Sunday, January 9, 2011

Good movies I've seen

I'm a film buff for the same reason I love to read: I love stories. Good stories are food for the imagination; they fuel my own itch to write, and they enhance my understanding of people, places, and things beyond my own experience. Books and movies are by no means interchangeable; the former will always be of the greatest value; but the latter offers its own brand of storytelling, touching certain centers of the imagination, provided the viewer engages the movies actively, instead of choosing the role of mere passive receiver.

Every year brings with it new movies to love, though some more than others. This year we suffered through a dreary summer marked by a plethora of sequels, remakes, and rehashes. Among the bright spots were a rare really good sequel (Toy Story 3), an original film (Inception), and some intriguing foreign films (France's Micmacs, Sweden's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo et. seq.) But this fall has offered a wider variety of must-see movies, some "Oscar bait," others with little or no goal beyond being thoroughly entertaining. I have not seen all I wish to see, but I can comment on a few:

1) Disney's Tangled. My husband and I took my mother-in-law to see this film, and when she expressed concern about a crowd, he assured her that the film had "played out" and we would most likely have the theater to ourselves. Wrong-o. By the time the movie started, every seat was occupied. Since then, we've still noticed large crowds of both children and adults going in and out of theater screens showing Tangled. This movie has legs, because people are going more than once, and they're telling their friends, "You really need to see this movie! It's so much fun!"

And fun it is. In live-action land, Hollywood has apparently lost all ability to make a good romantic comedy. But that's what Tangled is: a good romantic comedy (with music, no less!), complete with lively, witty interaction between a lovable rogue hero and a dreamy, naive, but gutsy heroine. There's also a thoroughly despicable villain who has managed to convince the heroine that she loves her and genuinely has her best interests at heart, when all she cares about is the eternal youth the heroine can provide. This is a villain whose biggest weapons are emotional manipulation and the power to undermine self-esteem; her relationship with the heroine is by far the most interesting hero/villain connection I've seen in an American animated film. Sure, it's a Disney film, and Disney is not the quality powerhouse it once was. But this romantic-comedy confection is surprisingly rich in character and theme. I can't wait to see it again.

2) TRON: Legacy. This movie has gotten considerable grief from critics for being "shallow" and relying solely on effects to sell it. I'm not so sure. I only know I got quite caught up in it when I saw it. I got quite caught up in last year's Avatar, too, but after I left the film and had time to think about it, I started to feel ashamed of having bought into it so thoroughly. I have felt no similar buyer's remorse in the wake of TRON: Legacy. Under all the lighting and color effects and high-voltage action there's a pretty weighty theme: the destructive drive toward perfection, and the truth that it's humanity's imperfections that save us. Now I'm about to commit Geek Heresy: I actually preferred this sequel to the original. Both featured Jeff Bridges being awesome, but I liked the sequel's young protagonist, and this time the heroine, played by Olivia Wilde, at least has a personality and some charisma, despite getting knocked out and captured a bit too often. ("The girl," Cindy Morgan, was definitely the weak link in the original's cast.)

3) The King's Speech.
This may well be the best film I have seen in the past three years. I don't speak lightly. I've grown weary of critically-acclaimed Oscar bait which prides itself on being hip, edgy, and emotionally hollow, like the bleak and ice-cold black comedy Up in the Air and even the strong, powerful, but distant war drama The Hurt Locker. What a relief to find that this year, the critics (and the public) are embracing a movie that proves a film with heart can still have something important to say. This movie manages a feat that few dare these days: it makes us care while it makes us think.
This movie has just about everything I have a weakness for:
1) a period setting -- the 1930s;
2) searing, powerful performances, especially by Colin Firth (the man to beat for Best Actor this year) and Geoffrey Rush;
3) smart, witty dialogue;
4) interesting and, in the end, moving relationships, not only between Firth and Rush as the insecure Royal and the commoner who helps him conquer his stammer, but between Firth and Helena Bonham-Carter, as one of the sweetest and most romantic married couples in recent cinema history.

Will it win Best Picture? I'd love to see that happen, but I'm not counting on it. Ten years ago it would have been the movie to beat, but the Academy has changed since then, and is now more inclined to favor hipper, edgier, darker American fare (e.g. The Social Network) over well-told but more traditional stories from foreign shores. But whatever the Academy chooses to do, The King's Speech will hold the foremost place in my heart.

Movies I still haven't seen but really want to see:
True Grit, Never Let Me Go, Winter's Bone, The Kids are All Right, The Illusionist (an animated offering from France that might scotch Tangled's chances at an Oscar nomination), The Fighter, Let Me In

Movie I still remember very fondly several months after seeing it:
How to Train Your Dragon