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On Movies: Top 10 of 2011

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 30, 2011 - I found 2011 to be a very good year at the movies, with a wide variety of clever comedies and gripping dramas and rousing action films and even audacious attempts to grasp the essentially ungraspable: war in the Middle East ("Incendies"), the 2008 economic collapse ("Margin Call"), the very meaning of existence ("The Tree of Life.")

But the New York Times reported in late December that movie box office totals for 2011 were down about half a billion dollars from 2010. What's the deal? (AP cites 16-year low for movies)

A major problem in 2011, according to the Times, was that "a spate of smaller movies aimed at younger audiences bombed."

Although the latest installments in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "Harry Potter" franchises did well, nobody much, young or old, went to see the likes of "Prom," "Glee: The 3-D Concert Movie," "Sucker Punch," "Conan the Barbarian" and "Your Highness," which, I'm not surprised to learn, was a drug-oriented comedy. What's more, entertainment writer Brooks Barnes noted, "The horror genre" -- with such "lemons" as "Fright Night," "The Thing" and "Priest" -- "struggled as an entire category."

These days, the younger audience, the article suggests, has less money and more distractions, like video games with movie stars as avatars and pocket-sized computers masquerading as phones. At the same time, Barnes wrote, "several movies aimed squarely at older audiences attracted stronger-than-expected revenue." He cited "The Help" as the prime example: "That period drama cost DreamWorks about $25 million to make and took in more than $169 million in North America."

A producer of "The Help" remarked, "We definitely benefited from coming out at the end of summer, when women are sick of going with their husbands and boyfriends to nothing but robot and superhero movies."

That's a flip and possibly sexist way of saying that many of the movies that did well as the box-office in 2011 were aimed at people with adult tastes, no matter what their gender or age. To cite one example, Woody Allen has released roughly a movie a year since the early 1970s, and his biggest box-office hit of all time has come in 2011 with "Midnight in Paris," an adult movie in a very old-fashioned sense of the term.

Perhaps one reason that 2011 seemed like such a good year to me and many of the people I've talked to was that there were plenty of movies aimed at adults, and some of them -- good movies like "Midnight in Paris" and "The Help" and the engaging George Clooney family drama "The Descendants" -- were successful enough to stay in the theaters for months.

When choosing what I thought were the 10 best movies of 2011, I didn't automatically eliminate movies with robots or superheroes in them, but none seemed to come to mind. (Although Martin Scorsese's intermittently marvelous "Hugo," which didn't quite make my 10-best cut, features an automaton.) The list is alphabetical rather than by order of preference, but I have to say, I wouldn't argue if you infer that the movie at the top of the list was my choice for the best movie of 2011.

"The Artist" - With barely a word of spoken dialogue, French director Michel Hazanavicius takes us back to Hollywood in the late 1920s and the early 1930s for a delightful look at the end of the silent era and the triumph of sound. A rousing, stylistically unique comic melodrama about an aging matinee idol who thinks "talkies" are a passing phase, the young starlet who adores him and tries to help him when he hits the skids, and a Jack Russell terrier who is as clever and resourceful as Rin Tin Tin.

"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" - Rooney Mara gives a tour de force performance as a punked-out, resolutely anti-social, world-class computer hacker, damaged but resilient, who helps a disgraced Swedish journalist (Daniel Craig) track down a sadistic killer of women. A skillful adaptation of the international bestseller that strips down and speeds up the sometimes over-written book without losing its essential moral outrage. 

"The Guard" - Brendan Gleeson stars as an Irish detective who is full of sass and malarkey and Don Cheadle is a buttoned-up FBI agent in a thoroughly engaging crime comedy about an unlikely pair pursuing an international dope-smuggling ring in the west of Ireland. Filled with striking little portraits of local characters, but the two stars dominate the screen, and play off one another beautifully. 

"Incendies" -- An ancient plot that never grows old -- the search for a father through perilous lands --enriches the narrative of this compelling French-Canadian film that mainly takes place in a war-devastated, fictional Middle Eastern country very much like Lebanon. "Incendies" tells a complicated and multi-layered, deeply moral story with the energy and suspense of a good thriller. The film is about many things, including the persistent and sometimes painful bonds of family, and the tragic absurdity of human beings killing one another for supposed religious or tribal differences.

"Jane Eyre" -- This passionate yet intelligent new reading of Charlotte Bronte's timeless mid-19th-century tale of cruelty, ambition, love and betrayal seems fresher and more relevant today than any number of recent romantic films set in the 21st century. Mia Wasikowska ("Alice in Wonderland") is superb in a revelatory performance as Jane, who thinks of herself as "plain" and dresses and wears her hair accordingly, but has a fierce intelligence and wit to go with her iron will. Michael Fassbender smolders appropriately as Rochester. 

"Margin Call" - A taut, suspenseful tale of a climactic day in the inner workings of a huge, multinational New York investment firm much like Lehman Brothers, which declared bankruptcy in 2008 after helping to trigger economic disaster. Crisp, blunt, realistic dialogue spoken by such fine actors as Kevin Spacey, Stanley Tucci and Jeremy Irons leads inexorably to a breathtakingly destructive decision that only makes sense in a world where profit trumps morals. 

"Midnight in Paris" - Owen Wilson plays a screenwriter so in love with the Paris of Hemingway and Fitzgerald that he is transported back to it in one of Woody Allen's best movies, an enchanting fantasy with fine performances in a dozen supporting roles. Corey Stoll is hilarious in a loving caricature of Hemingway, and Kathy Bates supplies a wonderfully no-nonsense turn as salon-keeper Gertrude Stein.

"Moneyball" - First-rate performances by Brad Pitt as general manager Billy Beane and Jonah Hill as his nerdy computer guru, plus a witty, sharply pointed script and breezy direction bring to notable life the story of the introduction of intense statistical analysis to major league baseball. Funny and touching, if it sometimes over-caricatures some of the baseball traditionalists who believe that gut feelings about a player can overrule cold numbers. 

"Tree of Life" - Sean Penn, Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain and young Hunter McCracken star in Terrence Malick's brilliant, maddening film that unites the microcosm -- the idyllic and painful childhood of an 11-year-old boy -- with the ultimate macrocosm: the unfolding of the universe. Surging through the film and uniting its seemingly irreconcilable parts is a search for the spiritual meaning of life. Achieves a level of mysterious majesty that invites comparison to Stanley Kubrick's cinematic and philosophical masterpiece, "2001."

"Young Adult" - This wonderful little gem of a movie, from a script by Diablo Cody ("Juno"), stars Charlize Theron as a self-obsessed writer of teenage romance novels who decides at 37 to go back to her Minnesota small town to save her high-school boyfriend from what she perceives as his boring life as a husband and father. Mavis (Theron) is not a particularly nice person -- Cody has called her an "anti-hero" -- but as played with bright-eyed self-absorption by Theron, she is almost irresistibly watchable as she rolls towards disaster, misunderstanding her old boyfriend's friendliness for lust and falling back on the mean-girl act that kept her on top of the pecking order in high school.

Harper Barnes, the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, is a special contributor to the Beacon.

Harper Barnes
Harper Barnes' most recent book is Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement

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