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It was a year like any other, only this time with the addition of two dozen rancid sequels. I proudly boast that the five biggest grossing pictures of 2011 (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1, The Hangover Part II, and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides) all escaped my critical gaze. There were some surprises (a summer blockbuster made this year's list for the first time in ages) and even a shock -- David Cronenberg bored me -- but for the most part it was brainless business as usual at the multiplex.

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The worst came first. David Elliott's list will appear in this week's print edition of The Reader. In the meantime, allow me to praise a dozen films that added spark and originality to an otherwise hopelessly jaded and confused life lived fourth-row-center.

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12.) Rupert Wyatt’s RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES

With this and Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Hollywood once again proves that it knows how to produce challenging, intelligently conceived, well-made blockbusters for adults. With the exception of cinematographer Leon Shamroy’s remarkable lenswork, everything about this reboot surpasses Franklin J. Shaffner’s original. (This coming from a guy who worships the 1968 version.) I have always had a problem with suspension of disbelief, and as cool as the makeup is in the original, I never once believed I was watching anything but Kim Hunter, James Whitmore, and a bunch of veteran performers buried beneath tons of Max Factor and Ben Nye wigs. Rupert Wyatt's Rise had me convinced his crazed chimps were flesh and blood, not computer-generated cartoons or costumed character actors.

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11.) Chris Ordal’s EARTHWORK

Hugo notwithstanding, it's been a long time since I felt like cheering at the end of a movie. This small, inspirational tale of a man who will stop at nothing to create art left me flapping like a seal. Real-life crop-artist Stan Herd (played by John Hawkes) left his Kansas farm in 1994 on a pilgrimage to Manhattan's posh Upper West Side where he would create an environmental work of art on a vacant lot owned by Donald Trump. (Given the film's miniscule budget, a cameo by The Donald was out of the question.) Not since Paul LeMat's lovely performance as Melvin Dumar in Jonathan Demme's Melvin and Howard, have we come this close to a Capraesque commoner effectively butting heads with corporate America. Chris Ordal's airy 'Scope frames allow Herd plenty of room in which to create, and the budgetary restrictions don't stop the director and his crew of technical wizards from cleverly masking the fact that the film was not shot on location.

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10.) John Michael McDonagh’s THE GUARD

Brendan Gleeson (in the performance of his career) stars as Sergeant Gerry Boyle, a "really dumb or really smart" small town cop assigned the task of cracking a ring of international drug-smugglers, who passes the day exercising his right to be patently offensive to anyone and everyone he comes in contact with. Orchestrating the high-spirited obscenity is writer and first-time director John Michael McDonagh. Sony Pictures Classics marketed it as a buddy picture/fish-out-of-water yarn, but after ten deconstructive minutes, you'll soon catch on that this is one comedy about cops that defies generic classification.

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9.) Aki Kaurismäki LE HAVRE

Le Havre was just the picture I needed to shake away the heightened cynicism brought on by the approaching awards season. It's part Truffaut, part Melville, and there's even a colorful dash of Tashlin! (I ADORE director Aki Kaurismäki's loose framing. You can actually see the tops of characters' heads when they speak!) Sweet, poetic, and for once, a fairy tale for adults with a sappy ending that doesn't ring false. It took days to wipe away the silly grin this film planted on my kisser.

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8.) Spencer Susser’s HESHER

Writer/director Spencer Susser’s debut feature is an audacious black comedy about a nine-year-old boy (played with a great range of emotion by newcomer, Devin Brochu) whose life is suddenly overtaken by a grungy, long-haired walking munitions factory named Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who decides to take up residence in the family garage. Not unlike The Guard, Hesher has a wonderful time messing with character expectation. Is there a Hesher or is he just an extension of a damaged child’s overactive fantasy life? Rent it tonight and judge for yourself.

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7.) Xavier Beauvois’ OF GODS AND MEN

Imagine one of John Ford’s gallant portraits of soldiers facing almost certain defeat set entirely in an Algerian monastery populated by Trappist monks, and you’ll have some idea where this one is going. (In honor of Ford's 7 Women they should have named it 8 Monks.) In lesser hands, this would have easily lapsed into sanctimonious sentimentality, but director Xavier Beauvois had other plans. It’s a nerve-racking film to watch, due to the constant awareness that any given moment can and probably will be their last. I felt drained of passion after enduring Mel Gibson’s brutalization of Christ. Of Gods and Men showed me the love; it’s a “feel-good” picture that answers to a higher calling.

