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Ah, the New Year: no more holidays, snow in Chicago, critics making their 10 Best Lists. Thus, it’s time for me to make mine as well. I previously picked my Top 10 in horror for the year, and now I will for the general cinema. Granted, some movies of 2011 have not yet opened in Chicago. I’m anxiously awaiting the arrival of A SEPARATION, THE IRON LADY, CARNAGE and ALBERT NOBBS. But of what I was able to see, these ten are my picks for best of the year, from top to bottom. And if you haven’t seen all of my choices, you owe yourself the treat of viewing these cinematic highlights. (WARNING: Some plot spoilers are about to be revealed. Sorry. It’s inevitable.)

THE ARTIST
Written and directed by Michael Hazanavicius
At first glance, this charming and clever black & white movie seems to be all about the love of the cinema. French filmmaker Hazanavicius has made a silent movie about, well, silent movies, and his attention to all the details of that era are superb. But look closer and you’ll see he’s really made a movie about embracing modernity. How ironic that a movie so rooted in the past is actually about the future. In the late ’20s, a matinee idol named George Valentin (the impeccable Jean Dujardin) stubbornly refuses to embrace the coming sound era of filmmaking. He clings to silent movies and becomes a thing of the past just like them. But a good woman and a good dog save him. The girl is Peppy Miller (the appropriately effervescent Berenice Bejo), an ingénue he helped get a start in the biz, now a big star in the ‘talkies.’ The dog is Uggie, George’s constant companion, on-screen and off. They help him realize life is worth living and his gifts are worth sharing in this new art form. THE ARTIST has a lot to say about art, love, friendship, loyalty, and redemption, considering it’s a film with limited sound. It says that everyone, be they artists or everyday citizens, needs to keep moving forward, towards the promise of better tomorrows. I haven’t smiled throughout a movie like THE ARTIST in a long time. For my money, it’s the best film of the year and one I will cherish forever. (A special note: that dog Uggie gives one of the greatest animal performances in the history of the cinema and all the talk of getting him a supporting actor nomination is warranted. He’s that good.)

MIDNIGHT IN PARIS
Written and directed by Woody Allen
This film also embraces the past while cajoling its lead into the future. Owen Wilson plays a blocked Hollywood screenwriter trying to find inspiration to make something of his first novel. While vacationing in Paris with his harping girlfriend and her snobby parents, he gets lost in Paris at the witching hour and is transported back to the City of Light of the 1920s. There he meets Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and a host of other artists from that era who help him find meaning in his writing. And in a comely young Parisian (Marion Cotillard), he finds a woman who opens his eyes about confronting his future. (This and THE ARTIST are two peas in a pod.) It’s a marvelous time-travel fable and ended up being Woody Allen’s biggest hit of all-time, playing at Chicago’s Century Landmark for the better part of six months. That kind of box office feat should inspire Hollywood to make more films like this each year. (They can stop with those infuriating TRANSFORMERS films anytime as far as I am concerned.)

HUGO
Written by John Logan and directed by Martin Scorsese
Chicago’s very own John Logan (an NU grad from 1983) is one of Martin Scorsese’s favorite screenwriters working today and with good reason. He’s a superb writer, both of original screenplays and adapted ones like this one, based on Brian Selznick’s famed children’s book The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Logan and Scorsese have made a film for all ages about a lonely orphan boy (Asa Butterfield) who lives in a Parisian train station and tends its clocks. Not only does he make sure they keep time but he resets the lives of a few station workers as well, notably its grumpy toy seller (Ben Kingsley). The sterling cast includes Chloe Grace Moretz, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helen McCrory, Emily Mortimer, Richard Griffiths, Michael Stuhlberg, Frances de la Tour, Ray Winstone, and Christopher Lee. It’s a movie that celebrates childhood, dreams and film preservation. (See it and you’ll see what I mean.) It’s the best looking film of any this year with incredible art direction, costumes and cinematography that simply pop in Scorsese’s brilliant first film shot in 3-D. (Maybe 3-D isn’t over, after all.)

THE TREE OF LIFE
Written and directed by Terrence Malick
Some loved it. Some loathed it. I loved every frame, even the 20 minutes in the middle concerning the creation of the earth. Like THE ARTIST, MIDNIGHT IN PARIS and HUGO, this movie is about moving forward in life, working with what the past has given us. The film argues that the earth’s populace should live life by choosing grace and forgiveness over brutal instinct, be it prehistoric times or the 1950’s or today. That’s not always easy for the nuclear family at its core, a struggling one in the Eisenhower era, dealing with a tug of war going on for the souls of their children between the bullheaded dad (Brad Pitt) and ethereal mom (Jessica Chastain). This movie suggests that our lives should focus on the positive, and that theme is reiterated by every single shot that is framed in this artistically exceptional film. The simplest movement, like the mom washing the cut grass off of her feet with a trickling hose, is gorgeous. So is every inch of this movie. It’s a very misunderstood movie, but many great works of art are. And this work will only grow in reputation as the years pass.

