Waitsel’s Best Movies of 2011

GRAB YOUR POPCORN AND LET’S TALK

This year was probably the best year for movies that I can remember. Let me say that again: the best year for movies that I can remember – and I can remember a long ways back. This year we saw what is, in my opinion, the best silent film ever made, as well as one of the best films ever made, period: The Artist. We had two delightfully impressive surprises from top-notch directors working in genres that aren’t their norm: Steven Spielberg’s War Horse and Martin Scorsese’s Hugo. We saw one of Woody Allen’s most interesting, imaginative, least offensive and even charming films: Midnight In Paris. We saw the film adaptation of a book about the color line of the 1960s that is actually funny: The Help. And we saw another film adaptation of a book by Michael Lewis, author of The Blindside: Moneyball. We saw the best Mission: Impossible film ever, not to mention what is probably one of the best action films of all time: Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. And we saw two more super hero movies to add to the growing list of very well-made films in that genre: Captain America and Thor. We saw two Spielberg films reminiscent of his hey-day: Super 8 and The Adventures Of Tintin. If all that were not enough, we also got one of the best Christian films to date: Soul Surfer. And if you can believe this, most of these wonderful films are up for Academy Awards! So all I can say is, “Wow!”

What’s the thread through all of these films? I’d say it is nostalgia, plus fantastic production values. Being a history buff, I love the love of history displayed in The Artist, War Horse, Hugo, Midnight In Paris and The Help. I also love the attention to detail and beautiful production displayed in these films, as well as Captain America and Thor. But over and above all that, I love the good story-telling that all these movies embody, as well as the award-winning performances of Jean Dujardin in The Artist, Viola Davis and Jessica Chastain in The Help, Jeremy Irvine in War Horse, and others. Yes, this has been a year to remember: and I’m just giving you the creme de la creme. There were also some very good “little” films made, like Win/Win, to name one. So, without further adieu, roll the film.

The Artist

Best Dramatic Comedy – The Artist

5-Star Masterpiece – Romantic Comedy-Drama – starring Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo and John Goodman; written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius – Weinstein Company

Rarely do I see a movie that I would call “perfect”… but this one is. It has everything: a wonderfully touching story, great performances, beautiful cinematography and score. The one thing it lacks is sound. That’s right – it’s a silent film. Because it is about a silent movie star, the producers decided to make the film itself silent. When I first heard about it, I doubted that a silent film would work today, let alone get to me – but it did. It is the most delightful film I’ve seen in a long, long time. The details of late 1920s Hollywood, when sound movies were making their debut, are perfect: no film has ever been successful at capturing that period, in my opinion – until now.

With great charisma and charm, French actor Jean Dujardin portrays silent film star George Valentin (loosely based on Douglas Fairbanks), the hottest idol in Hollywood, and someone who really enjoys the spotlight. Then he meets Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), a young woman who wants to break into film herself. George is taken with her and decides to give her a break; in the process, they fall in love. Then sound enters the picture, and movies go from silent to talkies almost overnight. As George, who is unequipped for this change, watches his star fall, Peppy’s rises meteorically. It’s a classic love story set against the most turbulent years of Hollywood.

The filmmakers masterfully use the medium of silent film to tell their story in a very poignant and very clever way that I predict will take the Oscars this year by storm. (Dujardin has already won Best Actor at Cannes and the Golden Globes for his performance, and the film itself has won Best Comedy and Best Score at the Golden Globes.) There are many nods to Hollywood icons, including Singing In The Rain (which deals with the same time period), A Star Is Born (which, like The Artist, deals with the rise of a young actress and the fall of an older actor), Asta (the scene-stealing dog from The Thin Man series), etc. John Goodman is wonderfully cast against type as producer Al Zimmer. For those who love good movies, this one will steal your heart.

Rated PG-13

For resources for this movie, go to my web page, “Best Movies of 2011.”

War Horse

Best Action Drama – War Horse

5 Stars – Action Drama – starring Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, Peter Mullan, David Thewlis and Tom Hiddleston; directed by Steven Spielberg – Dreamworks, Amblin Entertainment

I thought the old Disney magic was dead, when it comes to human interest and animal stories, but Steven Spielberg has revived it like never before. As a matter of fact, I would put this horse movie up against any other you can name, from National Velvet to The Black Stallion to Seabiscuit – it is that good. Jeremy Irvine is the perfect actor to play the owner of a horse named Joey. He has just the right mix of charm, kindness, determination and faith to make us care about his love for this wonderful horse whose destiny leads him to the front lines of WWI. Even though he’s a thoroughbred, Joey goes through quite a few hands and just as many phases, from growing up on a peaceful farm in Devon, England, where he proves he can do anything asked of him, except jump; to being the mount of a kind-hearted captain (Tom Hiddleston); to being owned by a farm girl and her grandfather in France; to becoming a cruelly driven work horse for the Prussian army; and ending up as a horse-on-the-run, as he races for his life between the lines, trying to escape the madness of war.

