Friday, December 30, 2011

Top 10 Best & Worst of 2011

Top 10 Films of 2011 (in Descending order)-
The fantastic Paul Giamatti continues his own winning streak with this terrific human comedy.
X-Men: First Class- First class all the way. Great script and well cast. This reboots the X-Men franchise.
Crazy Stupid Love- Smart script and very well acted by a terrific cast.
Moneyball- A very entertaining movie about the business of baseball. Brad Pitt has charisma to spare and Jonah Hill finally shows he can really act.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo- Excellent adaptation of the book. Rooney Mara was very good but I still liked Roomi Rapace better as Lisbeth in the Swedish version.
War Horse- Hope, survival and love through the eyes and actions of a magnificent horse, beautifully shot by Steven Spielberg.
The Descendants- Terrific drama about life’s complications. Alexander Paine does it again and with a great cast.
Incendies- Unforgettable foreign drama about a family with a mysterious past. Devastating and haunted me for months.
The Artist- Who would think a black & white silent film could be such an wonderful delight.
Hugo- The best use of 3-D since Avatar. Martin Scorsese directs a great cast in a wonderful love story to the movies.

Honorable Mention-
Horrible Bosses- A raunchy but hysterical comedy with a very funny Jennifer Aniston.
Melancholia- Beautifully photographed and orchestrated metaphor of depression. Kirsten Dunst’s best work and a triumph for Lars van Triers.
Take Shelter- A man losing his grip on reality…or is he?

Actors who were great but will be ignored come Oscar time-
Michael Shannon in “Take Shelter”
Dominick Cooper in “The Devil’s Double”

Top 10 Worst of 2012 (in descending order)-
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark- just this movie.
The Adjustment Bureau- Good chemistry between Matt Damon and Emily Blunt can’t save this disappointing story about destiny vs. free will.
Unknown- Silly Thriller with Liam Neeson that can’t be saved by a decent twist.
The Thing- A totally unnecessary remake.
Young Adult- marketed as a comedy, this is a train wreck of a movie that, despite good acting, sucks the life out of you.
The Rum Diary- Johnny Depp as a lifeless Hunter S. Thompson in a thin, fictional telling of his early reporting days in Puerto Rico.
Tower Heist- The audience gets robbed.
Your Highness- Aiming at teenage boys, it will hit its mark. For everyone else, it’s your lowness.
Drive- A very polarizing film. You either love it or hate it. I found it very disappointing. Long, boring and violent.
The Tree of Life- Another love it or hate it film. For my taste, it was more like The Tree of Slow Death. It looked great but boring and pretentious.

The Descendants

Alexander Paine is not a prolific filmmaker having made only a handful of films since "Election" in 1999, but every film has been a wonderful examination of the human condition. "The Descendants" is a dramady examining how a family in Hawaii copes with a tragedy and it's consequences. Co-written for the screen and directed by Mr. Paine, he once again delivers a winning script and terrific performances.

While the major plot point may seem tragic, the film is really about so much more. It's themes include love, forgiveness, and acceptance. And while dramatic, it's also filled with much humor. Credit the ensemble cast for an honest and warm portrait of a fractured family finding it's way through life's complications. George Clooney is so natural as the father of two daughters he barely knows, it's his best performance in years disappearing completely into the role. Shailene Woodley co-stars as his seventeen year old daughter, Alexandra and she's a natural talent. Her scenes with Mr. Clooney show great maturity for a young actress. Mary Birdsong plays Scotti, the ten year old daughter, who is a total delight. Nick Krause plays Sid, Alexandra's friend who just may be smarter than he looks and it's also fun to see Robert Forster again, playing Mr. Clooney's cranky father-in-law. Matthew Lillard, Judy Greer, and Beau Bridges round out the terrific cast.

As a location, the islands of Hawaii become another character as Mr. Paine reveals the ordinary lives going on behind the vacation paradise, exemplified by Mr. Clooney's opening monologue. And yet, the beauty of the islands can't be denied in many of the film's scenes.

