Loved It: War Horse, Our Favorite Movie of 2011

This Oscar season, PG-13 for Ugly Cast has highlighted a handful of Movie Things We Loved, with no pretense of objectivity or internal consistency. But as you may have noticed, Oscar season kinda ended, so we’re here to wrap things up.

It’s time to come clean.

It’s past time, really. In December, War Horse came out; in January, I saw it; in February, it went winless at the Oscars; and now it’s March, and movie watchers have turned their gaze from last year’s best to this year’s box office. (How much will Hunger Games make? How much will John Carter lose? How much do you care?)

I’m hoping against hope that the backlash has subsided, that the dead War Horse has taken its last of its many beatings. Critics have dismissed it as sentimental. They’ve scoffed at the idea of adapting a play whose major innovation (an elegantly staged wicker horse) would make no sense in film. They’ve argued that in a movie year already suffocating under the smog of nostalgia, War Horse was just another log for the fire. And they’ve mocked the name – which, to be fair, doesn’t require much more than saying it aloud.

I know that criticisms like those don’t subside. They settle into common wisdom. Though its reviews were moderately positive, it may be too late for War Horse to join the pantheon of Spielberg’s best grown-up films, alongside Munich, Saving Private Ryan, and Schindler’s List. That battle has already been fought, and War Horse, it seems, has lost. Even so, I’m going to finally declare what I’ve been muttering through gritted teeth ever since the mockery began: War Horse was my favorite movie of 2011.

I loved the story. War Horse follows a thoroughbred named Joey as World War I tosses him back and forth across the front lines, from one human guardian to the next: a British officer, a German stable boy, an old Frenchman and his orphaned granddaughter. Each time the setting changes, the script affords us swift insight – in just a few lines of dialogue, we learn who our new protagonists are, how they relate to each other, where they find happiness, what the war stands to steal from them.

I loved the visuals, too, from the pastoral British countryside to the inhuman landscape of No Man’s Land. The titular horse, too, exerts a magnetic pull. Every character seems drawn to him, as a (none-too-subtle) symbol of humanity and beauty in a war that increasingly transformed civilians into soldiers, and soldiers into flesh. As the film unfolds, we realize how the role of horses changes, from steeds worthy of riding into battle, to animals good only for pulling an ambulance, to an expendable form of living artillery.

Of all the charges against War Horse, one rings truest and most absurd: That it’s sentimental. Of course it is. Good stories are sentimental. Humans are sentimental. When did sentimentality start carrying such a stigma?

The fact is, War Horse did well enough – it made money, won a few minor awards – in spite of the sneering, the doubting, the imposing curvature of all those skeptically arched eyebrows. For a movie so plainly ambitious, and a director so monumentally famous, that level of success registers as “below expectations.” But I’ll add to its moderate success this last faint accolade: that War Horse was PG-13 for Ugly Cast’s favorite movie of 2011.

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Loved It: French People Flirting

This Oscar season, PG-13 for Ugly Cast will be flipping a cordial bird to the arbitrary practice of rank-ordering movies. Instead, we will highlight a handful of Movie Things We Loved, with no pretense of objectivity or internal consistency. Deal with it.

Well, it’s Oscar Day. And it’s time to address the elephant in the room, tonight’s inevitable victor, the thing that’s black and white and written about all over.

Depending who you ask, The Artist is an exquisite work of cinema, an overhyped piece of trifle, or a weird silent film that nobody wants to watch. The sugar-craving masses have written it off as pretentiously artsy; the pretentious, artsy types have written it off as a candy morsel for the masses; and the Oscar voters, ignoring both camps, will soon crown it their favorite film of the year. It has ignited a massive critical and cultural debate that we here at PG-13 for Ugly Cast view – and please quote us on this – as a stupid waste of everybody’s time. Like The Artist. Don’t like The Artist. But don’t expect that an emotional investment in the fickle, flawed Oscar process will pay one penny of dividends.

For what it’s worth, The Artist gave us one thing we loved: the boundless charm of French people flirting.

First of all, the stars are gorgeous. Viewers don’t need to worry about this silent film losing their attention, because it would be captivating just to watch Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo bat their eyelashes at each other.

Second of all, the language of flirtation is wordless and universal. When she slides her arm into his empty coat, and pretends that the sleeve is him embracing her, it’s hard not to melt a little. In the film’s best sequence, the silent film actor played by Dujardin keeps blowing a ballroom scene in which he dances briefly with Bejo. He tries the scene again and again, take after take, but each time that they touch, he loses himself and forgets about the movie altogether. As irresistible as each of the actors are, the moments they share together are even cuter.

While I’ve already forgotten much of the film’s rocky second half, those early scenes of courtship are delightful and iconic. The Artist wasn’t my favorite movie of 2011. (That, you’ll find out tomorrow.) But it had attractive French actors playing star-crossed lovers, and really, what more can you ask?

Loved It: Moneyball, Margin Call, and the High Drama of the Spreadsheet

This Oscar season, PG-13 for Ugly Cast will be flipping a cordial bird to the arbitrary practice of rank-ordering movies. Instead, we will highlight a handful of Movie Things We Loved, with no pretense of objectivity or internal consistency. Deal with it.

In the dim caverns of the internet, I’m a blogger. But in the daylight of the real world, I’m a high school math teacher. I’m often disappointed when math and movies meet – most filmmakers, like most humans, hate math, and struggle to squeeze drama from the seemingly bland certainty of equations and formulas. Movies also make some embarrassing mistakes, from A Beautiful Mind mangling the idea of a Nash equilibrium to Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting proving his once-in-a-century genius by… simplifying a fraction.

