2011’s Best Movies: ‘The Descendants,’ ‘Hugo’ and ‘Rango’ Shine

Time to join the chorus of year-end commentators. Turns out that 2011 wasn’t a bad year for movies. Even one of the year’s most hyped movies – “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II” – acquitted itself well.

Aside from keeping a ton of British actors off the unemployment line, the “Harry Potter” movies proved more consistently involving and creative than anyone initially might have expected. Hard core fans of J.K. Rowling’s phenomenally successful books had their quibbles, but the overall accomplishment of the actors, writers and directors who worked on the “Harry Potter” movies is undeniable.

Among the special pleasures of the year, at least one flew under the radar – way under.

Consider screenwriter Jonathan Hensleigh’s “Kill the Irishman,” the story of the rise and fall of Cleveland hoodlum Danny Greene. Ray Stevenson gave a fine performance as Greene, and the always-enjoyable Christopher Walken had an equally nice turn as Jewish racketeer Shondor Birns.

At the time of the movie’s release, I wrote that “Kill the Irishman” broke no new ground, but did a hell of a job turning over old soil. If you’re partial to gangster movies, you should make it your business to find this one on DVD. And, yes, Hensleigh’s the guy who wrote “Armageddon” and “Jumanji.” Go figure.

Sometimes, a movie arrives with buzz acquired at the Sundance Film Festival. That was the case with “Another Earth,” a drama in which director Mike Cahill used a sci-fi backdrop (a second Earth hovered mysteriously over this one) to explore the guilt-ridden life of a young woman (Brit Marling) whose careless driving resulted in the death of a mother and child.

I approached “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” expecting nothing, and found something I’d been missing: a genuine helping of pulp excitement. Who’d have believed anyone could breathe new life into the “Planet of the Apes” series? Director Rupert Wyatt did.

Great performances abounded in 2011, and not all of them are likely to show up on Oscar’s short list. Brendan Gleeson was gloriously profane, unashamedly rude and strangely endearing as an unorthodox Irish cop in “The Guard.”

And then there’s John C. Reilly. What a year for an actor who doesn’t always get his due. In “Cedar Rapids,” Reilly played the raucous Dean Ziegler, an insurance agent who insisted on upholding the cause of ribald fun at a gathering of Christian-oriented insurance agents. In “Terri,” a small but touching movie about an overweight teen-ager, Reilly was the wonderfully inappropriate Mr. Fitzgerald, an assistant principal unlike any other we’ve seen.

Reilly also appears in “We Need to Talk About Kevin and “Carnage, ” neither of which has yet to open nationally

And the year shouldn’t fade into the mists of memory without recalling Kevin Spacey’s fine work in “Margin Call.” We’re not talking about the flippant Spacey of movies such as “Horrible Bosses” and “Casino Jack.” In “Margin Call,” Spacey carries the burden of a collapsing financial institution on his shoulders, and gives one of the best performances of his career.

And while we’re on the subject of “Margin Call,” it should be acknowledged as one of the best-acted movies of the year — not only by Spacey, but also by Jeremy Irons, Stanley Tucci, Demi Moore, Simon Baker and Paul Bettany.

When “Alfred Nobbs” starts playing around the country, watch for the robust performance of Janet McTeer in a role that’s best discovered in a theater.

I would, of course, be remiss if I didn’t mention a couple of special foreign-language films: Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki’s “Le Havre” takes a look at people behaving decently – no I’m not kidding — toward an “illegal” immigrant.

And for those who like 10-best lists: Here’s mine. If you don’t agree with my choices, an immediate remedy is available. Make your own list, and publish it as a comment.

1. “The Tree of Life.” As a stern father, Brad Pitt never has been better. Director Terrence Malick took a highly personal look at what it was like to grow up in Texas during the 1950s. “Tree of Life” may not have been totally successful in mixing the intimate and cosmic, but making a personal movie on this scale requires daring, skill and an artist’s view of the world. Malik has all three. 2. “Hugo.” In “Hugo, ” an adaptation of a story by Brian Selznick, director Martin Scorsese found a vehicle that allowed him to expand his repertoire. “Hugo” is both a boy’s adventure and an unashamed ode to the delight movies provided in their infancy. And, yes, it also boasts the best 3-D ever. 3. “The Artist.” Director Michel Hazanavicius tells the story of a silent movie star (Jean Dujardin) whose career hits the skids when sound arrives. That may sound familiar, but Hazanavicius’ silent movie — shot in sumptuous black-and-white — stands as an involving and entertaining delight. 4. “A Separation.” If you don’t think Iranian movies have matured beyond the days of beautiful images and simple stories about kids, you haven’t seen “A Separation,” one of the most emotionally complex movies of the year. Director Asghar Farhadi tells the story of a husband and wife who separate and are then caught up in a legal battle involving the woman who takes care of the husband’s aging father. 5. “Martha Marcy May Marlene.” Elizabeth Olsen’s terrific as a young woman who escapes a cult. “Martha Marcy” builds more tension than most big-budget movies. Credit director Sean Durkin with an amazing debut that keeps us involved by never quite allowing us to find our balance. 6. “Rango.” I’ve long argued that Gore Verbinski (of “Pirates of the Caribbean” fame) is one of the few directors working today who really understands how to use images to comic effect. This time, Verbinski does wonderfully creative work in the desert, where he stages a clever animated western that stands as one of the year’s most imaginative movies. 7. “We Need to Talk About Kevin.” Director Lynne Ramsey’s spare and horrifying adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s 2003 novel – ostensibly about a killing rampage at a high school — is really a stark exploration of the dark side of motherhood. “Kevin” won’t (and shouldn’t) be everyone’s cup of tea. But for those who like filmmakers who push things to disturbing extremes, Ramsey’s movie is a keeper. It also features outstanding work by Tilda Swinton. 8. “Into the Abyss.” I was deeply affected by this Werner Herzog documentary. “Into the Abyss” looks at Texas lives shattered by senseless murders. The movie also stands as a clear-eyed examination of capital punishment, particularly what it does to those charged with carrying out death sentences. 9. “The Descendants.” Director Alexander Payne’s look at a Hawaiian lawyer (George Clooney) who’s trying to cope with terrible loss is both touching and funny. Although it’s a few clicks short of a knockout, Payne’s movie stands as one of the best and most meaningful mainstream entertainments of the year. 10. “Moneyball.” Director Bennett Miller (“Capote”) brings engaging authenticity to the story of Billy Bean (Brad Pitt), the Oakland Athletics’ general manager who tried to build a winner by employing a system created by a nerdy statistician (Jonah Hill). “Moneyball” is smartly written fun, a baseball movie that dares to wonder whether it’s right to romanticize the sport.

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