Our film guy lists his top 2011 picks

Phoenix Film Critics Society, of which I am a proud founding member, announced its 2011 Award winners shortly before New Year’s Day. Among those selected were The Artist for Best Picture; its director Michel Hazanavicius as Best Director; its star Jean Dujardin as Best Actress; and its sultry costar Berenice Bejo as Best Supporting Actress.

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Other winners included Elizabeth Olsen for Best Actress in Martha Marcy May Marlene, the great Albert Brooks for Supporting Actor in Drive, and Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In for Foreign Language Feature.

As in the past, some of these reflect my voting, others don’t, but there are plenty of films worth checking out among the winners. From the still-distant vantage of January, it strikes me that PFCS may have chosen the same film as the Oscars for Best Picture.

For the multitudes trembling in anticipation, here are my Top Ten movies for 2011:

1. The Tree of Life: Terrence Malick’s film isn’t ambitious or anything; it just takes on the Creation of the Universe and the Meaning of Existence. Also, it contains Brad Pitt’s best performance, beautiful music by Alexander Desplat, and a plesiosaurus.

2. The Skin I Live In: Pedro Almodovar’s entry in the venerable European “mad skin doctor” genre is convincing, ingeniously structured and potent. Antonio Banderas and Elena Anaya are superb as the doctor and his patient/victim, respectively.

3. Moneyball: Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill play statistical weird science on the Oakland A’s to make them win without marquee players. Sly, restrained direction by Bennett Miller and another gem of a performance by Pitt combine to make this inside-baseball tale fascinating and improbably touching.

4. The Artist: This black-and-white, mostly silent romantic comedy somehow manages to be a movie of substance rather than a stunt. Jean Dujardin is sensational as the title character, a cheery, ultra-debonair Hollywood leading man whose career hits the wall when the talkies arrive; the beguiling Berenice Bejo is the spirited up-and-coming star who adores him from afar and would salvage his career if only he wasn’t so proud. The film is studded with charming supporting performances, but the hero’s little dog steals scenes like they were Snausages.

5. Meek’s Cutoff: Kelly Reichardt’s subtextually political Western, loosely based on historical events, is about a bunch of lost covered-wagon settlers looking for a drink of water in the eastern-Oregon desert. It’s an ordeal, but a dramatically valid one, and it maddeningly offers no answers. Michelle Williams is quietly excellent as a clear-headed frontier wife, and Bruce Greenwood gives the performance of his career as the reactionary guide Meek.

6. Martha Marcy May Marlene: Elizabeth Olsen is spectacular in the title role, a young woman who flees a rural New York cult, and John Hawkes is chilling as the cult leader. Sean Durkin’s simple, low-key direction generates moody atmosphere and a subtle, fretful suspense.

7. Attack the Block: Teenage South London street punks jump on their bikes and save the world from aliens on Bonfire Night. Joe Cornish wrote and directed this funny yet tense sci-fi tale, with a fine ensemble cast and spooky, amusingly simple invaders.

8. Rise of the Planet of the Apes: More top-notch sci-fi, this is the best iteration of the Apes franchise since the 1968 original, cleverly dramatizing how the Ape-pocalypse begins. Behind the CGI, Andy Serkis provides the superb facial expressions of the chimpanzee revolutionary Caesar.

9. Texas Killing Fields: This police procedural from director Ami Canaan Mann , about the murder of young women in a small, grungy Texas town, is a grim and difficult work, but it has an intense, enveloping atmosphere of tragedy.

10. The Adventures of Tintin: Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of the Belgian comic books is pure fun, and dazzlingly skillful cinema. As with The Artist, however, Spielberg lets the dog steal the show.

Also worth checking out: Contagion, Women on the 6th Floor, Hop, My Week With Marilyn, We Bought a Zoo, Footprints, Rio, The Smurfs, J. Edgar, Arthur Christmas, Happy Feet Two, Thor, Rubber, Super8, Trollhunter, Margin Call, Winnie the Pooh, Rango, Henry’s Crime and The Muppets (and the excellent Toy Story short before The Muppets).

A couple of major stinkeroos: Zookeeper, The Green Hornet, Creature and Atlas Shrugged, Part One.



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