Top movies, family films for 2011. Are your Oscar favorites here?

Editor’s Note: As you prepare for this Sunday’s Academy Awards telecast, take a look at John Mulderig’s choices, reprinted below, for 2011’s top movies. And at the end you’ll find a bonus listing of the year’s top 10 family films.

By John Mulderig
Catholic News Service

Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — In late 1965, the three-decade-old National Legion of Decency announced that it was changing its name to the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures.

That switch represented more than just altered terminology. It signaled an intent on the part of the U.S. church’s officially sanctioned film agency to take a more open and positive — though by no means uncritical — approach in its assessment of cinema.

In keeping with this new emphasis, that same year, the film office issued its first list of the 10 best movies released over the previous 12 months.

As with many an innovation, the list gradually became a tradition, one that the media review office of Catholic News Service — which now performs the work originally done by the Legion and its successors — intends faithfully to honor. So here — in alphabetical order – are, first, our choices of the Top 10 films of 2011 suitable for a variety of audiences, followed the 10 best films for family viewing.

Here are the 10 best films overall:

A modern-made silent film, “The Artist” recounts the contrasting fortunes of a dashing star (Jean Dujardin) for whom the arrival of the “talkies” presages decline, and one of his adoring fans (Berenice Bejo) who’s destined for stardom. French director Michel Hazanavicius’ film is, by turns, zany and hilarious, sad and affecting, uplifting and inspiring (A-III, PG-13).

Robin Wright as Mary Surratt in "The Conspirator." (CNS/Roadside Attractions)

“The Conspirator” is an engrossing historical drama about the lawyer (James McAvoy) who defended Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), the pro-Confederate widow charged with conspiring to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. Director Robert Redford’s portrait of a protagonist admirably committed to the rule of law is made all the more effective by the fair assessment of those with other legitimate priorities (A-III, PG-13).

Stylish — though frequently violent — “The Debt” follows a game of cat-and-mouse across two time periods as three Mossad agents (Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson and Ciaran Hinds) track down and capture a Josef Mengele-like Nazi war criminal (Jesper Christensen). While suitable only for mature viewers, as directed with flair by John Madden, this gritty drama will certainly keep them guessing right up to the end (L, R).

In “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2,” director David Yates’ gratifying wrap-up to a decade of blockbuster adaptations, the titular wizard (Daniel Radcliffe) continues to battle his evil nemesis (Ralph Fiennes) aided, once again, by his two closest friends (Rupert Grint and Emma Watson). Many of the symbols and themes in this final narrative echo Scripture and comport with Judeo-Christian beliefs (A-II, PG-13).

Jessica Chastain and Octavia Spencer in "The Help." (CNS/DreamWorks)

Set in the early 1960s, the warm, deftly acted drama “The Help” compellingly portrays the efforts of a rebellious white Southerner and would-be journalist (Emma Stone) to write a book documenting the lives of group of black housemaids (most prominently Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer). Writer-director Tate Taylor’s adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel uses vivid characterizations to bring the Civil Rights-era struggle for human dignity alive (A-III, PG-13).

The 3-D fable “Hugo” follows the adventures of a 12-year-old orphan (Asa Butterfield) who lives in one of Paris’ great train stations during the 1930s. Director Martin Scorsese’s paean to the City of Lights, the human imagination and the pioneers of early cinema casts a charming spell (A-II, PG).

“The Ides of March” is a savvy but raw political drama about an up-and-coming press spokesman (Ryan Gosling) who discovers that the campaign manager (Philip Seymour Hoffman) for whom he works and the candidate (George Clooney) in whom he deeply believes are not all they seem. With a sharp script and a powerful cast, Clooney, who also directed and co-wrote, turns in a slick study in the corrupting effects of power (L, R).

Writer-director Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” asks the question: Would you be happier living in a long-ago, mythically remembered past? A frustrated Hollywood screenwriter and would-be novelist (Owen Wilson) gets to find out when he gains mysterious entree to the French capital of the 1920s (A-III, PG-13).

