Best Documentary About a Cartoonist Who Quit in His Prime
Dear Mr. Watterson
Pronounce Calvin & Hobbes the best newspaper comic strip of all time, and you might get a few arguments, but not many. What creator Bill Watterson did from 1985-1995 was simply stunning—a decade-long masterpiece, if you will. But Watterson called it quits after that short run, because newspapers kept getting smaller and smaller, giving the comics less and less space, seriously cramping their style. Almost every other artist went along with it, but Watterson decided he'd had enough. This documentary is a fascinating study of the man himself, his principles, and his integrity. It also captures the magic of the strip itself, featuring a bright, wildly imaginative 6-year-old boy and his stuffed tiger, who becomes quite real when they're alone together. Calvin & Hobbes was beyond delightful, and so's this film about the man behind it all. (Mark's review at CT.)
Best Trio of Films About Nazi Germany That Aren't Totally Depressing
The Book Thief
(Rated PG-13 for some violence and intense depiction of thematic material)
Wagner & Me
Orchestra of Exiles
Based on the award-winning New York Times bestseller, The Book Thief is worth watching not just for its story—about a young girl who moves to Germany to live with foster parents (the always wonderful Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson) during World War II. But also its gorgeous cinematography, and for the exquisite, expressive beauty of its breakout star, 13-year-old Canadian actress Sophie Nélisse, who portrays innocence, wonder, and persistent curiosity in the title role.
The other two films—Wagner & Me, and Orchestra of Exiles—sort of come as a pair, since both documentaries focus on the role of music during the rise of the Third Reich. The first features host/narrator Stephen Fry exploring the life of Richard Wagner—and how his music influences not just Fry, but Hitler, and his worldview, as well. The second tells the story of Bronislaw Huberman, a Polish Jew and one of the world's finest violinists who managed to "smuggle" almost 1,000 Jewish musicians out of Germany—to form a new symphony in Palestine—before Hitler could exterminate them. Both documentaries speak to the power of music . . . both for good and for evil. (Mark's review at CT.)
Best Film That Shows Off Matthew McConaughey's Abs and Acting Chops
(Rated PG-13 for some violence, sexual references, language, thematic elements and smoking)
What do you get when Flannery O'Connor meets a coming-of-age movie like Stand By Me? The result might look something like Mud, one of the year's finest indie gems. Matthew McConaughey is quietly terrific in the title role (yup, that's the character's name), a guy on the lam for murder. He's hiding out on a river island in Arkansas when two middle-school-aged boys discover him, befriend him, help him, and even defend him. Reese Witherspoon is brilliant as Mud's troubled, white-trash girlfriend, and the story ends on a surprisingly redemptive note. (Bearden Coleman's essay on Mud and Southern film at CT.)
Mark Moring, a former film and music editor at CT, is a writer at Grizzard Communications in Atlanta.