Watching Ebert’s Top 20 of 2011

I really like Roger Ebert. There are other film critics I admire and find insightful, but none as much as Chicago’s iconic movie fanatic and possibly best example of how to incorporate Twitter into “old media.”

Ebert hates making lists, but begrudgingly provided a list of the best 20 films of 2011 here:

My Thoughts – Many of these, I had not seen before.  Some did not appeal to me at all, but rather than prejudge them based on whether I was in an art movie versus popcorn movie mood I gave them all the benefit of the doubt and watched them.  All of them.  For your reading pleasure, here are my thoughts on these movies.  I hope that you give some of them a try because there are some real gems in here.

To make finding the films easier, I have included each film’s results on CanIStreamIt? a web site that keeps up to date information on which streaming services offer a given movie for free, rental or purchase from a wide variety of sources.

I left the movies in Ebert’s original order.  Rather than re-ordering them or providing my own numeric “out of four stars” rating, I devoted a paragraph to each on what conditions I would recommend you to see them called “Should you see it?”  My hope is that you can use this as a sort of guide to decide if the movie is right for you whether I personally liked it or not.

Sleepers - I wanted to bring special attention to three movies you probably have not heard about but that I think deserve your attention.  “A Separation,” “Trust,” and “Another Earth” are the three I think everyone should give a chance and were movies I would not have seen if I had not taken on this project to watch these 20 films.  Make an effort to see them or ask me directly as I’ll gladly screen them with you if I can.  They’re that good!

1. “A Separation”

I hadn’t heard of this film before, and chances are you haven’t either.  It’s an Iranian film, and despite my best efforts I could not find a legal way to rent this, stream it or otherwise.  Having downloaded the film and the English subtitles, I finally watched this by myself late one night after my family was asleep.  This film, more than any other on the list, deserves a lot more viewers.  The story manages to bend mystery around the truth of a single incident.  That it takes place in modern day Iran is not central – this story could happen anywhere – but it makes it all the more fascinating.  This isn’t a statement about a culture, a nation, a religion (though they all play a small role) but about how we view ourselves.  The truths and lies we tell and believe and how they effect those around us.

Should you see it?  This film is a masterpiece.  It won’t depress you or uplift you, but instead fascinate you and give you something to discuss and think about long after the credits roll.  I cannot think of anyone I would not recommend watch this movie.  In fact, I’d probably watch it with you given the opportunity.  See this one any way you can!

2. “Shame”

I had heard about this movie but not seen it prior to watching the movies for this list.  It’s directed by that Steve McQueen, and is the breakout role for it’s star, Michael Fassbender.  I saw him as the android in Prometheus before this; he’s great in both.  The simplest way to explain Shame is that it’s about a character with some serious emotional baggage.  He is a sex addict in the saddest and truest sense of the word “addict.”  He takes no pleasure in it – he simply needs it, and he needs it all the time.  He cannot have normal relationships with his boss, his sister, his would-be girlfriend.  He knows this.  This is an intense character piece.  As you would expect, it has graphic nudity and some violence in it.  His boss is a womanizer and their relationship helps illustrate that the main character is not.  He gets what he needs when he needs it (frequently) from professionals, not dates or barflies.  His relationship with his sister is also fascinating.  She’s as damaged as he is.  She copes with it better and worse than he does depending on the day.  They care deeply for one another and both try to help out in their own way.  But neither is really ready to be there for the other.

I expected this movie to have at least one cringe-worthy scene of some unspeakable act of sexual depravity.  The best example I can think of is the “date rape” scene from the movie “Bad Girl.”  It goes on, and on methodically and painfully drawing out the inevitable disaster.  Shame surprised me on this front.  There is a scene that is both hard to watch and impossible not to – but it doesn’t involve sex at all.  In it, the sister character sings the most painful, protracted chanteuse version of “New York, New York” you can imagine.  Normally, bad singing really gets under my skin.  I can’t stand karaoke, let alone the disaster that is the early rounds of American Idol.  Here, though – it’s not the bad singing that makes this scene hard.  It’s the slow, painful performance itself.  The whole song tells you everything you need to know about the sister character and how her brother responds is equally telling.

