My Top Ten Movies for 2011–Reviewed, Not Necessarily New

Happy New Year–the Year of the Dragon in 2012!  Most of all, I want to thank all of you for your comments and email!

With 2011 coming to an end, I wanted to take a look back at the movie reviews I wrote this year.  I am an unabashed cinephile– 500 films (maximum allowed) in my Netflix queue with another 88 in my Instant Queue.  So, when I counted the reviews I have written this year (=26), I wanted to see what would be my top ten favorites.  It wasn’t easy!

This list is not ranked –only my top ten for 2011, grouped by genre.


1) Restrepo (January 24 review)— This was an unforgettable film of Middle East-US conflicts.   No other film–with perhaps the exception of “Hurt Locker”– has portrayed such a visceral view of modern battle.  The cinematographer, unfortunately, died earlier this year while filming in the Middle East for another movie.

2) Departures (February 15 review) (Japanese title: “Okuribito”, lit. “a person sent out or dispatched”)–  This little beauty of a film takes a look into the in-between of life and death.  What Tibetan Buddhists call “bardo”. The humor and pathos are never saccharine or juvenile, an extraordinary accomplishment!

3) Bliss (April 25 review) –This Turkish movie is a beautifully acted cinematic gem that pits village customs against modern urbanization, religion against secularism. Without cultural stridence or judgmental condescension, “Bliss” moved me in ways that other films about injustice towards the helpless have not.

4) The Conspirator (May 23 review)— “In times of war, the law falls silent,” one of the military tribunal commissioners states matter-of-factly in this film  about the unconstitutional acts Americans do when feeling collectively frightened.

5) Rabbit Hole (July 4 review)— Never mordant, though painful, this taxonomy of grief is like no other I have seen in recent memory.  It taps a reservoir of feelings common to anyone who has experienced the reality-shifting vacuum left by a death in the family.

6) The Fall (August 16 review)— Portraits of art in motion in a parallel universe “The Fall” is, above all, visual storytelling but defies easy categorization!  I keep playing with the imagery–in my writing and my art.



7) Bridesmaids (June 20 review)— Comedy is, I think, the most difficult form of scriptwriting and this script proved to be brilliant in the most unexpected moments.   It is vulgar physical comedy that doesn’t appeal to anyone who cannot channel his or her “inner teenage self”. However, if you want to see a comedy that heals wounds while making you laugh, this is it!

Political and Sociological:

8) Ides of March (October 18)— A gripping drama, the “Ides of March” is not a narrative of hope but of the blood sport of politics, especially campaigning.  Every time I see a political commercial, I think of this movie and the lost souls involved behind the scenes.

9) Margin Call  (December 8 review)– Among the excellent films and documentaries about the 2008 financial meltdown, this one humanizes the headlines–through the eyes of a trading floor manager, whose curdling resentment of who he is, results in a deeply tragic, heartbreakingly lonely figure.  Superb acting with Kevin Spacey never disappointing!


10) The Debt  (September 20)— Pure adrenaline rush, this is no typical espionage thriller.  Helen Mirren is stunning as the sixty-something action hero in this testosterone-drenched gritty film.  I have not seen an action movie as riveting as this one, punctuated even further by the Holocaust back-story.

While celebrating the New Year’s Weekend, why not watch one of my Top Ten? Can’t wait to see what’s in store for 2012!  Cheers!


“Becoming Santa”–Home for the Holidays

I saw this delectable morsel of an indie film at the Napa Valley Film Festival last month and had a chance to talk with Jeff Myers, the director, for a few moments afterwards.  The backstory is fascinating but the movie stands on its own. “Becoming Santa,” reveals a lot more about the human spirit and generosity towards the tiniest among us than any Christmas tale or Christmas carol out there.

‘Becoming Santa’ is the story of Jack Sanderson, whose father has just passed away, leaving him with no family members to celebrate Christmas.  He is a forty-four year old bachelor who wonders if he should bother trying to have holiday spirit in Los Angeles with no one to share the holidays with.  Instead of wallowing in self-pity, Jack decides to become a Santa and help children celebrate the season that, after all, is meant primarily for children. His parents liked to celebrate Christmas and Jack wants to honor their memory with a quest for a new home for the holidays.

This is when the documentary becomes fascinating.  Jack applies to Santa School in Colorado (there are others) and begins his journey as a Santa who works in a department store, rides the Polar Express train, waves at crowds on a float in a Christmas pageant, and even makes “home visits”.  In the process, we learn about the history of Santa Claus (St. Nicholas in southern Turkey), the Santa Claus look (red suit, black belt, and white beard) which Coca Cola promoted for their own commercial purposes, and listen to interviews with other Santas across the country.

