Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

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Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Media Watch
The top 15 movies of 2011, plus a new novel from James Lee Burke

by Father Tom Caswell, for the Inland Register

(From the February 16, 2012 edition of the Inland Register)

Fifteen Best Films of 2011

The choices I make for best films of the year are based on the films I saw. Many of them I did review and the more recent ones were not given the normal review, but with the Oscars at the end of this month it is time to make decisions.

I am starting with the 15th-best film and going towards the best film of the year.

15. Recently having seen again Vision Quest filmed in Spokane in the mid ’80s, I was impressed how as a wrestling film it held up across the years. The high school wrestling film of this year done by Director Tom McCarthy is titled Win Win. The new film doesn’t have all the intense “Rocky” element of so many sports films. It deals with ethical and family conflicts. Paul Giamatti is excellent as the coach. Young wrestler Alex Shaffer does a fine job of acting.

14. The Guard is an R-rated thriller that takes place in Ireland. Brendan Gleeson is a foul-mouthed rogue of a policeman. He steals the movie. Don Cheadle plays an African-American straight-laced FBI Drug Agent who is the foil for the bigoted Gleeson character. For adults, a fascinating comedic mystery.

13. Margin Call is the small independent film that did not get widely seen. It gives a strong indictment of the Wall Street firms involved in the economic collapse of 2008. It is loaded with great actors, including Stanley Tucci, Paul Bettany, Kevin Spacey, Demi Moore, Simon Baker, and Jeremy Irons. The chilling speech by the Jeremy Irons character justifying corrupt behavior reminds the viewer of Orson Welles’s memorable speech in the Vienna Ferris wheel in the classic The Third Man.

12. Martin Sheen and his son Emilio Estevez this year gave us labor of love in the film The Way, which is a fictionalized story of pilgrims on the 800-kilometer journey by foot to the Spanish pilgrimage city of Santiago de Compostela. Sheen plays a grieving father whose son had died earlier attempting to make the pilgrimage. Sheen then makes the journey himself in honor of his son. On the way he meets three fairly stereotyped characters who make the trip with him. The ending in the Cathedral with the swinging incense pot is an incredible visual experience.

11. The title Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is one I keep forgetting. The film is based on a 2005 novel by Jonathan Safran Foer. It is the story of a nine-year-old boy trying to find some meaning in the death of his father at the Towers on 9/11. The boy, played by Thomas Horn, is in most scenes in the film. At times he is not sympathetic. But the complicated plot about the love of his father, played by Tom Hanks, gets very interesting in the second half of the film. Max von Sydow is terrific as “the renter” who cannot speak and uses each of his hands for “yes” and “no.” Near the end of the film there is a wonderful scene where the young boy asks an adult for forgiveness. And the adult gives “absolution.”

10. Midnight in Paris is pure Woody Allen confection. Owen Wilson plays the well-off screenwriter who aspires to be a great novelist. Through a series of late evening walks in the “City of Lights” he has the experience of going back in time to the ’20s, when Hemingway, Stein and Fitzgerald (among others) were all there. He meets a wonderful muse in Adriana, played by Marion Cotillard, who is unhappy living in the ’20s and wants to go back to the 1890s. It a” may sound a little hard to believe, but it is a wonderful film that says to appreciate the time you have to live now.

9. Le Havre is a small French film by the Finish director Aki Kaurismaki that is about a shoeshine man who waits for passengers getting on and off the ships. He is not the most popular man in his neighborhood, as he steals from the shopkeepers. But he becomes more popular with them as he hides a young Gabonese refugee trying to get to London to be with his mother. This tale of one man’s redemption by his incredible efforts for a young man in need is powerful. The film does have subtitles, but it is well worth the effort for any viewer.

8. Three film critics on a recent edition of Charlie Rose said they thought the one film of this year that would live through the years would be The Tree of Life. The Terrence Malick film with creation, dinosaurs, and heaven has a central story of a family in Texas in the ’50s that is heavily symbolic. Brad Pitt is excellent as the harsh but loving father raising three boys with Grace, his wife, played by Jessica Chastain. At the very least, a thought-provoking film.

7. Brad Pitt plays general manager Billy Beane of the Oakland A’s in the rather unusual sports film Moneyball. The film tells the story of Beane using a new computerized system devised by the Jonah Hill character. You really don’t need to know much about the ins and outs of baseball to enjoy this film. It is about the struggle of human beings working within systems to reach their goals – and at times seeking to go beyond the tradition of the system.

6. War Horse is the entertaining and emotive film by director Steven Spielberg about a horse named Joey from England who goes from crisis to crisis in France at the time of the First World War. It is based on a 1982 children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo in which Joey narrates his own story. It also has been made into a London and New York play that is sold out night after night.

5. The Help is a comic and serious story of the segregation laws in the South in the early 1960s before the Civil Rights Acts. Viola Davis as Aibileen Clark is the maid who narrates the story. Her best friend, Minny, played by Octavia Spencer, brings feisty comic relief as she seeks to survive an abusive home life reality. Emma Stone plays the budding white writer who seeks to tell the story of the maids of Jackson, Miss., when doing so could be very dangerous for them.