Should you see it?  “Shame” was not what I expected.  Fassbender’s character is a sex addict, not a womanizer.  The boss character illustrates the difference and is probably the type of person I expected this movie to be about.  It’s about a man as addicted to sex as one might be to heroin.  He needs it, he takes no pleasure in it.  I think if you’re okay with the mature themes, this movie is one I would recommend as an unexpected perspective of what sex addiction might be like, with the added bonus of being an unforgettable character study.  The violence (there isn’t much) and the nudity (think “Game of Thrones” with more male nudity) aren’t here for shock value and sex appeal.  They’re to show you how the situations you expect a sex addict in New York to get into are nothing close to glamorous or the fantastical.  It’s a great character study and gives us a powerhouse performance from Fassbender.  Watch it with your significant other or screen it first and watch it together later.  I’d avoid watching it with anyone who might get embarrassed or vice versa with the nudity, like your parents or adult children.  I also wouldn’t recommend it for a first date…

3. “The Tree of Life”

I recently watched “The Pledge,” a 2001 movie directed by Sean Penn and starring Jack Nicholson.  Many people did not like that movie because, to them, the story seems to meander, fall apart, and then end abruptly with little or no closure.  While I can see their point – it’s certainly not the story they expect, nor is the story the center of the experience – “The Pledge” sets up Jack Nicholson and a host of other incredible actors in brief, but surprisingly powerful cameos.  I liked “The Pledge,” but I doubt I would have enjoyed it if I had not known, going in, that it was not going to entertain me with a murder mystery that one expects the story to focus on.  I make this point, because “The Tree of Life” is a similar movie in terms of what you expect from  it.

People that liked this movie tend to offer words of warning in their review that scare most people away.  This movie takes its time.  It’s message, it’s story and even it’s performances take great pains to provide detail.  The movie is visually appealing, almost breathtaking at times.  What I found hard about it, though is that it doesn’t feel very rewarding for the patience it requires to watch.  It feels like you could comfortably eat lunch and come back after and not feel as though you’ve “missed out” on any essential points.

Should you see it?  I watched this movie last year before watching it again for this list.  I wanted to give it a second chance and found it just as frustrating the second time through it’s laborious 2 and 1/4 hours.  Sean Penn and Brad Pitt are fine actors and give fine performances.  The visuals are amazing.  But it has this horrible habit of just sort of dropping the narrative in favor of pretty shots.  I have considered making a YouTube rant about this movie, built around the joke that I kept checking to see if a screensaver had taken over every few minutes.  If it were edited down to the story essentials, there may not be more than 30 minutes to see.  I’m not sure what the right frame of mind is for watching this film and do not feel like I can recommend it.  I’m sure there are people out there that like this movie or appreciate it as art, but I’m not one of them.

4. “Hugo”

I saw “Hugo” twice in the theater in 2011.  The first time in 2D, the second in 3D.  It was my favorite movie I saw theatrically in 2011.  I saw it late in the year and spent most of 2011 thinking nothing would top “The Muppets” as a movie I would recommend to absolutely anyone.  It isn’t one of those movies that is for kids but can be enjoyed by adults also – it’s an even rarer thing in that it’s at its best when viewed by three generations at the same time.

Should you see it? Chances are pretty good that if you like movies at all, you have already seen “Hugo.”  The movie is effectively a love letter from director Martin Scorsese to movies themselves.  If you haven’t seen it yet for any reason, do yourself a favor and watch it.  Invite your parents, grandparents, friends – anyone.  The 3D was fun in the theater, but neither essential nor necessary to enjoying the movie. I absolutely adore this film.