You will experience every emotion in this film. I’ve never seen horses perform like this: they’re phenominal. I’ve never seen production values this high. The cinematography alone is some of the most spectacular this year, with both horrific battle sequences, as well as tender pastoral scenes. And, of course, the music by John Williams is some of his best. The film is based on the celebrated novel by Michael Morpurgo, which was adapted very cleverly for the stage using human puppets for the horses. When I heard they were making it into a film, I wondered how it would transition from novel to stage and then to screen. I have to say that I cannot imagine how it could be any better.

Rated PG-13

For resources for this movie, go to my web page, “Best Movies of 2011.”

Midnight In Paris

Best Romantic Comedy – Midnight In Paris

5 Stars – Romantic Comedy – starring Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard, Corey Stoll and Tom Hiddleston; written and directed by Woody Allen – Sony Pictures

Woody Allen has found a younger actor, Owen Wilson, to play the roles that he would typically fill; so as the actor-writer-director ages, we’re still able to enjoy his classic, paranoiac humor, while seeing some fresh faces on the screen. In this latest, Wilson’s character longs for 1920s Paris, when European and expatriate American artists, writers, musicians and filmmakers congregated to enjoy the intoxicating air of their own intellect and inspiration. Through the magic of filmmaking – but not explained in any scientific way – Wilson’s character Gil is transported back to that era, when he is able to meet and rub elbows with his idols – F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, et al. He also meets a lovely artist’s model named Arianda, played by Marion Cotillard, which causes him to question his life as a hack Hollywood screenwriter, as well as his relationship with fiance Inez (Rachel McAdams). While the story, characters and settings are extremely interesting – especially if you’re a Francophile, history buff or creative in any way – Corey Stoll basically steals the show as Hemingway. For those who love this period and all things artsy, you’ll think you died and went to heaven. This is one of Allen’s best, and his love letter to Paris. The opening shots of the city are breathtaking.

Rated PG-13

For resources for this movie, go to my web page, “Best Movies of 2011.”

Hugo

Best Family Film – Hugo

5 Stars – Family Film – starring Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moretz and Christopher Lee; directed by Martin Scorsese – Paramount

I really like this very wonderful story, with production values through the roof, direction by one of the icons of cinema, Martin Scorsese, and memorable performances by both leads and supporting cast; but… it didn’t get to me emotionally. I think this film is proof that a good film is not about money or even skill. And this is a very good film. But dollar for dollar, there are better.

Having said that, this movie is magical. And it’s not really about a boy named Hugo so much as it’s about a director named Méliès. Hugo is just the means for introducing us to Méliès. Scorsese is a huge advocate for film preservation, and this is really a pitch for his cause – done in a totally delightful way. I don’t mind a film with a message, but that is it. The story is incidental – genius, but incidental. I mean, think about it: would an adolescent boy climb out onto the outside of a clock face and then hang by one of its hands – as is so prominently featured in the posters – when he didn’t need to? Okay, he saw Harold Lloyd do it in a film. But would that really cause him to imitate that kind of foolhardiness? It’s contrived, as much of this film is. But it is delightful contrivance. Delightful contrivance entertains – and wins Oscars – but it does not move the heart.

The Station Inspector, played by Sacha Baron Cohen, is another contrivance. Would a station inspector really spend all his time trying to round up stray children so he could send them off to an orphanage? Not really; but it gives Hugo a nemesis. A lot of this is children’s storybook material – the stuff fairy tales are made of – until we get to the part about Méliès, played by Ben Kingsley. Now we’re suddenly dealing with history. But is Méliès really history? He was such a fanciful person in real life, who did such fanciful films, that you could almost say that he is as much a fabrication as all the other contrivances in Hugo. Whether fiction or history, adult metaphor or children’s story, this film is very entertaining eye candy, and good for the soul because it is about respecting our heritage. The one idea that I cannot buy into is that a man’s value is based upon the recognition of others. Until Méliès is recognized for his achievements, he lacks something that is making him very unhappy and bitter. No truly great man would ever feel that way. A person does what he has to do, creates what he has to create, because of his own inner vision, not because others are going to appreciate it. I don’t think that ever figures into any truly great artist’s thinking, although it is icing on the cake. Evidently Scorsese feels differently.

