Big surprise: movies about movies shot to the top of the list of films I loved in 2011. Movies about art, writing and Paris also earned a place in my Top 10, along with the usual assortment of strange bedfellows—Werner Herzog, Almodóvar, Harry Potter. Aside from those films still playing in town (which you should run out and see on a big screen right this minute), this list should give you some eclectic ideas for your post-holiday Netflix queue.
One caveat: there are usually one or two embarrassing lapses in my annual Top 10 list, due to the deadline necessity of compiling my list before I've seen all the heavy hitters. So, for the record, at presstime I have not yet seen Shame, The Iron Lady, Albert Nobbs, or Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
MIDNIGHT IN PARIS Woody Allen explores the art, history, enduring fantasy, and cultural allure of Paris in this marvelously inventive film. A modern Hollywood screenwriter is transported back to Paris in the 1920s in this endlessly sharp and funny riff on our collective desire to embrace a past "Golden Age" we think we've missed, when the present gets too complicated.
THE ARTIST A show-stopping star turn by the wonderful French actor Jean Dujardin highlights filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius' utterly splendid, audacious homage to silent movies. Shooting his bittersweet, backstage Hollywood romance in black-and-white, without audible dialogue, Hazanavicius wields the classic storytelling tools of the silent era with fresh new exuberance.
HUGO OK, it's too long, with too much slapstick and too many 3D effects lunging out of the screen. But in every other way, Martin Scorsese's charming, family-friendly homage to forgotten French film pioneer George Melies (Ben Kingsley), rediscovered while selling clockwork toys in a Paris railway station ca.1930, is just about irresistible.
THE SKIN I LIVE IN Not for the fainthearted, Pedro Almodóvar's weird mix of Pygmalion and Frankenstein is a spicy cocktail of sex, obsession, and haunting secrets, that morphs into a compelling meditation on gender and identity, and how much each depends on the other.
BEGINNERS Coming of age is not just for kids in Mike Mills' winsome, sneakily affecting comedy-drama. A graphic designer in his 30s tries to jumpstart his own romantic life while his widowed father comes out as a gay man at age 75, embracing his new lifestyle with gusto. Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer are terrific as this offbeat, tender father-son dynamic plays out.
MY WEEK WITH MARILYN The alchemical transformation of the intelligent and gutsy Michelle Williams into that most dreamy, luscious, needy, and yet valiant of all Hollywood screen goddesses highlights Simon Cutis' smart, thoughtful showbiz memoir.
CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS Werner Herzog explores human obsessions and the forbidding grandeur of Nature in his stunning documentary tour of 32,000-year-old Chauvet Cave. Buried under a massive rockslide in rural France, it contains the earliest known wall paintings made by human hands. 3D captures the cave interiors with breathtaking fidelity.
JANE EYRE Mia Wasikowska is a poised, yet fiercely self-directed Jane to Michael Fassbender's wry, stormy Rochester in Cary Joji Fukunaga's fresh take on the evergreen, Victorian-era Gothic romance, a deeply felt, beautifully wrought little gem of mood and sensibility.
THE MILL AND THE CROSS Rutger Hauer stars as 16th Century Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel, in Polish filmmaker Lech Majewski's visually stunning experimental film about the artmaking process. As a painting comes to life onscreen, Bruegel (and Majewski) become godlike figures, grinding the raw grain of life and human activity into art, in this singular, questing, radical art film.
HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS: PART 2 Series veterans David Yates and Steve Kloves do their damnedest to honor all the complex subtexts of J. K. Rowling's books, in one of the most thrilling, yet elegiac films in the series. It delivers Rowling's themes of love, friendship and loyalty with affecting grace and heart.
50/50 Joseph Gordon-Levitt racks up another disarming, life-sized performance as a young writer suddenly facing mortality in Jonathan Levine's bracing, humorous manual on coping with life's surprises.
THE GUARD John Michael McDonagh's profane, subversively funny comedy pairs sophisticated FBI agent Don Cheadle with irascible small-town Irish cop Brendan Gleeson on the trail of international drug-traffickers, in an entertainingly cheeky, no-nonsense look at the wages of crime.
RANGO Johnny Depp unleashes his inner clown as the lizard protagonist of GoreVerbinski's abundantly silly and entertaining animated family comedy.
They Coulda Been Contenders:
THE TREE OF LIFE So mesmerizing in depicting suburban 1950s family life, Terrence Malick's visionary epic stumbles badly over dinosaurs, Sean Penn's wandering morosity, and an overly stage-managed shall-we-gather-at-the-river finale.
TAKE SHELTER Jeff Nichols taps into the potent national zeitgeist of fear, but never develops an acute sense of creepiness into anything more than a premise in search of a story.
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