Going back over the years in decade increments, I see 1971 was a great year for movies: A Clockwork Orange; The French Connection; Dirty Harry. So was 1951 (A Streetcar Named Desire; The African Queen; Strangers on a Train). Even 1991 was no slouch year (The Silence of the Lambs; Beauty and the Beast; Terminator 2: Judgment Day).
The year 2011? Not so much.
This year ended with a lackluster showing at the holiday box office and that was appropriate for a lackluster year in which every single one of the top 10 box office winners were sequels and/or franchise movies, including Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II, Transformers: Dark of the Moon; Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part I; The Hangover Part II; Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides; Fast Five; Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Cars 2. (Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger may have been technically originals, but both films were made in anticipation of next year's über-franchise The Avengers.)
In a cultural climate like that, we could hardly expect to be rewarded with much in the way of original cinema.
But really good movies did break through, even among those franchise films. My picks for the best of the year:
Trust Martin Scorsese to reinvent the contemporary 3-D movie and fashion a loving, visually splendid paean to pioneering silent film. Scorsese has generally been more at home with gangsters than plucky Parisian orphans, but Hugo demonstrates that maybe he should reconsider his choices.
Controversial filmmaker Lars von Trier uses the tropes of an end-of-the-world thriller and delivers an existential manifesto: We are alone in the universe. Death is inevitable. There is no hope. But there is consolation in Kirsten Dunst's perversely lovely nude scene (bathing in the reflected light of a stray planetoid that threatens to wipe out our Earth) and this additional small comfort: when the going gets depressing, the depressives get going.
3. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
Just because a movie is the No. 1 box office champ of the year doesn't mean it's not great. This ripping conclusion sent off the Harry Potter series in style, as the young wizard Harry finally faces his ultimate reckoning with Ralph Fiennes' Lord Voldemort. This, incidentally, is a movie that proves great visual effects are lovely to see, but they don't mean a thing unless you're engaged by the human interaction in the foreground. If you don't believe that, try watching Green Lantern more than once.
Ripped from the lucrative Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, director Gore Verbinski is given licence to let his considerable imagination loose in a feature-length cartoon, and he duly stampedes across genre lines with a movie that invokes theatre of the absurd, spaghetti westerns, Chinatown, Apocalypse Now, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and the comparatively obscure 1968 Don Knotts yukfest The Shakiest Gun in the West. Yet it's still a more cohesive and pleasing movie than any and all of the Pirates movies and, incidentally, the best animated film of the year.
5. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
This is a bit of a cheat. This adaptation of John le Carré's spy novel is not due in Winnipeg until Jan. 20 but it's currently playing in some of the bigger metropolises for awards consideration. Gary Oldman is Smiley, a put-to-pasture spymaster suddenly responsible for uncovering a Russian mole buried deep in the cagey community of British intelligence. Populated with the cream of the English acting community (including Colin Firth and Tom Hardy) and directed by Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In), it's understated, intricate and gloomy as a month of rainy days. I loved it.
6. Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows
Guy Ritchie offended many with his manic interpretation of the dignified Baker Street sleuth, but I say Ritchie's muscular style and his tendency to visually deconstruct every action nicely jibes with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's exacting prose. Plus: Robert Downey Jr. playing Holmes as a sexually confused, antisocial genius demonstrates the unfettered joy of acting.
7. Young Adult
Romantic comedies have been at the low ebb of the genre in the past few years, which is why this venomous anti-romantic comedy/character study from director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody makes the list. Charlize Theron is the emotionally immature heroine who sets out to win back her old high school sweetheart and fails ignominiously. Along the way, she meets up with a true soulmate (Patton Oswalt), who, like her, has never really gotten over his high school years. But the fact he's chubby and crippled and homely doesn't forebode well for any relationship longevity, at least not in the real world.
8. Winnie the Pooh
They don't really make movies for small kids anymore, but Disney's Winnie the Pooh offered up material for parents of young children who would prefer their kids simply be entertained (as opposed to having their little socks knocked off by rip-roaring spectacle) with its line-drawing characters and pastoral watercolor backgrounds. If the esthetic of computer-generated animation is plastic, Winnie the Pooh has the texture of a lovingly used plush teddy.
9. Margin Call
It used to be that direct-to-DVD was the ultimate put-down for a feature film. Now, worthy features are often released almost simultaneously on DVD and pay-per-view, including this under-the-radar drama speculating on what kind of boardroom shenanigans preceded the financial meltdown of 2008. Turns out there was a whole lot of rationalization going on among people who ultimately chose to act like criminals to preserve their own fortunes. Bonus points: How refreshing to see Kevin Spacey and Stanley Tucci on a movie screen not feeling compelled to chew any scenery.
Q. What do you call a cancer movie that injects stoner levity into a premise that is typically handled as straight-up, hand-wringing drama? A. Brian's Bong. Or maybe 50/50, starring Joseph Gordon Levitt as the cancer sufferer with the titular odds of survival and Seth Rogen as his best friend, a guy not above using the plight to get his friend some sympathy sex. Call this the cinematic equivalent of medical marijuana.
The Top 10 list is for feature films, but the best local film of the year happened to be an animated short: Anita Lebeau's Big Drive, a nostalgic but fanciful riff on one family's car trip through the Prairies, circa 1971.