Rated PG-13

Here is something to help you enjoy this wonderful movie even more: a letter from the author of the novel on which the movie is based, talking about how the novel came to be:

Dear readers,

When I was a kid, two of my favorite books were by an amazing man named Remy Charlip. Fortunately and Thirteen fascinated me in part because, in both books, the very act of turning the pages plays a pivotal role in telling the story. Each turn reveals something new in a way that builds on the image on the previous page. Now that I’m an illustrator myself, I’ve often thought about this dramatic storytelling device and all of its creative possibilities.

My new book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, is a 550 page novel in words and pictures. But unlike most novels, the images in my new book don’t just illustrate the story; they help tell it. I’ve used the lessons I learned from Remy Charlip and other masters of the picture book to create something that is not a exactly a novel, not quite a picture book, not really a graphic novel, or a flip book or a movie, but a combination of all these things.

I began thinking about this book ten years ago after seeing some of the magical films of Georges Méliès, the father of science-fiction movies. But it wasn’t until I read a book called Edison’s Eve: The Quest for Mechanical Life by Gaby Woods that my story began to come into focus. I discovered that Méliès had a collection of mechanical, wind-up figures (called automata) that were donated to a museum, but which were later destroyed and thrown away. Instantly, I imagined a boy discovering these broken, rusty machines in the garbage, stealing one and attempting to fix it. At that moment, Hugo Cabret was born.

A few years ago, I had the honor of meeting Remy Charlip, and I’m proud to say that we’ve become friends. Last December he was asking me what I was working on, and as I was describing this book to him, I realized that Remy looks exactly like Georges Méliès. I excitedly asked him to pose as the character in my book, and fortunately, he said yes. So every time you see Méliès in The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the person you are really looking at is my dear friend Remy Charlip, who continues to inspire everyone who has the great pleasure of knowing him or seeing his work.

Paris in the 1930’s, a thief, a broken machine, a strange girl, a mean old man, and the secrets that tie them all together… Welcome to The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

Yours, Brian Selznick

For resources for this movie, go to my web page, “Best Movies of 2011.”

The Help

2nd Best Dramatic Comedy – The Help

5 Stars – Comedy-Drama – starring Emma Stone, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer; written and directed by Tate Taylor – Dreamworks

My sister had been telling me about the novel by Kathryn Stockett, upon which this movie is based, for years; so I knew it was probably going to be good. I just never expected it to be this good. In spite of the fact that it is abou the color line that existed in the 1960s between white people and their black domestic help, it is light-hearted and funny, with some very memorable performances. Emma Stone plays a young white woman in Mississippi that wants to be a writer, so she decides to write a book about those relationships from the perspective of the help. No one wants to cooperate with her at first; but as things in the civil rights movement heat up, more and more of the black women in her community step forward to tell their stories, beginning with a maid played by Viola Davis, who is wonderful. My favorite character, though, is the one played by Jessica Chastain, who is the only white woman that treats her domestic help as an equal, and who has been ostracized by the other ladies in the community for being “white trash” and for marrying the most elegible bachelor in town. She is just plain fun.

Also outstanding is Octavia Spencer as Chastain’s maid, who is famous for her chocolate pies, and who bakes one with a “special” ingredient for a former employer that fired her. You will never forget this scene, it’s that good. That former employer is played by Bryce Dallas Howard, who turns in a performace as the coldest, most unfeeling… well, the “b” word comes to mind. She has a plan, which she has sent to the state capital, that will require black domestics to use different rest facilities from their white employers – glorified outhouses, really. This is a major theme in the film, and one that leads to some very funny results. Sissy Spacek is a hoot as Howard’s mother.

Just so you don’t get the idea that this is a chick flick, there are also some very good male performances by Chris Lowell, Mike Vogel and Brian Kerwin, who play the men in these women’s lives. This is truly an ensemble piece, and one that is so full of memorable performances and wonderful moments, it would be difficult to cover them all. That is in part due to the excellent writing and directing of Tate Taylor, who has also done some acting, but has a very short directing list. Since three of his actresses from The Help are up for Oscars, he may very well turn out to be an actress’ director – someone that knows how to draw a great performance from a female star.

Having grown up in the South in the early ’60s, I remember the subject of this film very clearly. I remember the separate bathrooms for domestics – but only in rich people’s homes. Our home had one bathroom, period. I also remember the humor, and how our maids loved to laugh. They were all very sweet women from wonderful families. I don’t remember the abuse mentioned, which I doubt was very common where we lived. But I do remember the separate but equal status. I’m glad all that has changed. This is a wonderful film with a good spirit.

