2011 Movie Review

The good, the bad and the ugly

By David DiCerto


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Last January, Joe Queenan of The Wall Street Journal argued that 2010 was possibly the “worst movie year ever.” With a slate that included “Hot Tub Time Machine” and “Sex and the City 2,” it’s easy to see why.

As a Catholic film critic, I think that 2011 may vie for that title, with low points such as “Hangover 2,” “A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas” and “The Change-Up.”

Nevertheless, for Catholic moviegoers, the news wasn’t all bad.

“In 2011, Hollywood offered up its usual menu of amoral and offensive fare,” said Tom Allen, co-founder of Allied Faith and Family, a Hollywood-based entertainment marketing firm. Yet citing films like “Soul Surfer” and “The Way,” he added, “It also showed a greater interest in serving the faith and family audience than in any other year in recent memory.”

Yes, a disproportionate number of releases continued to glamorize violence, celebrate promiscuity, mock religion and play mean-spirited for laughs. But Allen is quick to point out that, “2011 also boasted its share of superb movies like ‘The Tree of Life’ and ‘War Horse’ which remind one of all that remains good, true and beautiful about this art form.”

In 2010, family-friendly films accounted for five of the ten top-grossing movies, as opposed to only one in 2011 – the underwhelming “Cars 2.” On the flip side, however, audiences were treated to delights like “Winnie the Pooh” and “The Muppets”; thoughtful mature dramas like “Moneyball,” “The Descendants” and “The Help”; redemption tales like “Warrior”; fun popcorn flicks like “Captain America” and “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol”; smaller gems like “A Better Life” and “Life Above All”; artistic works like “Hugo” and “The Artist”; triumphs like "Of Gods and Men"; and even some worthy faith-based efforts like “The Mighty Macs,” “Courageous” and “The Greatest Miracle.”

Unfortunately given the steady stream of toxic offerings churned out by Tinseltown’s dream factories, it is difficult for many in the faith audience to look past what, understandably, appears to be an all out assault on their beliefs and values.

Too often believers look back with nostalgia for pictures “like they used to make.” We tend to delude ourselves into idealizing the past, succumbing, much like Owen Wilson’s character in this year’s charming “Midnight in Paris,” to “Golden Age Thinking,” defined in the film as “the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one one’s living in.”

Sure, there have been banner years, such as 1939, which gave us “Gone With the Wind,” “The Wizard of Oz” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” But lest we judge our own age too harshly, it’s worth mentioning that, in 1934 a Time Magazine article noted how American churches were up-in-arms about “the brazen indecency of U. S. cinema.”

Others see Hollywood as a modern day Sodom, the geographical epicenter of all that is wrong with our culture. For them, the doctrine of Hollywood’s anti-Christian agenda has achieved near infallible status.

There’s no denying that much of Hollywood marches lock-step to what the late film historian Mark Royden Winchell called “liberal group think.” And yes, there are those who take advantage of the powerful influence of their IMAX, 3-D bully pulpits in promoting radical agendas to the mainstream, often with pernicious subtly. This is not to mention the uptick of inappropriate content creeping into “family” fare or the rising tide of raunch.

Much of the problem (though not all) comes down to greed. To paraphrase Thomas More in Robert Bolt’s “A Man for all Seasons,” if virtue were profitable, commonsense would make all movies good and filmmakers saintly. But as long as smut sells, Hollywood will continue lowering the bar.

Yet, despite many filmmakers’ “urge to offend,” to cop a phrase from conservative film critic Michael Medved, faith-friendly movies not only get made (albeit often against the odds) but, on occasion, even honored. “Chariots of Fire” winning Best Picture at the 1982 Academy Awards comes to mind. And while that may have been an exception to the rule, and while movies like “The Passion of the Christ” are shamefully snubbed, films like last year’s Oscar champ “The King’s Speech,” while not explicitly spiritual, continue to celebrate humanity at its noblest.

It’s clear that we are engaged in a culture war. What isn’t as clear cut, or simple, are the lines dividing the opposing camps. Movies contribute to the culture of death when they debase and dehumanize, which is increasingly the case. But as 2011 demonstrated and as popes since Pius XI have acknowledged, movies can – and do – also entertain, elevate and – at their best – inspire.

Next Week: The Oscars Catholic Scorecard.

David DiCerto is a Catholic film critic and co-host of Reel Faith on NET TV.