2011 may not go down as the greatest year for movies, but it was among the most unsettled, questioning, disturbing, interesting. The twin themes that repeatedly cropped up seemed unrelated but were in fact two sides of the same coin. The patriarchal anxiety of “Take Shelter,’’ “The Descendants,’’ “The Tree of Life,’’ “A Separation,’’ and “Win Win’’ - films about fathers hard up against personal or primal apocalypse - reflected a deep unease about where our lives are hurtling in a world of technological heaven and economic hell. These movies ached with the emasculation of day-to-day uncertainty. Even “Moneyball’’ was about working with what you have when you just don’t have enough.
Where does one look for comfort, then, but to the past? Films like “The Artist,’’ “Hugo,’’ “Drive,’’ and even Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse’’ and the 24-hour museum piece “The Clock’’ mined the images of movie history to give us a better sense of where we’re rooted and where we might go from here. That yearning was felt everywhere. “Midnight in Paris,’’ in which Owen Wilson magically time-travels to hang with the literati of the Lost Generation, was Woody Allen’s biggest hit ever. 1994’s “The Lion King’’ made millions in a 3-D re-release; it will be followed next year by “Titanic,’’ “Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace,’’ and more Disney/Pixar favorites. Commercial entertainments like “Super-8’’ and “The Muppets’’ traded on a nostalgia for a time when kids could hit the vacant lot with dad’s movie camera or stay home to watch Kermit on TV.
Those kids are now parents themselves, wondering how their own children will fare in a society increasingly lived in the digital ether and on screens big and small. Can a mass medium like the movies survive when its audience has dwindled to millions of individuals each staring into his or her own hand-held? The better films of the year worried over this conundrum, luring us in with style, or staking a claim for unvarnished realism, or finally turning new technologies like 3-D to artistic ends in Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo,’’ Werner Herzog’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,’’ and Wim Wenders’s “Pina.’’
It was a time of endings, too. The last “Harry Potter’’ movie sealed off an entire generation’s youth with a rich, resonant sigh. The “Twilight’’ movies are coming to a close, and not a moment too soon. Elizabeth Taylor died, and if she wasn’t the last movie star, it seemed so anyway. Where would Taylor fit in when the year’s top moneymakers were clamorous sequels on the order of “Transformers 3,’’ “Twilight 4 1/2’’ and “Pirates of the Caribbean 82’’? Movie stars are for connoisseurs and cognoscenti now, even if some of us found new mysteries in the Zen-meathead cool of Ryan Gosling or the delicate strength of Jessica Chastain. It was a year in which Brad Pitt threw in the towel and became an actor.
More than ever, American movies are about sensation or sentiment, big events or small epiphanies, and there isn’t much in the middle. We choose sides, and the sides say who we are and how we want to be perceived. Either you fell into the rapture of “Hugo’’ - I know I did - or it was slow and confusing, obsessed with some old French director you’d never heard of. Either you were a Twi-hard or you had better things to do. “The Tree of Life’’ - poetry or prattle. Consensus was hard to come by, other than “Bridesmaids,’’ which almost everyone loved even if they didn’t want to admit it. I still hold out hope that “The Artist’’ may reach a mass audience who can respond to a crowd-pleaser when it’s handed to them on a platter.
Then there are the movies that will never reach a mass audience and probably wouldn’t achieve consensus if they did. Documentaries and foreign-language films, mostly; the former celebrating prickly individuals like fashion photographer Bill Cunningham and horse whisperer Buck Brannaman or exploring pre-history and the death penalty, as in Herzog’s dual 2011 offerings. As for films from other countries, I can talk myself blue in the face about the breathtaking humanism of Japan’s “Poetry’’ or Iran’s “A Separation’’ but if you’re not able to find them, it’s a moot point. These, too, gnawed at the disjunctions and dysfunctions of 21st-century life, but without the comforts of movie stars and easy resolutions. They burned with the beauty of looking at things directly. Whereas almost everything else in 2011 trained us to look beautifully away.
My annual top 10 is a top 20 this year, and making the cut was harder than usual. There were no perfect movies (there never are) but even the flawed works on my list posed questions I hadn’t thought to ask, or took me somewhere I’d never been, or made me see the past with fresh eyes. These aren’t just the films I liked best in 2011. They’re the ones that give me hope for 2012.