Rated PG-13

For resources for this movie, go to my web page, “Best Movies of 2011.”

Moneyball with Brad Pitt

Best Drama – Moneyball

5 Stars – Drama – starring Brad Pitt, Robin Wright and Jonah Hill; directed by Bennett Miller – Columbia Pictures

People don’t normally associate great acting with Brad Pitt, even though he’s done some challenging roles, such as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and this year’s The Tree of Life. But he’s up for an Oscar for Best Actor this year; and the reason is because he pretty much carries the entire film, Moneyball, on his shoulders. This is no easy task because this is a very good film. Based on the book by Michael Lewis (Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game), who also gave us The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, Moneyball is about the concept that analysis and sabermetrics – rather than intuition, statistics or even experience – should decide who is bought, who is traded, who is played and who is benched in professional baseball. It’s a fascinating concept and is based on the true story of Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane.

Pitt plays Beane, who’s failed professional baseball career, despite fantastic predictions by scouts, sets him up to buy into the idea that traditional baseball wisdom is flawed and that maybe there is a better way to predict a baseball player’s future performance. When Oakland, a fiancially poor team, has to bid in the draft against wealthier teams, like New York, they cannot win. But by using analysis and sabermetrics, they can buy cheaper players that will actually outperform some of their more expensive counterparts. Beane first discovers this by observing Chicago’s analyst-geek Peter Brand, played by Jonah Hill. Hill gives a very understated performance; but it is the perfect foil for Beane’s often over-the-top, unorthodox behavior. Balancing out the acting is Philip Seymour Hoffman as Beane’s team manager, Art Howe, who gets a lot of the initial credit for Beane’s success. Eventually Bean’s accomplishments are recognized, and many Major League teams adopt them. But the merits of the whole Moneyball idea are still debated today.

Rated PG-13

For resources for this movie, go to my web page, “Best Movies of 2011.”

Tree Of LIfe with Brad Pitt

Most Unusual, Most Artistic Film – The Tree Of Life

4 Stars – Stream-of-Consciousness Drama- starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain; directed by Bennett Miller – Brace Cove Productions, Cottonwood Pictures, Plan B Entertainment

This is a fascinating film that begins with a quote from Job – “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.” Job 38:4 There is also a voice that states that grace is better than nature because nature is selfish. These two statements set the tone for the film, which is a stream-of-consciousness exploration of a family’s relationship with God, life, nature, each other and finally death. Full of incredible imagery, you will not see a more gorgeously photographed film, nor a more thoughtful one, which is really a meditation, much like the Psalms.

I was hesitant to include this one on my main list, simply because I don’t think most people will understand nor appreciate it. It is full of metaphors, and does not have your typical dramatic construction. Like most stream-of-consciousness pieces, whether film or literature – some of the writings of William Faulkner are an example – it is fragmented, which may confuse some viewers. In addition, there are voice-over, whispered comments throughout – mostly people’s questions to God – so you have to turn the sound up, which the producers recommend at the beginning of the film.

A discerning viewer will find much to think about and like in this film. Not only is it visually stunning, but the soundtrack is powerful. Written and directed by Terrence Malick, and starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain (The Help), give this one a shot and see what you think. The first 30 minutes alone will leave you speechless. And keep in mind that this family is on a journey, so don’t draw too many conclusions too early on. As a matter of fact, put yourself in the shoes of the boys in this film, and remember how things were when you were their age. You will realize that this film is very much like life – our lives – which adds to its fascination.

Rated PG-13

For resources for this movie, go to my web page, “Best Movies of 2011.”

Captain America with Chris Evans

Best Action Adventure – Captain America

5 Stars – Action Adventure- starring Chris Evans, Hugo Weaving and Samuel L. Jackson; directed by Joe Johnston – Marvel Enterprises

Initially, I thought that this was going to be a Disney take on a comic book character. Director Joe Johnston is known for those types of movies: Honey I Shrunk The Kids, The Rocketeer, October Sky, Hidalgo. But maybe that’s not a bad thing, because these are some very good movies. Captain America, like Superman, is one of the more light-weight, light-hearted super heroes with a patriotic flair. Speaking of light-weight, Chris Evans plays Captain America. Regardless of what you may think of Evans, he turns in a very good, very believable performance. As a matter of fact, the entire film, as unlikely as it may seem – after all, a WWII soldier carrying a shield? – succeeds mainly because it does believe in itself. And it believes in America – a characteristic that was strong during WWII, but has waned in recent years. I think America needs a film like this, and a hero like this, to regain some of its innocense and faith.

