A regular Top Ten feels skimpy for 2011. It was a good year at the movies, if you knew where to look. I offer 12 roses, some laurels, and a weed patch.
1) Buck. A compact, brimming masterwork about an animal lover who teaches people about life. Horse trainer and “whisperer” Buck Brannaman employs the rope sparely, the whip never. Always in graceful sync, documenter Cindy Meehl does not overdo Buck’s back story (childhood abuse) nor hype the equine lore. Buck, an unusually moving movie, achieves the cogent, poetic integrity of Budd Boetticher’s finest Westerns.
2) Moneyball. An intelligent sports drama and a third straight home run (following The Cruise and Capote) for director Bennett Miller. Brad Pitt gives a subtle, mature performance as Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane. I don’t really understand the “sabermetrics” system advocated by Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), but I see how the elements of Moneyball flow together like a beautifully played game, in a movie far less about action on the field than baseball as a business rich in competing egos.
3) The Artist. Eighty years after Chaplin’s City Lights, who expected two major shrines of silent film? Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist is a valentine for a Hollywood traumatized by the arrival of talk. As the falling but gracious star, Jean Dujardin is wonderful. The retrospective style is impeccable, not academic (the other valentine, Hugo, is below).
4) Inspector Bellamy. The last triumph of director Claude Chabrol (1930–2010), wizard of sophisticated entertainment in the Hitchcock lineage. This witty showcase for Gérard Depardieu follows his big-bellied Bellamy through holiday intrigues in Provence as he solves a very human, very French murder case, with support from spirited women and Jacques Gamblin.
5) Le Quattro Volte. Michelangelo Frammartino took five years to film this vision in rustic Calabria, Italy. The seasons of life rotate through a shepherd, his flock and dog, milk, dust, trees, wind, ashes, smoke, air. Primal, original, beautiful all the way.
6) Midnight in Paris. Possibly the most elegant and engaging comedy that Woody Allen has done, and Owen Wilson is the best of the wannabe Woodys. The American love of Paris is revived with blithe charm, time trips, gorgeous Marion Cotillard, and Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein. Darius Khondji’s camera gazes like an enraptured tourist.
7) Blackthorn. Sunset adventure with Butch Cassidy (Sam Shepard). The Western genre finds its spurs again in the Peruvian Andes with Spanish director Mateo Gil. In reviving Cassidy as a rugged senior, in marvelous landscapes, Gil surpasses the 1969 hit and wipes from our mind the raindrops from the corny Burt Bacharach song.
8) Of Gods and Men. A meditation on the faithful fate of a few French Catholic monks in the hinterland of Muslim Algeria. Director Xavier Beauvois decants spiritual wine with sensual flair, dear old Michael Lonsdale is the wisest brother, and a wordless last supper is astonishingly set to Tchaikovsky.
9) A Better Life. Chris Weitz’s American Pie gave no indication that he could do this, though About a Boy offered hints. In Los Angeles, a Mexican gardener (Demián Bichir) turns his son (José Julián) from the gang path, and a truck is almost as important here as the fabled bike in The Bicycle Thief. Director Weitz and writer Eric Eason go well beyond the rote sympathies of border-themed films.
10) Hugo. The huge budget cranks into view and 3-D winks its simple, obvious appeal (it strikes me as long, reverse zoom shots for the unimaginative), but then director Martin Scorsese finds the rhythm of his magic. Hugo’s second half is a gaudy glory saluting the silent roots of film, although Scorsese is a very different artist than pioneering kitsch fantasist Georges Méliès.
11) The Help. A great female ensemble (Viola Davis, Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Bryce Dallas Howard, Sissy Spacek, Allison Janney, Anna Camp) rules one of 2011’s few commercial hits of substance. They lift Dixie racial politics above sass and soap, and while the finale dawdles and some comedy creaks, the Jim Crow era is peeled open.
12) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. A faultless male ensemble (Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Ciarán Hinds, Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, Toby Jones) inhabits Tomas Alfredson’s exquisite concentration of John le Carré’s spy story, once a TV sprawler for Alec Guinness. Oldman works almost at Guinness level, and the intricate webbing of feelings and nuances is hip in a very British way.
Furthermore: Another Earth, Barney’s Version, Bhutto, Bill Cunningham New York, Carnage, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Certified Copy, Circo, The Company Men, Del Amor y Otros Demonios, Drive, The Eagle, The Guard, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II, Henry’s Crime, Higher Ground, The Human Resources Manager, In a Better World, In Time, Into the Abyss, Kill the Irishman, Le Havre, Limitless, The Lincoln Lawyer, A Little Help, Margaret, Marwencol, The Mill and the Cross, My Perestroika, My Week with Marilyn, Mysteries of Lisbon, Nuremberg, Oka!, Oranges and Sunshine, Our Idiot Brother, Project Nim, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, A Somewhat Gentle Man, Thunder Soul, The Tree, The Way, The Whistleblower, Win Win.
Heroes: Both real and both teachers: horse savant Buck Brannaman of Buck and school band teacher Conrad “Prof” Johnson of Thunder Soul.
Villains: Albert Brooks, so deadly with voice and fingers in Drive, and Jeremy Irons, the ice-blooded muse of market collapse in Margin Call.
Acting: Demián Bichir, A Better Life; Bradley Cooper, Limitless; Morgana Davies and Charlotte Gainsbourg, The Tree; Viola Davis, The Help; Gerard Depardieu, Inspector Bellamy; Jean Dujardin, The Artist; Vera Farmiga, Higher Ground; Jenna Fischer, A Little Help; Paul Giamatti, Barney’s Version; Brendan Gleeson, The Guard; Keira Knightley, Last Night; Michael Lonsdale, Of Gods and Men; Brit Marling, Another Earth; Matthew McConaughey, The Lincoln Lawyer; Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; Anna Paquin, Margaret; Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Moneyball; Christopher Plummer, Beginners; Paul Rudd, Our Idiot Brother; Alex Shaffer, Win Win; Martin Sheen, The Way; Sam Shepard, Blackthorn; Stellan Skarsgård, A Somewhat Gentle Man; Ray Stevenson, Kill the Irishman; Charlize Theron, Young Adult; Emily Watson, Oranges and Sunshine; Rachel Weisz, The Whistleblower; Michelle Williams, My Week with Marilyn; André Wilms, Le Havre; Owen Wilson, Midnight in Paris; Ray Winstone, London Boulevard; Shailene Woodley, The Descendants.