“Of Gods and Men” is a brilliant dramatization of real events, recounting the fate of a small community of French Trappist monks (led by Lambert Wilson and including Michael Lonsdale) living in Algeria during that nation’s civil war in the 1990s. Using the tools of the monastic life itself, director Xavier Beauvois finds a path to the heart of the Gospel through simplicity, a compassionate sense of brotherhood and an atmosphere of prayer enriched by sacred music and potent silence (A-III, PG-13).

Martin Sheen in "The Way." (CNS/Producers Distribution Agency/ARC)

In “The Way,” after his semi-estranged son (Emilio Estevez) dies while hiking the ancient pilgrimage route to the Spanish shrine of Santiago de Compostela, a California doctor (Martin Sheen) resolves to complete the journey as a means of honoring the lad’s memory. Estevez, who also wrote and directed, takes viewers on a reflective, and ultimately rewarding, exploration of elemental themes that challenges materialistic values (A-III, PG-13).

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And here are the 10 best films for families:

In “The Adventures of Tintin,” director Steven Spielberg’s visually sumptuous animated adaptation of Belgian cartoonist Herge’s famed comic books, the curiously coiffed young reporter (voiced by Jamie Bell) finds himself drawn into a centuries-old mystery. Themes congruent with Judeo-Christian values are advanced through sympathetic main characters, a screenplay faithful to its classic source material and envelope-pushing 3-D technology (A-I, PG).

Actor Samuel L. Jackson narrates “African Cats,” an impressive nature documentary charting the varied fortunes of a pride of lions and a clan of cheetahs. Directors Keith Scholey and Alastair Fothergill provide the whole family with a top-quality cinematic safari (A-I, G).

Director Joe Johnston’s comic book adaptation “Captain America: The First Avenger” relates the origins story of the superhero (Chris Evans) with a complete absence of cynicism and a crackling undercurrent of dry wit (A-II, PG-13).

Lightning McQueen, voice by Owen Wilson, in "Cars 2." (CNS/Disney)

“Cars 2,” director John Lasseter’s winsome sequel, sees a veteran racecar (voice of Owen Wilson) competing against a cocky Italian speedster (voice of John Turturro) in the first-ever World Grand Prix. Amid the sight gags and belly laughs are good lessons about family, friendship, self-esteem and acceptance of others (A-I, G).

In “Gnomeo & Juliet,” it’s love at first ceramic clink for two garden gnomes — voiced by Emily Blunt and James McAvoy. Director Kelly Asbury’s clever animated comedy offers wholesome fun for the entire family (A-I, G).

Vivid animation and a ringing endorsement of the traditional family combine to make director and co-writer Simon Wells’ endearing adventure “Mars Needs Moms” a film kids can enjoy and parents will appreciate. Seth Green plays a 9-year-old boy who comes to recognize the deep love his mother (Joan Cusack) has for him after she’s kidnapped by Martians (A-I, PG).

Amy Adams and Jason Segel in "The Muppets." (CNS/Disney)

Kermit the Frog (voice of Steve Whitmire) and Jim Henson’s other singing, dancing, wisecracking puppets return to the big screen in “The Muppets,” an old-fashioned and genuinely funny comic outing directed by newcomer James Bobin. (A-I, PG)

“Rio” is a buoyant animated adventure with music about a Brazilian-born macaw (voice of Jesse Eisenberg) who returns to his homeland after being raised as a cosseted pet in Minnesota. Lessons about environmental stewardship and love-inspired loyalty are decked out in kaleidoscopic colors in director Carlos Saldanha’s 3-D flight of fancy (A-I, G).

AnnaSophia Robb in "Soul Surfer." (CNS/Tri-Star)

Director Sean McNamara’s fact-based drama “Soul Surfer” recounts the story of a devoutly Christian competitive surfer (AnnaSophia Robb) whose life is changed forever by a shark attack. It’s an uplifting tale bolstered by stunning cinematography and an unapologetic treatment of religious faith (A-II, PG).

