By Rebecca Kelley
Happy Holidays! Hollywood Santa has stuffed your entertainment stockings with an embarrassment of riches. Both on your TV with On Demand and in theaters, you have an opportunity to see the best movies of the year. Click on the movie titles below for information about ordering On Demand or buying tickets through Fandango. Heck, do both. Who needs “family time” and “holiday cheer” when there are so many great movies to watch?
What’s On Demand?
When humans make scientific breakthroughs, the result is Caesar (actor Andy Serkis, through motion-capture), a hyper-intelligent ape who begins asking the big questions. He begins life as a beloved family member to a scientist named Will (James Franco), but when he faces injustice in a research center, he starts to question the order of things. Like the American founding fathers, it can only lead to one thing: Revolution.
Our take: The acting by Serkis, who also played Gollum in “Lord of the Rings” and Captain Haddock in “Tintin” (see below), is absolutely fantastic. He doesn’t make Caesar human, but he does bring a fully intelligent ape to life. Beyond the acting, the story is powerful in that touches on the themes of what it means to be a human and what it means to be an animal.
Brendan (Joel Edgerton) used to be a mixed martial arts cage fighter, but now he’s a teacher, husband and father. His long lost brother Tommy (Tom Hardy) comes into town to seek training from their recovering alcoholic father (Nick Nolte). In the end, both brothers will compete against each other in an MMA match with a $5 million purse, but will the family survive the drama?
Our take: This undervalued film fully deserves to be in the running for the Oscars. The acting is amazing (especially from Nick Nolte), the script is epic and the story is nearly Shakespearean. Plus, it has cage fighting! As someone who has never ever watched an Ultimate Fighting Championship match, nor wanted to, I was completely mesmerized by the story. Absolutely fantastic.
Owen Wilson plays an aspiring writer whose Paris vacation takes a magical turn. He finds himself transported through time and winds up drinking with Hemingway, Fitzgerald and all the glittery literati of gay Paree in the ’20s. An alluring flapper begins to threaten his decaying relationship with his fiancée.
Our take: Director Woody Allen is back in this thoroughly delightful film. It hits all the notes of the best Woody Allen movies, including humor, sweetness and angst. He paints such a wonderful world of parties, art and spinning joyful glitter that you’ll want to sign up for a Parisian getaway in the hopes of capturing the same magic. Plus, the movie makes you feel smart when you catch the artsy references. Who doesn’t like feeling smart?
From director Lars von Trier, this movie features a severely depressed woman who cannot summon the will to marry her love or, later, even get out of bed. Her intuition proves right when a planet may or may not be on a collision course with Earth, threatening to end all life on our planet.
Our take: Be sure to take your Prozac before watching this gorgeously filmed, but dismal movie. Lars von Trier makes an excellent case for why life is meaningless, love is an illusion and death is a consummation to be desired. Good acting from Kirsten Dunst and wickedly dark humor in the first half make it very good, but nothing can make the whole film truly enjoyable. And that’s the point.
What’s in Theaters?
Rooney Mara plays the title character in this adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s first novel of a trilogy. Lisbeth Salander (Mara) is tough as nails, extremely off-putting, scarily smart and the one woman who can fight back against a brutal, dark, evil that preys on women. Daniel Craig is journalist Michael Blomkvist, who enlists her help in solving a decade-old disappearance.
Our take: The film closely follows the book in both plot and tone, with excellent direction from David Fincher. If anything, Salander is slightly softened, although she will still seem extremely harsh to those who have not read the books. Like the books, the reality of evil is shown in its ugliness. The rape and torture scenes are intense – as are consensual sex scenes – giving this movie a hard R rating. Those not prepared for the darkness of the movie will be shocked.
Tintin, a character from European comics, is a boy reporter who constantly finds mysteries. Once on the trail of a good mystery, he and his dog Snowy can never let it go. This time, he unwittingly buys an old model ship that holds the key to the lost treasure of the seafaring Haddock family. Accompanied by the last living Haddock, a drunken sea captain, he travels the world following the villain and the treasure.
Our take: Steven Spielberg uses motion-capture technology to bring this comic series to life, and it works quite well. The visuals are rich and the action scenes echo our old favorite, “Indiana Jones.” Tintin skips from adventure to adventure and chase to chase. Like the comics, the humor is in the richly drawn characters, rather than one-liners. Snowy, who is always getting into mischief outside of Tintin’s knowledge, is especially amusing.
Matt Damon stars as Benjamin, a father reeling from the loss of his wife. His little daughter Rosie and her teen brother Dylan miss mom terribly. Benjamin decides to move the family into an adventure, and buys a house located on the grounds of a small zoo, which is led by an eccentric staff and a character played by Scarlett Johansson.
Our take: While this movie features animals, it’s really a story about a wounded family searching for a way to heal. There are no pratfalls or talking animals. Instead, Damon gives a heartbreaking performance and the child actors ably keep up with him. It ends up being a beautiful story the entire family will love.
George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) lives the high life as a famous silent movie actor in the late ’20s, while Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) is a bright-eyed rookie. As talking movies come into vogue, her star rises as his fades. Did I mention “The Artist” is, itself, a silent movie? No talking.
Our take: It’s amazing how much emotion the actors wring out of gestures, facial expressions and general body language. You think it won’t work, but it does. There are funny moments, sweet moments and incredibly sad moments. Like any story, silent or not, you root for the good guy and the romance. This film is on the short list to win the Oscar for Best Picture. While I don’t think it’s the best of 2011, it’s very, very good and also very entertaining.
War Horse (opens 12/25)
Also from Steven Spielberg, this two-hour and twenty minute movie explores the trenches of World War I by using a beloved horse to make sense of it all. A farm boy named Albert loves his horse Joey, but Joey joins the war before Albert. As Joey is repeatedly captured and pressed into service by one side, and then the other, we see the terrible human cost of the war.
Our take: This movie is a mixed bag. Some scenes, especially battle scenes, are magnificent, as only Spielberg can be. He manages to make all sides sympathetic and noble, and each death – both human and horse – is felt as a tragedy. However, the whole plot rests on the relationship between the horse and boy, which is never quite believable and makes the parts outside the war hard to relate to. Plus, it’s way too long.
The Darkest Hour (opens 12/25)
An alien race attacks the earth with electricity. Or something.
Our take: This movie was not screened for critics. Really, what were they thinking? With all these magnificent movies in theaters, who would pick “The Darkest Hour?”
Ticket or Click It?
It’s so very hard to choose. These are some of the best movies of the year. If I had to pick one, I’d go with “Warrior,” but I highly recommend them all – even “War Horse.” But not “The Darkest Hour.” Don’t go to that.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.