My Top Ten Movies of 2011

  1. The Descendants—To me, this is an almost perfect movie. The story—from the book and the screenplay—is good. The acting is strong, especially from George Clooney and Shailene Woodley. The story is told in a way that mixes humor into grim circumstances. And Hawaii, as a setting, looks great.
  2. Drive—Ryan Gosling brings one of his best performances to Drive. Strong supporting acting from Albert Brooks, Bryan Cranston and Carey Mulligan and one of the best soundtracks in years make Drive worth watching again and again.
  3. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo—Rooney Mara owns this movie. Credit the novelist for inventing Lisbeth, but give a nod to Mara for inhabiting the role of this character. Director David Fincher always delivers a product worth watching and, given this material, he has brought home another winner.
  4. 50/50—This story of a young man dealing with cancer and his friend who provides laughter communicates a full assortment of emotions. The excellent screenplay was inspired by true life events. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anna Kendrick deserve awards consideration.
  5. War Horse—A classic. This one touches audiences like Old Yeller and Gone with the Wind did. The beauty of the British and European countrysides and the ugliness of war mix to stir the emotions. This movie will be loved and admired for decades.
  6. Rango—This year’s funniest cartoon comes with a clever storyline, top-notch voice acting and some visual elements that are just wonderfully weird. Big fun.
  7. Hanna—A suspenseful action adventure with an incredible performance by Saoirse Ronan. Loved the story. Loved the journey. Loved the ending. Early year releases sometimes don’t get the love they deserve. Hanna should not be overlooked.
  8. The Artist—Pure entertainment. And so very different. It’s in black and white. It’s silent. And it’s shot in a 1 x 1 aspect ratio—that means the picture is an exact square. Once again, storytelling, great acting and creativity combine to make true magic.
  9. Crazy, Stupid, Love—Romantic comedies fail to get respect because you always know what the outcome will be as soon as you learn the situation. Not so with “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” Steve Carrell and Ryan Gosling have great chemistry and the entire cast shines.
  10. My Week with Marilyn—Michelle Williams gives us the Marilyn we’ve seen in movies and news footage for 50 years. She also gives us Marilyn as a real human being. Credit the makeup and hair crews for creating a remarkable resemblance. The story of the young man who befriends Marilyn in her time of emotional neediness is an entertaining one.
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My Holiday Movie Guide—(With Best Bets for Grownups and Families)

Holiday time is great time to go to a movie or two (or three). There is truly something for everyone this season, so enjoy!

“The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo”—The acting, the story and the story telling are good, but it is the title character that dominates this film. She demands your attention when she is on screen. Sure, most of the credit for the character goes to the novelist, but let’s stand up and applaud actress Rooney Mara for bringing life to Lisbeth Salander. Be warned: some of the sexual violence is intense. Overall, TGWTDT is an excellent film and an indelible character. (Scroll down for longer review.)

“The Adventures of Tintin”—Steven Spielberg’s animated adventure is shot in the “performance capture” technique seen in “Polar Express” and “Avatar.” The visuals here are stunning, the 3-D is great, but the plot is one that young kids may have a hard time following. Tintin has been popular in Europe for decades. Will American audiences embrace him and this film? I’d guess yes.

“We Bought a Zoo”—Yep, the title is a spoiler. Matt Damon is a widower who buys a rundown private zoo. With his two kids and the dedicated staff he inherits, he works to get the zoo back up to speed. One kid is a pouty teen boy. The other is a seven-year-old girl who is the cutest kid in a movie since Drew Barrymore in “E.T.” Among the zoo staff is eye candy Scarlett Johansson. Perfect family film.

“The Artist”—This silent movie, filmed in black and white, is a huge hit with critics. The concept and the storytelling are clever. The performances and the music are outstanding. Though set in Hollywood, the two leads are French actors who are unknown in the US. A familiar face is John Goodman, who makes the most of his screen time as an exec guiding his studio through the transition to talkies. It’s different, but a great movie.

“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy”—Based on the British spy novel, TTSS has a story that is just okay—not that special. The acting is good, especially by lead Gary Oldman. It’s set in the early 70’s, so we see artifacts of the era including reel-to-reel tape recorders, teletype machines and even a pair of hotpants. You might want to opt for something else in the multiplex.

“War Horse”—This is a classic—a story of a boy and his horse. They both go to World War I for Britain, separately. The movie follows the horse through all his war adventures. If you are the emotional type, bring some tissues. If someone you know loves horses, you must take her/him to see this. The cinematography is outstanding. Directed by Steven Spielberg.

“Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol”—Action galore. Tom Cruise and his M:I team are out to save the earth from nuclear annihilation. Sounds simple, right? But it turns out to be complicated. The film’s highlight is the sequence with Tom climbing on the outside of that extremely tall building in Dubai. In a genius casting move, Simon Pegg of “Shaun of the Dead” fame, appears as the team’s timid electronics guy. See it on the IMAX if you can—a big screen for a big movie.

“Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows”— Robert Downey Jr. brings massive on-screen charm. The film crew brings the gimmickry, which provides much of the film’s fun. The plot, however, is a bit of a mess. Jude Law returns as Watson, Holmes’ assistant, consultant, rescuer, foil and chronicler. Good, not great.

“Young Adult”—The lead character in “Young Adult” is not especially likable. The movie, though, has a lot to like. Charlize Theron plays a woman with baggage who returns from the big city to her small hometown in Minnesota. There are some big laughs in “Young Adult, “ but it also serves up some thoughtful takes on modern American life. Directed by Jason Reitman who did “Up in the Air” and “Juno.”

Also still around:

“The Descendants”—My pick for best movie of the year. Family drama with comedic elements, set in Hawaii. George Clooney is a likely Oscar winner in the lead role.

“The Muppets”—The “feel good movie of the year.” This musical comedy has a funny script, great songs and an old-timey look.

“Hugo”—This movie about a boy living in a Paris train station takes a left turn midway and flashes back to the early days of filmmaking. Nice visual effects and excellent 3-D.

“My Week with Marilyn”—Michelle Williams will get an Oscar nomination for her performance as Marilyn Monroe in this story, set in the 1950’s.

“New Year’s Eve”—Standard romantic comedy with scads of stars. Some end up happy; others, not so happy. In the formula of last year’s “Valentine’s Day.”

Best bets for grownups:  “The Descendants,” “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” “The Artist,” “Mission Impossible—Ghost Protocol,” “Young Adult,” “My Week with Marilyn.”

Best bets for families: “We Bought a Zoo,” “War Horse,” “The Muppets,” “The Adventures of Tintin.”

Only go if everything else is sold out: “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows,” “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” “Hugo,” “New Year’s Eve.”

“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”—(A Piercing Performance)

It’s not necessary to have read the book to appreciate this movie and this compelling character, Lisbeth Salander.

The acting, the story and the story telling are good. But it is the title character that dominates this film. Her look, her attitude, her intelligence, her sexuality all combine to demand your attention when she is on screen. When she is not on screen, you wonder what her next scene will reveal.

Sure, most of the credit for the character goes to the novelist, but let’s stand up and applaud actress Rooney Mara for bringing life to Lisbeth. This character is a woman who has serious emotional baggage. She takes computer hacking to a new level. She has multiple piercings. She has a stoic, almost blank, disposition. She rides a fast motorcycle. She is a complex individual.

Daniel Craig plays Mikael Blomkvist, an investigative journalist in Sweden who is hired to solve a decades-old family mystery. Mikael himself has been the subject of a background check by Lisbeth. He is impressed that she knows “more about me than my best friends” and brings her aboard to help figure out what happened on that day in 1966 when 16-year-old Harriet vanished.

Christopher Plummer is the family patriarch who gives Mikael the job. Native Swede Stellan Skarsgard plays Harriet’s brother, a key figure in the story. As the pieces of the puzzle are put together, Mikael and Lisbeth learn about other family members and their sometimes peculiar back stories.

The movie has a grit and meanness that can be unnerving. Sex is one thing; violence is another. When the two are combined here, the brutality is disturbing. Be warned: a couple of the scenes are intense.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the first of a trilogy. Thanks to director David Fincher and screenwriter Steven Zaillian for not leaving a cliffhanger to set up the second film. It’s not necessary, because the character of Lisbeth and the incredible performance by Rooney Mara that will bring you (and me) back for more in 2013.

St. Louis Film Critics 2011 Award Winners

Here are the winners and runners-up of the 2011 St. Louis Film Critics’ Awards.