In “Winnie the Pooh,” directors Stephen Anderson and Don Hall’s delightfully innocent, predominantly animated adaptation of A.A. Milne’s classic children’s books, the immortal bear (voice of Jim Cummings) finds his characteristic quest for honey interrupted by his friend Eeyore’s (voice of Bud Luckey) latest crisis — and by other complications (A-I, G).

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Mulderig is assistant director for media reviews at Catholic News Service.

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Editor’s Note: Here are the CNS classifications for the movies mentioned in this article: A-I — general patronage; A-II — adults and adolescents; A-III — adults; L — limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. 

Taking a shine to Martin Sheen

The first time I met Martin Sheen was in the summer of 1999, a couple of months before “The West Wing” premiered. NBC was hosting a garden party for TV writers with much of its on- and off-screen talent present. I had worked arduously with an NBC publicist to get some interview time with Sheen during the party. And just as I was getting started, actor Robert Davi (he was on the drama “Profiler” at the time) interrupted, as he just had to confer with Sheen about some miraculous occurrence in Davi’s life.

By the time I got to my “exclusive” interview with Sheen, it became far less exclusive. Other writers started hovering around us, eventually planting their cassette recorders on the table in front of Sheen. (By comparison, nobody but me seemed interested in actor Mike O’Malley.) By and large, the other writers weren’t even asking questions. They just wanted to hear Sheen rhapsodize about what was on his mind.

Martin Sheen and son Emilio Estevez talk about "The Way" at Georgetown University in Washington. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

When I recounted this to Sheen Feb. 18 at Georgetown University, he retorted, “Oh, so I was a windbag!” Maybe, but his recorded comments were parlayed into a couple of articles, including one that won me a prize from the Catholic Press Association for best personality profile.

Following a post-interview hiatus, I returned to Georgetown to take in a screening of “The Way,” which stars Sheen and is directed by his son, Emilio Estevez. Sheen plays a doctor who impulsively makes the 500-mile pilgrimage from the French Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, in the place of his son, who dies in a storm on the first day of the journey.

I sat in the back row, which was reserved for media types, sitting dead center so that others would not have to scooch past me. After a litany of pre-screening welcomes, including a joint thank-you from Sheen and Estevez, the lights dimmed. As the film began, there was a figure trying to climb over the back of the empty seat next to me. It was Sheen! I offer him my hand so he could clamber over a little more gracefully. Joe Cosgrove, Sheen’s attorney and friend (and a sometimes “West Wing” bit player), was sitting on the other side of that empty seat. “This is Mark,” Sheen told Cosgrove in a hoarse whisper. “He’s a journalist.”

I tried to observe Sheen’s reactions to a movie he’s undoubtedly already seen plenty of times. But it’s hard to read what you’ve written in a dark movie theater. Personally, I found it amazing that he laughed, chuckled or winced at all, given the repeated in-person screenings of “The Way” he has attended, with countless more still to come while he promotes the film for an April 15 opening in England, Ireland and Malta, and a Sept. 30 opening in the United States.

After the movie was over, Sheen had to get back to the auditorium floor to join Estevez in taking questions from the audience. I stood up and leaned back against my chair to give Sheen room to make his way past the others in our row. Instead, he went out the way he came in — climbing over the seat back to get to some carpeted terra firma.

There be audiences?

The promotion team for the upcoming feature film “There Be Dragons” has its work cut out. This is the same group that laid the groundwork for “The Passion of the Christ,” which sparked controversy well before the film’s debut in theaters.

A screening of “The Passion of the Christ” following the U.S. bishops’ 2002 fall general meeting in Washington attracted a packed house of close to 100 at the Motion Picture Association of America’s screening room downtown.

St. Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, founder of Oppus Dei. (CNS photo from Opus Dei)

But a screening Nov. 16 of “There Be Dragons” — which features many incidents in the early life of St. Josemaria Escriva, founder of Opus Dei — drew just nine people to a Baltimore multiplex across the street from the hotel where the bishops were conducting this year’s fall general meeting. Of the dozen bishops who RSVP’d in the affirmative, only one attended: Archbishop Anthony S. Apuron of Agana, Guam.

