by Glenn Lovell
For those of us who spent a good part of the year in the dark — blinking through as many as four or five films a week – the news that annual ticket sales were at a 16-year low hardly came as a shock. Half the time Hollywood seemed to be in a haze, the other half running scared, cranking out one CG-driven escape after another. It got so bad during the summer months that titles and alternate universes blended. Did I experience that rogue planet in “Thor” or “Green Lantern” … or “Transformers: Dark of the Moon”?
Of course it didn’t help matters that in 2011 we had more alternatives to the tiresome, cell-phone-friendly megaplexes than ever before. I lost count of the number of films I discovered on PPV, a week or two before they were reviewed in the local paper. Add to this streaming Netflix, a boon to adventurous souls looking for interesting indies that somehow went without distribution. (This is how I discovered South Korea’s tricky “I Saw the Devil,” Italy’s rapturous “Come Undone,” and, from 2008, the French-U.S.-Mexican “Julia,” starring Tilda Swinton as the most unrepentant drunk since Nicolas Cage in “Leaving Las Vegas.”)
Not surprisingly, the best films were the smallest, in terms of budget not originality. In no particular order, the titles that reawakened my passion for flickering celluloid:
1. “The Artist.” A clever homage to silent Hollywood, circa 1927, that beseeches, “Open your eyes – and listen!”
2. “Win Win.” A low-budget charmer starring Paul Giamatti at his rumpled best. (The sadly overlooked “Terri” could easily share this spot.)
3. “The Help.” Sure it’s slick, old-fashioned storytelling, but Tate Taylor’s adaptation of the Kathryn Stockett bestseller about segregation in 1960s Mississippi proved the year’s most engrossing melodrama. Expect scads of Oscar nominations, starting with Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer and Jessica Chastain.
5. “The Debt.” A rich, multilayered mystery-espionage thriller that commented on the nature of courage. Helen Mirren and Chastain played the same women separated by 30 years of lies ‒ and a nasty facial scar.
6. “Melancholia.” Lars von Trier’s meditation on encroaching Armageddon, when madness proves the only sane response.
7. “Drive.” A retro crime thriller – Jean-Pierre Melville meets “Bullitt” starring the new King of Cool, Ryan Gosling.
8. “Limitless.” Like Alice, Bradley Cooper pops a pill for the ultimate out-of-body experience. Credit director Neil Burger for the year’s most novel sci-fi allegory, told with just the right blend of humor and suspense.
9. “Shame.” The seemingly everywhere Michael Fassbender in a dark, stripped-down tale of guilt and addiction. Academy, when filling out your nomination ballots, don’t forget Carey Mulligan as Fassbender’s even needier sister.
10. “The Descendants.” Alexander Payne’s long overdue follo to “Sideways” is a quirky dramedy about second chances. George Clooney is wonderful as a preoccupied Hawaiian attorney juggling, very badly, family tragedy and in-fighting.
Year’s best foreign film: Takashi Miike’s “13 Assassins,” a stunning, subversive variation on Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai.” Does anyone now going stage battle scenes better than Miike?
Year’s biggest disappointment: “The Tree of Life,” Terrence Malick’s most personal and, thanks to a fragmented, jump-cut-happy narrative, least accessible movie. Think the Scopes Monkey Trial battled to a draw. Both creationists and atheists had reason to grumble.
As usual, there were enough bow-wows to fill a large kennel. Ten that barked loudest:
1. “Cowboys & Aliens.” Like baked beans on freeze-dried ice cream.
2. “Super 8.” Spoof or homage? Only diehard Spielberg fans knew for sure.
3. “The Rite.” Anthony Hopkins’ excuse: “Devil made me do it!”
4. “Arthur.” The old drunk act, minus a modicum of charm.
5. “The Thing.” Prequel or remake? Who cares.
6. “Hall Pass.” We didn’t expect anything of this Farrelly brothers farce and weren’t disappointed.
7. “Dream House.” When it comes to ghosts, who ya gonna call? Not Daniel Craig.
8. “Just Go with It”/“Jack and Jill.” For those Adam Sandler fans craving seconds.
9. “Straw Dogs.” Peckinpah gutted for stock home-invasion thrills.
10. “Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows.” The game’s afoot! NOT!