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO
Written by Steve Zaillian and directed by David Fincher.
I loved the original Swedish movie and I love this one too. Zaillian has kept much of the good in Stieg Larrson’s original prose, but he’s eliminated most of the hoary coincidences and contrivances. (Really? Mikael Blomqvist is hired to search for Harriet Vanger, who just happened to be his nanny one summer when he was seven?!) Fincher establishes a marvelous tone throughout, filled with throbbing dread and imminent danger. And his cast actually outshines their Swedish predecessors. Despite struggling with a Swedish accent, Daniel Craig makes for a wonderfully complex and troubled lead. And Rooney Mara does wonders with her role of Lisbeth Salander, bringing the harsh looking heroine’s vulnerability to life in ways that Noomi Rapace didn’t. Despite great reviews, the film didn’t live up to expectations at the box office last week. That has more to do with marketing than artistry. No one can argue with the craft in this film. One can argue with opening a movie about serial murders, anal rape and the abuse of women on Christmas day. Perhaps it should have opened in the cold, stark month of February when the temperature would more appropriately fit the mood of this chilly thriller.

THE SKIN I LIVE IN
Written by Pedro and Agustin Almodovar and directed by Pedro Almodovar
This is the only horror movie on my list this year, and it’s from a filmmaker who’s never done one before. Almodovar’s familiar themes of identity, unrequited love, and obsessive behavior are all still present, but here he’s channeled into a modern version of Frankenstein. Antonio Banderas plays a brilliant plastic surgeon out to avenge the assault on his daughter. What that has to do with a beautiful woman (Elena Anaya) imprisoned in his ultra-sleek mansion is not explained until well over the two-thirds mark, but the revelation is the jaw-dropper of the year. Like all Almodovar movies, this one is beautiful, sensual, funny, strange and unsettling. And here its horrors really get under your skin.

MELANCHOLIA
Written and directed by Lars von Trier
There are two forms of melancholy in this film: one comes in the form of Justine, a depressed bride played by Kirsten Dunst, and the other arrives in the form of a rogue planet hurtling towards earth. Where the new planet Melancholia is headed, no one quite knows for sure, but Justine knows her marriage is headed for doom even while the extravagant wedding is going on around her.  This film plays like a complex dissertation on the dreams of our lives vs. the realities of our true existence. And von Trier, who can be an erratic and unfocused filmmaker, keeps a tight rein on his material this time, even during the brilliant and audacious, world-ending climax. It may be depressing but boy, is it exhilarating!

YOUNG ADULT
Written by Diablo Cody and directed by Jason Reitman
Another dyspeptic female protagonist in a year filled with them, but here Charlize Theron may surpass them all as the wounded former high school prom queen Mavis Gary. She returns to her hometown hoping to reclaim a lost love but bitterness has colored her perceptions and keeps her from moving on with her life. It’s a dark comedy with an awful woman at the center, but kudos to Cody for writing such a disturbed yet fascinating lead and to Theron, not flinching one inch at playing such a pathetic protagonist. There should be more complex character studies made like this, and I applaud Cody and Reitman for creating a small but smart picture where the only special effects are in its sharp writing, deft direction, and sublime acting.

BRIDESMAIDS
Written by Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo and directed by Paul Freig
Some may call this a female version of THE HANGOVER but it’s actually more of a knowing satire on the recession, as much of a film of its time as MARGIN CALL. Kristen Wiig’s Annie Walker has lost her business to the crap economy and her confidence has been flushed with it. She lets it taint all aspects of her life, poisoning her attitude towards relationships, her part-time job, and causing her to drink and swear too much. When her best friend (Maya Rudolph) names her maid of honor for her upcoming wedding, she chomps down on the task like a starving dog with a bone. It’s her big chance at doing something right and her attempts to be the perfect attendant make for a hilarious and often painful comedy. Ably supported by terrific comic actors, including a brittle Rose Byrne and the outrageous Melissa McCarthy, this film is the year’s best farce.

TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY
Written by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan and directed by Tomas Alfredson
This is the antidote to the non-stop adrenaline of spy movies like Bond and the MISSION IMPOSSIBLE series. TTSS is a cool, quiet and sinister little thriller about the business of spying. I use the word business because the spies here are officious ‘suits’, businessmen whose trade is fighting the Cold War in the 1970s with their intellect. The stiff, upper-lipped Brits are as gray and dull and as staid as their clothing in this sly adaptation of the John Le Carre bestseller, but there’s a mole among them (“He’s been there for years,” as one character complains) and the traitor is feeding the Soviets info and getting British field agents shot and killed, so retired agent George Smiley is brought in to smoke out the double agent. He does so not with tricked-up Aston Martins and cool gadgets but with clever footwork, thinking outside the box and trap setting. Gary Oldman plays Smiley with disquieting calm like a cat slowly waiting for a mouse to leave its hole. And he’s ably supported by some of England’s finest character actors including Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, Toby Jones, David Dencik and John Hurt. Alfredson directs each page of the tight script with a sense of dread and potential danger. Unfortunately, this thinking man’s thriller got a little lost in the glut of December releases but hopefully, you will get to see it, if you haven’t, before it disappears from the Cineplex.

All in all, 2011 was not a great year in the annals of films. Too many expensive duds like THE GREEN LANTERN brought revenues down on the whole too. But each of the films on my list is making money here or throughout the world. That’s a testament to the logic that if you make a good movie, more often than not, it will find an audience. We need more movies like THE ARTIST or YOUNG ADULT, and fewer superhero bores and CGI extravaganzas long on budget and short on content.

So tell me, what would you pick as the best movies this past year? Tell me your thoughts and let’s keep the conversation going. And stay tuned for my upcoming post on my favorite images from 2011 movies. There are some truly stunning visuals from these films and others that will stay with me for a long time. And if you see them, I think they’ll stay with you too.

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