Speaking of which, those are some of the qualities, along with courage and selflessness, that earmark Evan’s character, Steve Rogers, as the perfect candidate to undergo a military experiment that will transform him from a skinny little dweeb into the well-cut Captain America. Computer graphics are used to put Evan’s head on another actor’s body for the early scenes when he is the kid bullies love to pick on – much as was done with Brad Pitt’s character in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. But once he has filled out, this is all Evans.

I love this kind of film. I love it because it gets back to the essence of what makes a good film – strong story, likable characters and high production values. When a movie has all of these, which this one does, it can be about anything. The subject is really not that important. So, whatever you may think of Captain America, this is one very good film.

Rated PG-13

For resources for this movie, go to my web page, “Best Movies of 2011.”

Super 8 movie

2nd Best Action Adventure – Super 8

4 Stars – Action Adventure – starring Joel Courtney, Kyle Chandler, Elle Fanning, Ron Eldard and Amanda Michalka; written and directed by J.J. Abrams; produced by Steven Spielberg – Paramount Pictures, Amblin Entertainment, Bad Robot

I wasn’t too enthused about this film when I first saw it. It was just too adolescent for my tastes. But after seeing it a second time and thinking about it, it grew on me. I mean, yeah, there is a lot of adolescent humor and dumbness in it, as well as typical Spielbergesque disfunctional families. (I mean, kids throwing things at the dinner table without being reprimanded? Maybe in California, but nowhere else.) However, I could not get the train crash scene out of my mind. It makes the movie.

Yes, this is a typical Spielberg alien invasion movie. But, it has a very good father-son theme, with Kyle Chandler (Saturday Night Lights) playing the single dad of Joel Courtney. There is also a father-daughter theme played out with Ron Eldard (Mystery Alaska) as the single dad of Elle Fanning. So, in spite of a lot of crazy sci-fi stuff going on, there are actually some valuable relational take-aways. By the way, the family with the kids that were throwing things at the table was a third family in the film who are actually nice people. So, you can’t judge a book by its cover, nor can you judge a movie by one viewing.

As far as that train scene: it’s over-the-top, but exciting because it has such good build-up, which could be said of most of this film. This is an entertaining family sci-fi action film, but I do think parents should talk with their kids afterwards about some of the bad behavior.

Rated PG-13

For resources for this movie, go to my web page, “Best Movies of 2011.”

Thor with Chris Hemsworth

3rd Best Action Adventure – Thor

4 Stars – Action Adventure – starring Chris Hemsworth, Anthony Hopkins and Natalie Portman; directed by Kenneth Branagh – Paramount Pictures, Marvel Entertainment

I really like some of Kenneth Branagh’s work: Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet. Others of it, I hate: like Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein and Sleuth. Which is why I have him under the Geniuses and Madmen section of my Christian Manhood web site. He is a man of extremes: it’s either heaven or it’s hell with him. Not a whole lot in between. But he is a genius, and not just as a director. He’s one of the finest actors alive today. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be enough genius type material around for him to do. Anyhow, this is one of his “heavenly” films. I even had a friend suggest that there was a christian message, if not a parallel to the life of Christ, in this movie. That’s what he and his wife saw in it. So, there you go. I didn’t. I just thought it was a very good story. But if someone I respect saw that, then it must be there. And the next time I watch it, I’ll look for it.

Now, Chris Hemsworth: he appeared in Star Trek (2009) as Captain Kirt’s father, George, the one who saves his crew in the beginning of the movie when the Romulans are blasting it to smitherines. I actually thought he would have made a better Captain Kirt than Christ Pine. I’m glad he has made it to a starring role, because he definitely has what it takes: charisma, good looks, as sense of humor and, believe it or not, the ability to act. In this film, he uses them to good effect on Natalie Portman, an earth scientist that, with some of her associates, discovers Thor out in the desert after he’s been cast out of the realm of Asgard by his father Odin, played by Anthony Hopkins. What makes this film so entertaning is that Thor doesn’t realize that he no longer has the power of the god of thunder, since he lost his hammer when he was exiled; nor does he have the authority to command anyone to do anything. It takes him a while to realize that. Mean time, Portman’s character falls in love with him.

You may think that this sounds very superficial. Actually, there’s a point to all this: the reason Odin cast Thor down to earth was to teach him humility. On Asgard, he was arrogant and foolhardy. Now, that’s a pretty big lesson to learn, and a very good reason for a movie. And it works for all ages.

Rated PG-13

For resources for this movie, go to my web page, “Best Movies of 2011.”

