War Horse (2011)

I can’t believe I waited almost a year to see this. I was unexpectedly surprised and very satisfied with Spielberg’s latest film (his best sinceCatch Me If You Can a decade ago), based on the critically-acclaimed play of the same name.

It has a charming enough beginning and premise: a young man takes in an injured horse and trains him to plow, hoping to raise enough money to save his family’s farm. As World War I breaks out, however, the family is forced to sell the horse and the movie truly begins.

While I expected a standard narrative, the film functioned in a much more interesting way: the horse passed between different parties, British and German soldiers, a young French girl, and others throughout the course of the war. I won’t give any spoilers but the ending is incredibly moving and satisfying.

The movie seems to drag on during the second hour (clocks in at almost 150 minutes), but the payoff is well worth it. The wide variety of characters are able to come together in a believable scenario, illustrating how much the horse and the war has changed all of them.

It is in this last ten minutes or so that the film truly blew me away; the characters gave incredibly stirring speeches, evoking themes of sacrifice, loss, and redemption.

In addition to the wonderful emotional power of this film, it is also very well shot and produced. The stunning imagery is often reminiscent ofGone With the Wind, of characters in desperate situations silhouetted against a fiery orange sky. Their identities aren’t what matters; it is the extraordinary circumstances they face and how they meet those circumstances that make this a genuinely heartfelt and inspirational work.

The Artist (2011)

I know I talk about this movie nonstop but I promise (I think) it’s worth all the hype. I just re-watched this last night with a friend and I was even more blown away by this truly spectacular film.

You already have heard about it. It’s a black-and-white, mostly silent film in fullscreen. It tells the story of, and emulates the style of, 1920s and 30s Hollywood and the transition from silent movies to talkies. The Artistmakes very clever use of metafiction to illustrate how deeply this change shook Hollywood and its (mostly foreign) silent movie stars.

What makes this movie so exceptional is how accessible it is. This is only the second silent movie I’d seen (the first was a short Chaplin film a few years ago) but it was nonetheless an entertaining and engrossing story. I found myself captivated by the friendship between two stars, one fading and one rising, in a moving (without being cheesy) narrative.

Since that first viewing over winter break, I’ve seen a handful of other silent movies from that time, so I was better prepared the second time around. This time I appreciated the film even more; what was so striking to me was how well it emulated the nature of silent movies, from exaggerated expressions and over-the-top slapstick humor, withoutmocking it. Rather, it lovingly told the story of silent movies using the techniques employed by silent filmmakers.

I also came to better appreciate finer details; I was particularly struck by a scene where the protagonist, fading star George Valentin is walking downstairs at Kinograph Studios, while the up-and-coming Peppy Miller (maybe the best-ever name for a fictional movie star?) is walking up the stairs. They pass each other, with Peppy above George, but she turns back, notices him, and takes a step down the stairs to speak with him. Through this subtle movement, we see she is more concerned with being close to George and having him in her life than her climb up the Hollywood ladder, literally stepping down to his level. It’s a tiny, but beautiful, moment.

My one criticism is that the film does not maximize the effect it could generate from its outstanding score; dramatic moments don’t quite line up with huge builds in the music, which I think could make the movie even better if employed correctly.

The sound editing, however, is one tiny factor in a movie that put so much at stake. It’s hard enough to make a silent, black-and-white film that bears so much emotional weight, it’s amazing they were able to pull off the product that they did.

If you get a chance, I highly recommend seeing The Artist in theaters, it is currently playing at the old movie palace the California Theatre on Kittredge – a perfect locale for this neo-classic.