Most of the rest of the audience consisted of journalists covering the bishops’ meeting. While willing to give the film a chance, they issued pointed criticisms — from the makeup job given a character who ages throughout the movie to the film’s title. But the title is a play on the phrase “here there be dragons,” from the Latin “hic sunt dracones,” used in ancient maps to indicate a dangerous or unknown place, or a place to be explored. The movie’s makers say the theme running through the film explores “unknown territories” of hatred, guilt and forgiveness.

What was screened was not quite a rough cut, but writer-director and co-producer Roland Joffe (“The Mission”) intends to make more edits before the film. Promoters hope to have a distributor willing to roll out “There Be Dragons” on a thousand screens in the United States April 15, the Friday before Palm Sunday. The movie is already generating buzz in Spain, the birthplace of St. Josemaria and the setting of the film, much of which takes place during the Spanish Civil War.

In a 2009 teleconference with reporters, Joffe said the film is about human love, divine love, betrayal and mistakes and “about people trying to find meaning” in their lives.

Major differences between “The Passion” and “Dragons”? One is that Mel Gibson, who directed “The Passion,” was at the top of his game as a director and a promoter. Another is that lots of people of all faiths can understand the point behind a film about Jesus, while perhaps a much smaller audience would be compelled to see a film about a Spanish saint.

Backers of  “There Be Dragons” have less than five months to not only polish the film, but also to tailor the push to get a critical mass of moviegoers to see it.

Mormons promote our movie reviews

In the category of shameless self promotion, we were pleased to see that the Mormon-owned daily newspaper the Deseret News in Salt Lake City last week gave a plug to our movie reviews as a “unique voice in a noisy lobby” and published some sample capsule reviews. The article plugging us began:

The Roman Catholic Church has been reviewing movies in the United States since 1936.

Almost three-quarters of a century later, the Catholics’ perspective on film still stands apart — even in a media landscape well-populated with Rotten Tomatoes, Roger Ebert and a staggering variety of opinions.

We were then doubly pleased yesterday that the media blog of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had an entry titled Latter-day Saints Promote Catholic News Service Movie Reviews, noting that, though Catholics and Mormons differ significantly in their theologies, they hold much in common in the area of family values.

Our review of the new "Wall Street" movie said Michael Douglas' performance was "magnetic" but said the film's central romantic relationship "puts the sexual cart before the marital horse."

Our movie reviews have a long and rich history, beginning with the Legion of Decency, then the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures, and more recently the USCCB Office for Film and Broadcasting. Earlier this year, with the reorganization of the USCCB Communications Department, we inherited the office’s functions, meaning that office director John Mulderig is now part of CNS, though he remains in New York City. (It made sense for film and broadcasting to become a CNS function since for years we’ve been the primary distributor of the office’s materials to the Catholic press.)

As the Deseret News noted, the media landscape is crowded with film reviewers, especially since the birth of the Internet. Yet we feel we offer a unique combination that looks at movies based on both artistic considerations and as a guide to parents wondering whether a film is appropriate for toddlers or pre-teens or only for adolescents in a way that goes beyond the traditional ratings of G, PG, PG-13 etc.

We’re glad that the Deseret News agrees.

Vatican to boycott — or not?

angels-book-cover1ROME  — That is the question vexing many Hollywood film reporters these days: What will the Vatican do now that the prequel to the controversial “The Da Vinci Code” is set to hit theaters next month?

Headlines here and there have been claiming either the Vatican was calling for a worldwide boycott or was cautioning against a boycott over fears it would just boost publicity for the up-coming “Angels and Demons” movie.

But who needs an actual boycott when just speculating whether the Vatican or church officials would call on Catholics to stay away seems to be enough?

The problem with the stories that claim the Vatican is against the film or has disapproved of it is the source they cite is Avvenire. Contrary to some reports, it’s not “the Vatican’s official newspaper,” but is a daily Catholic newspaper sponsored by the Italian bishops’ conference.

But more importantly the March 20 article they claim their headlines were based on doesn’t exist in the archives and an Italian journalist who works at Avvenire said he can’t recall the paper publishing anything either for or against the movie.

