One of 2011's best films, The Artist (5 out of 5 stars, opens Dec. 23) offers a loving tribute to the best films of the 1920s. French director Michel Hazanavicius uses a pitch-perfect re-creation of black-and-white silent film to follow the career of George Valentin (the effortlessly charming Jean Dujardin), a swashbuckling silent film star who struggles to adjust to the introduction of talkies.
Gorgeous ingénue Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) rises with the popularity of talking pictures, while Valentin, refusing to compromise his artistic integrity by speaking, enters a downward spiral. Even in its most downbeat moments, Hazanavicius uses clever visual gags to convey The Artist's emotional core, while the story's metaphor for professions transformed by new technology proves enormously relevant in the Internet age.
Director Steven Spielberg opens two films during Christmas week, but unfortunately, they don't represent a new renaissance in his craft. The Adventures of Tintin (2 out of 5 stars, opens Dec. 21), a technically impressive but underwritten motion-capture animated film, adapts a popular European comic book that never caught on in the United States. Young ace reporter Tintin (voiced by Jamie Bell) races bad guys to uncover the secret of lost pirate treasure with the assistance of his dog Snowy and a boozing sea captain (Andy Serkis).
Spielberg clearly enjoys another chance for Indiana Jones-style derring-do and delights in his newfound ability to put his virtual camera anywhere. But for all its cliffhangers, Tintin proves surprisingly dull, and the script doesn't deliver the laughs you'd expect from three of the cleverest Brits in show business (Stephen Moffat, Edgar Wright, and Joe Cornish).
The live-action War Horse (3 out of 5 stars, opens Dec. 25) follows the travels of a thoroughbred horse named Joey, raised by Devon farm boy Albert (Jeremy Irvine) and sold to an English cavalry officer at the outset of World War II. War Horse doesn't anthropomorphize Joey in an obnoxious way, but makes the horse a vehicle for sharing stories about people at war on either side of No-Man's-Land.
When the film focuses on the military, from the spit-and-polish cavalry to a pair of German brothers who consider desertion, War Horse can be powerful and harrowing. When it shifts to farm life, such as the endless first half hour, it's clumsy, mawkish, and practically crushed under the weight of a suffocating John Williams score. The exploits of Albert and Joey, however heavy-handed, at least prove less boring than the adventures of Tintin and Snowy.