This film has been out a while and has already received many accolades. It deserves them. It's easily one of the best films of the year.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

A Dangerous Method

Director David Cronenberg has visualized a compelling new drama about the early days of Psychoanalysis and it's pioneers Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and Sabina Spielrein. His terrific cast brings these historical characters to vivid life in the dawn of the 20th century.

The ubiquitous Michael Fassbender shines in his portrayal of Carl Jung. The film introduces us to Dr. Jung when he begins to treat Ms. Spielrein for "Hysteria". Using the "Talking Method" first developed by Freud, Jung cures Ms. Spielrein, who later in life became one of the first female psychoanalysts. Sabina Spielrein is played by Keira Knightley and she is brilliant. It's the best work of her career. Professor Freud is played by Viggo Mortensen, who I never could imagine in the role but he is a wonderful surprise.

The film explores the complicated relationship between the three characters, ignited by Ms. Spielrein. It is her case that brings Jung and Freud together and ultimately plays a part in what separates them. While this is a film of words and ideas, credit Mr. Cronenberg and his cast for making psychoanalysis sexy.

I certainly saw these people differently from what I remember in psychology 101 and I left the theater wanting to know more, especially about the fascinating Ms. Spielrein.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Skin I Live In

This is the latest film from Spanish director Pedro Almodovar. It stars Antonio Banderas (who started his career with Almodovar), Elena Anaya and Marisa Paredes (a longtime star of many Almodovar films). It is a very twisted Hitchcockian melodrama that you will either accept or find totally absurd.

Mr. Banderas has never been more suave and debonair as he channels Cary Grant in his role of a plastic surgeon with a very dark secret. Dr. Ledgard is experimenting on a new type of human skin. He has a young woman, Ms. Anaya, prisoner in his home that he uses as a living pallet for his work. Who she is and how she got there is slowly revealed in a flashback that is more than just bizarre.

Mr. Almodovar's direction is sharp and precise. There is fine attention to every detail and his use of color, especially red, bursts through the screen. The orchestral score enhances the visuals. Besides obvious Hitchcock, there are elements of Bunuel, Cronenberg and even his own earlier work, "Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down". It is an exploration of love and obsession that knows no bounds.

It is a stylish yet macabre suspense thriller. It contains moments of sex and violence with a revelation that one may find very disturbing. It you are looking for something truly different, this is it.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

War Horse

Steven Spielberg is the perfect director to blend action, sweeping drama, sentimentality, and high emotion brilliantly in this story of a magnificent horse named Joey. The plot is tailor made for a director of Mr. Spielberg's talents. He can show you the horror of war and at the same time, the schmaltz of a final shot taken right out of "Gone With The Wind". This is a grand story of love, survival, and honor between a horse and every life he touches, human or otherwise in a time of madness.

The story is simple on the surface. When England goes to war with Germany, thousands of horses are shipped to France for the British Calvary. One of these horses is Joey, who is sold by his owner to save the family farm, even though his teenage son, Albert, can't bear to lose his beloved horse. Albert soon joins the war in an effort to find Joey among all the chaos. Once overseas, we follow Joey as he protects Topthorn, another horse he has befriended, as the two follow a torturous path through war-torn France. The human actors, including Emily Watson, Peter Mullen, Jeremy Irvine, and David Thewlis, take a back seat to the relationship between Joey and Topthorn, which is the most honest and beautiful bond in the film.

Mr. Spielberg films the battles on the open fields and in the trenches with the same intensity of his earlier work in "Saving Private Ryan" but resists the graphic detail, ensuring a "family film". Even the way he frames an execution (fantastic by the way) is family-friendly. Besides the remarkable shots on the battlefields, the film is filled with gorgeous images of the various landscapes and of course, the horses themselves.

Once again teaming with John Williams, Mr. Spielberg stirs our emotions with powerful orchestrations that are totally manipulative at times. Of course, this is to be expected in a Steven Spielberg film so it's easily forgiven. Besides the music, the cinematography is breathtaking and there are visual moments that will stay with you long after the film ends.