For God’s sake, see it in 3-D, preferably in a theater where the projectionist knows what he’s doing. Martin Scorsese’s enchantingly baroque timepiece is about time passing, leaving young boys (Asa Butterfield as Hugo) and cinematic patriarchs (Ben Kingsley as special-effects pioneer Georges Méliès) in the lurch. Like the automaton Hugo rescues and revives, the movie’s a marvelous machine, one dedicated to the larger mechanical marvel of the movies and the dreaming that its interlocking gears allow us to do. Incidental pleasures: the world crammed into a Paris train station, Helen McCrory’s brimmingly emotional supporting performance, and artful visuals that - at last - justify 3-D technology. “Hugo’’ is rich, rich cake, and it can leave you full for weeks.
Along with “Hugo’’ (not a kiddie flick, no matter what the posters say), this was the most mis-marketed movie of the year. Sold as a vroom-vroom action film, Nicolas Winding Refn’s dreamily minimalist homage to mid-’80s Michael Mann and early-’60s French gangster films infuriated moviegoers expecting “The Fast and the Furious 6.’’
(Seriously, the online outrage was almost more entertaining than the movie.) For the many who got on its macho-existential wavelength, “Drive’’ felt like a gift from the movie gods: a supremely confident work in which style becomes content, Ryan Gosling defines stillness and threat as an automotive Man With No Name, Albert Brooks turns out to be the chummiest killer in town, and a cramped elevator car is the stage for the year’s most appalling violence and its most transcendent kiss.
3. THE CLOCK
When you hear it described by others, it’s just a 24-hour video installation that doubles as an extremely accurate Swatch. Experienced from the Museum of Fine Arts’ comfy couches, though, Christian Marclay’s clip show opens up onto endless levels of pleasure and meaning. “The Clock’’ weaves scenes from across the history of movies, each of them involving a timepiece, and as you sit there mesmerized for 20 minutes or 20 hours, you find yourself recognizing scenes you love, scenes you wished you knew, scenes that are entwined with other scenes in an absurdly watchable Möbius strip of cinematic memory. It’s like being inside the pop culture’s subconscious, its cluttered basement, and its root file all at once. Plus, you’ll never be late for your next appointment. Move fast, though, because “The Clock’’ stops on Dec. 31.
4. THE ARTIST
To watch Michael Hazanavicius’s retro delight - a black-and-white silent film surfacing in the new millennium like a prehistoric fish - is to appreciate what happens to our brains when “crucial’’ information like sound and color are withheld. We see more, and maybe that’s why audiences come out of this faux-oldie feeling brand new, as if they’ve been to a spa. Classic movie junkies will get the most out of this mash-up of “A Star Is Born’’ and “Singin’ in the Rain’’ - a tale set during that industrial reboot known as the Talkie revolution - but anyone can play and still come out dazzled. In an age when our neurons are being reconfigured daily by new machines, “The Artist’’ dares to rewire them back and remind us of what we’ve lost.
5. LE QUATTRO VOLTE
A glorious macrocosmic tragicomedy from Italy, starring (in order) a goatherd, a goat, and a tree. Yes, it’s the anti-“Transformers,’’ and probably the wisest movie of the year. Writer-director Michelangelo Frammartino favors the long take and the long view, charting the seasons’ cycles from a vantage point his subjects are too close to the ground to see. There’s a sense of profound farce to the proceedings, and beyond that a larger sadness, and beyond that something close to the sound of God chuckling. It’s the rare experience that lets you feel the earth moving beneath your feet.
6. A SEPARATION
Like a Mike Leigh movie unfolding in a police state. Asghar Farhadi’s dramatic heartbreaker tells of an Iranian upper-middle-class couple headed in separate directions: She (Leila Hatami) wants to emigrate with their teenage daughter (Sarina Farhadi) and he (Peyman Maadi) needs to care for a father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi) with Alzheimer’s. A devoutly religious caregiver (Sareh Bayat) complicates matters with what may or may not be a lie until every level of Iranian society has to weigh in. An astounding feat - a work implicitly but deeply critical of the ways a totalitarian society separates people from each other - this also functions as powerful, intelligent melodrama. And Maadi, playing the most stressed-out provider in a year full of them, gives a performance of tremendous sympathy.
7. BILL CUNNINGHAM NEW YORK
It seems, sometimes, that there’s a documentary to be made about every New York eccentric - which is to say every New Yorker, period. This one feels like a Joseph Mitchell article in real time, as first-time feature filmmaker Richard Press tools around in the wake of Cunningham, the 80-something New York Times fashion photographer who unites the runways of Europe and the streets of Manhattan in his brilliant high-low snapshots. Like many a self-made genius, Cunningham’s happy to be a loner, bicycling up the avenues at dawn, living above Carnegie Hall, burying his New England roots and his sexuality in the daily high of capturing what people wear. The most cheering aspect of this wonderful film is the love felt by others for Cunningham. Says one fashionista to a clueless bouncer, “Don’t you understand this is the most important man on the planet?’’
