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December 2011

Family Viewing, Outside the Cry Room

Kino International

A newborn in the family reduced my cinema visits to the lowest number in many years, although I did finally manage to catch up with most significant releases by the end of the year. There are a few notable exceptions, such as "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" and "Drive," and I’m yet to catch the recently released "The Artist" and "Las acasias." Looking back, I’d say it’s been a reasonably good year. Certainly it’s been a very good one for British cinema. I’m a bit disappointed not to have any out-and-out comedies on my list, but some fell just outside my top 10.

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The Darkness of Mere Being

Jody Lee Lipes/Fox Searchlight Pictures

A year full of darkness in and out of the theater — I’m not talking about full-fledged apocalypses, but rather broken worlds that our heroes and villains must navigate for survival. Escape was probably the most popular theme among the movies in my top 10: escape from death, marriage, heartbreak and even economic collapse. By going to see these films, I was able to escape writing papers and completing problems sets in the Tufts University computer labs. Without further ado, I gladly share these with you:

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Mondo Apocalypto

Music Box Films

I have written rude things about Kenneth Branagh, but I never wished him a term in the Marvel salt mines. His name attached to "Thor" wasn't the year's biggest directorial surprise — that was Michel Gondry's credit on "The Green Hornet," which really did seem like crossed wires — but it proved that hiring a left-field director for the current wave of fantasy films is a bit pointless, since the chances of getting a left-field film out of it are about zero. The differences between the year's comic-book movies were well worth arguing about, as long as you didn't miss that it was their similarities which were actually the point, and that the same diminishing returns as any other drug hit was part of the equation. Since 2012 brings to the screen a comic for which my 12-year-old self would have mugged my own grandmother, the next whimper you hear may be mine.

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A Private Afterlife

Dreams of a Life (2011)


The story of Joyce Vincent (played by Zawe Ashton in re-enactments) — a woman who died alone in her North London bedsit just before Christmas 2003 and lay undiscovered until January 2006 — forms the devastatingly moving basis of Carol Morley’s superb documentary.

Fascinated by the story, Ms. Morley’s investigative determination to unravel the mystery and get to the bottom of how Vincent could seemingly slip so readily through the cracks of society actually ends up being so much more than a quest for answers.

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An Icon Out of the Elementary

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)

Daniel Smith/Warner Brothers Pictures

The easiest way to digest “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” is to pretend that the film does not concern the exploits of fiction’s finest detective at all. If one can convince oneself that Robert Downey Jr. is playing not Sherlock, but some rough-and-tumble Victorian adventurer — Indiana Holmes perhaps — then the film can be enjoyed, much like its predecessor, as a rambunctious but somewhat shallow romp. Naturally, one might notice the odd similarity between Conan Doyle’s creation and the hero of Guy Ritchie’s film; but that is surely mere coincidence.

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This Genre Will Self-Improve in Five Seconds

Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol (2011)

David James/Paramount Pictures

You’ll be glad that “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol” isn’t in 3-D, especially if you suffer from acrophobia. As you might recall, Tom Cruise made headlines a year ago dangling from the tallest building in the world — Dubai’s Burj Khalifa — some 1,700 feet above ground. You’re going to feel every dizzying inch as the camera slowly pans above his head to reveal the ground beneath when he begins climbing outside a window on the 109th floor and scaling up to the 130th. Mr. Cruise probably deserves an Oscar and then some just for pulling off this stunt. It’s truly difficult to imagine anyone not clutching his or her armrests for dear life during this vertigo-inducing scene.

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The Wind Will Tarry Us

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011)

Memento Films

In the beginning, “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” seems to signal a major departure for Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan. With its lush, warm colors and timeless fable-like quality, the film is at first glance nothing like Mr. Ceylan’s meditations on urban alienation. In a long shot, golden headlight beams sweep through the darkness and ignite the Anatolian steppe like comets in the night sky. A caravan of cars wriggles across the hilly countryside amid stops that are virtually indistinguishable from each other as if in an Abbas Kiarostami movie, carrying cops, a prosecutor, a doctor, a few gendarmes, some gravediggers and a pair of murder suspects searching in vain for a corpse. They argue, wax poetic and bond in the course of the twilight-zone journey. But once they unearth the body, it finally becomes apparent that Mr. Ceylan is treading familiar territory after all.

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The Psycho of Abuse

House at the End of the Street (2012)

Relativity Media

Jennifer Lawrence has wasted no time parlaying her Oscar nod from indie darling “Winter’s Bone” to land roles in Hollywood blockbusters like “X-Men: First Class” and “The Hunger Games.” But striking while the iron is hot hasn’t boded well for the careers of many an actress with similar prospects. Like, what’s Elisabeth Shue been up to lately? Oh, she’s been in “Piranha 3D” and some teen horror flick called “House at the End of the Street,” which also stars … none other than Ms. Lawrence! We are happy to report, though, that this isn’t some sort of karmic and prophetic cautionary tale about the Oscar curse, because “House at the End of the Street” actually turns out to be kind of decent.

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Woman of Destiny

The Lady (2011)

Magali Bragard/Cohen Media Group

"The Lady," directed by Luc Besson, is a biographical melodrama set against the last 30 years of tumult in Myanmar. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, here played by Michelle Yeoh, is the lady in question: the daughter of assassinated Myanmar revolutionary, Gen. Aung San. Buoyed by her British husband and thousands of supporters, she endured years of house arrest and intimidation by the military junta and in turn became a leader in the ongoing fight for democracy.

From a Westerner's perspective, the film is a fascinating look at an oppressive dictatorship and the woman who stood in its way, although it never quite escapes the trappings of a typical Hollywood-style biopic, replete with clunky acting and an overly aggressive musical score. Perhaps Mr. Besson would disagree, but audiences are sophisticated enough to appreciate the gravity of a massacre or the wistfulness of returning home without grand, sweeping music at every cue. "The Lady" is at its best when it does away with the bells and whistles and focuses on the story itself.

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Climb Down Ev'ry Mountain

Alps (2011)

Yorgos Lanthimos

A young girl practices gymnastics under the tutelage of a near-psychotic coach. Another studiously memorizes lists of light fittings. And they are part of a bizarre group whose leader assigns each member code names based on the Swiss Alps. From these mysterious beginnings, the audience is required to unpick exactly what this eccentric gang of four is up to and why. The resulting puzzle is similar in tone to director Yorgos Lanthimos’s unforgettable debut, “Dogtooth,” but this time we’re following several different characters in their respective stories and the dots are more difficult to join for a while.

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