Even in a slow year for memorable cinema, there were some standouts in 2011

Homerun — Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill in Moneyball. - Courtesy photo
Courtesy photo
Homerun — Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill in Moneyball.

While it hasn’t necessarily been a stellar year in film (watching Adam Sandler, Martin Lawrence, and Tyler Perry in drag was enough to sideline the most intrepid moviegoer), there have been some diamonds in the rough. Enough, at least, to make slogging through 185 movies feel worth it. From a fuzzy red Muppet to the dissecting of baseball stats, here are the best films Hollywood (and Iran, France, and the U.K.) had to offer.


1. Moneyball

An exceptionally entertaining look at the true story behind Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) and the unconventional route he took in 2002 to transform his scrappy, penniless team into a competitive ball club. (Yes, math is involved.) While director Bennett Miller deserves an owner’s portion of the credit, it’s the clever screenplay by Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian that confirms the entire production’s big-league worth.


2. The Artist

It’s French. It’s in black and white. It’s silent. And it’s brilliant. I can’t remember the last time I was charmed by a film as much as I was with this ode to the silent film era. From its pitch-perfect performances by actors Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo to the snappy and sentimental score by Ludovic Bource, when all is said and done The Artist will be as admired as Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights and F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise.


3. The Descendants

Much more dramatic than his previous films, writer/director Alexander Payne still finds a way to fuse the dark comedic moments of his script with the tragic ones and make it flourish. George Clooney has never been better as a father trying to keep his sanity as his dysfunctional little family faces an emotional meltdown in Hawaii.


4. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Whether or not you enjoyed the 2009 Swedish adaptation of the Stieg Larsson novel isn’t important — just open your mind to the stylish and trippy investigative thriller director David Fincher has fashioned as his follow-up to The Social Network. For those who can handle both sides of Fincher’s storytelling talent — both the brutality and the meticulous craftsmanship — his version of the first book will prove “The Millennium Trilogy” can be hard-edged and fearless.

5. Hugo

Listen up Robert Rodríguez: Next time you make a movie for your kids because you want them to see what Daddy does for a living, here’s proof you can actually make it fun and enchanting. Case in point: Martin Scorsese’s family fantasy he made for his now 12-year-old daughter. Blending a beautifully imagined treasure hunt with a tribute to cinema’s early pioneers, Scorsese makes an impressive mark and soars into a genre that usually treats youngsters like morons.


6. A Separation

As Iran’s official entry into the Academy Awards this year, this captivating marital drama could become only the second Iranian film to be nominated in the Best Foreign Language category after 1998’s Children of Heaven. Writer/director Asghar Farhadi delivers a complex and honest portrayal of two families in modern-day Tehran. It is a challenging and heartbreaking film that deserves an audience.


7. Tyrannosaur

With a story of redemption at the center of its cold, black heart, this independent drama from the U.K. introduces us to the most unlikely hero in a film this year. It’s not often I would root for a raging alcoholic (Peter Mullan) who kicks his dog to death in the opening scene, but actor-turnedwriter/director Paddy Considine does the impossible and finds a way to make him human. Someone please give actress Olivia Colman an Oscar already.


8. Martha Marcy May Marlene

This indie thriller about a young woman (Elizabeth Olsen in a compelling breakout role) who escapes a rural cult becomes relentless and unnerving from the moment first-time feature filmmaker Sean Durkin exposes his nonlinear imagination and jolts the narrative into a haunting survival story. While the ending might frustrate some viewers, I was actually relieved knowing I didn’t know everything.


9. The Tree of Life

Sean Penn still might be trying to figure out what the hell he was doing walking aimlessly amongst the hoodoos in Utah, but there is no denying the stunning work of art visionary director Terrence Malick has created on a sprawling and ambitious timeline that begins with a lyrical take on the creation of life.


10. Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey

Contrary to popular belief, The Muppets wasn’t the best Muppet movie this year. That distinction goes to this 80-minute documentary on puppeteer Kevin Clash, who has given voice and life to Sesame Street’s widely popular character Elmo for almost 30 years. •

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