Besides your popcorn, make sure you have tissues ready when the lights go down. And if you have the chance, see "War Horse" the play, live at Lincoln Center for a thrilling night of theater.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Director David Fincher and screenwriter Steven Zaillian adapt an English language version of the acclaimed novel. Having read the book and seen the original Swedish version of the film, it's hard not to think about them while watching this film. If you've never seen the first film, you will have a purer opinion about the acting and how the material is handled.

Mr. Fincher has directed an taut and edgy version of the book. He sets an ominous tone right from the opening credits and as the story unfolds, you find yourself more and more unsettled. This is a story of dark and nasty secrets. The screenplay by Mr. Zaillian edits the book in a very efficient way removing a few unnecessary subplots but otherwise staying true to the novel except for an slightly altered ending. The setting is the same and you can feel the Swedish cold in every scene.

The cast is stellar with Daniel Craig starring as investigative journalist, Mikael Blomkvist along with Christopher Plummer, Robin Wright, Stellan Skarsgard, Joely Richardson and as the title character, Rooney Mara. Mr. Craig brings full dimension to Blomkvist and Ms. Mara gives a fearless performance in a very difficult role. On her own merit, she captures "Lisbeth Salander" very well. Unfortunately as I mentioned earlier, having seen the original film, I can't help but compare her to Roomi Rapace as "Lisbeth". Ms. Mara, while appearing tough as nails, still has frailty that you never saw in Ms. Rapace. She also brings a bit of dark humor not seen in the Swedish version. Sometimes you identify an actor with a particular role so deeply that you just can't imagine anyone else in the part. For me, Ms. Rapace will always be Lisbeth Salander.

The editing, music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and cinematography are all excellent and help provide the ingredients for Mr. Fincher's vision. I wouldn't call this a remake as much as an alternative version of the same source material. Mr. Fincher makes it his own and I look forward to the next installment in the trilogy.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Albert Nobbs

Glenn Close is simply astonishing in the title role of this new drama by director Rodrigo Garcia. Ms. Close also has a credit as co-screenwriter and producer. It is a role she played in a short run on the NY stage and now she breathes life into Albert Nobbs on screen.

This is the story of a woman who passes as a man in 19th century Dublin, working as a butler in a small hotel. No one suspects Albert is really a man until Hubert Page enters her life. When Hubert discovers the truth and keeps the secret, a strong friendship begins and Hubert encourages Albert to take more control of her life.

The film co-stars Janet McTeer, Mia Wasikowska, Pauline Collins, Aaron Johnson and Brenda Gleeson. The entire cast is wonderful, in particular Ms. McTeer who should gain a supporting actress nomination come Oscar time. However, the film belongs, heart and soul to Ms. Close. It is a remarkable performance that is ultimately heartbreaking to watch.

Albert Nobbs is a character and film that will stay with you, long after it ends.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

If you are looking for overstuffed holiday entertainment, then this is the film for you. Capitalizing on the success of the first film, director Guy Ritchie has decided bigger is better and assaults your senses with even more bullets, bombs, and explosions. Not necessarily the case, Guy.

Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law are back as Holmes and Watson and while Dr. Watson marries in the film, this is clearly a bromance between the two, as his new wife is literally pushed into the background. Noomi Rapace (so wonderful in the original "Girl With The Dragon Tattoo") co-stars in her first English film as a gypsy who holds a key to the mysterious plot. Engaging enough, she unfortunately takes a back seat to Holmes and Watson hot on the trail of Professor Moriarity, played by Jared Harris (who has morphed into his father).

Mr. Ritchie tries to intensify the action using "Matrix" style "slow-mo" and while it's artistic, it's overuse simply becomes annoying. There is plenty of action but everything eventually becomes tedious and you're ready for it to end. While the film tries hard to entertain (and does to an extent), better editing would have trimmed the fat and made it more enjoyable.

