It wasn't bad at all, 2011.
I'm not talking about the battering Great Recession, not talking about the Occupiers, the terrorism, the wars, the crumbling infrastructures, the sense of dread moving like a storm above our heads. And I'm definitely not talking about the politicians.
But a lot of movies this year did address these very issues, with artistry and intelligence, provocation and insight. Take a look at Take Shelter, Contagion, Melancholia, The Ides of March, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Everything Must Go (Will Ferrell does Ray Carver!), the troubling Korean drama Poetry . . . take a look, and shiver.
And even when the films, and filmmakers, turned to more upbeat matters - love, laughter, art, sex, family, Jack Russells - there was inspiration to be found. From the femme raunch of the Kristen Wiig-y Bridesmaids to the sweet nostalgia of Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris (the Woodman's biggest movie ever), from the life-affirming cosmic-osity of Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life to the people-affirming docs Bill Cunningham New York and Buck to the Silent Era love letter that is The Artist, there have been, heck, dozens of truly satisfying cinema experiences.
More than dozens. Which makes the admittedly artificial task of honing it down to a nice round 10 particularly challenging. But here's my list, anyway, followed by some other essential "bests" to go with it:
The Artist. Who'd have thunk that watching a black-and-white silent set in 1920s Hollywood could feel like a new moviegoing experience? French writer-director Michel Hazanavicius did, and his tale of an old-time movie star struggling to make it as talkies take over is sweet, smart, sublime. (And Uggie, the Jack Russell terrier, almost steals the show.)
Beginners. Ewan McGregor is an L.A. art designer struggling to make peace with his dying, just-out-of-the-closet dad - a beautiful performance from Christopher Plummer. Mike Mills' autobiographical piece is also a romance that treads the same turf as the ballyhooed Like Crazy, exploring our need for - and our fear of - intimacy. (And Cosmo, the Jack Russell terrier, almost steals the show.)
The Descendants. Director Alexander Payne makes it look easy, giving us a funny, sad, complicated portrait of a Hawaiian lawyer trying to reconnect with his two troubled daughters as his wife, their mother, lies in a hospital bed on life support. George Clooney gets the best actor nod for this one.
Jane Eyre. The Kids Are All Right's Mia Wasikowska is haunting in the title role of Cary Fukunaga's new read of Charlotte Brontë's old book. Crushing stuff about a smart, independent-minded woman trapped by societal convention. Michael Fassbender is Rochester. Better to see him in this than as the soulless sex addict he plays in Shame.
Melancholia. Kirsten Dunst stars as a deeply depressed woman whose wedding festivities turn into a collision of familial conflict. Meanwhile, a new planet is heading straight for Earth, promising a collision of a more apocalyptic kind. Lars Von Trier is nuts, but so what?
Moneyball. "How can you not get romantic about baseball?" Brad Pitt asks in the smart, snappy Hollywood account of the Oakland A's Billy Beane and his rewrite of the front-office rule book. It's a sports pic, sure, but also a pic about thinking outside the box, about old school vs. new school, about how seriously good an actor this guy Pitt is.
Of Gods and Men. French Trappist monks in Algeria, beloved by many of the Muslims in their community, face a rising and menacing tide of Islamic fundamentalism and a crisis of faith in this sad, sobering, but inspirational tale, based on real-life events. To be seen on a double bill with Incendies, another French-language film about religious conflict and the terror and pain that ensues.
Take Shelter. Writer/director Jeff Nichols' haunting portrait of a Midwestern family man who is either losing his mind, or seeing visions of momentous disaster. Either way, Michael Shannon gives a performance that's impossible to forget, and Jessica Chastain's hurt and heartbreak as his wife is palpable.
The Tree of Life. Speaking of Chastain, she's the wife here, too (opposite Brad Pitt's brooding, clenched spouse), in Terrence Malick's across-the-universe meditation on birth and rebirth, the beauty and violence of the natural world. Malick is making movies like nobody else - poetic, barmy - and happily making them at a much faster clip than in the first three decades of his career.
The Trip. "Gentlemen, to bed! - for we rise at 9:30-ish!" Brit-comics Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon drive around the postcard-perfect scapes of England's Lake District, riffing on movies and movie stars (their dueling Michael Caine impressions are hysterical), and somehow milking poignant truths from their nutty comedy improvisations.
"Bests" of the rest
Best Philip K. Dick movie not written by Philip K. Dick: Never mind the Dick-like Adjustment Bureau and Source Code, it's Limitless, starring Philly's own Bradley Cooper, that best explores the head-tripping, space-time-continuum-bending, paranoiac themes of the late sci-fi visionary.
Best gay love story: J. Edgar, with Leonardo Di Caprio and Armie Hammer as the closeted FBI chieftain and his serial lunch date and second-in-command.
Best franchise reboot: The Muppets, thanks to Jason Segel and company.
Best over-the-top historical Chinese martial arts pic: Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame.
Best music documentary: Passione, John Turturro's salute to the singers and songsmiths of Naples.
Best French thriller: Point Blank.
Best Italian thriller: The Double Hour.
Best Israeli thriller remade by a Brit: The Debt.
Best French movie made by a Finn: Aki Kaurismäki's Le Havre.
Best European Community movie made by an Iranian: Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy.
Best Swedish movie made by a Yank: David Fincher's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
Best animated film: A tie between Jennifer Yuh's Kung Fu Panda 2 and Brad Bird's Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (a 'toon masquerading as a Tom Cruise vehicle).
Best local film: Lebanon, PA.
Best indie starring a Hollywood icon directed by his son: The Way, with a beautiful performance from Martin Sheen, and Emilio Estevez behind the camera.
Best girl-powered action pic: Hanna, with Saoirse Ronan as a 16-year-old assassin on a mission of revenge
Best 3-D documentary: Werner Herzog's Cave of the Forgotten Dreams.
Best use of motion-capture technology: Sure, Steven Spielberg's The Adventures of Tintin looks cool and trippy, but Andy Serkis conveys real emotion and thoughtfulness as the renegade simian who makes James Franco's life difficult in Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
Best final installment of a mega-franchise: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2.
Best penultimate installment of a mega-franchise: The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1.
The five worst movies of 2011 (in order of utter awfulness)
Trespass: With Nicolas Cage and Nicole Kidman!
Season of the Witch: With Nicolas Cage and Ron Perlman!
A Good Old Fashioned Orgy: Jason Sudeikis and his gang have group sex in the Hamptons.
The Son of No One: Al Pacino cashes a check, Channing Tatum flashes back to his traumatic inner-city youth, cliches run like rats through the grafittied stairwells of the "projects."
Machine Gun Preacher: Gerard Butler emotes muscularly, playing a drug-dealing biker dude-turned-mercenary and missionary in East Africa.
VIDEO: Steven Rea's rundown of the best movies of 2011: www.philly.com/