. Take Shelter was written and directed by Jeff Nichols, who has crafted a masterpiece that is likely the fifth film in 2011 to make my top 150 films of all time. It may be a low-budget indie film, but everything works perfectly. My mug is up for this **** thought-provoking and timely classic.