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol starring Tom Cruise

Best Action Thriller – Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

5 Stars – Action Thriller – starring Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner and Simon Pegg; directed by Brad Bird – Paramount Pictures, Skydance Productions, Bad Robot

All I can say is, “Unbelievable!” I cannot remember when a movie has had this much action and a great story to boot. Tom Cruise is still the master, not only as actor and stunt man, but also producer. The opening credits are eye candy for the graphically minded, and the first several scenes are some of the most entertaining ever: a Russian prison break to the music of Dean Martin’s “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head?” Cruise is an inmate in that prison; so his future IMF team perpetrate the break that affords his escape. They do so very cleverly. Meanwhile, another agent is making an equally clever escape from some pursuers; but just as he believes he’s in the clear, he is downed by an unknown assassin, who takes what he is carrying – codes that would enable a terrorist to execute Armageddon. The rest of the film is about the IMF team’s attempts to recover those codes and to terminate the thief.

The Mission Impossible series has taken the reverse course of most franchises: it started off weak and has gained momentum throughout. This latest, and probably final, IMF installment is tops – action movies just don’t get any better: the stunts, the special effects and the story are all first-rate. Cruise as well is the best he’s been since Valkyrie, doing most of his own stunts, as well as some decent acting. Some of the locations are genius: besides the Russian prison, the Kemlin, a fabulously tall hotel in Dubai, a sandstorm in the desert, and an automated parking deck feature as set pieces. Most of this film had to be incredibly difficult to shoot, but Cruise’s production company has accomplished their mission perfectly. I was on the edge of my seat throughout, and will definitely want to own this one.

Rated PG-13

For resources for this movie, go to my web page, “Best Movies of 2011.”

Unknown movie with Liam Neeson

2nd Best Action Thriller – Unknown

4 Stars – Action Thriller – starring Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger, January Jones and Aidan Quinn; directed by Jaume Collet-Serra – Warner Bros. Pictures, Dark Castle Entertainment, Panda Productions Inc.

Liam Neeson is usually a safe bet. His high point, as far as action thrillers, was Taken, in 2008. This one is comparatively mild; but it is still entertaining. Neeson plays a scientist attending a bio-tech convention in Berlin with his wife (January Jones). When he discovers that his briefcase, containing all his identity papers and other important documents, was left at the airport, he leaves his wife standing in the hotel lobby and heads back in a taxi. The taxi doesn’t make it; but, instead, ends up in a river, and Neeson ends up in a coma. When he awakens, he tries to pick up where he left off; but no one knows who he is, including his wife, who identifies another man (Aidan Quinn) as her husband. Neeson’s one means of figuring out what is going on is to find the taxi driver (Diane Kruger) that pulled him out of the river. But she doesn’t want to get involved because she is in the country illegally. When bad guys break into her apartment while Neeson is there, kill one of her friends, and tries to kill her, she changes her mind. 🙂 Together, they try to recover Neeson’s identity.

Who Neeson really is, and why no one seems to remember him, is really very clever. The stars are engaging enough to hold our attention, and the plot has enough twists and turns to make for a pretty good ride. This is not exceptional stuff, the way Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is; but it is solid entertainment. And, like I said, you cannot go wrong with Neeson. The rest of the cast also turn in some very good performances.

Rated PG-13

For resources for this movie, go to my web page, “Best Movies of 2011.”

Soul Surfer movie

Best Christian Family Film – Soul Surfer

5 Stars – Christian Family Film – starring AnnaSophia Robb, Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt; written and directed by Sean McNamara – Brookwell-McNamara Entertainment, Enticing Entertainment, Island Film Group

AnnaSophia Robb turns in a top-notch performance playing Bethany Hamilton, a championship teenage Hawaiian surfer who loses her arm to a shark attack. The question is, will she ever surf again? Can she ever surf again, competitively? She enlists one of the top surfing coaches to help her try. But it is Bethany’s faith, and the faith of her family, that determines the outcome. They are strong Christians who attend a beautiful open-air, sea-side church. Before Bethany’s attack, her church’s youth director wants her to go with the youth group on a mission trip; but Bethany can’t, because she needs to train for an upcoming surfing competition. After her attack, she’s available to go. That trip may be just the catalyst she needs to change her attitude about life and whether or not she can still compete in her sport.

This is one amazing movie. Not only is the story incredible, but the surfing cinematography is probably some of the best ever shot. AnnaSophia Robb was trained to surf for the role by Bethany’s own coach; so the surfing is authentic. The rest of the cast is fun and attractive, including Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt as Bethany’s parents, and Ross Thomas and Chris Brochu as her brothers. The Hamiltons are a surfing family – that’s basically all they do. But Quaid had never surfed before, so he had to learn; Hunt was already an amateur surfer.

