Carnage. Melancholia. Shame. In 2011 these films shared a marquee. Their titles are one way of summing up the year in movies.
Another way: In 2011, there were two movies about movies (The Artist, Hugo), two about parallel earths (Another Earth, Melancholia), two about World War I (Hugo, War Horse), two about dating in the age of hookups (Friends With Benefits and Crazy, Stupid, Love), two starring hand puppets (Being Elmo, The Muppet Movie), and two about New York in the aftermath of 9/11 (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Margaret).
There were three that prominently featured terriers (Beginners, The Artist, The Adventures of Tintin) and three with Ryan Gosling (Drive, The Ides of March, and Crazy, Stupid, Love).
There were four starring Michael Fassbender (A Dangerous Method, Jane Eyre, Shame, and X-Men: First Class), and just as many with Jessica Chastain (The Debt, The Help, Take Shelter, and The Tree of Life).
There were more than I can count about fathers and sons (including A Better Life, Beginners, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Hugo, The Tree of Life, War Horse, and We Bought a Zoo).
And yet a third way: 33 percent of the speaking roles in Hollywood films went to women (shameful, and barely an uptick from 1991, when it was 29 percent) and among the two most-talked-about (and successful) films of the year were Bridesmaids and The Help, both closing in on $170 mil at the domestic box office.
In most years, compiling a Ten Best list is like comparing apples with oranges. This year, it is like comparing apples to oranges to pomegranates. Much as I was struck by those pomegranates Drive, Margaret, Shame, The Skin I Live In, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and Crazy, Stupid, Love, they did not make the final ten. These movies did:
Beginners. This captivating story of a grumpy young man and his frisky father stars Ewan McGregor as the emo son, and Christopher Plummer as his buoyant dad, owner of a most philosophical Jack Russell terrier. In Mike Mills' semiautobiographical story, they must untangle roots in order to grow.
Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey. To ask a question posed by another 2011 movie, Is Kevin Clash a man or a Muppet? Clash did not create the beloved Sesame Street puppet Elmo. But Constance Marks' enchanting documentary chronicles how the soft-spoken man of 52 gave Elmo his spirit, vivacity, and affectionate voice. Like Elmo, he hugs the world with red furry arms.
A Better Life. In Chris Weitz's sensitive portrait of an undocumented worker, watchful Demián Bichir plays a day laborer in Los Angeles. In his work as a gardener he successfully transplants shrubs to unfamiliar soil and they flourish. As a single father and man, ever wary of being caught by the immigration authorities, he experiences challenges in adapting to his new culture.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams. As our guide to the Chauvet Cave in France, site of an astonishing gallery of cave paintings believed to be 32,000 years old, Werner Herzog meditates on the origins of man, of art, and of movies in his mind-bending, time-bending documentary.
The Descendants. George Clooney strikes unfamiliar, and resonant, notes in Alexander Payne's tale of a distant father reestablishing a relationship with his daughters and settling issues of his family estate while his wife lies in a coma.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Inspired by Jonathan Safran Foer's novel, Stephen Daldry tells the lyrical story of a boy who lost his father on 9/11 and how he and other New Yorkers rebuilt their lives.
The Hedgehog. Mona Acache's imaginative adaptation of Muriel Barbery's French best-selling novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog is the upstairs/downstairs tale of a prickly concierge in a Paris apartment building who entrances two tenants, a 12-year-old child of privilege and a cultured Japanese emigre.
The Help. Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer shine in this Civil Rights-era story of black domestics who raise white babies, and white consciousness when they agree to tell their stories to an idealistic reporter.
Higher Ground. Actress Vera Farmiga makes a stunning directorial debut in this story of a lost soul who finds faith in a born-again sect but aches for a tangible connection with the divine.
Of Gods and Men. The difference between faith and fundamentalism is the subject of Xavier Beauvois' austerely handsome story of Trappist monks who live peacefully among their Muslim neighbors in Algeria until they are threatened by Islamist forces.
And, finally, adios to Jane Russell, queen of full-figured gals; Elizabeth Taylor, queen of everything else; Sidney Lumet, godfather of New York movies; Steve Jobs, godfather of Pixar; Laura Ziskin, godmother of Spider-Man; and producer Polly Platt, unsung muse to Wes Anderson, Peter Bogdanovich, and James L. Brooks.