A few movies failed to make my favorite list because of negative content which overshadowed the positive themes they contained. Keep in mind that "best lists" always are subjective. My purpose is not to promote any movie, nor my opinion, but rather to serve as a reporter. Given the synopsis and content of a film, you can decide for yourselves if a film is suitable for your viewing.
OK, here we go. The best films of 2011:
-- "The Tree of Life" is a thought-provoking hymn to life starring Brad Pitt (in an Oscar-worthy performance), Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain. It is a story of a Midwestern family coping with a death, embittered relationships, and haunting questions concerning God and the afterlife.
With a tip of the hat to Stanley Kubrik's 2001, Terrance Malick's viscerally emotional feast is sparked by exquisite imagery that is imaginative and profound, intimate and epic. The Tree of Life fearlessly examines esoteric questions with a sensitivity that avoids piety or prejudice. The film's intent is not to proselytize, but rather, to suggest that we rely on faith when the conundrums of the day overwhelm. At least that is what happened for me. A lot of other people were bored and walked out. Rated PG-13 for some thematic material and some language. (For a more detailed review visit http://www.previewonline.org/newondvd/treeoflife.html.)
-- "Hugo" is a beautifully made film, one that touches our hearts as it salutes the imagination of previous storytellers. A clean film, here language is used to uplift, not abuse. And tragedy, while incorporated to reveal the darker side of man's nature, is never allowed to molest viewers. Though CGI and 3D add a flourish to the proceedings, they never outweigh the story. Worthy of Oscar attention for its technical aspects, Hugo also charms and satisfies the child in us all. Rated PG (mild thematic material). http://www.previewonline.org/rev.php3?3730.
-- "Moneyball" is based on the true story of Billy Beane, once a would-be baseball superstar who turned his fiercely competitive nature toward a career in management. The resulting film is just what we have come to expect from screenwriter Aaron Sorkin ("The Social Network," "Charlie Wilson's War," "The Rock," "A Few Good Men"), perceptive writing that's also witty and absorbing. Director Bennett Miller ("Capote") uses every element at a director's disposal to hold our attention while he takes his time to tell his story. The cast is superb, with special kudos to Brad Pitt, who though he seems to channel Robert Redford in appearance, style and mannerisms, proves he is more than a handsome movie star. The guy is a very good actor. Rated PG-13 for some strong language. http://www.previewonline.org/rev.php3?3710
-- "There Be Dragons" is an epic tale about war, love, the destructiveness of envy, and the healing power of forgiveness. Along with its penetrating dialogue and dynamic performances, the film spotlights a character who truly follows biblical teachings. He's an example of someone who takes his vows seriously, a devotee of the power of forgiveness and self-sacrifice. Rated PG-13 for some language. http://www.previewonline.org/rev.php3?3675
-- "War Horse," perhaps the best movie adventure of the year, begins as a boy-and-his-horse movie, then progresses into a World War I epic fable, with the animal affecting the lives of several people. I guess what truly makes this a wonderful moviegoing experience is the fact that the film is guileless, totally devoid of cynicism, an ingredient that dominates far too many releases garnering Oscar attention. As well as beckoning us back into the family fold of mankind, director Steven Spielberg also takes us out of CGI-governed storytelling, back to the days when story and character were the lead characters. The maker of "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan" has given us a perfect movie. Indeed, it is a triumph, a work of art. Rated PG-13 for some sequences of war violence.
-- "The Artist," a silent film about the silent era of movies, reminds moviegoers of the power of film imagery. It also makes a powerful point -- when life seems darkest, the next day can offer hope and light. It is the best film of the year. Rated PG-13 for a disturbing image and a crude gesture. http://moviereporter.com/reviews/display.php?id=2052
-- "Courageous" made my list for two reasons. First, the production values continue to improve with this, the fourth release from Sherwood Pictures, the moviemaking ministry of Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga. In this story about four policemen attempting to become more committed fathers, it's evident that there's more going on than just a bigger budget. There's also a growth as filmmakers. And second, one gets the impression that while this is their ministry, at the same time, those in charge understand the No. 1 rule of cinematic storytelling -- the story must come first. Rated PG-13 for some violence and drug content. http://www.previewonline.org/rev.php3?3712
"BEST OF" HONORABLE MENTION:
-- Seven Days in Utopia. G. http://www.previewonline.org/rev.php3?3706
-- Buck. PG. http://www.previewonline.org/rev.php3?3687
-- Of Gods and Men. PG-13. http://moviereporter.com/reviews/display.php?id=1950
-- Jane Eyre. PG-13. http://www.previewonline.org/rev.php3?3668
-- The Help. PG-13 http://www.previewonline.org/rev.php3?3702
-- Midnight in Paris. PG-13 http://www.previewonline.org/rev.php3?3683
THE "GOOD, BUT ..." LIST
The following motion pictures were perceptive and entertaining, and would have made my list of favorites from 2011 but for their excessive and dispiriting content.
