I saw about 300 movies in 2011. Hold your applause please. No matter how dismal the movies may sometimes have seemed – "The Hangover: Part II" anyone? "Transformers 508"? – I ended up, as always, with just enough goodies to justify all that time in the dark. (Let's see, 300 films times 100 minutes per movie....)
Before I take the high road, a few thoughts, crammed with caveats and cavils, on the past 12 months.
The "serious picture" niche, until this year, had mostly been filled with films about 9/11 and the Iraq war. But because most of those films ("In the Valley of Elah," "Stop-Loss," etc.) were commercial and critical flops, that particular trend, especially in the nondocumentary arena, is just about over.
Taking its place is a kind post-9/11 metaphysical mumbo-jumbo gumbo. Instead of addressing global terrors directly, we have movies that are charged with an often otherworldly dread. "Melancholia," which admittedly has a visually ravishing prologue, splices a nuptials-gone-wrong story line into a high-art disaster movie scenario. A giant planet named Melancholia is heading straight for Earth, and it even has Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" as its theme song!
In "Take Shelter," a much better movie, Michael Shannon plays an ordinary man increasingly overtaken by visions of apocalyptic storms. His fears are singular and yet they connect with our larger anxieties about terrorism, the economy – everything.
Even a movie as specific in its scare-mongering as "Contagion" moves away from the headlines and turns apocalyptic (and, in my view, borderline exploitative, using our germ-warfare fears as grist for high-toned sci-fi pulp).
Movies like "The Adjustment Bureau," "In Time," and especially "Source Code" were perhaps the most indicative and touching examples of our desire to make sense of post-9/11 dread. None of these fantasias were any great shakes as movies but, in varying ways, they were all about our need to rewind reality – to literally stop the clock – and make it all turn out right this time. ("Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" dealt with 9/11 trauma head-on, with decidedly mixed results.)
By comparison, films dealing with actual historical personages often seemed mundane, or, as in the case of "The Ides of March," which dealt with thinly disguised actual personages, naive. (Who knew politics could be a dirty business?) Despite advance word, "J. Edgar" didn't delve deeply into the FBI director's nefariousness or hidden sex life, leaving us in limbo. The Margaret Thatcher biopic "The Iron Lady" (which opens Dec. 30) has pitch-perfect Meryl Streep mummified by her makeup and the film's political toothlessness. At least "The Help," which was unfairly rapped for portraying the civil rights struggle through the eyes of a white Southern woman, knew enough to leaven its social consciousness with sass.
The lesson here: If you're making movies about the "real" world, it's tough to compete with the real world. Maybe this is why there were blessedly fewer films this year about the Wall Street meltdown. One of them, "Margin Call," wasn't bad, but who wants to see yet another movie about this stuff while we are still soldiering through the wreckage? (Probably the best movie about the money culture, "Moneyball," wasn't about Wall Street at all.)
I would have wished for more first-rate family-entertainment films this year, but at least the Muppet franchise got a boost and "Hugo" had its moments and "Arthur Christmas" was a 3-D delight. There were slightly fewer male-bonding slobbola comedies than in recent years, maybe because Seth Rogen has decided to go soulful. Women, however, are starting to take up the slack. I'm not sure "Bridesmaids" is the big feminist breakthrough so many are claiming for it. So now women can be as raucously disgusting as the guys? Yippee.
And speaking of breakthroughs, I'm not in the cheering section for likely Oscar front-runner "The Artist," a faux silent movie, sweet but innocuous, that peddles its charm with all the subtlety of a jackhammer. And Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" got a free pass from most critics because it was, well, directed by Terrence Malick. Larded with high-toned philosophic voice-overs that wouldn't pass muster in a college dorm bull session, this impeccably shot movie stirred rural anomie, urban anomie, the origins of the planet, and dinosaurs into a mélange resembling nothing so much as a World's Fair family-of-man documentary gone berserk.
With all this high art and low art gumming up the screens, I was grateful, as always, for the documentaries. Nothing like a good documentary to provide a reality check. There were fine films about a gentle-souled horse whisperer ("Buck"), a spirited gaggle of inner-city high school poets ("To Be Heard"), Neapolitan musicmaking ("Passione"), shellshocked journalists in war zones ("Under Fire: Journalists in Combat"), neighborhood violence mediators ("The Interrupters"), and a fanatically adept Steinway piano engineer ("Pianomania").
And now, let the superlatives begin!
A Separation – Iranian director Asghar Farhadi's powerful drama is a prime example of how a small-scale domestic crisis can stand as a microcosm for a much larger crisis within society. The film inexorably gathers force until the full range of human interaction seems to play itself out before our eyes.
Of Gods and Men – Xavier Beauvois's drama is about a band of Cistercian monks in the Algerian mountains in the 1990s who must decide whether or not to flee their monastery after Islamist militants have invaded the area. A film of almost supernal grace, it closes with a sequence I will never forget, as the monks share a makeshift Last Supper while Tchaikovsky's grand theme from "Swan Lake," a favorite piece of music, plays on the Victrola.
Like Crazy – Few movies have expressed as well the thrills and anxiety of young love, or the disappointments and weariness and sadness that often come with its dissolution. Director Drake Doremus and his stars Felicity Jones and Anton Yelchin all come into their own here.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams – Werner Herzog is a one-of-a-kind documentarian, but, even for him, this haunting essayistic meditation on the 32,000-year-old caves in Chauvet, France, is a departure. It's his first film in 3-D and rarely has the process, which brings out the roiling muscularity of the prehistoric cave paintings, been better employed.
The Descendants – It's been seven long years since Alexander Payne's "Sideways," but this quietly compassionate film makes the wait (almost) worth it. George Clooney, playing a Hawaiian real estate lawyer who must cope with a tragic situation and two unruly daughters, gives one of the least star-struck performances ever by a major star.
Into the Abyss – Werner Herzog again. He states upfront in this capital punishment documentary centering on a series of small-town Texas murders that he is opposed to the death penalty. Few films about this controversial subject, however, have been as searching or exploratory or as generous to the voices of the victims.
Win Win – You might think you've seen your share of movies starring Paul Giamatti as a shlubby malcontent. The marvel, though, is that each time out he reinvents the wheel. Here he plays a good man whose moral lapses lead him down a dubious byway. After "The Descendants," this Tom McCarthy-directed drama is the year's best funny-sad movie.
Certified Copy – When I first saw Abbas Kiarostami's fantasy-reality drama I was dazzled but also a bit wary. Fantasy-reality movies, even ones starring Juliette Binoche, have a way of seeming silly in retrospect. This one only deepens in the memory.
Rejoice & Shout – A full-scale documentary about the history of American gospel music was long overdue. Producer Joe Lauro and director Don McGlynn offer up acres of astonishing footage and have the good taste oftentimes to let the music play out in full and not in snippets.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy –The cold war may be (sort of) dead but John le Carré's close-to-the-vest spy George Smiley is very much alive in this complexly compelling adaptation by the Swedish director Tomas Alfredson. It won't replace the Alec Guinness BBC miniseries, but it can stand beside it.
In addition to the films favorably mentioned in the intro to my 10-best list, here are a few others about which there is lots to like: "In Darkness," "Nostalgia for the Light," "Weekend," and "Hey Boo: Harper Lee & 'To Kill A Mockingbird.' "