But Moneyball and Margin Call – two of my favorite movies of 2011, rhyming division – got the math emphatically right. Specifically, they showed our world as it is: powered by spreadsheets. Continue reading

Loved It: Our Parents’ Quiet Legacy

This Oscar season, PG-13 for Ugly Cast will be flipping a cordial bird to the arbitrary practice of rank-ordering movies. Instead, we will highlight a handful of Movie Things We Loved, with no pretense of objectivity or internal consistency. Deal with it.

I saw two movies this year about the legacy that parents leave for their children. One of them, Tree of Life, was an artsy peacock of a film: beautiful and utterly self-involved. It strutted and preened, as if its observations about parenthood were rare and timeless wisdom. Critics raved, cynics raged, actors admitted their own confusion. It was a controversy, a phenomenon, a big messy movie that aspired to greatness, stood accused of idiocy, and may have managed to achieve them both.

The other film, Beginners, was none of that. It was gentle and subdued, and in its own way, much more profound.

Beginners tells the story of Oliver – played by Ewan McGregor – searching for meaning in life. It’s only loosely a “story,” skipping forward and backwards in time as Oliver meets a woman, sees his father come out as gay, finds himself at the fringes of his father’s exciting new life, watches his father die. He reflects on his mother, a witty and irreverent woman in a marriage that could never fully satisfy her, and whose death opened up a new chapter for Oliver’s father.

As in Tree of Life, conventional narrative takes a back seat. But unlike Tree of Life, Beginners never loses its human focus. As Ewan McGregor’s memories unfold in front of us, we see the playful quirks and aching sadness that he inherited from each of his parents: his mother’s spontaneous sense of humor; his father’s warm, low-voiced way of saying “Hello, house” when he gets home. (There’s also an irresistible Jack Russell terrier that Oliver inherited from his father. The dog, with his subtitled thoughts, gets some of the best lines in the script.) Where Tree of Life preaches, Beginners meditates. It’s a mellow film, full of sweet and sorrowful observations, never pretending to have final or absolute answers. It simply shows the quiet, tangled legacy that our parents leave us, the way their lives shape and intersect our own.

Christopher Plummer, who played the father, will deservedly win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. I would have loved to see the film receive even higher honors than that. But since this blog’s formal position on the Oscars (and any system of movie-ranking) is one of nose-thumbing ridicule, I will simply say that Beginners is a lovely movie that I recommend highly.

Loved It: Life’s a Snappy Song with the Muppets

Part Four in Our Seven-Part Series of Muppet Reviews

This Oscar season, PG-13 for Ugly Cast will be flipping a cordial bird to the arbitrary practice of rank-ordering movies. Instead, we will highlight a handful of Movie Things We Loved, with no pretense of objectivity or internal consistency. Deal with it.

The Muppets divide people into two camps: (1) Those who adore them, and (2) Those who have coal and garbage where their hearts should be.

If you are a Muppet-Adorer, then I embrace you as a brother, or possibly a sister—it’s hard for me to tell over the internet. But if you are a Garbage-Hearted Hater, then I do not banish you. Rather, I pity you, as I pity the lactose intolerant, or those with peanut allergies, or anyone else whose flawed biology thwarts their enjoyment of life’s wholesome pleasures. I cannot promise to cure you, Garbage Hearts, but I hope to squeeze a few drops of human emotion from your rotten and decaying souls.

Let us begin as all such projects of salvation must: with music. Continue reading

Loved It: The Most Heartbreaking Sign in All of Sign-dom

This Oscar season, PG-13 for Ugly Cast will be flipping a cordial bird to the arbitrary practice of rank-ordering movies. Instead, we will highlight a handful of Movie Things We Loved, with no pretense of objectivity or internal consistency. Deal with it.

A giant factory sign reading “DAYS WITHOUT ACCIDENT” is quietly reset to zero.

Cut to: our fourteen-year-old hero in a black suit, sitting on a swing set, his mother’s funeral underway.

So begins Super 8. It’s a simple, impactful moment at the start of a simple, impactful film. In a year full of movies about how awesome movies are (see also: Hugo, The Artist), Super 8 resonated the most with me. It’s got explosions and aliens like any summer blockbuster, but all in service of a sweet and genuine story about the beginning of that dangerous, exciting stage of life called adulthood. I’ve learned to be skeptical of J.J. Abrams, but watching Super 8, it’s hard not to be swept up in his affection for Spielberg-style adventure, his nostalgia for childhood, his love of filmmaking. And even though it’s only moments into the film, it’s hard not to be hushed and drawn in by that heartbreaking DAYS WITHOUT ACCIDENT sign.

Loved It: The 1000 People Who Worked on Kung Fu Panda 2

This Oscar season, PG-13 for Ugly Cast will be flipping a cordial bird to the arbitrary practice of rank-ordering movies. Instead, we will highlight a handful of Movie Things We Loved, with no pretense of objectivity or internal consistency. Deal with it.

Most great artists – poets, painters, Photoshop geniuses – work alone. Milton didn’t settle for a “producer” credit on Paradise Lost. No executive swooped in to make Joyce’s Ulysses more relatable for mass audiences. And while it takes dozens of performers to bring theater and music to life, the compositions ultimately come from a Shakespeare or a Mozart. (Or, in rare and splendid cases, a Shakeszart.) Great art is simply not written by committee.

Movies, of course, are all created by committee: a director, a hundred actors, a half-dozen screenwriters, a roomful of producers, cinematographers, costume designers, makeup artists, and so on. Movies are born not from a singular act of creation, but from a series of massive compromises. They are, along with architectural landmarks, the most enormous and expensive artistic projects ever attempted by human hands.

In short, the Kung Fu Panda franchise is our culture’s answer to the pyramids. Continue reading