Brief Grief: Steve’s Quick Reviews of 3 2011 Films

I’ve recently viewed three more movies released in 2011: We Bought a Zoo, We Need to Talk About Kevin, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Interestingly, they all dealt in some way with issues of grief. I’ll give them each a short review here and also add them to my 2011 rankings.

The most entertaining of the three was We Bought a Zoo. This is a family film in the best sense, a movie for families to watch together and talk about afterward. The grief dealt with here is the death of the wife/mother, which has happened before the movie begins. Matt Damon plays the father and delivers his usual strong, likable performance. The family is trying to come to terms with life without mom. As the title indicates they buy a rundown zoo and their determination to save the zoo (with help from the zoo staff) serves as a metaphor for their own restoration of life. The story contains no surprises, but it works. It had my tears flowing a number of times. There are no standout performances, but the rest of the cast, along with Damon, do a good job of delivering this delightful and life-affirming tale.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is a much, much darker movie. In a number of ways it is a better movie than Zoo, but not nearly as entertaining. Kevin is a high school boy who apparently kills a number of his classmates. The precise nature of his crime is never made clear. The movie focuses on Eva, Kevin’s mother, powerfully portrayed by Tilda Swinton. The story is set in the time after Kevin’s conviction as Eva deals with her grief over the horrendous deed of her son, the disintegration of her family, and the community’s anger at her for what her son did. Much of the story is told through flashbacks to her struggles raising Kevin. The constantly shifting time-frames gives the movie an appropriately edgy feel, but sometimes seems over-directed. The early struggles of a parent wondering what to do with a difficult child ring true, but as Kevin ages, he seemed more and more to simply be an evil person and I felt less engaged by the movie.

The most incredible thing about Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is that it was nominated for Best Picture. It simply is not that good. On the other hand, though, I wouldn’t quite say that it is a bad movie. This time it is the father, Thomas, played by Tom Hanks, who dies. He dies in the World Trade Center on 9/11. The movie just doesn’t carry the emotional weight necessary for a film that draws a connection to that event. Thomas Horn plays Oskar, Thomas’ son. He is a social misfit. A discovery in his father’s closet sets him off on a search through New York for an answer that he hopes will help him make sense of the tragedy that took his father’s life. The story doesn’t quite work, especially the twist at the end involving his mom, played by Sandra Bullock. The biggest drawback to the film was that I didn’t like Oskar. He is rude and self-centered in a way that didn’t work for me. This was clearly meant to be a tearjerker, but I didn’t shed a single drop. The greatest strength of the movie is Max von Sydow’s performance as a renter in Oskar’s grandma’s apartment.