The year 2011 went almost as badly for moviegoers as it did for Barack Obama. Nevertheless, a few titles sparkled and some of them are already on DVD. So consider this list of the top ten must-see films of the year:
War Horse: Remember Steven Spielberg’s Munich? Neither does he, apparently. With this return to David Lean-style sweep, Spielberg veers away from his failed attempts to make political statement films and proves that when he’s doing what he does best, no one else alive can match him. This wonderfully heartfelt and entirely irony-free story follows “Joey,” a stallion who gets separated from his young owner in England because of World War I. As we experience the horrors of the war through the horse’s eyes, Spielberg plays on the heartstrings like a virtuoso. (Some scenes may be a little intense for younger kids, but there is no explicit violence.)
Captain America: Marvel’s Thor was a disappointment but the studio that gave us Iron Man is back on track with this patriotic superhero story set in World War II. A scrawny little guy from Brooklyn (endearingly well played by Chris Evans) gets a chance to be the guinea pig in a scientific experiment that turns him into a super soldier. Contrary to Hollywood expectations (lefty execs thought having America in the title would be a problem), the movie was even a hit in Europe.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: A cool, dense, cerebral thriller set in dismal 1970s London, this adaptation of the John le Carré spy classic stars a superbly self-controlled Gary Oldman as retired spy George Smiley. Smiley is re-hired to figure out which member of the upper echelon of Britain’s intelligence service is actually working for the Russians in a sobering and skillfully designed puzzle that reflects on the Cambridge Spies. A top-notch supporting cast includes John Hurt, Tom Hardy, Colin Firth and Mark Strong.
The Artist. Believe it or not: A silent film is one of the year’s freshest, most original efforts. This throwback movie starring little-known French actor Jean Dujardin is about a hambone silent movie star discombobulated by the advent of talkies. Thanks to his noble retainer (a dryly funny James Cromwell) and his trusty Jack Russell terrier, though, he gradually finds his way back to the limelight. This delightful comedy is likely to get a bunch of Oscar nominations.
Crazy, Stupid, Love: Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling make one of the year’s most surprisingly effective comedy duos in this complicated romantic comedy for mature audiences. Carell plays a sad-sack office drone who, after being dumped by his wife (Julianne Moore), gets his groove back with the help of a local lothario (Ryan Gosling) who turns out not to be as shallow as he looks. Raunchy and hilarious moments mingle with more lyrical scenes in an expert mix.
Drive: Gosling gives another excellent performance (as he did in The Ides of March), this time as a coolly brutal getaway driver whose lone-wolf lifestyle is imperiled by his relationship with a young mom (Carey Mulligan) whose husband is in prison. Albert Brooks’ turn as a loan shark is excellent, and the movie’s striking visual style marks its young director Nicolas Winding Refn as a young talent to watch.
Midnight in Paris: Woody Allen fans haven’t had much to work with except Match Point in recent years, but this summer he had the sleeper hit of the year with this tongue-in-cheek nostalgia piece about a young novelist (Owen Wilson) who, on a trip to today’s France, steps through a wrinkle in time and finds himself cavorting with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso. Reminiscent of Purple Rose of Cairo in its gentle humor, the movie charmed audiences looking for an antidote to tired blockbuster formulas.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams: A wondrous documentary shot in 3D, this exploration of the oldest art created by humans — the paintings inside the Chauvet caves in southern France — turns into a mystical inquiry about mankind’s relationship with his past and his highest aspirations.
Win Win: One of the movies’ leading underdog actors, Paul Giamatti, plays a small-town lawyer and high-school wrestling coach who winds up virtually adopting the teenage son of a doddering client. The kid, off-putting as he seems at first, turns out to be a star wrestler who helps his new coach get his family and his life back on track in a film that carries a resonant message about the importance of doing what’s morally right.
We Bought a Zoo: Cameron Crowe, who wrote Fast Times at Ridgemont High and wrote and directed Almost Famous, has always been in touch with his youthful side, but this time he goes all in with a film based on a true story that is aimed at children and their parents. Matt Damon plays a widower (watch for a very funny Thomas Haden Church as his brother) who, while caring for his two kids, gets the strange idea of buying a disused zoo in California and reopening it to the public. Working with the animals and a pretty zookeeper (Scarlett Johansson), he gets his family in sync again. A good-natured holiday treat.