According to Bethany, “Surfing isn’t the most important thing in life. Love is. I’ve had the chance to embrace more people with one arm than I ever could with two.” Those are the words of a champion – surfer, as well as believer. This film is very inspirational and perfect for the whole family. The features that go along with the movie are as inspirational and entertaining as the film itself.

Rated PG

For resources for this movie, go to my web page, “Best Movies of 2011.”

OTHER FILMS

Courageous – While I continue spiritually to support the Kendrick brothers, who brought us Fireproof and Facing The Giants, I believe they have fallen into a very disappointing place for filmmakers: the production of mediocre, formulaic films. Alex Kendrick should have resigned from the role of actor after their very first film: he lacks everything it takes to be a good actor, and his continued presence on-screen is ruining the brothers’ films. Also, the Kendricks should have already graduated into professional filmmaking, rather than continue to straddle the fence as amatuers. They are being passed by their more professional competitors, such as the makers of The Blindside and Soul Surfer, and rightly so. It’s time for them to get serious, before their productions turn downright moldy. 3-4 Stars. PG-13

Win/Win – Surprising story about a lawyer/wrestling coach, who is having trouble paying the bills, turns into a morality tale about integrity when he decides to become legal guardian for one of his older clients, as well as help his grandson, who turns out to be a very good wrestler. Very good performances by a somewhat qwirky cast. 3-4 Stars. Rated R for language, which is relatively mild

Dolphin Tale – Riding on the coattails of Soul Surfer, this similar, though not nearly as good, film gains its interest from the perplexing delimma of a dolphin that loses its tail and refuses to adapt to an artificial one. In spite of an avalanche of film cliches, it is actually somewhat moving. Based on true events. 3-4 Stars. PG

Cars 2 – I never thought I’d give a Pixar film this low a rating, but it just doesn’t live up to its predecessor, partly because the story is just too far-fetched. These cars belong in Radiator Springs, not in Paris engaged in Bond-like espionage. 3-4 Stars. G

The Green Lantern – This could have been another well-made super hero movie, but it fails for many reasons, not the least of which is a very poor job of explaining some very complex background material. Rather than stretching the Green Lantern saga over several movies, the filmmakers try to cram it all into one film, with disasterous results. As a result, they fail to do justice to one of the most important of the DC comics heroes – and one that fans have been waiting for for a long time. And after all that background history has been “explained,” the story we’re handed is pretty lame. 3 Stars. PG-13

Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows – Part 2 – Not as exciting as the final book, nor the last movie, Part 1. So my only satisfaction comes from the fact that this over-milked franchise is finally over. 3 Stars. PG-13

Cowboys And Aliens – What you would imagine this film is about – cowboys with six-shooters trying to stop aliens with superior weapons – is exactly what it is about. It is totally predictable and leaves one totally flat. From the director of Iron Man. 2-3 Stars. PG-13

The Beaver – This is Mel Gibson and Jodie Foster at their worst. A man possessed by a hand puppet, after gaining national attention, decides to cut off his hand in order to get rid of his nemesis. Absolute trash. 2 Stars. PG-13

I wish I could say I had seen all the best movies this year, but that’s just not possible. Five that I have yet to see, and may still add to my list once I do, are The Adventures Of Tintin, The Descendants, Sherlock Holmes 2, The Next Three Days and We Bought A Zoo. There may be others.

For resources for some of these movies, go to my web page, “Best Movies of 2011.”

WHAT TO LOOK FORWARD TO IN 2012

John Carter Of Mars – Opens March 9, 2012 (USA) – I have been waiting on this film for three years, ever since I finished reading the series, written by Edgar Rice Burroughs, who also gave us Tarzan. Originally planned by Pixar, I don’t think they ended up doing this. It is still distributed by Disney, however. Without Pixar in the mix, I wonder if it will live up to my expectations. Either way, I feel this will be the movie event of the year… at least for me. 🙂 This is the dream movie of any science fiction buff.

October Baby – Opens March 23, 2012 (USA) – A pro-life movie from Provident Films, that helped to bring us Fireproof and Courageous. The slogan is, “Every life is beautiful.”

The Avengers – Opens May 4, 2012 (USA) – All the Marvel Comic super heroes rolled into one, like DC Comic’s Justice League. The question is, with all those avengers in one movie, will we get enough of any one, or too much of all? Can one film really contain that much testosterone and that many egos? I’m not sure how well these unions worked in the comic books, let alone on screen. We’ll see.

