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Arts and Culture

The Best (and the Rest) of 2011

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Posted on Jan 6, 2012
imdb.com

Camera-ready: Director Werner Herzog appears in his own film,“Into the Abyss.”

By Richard Schickel

(Page 2)

“My Week With Marilyn.” It’s a small, rather sly thing—the more or less true story of art historian Kenneth Clark’s son, who gets an entry-level job (read gofer) on “The Prince and the Showgirl,” the 1957 comedy in which Laurence Olivier co-starred with and—attempted to direct—Marilyn Monroe. The kid more or less inherits the companionship of MM—he’s the only person on the set who has nothing at stake with her—and they have a lovely time together.

Michelle Williams is not as voluptuous as Marilyn, but that’s the only thing she lacks. She’s funny, troubled, at odds with everyone but Eddie Redmayne, playing Clark with more shrewdness than you can imagine. Kenneth Branagh plays Olivier with consummate skill—constantly out-of-sorts with his co-star, but reluctantly aware that she has what he never had—true movie stardom. OK, it’s a trifle, but it’s perfectly judged (and the supporting bits—Arthur Miller, Paula Strasberg, et al—are beautifully done). They are all in some way serving Marilyn’s stardom; only Redmayne remembers that for all her troubles, she is still, at this point in her career, a girl who needs, for God’s sake, to have some fun—which he chastely and enthusiastically provides.

Oh, What the Hell. Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” came out last spring, an unpromising season for pictures with award hopes. But it has hung on. And hung on. It is still playing widely and it is, reputedly, the biggest hit of his long career. The story of a screenwriter (Owen Wilson) involved with an awful fiancée and her even more dreadful family, it is in Allen’s very agreeable Magic Realist style. A mysterious car appears periodically and whisks the screenwriter backward in time to the Paris of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein. At the time, it seemed a pleasant, minor well-made film. But as 2011 wore on its charmless way, it began to seem perhaps more delightful than it first appeared. Expert lightness of being is never to be sneezed at. Perhaps somewhat to Allen’s embarrassment, it is probably going to get some Oscar nominations. And why not? A feathery touch is always welcome. So here it is, shyly peeping up on 10-best lists. And more welcome than one might have thought last spring.

That’s All He Wrote. Pathetic isn’t it? I mean, a whole year of movies and he can come up with only six that he’s more or less confident will stand the test of time—defined as being able to remember their titles a year hence. But that, sometimes—most of the time, if we’re being completely honest about it—is the way it goes. I know people disagree with me. But the fact is, I think, more than usual this year, the more aspiring movies have let us down.

Take, for convenient example, “The Tree of Life.” Terry Malick was once an extraordinarily talented director, but that was back in 1973 when “Badlands,” so rich in irony and high spirits, came out. In the reclusive years since, he has gone from portentous emptiness to the incoherence of this truly wretched film in which a group of unattractive people glumly search for meaning and come up empty.

Then there’s Stephen Daldry’s “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” in which a lad searches New York City to find the lock that fits the key his father, a victim of 9/11, left behind. It’s aimless and endless and yields nothing but low moans of pain from entrapped audiences. When our most aspiring movies fail us, we fall back gratefully on the modest and the merely well-made—movies with a sharp point and the means to make that point efficiently and with professional élan. That’s rare enough, as anyone can see by the brevity of this list.

Better luck next year. But don’t count on it.


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Migs's avatar

By Migs, January 11, 2012 at 9:07 pm Link to this comment

Apart from liking The Tree of Life, which affirmed that we spend too much time chasing pointless things while overlooking the glory that’s all around us, I agree that 2011 was a pretty bad year for films. In fact by the end of last year I gave up on contemporary films and started searching for classics I hadn’t seen yet and it’s paid off. I’ve recently watched Downfall, La Haine and The 400 Blows and I can recommend them all. However, I’m willing to give Hugo, Midnight in Paris and Into the Abyss a go.

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By mr. self destruct, January 10, 2012 at 12:48 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I agree that this was a truly terrible year for film, especially compared to the awesomeness of last year with movies like Black Swan, The King’s Speech, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, The Social Network.  But why didn’t The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo make this list?  It’s nothing short of spectacular.