Monday, December 19, 2011


Michael Fassbender gives a fearless performance as a sex addict spiraling out of control in the new film from director/writer Steve McQueen. This portrait of an addict is uncompromising, raw and very intense. It's not an easy film to watch but it's a fascinating and honest look at an addiction, not often explored (if ever) on film.

When Brandon's (Mr. Fassbender) sister, Sissy comes to visit, old wounds are opened and his world begins to unravel. Sissy is played by Carey Mulligan, who also gives a remarkable performance. Both characters are damaged goods and Mr. Fassbender and Ms. Mulligan hold nothing back for the camera. I can't say enough for the two brave performances of these actors. You feel their pain.

Mr. McQueen films New York in the darkness and shadows, taking us down dangerous paths with little respite. In some ways, the film reminded me of "The Panic In Needle Park", another classic film of addiction albeit a different kind of drug. It has the same raw power and naked (no pun intended) honesty about it's subject.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Young Adult

Marketed as a comedy, this train wreck of a story is anything but funny. It's the second collaboration between director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody but it's a huge disappointment after the success of "Juno".

Charlize Theron is Mavis, an unhappy writer who returns to her hometown looking to reunite with her high school boyfriend. Mavis has very few redeeming qualities and watching her awkward attempts to win back Buddy Slade, played by Patrick Wilson, is difficult to watch. Upon her return, the one person Mavis does connect with is Matt, played by Patton Oswalt, when these two damaged people find common ground in their failures.

Ms. Theron acting is excellent but her character is filled with such self loathing, she's impossible to like and the slow, boring pace of the story just contributes to the cloud of depression that hangs over the entire film. When the movie ended, I felt the need to see another movie right away just to wash away the memory of "Young Adult".

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Based on the acclaimed cold war novel by John LeCarre, this cerebral thriller is more wordplay than gunplay and features an outstanding cast of pedigree British actors. Gary Oldman is "Oscar" perfect as George Smiley, the retired spy asked to find a mole at the top of British Intelligence in the early 70's. With unerring restraint, Smiley goes methodically about his work barely raising his voice or even lifting a finger. Dare I say, Mr. Oldman gives Sir Alec Guinness (who created the role in the original mini-series) a run for his money.

The film co-stars John Hurt as "Control" and Colin Firth, Toby Jones and Ciaran Hinds as fellow intelligence officers. Also in key roles are Tom Hardy and Mark Strong doing some of their best work to date. One actor I'm not familiar with is Benedict Cumberbatch who plays Smiley's assistant. This is his largest role so far in a young career and he is quite good. You expect great work from this ensemble and they don't disappoint.

Director Thomas Alfredson does a splendid job recreating the time period and there isn't a false note anywhere in the film. The one thing it does lack is warmth but then again, this was still the "cold war" and the British didn't coin the phrase "stiff upper lip" for nothing. The film feels as cold and calculating as it's characters and yet, it's totally appropriate to the story.

Don't expect gunfights and explosions. This is by no means, "James Bond" but rather a grandmaster matching wits with his opponent in an tense chess match. It's a complex, yet entertaining film that an audience should happily give it's full attention.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Artist

Who would think you would appreciate a black & white, silent film in 2011? "The Artist" is an absolute delight from start to finish. Writer/director Michel Hazanavicius crafts a Hollywood love letter to the age of silent movies. There hasn't been anything like this since the Mel Brooks comedy "Silent Movie" and it is a treat to experience a film the way an audience did in 1929.

To be fair, there are a few well placed sounds that come as a surprise but 99% of the film is truly silent. And once the novelty wears off, you are already engaged in the story and charmed by the lead actors and a very clever Jack Russell terrier. Uggy the dog steals every scene he's in but the film really belongs to Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo.

Mr. Dujardin is best known for the French spy spoofs, "OSS 117: Lost in Rio" and "OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies", two films previously done with Mr. Hazanavicius. In those comedies, he was a charming but clueless secret agent. In "The Artist", Mr. Dujardin is more charming than ever but he also reveals a depth of acting (and dancing) that we have not seen before. Ms. Berenice may be new to American audiences but she will not be forgotten. She displays a wide emotional range and is filled with unlimited energy, acting and dancing her way into your memory. The two stars have great chemistry together.