5. “Take Shelter”

I first saw Michael Shannon as the mentally askew Agent Nelson Van Alden in HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire.”  His character in Take Shelter is similarly strange.  He has vivid dreams that may portend a devastating storm, his descent into madness or both.  There’s a lot to like about this movie and it manages to avoid the cliche of movies that contain dreams.  We always know which is which.  So does the main character.  But he is no less worried.  His mother became an institutionalized paranoid schizophrenic when she was about his age.  His dreams scare him, and he is determined to protect his family from the visions while at the same time questioning himself.  Jessica Chastain is wonderful as his wife.  She is troubled by his behavior but tries to trust him and ultimately challenges him without ever betraying him.

Should you see it? Movies like this are usually harder to recommend.  The main character is questioning his own sanity and we are frequently shown his frightening dreams.  This sounds like the kind of plot that has been done to death, but this movie is either an example of how to do it right or transcends pigeonholing as a movie like “Signs” or “Memento.”  Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain make this movie entertaining to watch whether the dreams vs. reality and madness vs. sanity dynamic ultimately works for you or not.  It worked for me.  There are some frightening and intense scenes, but this is mainly a psychological thriller/drama rather than a horror movie.

6. “Kinyarwanda”

This movie surprised me almost as much as “A Separation.”  Both take place in foreign countries but tell universal stories.  What makes “Kinyarwanda” work is that it humanizes both sides of the 1994 Rwanda genocide.  People committed the atrocities, not monsters.  People were traumatized by the events, but they were not ruined by them.  The violence is muted or described rather than shown.  You can empathize with the victims, but perhaps more importantly, you can see the remorse in the killers.  These are ordinary people who made terrible mistakes.  The movie includes at least one incredible act of forgiveness and transcends the specific setting and the events.  The stunning message here is that stereotyping and “writing off” those who took part in the genocide without taking each of them, individually, into account and being willing to forgive them is effectively a kind of bigotry in itself.

Should you see it? I highly recommend Kinyarwanda in a pairing with Werner Herzog’s brilliant documentary “Into The Abyss,” which approaches the subject of capital punishment in a very quiet and understated way.  Kinyarwanda is mainly in English.  It uses the genocide as part of it’s setting, but it is more allegorical and used to frame multiple sides to the idea of forgiveness, revenge and the value of human life as something more than “you’re good or you’re evil.”  It also has a great subplot revolving around a priest and an Imam trying to help people survive while struggling with their theological differences.  Here too, we see the fallacy of stereotyping and writing off people just because they’re different from us.  This movie is not depressing.  If anything, the thoughts it provokes are uplifting and wonderful.

7. “Drive”

This is another one I happened to pick up prior to the list-watching project.  The description on Netflix sounded a little like “The Transporter,” and I was in the mood for an action/thriller/suspense kind of movie.  “Drive” is not “The Transporter,” and that’s not a bad thing.  Ryan Gosling gives a nearly mute performance as the Driver, a for-hire wheel-man whether you need a stunt driver for an action movie or a getaway driver for a heist.  He does both in the film.  What starts to look like a revenge film becomes more of a film about protecting the innocents.  In that way as well as in some of the visuals it bears a resemblance to “Leon” (aka “The Professional”) though it’s style is slightly more David Fincher than Luc Besson.

Brian Cranston (“Breaking Bad”), Ron Perlman (“Sons of Anarchy,” “Hellboy”) and Albert Brooks (“Finding Nemo”) all bring incredibly nuanced characters to screen.  Cranston is an optimistic loser and father figure to the Driver.  Perlman is a thug and gangster, smart enough to know that he isn’t smart enough to handle the situation he helps cause.  Albert Brooks, wonderfully cast against type as the “big bad” is a magnificent bastard.

Should you see it?  This is the type of movie that can be enjoyed by just about everyone.  It’s not quite as essential viewing as “Leon,” but it’s still a great film.  It’s easy to recommend to “Breaking Bad” fans, both for Cranston’s solid performance and the overall similar tone.  It is so much more than the top-shelf action movie I expected.