Becoming Santa is one of the jolliest, most emotional, poignant depictions of Christmas spirit I have seen.  What does it mean to be a successful Santa to children?  What is the training like? What is the feeling one gets making history in a child’s life–for almost everyone who celebrates Christmas has at least one photo as a child sitting on Santa’s lap?

The camera lingers on  Susan Mesco, the owner of the Santa school Jack attends.  First lesson–to avoid the “k” word–“kids”–for the much more respectful word, “children”.  Those who lapse into saying “kids” have to pay a dime in the “transgression” jar. Jack is charismatic– delightfully and cheerfully interacting with children and putting them at ease with his comforting smile.

When I first heard about this movie at the Napa Valley Film Festival, I wasn’t sure if this was going to be one of those cheesy, saccharine Hollywood movies we have to bear with young children who want a movie during the winter break. I hope that “Becoming Santa” ends up being a holiday classic – whether or not you celebrate Christmas–because this movie is an essential narrative of the human spirit and reconnects us with the spirit of generosity and community we all need, starting with the tiniest among us.

Note:  This film does not have a major distributor at the time of this blog post.  You can go to the film’s website at to see the trailer and read a summary of the story;  order it from; or, watch for repeat performances next year on OWN (The Oprah Winfrey channel).  You can also write the Napa Valley Film Festival and inquire about Jeff Myers’ plans for future distribution.




The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers–The Most Famous Whistleblower of Our Time?

Nominated for a 2010 Academy Award for Best Documentary, this past June marks the fortieth anniversary of the release of the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times, which was forced to stop publishing by a cease-and-desist order mandated by the Nixon administration. “The Most Dangerous Man in America” tells the inside story through the narration of Daniel Ellsberg himself, of this game-changing event that ended the Vietnam war and transformed our nation’s political discourse. This documentary is riveting because of the historic footage of Ellsberg, his colleagues, family and critics and White House tapes of President Nixon and his inner circle of advisors. “The Most Dangerous Man” reveals how the Pentagon Papers were the catalyst that drove Richard Nixon to take the law into his own hands.

The Pentagon Papers are a shattering indictment of America’s role in the Vietnam war, based on decades of lies involving four presidents (Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon). “The Most Dangerous Man In America” is a compelling history lesson for those young enough not to know of these events and the rest of us who do not realize what happened behind the scenes.  Ellsberg casts a shadow on Deep Throat, his worthy successor. Every high school student should be required to see this documentary!

A Marine officer with Vietnam experience and a PhD in economics from Harvard, Ellsberg was a “war theory” expert at the Rand Corporation, and was granted the highest security clearance by the Defense Department in the Nixon administration. At first Ellsberg supported the war in Vietnam, but his perspective gradually changed as he saw internal Pentagon documents that described the war as hopelessly stalemated. Encouraged by his girlfriend, Patricia Marx (later his wife) and by student activist Randy Kehler, his change of heart was crystallized when Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense, ordered a brutally honest analysis of US military involvement in Vietnam: United States-Vietnam Relations, 1945-1967. Evidence that government officials knowingly and repeatedly lied about the war deeply disturbed Ellsberg. Unsure what to do, Ellsberg did nothing for three years, before deciding to give the “Pentagon Papers” (the informal name for the confidential report) to a reporter at the New York Times, to the Washington Post, and to 17 other newspapers. In the film Ellsberg confesses that he is still haunted by the three years he wavered before leaking the Pentagon Papers, and he wonders how many American soldiers might have been spared if he had started his photocopying sooner.

The USA’s trust in government was shaken to its foundations.  The New York Times demonstrated how four presidents consistently lied to the American people about the Vietnam War, killing millions and tearing the country apart. Henry Kissinger called Ellsberg “the most dangerous man in America,” who “had to be stopped at all costs.” It was not so much the telling of the truth as a revolutionary act that disturbed Kissinger and Nixon, but that the precedent would inspire Americans to question the previously unchallenged pronouncements of its leaders.  In a haunting clip of Kissinger, we see the foreshadowing of Watergate.

