30 December 2011

The best of 2011

"There's a hundred thousand streets in this city. If I drive for you, you give me a time and a place, I give you a five-minute window. Anything happens in that five minutes, then I'm yours, no matter what. Anything happens a minute either side of that, and you're on your own. Do you understand?"

The opening lines of "Drive," the best movie I saw in 2011, set the tone for the entire picture.

Like the Driver's (Ryan Gosling) approach to his nighttime gig as a wheelman, Nicolas Winding Refn's filmmaking is deceptively simple and direct. Dialogue is spare. Action is sudden and brutal. Car chases appear to be composed solely of stunts.

The tight-lipped Driver remains a mystery to the end, even as he romances his neighbor (Carey Mulligan), bonds with her young son (Kaden Leos), tries to help her ex-con husband (Oscar Isaac) out of a jam and runs afoul of two gangsters (Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks).

29 December 2011


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23 December 2011

War Horse

Jeremy Irvine is shown in a scene from "War Horse."

Coming from Steven Spielberg during the year-end Oscar-bait season, "War Horse" is exactly the kind of movie you probably think it is.

It is gorgeously shot by the great cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, features stirring music by the always reliable composer John Williams, boasts several harrowing World War I battle scenes, includes bits of slapstick humor and has at its center a protagonist that virtually defines the term "rooting interest."

It has all these things, and they all work well.

Yet it feels a little routine, like Spielberg and his ace team of collaborators could have made this movie in their sleep. I suppose that's not a bad problem to have, and more than anything else, it's a testament to the superb work Spielberg has done for nearly four decades. So I'm trying not to hold that against "War Horse."

The Artist

Jean Dujardin, left, and Berenice Bejo are shown in a scene from "The Artist."

"Retro" does not even begin to describe "The Artist."

From French writer-director Michel Hazanavicius, "The Artist" not only takes back to Hollywood in the late 1920s, when sound revolutionized the art of movie-making and the entire film industry, it takes us back to the filmmaking of the time, too. It is a black-and-white, silent film presented in the square-like 4:3 aspect ratio.

It celebrates the movies by focusing on a time when the term "movie magic" actually had meaning. The purely visual filmmaking, accompanied by Ludovic Bource's musical score, is an absolute delight.

20 December 2011

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Rooney Mara is shown in a scene from "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo."

Early this year, in an interview with W magazine, director David Fincher divided his work into two categories: "movies" and "films." A movie, he said, is a commercial undertaking, with pleasing the audience its only goal. A film is to be daring and also is intended for public consumption but even more so for fellow filmmakers. On his resume, "Fight Club" (1999) and "Zodiac" (2007) qualify as films, Fincher said, while last year's "The Social Network" is merely a movie.

We now can add "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" to Fincher's "movie" list.

His version of the internationally best-selling novel by Stieg Larsson is as pulpy and noirish as the book—and as engrossing as the written version is page-turning. And though it trades in dark, dark subject matter, it's ultimately disposable, a Hollywood tentpole movie designed to kickstart a screen franchise, entertainment that treads into lurid territory with the comfort of the bad guys getting their due and an unlikely heroine taking justice into her own hands in a dramatic, emphatic manner.

16 December 2011

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Noomi Rapace, left, and Robert Downey Jr. are shown in a scene from "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows."
For a man known as the world's greatest detective, Sherlock Holmes doesn't do much detecting in "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows," Guy Ritchie's second stab at bringing the master sleuth to the big screen.

This Holmes, again brought to roguish, mischievous life by Robert Downey Jr., favors running, jumping, shooting and stabbing his way to the answers. In fact, it's his sidekick, Dr. John Watson (Jude Law), who gets most of the opportunities for deduction.

And, with apologies to Holmes purists, that's OK, because after 2009's "Sherlock Holmes," audiences should be aware that this franchise is traveling a path leaning more toward action and adventure than mystery.

The now-familiar formula is in place: the buddy-movie-style banter and bickering of Holmes and Watson; Holmes acting quirky, if not downright kooky (he drinks embalming fluid in one scene and takes his disguises to a whole new level); and lots of things going boom in creatively staged action set pieces.

Young Adult

Charlize Theron is shown in a scene from "Young Adult."
 "Young Adult" is the rare film that I'm having trouble wrapping my head around.

Its central character, Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), a former high school beauty queen, now approaching 40 and still a knockout, is deplorable at the start, and we like her less and less as the movie progresses.

She escaped small-town Mercury, Minn., after high school, moving to Minneapolis, where she ghost writes a series of young adult novels, once popular but now coming to an end due to cancellation. We sense she had everything handed to her when she was younger, and has grown bitter and resentful of everything and everyone around her because that's not how the real world works.

A typical day starts with her waking up with a hangover (or possibly still drunk from the night before), still wearing yesterday's clothes, with one of many vapid reality shows on her TV.

09 December 2011

The Descendants

George Clooney, left, and Shailene Woodley are shown in a scene from "The Descendants."

"The Descendants," director Alexander Payne's fifth feature, is all about taking things that could be salacious and sensational, and paring them down to a realistic, deeply affecting, human level.

The setting is Hawaii, and though there is beauty here, it comes from a love ingrained in its inhabitants through generations, not the luxurious images used to attract tourists.

Matt King (George Clooney) is a real estate lawyer descended from one of the first land-owning white families in Hawaii. He's now the sole trustee of 25,000 acres of unspoiled land owned by his extended family. A new law will dissolve the trust in seven years, so the family must sell the land, their choice of buyer coming down to a Hawaiian developer or one from the mainland.