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By camnai, January 9, 2012 at 5:23 pm Link to this comment

What about ‘The Artist’ or, if Mr Schickel can get past the idea of subtitles, ‘A
Separation’?

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By Dave Macaray, January 9, 2012 at 3:17 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

He was right about “Tree of Life.”  I disliked it not because it was religious or spiritual or too demanding, but because it was pretentious, self-indulgent tripe.  I love Malik!  I really looked forward to this movie.  What a disappointment.

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By howard.schumann, January 8, 2012 at 7:53 pm Link to this comment

I found The Tree of Life to be more spiritual than religious but in either event, it is not a reason to reject a film.

Malick opens our vision to the untranslatable miracle of life in all its aspects. No other film has so preoccupied itself with the process of learning about the world, from the infant’s first discovery of his ability to touch, to the stirrings of language, to the ability to discern differences, and ultimately to questioning where God lives and how life began

It is, on the whole, a beautiful, multi-layered, and deeply spiritual film that asks the hard questions, a film that everyone will respond to differently depending on their own experience.

To me, far from having an orthodox Judeo-Christian viewpoint, it says that the representation of reality that we see is a function of our own consciousness, that God is not an anthropomorphic perfection of ourselves, but lies within us, in our capacity for joy, compassion, and love.

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By Ehrenstein, January 8, 2012 at 11:54 am Link to this comment

Glad you liked “Hugo” and “Midnight in Paris” and had some good words for the inevitably flawed because so deeply ambitious, “J. Edgar.” But I’d hoped you’d mention “In the Land of Blood and Honey” and my favorite movie romance of the year “Weekend.”

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Anarcissie's avatar

By Anarcissie, January 8, 2012 at 8:10 am Link to this comment

In the movie ‘we’ are only 20 years from the next world war (#2).  It’s 1919, and World War 2 will (officially) begin in 1939.

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By DarthMiffy, January 8, 2012 at 2:09 am Link to this comment

What does the author mean by “the next World War in 20 years from now”?
Is he prescient? What does he know that we do not?

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EmileZ's avatar

By EmileZ, January 7, 2012 at 9:06 pm Link to this comment

I am not a big fan of movies that have speeches at the end of them, but Hugo up until that point, kind of suspended my judgement.

I watched this movie on a camera recording posted on The Pirate Bay (if I had not, it would have been years later from a library DVD).

One of the moments I was particularly intrigued by (aside from the dream sequences) was when the auteur discovered the young ones discovering his auteurship and was incapacitated for the moment.

It was so completely ridiculous and at the same time so perfect.

I dunno.

I was also quite fond of the mechanical mouse.

My big problem (forget about the speech) was that I hate that scene where the man on the moon or the moon or whatever gets shot in the eye and nasty yellowish-white blood, puss, candlewax, etc, oozes out.

It is disgusting and mean!!!!

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Anarcissie's avatar

By Anarcissie, January 7, 2012 at 6:19 pm Link to this comment

Actually, Midnight In Paris is Hugo for grown-ups.  Hugo is good, however, and also has cinematic in-jokes for the cognoscenti who have taken their bane antidote in advance.  Also perhaps some Dramamine for overuse of CGI.  Don’t go to the movies without them!  But do go!

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By Mark Graham, January 7, 2012 at 12:01 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Schickel’s dead wrong about Malick.  Tree of Life was a beautiful film that was anything but fundamentalist and creationist and the Times critic alleged.  The establishment critics didn’t like it because it was religious, specifically (non-fundamentalist) Christian.  Well folks, religion has produced some great art here and there over the years, whether you agree with its message or not. 

For my money I’ve never relied too much on Schickel’s opinions—especially after his rave review of Kandahar which he called a “near documentary” and was in fact pure propaganda, used to promote the war on terror.

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By fieldcrow, January 7, 2012 at 8:59 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

really nice writing (reviews & list). thanks for
having the cultural ‘sand’ to include War Horse, a
film w/some ‘sentimentality’ - the bane of most
cognoscenti.

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