“The Tree of Life.” This is a meditation on faith that challenges viewers to examine their own spiritual beliefs. The loose, almost stream-of-consciousness approach has caused many critics (and moviegoers) to accuse director Terrence Malick of being vague and inconclusive. But the film, with its glorious scenes of a world being formed, moves in a surprisingly coherent fashion for what is such a profoundly personal reflection. One of the leading questions is the matter of human flaws in a supposedly perfect universe. Who is to blame? Why can’t even a single family—a father and a son or even brothers—avoid moments of conflict? Among the many wonders of "The Tree of Life" is that Malick even draws honest, compelling performances out of such film-celebs as Brad Pitt and Sean Penn. This is an inspired and inspiring film. Does anything else come close in 2011?
“The Trip.” This English film reunites the gifted team of actor Steve Coogan and director Michael Winterbottom, who have gave us a pair of witty, wonderful gems: “Twenty-Four Hour Party People,” an inspired look at the invigorating, but drug-stained Manchester music scene, and “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story,” an especially inventive film about trying to film what has been called an unfilmable novel. Get them both on Netflix to pick up on the pair’s wry style and then rush out to the theater to see this story of a restaurant critic (who apparently has no interest in food) traveling around rural England with a far more together pal (the very funny Rob Brydon), hoping desperately to find something that brings passion and commitment to his hollow life. There are some gentle lessons about human nature and some out-right belly laughs that occur when the two pals find a common love for imitating celebrities, including Michael Caine, Roger Moore and Woody Allen at the dinner table.
“Bridesmaids.” I didn’t have very high expectations when I went into the theater despite lots of favorable word-of-mouth. But I was pleasantly surprised. Kristen Wiig, from “Saturday Night Live,” was perfect as a mixed-up young woman who feels even more downcast than usual when her best friend gets married, leaving her all the more alone. Wiig’s character has never been much good at anything and she can’t even master the role of an encouraging bridesmaid. Doesn’t sound like that hilarious a story, but “Bridesmaids” is a winner from wire-to-wire. There are some scenes that merely make you smile, others that make you chuckle and still others that make you laugh out loud. Wiig has already shown on “Live” that she has a smart, inventive mind and she makes the transition to the big screen with ease. Look forward to big things from her.
Wait for the DVD on Netflix.
“Beautiful Boy.” Michael Sheen and Maria Bello are outstanding as parents of a teen-age son who, shockingly, goes on a shooting rampage that kills numerous students at his college. The film tracks the couple as they try to regain their emotional balance after the tragedy, sometimes comforting each other, sometimes blaming the other for what has happened. It’s a draining film that has some power, but the script never really rises above the expected, leaving you oddly unaffected by all the suffering.
“Midnight in Paris.” The story line in Woody Allen’s recent string of movies has been so thin that you feel he comes up with the script over a single lunch—and this doesn’t really break his disappointing streak. There is a BIG plot device here that gives this film more surface charm than his other recent ones, but the fantasy device is so lightweight that it falls apart if you know about it before you go into the theater. So, avoid reviews or a discussion with anyone who has seen this movie. Unfortunately, I heard about the story “twist” before buying my ticket, so it made everything seem especially threadbare.
Avoid at all costs:
“Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.” Let’s drop Johnny Depp’s name from any further discussion about the great contemporary actors until he apologizes for wasting our time with this hapless endeavor. Doesn’t he have any shame? The facial tics and Keith Richards’s impersonation were fabulous the first time out with “Pirates” but the antics have reduced him to the level of a hack in this film. Plus, it’s kinda disconcerting that this film has no real story.
“The Hangover Part II.” Even if you loved the first “Hangover” (as I did), stay far, far away from this follow-up. Trust me. “The Hangover” had a sweet, underdog quality that made the humor all the more embracing. The tone this time is cold, crude and hard. No one comes away looking good—even the current-day wonder Zach.