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A critic's picks; Jeff Simon shares his Top 10 Films of 2011 and gives his thoughts on actors, superheroes and overrated movies

No dilly-dallying this time of year. Everyone's too busy. The Top 10 Films of 2011 in alphabetical order:

*"The Artist": A silent black and white film about the transition from silents to talkies. But really it's a one-film anthology of other films -- especially "Singin' in the Rain" and "A Star is Born." (Bernard Herrman's music for Hitchcock's "Vertigo" provides its most touching final moments. His music is probably the movie's greatest "star.") It's also an anthology of everything people first loved about movies. To open locally in January.

*"The Descendants": Alexander Payne's comedy/drama gave us a George Clooney we'd never quite seen before in a movie setting that was just as fresh -- a gentle, vulnerable Hawaiian aristocrat with two young daughters who need his love and strength more than ever and a comatose, unfaithful wife who lies dying in a hospital bed.

*"The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo": The first Swedish adaptation of the late Stieg Larsson's globe-conquering novel was probably better, but there is so much to enthrall in this one by David Fincher that it's a tribute to what American movies still do very well indeed.

*"Hugo": Martin Scorsese's most personal film since "Mean Streets" which was the first Scorsese film to capture moviegoers' imaginations. It's a 3-D family film about a little boy who lives in a Paris train station and happens to befriend George Melies, the movie pioneer fantasist. It's a great filmmaker's story of the movie past that embodies his faith in the movie future. It's a moviemaker's tribute to movie love.

*"The Ides of March": George Clooney in the roles we've come to look forward to since "Good Night and Good Luck" -- as director and star of an elegant, supremely articulate film about media and politics. In this case, Ryan Gosling is the movie's center, as a media wunderkind who gets a lesson in political reality he never wanted.

*"Jane Eyre": Cary Fukunaga's version of the oft-filmed Bronte classic is the greatest of all those ever filmed. It starred the remarkable Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender. You'll see a very different Fassbender after the first of the year in Steve McQueen's almost-clinical case history of a sex addict, "Shame."

*"Margin Call": The most powerful accident of cinematic history since "The China Syndrome" came out at almost the exact same time that the near-cataclysm of Three Mile Island occurred and the word "meltdown" became part of the English language. In this case, a brilliantly written and acted tale of Wall Street corruption, by chance, hit theaters at almost the exact same time that a protest movement hit Wall Street -- and other streets -- to protest the 1 percent of America's super rich and their devastation of the American middle class.

*"Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy": An exceptional adaptation of what is usually considered John LeCarre's best novel about the cold, gray world of scheming and betrayal that marked espionage in the Cold War. The revelation conveyed by Gary Oldman and an all-star British cast (John Hurt, Colin Firth) is how relevant it remains in a world with different enemies. Coming in January.

*"The Tree of Life": One of the two most audacious major films of the year (the other was Lars Van Trier's "Melancholia"). Terrence Malick's semi-autobiographical masterpiece isn't a conventional narrative at all, but rather an epic cinematic poem about nature vs. grace in the life of the universe and of a struggling family in Texas. Brad Pitt's performance is his finest on film by far.

*"War Horse": Probably the film to beat for the Best Picture Oscar and one of two tremendous end-of-year films from Steven Spielberg. (The other is his performance-capture, CGI-filled visual dazzlement "The Adventures of Tintin.") It's based on a children's book that became a hit play, but in its old-fashioned movie way, it's probably the definitive Boy and His Horse movie -- an immensely moving episodic epic about an Irish boy separated from the horse he loves and how they both fare throughout World War I. If your face isn't tear-sloshed at the end, you may need medical attention.


Do you detect a theme in the above? Well, you should. Movie love gave 2011 movies their greatest continuing subject. And the former Movie Brat Generation (Scorsese, Spielberg) teamed up with a French newcomer to prove that those who know movies best still make some of the best films -- especially the ones with the greatest faith in the movie future.

