The best movies from the past year
Irish director Danny Boyle might have the most eclectic resume in European filmmaking history (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Millions) and his latest effort, Slumdog Millionaire. Despite his genre-leaping nature, Boyle's consistent signature, no matter what the genre, is fascinating, complex characters. He uses the premise of a street kid on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? to present a story that moves from past to the present effortlessly, finding effective emotional moments throughout a journey that has little to do with money and more about love.
Actor-director Ben Stiller gleefully severs the hand that feeds him in his vicious, funny Hollywood satire. Stiller uses the premise of actors dumped in a jungle setting making a Vietnam war movie to put the excesses of Hollywood on parade and proceeds to mow them down with a Gatling gun of potshots at the worst Hollywood has to offer.
While the robots reign supreme in this lovely story of what really makes us human, writer-director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo) makes his case for the consequences of not going green, and takes a few well-timed shots at the fattening of the planet. That theme makes Wall-E a truly innovative animated adventure and an unexpected cautionary tale.
To read more about movies and other topics covered by movie critic Lori Hoffman under her blog alias Moviejunkie, visit http://blogs.atlanticcityweekly.com/
OPENING THIS WEEK
The Reader Kate Winslet stars in this post-war drama set in Germany. A teenage boy has a passionate affair with the older woman played by Winslet and years later finds out she was hiding a secret about her past that comes out during the Nazi war crimes trials. Written by David Hare and directed by Stephen Daldry (The Hours, Billy Elliot), the film also stars Ralph Fiennes and Bruno Ganz.
Australia Director Baz Luhrmann (Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge) tosses in everything but the kitchen sink, then tosses in the sink as well, in his romantic Down Under western epic Australia. His rousing romantic drama is chockablock with evil men doing all sorts of wrongdoing and with a British stiff-upper-lip type finding her soul -- and soul mate -- in the Aussie Outback as the centerpiece of a massive canvas. There's a giant cattle drove (that's Aussie for cattle drive, mates), and a major slice of social commentary on mixed race Aboriginal children. There is a deadly stampede along the edge of an abyss, that in many ways stands in for Luhrmann's go-for-it style. His movie often brazenly teeters on the edge between effective, emotive filmmaking and stylized fantasy. There is a reason that The Wizard of Oz is a leitmotif throughout his epic, and not just because Australia's nickname is the land of Oz. Luhrmann wants us to feel the magic of the Aboriginal folklore that he equates with a love of the land and an understanding of its beauty and treachery. Oh, and did I mention that Luhrmann throws in the Japanese bombing of Darwin and World War II as a final impediment to the reuniting of the lovers?
Two icons of Australian cinema, Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman, star as Lady Sarah Ashley and The Drover, respectively. Lady Ashley arrives in the Northern Territory on the eve of World War II to rescue the cattle station left by her dead husband. She finds she can make the Faraway Downs profitable if she hires The Drover to take her herd to Darwin. She also falls in love with a young half-caste boy Nullah (Brandon Walters), and finds she has a knack for mothering. This film doesn't believe in even a subtle hint of subtlety and it piles on the clichés with gusto. Despite that, Australia is a lot of fun to watch. The excess is part of its charm; Luhrmann sees the classic movie genres as a magical playground and he wants to play on all the rides. With Kidman, Jackman and Walters providing stirring emotions, and David Wenham figuratively twirling his mustache as the epitome of racist evil, I was happy to get on the merry-go-round. Passion overdone beats cold and calculating cookie cutter movies any day. ***
Bolt This is a far superior kids' flick than Madagascar 2. The movie has a great story, terrific characters, plenty of laughs and a great vocal cast that earns every laugh to be had in this story about a dog (voice by John Travolta) who thinks he is a superhero because he plays one on TV. He finds out the hard way that he doesn't have a super bark when he is accidentally shipped to New York and learns about life on the streets from an alley cat named Mittens (voice by Susie Essman). Bolt is desperate to return to his beloved "person," Penny (voice by Miley Cyrus). That journey is full of courage, determination and those previously mentioned laughs. ***