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6.) Giuseppe Capotondi’s THE DOUBLE HOUR

A whirlwind journey through a world of unspeakable betrayal where nothing is as it appears. You can't begin to put the pieces together until the car ride home, so don't even try. Everything in the film hinges on the last shot. If anything, wait a week and watch it again. I despise Charlie Chan and Sherlock Holmes programmers that place more emphasis on who did what as opposed to why. As Hitchcock pointed out, murder mysteries do not hold up under repeat viewings. Unless you have forgotten the killer's identity, there's never a need for a return visit. Nuance floats on the surface with nothing left to discover beyond an initial viewing. Nor does The Double Hour house a “hidden secret” in search of a narrative clothesline on which to tack a surprise jolt. So if it’s not a whodunit, and there are no surprises to be found, what kind of suspense movie is this? A damn good one, and one of the precious few since The Crying Game that owes little or nothing to Hitch.

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5.) Sheng Ding’s LITTLE BIG SOLDIER

One of this year’s most distinguished screenings was the San Diego Asian Film Festival’s impeccable presentation of Little Big Soldier in the big house at UltraStar Hazard Center Cinema at Mission Valley. Those of you who only think Jackie Chan is little more than a cute Asian stunt man who starred opposite Jennifer Love Hewitt, Chris Tucker, and/or Jaden Smith in a slew of softball American kidpics need to go back and experience his early Hong Kong offerings. This return to his glory days of HK action comedies is Jackie’s finest film in over a decade. The bad news is, I found a DVD copy of it at WalMart, so the chances of this ever being finding a theatrical release are nonexistent. You had you one and only chance to see it at SDAFF! In the words of Bobby D, "YOU BLEW IT!"

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4.) Martin Scorsese’s HUGO

The teachings of Marty are spreading around the world once again with this, His child’s garden of cinema. It is The Master's most bountiful oblation since Casino. I've seen it seven times. I know. I'm crazy. Crazy in love with Marty, the bushy-eyed little bastard. Besides, how many more chances am I going to have to watch it projected on a big screen in 3D? I have learned so much from His newest testament. It's one of His most personal gifts and the only star in the Scorsese firmament to have an undeniably happy ending. (I need to revisit Color of Money.) He has stated on numerous occasions that all films could benefit from the addition of 3D. When asked if He would prefer shooting everything in 3D, Marty told Deadline Hollywood, "I don't think there's a subject matter that can't absorb 3D; that can't tolerate the addition of depth as a storytelling technique.” Throughout Hugo, Marty inserts glimpses of various pioneering silent films. None of the archival clips are stereoscopically converted until the very end, when we once again see the rocket blind the man in the moon, this time in the grandeur of 3D. The past and present collide, and when that long-suppressed moment finally arrives, Marty shows us the future. I cried so much during the first few viewings, people around me must have thought I was watching Sophie's Choice. There are faults -- Asa Butterfield is a bit too intense for his own good, and for all His virtues, Marty still doesn't know what the hell to do with the womenfolk, even a talented young actress like Chloë Grace Moretz. The kid tries, but she could have used a more dangerous edge. Sort of like Iris in Taxi Driver. Aside from that, it's a confirmation of something I understood ages ago: when it comes to personal deities, I have exceptional taste. Praise Marty, from whom all cinema flows!

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4.) Werner Herzog’s CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS

Werner Herzog was given an all-access pass to the Chauvet caves in the South of France in order so that he may document the earliest drawings known to man. The way in which Herzog captures them on film is nothing short of miraculous. The slightest camera move or shift in light reveals another hidden facet of the 20,000 year-old etchings. This film surpasses all expectations one normally brings to movies. It's an intoxicating brew of historical document, mystery, and history lesson guided by the director's customary loopy voice-over observations. I grappled over whether to give this or Hugo the #3 spot, and on the strength of his use of 3D to tell a story, Herzog wins. Enthralled as I may be watching the way in which Marty’s objects and characters interact through space, Hezrog uses stereoscopy as a tool to document, to film history and peel-back mystery with an immediacy that’s never before been captured on film.

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2.) Lech Majewski's THE MILL AND THE CROSS

There have been countless stories about painters and the creative process, and even a few films based on actual paintings (The Girls With the Pearl Earring The Naked Maja, Nightwatching), but this is the first that comes to mind where all of the action takes place entirely within the confines of a framed canvas. (If I am wrong, please correct me and point me in the right direction.) Lech Majewski's meticulous re-staging introduces us to only a handful of the over 200 figures populating Pieter Bruegel's 's The Procession to Calvary. Every studio in Hollywood should be forced to study Majewski's brilliant way of creating an artificial CGI universe.

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1.) Michelangelo Frammartino’s LE QUATTRO VOLTE

It is the promise of films like Le Quattro Volte that draws me from my bed each morning. Everything I wanted and didn’t get from The Tree of Life and The Artist at one-third the running time (and told with ten-times the amount of audacity and resourcefulness). Without a word of spoken dialog we view life’s natural progression as seen through the eyes (and limbs) of an old goat-herder, a kid (as in baby goat), a dog, and a fir tree. It’s easily the most original work of visionary story-telling put on screen all year. There is an unbroken ten-minute shot taken from the bird’s eye view of a stationary camera that in a blaze of economy manages to unify two of the film’s four storylines while laying the groundwork for a third. In the end, the four “characters” and the audience experience a global interconnection; you’ll head to the exit door feeling a tad more spiritually in-tune. Is it slow? Yes, but better a film be slow-paced that slow-witted.