8. “Midnight in Paris”

Let me start off by saying how I hate Owen Wilson in just about everything he’s in.  He’s one of those guys that is pretty much always the same character in every movie he’s in, and if the writing’s good he works okay but otherwise tries to get along on nothing but his “bro” charisma.  I tend to like Woody Allen movies more often than not, and this is among his best.  Similarly to “Hugo” and “The Artist,” “Midnight in Paris” is a kind of homage to art, though where the other two are specifically about film, ‘Midnight in Paris” is about literature.  More specifically, it’s about the culture of literature and Allen’s own “golden age syndrome” where he gives us a man (fantasizing?  hallucinating?) about spending his nights with the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein.

As in many of Woody Allen’s movies that he does not appear onscreen, the main character is essentially “playing” Woody Allen.  Owen Wilson’s version of Woody Allen is surprisingly less annoying than I’d have expected.  His slow, stoner-style phrasing takes Allen’s typical neurotic anxiety and slows it down.  The words are there – you can hear Woody Allen in your head – but thankfully, Wilson doesn’t go for a full-on impersonation and the movie is all the better for it.

Should you see it?  This is an easy movie to recommend to pretty much everyone.  It’s funny, imaginative, romantic and beautiful in every way.  You don’t have to be a Woody Allen fan or an Owen Wilson fan to really enjoy this movie.  The premise of the nightly time-travel (or whatever it is) is never given a solid explanation, and that’s for the better.  It’s not important because this isn’t a science fiction piece.  It’s a wonderful daydream and a love-letter to anyone who pines for some forgotten era, as well as a reminder that the present is just as wonderful a place to be.

9. “Le Havre”

This movie had me worried as it began that it was going to be a bleak, depressing tale of loss and heartache.  A recurring theme throughout this list, movies that I expected to be a “downer” turned out quite the opposite.  Ebert in general is a somewhat recent optimist, and this list seemingly rewards movies that have either a sunnier-than-expected outcome without sacrificing drama or dark themes to get there.  It has an incredibly dry sense of humor that took a while to decipher with subtitles – but once I understood this the movie became quite amusing and often outright comical.

Our hero, Marcel Marx (Andre Wilms) is down on his luck.  He polishes shoes, often being chased from the corner he sets up to ply his trade.  His wife becomes hospitalized and decides to keep secret from him the severity of her situation.  He first sees Idrissa, a young boy and illegal African immigrant hiding from the police below a pier.  He leaves food out for the boy and soon becomes his protector.  Most of his neighbors help him in this endeavor, with one notable exception.  They band together to throw a secret benefit concert by one of the most unique and hilarious “rock legend,” Little Bob.

Should you see it?  This movie certainly deserves more attention.  My wife and I both enjoy British humor, and while this is distinctly French (and directed by the Finnish Aki Kaurismaki) that dryly absurd style ranges from making you smile (subtle deprecating jabs) to laughing out loud (rock “celebrity” Little Bob.)  It’s certainly different and takes a little investment beyond the subtitles to get the jokes, but the story is compelling enough to get you there and enjoy yourself.

10. “The Artist.”

Jean Dujardin was awarded Best Actor at Cannes for his role as the silent movie star in “The Artist.”  I first saw him a few years back in “OSS 117: Lost in Rio,” a very French comedy about a secret agent that spoofs the 007 genre more directly and subtly than the more camp “Austin Powers” series.  Here he stars in a black and white silent movie about a silent movie star whose life and career are derailed by the advent of “talkies.”  Dujardin’s charisma is immense, and critical to pulling off the silent role, though I did miss his dialogue and more than once had the thought “I should watch OSS 117 again…”

This is another breakout movie from 2011 that had a lot of Oscar buzz.  Most of what I heard from friends and family who saw it was that it was “worth giving a chance” despite being a silent movie in black and white.  It’s a well done, silent movie if not a great one.  That it was made recently makes it unique, and while certainly charming it came across a little too cliche and people-pleasing for my tastes.  I enjoyed the movie, but I felt as though the movie was for people who had never given classic comedies a chance.  Rather than try to compete with the likes of Buster Keaton, “The Artist” seems content to rekindle interest in those kinds of movies.