Confusion probably sprang from a March 20 article in the Italian daily La Stampa which quoted a theologian who writes for Avvenire. La Stampa said (presumably based on an interview with him) that the Italian theologian invited Catholics to ignore the “Angels and Demons” movie. He said filmmakers were “exploiting the church in order to boost sales at the box office.”

Another Italian, Archbishop Velasio De Paolis, president of the Prefecture for the Economic Affairs of the Holy See, told La Stampa that people should be cautious about “the boomerang effect” of calling for a boycott because it could translate into unintended publicity for the movie.

He said the Vatican is not worried about people of faith falling for the book and movie’s anti-Christian inventions. The Vatican “believes Christians are strong — inoculated by centuries of persecution and testimonials of faith,” he said.

Back to exorcism class

The National Catholic Register blog takes notice of a recent Time magazine article on exorcism and praises the piece for covering a Catholic topic in a way that “neither ridicules nor sensationalizes the subject.” The blog includes a picture of Linda Blair from “The Exorcist.”

The Time magazine article is an interview with journalist Matt Baglio, who recently wrote ‘The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist.”

The book  recounts the experiences of an American priest, Father Gary Thomas, who took an exorcism class at Rome’s Regina Apostolorum Athenaeum, run by the Legionaries of Christ.

The three-month class, “Exorcism and Prayer of Liberation,” is not something new. It’s been around since 2005. Catholic News Service reported on it when the class was first announced and again when classes began.

Father Paolo Scarafoni, a member of the Legionaries of Christ and rector of the university, told reporters at the time that course was designed to “give priests the information they need for initial discernment and referral.”

He noted that generally 85 percent to 90 percent of people who say they are possessed by the devil simply “need someone to listen. They need a prayer. They need a long walk and a glass of water.”

Baglio, who joined the class when it was initially open to journalists, told Time what he learned from the course material and from talking with Father Thomas and others.

He said most priests don’t like to talk about the rite and what takes place during them is often low-key. Only rarely is it the dramatic stuff of movies.

Film prof’s take on ‘Slumdog’

By the time I got hold of  David Schaefer, a communication arts professor for the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, it was 11:15 a.m. Eastern Standard Time — but 12:15 a.m. Singapore local time on Tuesday the 24th.  Schaefer has been examining India’s films since 2002, and his examinations take him close to the source of the “Bollywood” industry.

Schaefer enjoyed “Slumdog Millionaire,” which captured eight Oscars, including statuettes for best picture, best director, best song (competing against itself!) and best original score. “Jai Ho,” the song winner, “is a great song,” Schaefer told CNS, while he was admittedly rubbing his eyes as he worked on his laptop not long after the clock had struck 12.

He noted how English director Danny Boyle had taken some flak from Indians about portraying only the slum life of Mumbai (formerly Bombay) in “Slumdog” — which is not how the Bollywood directors would have treated it. Still, the English are probably better than Americans at depicting Indian life because of “greater long-term interest,” according to Schaefer, but “better than Indian directors? Not a chance.”

The U.S. bishops’ Office for Film & Broadcasting had classified “Slumdog” A-III — adults for various thematic elements, including crude language. Non-Hindi speakers wouldn’t know the half of it. The first word uttered in the movie is the Hindi equivalent of the F-word, Schaefer said, and it’s repeated often — “not all of it subtitled,” he adds.

Even though “Slumdog” had garnered more than $98 million in U.S. box office through the weekend of Feb. 20-22, the multiple-Oscar wins will prompt many more to see it. And therein lies another cautionary note from Schaefer: “The young boys have to overcome being exploited by gangsters masquerading as operators of an orphanage,” he says. “These are tough scenes to watch — not for children. Deliberate maiming, suggested child prostitution, etc.”

But some of the best-loved movies have happy endings, and “Slumdog Millionaire” is no different, according to Schaefer: “The ending is still emotionally satisfying, and I think that’s what audiences seem to be taking away from the film. There is a sense of social justice with Jamal’s (the lead character) outcome.”

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