Best Film
The Artist
runner-up: The Descendants

Best Director
Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist)
runner-up: Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life)

Best Actor
George Clooney (The Descendants)
runner-up: Ryan Gosling (Drive)

Best Actress
Rooney Mara (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo)
runners-up – tied: Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady) and Michelle Williams (My Week With Marilyn)

Best Supporting Actor
Albert Brooks (Drive)
runner-up: Alan Rickman (Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, Part 2)

Best Supporting Actress
Bérénice Bejo (The Artist)
runners-up – tied: Octavia Spencer (The Help) and Shailene Woodley (The Descendants)

Best Original Screenplay
Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist)
runner-up: Will Reiser (50/50)

Best Adapted Screenplay
Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash and Kaui Hart Hemmings (novel) for The Descendants
runner-up: Steven Zaillian, Aaron Sorkin, Stan Chervin and Michael Lewis (book) for Moneyball

Best Cinematography
Emmanuel Lubezki (The Tree Of Life)
runners-up – tied: Jeff Cronenweth (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo)
and Janusz Kaminski (War Horse)

Best Visual Effects
Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, Part 2
runner-up: Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes

Best Music
The Artist
runner-up: Drive

Best Foreign-Language Film
13 Assassins (Japan)
runner-up: Winter in Wartime (Netherlands)

Best Documentary
Being Elmo
runner-up: Tabloid

Best Comedy
Bridesmaids
runner-up: Midnight In Paris

Best Animated Film
The Adventures of Tintin
runner-up: Rango

Best Art-House or Festival Film
(for artistic excellence in quality art-house cinema, limited to films that played at film festivals or film series here or those that had a limited-release here, playing one or two cinemas.)
We Need To Talk About Kevin
runner-up: Win Win

Best Scene
(favorite movie scene or sequence)
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo: the opening titles sequence
runner-up: The Artist: the dance scene finale

“Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows”

I have read that Action/Comedy movies are hard to make because you don’t want to compromise one genre too much to accommodate the other. “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” covers both bases well with a good balance of action and comedy.

Robert Downey Jr., who plays Holmes, is always worth watching. He brings massive on-screen charm. The film crew brings the gimmickry, which provides much of the film’s fun.

The plot, however, is a bit of a mess. But the movie has action galore, clever disguises, explosions, deeds of derring-do, even some opera. Does it all add up? Well, sort of, yes.

“SH: AGOS” has some pacing issues. Some of the exposition takes long chunks of dialogue. Overall, though, the movie gets its job done. That job, of course, is to channel the highlights of the successful 2009 Holmes movie and add a few new wrinkles.

Jude Law returns as Watson, Holmes’ assistant, consultant, rescuer, foil and chronicler. Rachel McAdams is back, but only long enough to pick up a check and get her name on the credits. If you’re going just to see her, stay home. The new female player in this game is Noomi Rapace (who starred in the Swedish versions of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”

“Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” is a good, not great, holiday diversion.

“Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol” (Non-Stop Action!)

Tom Cruise and his MI team are on a mission to save the earth from nuclear annihilation. Sounds like a modest proposal, right? But it turns out to be rather complicated.

The team busts Tom (as Ethan Hunt) out of a Russian prison to the accompaniment of Dean Martin’s “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head.” They survive an assassination attempt in Moscow, then head off to Dubai to execute a scheme at the tallest hotel in the world.

You just know that some kind of stunt will involve the risk of falling a hundred stories or more and the filmmaker does not disappoint. This is one of the more exciting sections of the movie. After the scam occurs with partial success, it’s time for the team to go to Mumbai to scuttle the launch of a nuke targeted for San Francisco.

Throughout the movie, you will enjoy chase scenes (by car and foot), gunplay, hand-to-hand combat, a really big sand storm and some cool electronic surveillance. Should you notice any holes in the plot, or occurrences that defy all belief, don’t worry. Just enjoy.

In a genius casting move, Simon Pegg on “Shaun of the Dead” fame, appears as the team’s timid electronics guy. Pegg provides geeky comic relief. Jeremy Renner plays an agent turned “analyst,” whose cover is quickly deduced by Ethan. Paula Patton is the team’s designated babe. She’s gorgeous and feisty, too.

If you can, see this in the IMAX or large screen formats. It’s a big movie and it looks better on the bigger screen. The film is directed by Brad Bird, best known for directing Pixar hits “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille.” As he did with “The Incredibles,” he has delivered more fast-paced action/adventure fun.

“Young Adult”—(Grow Up, Already!)

The lead character in “Young Adult” is not especially likable. The movie, though, has a lot to like.

We all know people who have moved from a small town to a big city, enjoyed some career success and felt somehow superior to those back home. When they return home, they are sometimes amazed to see folks who are satisfied with their simple small town lives.

Charlize Theron plays Mavis. She’s a divorced writer of young adult novels who leaves Minneapolis to return to her small hometown in outstate Minnesota. Turns out she was a bit of a jerk to most of her classmates in high school. She is not exactly welcomed back with open arms.