Should you see it?  “The Artist” serves as a modern starting point for silent movies and early 1900’s comedies.  Dujardin is wonderful, and if this movie means more exposure and screen time for him, so much the better.  That the storytelling is cliche is part of the charm, if not the point of the entire thing.  It is harmless fun with a little less heart and depth than expected, and nowhere near as good as “Hugo,” which is similarly a movie  about movies.  I may be the wrong age to most enjoy it.  I can see where grandparents and grandchildren could really get a kick out of “The Artist” together.

11. Melancholia

Now this is the art film I was expecting when I watched “The Tree of Life.”  Great actors in a movie that is more about mood than characters but no less fascinating.  We open with Kirsten Dunst, hours late and acting very strangely at her own wedding reception.  No one acts rationally, but neither do they appear outright insane – it’s as though everyone has undergone a personality enhancement similar to being drunk.  It makes some meaner, others randier and still others just exhausted.

The rest of the movie is shown and not told.  “Melancholia,” it turns out, is not (only) a state of mind, but an actual planet that may or may not be on a collision course with Earth.  Kiefer Sutherland provides the family with some astronomy information and believes they will be safe.

Where movies like “Independence Day” take on impending doom with bravado, brotherhood and testosterone, “Melancholia” seems more like a foregone conclusion.  We tell ourselves and our children we’re going to be safe, but we are afraid.  Dunst’s character seems like a spoiled brat, depressed and appearing to be getting married in something closer to the medieval “joining of families” way that women were the bargaining chips of their fathers.  By the end, she is our eyes and ears and provides the most beautiful understanding of what really matters in the final scenes.

Should you see it?  The director, Lars von Trier insists this movie has a happy ending.  I think it’s important to know that going in.  Beyond that, I recommend it as a great emotional mystery.  By the end, you’ll know what is going on but even when you’re scratching your head you will be entertained by the great performances, intriguing plot and gorgeous images.  I found myself wanting to revisit “Marie Antoinette” and “The Virgin Suicides” to see how they hold up to this.  There’s a lot to like in “Melancholia.”  At the time of this blog post, it’s one of the few on this list available on Netflix Instant and Amazon Prime.

12. “Terri”

I was shocked by how great this movie is.  I expected a movie about bullying and the sad life of a high school loser.  Then the movie started being kind of funny and quirky.  John C. Reilly shows up as the school principal and more cliches approach only to evaporate into something more compelling at the last minute.  Terri is a strange, sensitive kid who seems to never complain about his situation.  His tentative confidence is believable and less overstated than, say, “Napoleon Dynamite.”  This is neither an awkward comedy or an awkward drama.  Most movies in the same “league” as “Terri” go a little overboard at one time or another.  “Rushmore” is another example.  This movie is just as entertaining as “Rushmore” without imbuing any of its characters with unrelatable or exaggerated characterization.

Should you see it?  This movie is a lot of fun.  It goes to dangerous places from time to time, but each feels authentic to reality rather than following some recipe for a movie about high-school losers.  Whenever the movie makes you uncomfortable, it does a great job of exploring that discomfort through Terri’s own eyes.  What he learns, we remember learning.  We get fully developed characters here – everyone gets their fair share of pity, envy and laughs.  John C. Reilly does in this movie something between his own performance in “Magnolia” and Bill Murray’s in “Rushmore.”  He is wonderfully written right along with the rest.

13. “The Descendants”

George Clooney is usually great.  In “The Descendants,” he’s greater than usual.  The movie wastes no time on divulging the stakes: Clooney’s character is in the middle of selling the last “virgin” land, his family’s birthright, before the law makes that happen anyway, but without profit.  His wife is in a coma after a boating accident.  His college-age daughter seems distant and out of control.  He brings her back from school to tell her that her mother is dying, and that he desperately needs help with his younger daughter due to his complete absentee parenting up to this point.