Who knew that a baseball movie could be about the joy of men talking and that that movie could star Brad Pitt? Talk about Recession comedy: This saga of the 2002 Oakland A’s, the little team that didn’t but tried like hell anyway, felt like a natural in the pinched horizons of 2011. The laughs come from Pitt’s general manager Billy Beane embracing statistical analysis because there’s nothing left to lose, then ramming his decision past the Skoal-stained disbelief of all those old dogs in the clubhouse. Between this and “The Tree
of Life,’’ Pitt finally earned his stardom this year, but it’s his Beane, playing high-stakes phone poker with players, owners, managers, and other GMs, that I’ll keep in my back pocket for some time to come.
9. WIN WIN
Another year, another effortless Paul Giamatti performance. Still, how refreshing to see the actor come in from the cold of period films and rogue misfits to play an average schmo trying to hold his little middle-class Eden together - clanking basement boiler and all - in a southbound economy. Tom McCarthy (“The Station Agent,’’ “The Visitor’’) forgoes dwarfs and djembe players this time out to focus on one normal family that recombines, with fear and kindness, into a larger, messier clan of community. Amy Ryan matches her costar stride for maternal stride, and newcomer Alex Shaffer gets both male adolescence and wrestling right. The movie’s no big thing in all the best ways.
Surely I must be kidding. The Bradley Cooper thriller about a slovenly New Yorker who discovers a drug that lets him use 100 percent of his brainpower? Yes, it’s junk. But it’s great junk, and it stands in for a handful of mid-year entertainments - “Source Code’’ and “The Lincoln Lawyer’’ were others - that recaptured the pleasures of the well-made B movie. “Limitless’’ is extremely well-made, in fact, since director Neil Burger visualizes Cooper’s varied mental states with ingenuity and wit, and he keeps the thing rocketing along so you barely notice the implausibilities (and there are a lot). The underrated Burger (“The Illusionist’’) is a gifted anti-auteur, dedicated to serving the story and the audience, and if you don’t respond to a movie like this, you may not like movies at all.
THE NEXT 10
11. INTO THE ABYSS
No, it’s not Werner Herzog’s 3-D cave movie (that would be “Cave of Forgotten Dreams’’). It’s deeper and much darker, a journey into the American underclass that doesn’t take on the death penalty so much as reveal its Kafkaesque purposelessness.
12. TAKE SHELTER
Michael Shannon gets the starring role he deserves as a Midwestern father and husband who smells disaster coming in on the wind. The best of Jessica Chastain’s many 2011 performances, too. Pity about the ending.
An elderly Korean woman (Jeong-hie Yun in one of the year’s most affecting performances) takes a poetry class, searching for beauty in a hard world. She finds it, but not the way we or she expect. The final images of Chang-dong Lee’s drama are haunting some of us still.
14. THE DESCENDANTS
This gentle human comedy about loss in paradise is in danger of being oversold (by me, among others) as the Next Big Thing, and that does it a disservice. George Clooney has never been more empathetic, and Alexander Payne’s vision of people drifting in an island chain of happenstance runs unexpectedly deep.
15. & 16. PROJECT NIM/RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES
A great documentary about the Dickensian life of a research chimp and a sci-fi drama about simian uprising that Nim himself might cheer on. Both offer up homo sapiens as the movie villain of the year.
17. A DANGEROUS METHOD
Keira Knightley acts up a storm as a hysterical psychiatric patient, but it’s Michael Fassbender who reconfirms his talent as the rigid, agonized young Carl Jung. Viggo Mortensen is an imperious side dish as Sigmund Freud.
18. THE TREE OF LIFE
It’s not Terence Malick’s finest film - beware of personal projects that have been simmering for decades - but it still dares to take us places no movies have ever been: the mind of an infant, the heart of a dinosaur, the eye of the universe.
19. YOUNG ADULT
In which Diablo Cody settles down and becomes a real screenwriter and Charlize Theron gives a fearless performance as a high school prom queen run aground in her 30s. Standing O’s for Patton Oswalt and Jason Reitman, too.
The strain of moving Yasmina Reza’s play from the stage to the screen shows, but moviegoers with children may choke with horrified laughter at the two parental couples hammering away at each other. Jodie Foster is simply phenomenal as the kind of hover-mom you pass on Route 128 about 40 times a day.
3. THE CLOCK
4. THE ARTIST
5. LE QUATTRO VOLTE
6. A SEPARATION
7. BILL CUNNINGHAM NEW YORK
9. WIN WIN