4. Martin Scorsese, the great director, has finally done a film his young daughter could see. Hugo is the impressive production of a children’s book by Brian Selznick titled The Invention of Hugo Cabret. It is love letter told through the eyes of children of the early years of the making of movies in France at the turn of the last century. It has received the most Oscar nominations – 11 of them. It is a monumental production that is entertaining and educational.

3. The Artist is the hot silent film that is predicted to win the Oscar for Best Picture. The black-and-white film by Michael Hazanavicious is a film about the power, seduction, and the danger of being a popular film star. Again, it is joyous presentation of the history of film. Jean Duardin is memorable as the silent movie star George Valentin. The director’s wife, Berenice Bejo is the young actress on her way up who seeks to somehow redeem the faded star Valentin.

2. The Descendants is my personal favorite of the Best Picture Academy nominations. George Clooney is great as the “everyman” whose life is falling apart as he seeks to learn how to be a good father to his two daughters faced with the death of their mother. The film has comedy and tragedy within its boundaries. Director Alexander Payne again gives us a wonderful film about the human condition. The last scene, without a word, with father and daughters on a couch eating ice cream, will be burned into your memory.

1. My number one film was the 2010 Grand Prize Winner of the Cannes Film Festival that played Spokane in May of 2011. The film is Xavier Beauvois’s film Of Gods and Men. It is now out on DVD. It is the story of the French Cistercian Monks who lived in the Algerian Atlas Mountains and were martyred in 1996. The meal scene with all of its Eucharistic elements as Tchaikovsky’s "Swan Lake" is played is one of the greatest religious scenes ever on film. If you haven’t seen this film, now is the time. It is good as a religious retreat.

Movie Review

A beautiful small French movie was recently in the area, titled Le Havre. The director comes from Finland and this is his second French film. Aki Kaurismaki brings a humanistic sensitivity to a story of an older shoeshine man who stands by the ships as they land and exit to shine shoes of travelers.

He is not terribly popular with the shopkeepers of his neighborhood, as he often steals baguettes and vegetables. But suddenly in anti-immigration France, our shoeshine person, Marcel Marx seeks to bring a lunch to a boy from Gabon who has escaped from a container while the rest of family members were captured by authorities. The head policeman had stopped military personnel from shooting at the boy as he ran into hiding.

Marcel eventually finds the boy and brings him home. He begins a long an expensive process to help this 13-year-old boy get to London to be with his mother. In the process the neighbors with their stores help provide food and supplies.

The change in Marcel comes fairly rapidly. I would call Le Havre more of a tale than a realistic story. But it is about one man’s journey into a new world of caring deeply to help another person. Marcel also has a very dutiful wife who is trying to keep him on the straight and narrow. As the story develops there is a sub-plot about her sickness and the journey she finds herself on.

Le Havre is small film that develops into a parable with Gospel overtones. It is a memorable film.

To my knowledge, Le Havre has ratings by neither the Motion Picture Association of America nor Catholic New Service. I would suggest it would be a fine movie for adults and older teens. There would be a lot to talk about.

Book Review

James Lee Burke has a new mystery novel out on the dry and brutal land of Southwest Texas. This is the land of Sheriff Hackberry Holland who is in his late 70’s and driven by the events of the Korean War long ago and his own personal wounded-ness of the past and present. The new book is titled Feast Day of Fools, published by Simon & Schuster in hardcover for $26.99.

My favorite Burke mystery is The Tin Roof Blowdown, which takes place in the New Orleans area during the time of Hurricane Katrina. Tin Roof struck me deeply for its sacramental power in the theme of a vision of broken Holy Communion wafers seen floating in the water around human beings twice in the story, particularly at the end. Now in Feast Day of Fools we have a continuing narrative of the need for Confession in our lives.

Burke’s novels are filled with lots of bad guys who occasionally show some kind of goodness in the midst of excruciating violence and pain. The good guys and gals are impressive but also sometimes show forth intense anger and violence.

Burke does not give us a mystery of an individual hero faced with solving several crimes, usually committed by one person. No. We have lots of bad guys who are plotting against themselves in ways that even include a form a crucifixion with a chapel on fire. In Feast Day we have a somewhat mysterious Chinese woman who lives on the border and helps Mexicans crossing over with food and a safe place to stay for a night. She is called “La Magdalena” and is seen by some as a person to confess ones sins to.

We do know from the previous Rain God mystery that the worst of the bad guys is the returning Preacher Jack Collins, who is a serial killer. But this time Sheriff Holland and his devoted, but angry deputy, Pam Tibbs, find themselves in one dramatic climax on the same side as Collins.

And above all, over and over again, James Lee Burke gives us dramatic descriptions of the countryside where incredible crimes take place. And in Burke’s novel the past history of the characters always is vividly important.

Feast Day of Fools is a journey into the depths of the human person and is much more challenging to our lives than a typical mystery.

(Father Caswell is Inland Register archivist.)

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