Well, here we are again -- the final week of another year. No movies opening to provide fodder for this space. What to do? Sigh!
I know. I'll write about the movies I saw during 2011. I'll make a list of the best -- no, even my ego won't allow "best." Besides, what is best? What criteria do use? How about a list of movies that I saw, enjoyed and would happily see again? And that, of course, creates other problems in terms of movies that have not opened in St. Louis yet, and some movies that I did not see, for one reason or another.
All right. Herewith, an arbitrary decision. My favorites, and least-favorites, that opened and were discussed in this space during 2011. The list includes 12 that I liked a lot and 10 that I cordially despised. Standards? I see a lot of movies and have throughout my life, especially in the 40 years I've been writing about them professionally. Regular readers will understand that my tastes are quirky. I have a peculiar sense of humor. I like some movies that other critics, and movie-goers despise, and vice versa. I was one of the rare critics to dislike "The Way We Were," way back when. I'll probably offend some people, though I'd rather pique their curiosity and, perhaps, engage in a discussion.
Well, enough about you. Here's my list, and it's in chronological order so that you can more easily find the original article from this very blog file.
Casino Jack (Jan. 7): St. Louisan George Hickenlooper saved his best work for last. His direction of a bitter tale based on the life and works of Jack Abramoff, con man and lobbyist and friend to our senators and representatives was brilliant, and Kevin Spacey delivered a matchless performance in the title role. Hickenlooper died in October, 2010, at the age of 47.
Rabbit Hole (Jan. 14): Nicole Kidman never has been more powerful, or given herself up to a role more completely, than in a movie that explores the after-effects of the death of a child. It's based on David Lindsay-Abaire's play that ran in the Rep's studio a few years ago, and he also wrote the screenplay. John Cameron Mitchell, also a playwright, directed with style. Kidman and Aaron Eckhart are the parents of a boy who ran out of his yard and was hit by a car driven by a high school student, Dianne Wiest portrays Kidman's mother.
Cedar Rapids (Feb. 18): I described this movie as being rude, crude, tasteless and vulgar. Also very funny. Phil Johnston's story of a weekend convention of Midwestern insurance salesmen is hilarious, more so if you like rude, crude, tasteless and vulgar, and funny performances by John C. Reilly, Ed Helms, Sigourney Weaver, Anne Heche and Alia Shawkat. There are times when gross is good, and this is a giant sale from the gross-ery store.
Of Gods and Men (March 25): A strange juxtaposition of films, but coincidence is stranger than fiction, and this story, based on fact, took place in 1996, when a group of Algerian rebels threatened a monastery. A group of French Cistercian Trappist monks faced almost certain death but would not leave their home, where they produced honey and did good to the poor people of the village. Michel Lonsdale and Lambert Wilson lead a wonderful cast in a heart-rending tale directed by Xavier Beauvois. Lonsdale quotes Blaise Pascal, "Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from a religious conviction."
Winter in Wartime (April 29): A Dutch film, set during World War II, that is a coming-of-age tale and one about fathers and sons. A teen-aged Dutch boy, son of the mayor of his village, helps an English pilot evade capture and eventually escape. At the same time, the rigors of war in winter are shown in a perfect representation of an event only 66 years ago, but largely forgotten.
Midnight in Paris (June 10): The longest St. Louis run of a film in many years (more than six months), and a return to joyous form by Woody Allen. A fantasy of Paris in its glory years of the 1920s and its even more plush times as the 19th century turned into the 20th. Owen Wilson delights as an American honeymooner who meets a list of classic characters from Ernest Hemingway to F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, including Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Cole Porter, Paul Gaugin and Salvador Dali. A wonderful fantasy.
Sarah's Key (July 29): A multi-generational tale of a little Jewish girl and her brother, set among the Nazi occupation of France, with Melusine Mayance showing much skill as the title character. Many years later, Kristen Scott Thomas as an American writer with a French architect husband, moves into the apartment. Gilles Paquet-Brenner directs intelligently from the novel by Tatiana de Rosney.
The Descendants (Nov. 23): The ubiquitous George Clooney, perhaps the most relaxed and understated movie actor since Cary Grant, looks as good in Hawaii as he does everywhere else, as he deals with becoming a widower and the single father to two daughters while mysteries and real-estate deals keep him occupied. Alexander Payne's direction is relaxed and on target, and young Shailene Woodley is remarkable as Cooney's teen-aged daughter. So is Nick Krause as Sid, her boy friend.
Into the Abyss (Nov. 23): German director Werner Herzog is a genius, and shows his skill in a documentary about a man just eight days before his execution for murder. Michael Perry and Jason Burkett killed three people just to steal a car, and Perry is about to die. Herzog is a low-key interviewer, talking to Perry, his father(also in prison) and others who were involved. The aura of "In Cold Blood" hangs in the air and Herzog's movie stays in one's mind for a long, long time.
My Week With Marilyn (Nov. 25): Michelle Williams doesn't look like Marilyn Monroe but she has the moves, the moods, the aura, in a lovely homage based on an absolutely other-worldly experience by Colin Clark. Kenneth Branagh sparkles as Laurence Olivier, who cannot cope with Monroe's antics; she cannot cope with being an actor. Delightful comedy, perfect date movie.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Dec. 20): Rooney Mara is only an eyelash behind Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander, the toughest cookie in Stockholm, in a fine adaptation of Stieg Larsson's novel by Steven Zaillian. David Fincher directs the long, tense, powerful tale, and Daniel Craig is a slightly different, but equally strong, Mikael Blomkvist. Long, but exciting and tension without pause.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Dec. 23): With Gary Oldman in a marvelous portrayal of George Smiley, the great spy novel by John Le Carre comes to the big screen. Tomas Afredson directs a long but fast-moving story of English spies and those who spy on them. A large, impressive cast that includes Colin Firth, John Hurt and a who's who of English actors and a taut, plot line. Mystery fans will be very happy; so will movie buffs
And toting the push brooms behind the circus parade: These films have one common thread. They're dumb, and the filmmakers treat the audience as being dumb, too, No imagination, no spark, neither grace, nor charm, nor humor. And the losers are: Somewhere (Jan. 14), The Eagle (Feb.11), The Battle of Los Angeles (March 11), Ka-Boom (March 25), Heartbeats (April 29), White Irish Drinkers (May 6), Hesher (May 13), Meek's Cutoff (May 13), The Future (Aug. 19), Machine Gun Preacher (Oct. 7).
And a Happy, movie-filled 2012. . . .