-- "The Descendents" (rated R). Hawaii resident Matt King (George Clooney) finds his life suddenly dysfunctional. His adulterous wife is in a coma, he's lost the Papa connection with his two troubled daughters, ages 10 and 17, and his relatives want him to sell the land that has been in their family ever since the days of Hawaiian royalty.
There's so much good about this film, from the beautiful island locations to the insightful story to the engrossing performances (look for Clooney and Woodley to get Oscar noms). As the plot progresses, you see that he is a man ashamed of his faults, one who wants to be a better person and do the right things. Sadly, the film's family has little regard for authority and everyone freely curses, both kid and adult, using both obscenities and irreverence toward God. It can be argued that the filmmaker is using this bad behavior to help define their characters, but we are still being bombarded by the objectionable content as in film after film. What's more, there's no true spiritual insight. In this film the only reason for God or Christ is to call upon their names in order to relieve frustration. http://www.previewonline.org/rev.php3?3729
-- "The Ides of March" (R) looks at the corruption of power, and in no other arena is that corruption of power more evident than the political one. The film reveals two things that bring the fall of so many -- the lure of power and, of course, sex. When all else fails, Satan uses the opposite sex to destroy a family, an occupation and an ideal. The Ides of March has the best of Hollywood exposing what often manipulates the race for the top. Alas, it's also the most cynical film you will see this year or perhaps any other. After a viewing, you'll always wonder if he means it when a politician says, "God bless you. And God bless the United States of America." http://www.previewonline.org/rev.php3?3714
-- "Margin Call" (R), a morality play laced with enough obscene language to make David Mamet's ears bleed, is both enticing and horrifying. The suspense-driven story is a sort of exposé, one that frighteningly examines the speculative structure of Wall Street and those who man that sector. The film point out what happens when capitalism is corrupted by greed and manned by people with no moral scope. Alas, its content was over the top. The f-word, alone, is used 100 times. Enough said. http://www.previewonline.org/rev.php3?3722
-- "Warrior" (PG-13). Same complaint. When I asked the filmmaker, Gavin O'Connor, why he put in the 20 obscenities and three or four profanities, he answered: "The language in the film represents the messiness of life. I thought that if I kept things squeaky clean, it wouldn't be reflective of life ..." Sounds reasonable on paper, but in Exodus 20, the instruction is clear and devoid of addendums: "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain ..." http://www.previewonline.org/rev.php3?3708
THE WORST FILM OF 2011
Believe it or not, it's difficult for me to criticize those who attempt to entertain us. And I mean no disrespect concerning the abilities of those involved in the following production. It's the agenda I take exception to, not so much the artistic endeavors.
"J. Edgar" (R) is a good movie, some will argue. If you read my review http://www.previewonline.org/rev.php3?3725), you'll learn more in detail why I disagree. But here's the reason it has become my least favorite of 2011. The entire production seems built on supposition rather than fact. As directed by Clint Eastwood, it is cynical in its construction.
I understand, J. Edgar is not a documentary, but many scenes are presumptuous, done in the incendiary style of Oliver Stone (who never met an authority figure he didn't mock). No one would have had access to the private moments that make up almost the entirety of J. Edgar. So, why this character assassination of the formulator of the FBI some 40 years after his death?
I don't mean to defend J. Edgar Hoover, but Leonardo DiCaprio's take on the man is more a caricature than a three-dimensional portrait. We see a dark side, but little else, causing J. Edgar to come across as if an agenda was the driving force, not storytelling.
Sometime in the 1990s, a staff of eight researchers worked for more than a year investigating Hoover's life and the various allegations that had surfaced after his death. Screenwriters Robert W. Fisher and Rick Pamplin then wrote an original screenplay based upon their findings. Hoover was the end result. Filmed in 1999, this one-man show featured Ernest Borgnine as J. Edgar Hoover defending himself against tabloid charges that he was a cross-dressing homosexual, used "secret files" to blackmail public figures, authorized illegal wiretaps, and a variety of other misuses of his office. Borgnine's performance was then intercut with interview segments of Deke DeLoach, who served the FBI for more than 28 years and was a living witness to the Hoover administration.
During a phone interview with that film's producer/director, Rick Pamplin, I had asked why the FBI didn't debunk the dress rumor in the beginning. He told me, "The charges were so ludicrous that they didn't think anyone would take them seriously. After the tabloids printed unsubstantiated remarks by a woman with a grudge against Hoover and the FBI, the rumors took on a life of their own. And quite frankly, the FBI didn't know how to respond."
Well, since then, we have become well aware of the strength of a headline on a supermarket tabloid, no matter how ridiculous the allegation. To me, J. Edgar was a film more determined to tear down than to build up. Several films this year were dominated by this element -- cynicism. While I don't think we should be naïve about our leaders, I keep wondering if too much cynicism is as destructive as the exposed wrongdoing. But that is a discussion for another day.
Phil Boatwright reviews films from a Christian perspective for Baptist Press and is the author of "Movies: The Good, The Bad, and the Really, Really Bad," available on Amazon.com. He also writes about Hollywood for previewonline.org and moviereporter.com.
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