This year at the movies, who knew?
Who knew Martin Scorsese could pull off a French period piece for kids (Hugo)? Who knew Roland Emmerich could try his hand at something Shakespearean (Anonymous) and not make a fool of himself?
Who knew Woody Allen had another funny movie in him (Midnight in Paris)? Who suspected Pedro Almodóvar didn't (The Skin I Live In)?
We had a winter and spring marked by epic fails (Red Riding Hood, Sucker Punch, Beastly), a summer of surprisingly pleasant comic-book fare (Thor, Captain America), and a fall full of entertaining genre pieces (Fright Night, Drive, Warrior) that nobody saw. And we're into an awards season of "Yeah, is that it?" titles.
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So, no, 2011 wasn't the best year for film. So many documentaries, not one of them a dazzler. So much chatter about a Tree of Life that wilted long before the leaves fell this fall.
But in a year full of filmic surprises, there were movies that stuck with us, that have resonance for our times and staying power in our memory. And yes, they come from surprising quarters.
The year's best
■ Everything Must Go. Will Ferrell brought his usual bag of tricks, and a load of bitter pathos, to this simple story of a guy who loses his job, his wife, his home and any shot at sobriety in the same day. It's an amazing high-wire walk for Ferrell and a terrific film, neither of which got their due because of the "Oh, it's Will Ferrell" attitude from critics and audiences.
■ Take Shelter. The great ones keep you guessing, and Lexington's Michael Shannon, perhaps the finest character actor to come along since Michael Caine, does that in spades with this religious allegory about a faithless man whose hallucinations convince him there's a reckoning on its way, and he'd better get that storm shelter ready. A truly haunting film.
■ Hanna. Whiplash-fast action, stunning long-take combat scenes and a riveting set of performances inform this teen-raised-to-be-an-assassin thriller, one of the best action films in ages. Saoirse Ronan dazzles, Eric Bana finally has a hit worthy of his screen presence, and that darned Cate Blanchett gives us nightmares as the boss you wish you hadn't crossed.
■ Midnight in Paris. It's not up there with Woody Allen's holy trinity of great comedies, but this period-piece fantasy is funnier and wittier than any three other romantic comedies to come down the pike in 2011. That Allen was able to turn Owen Wilson into a credible well-read leading man, at home in the company of Hemingway, Dali and Gertrude Stein, might be the greatest feat of his career.
■ The Ides of March. The better of the two good George Clooney movies of the fall, this political thriller has plenty of twists and turns, the least-fussy Ryan Gosling performance ever, and edge. The Descendants is the one getting all the awards buzz, but Ides is the less predictable tale, one without the plot-device teenage boy idiot savant.
■ The Help. The online Oscar pundits are worked into quite a lather over this, but if there aren't Oscar nominations for Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, and either Jessica Chastain or Bryce Dallas Howard, Hollywood will have missed the boat.
■ Puss in Boots. In a year of cynical animation and cynical sequels (Kung Fu Panda 2, Cars 2, Happy Feet 2), the Antonio Banderas-Salma Hayek-voiced Puss transcended cynicism (it's a spin-off of Shrek) and delivered a bootload of laughs.
■ Soul Surfer. An understated, uplifting and beautifully acted faith-based film built on a horrific moment of violence (the shark that bit off young surfer Bethany Hamilton's arm), this sleeper hit from the spring attracted superb actors (Helen Hunt, Anna Sophia Robb, Dennis Quaid) for a reason.
■ Insidious. First and foremost, a horror movie has to scare you, get those hairs on the back of your neck standing at attention. This ghost story is a serious return to form for the guys who launched the Saw franchise, a genre-transcending fright that drew A-listers Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne brilliantly playing parents whose comatose kid is being possessed by something in their new home.
■ Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. It's not Joy Luck Club, although that's what they were aiming for.
■ Sucker Punch. A violent comic-bookish PG-13 fantasy set in an asylum whose inmates imagine themselves as hooker- heroines in a dreamscape brothel, this might be the worst idea for a movie anybody ever had.
■ The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 1. This is the first Twilight movie whose director treated the whole overheated heavy-breathing fest as a joke. Bill Condon was laughing at you, Twi-hards.
■ Jack and Jill. Adam Sandler dons a dress, does an overweight yenta shtick and manages to be offensive without being the least bit funny.
■ The Undefeated. It took an awful lot of creative editing to make Sarah Palin look like a media victim and a smart, credible crusader for the common man and woman. Atlas Shrugged was just as bad, but at least it wasn't a lie.