Under the Espionage Act Ellsberg was the first American prosecuted for passing along classified documents to newspapers, not to a foreign power, and he faced 115 years in prison had he been found guilty. Meanwhile, in an attempt to discredit Ellsberg, the Nixon administration (under John Halderman’s supervision) spread  rumors that Ellsberg was homosexual, and had committed war crimes while in the Marines. White House “plumbers” were sent to burglarize Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office to obtain his files. The White House also sent several Cuban CIA “assets” to assassinate Ellsberg at a rally, but the size of the crowd made their mission impossible. An Appellate Court judge dismissed all charges against Ellsberg because of the government’s misconduct. Later, the Supreme Court would rule 6-3 that freedom of the press prevailed over Nixon’s complaints, and allowed the publication of the documents to resume. Would that be the same outcome today? Ellsberg and his Rand colleague, Anthony Russo, were not acquitted of violating the Espionage Act, but were freed due to a mistrial based on irregularities in the government’s case.

“The Most Dangerous Man in America” is a timely documentary indeed. Ellsberg himself notes in the film that he was struck that the publication of the Pentagon papers had not produced the uproar that he expected. Nixon was soon re-elected with a landslide.

There’s sufficient drama to keep your interest–not just talking heads — like Ellsberg’s late-night photocopying when security guards were prowling the office building or the general counsel of the New York Times arguing for management to publish the Pentagon Papers. I hate to think what would have happened had he failed to convince them.  Also striking is the contrast between methodically photocopying each page (which took months,) and then seeking a publisher  with today’s use of thumb drives and  WikiLeaks to disseminate information.

Some viewers will have a depressing sense of history repeating itself, and Ellsberg himself ruefully asks why the lessons of Vietnam and Watergate seemed to fade so quickly.  Ellsberg is a complex and difficult man whose principles, whether you agree with them or not, can’t be denied.  Whether that makes this preeminent whistleblower the country’s “most dangerous man” is a question that seems almost incomprehensible in today’s context!  See this movie to revisit a touchstone of American culture, politics, and government in the twentieth century.

“Margin Call”–Soulless Capitalism at Its Finest

An onslaught of “Occupy Wall Street” movies has been released in the last two years–think “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps”, “Too Big to Fail”, “Up in the Air”, The Company Men”–in the wake of the financial meltdown of 2008.  “Margin Call” deserves to be among the classics,  which have focused on greed, power, and the vacuum resulting from gutting regulatory compliance. (My favorite among recent classics is “Glengarry Glen Ross”.)

The brainchild of director and screenwriter, J.C. Chandor, “Margin Call” is a slowly unfolding narrative about a risk management analyst, Eric Dale  (beautifully played by Stanley Tucci), on his way out of corporate America along with eighty percent of an unnamed broker/dealer (=Lehman Brothers??) who must lay off all but the most ambitious (and ruthless) employees.  Tucci’s character hands off a flash drive to a young analyst, Peter Sullivan (the remarkable Zachary Quinto of “Heroes” and “Star Trek” fame).  Sullivan is left with the unenviable task of realizing that the broker/dealer he works for is over-leveraged, based on  faulty assumptions of a proprietary predictive algorithm for mortgage securities. How timely is that?!

In an impeccable cast including Demi Moore as the embittered woman executive who has played by all the rules in a male-dominated company only to be the scapegoat, Kevin Spacey owns this movie.  While there are portraits of a range of power players all trying to survive in a game where only a few can continue to triumph, Kevin Spacey’s  character, Sam Rogers, is the conflicted, morally ambivalent trading floor manager whose curdling resentment of where he is and what he must do results in a deeply tragic, heartbreakingly lonely figure.

John Tuld (=Fuld of Lehman Brothers perhaps), the  CEO, denies that disastrous speculation is the death of his company.  In a brilliant, riveting scene Tuld (the almost-always villainous Jeremy Irons) announces the firm has no choice but to liquidate its mortgage securities by the end of the next trading day — a strategy that will destroy the financial well-being of  millions of Americans in the process.  There is no moral–only a logistical– dilemma for the corporation. How to avoid a devastating margin call translates to how fast can they dump the worthless paper they have been holding before word gets out on the street? They frantically start selling to customers knowing that what they are selling is worthless.

Although the film belongs to Spacey, Irons faces Spacey and indifferently mutters:  “It’s all just the same thing over and over; we can’t help ourselves. And you and I can’t control it, or stop it, or even slow it. Or even ever-so-slightly alter it. We just react. And we make a lot of money if we get it right. And we get left by the side of the road if we get it wrong. And there have always been and there always will be the same percentage of winners and losers. Happy foxes and sad sacks. Fat cats and starving dogs in this world. Yeah, there may be more of us today than there’s ever been. But the percentages-they stay exactly the same.”

Those may be the most memorable, debilitating and cold-blooded lines to ring in your ears long after the film has ended. I can’t stop thinking about them!