Her goal is to reunite with her old hometown boyfriend who is now married and a new dad. She also encounters the class nerd at a bar in the hometown. Patton Oswalt gives an award-worthy performance as the nerd, who becomes a drinking buddy of Mavis.

Another character in the movie is the fictional small town of Mercury, Minnesota. Unlike Garrison Keillor’s fantasy Minnesota town of Lake Wobegon, Mercury has undergone the same transformations many American small towns have experienced. Diablo Cody wrote the script and offers commentary on the fast food chains that dominate the main drag and the attitudes of those who live in Mercury, either by choice or lack of choice.

There are some good laughs in “Young Adult.” Charlize Theron, not exactly known for comedy, can bring it.

The movie also serves up a memorable and seriously flawed character in Mavis. Will you feel sorry for her or will you feel she deserves all her fates? That’s for discussion on the way home from the movie.

The movie is directed by Jason Reitman of “Up in the Air,” “Thank You For Smoking” and “Juno” fame. He again delivers a trademark cool title sequence. “Young Adult,” like those listed, is funny, but also shares viewpoints on modern American life that stay with you after the credits roll.

St. Louis Film Critics Finalists for 2011 Awards

Each year the St. Louis Film Critics group (which includes newspaper reviewers, broadcast reviewers and online reviewers) picks its awards for the best film work during that particular year. I am a proud member of the group.

Here are this year’s finalists in the major categories. Our winners will be announced next week.

Best Film

The Artist

The Descendants

Drive

My Week With Marilyn

Tree of Life

Best Director

Michel Hazanavicius for The Artist

Terrence Malick for Tree of Life

Alexander Payne for The Descendants

David Fincher for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

Nicolas Winding Refn for Drive

Best Actor

Ryan Gosling for Drive

George Clooney for The Descendants

Jean Dujardin for The Artist

Gary Oldman for Tinker Tailor Soildier Spy

Michael Fassbender for Shame

Brad Pitt for Moneyball

Best Actress

Saoirse Ronan for Hanna

Elizabeth Olsen for Martha Marcy May Marlene

Michelle Williams for My Week With Marilyn

Meryl Streep for The Iron Lady

Rooney Mara for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

Viola Davis for The Help

Best Supporting Actor

John Hawkes for Martha Marcy May Marlene

Albert Brooks for Drive

John Goodman for The Artist

Alan Rickman for Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, Part 2

Jonah Hill for Moneyball

Best Supporting Actress

Cate Blanchett for Hanna

Octavia Spencer for The Help

Shailene Woodley for The Descendants

Bérénice Bejo for The Artist

Jessica Chastain for Tree Of Life

My Week With Marilyn—(Blonde on Blonde)

This story is supposedly true. Doesn’t matter. True or not, it’s a good story.

How big a star was Marilyn Monroe in the 1950’s? Ask your grandfather. He’ll tell you. Mainstream movies did not have nude scenes in the 50’s. But they did have Marilyn. With her blonde hair, big lips and voluptuous body, she exuded sex. She was a megastar.

Michelle Williams is not a dead ringer for Marilyn, but the hair and makeup people and the costumers give her the Marilyn look. What she does with that look is amazing. She brings the Marilyn persona to life, complete with her insecurities and fragile ego. This is an impressive performance. Award-worthy? Yes.

British actor Eddie Redmayne stars as Colin, a recent college grad who nabs a gig as third assistant director on the movie “The Prince and the Showgirl.” His duties as a “go-fer” eventually include tending to many of Marilyn’s needs, much to the dismay of her longtime support team. He provides companionship and emotional support during an uncomfortable episode in her life and career. Quite a heady experience for a 23-year-old in 1956!

“The Prince and the Showgirl” matched Marilyn with Laurence Olivier, who starred and directed. He needed her for her beauty and sex appeal; she needed him to certify her talent as an actress. Their relationship was stormy due to his being upset with her tardiness and failure to remember lines. She, meanwhile, was intimidated by his legend and strict demands. Kenneth Branagh does an excellent job portraying Olivier.

In “My Week with Marilyn,” however, as in “The Prince and the Showgirl,” the blonde bombshell upstages the British acting legend. These movies belong to Michelle/Marilyn.

Of special note in “My Week with Marilyn” is Emma Watson’s debut in a non-Hermione Granger role. She has a minor part as a costumer who competes with Marilyn for Colin’s time and attention. She picked a good movie to begin her transition.