I knew most of this before I saw the movie and it sounded depressing.  That’s why I didn’t get around to seeing this one until I watched the list for this project.  That was a mistake.  This movie isn’t depressing at all – quite the opposite.  We explore Clooney’s guilt, anger and sadness and root for his family to rebound.  His older daughter helps him snap out of it without losing sight of her own anger about the situation.  This movie is a great deal funnier than I expected it to be, and the joint confrontation of the father and the older daughter against Matthew Lillard’s character (to say more would spoil the fun) is among the highlights.

Should you see it?  Though I’ve never met anyone who outright hates George Clooney, I think this is a movie that even those people would enjoy.  He is certainly great in it, but the role requires a lot from it’s leading man, and Clooney delivers.  If you were worried (as I was) that this would be a downer, don’t be.  This movie is not about grieving the losses that comprise its premise, but for using them as a springboard and a “wake-up call” to what’s really important – honor, tradition and family.

14. “Margaret”

The circumstances under which I saw this movie in the theater are pretty unique and bear repeating.  I am a fan of bad movies and the surrounding culture of berating bad movies such as MST3K.  (I even made full-length commentary berating both “Highlander 2: The Quickening” and “Super Mario Brothers.)  It was through this enjoyment of terrible movies that I came across the wonderful “Everything Is Terrible” website.  In addition to posting hilarious videos culled from the depths of VHS hell, EIT often shows bad movies and found footage through a Los Angeles group called Cinefamily at a small LA theater, “The Silent Movie Theater.”

I happened to be in LA on a trip with my wife and had an afternoon with nothing to do.  Hoping to catch some wonderful terribleness, I checked the showtimes at The Silent Movie Theater and was disappointed to learn that no bad movies were being shown during my stay, only a storied movie called “Margaret” starring Anna Paquin.

The movie itself had a really interesting story behind its release.  It had been in post-production and release hell for many years.  The studios wanted it edited down, but director Kenneth Lonegran had final cut approval and refused to shorten it.  It was shot in 2005 and came out in 2011.  The theatrical cut I saw was 149 minutes.

The movie itself is a meandering, roundabout story.  It feels more like a season of television or a mini-series in scope as it gets into the minutia of many interesting but nevertheless secondary characters.  The main story follows Paquin’s character as she tries to cope with her role in causing a fatal bus accident by distracting the bus driver.  She decides to hold the bus driver accountable for the accident.  The consequences and realities of the situation don’t seem to sink in for her.  It becomes apparent that her crusade against the driver is really about her own guilt about her role in the accidental death.

Should you see it?  Probably not.  I’d say that Anna Paquin, Mark Rufalo, Matt Damon and Jean Reno are all great actors and that there is a great movie or a great series in here, but not both.  It’s possible that a longer cut will come along and be more satisfying or a shorter cut will come along to better focus on Paquin’s great performance.  I really enjoyed this movie, and felt that it really helped to know the backstory.  I’m glad I saw it and I’m sure there are other people that will as well, but I think Ebert included it on this list more out of vindication for the director sticking with it and getting the movie released.  It’s an achievement, but not one that stands on its own.

15. “Martha Marcy May Marlene”

Elizabeth Olsen plays the title character who has different names in different situations.  Her name is Martha.  The leader of the cult she escapes from habitually renames people who join, calling her Marcy May.  The others in the cult follow suit.  Marlene is the name all of the cult women use to answer the phone as a way of protecting its membership from those who would meddle (or rescue?) them.

Martha escapes the cult and begins to recover with her sister but does not provide much in the way of information.  She’s proud, ashamed, afraid, confused and paranoid in equal measure.  John Hawkes is wonderful as the cult leader.  We learn more about the cult in a series of flashbacks until the full nature of what has happened begins to take shape – just as the cult seems to be closing in on reclaiming Martha.  Or are they?  Her paranoia and self-doubt are so extreme that every noise in the night is suspect.  She could be in danger and she could already be lost.

