January 3, 2012



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As a movie year, 2011 felt, more than anything else, like a reflection of an art and a business in disarray.  Economically, it was a down year and for the major studios, a frightening one:  beyond the special case of the Harry Potter  finale, virtually every Hollywood franchise slipped from prior success in the US, saved from barrels of red ink only because overseas audiences embraced them in record-breaking numbers.  Even the technology of “film” was and continues to be in flux:  more and more motion pictures are shot and distributed on high-definition video that’s increasingly difficult for viewers to tell from traditional film stock; US audiences are growing tired, for the most part, of inferior 3D; and the dispute over whether motion-capture performance (like Andy Serkis’s Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes) constitutes award-worthy “acting” is growing hotter.  Creatively, too, it seemed like the movies were in a holding pattern, waiting to find out what the next exciting wave would be.  Despite all this, there continued to be films worth seeing and commemorating, and here were the best 10 of them:
1.MARGIN CALL:  A group of affluent men (and one woman) sit in conference rooms in the middle of a deserted Wall Street night talking about money in hushed tones, and it’s all somehow post-apocalyptic.  Which is accurate, because they’re watching their economic universe, overnight, go poof–and as in any post-apocalyptic story, the real question is who will survive.  J.C. Chandor’s film, as cunningly structured as a thriller, was the writing/directing debut of the year–not a David Mamet retread or a mere financial meltdown docudrama, but a humane, eloquent and ruthlessly smart story about modern capitalism and the way it reflects human nature.  The fact that the Screen Actors Guild didn’t even nominate the actors, headed by Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons and producer Zachary Quinto, for Best Ensemble tells you all you’ll ever need to know about the SAG Awards.  
2. SHAME:  Steve McQueen’s NC-17 drama revolved around a sex addict, and certainly wasn’t for everyone.  But  beneath the (unerotic) sex was the story of a brother and sister being torn apart by their own private demons.  McQueen, in complete mastery of the art form, refused to provide easy explanations or a therapeutic happy ending, and Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan supplied 2 of the most savagely wrenching performances of the decade. 
3. EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE:  Unaccountably, the most controversial and divisive movie of the year, apparently because it dared to touch, in its apolitical and fictional way, on what turned out to be the third rail of American popular culture:   9/11.  Stephen Daldry’s filmmaking and Eric Roth’s script (adapted from Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel) superbly balanced sentimentality, quirkiness and profound heartbreak, and the first-time actor Thomas Horn managed to dominate a supporting cast that included Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock and the extraordinary Max Von Sydow., whose silent performance outshone anything in the insanely overrated The Artist
4. CRAZY, STUPID, LOVE:  Hollywood’s most pleasant surprise of the year, a romantic comedy drama that was actually romantic, comic and dramatic—sometimes even all at once.  Glenn Ficarra and John Fuqua nimbly tapdanced the shifting tones of Dan Fogelman’s marvelous script (which also had the year’s best third-act surprise), and the letter-perfect ensemble included Steve Carell, Julianne Moore, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Marisa Tomei and Analeigh Tipton.
5. WIN WIN:  Tom McCarthy writes and directs movies about ordinary human beings with the grace, understanding and complexity of a great American novelist.  Win Win, about the ethical struggles of a high school wrestling coach, was smarter, tougher and yards more perceptive than The Descendants, but since both are distributed by the same studio (Fox Searchlight, also responsible for burying the very fine Margaret), McCarthy’s script and the beautiful performances by Paul Giamatti and Amy Ryan (who should be forced—bodily, if necessary—to play a couple at least once every couple of years) are being ignored
6. RANGO:  A strange and wonderful animated movie from director Gore Verbinski, writer John Logan and star/muse Johnny Depp that was like Pixar on acid:  deranged, inspired comedy about spaghetti westerns, heroism, Chinatown, existentialism, the meaning of identity if you’re an actual chameleon, and a half-dozen other topics, all populated by crazy-looking reptiles on gorgeous landscapes.
7. MONEYBALL:  Michael Lewis’s book about abstract theories of how a low-spending baseball team remade the rules of drafting and trading for players had no business even being a movie.  But with master screenwriters Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, director Bennett Miller and a cast headed by the year’s most unlikely comedy team, Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill, the result was funny, bracingly intelligent, and often dramatically thrilling.
8. THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO:  Even though audiences were thoroughly familiar with Stieg Larsson’s pageturning potboiler and the solid Swedish film adaptation, David Fincher made it his gripping own, with the help of screenwriter Zaillian (again), a breakout performance by Rooney Mara, excellent support from Daniel Craig, Stellan Skarsgard and the rest of the cast, and a fabulously gifted technical crew that included cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth and composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.
9.  MIDNIGHT IN PARIS:  Never, ever count Woody Allen out.  At the age of 75, after more than 40 feature films and widely believed to have outlasted his boxoffice prime, he came back with, if not one of his very best, a richly entertaining and even wise bauble that became the biggest hit of his career (if you don’t adjust for inflation), as breezy and charming as it was clever.
10.  THE HELP:  Tate Taylor’s adaptation of the best-selling novel was no triumph of the filmmaking art, and it’s perfectly fair to criticize the movie’s oversimplifications and unapologetic sentimentality.  But months later, it still stands as one of the most engrossing and narratively satisfying dramas of the year , and its cast headed by Viola Davis, Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard and Jessica Chastain couldn’t have been better.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."