A Dozen Roses: The Best Movies of 2011

Buck Brannaman is an animal lover who teaches people about life in one of 2011’s top films, Buck.
  • Buck Brannaman is an animal lover who teaches people about life in one of 2011’s top films, Buck.

A regular Top Ten feels skimpy for 2011. It was a good year at the movies, if you knew where to look. I offer 12 roses, some laurels, and a weed patch.


1) Buck. A compact, brimming masterwork about an animal lover who teaches people about life. Horse trainer and “whisperer” Buck Brannaman employs the rope sparely, the whip never. Always in graceful sync, documenter Cindy Meehl does not overdo Buck’s back story (childhood abuse) nor hype the equine lore. Buck, an unusually moving movie, achieves the cogent, poetic integrity of Budd Boetticher’s finest Westerns.

2) Moneyball. An intelligent sports drama and a third straight home run (following The Cruise and Capote) for director Bennett Miller. Brad Pitt gives a subtle, mature performance as Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane. I don’t really understand the “sabermetrics” system advocated by Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), but I see how the elements of Moneyball flow together like a beautifully played game, in a movie far less about action on the field than baseball as a business rich in competing egos.

3) The Artist. Eighty years after Chaplin’s City Lights, who expected two major shrines of silent film? Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist is a valentine for a Hollywood traumatized by the arrival of talk. As the falling but gracious star, Jean Dujardin is wonderful. The retrospective style is impeccable, not academic (the other valentine, Hugo, is below).

4) Inspector Bellamy. The last triumph of director Claude Chabrol (1930–2010), wizard of sophisticated entertainment in the Hitchcock lineage. This witty showcase for Gérard Depardieu follows his big-bellied Bellamy through holiday intrigues in Provence as he solves a very human, very French murder case, with support from spirited women and Jacques Gamblin.

5) Le Quattro Volte. Michelangelo Frammartino took five years to film this vision in rustic Calabria, Italy. The seasons of life rotate through a shepherd, his flock and dog, milk, dust, trees, wind, ashes, smoke, air. Primal, original, beautiful all the way.

6) Midnight in Paris. Possibly the most elegant and engaging comedy that Woody Allen has done, and Owen Wilson is the best of the wannabe Woodys. The American love of Paris is revived with blithe charm, time trips, gorgeous Marion Cotillard, and Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein. Darius Khondji’s camera gazes like an enraptured tourist.

7) Blackthorn. Sunset adventure with Butch Cassidy (Sam Shepard). The Western genre finds its spurs again in the Peruvian Andes with Spanish director Mateo Gil. In reviving Cassidy as a rugged senior, in marvelous landscapes, Gil surpasses the 1969 hit and wipes from our mind the raindrops from the corny Burt Bacharach song.

8) Of Gods and Men. A meditation on the faithful fate of a few French Catholic monks in the hinterland of Muslim Algeria. Director Xavier Beauvois decants spiritual wine with sensual flair, dear old Michael Lonsdale is the wisest brother, and a wordless last supper is astonishingly set to Tchaikovsky.

9) A Better Life. Chris Weitz’s American Pie gave no indication that he could do this, though About a Boy offered hints. In Los Angeles, a Mexican gardener (Demián Bichir) turns his son (José Julián) from the gang path, and a truck is almost as important here as the fabled bike in The Bicycle Thief. Director Weitz and writer Eric Eason go well beyond the rote sympathies of border-themed films.

10) Hugo. The huge budget cranks into view and 3-D winks its simple, obvious appeal (it strikes me as long, reverse zoom shots for the unimaginative), but then director Martin Scorsese finds the rhythm of his magic. Hugo’s second half is a gaudy glory saluting the silent roots of film, although Scorsese is a very different artist than pioneering kitsch fantasist Georges Méliès.

11) The Help. A great female ensemble (Viola Davis, Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Bryce Dallas Howard, Sissy Spacek, Allison Janney, Anna Camp) rules one of 2011’s few commercial hits of substance. They lift Dixie racial politics above sass and soap, and while the finale dawdles and some comedy creaks, the Jim Crow era is peeled open.

12) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. A faultless male ensemble (Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Ciarán Hinds, Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, Toby Jones) inhabits Tomas Alfredson’s exquisite concentration of John le Carré’s spy story, once a TV sprawler for Alec Guinness. Oldman works almost at Guinness level, and the intricate webbing of feelings and nuances is hip in a very British way.

Furthermore: Another Earth, Barney’s Version, Bhutto, Bill Cunningham New York, Carnage, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Certified Copy, Circo, The Company Men, Del Amor y Otros Demonios, Drive, The Eagle, The Guard, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II, Henry’s Crime, Higher Ground, The Human Resources Manager, In a Better World, In Time, Into the Abyss, Kill the Irishman, Le Havre, Limitless, The Lincoln Lawyer, A Little Help, Margaret, Marwencol, The Mill and the Cross, My Perestroika, My Week with Marilyn, Mysteries of Lisbon, Nuremberg, Oka!, Oranges and Sunshine, Our Idiot Brother, Project Nim, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, A Somewhat Gentle Man, Thunder Soul, The Tree, The Way, The Whistleblower, Win Win.