Should you see it?  Elizabeth Olsen’s performance is fantastic in this movie.  You empathize with her at all times without ever losing sight of the fact that she is severely damaged and not without some responsibility in helping do to other cult recruits what was done to her.  This is a great psychological thriller, not a horror film.  It does not disappoint.  The cult is fascinating, but Olsen’s spellbinding and believable performance steals the show.

16. “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2”

I dreaded watching this movie.  It ended up being last because I just never found myself wanting to watch it.  I’ve seen most of the previous movies and read the books, and the “Deathly Hallows” book was my least favorite of the series.  My main problem with the final book was its pace.  The search for the horcruxes was painfully boring to read and was made more miserable by the contrivance that Harry, Ron and Hermione have a falling out and split company at this crucial moment.  Having them essentially “skip school” for this book is also incredibly broken.  Hogwart’s has become a central character in the series and it’s suddenly pushed aside for petty arguments and mucking about under invisibility cloaks.  Rubbish.

While reading it, I did wish I had just waited for the movie.  The movie would have kept the pace up better and stuck with the action over the endless bickering and solitude.  Then it was announced that they were making the final book into two movies and I decided not to bother.  When I finally did see this movie, I was pleasantly surprised to see that it picks up after the stupid “breakup” subplot has run its course.

With both, I would have preferred a final showdown worthy of the six books it took to get us here.  The movie does a great job of moving along briskly, showing us what’s important and skipping over what’s not.  It’s two hours could easily have been three, and it shows that care was taken to make sure the action holds up without boring or confusing us.  In other words, it is a disaster averted.  Though it includes the pants-crappingly-bad “circle of life epilogue” from the book, it feels a little less than completely retarded here.

Should you see it?  I wish I had just watched the movies rather than read the books on this series.  There were parts of the early books I enjoyed that didn’t translate over, but here they were able to keep the action and drama of what the climax needed to be without all the hand-wringing that happens on the page.  If you’re a fan of the movies, you’ve likely already seen this.  If your kids are fans of the movies and are old enough to deal with the darker tone of the later books, this movie is a fitting conclusion to the series.  It’s not a bad movie in and of itself either.  There’s something to be said for staying true to the series of both the  movies and the books and bringing it to a conclusion this satisfying.  I would not have watched it outside of this project, and I’m still not convinced it belonged on this list.

17. Trust

Director David Schwimmer’s movie focuses on the collapse of a family in the wake of the rape of a 14-year-old girl.  Specifically, the movie follows her father (Clive Owen) go through several stages of reaction – rage, bloodlust, helplessness and grief.

Liana Liberato plays a smart, confident girl who receives a computer for her 14th birthday.  She meets a boy online who claims to be 16.  Then 20.  When they finally meet, he turns out to be more like 35, maybe older.  She’s not stupid, but neither is he.  He knows what to say, how to earn her trust.  When he abuses her, she doesn’t yet realize what has happened.  He has tricked her and the way he plays on her own assumptions about her maturity make no sense to her father.  “He raped you!” “It wasn’t like that!”

This movie, more than any on the list is one that I found incredibly important and topical.  It addresses parenting in the age of technology with more realism and wisdom than anything I have seen before.  It addresses the body image and sexualization of younger and younger girls.  Owen’s character works for an ad agency with a very racy ad campaign aimed at the “tween” market.  The girl meets her online “friend” at a mall near an ad with a mostly naked model.  It’s unflinching, realistic and powerful moviemaking.

Should you see it?  Yes.  More than anything on this list, I can say that without question you should see this movie.  This is a movie that will speak to different people in meaningful ways at different ages.  It’s a cautionary tale for parents and children about the dangers of online predators in the modern era, but a ubiquitous “missing manual” for fathers trying to protect and understand their teenage daughters.

