We spent all year going to movies — good and bad, new classics and future trivia questions — just to save you the trouble of having to sit through, say, Jack and Jill or Shark Night 3D.
If you can see just 10 movies from 2011, in our humble opinion you can’t do much better than these flicks, each of which speaks in a unique, thoughtful way to a grownup audience while remaining timelessly entertaining. Here they are in alphabetical order.
The Artist - Yes, it's a pleasant confection, a pitch-perfect, crowd-pleasing black-and-white silent film about a 1920s movie star (Jean Dujardin) rendered obsolete by the arrival of talkies. But it's also a heartfelt study of a man who resists adapting to a change in a world that won't wait for the reluctant participant. His journey is that of anyone who's tried to find a footbridge between social or technological eras — and that happens to include everyone who's lived more than a few decades.
The Descendants - George Clooney gives the performance of a lifetime as a man who must deal with the betrayal of his wife — even as she slips away in an accident-induced coma. The plot has all the makings of sudsy soapism, but a magnificent cast and director/co-writer Alexander Payne rise above the melodrama to reveal the stark humanity of the characters, as well as the hilariously ridiculous nature of human foibles in all their forms.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close - As troubled young Oskar (Thomas Horn) comes to grips with the loss of his father (Tom Hanks) in the World Trade Center, a universe of grownups comfort, challenge and nurture him. Best of all is the appearance of Max von Sydow as a mute old man who joins Oskar on his quest to unlock the secret behind a mysterious key found in his dad's closet.
The Help - Viola Davis is breathtaking as a maid in 1960s Mississippi who finds her voice in the face of emotionally brutal racism. Those of us who grew up in the '60s, but not in the South, heard stories of what life was like for southern African Americans at the dawn of the Civil Rights era; The Help puts faces to those apocryphal chapters, and unforgettably so.
Hugo - Magical, dreamlike, dazzling — attach your own adjective to Martin Scorsese's screen adaptation of Brian Selznick's picture storybook. An orphan (Asa Butterfield) who lives in the nooks and crannies of a 1930s Paris train station elicits first the ire, and then the friendship, of an old man (Ben Kingsley) who turns out to be the pioneering French filmmaker Georges Melies. The film is a visual feast, the story alternately a celebration of the perpetual awe of childhood and a love letter to the movies themselves.
Margin Call - If you're wondering what happened to your 401(k), and you promise not to throw things at the screen, do watch this gritty, yet oddly human, drama set against the collapse of the investment banking industry. Kevin Spacey is maddening as the executive who fears the coming disaster, yet who hesitates to protect his investors; Jeremy Irons is absolutely riveting as the CEO who will save his company at any cost; and Stanley Tucci injects a dose of sentiment as a guy who gets fired from the firm just before the tsunami hits.
Midnight in Paris - We always kind of sensed Woody Allen would have been happier rubbing shoulders with Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein in 1920s Paris. And sure enough, here he sends Owen Wilson as his proxy, and the result is Allen's most charming, funny, imaginative film in a decade or so.
Moneyball - Baseball fans may quibble with the film's version of just why the 2002 Oakland Athletics were so good, but there's no arguing the power of Brad Pitt's performance as the team's general manager, Billy Beane, who developed unorthodox methods for picking low-cost players while making his team competitive. Like The Artist, Moneyball thoughtfully explores that shadowy region where the rivers of progress and tradition converge, and the ways a lifetime of experience can enable a grownup to stay afloat.
War Horse - Steven Spielberg unleashes his inner John Ford in his sumptuously rich, sometimes beautiful, often savage version of the hit stage play. The horse of the title — a farm animal that somehow finds itself at the ever-shifting front lines of World War I — is the purported star, but this is Spielberg's show from start to finish as he visually quotes some of the greatest films of all time, from All Quiet on the Western Front to How Green Was My Valley to Gone With the Wind to Paths of Glory.
We Bought a Zoo - It sounds like the plot of an Afterschool Special — a widowed dad leaves big-city life behind, buys a struggling rural zoo and moves his two precocious children to the sticks. But director Cameron Crowe (Jerry McGuire) takes the yeasty elements and bakes up a truly moving yarn that will delight kids (I mean, there's a monkey!) while it causes the adults present to contemplate whether it's worth upending your life to do something you truly love. (Spoiler alert: It is).