*More of the best -- and worst

Close but no cigar (good, even great, but not quite the year's best): "The Adventures of Tintin," "Melancholia," "Bridesmaids," "Of Gods and Men," "Hanna," "Everything Must Go," "Moneyball," "The Beaver" (yes, "The Beaver," Mel Gibson and all), "Barney's Version," "Another Earth," "The Trip," "The Guard" and "Take Shelter."

Female performances of the year: As the world awaits the famous Super Tanker, the S.S. Meryl Streep, to pull into harbor and lead the pack for yet another Oscar for "The Iron Lady" (with Oscar excursion Captain Harvey Weinstein already engineering a "60 Minutes" Streep profile and a Newsweek cover), two less gaudy performances completely haunt me: the always-heartbreaking Michelle Williams doing her best work in "My Week With Marilyn" and the magnificent Viola Davis, finally recognized for her role in the "The Help" but equally shattering before in the Streep movie "Doubt."

Still to come is Glenn Close in "Albert Nobbs."

*Movie ensemble of the year: "The Help," a movie that also benefited from dealing, at long last, with a great American subject -- the black women who so often forsake their own domestic lives to raise privileged white children. Whoopi Goldberg tried to deal with it with some impact before in "The Long Walk Home" and "Clara's Heart," but with only a fraction of the power and authority of "The Help." The ensemble in "Margin Call" was a close second.

*Male performances of the year: Expect the Oscar to come down to Clooney for "The Descendants" vs. Leonardo DiCaprio who, somewhat incredibly, was as convincing as J. Edgar Hoover in "J. Edgar" as Williams was in her unlikely triumph as Marilyn Monroe. Actors can and do sometimes work wonders. Christopher Plummer had his best year at the movies in his entire career notably for "Beginners" and "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo."

*Continued joy at the movies: From all the newest in our Golden Age of Animation -- "Rango," "Happy Feet Two," "Puss in Boots."

*Comic book superhero movie of the year: "Captain America."

*Comic book superhero non-movie of the year: "Thor."

*Movie debut of the year: Elizabeth Olsen in the supremely creepy "Martha Marcy May Marlene." Or, if you want to go another way entirely, Kristin Wiig as the writer/star/power behind "Bridesmaids," the hilarious, smash-hit female raunch movie bound to have a lot of 2012 offspring.

*Movie non-debut of the year: Julianne Hough, the dancer from "Dancing With the Stars," should have been the whole reason for remaking "Footloose." Instead, the movie was pointlessly faithful to the original, leaving Hough a mere supporting player in what should have been her big star vehicle.

*Best movie to come from a terrible idea: "Anonymous" made a pretty artful and well-acted fantasy out of the tired and wretched old fantasies about Shakespeare not really being the author of Shakespeare.

*Overrated movies of the year: "Drive," "5 0/5 0" and, especially, Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris," which became one of his most successful movies at the box office by being a beautiful travelogue of both Paris and the artistic world of the 1920s. Other than Paris, the best thing about it was Owen Wilson as a surprisingly good and earnestly Midwestern stand-in for the nattering New York Jewish neuroses of Allen himself. He needs to make more films with Allen.

*Cinematic disappointment of the year: "Henry's Crime," starring Keanu Reeves, filmed in Buffalo and, except for James Caan and Vera Farmiga, close to unwatchable.

*Worst major film of the year: "Answers to Nothing" was bad enough for consideration but not really big enough. "The Green Hornet" was big enough but, bad as it was, not quite bad enough. "Cowboys and Aliens" was more like it -- big and awful in equal measure. So were "Sucker Punch" and "Immortals" no matter what their box office receipts said. But for dumbfounding waste of major talent, nothing could beat Steve Martin, Jack Black, Owen Wilson, Rashida Jones, Anjelica Huston and Brian Dennehy in the birdwatching comedy "The Big Year," a movie that, no doubt, looked good on paper to some people but was one long, painfully twerpy tweet on film.

Jack Black? Steve Martin? Huh?


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