Prometheus – June 8, 2012 (USA) – Ridley Scott weaves his magic again, this time without Russell Crowe as his lead actor. Noomi Rapace, Charlize Theron and Patrick Wilson are involved in this rediscovery of the origins of mankind, as well as a battle to save the human race. Gosh, that’s original.

The Amazing Spider-Man – July 3, 2012 (USA) This film stars Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone and Rhys Ifans, and is directed by Marc Webb, so this is a whole new ball of wax from the Peter Parker we’ve come to know. Will it fly? (Or should I say crawl?)

The Dark Knight Rises – July 20, 2012 (USA) I am excited about this. I just hope this series doesn’t continue to get darker and darker. Thank goodness Christian Bale is still in it as Batman. Christopher Nolan is also at the helm again as director.

The Bourne Legacy – August 3, 2012 (USA) – No more Matt Damon. Now Jason Bourne is played by Jeremy Renner, with Rachel Weisz and Edward Norton providing backup. Can Renner fill Damon’s shoes in this very successful action thriller franchise? It retains the same writer-director, Tony Gilroy, so it could actually work.

Taken 2 – October 5, 2012 (USA) – Liam Neeson renews his role as Bryan Mills, the ex CIA agent that is reeking havoc on somebody, but I have no idea who it is this time. Last time, you will remember, it was the kidnappers of his daughter. Different director this time, so who knows what we’ll get.

Skyfall – November 9, 2012 (USA) – A new Daniel Craig 007 flick – yay! The other two were spectacular, so let’s hope that three’s a charm.

Les Miserables – December 7, 2012 (USA) One of the great stories of all time returns to the screen, this time as the musical (it’s about time) with Hugh Jackman playing the hero Jean Valjean, Russell Crowe playing his nemesis Inspector Javert, Anne Hathaway as Fatine, Eddie Redmayne as Marius, Samantha Barks as Eponine and Aaron Tveit as Enjoiras. Directed by Tom Hooper.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – December 14, 2012 (USA) I’m not too excited about this. It seems somewhat anti-climactic after the Lord Of The Rings Trilogy.

What amazes me are how many horror films there are slated for 2012. Has America gone totally mad, or is that just easy money, like drugs, prostitution and porn? Yes and yes.

WHAT’S MISSING

What’s missing in movies today that movies in the past possessed in spades is charm, which is one of the qualities that endears an audience to a film and gives it longevity. Special effects have mowed down all other qualities in film, and it’s time to get back to what made films in the past great. Only an empty-headed, technology-crazed society would think that special effects are enough. Charm is a quality that both characters and story need if a film is to become a classic and survive from generation to generation. It is a quality that a society needs if it is to survive. Charm is the quality that marks all Pixar pictures. What better endorsement do you need than that?

Another quality that is missing from most films today is grace. Fortunately, it does appear occasionally, as it did this year in The Tree Of Life. When a film has grace, audiences love it and realize there is something different about that film. It’s a quality that you can’t get enough of, and it makes you want what the characters in the film have. It’s God’s fingerprint on a film.

Another missing quality is discretion, which is the better part of valor. Directors today want to show everything. They don’t leave anything to the imagination. That is not good artistry, nor is it good humanity. A woman in clothes is sexier than one that’s naked because it creates mystery and makes one wonder. Once she’s exposed, the mystery’s gone and so is the wonder. By showing everything, directors today are raising an ante that future directors cannot possibly meet. There will eventually be a point at which a director will not be able to show any more nudity, any more violence, any more realism. At that point, movies will degenerate into something more perverse, or disintegrate entirely. It’s time to get back to discretion in film, and life.

Do you realize that while the Motion Picture Production Code was in effect, which was from 1934 to 1968, the greatest films that have ever been made – the films we today call “classics” – were produced? 1939, the year when the Code was at its height, has been called the greatest year of cinema. More classic films were produced that year than in any year since. Today, there is no Code. Producers can make anything they like, and they are churning out the trash as fast as they can… and people are buying it.

There’s something to be said for discipline. Having restraint makes one more creative. If you can do anything, you will, and it will be the same old anything that everyone else is doing. I’d like to see us get back to a Production Code in this country. I think it would give us better films. But it will take the American public demanding it of our government. It was the threat of government intervention that got the Motion Picture Association of America to come up with the Code the first time. It can happen again if we make it happen.

For resources for this article, go to my web page, “Best Movies of 2011” – you won’t be disappointed!

If you’d like to see more of my movie reviews, go to Movies By Decade and Movie Lists

Waitsel Smith

Waitsel Smith, February 15, 2012

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Text © 2012 Waitsel Smith. Photos © the Respective Movie Studios. All Rights Reserved.

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