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas There might never be an end to the varied stories worth telling about the Holocaust. That simple truth is the most painful fact of all. This much evil, affecting this many families and the generations upon generations that have been born since, is a long way from being relegated to the annals of history. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, a work of fiction directed by Mark Herman, who adapted his script from a novel by John Boyne, presents the point of view of a child. Bruno (Asa Butterfield) moves with his Nazi soldier father (David Thewlis) and mother (Vera Farmiga) to the country. Father is the commandant of a death camp, a place Bruno thinks is a farm where the farmers wear striped pajamas. Bruno sneaks away one day and finds a friend on the other side of the electrified wire, Shmuel (Jack Scanlon). Neither boy knows exactly what is going on, but Shmuel understands that his life is full of hunger and hardship, while Bruno lives in his lovely dream world of innocence and comfort. The Boy In The Striped Pajamas reminds us that when youthful minds are still being shaped, they can be poisoned by the evil of the adults they admire. This is how prejudice and evil is perpetuated, passed down as doctrine. The movie's coup de grace is not as believable as the rest of the movie that precedes it, but until that moment, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a Holocaust story that presents an intriguing new point of view. ***
Cadillac Records Chronicles the rise of Chess Records and its recording artists, a tale of sex, violence, race and rock and roll in Chicago of the 1950s and '60s. With Adrien Brody as Leonard Chess, Jeffrey Wright as Muddy Waters, Beyonce Knowles as Etta James, Mos Def as Chuck Berry and Cedric the Entertainer as Big Willie Dixon.
A Christmas Tale A French black comedy about a dysfunctional family that tries to make nice during the holiday gathering. However, instead of egg nog, bile and venom flow. With Catherine Deneuve, Mathieu Amalric, Melvil Poupaud and Anne Consigny.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button This F. Scott Fitzgerald short story stars Brad Pitt as a man who is born as an old man and grows up getting younger. Cate Blanchett co-stars as the woman who meets him as a child and grows up to love him as he grows younger, meeting him in the middle. With Taraji P. Henson, Tilda Swinton; directed by David Fincher.
The Day the Earth Stood Still When a filmmaker is inspired by a good movie from the past, one must have a bold concept when planning a remake. This is especially true of a beloved classic that was relevant in its own era, yet remains timeless. That timeless quality is tricky. The new version of the timeless Robert Wise Cold War classic The Day the Earth Stood Still has, on paper, an intriguing and relevant "bold concept." The alien who lands in New York's Central Park, Klaatu (Keanu Reeves) wants to save the planet, but not the human beings who are destroying it with impunity. The film, directed by Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) and written by David Scarpa (The Last Castle), has an excellent set-up, as scientists from the greater New York area are roused from their beds by scary military types and brought together to help NASA figure out how to stop the UFO that appears to be headed for a crash landing in the Big Apple. One of these scientists is Dr. Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly). However, from that excellent launching point, the movie spins its wheels. It becomes obvious that the execution of a solid idea has not been achieved. There is something particularly painful about a movie that starts well and gets progressively worse, and boy does this movie get bad (and boring) fast. Oh, by the way, there isn't really a moment when the earth stands still. There is a jerry-rigged shot of empty New York City streets that provides much too little, much to late. Any discussion of acting is irrelevant. Reeves is asked to do his blank stare, Connelly her big-eyed compassionate stare. Gort, so relevant in the original, is relegated to a minor supporting role. The best news about the new The Day the Earth Stood Still is that it will quickly fade to obscurity while the timeless original lives on. Bomb
Doubt Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman star in this film adaptation of John Patrick Shanley's Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning play about a 1964 Catholic school. Streep is the nun/principal who suspects there is something improper about a priest and a student, and goes on a witch hunt to get to the truth. With Amy Adams and Viola Davis. **
It is time to look at the summer movie schedule in July and August. 'The Avengers' got us off to terrific superhero start.
This time around, we've assembled our top 10 lists of the best and worst that holiday-themed movies have to offer.