“People get hurt. There’s only so much we can do to protect ourselves, our children. The only thing we can do is be there for each other when we do fall down to pick each other up.”  Those are the words the girl’s counselor offers to the father and the central point of the movie.  Schwimmer’s answer to why he wanted to tell this story is also a great resource for understanding the film.  It starts at 1:20 here:

18. “Life, Above All”

12-year old Chanda is the central character in this South African movie.  Her mother is very ill, and her infant sister has just perished.  The opening scene is Chanda selecting a tiny coffin, an early look at her strength and wisdom beyond her years.  Her neighbors ostracize anyone suspected of having AIDS.  Chanda’s friend Esther, also 12, becomes a prostitute after being painted a whore by the townspeople.  With no way to support herself, and since everyone already thinks she is selling herself she decides she might as well make the money if she is to endure the reputation.

There are a lot of sad events in “Life, Above All,” but the saddest of all is the superstition and fear of the communities.  Rather than helping one another, they fear the disease as a sort of “God’s punishment” and edit entire families out of their lives.  The girl, Chanda, has a stoic sense of right and wrong and works courageously against the odds to do what she thinks is right.  She doesn’t get everything she wants, but she succeeds in holding a moral mirror in front of her neighbors.

Should you see it?  “Life, Above All” is set in the AIDS-afflicted modern Africa, but tells a universally human story.  Its focus on its strong characters allows you to empathize with them all.  There are no “bad people” in this movie.  Everyone is doing what they think is right, even when it is plainly to the detriment of those who need help most.  It is a movie with a positive message dealing with religion, superstition and compassion.  Don’t miss it.

19. “The Mill and the Cross”

This is one of the most incredible movies I have ever seen.  Ebert chose not to attempt to describe it as it is very challenging to describe.  Certainly unique, had I not undertaken to see everything on this list the little information there is out there on what this movie is doesn’t sound very interesting.  It sounds like an overgrown art project – literally a living painting.  That’s not appealing to me as a description, but is nevertheless partially true of the movie.

The movie centers around the painting “The Way to Calvary.”  It re-creates the painting using live actors and some composite shots of sets and outdoor locations.  It shows us the people standing in their places in the painting.  They move slightly, breathe and pose.  We then move through a series of short stories that explore some of the characters in more depth.  We learn about a man who is cruelly beaten and left to die on a wagon wheel hoisted into the air.  Later we return to the painter himself and he explains the composition of the painting, the symbolism, construction and positioning.

Should you see it?  If documentaries were made in the 1500’s or if The History Channel decided to make a movie completely about a painting, it might resemble “The Mill and the Cross.”  I found the storytelling only mildly interesting, but once the context became clear and the painter narrated all of the elements of the painting, it took on new meaning.  If you’ve ever lost yourself in a painting or art history, or wanted to try for the first time, this movie is a good approximation of that sensation.  It’s not for everyone, but with an open mind and a sense of wonder it can be an intriguing, enjoyable experience.

20. “Another Earth”

A girl (star and co-writer Brit Marling) causes a car accident while driving drunk, injuring a man and killing his wife and son.  The accident takes place in the evening of the day a second Earth appears in the night sky.  Earth 2 appears to be the realization of a second dimension – a shared history that only diverged when the second Earth appeared.  Did the accident happen on Earth 2?

The girl wants to apologize to the man whose family she killed.  She can’t quite confront him, and ends up working for him.  They become friends and she keeps her secret.  She tries to improve his life as a kind of amends for what she has done, but the more she learns about him the harder it is to keep her identity a secret.

Should you see it?  This movie is an amazing achievement in that its science fiction premise is a minor conceit to the drama and storytelling.  This is a character study and a good one at that.  The tiny budget does not hurt this movie in the least.  On the contrary, it’s a wonderfully entertaining and refreshingly well made movie on a shoestring.  You will almost certainly enjoy it, and I have little doubt that Brit Marling is a name that more people will come to know.  She wrote and starred in “Another Earth” and did very well in both regards.


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