Honorary Mentions: CERTIFIED COPY, THE STOOL PIGEON, OF LOVE AND OTHER DEMONS, UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES, OUTRAGE, MYSTERIES OF LISBON, A SOMEWHAT GENTLE MAN, DRIVE, VANISHING ON 7TH STREET, THE COMPANY MEN, TAKE SHELTER, TWELVE THIRTY, ANOTHER EARTH, CEDAR RAPIDS, RUBBER, THE HUMAN RESOURCES MANAGER, MEET MONICA VELOUR, HIGHER GROUND, MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, BELLFLOWER, BLACKTHORN, and THREE.

Best Documentaries: Where Soldiers Come From, Project NIM, Sholem Aleichem: Laughter in the Darkness, and The Interrupters.

Biggest Disappointments: Tree of Life, Meek’s Cutoff, A Dangerous Method, and J. Edgar.

Not Cattle, Male: Albert Brooks (Drive), Brendan Gleeson (The Guard), Isiah Whitlock Jr. (Cedar Rapids), Stellan Skarsgård (A Somewhat Gentle Man), Michael Shannon (Take Shelter), Jeremy Irons (Margin Call), Dominic Cooper (The Devil’s Double), Jackie Chan (Little Big Soldier), Lambert Wilson & Michael Lonsdale (Of Gods and Men), Liam Cunningham (The Guard), André Wilms (Le Havre), Ben Kingsley (Hugo), David Rasche (Blue Eyes), Filippo Timi (The Double Hour), Patton Oswalt (Young Adult), Sam Sheperd (Blackthorn), Ray Stevenson & Christopher Walken (Kill the Irishman), Devin Brochu (Hesher), Owen Wilson & Corey Stoll (Midnight in Paris), Toby Jones (My Week with Marilyn), Neil Patrick Harris (A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas), and Goh Nakamura (Surrogate Valentine).

Not Cattle, Female: Tilda Swinton (We Need to Talk About Kevin), Kim Cattrall (Meet Monica Velour), Kseniya Rappoport (The Double Hour), Brit Marling (Another Earth), Portia Reiners (Twelve Thirty), Yun Jeong-hie (Poetry), Piper Laurie (Hesher), Anna Paquin (Margaret), Carey Mulligan (Drive), Shailene Woodley (The Descendants), Rosamund Pike (Barney’s Version), Helen McCrory (Hugo), Ludivine Sagnier (Love Crime), Vera Farmiga (Higher Ground), Rooney Mara (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), Miranda July (The Future), Charlize Theron (Young Adult), Eliza Triana (Of Love and Other Demons), Jessica Chastain (The Help), Anne Heche (Cedar Rapids), and Kirsten Dunst (Melancholia).

The Westmores are Spinning in their Graves: Armie Hammer’s melted-candle aging process in J. Edgar and Meryl Streep’s latex jail in The Iron Lady.

Best Opening Credit Sequence: The otherwise forgettable, Toast.

Least-Erotic Sex Scene, EVER!: Stellan Skarsgård and Jorunn Kjellsby bring new life to the term “laying pipe” in A Somewhat Gentle Man.

The Only Animated Film of the Year: Arthur Christmas.

Biggest Intentional Laughs: Hesher, The Guard, Cedar Rapids, The Trip, A Somewhat Gentle Man, Rubber, and Our Idiot Brother.

Biggest Unintentional Laughs: Trespass, Big Momma 3: Like Father, Like Son, Viva Riva!, and the climactic reunion between blind boy and bronco in the otherwise foul and off-putting War Horse.

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Comments

Ghost_of_dolores_hope Jan. 12, 2012 @ 11:22 a.m.

I just saw Kill the Irishman and Devils Double (Irish & Arab Goodfellas/Casino)and enjoyed them. The CGI is getting real good these days. Hesher another good one. Some real good laughs in that one. Waiting to see The Guard and Drive (for Brooks). Of Gods and Men? I don't know... looks like it might put me to sleep. Barney's Version really sucked. I was disappointed. There's a ton on the list I haven't seen, so I'll be back.

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Ghost_of_dolores_hope Jan. 15, 2012 @ 6:15 p.m.

Dude, dude, dude!! I just saw BELLFLOWER. How the Hope can this not be on number one! Never saw digital look so good before. Sure, I've seen plenty of the same all color tints before, but nobody ever pulled it off like this. Plus everything was top notch: acting, camera, editing, sound can't complain at all. I was kinda surprised to see my buddy Johnny Jewel of Chromatics, Glass Candy, etc. on the soundtrack: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t2XYg7... Johnny Jewel thru Chromatics is also featured a lot on the Drive soundtrack.

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