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Wizards, transformers and vampires did their best, but they couldn't transform 2011 into a magical year for Hollywood: Despite all the 3-D and IMAX screenings and the premium prices that come with them, industry box office sagged by half a billion dollars compared with last year. But quality? That's another story.
The most celebrated movies of 2010 were talkfests — The Social Network, The King's Speech, everybody yammering away. In 2011, some of the movies that most deserve to be celebrated barely talked at all. In fact the year's single happiest surprise, The Artist, is a silent black-and-white comedy — the ideal way to deal with 1920s Hollywood, when silent film was giving way to talkies. There's a big film star on his way out, a pretty dancer on her way up, and enough cleverness about movie form to convince even determined skeptics that film silence can still be golden.
The Artist is having fun being nonverbal, but one pair of art-house films this year makes a more serious case for largely visual storytelling. Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life makes a point of dealing with abstractions abstractly — conjuring up everything from clouds of DDT to clouds of galaxies at the dawn of creation — while another gorgeously abstract epic, Melancholia, conjures not creation but destruction: the end of things. Two sisters contemplate a universe without humanity as the Earth and another planet swirl in a tragic, slow-motion dance of death.
If those three pictures tell their stories largely with images, some of the year's standouts stand out in their use of dialogue. You're not going to get a movie from Woody Allen that doesn't have everyone chattering away, for instance — and in Midnight in Paris, the fun is all about who's chattering. A writer walks into a Paris bar in the year 2011 and meets Scott and Zelda — the Scott and Zelda. (Also Stein, Hemingway, Dali, and Man Ray, among eventual others.)
Also both talky and uproarious is The Trip, which is just what the title describes: Two actors on a road trip, annoying each other in various ways — but most hilariously with dueling impressions. (Their Michael Caines went viral, and wait'll you hear their Sean Connerys.)
Having just as much fun with movie references is a terrific animated Western about an out-of-his-element chameleon named Rango; voiced by Johnny Depp, he's a terrarium-raised tenderfoot who pins on a sheriff's badge, saves the town of Dirt, and even cozies up to a lady lizard. Kids will miss the slyest of the film's innuendoes, and probably the references to Chinatown and Apocalypse Now as well, but those things make Rango a real treat for the older set.
That's six of the year's best. The next two are foreign films set in the Middle East. There's Incendies -- the title in French means "scorched," as in "incendiary" — a good description of a world where Christians and Muslims slaughter each other in an endless cycle of revenge for past murders.
If Incendies is a family saga with the power of classical tragedy, the Iranian drama A Separation is more quietly devastating — a tale of moral and religious quandaries that complicate matters for a wife who wants to leave Iran to give her daughter a better life, and a husband who won't go because he's caring for his father, who has Alzheimer's.
You'll note that in the year of 3-D, I've not mentioned anything involving glasses yet. 3-D has mostly surfaced as a gimmick to jack up prices on thousands of screens — but a pair of documentaries this year found artful directors using the technology to illuminate art. When Werner Herzog plunges into France's Chauvet caverns in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, you feel you could reach out and touch the 35,000-year-old paintings. It's a tactile tour that brings prehistoric mastodon hunts alive.
Director Wim Wenders, meanwhile uses 3-D to take audiences into the middle of a modern master's choreography in the dance documentary Pina. Because the film can give you a sense that dancers are all around you, there's an intensity to the work — it's by the iconic German choreographer Pina Bausch — that may even surpass watching it onstage.
That's 10, but I've got a few more favorites, so let's keep going. Gender lines got blurred to spectacular effect in Pedro Almodovar's The Skin I Live In, and to farcical effect in the anything-guys-can-do-gals-can-do-rowdier comedy Bridesmaids. There's also director Martin Scorsese showing his lighter side in Hugo, a playful 3-D kid flick that celebrates Georges Melies and the dawn of cinema, while David Cronenberg represses his darker side in A Dangerous Method, a period drama celebrating Freud and Jung and the dawn of psychoanalysis.
Yet another range of family dynamics is intriguingly examined in Alexander Payne's George Clooney-in-mourning comedy The Descendants and in the indie dramedy Beginners, about a man whose 75-year-old father is exploring his sexuality late in life. (The son in Beginners is an art director, so the film's director filled the screen with startling images — as did Raul Ruiz in his exquisite, four-hour costume epic Mysteries of Lisbon.)
The covered-wagon saga Meek's Cutoff seemed ready to take this year's prize for beautifully wrought moral ambiguity, until Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy came along. And for anyone feeling unsettled about the state of the world — and isn't that everybody? — 2011 offered up the perfect movie stand-in: Michael Shannon's anguished, possibly delusional building contractor in Take Shelter. Unsettling by design, Jeff Nichols' haunting film rounds out an entirely worthy second Top 10. Not bad for a year that stumbled at the box office.