The film co-stars John Goodman, James Cromwell and Penelope Ann Miller. All three are terrific in non- speaking parts that let their expressions do the talking. The cinematography is sharp and clear and the score is just wonderful, substituting music for dialogue that works so well.

"The Artist" is joyful entertainment. Don't miss it.

Monday, December 05, 2011


I went into this film knowing nothing about the story, only that it was directed by Martin Scorsese and filmed in 3-D. What an amazing film it turned out to be. Mr. Scorsese has made the best 3-D film, since "Avatar". His love of his craft requires no less than a medium used to perfection to illustrate his story.

We learn early on that Hugo, played by Asa Butterfield, is an orphan living in the Paris train station some time after World War One. The station is populated with many colorful characters that are touched by Hugo in various ways. One in particular is Georges, played by Sir Ben Kingsley, an old man who runs a toy shop in the station and carries a heavy secret. When Hugo discovers that secret, what begins as the adventures of a young boy fascinated with all things mechanical, slowly transforms into a love letter to the art of film.

The wondrous set of the train station itself becomes a character in the story, heightened by the inspired use of the latest 3-D technology. The sharp colors and details enhance every scene. The supporting cast includes Chloe Grace Moretz, Sacha Baron Cohen, Christopher Lee, Jude Law, Michael Studbarg and Emily Mortimer. Mr. Scorsese brings out the best in his entire ensemble but it is Mr. Kingsley and young Mr. Butterfield who truly shine.

While marketed as a family film, "Hugo" contains some scenes that may be too intense for young viewers and while charming and magical, the eventual revelations of the film may be too "adult" as well. Having said that, "Hugo" is still a wonderful achievement that expresses so well, why cinema matters.

My Week With Marilyn

Michele Williams is simply brilliant as Marilyn Monroe in this new film based on the true memoir of Colin Clark, a third assistant director on the film "The Prince & The Showgirl". Sir Laurence Olivier directed and starred along side Ms. Monroe in the "light comedy". The behind the scenes look at what happened during the filming of that movie is the basis of the new film.

Ms. Williams channels Marilyn perfectly. It is Oscar worthy acting with a guaranteed nomination. She is supported by a very funny Kenneth Branagh as Sir Laurence and Eddie Redmayne as Colin Clark, who begins the film a naïve boy of twenty three but grows up quickly thanks to Ms. Monroe. The film also has a pedigree supporting cast with Julia Ormond, Dougray Scott, Judi Dench, Emma Watson, Dominic Cooper, Zoe Wanamaker, Toby Jones and Sir Derek Jacobi, all playing the real people orbiting Marilyn's world.

On the surface, it's a film about making a movie but it's really a journey into the fragile psyche of Marilyn Monroe at the time and the true friendship she develops with Mr. Clark. It's an interesting story made memorable by Ms. Williams amazing performance.


The latest "blood and bullets" drama from writer/director Takeshi Kitano. Taking place in the contemporary world of the Japanese "Yakuza", fans of this genre will not be disappointed. Mr. Kitano's film is sleek and highly stylized, filled with great imagery. It tells the tale of warring families seeking favor with the "Chairman" and it's filled with double and triple crosses along with an escalating body count.

We've seen this kind of story before and the plot holds no surprises other than who will ultimately survive but Mr. Kitano's sense of poetry in his visuals help heighten this entertaining crime drama. The symmetry of the Yakuza vehicles juxtaposed with the henchmen in well tailor suits makes for a memorable opening alone.

Mr. Kitano also plays a starring role in the film as his alter ego, "Beat Kitano" as Otomo, an underling to the "Chairman". His character is of the same quiet but deadly killer he's played in many of his films. Honor among thieves is an important part of a Japanese crime film and even in betrayal, honor is always a priority, whether you are an underboss or a corrupt policeman. Otomo finds out that honorable or not, no one is untouched by the violence, which may well be Mr. kitano's point.