Heroes: Both real and both teachers: horse savant Buck Brannaman of Buck and school band teacher Conrad “Prof” Johnson of Thunder Soul.

Villains: Albert Brooks, so deadly with voice and fingers in Drive, and Jeremy Irons, the ice-blooded muse of market collapse in Margin Call.

Acting: Demián Bichir, A Better Life; Bradley Cooper, Limitless; Morgana Davies and Charlotte Gainsbourg, The Tree; Viola Davis, The Help; Gerard Depardieu, Inspector Bellamy; Jean Dujardin, The Artist; Vera Farmiga, Higher Ground; Jenna Fischer, A Little Help; Paul Giamatti, Barney’s Version; Brendan Gleeson, The Guard; Keira Knightley, Last Night; Michael Lonsdale, Of Gods and Men; Brit Marling, Another Earth; Matthew McConaughey, The Lincoln Lawyer; Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; Anna Paquin, Margaret; Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Moneyball; Christopher Plummer, Beginners; Paul Rudd, Our Idiot Brother; Alex Shaffer, Win Win; Martin Sheen, The Way; Sam Shepard, Blackthorn; Stellan Skarsgård, A Somewhat Gentle Man; Ray Stevenson, Kill the Irishman; Charlize Theron, Young Adult; Emily Watson, Oranges and Sunshine; Rachel Weisz, The Whistleblower; Michelle Williams, My Week with Marilyn; André Wilms, Le Havre; Owen Wilson, Midnight in Paris; Ray Winstone, London Boulevard; Shailene Woodley, The Descendants.

“Natural” acting: The tree in The Tree, the dog in The Artist, and the top ape (Andy Serkis) in Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

Old master: Pieter Bruegel, whose epic art stars in The Mill and the Cross.

Old mastery: Along with Chabrol (see No. 4 above), that of Raúl Ruiz (1941–2011). His lucid eye and surreal fluency are often superb in Mysteries of Lisbon, though starched acting and novelistic tangents taxed my patience.

Trips: Martin Sheen’s road-walking Spanish pilgrimage in The Way; Werner Herzog exploring the prehistoric Cave of Forgotten Dreams; the Mexican circus family’s proud, tireless circuit in Circo.

Memorial: We Were Here documents the 1980s AIDS plague in San Francisco, using testaments of extraordinary honesty.

Comeback: The sleek but retro-rooted Village Theater in Coronado.

Guilty pleasure: Whatever Mel Gibson thought he was doing in The Beaver, his scenes with a beaver hand-puppet are vividly, uncomfortably unforgettable.

Surprise: Marwencol. Jeff Malmberg documents Mark Hogancamp’s recovery from trauma, delving into a therapeutic fantasy life that uses soldier dolls. This is one weird wow.


Also known as stinkers: The Adventures of Tintin, Anonymous, Battle: Los Angeles, The Change-Up, Cowboys & Aliens, The Dilemma, I Saw the Devil, Melancholia, No Strings Attached, Red Riding Hood, The Rite, The Tree of Life, Trespass, Viva Riva!, War Horse, Wild Irish Drinkers.

Thank you, Reader readers, for reading! See you in 2012.

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Where did "Le Quattro Volte" play in San Diego? Never heard of it. Similarly, "Le Havre:" a friend saw it and told me, I blinked before going and overnight it had disappeared.

Also, you are over-selling "Buck" who was a pretty unpleasant guy, truth be told, with an affinity for horses but not for any human being. Ditto your thinking about the very boring wish-it-were-a-real-Western, "Blackthorn." "The Artist" also is an hommage, but it turned out to be good for two naps after the Christmas exhaustion, and I'm not even counting my companions' snoozes. Finally, "The Help" was such an insult to everyone who lived during the '60's that it shouldn't have been on any list.

"Midnight in Paris," "Of Gods and Men" especially and "A Better Life" deserved their honors. They should have been joined by "Bill Cunningham," "The Lincoln Lawyer," "The Mill and the Cross," "Oranges and Sunshine,'" "Project Nim" and "Our Idiot Brother."

But thank you for not bringing up that scam of scams, Terrence Malick's ridiculous "Tree of Life," punctuated by the tattoo of patrons' footsteps as they walked out of the theater, one after another, for the first hour of too many.

Monaghan, Thanks for responding. Any such year-end list reflects personal taste (to what Bureau of Standards could one go for other criteria?).

I don't know or much care if Buck Brannaman is a swell guy in person, but in Cindy Meehl's beautifully shaped and unhyped portrait he shows real feeling for people (after having survived a painful childhood), and the devotion of his daughter is quite a testimonial. "Blackthorn"is as real a Western as I have seen for many years, and a great visit to the Andes. Too bad you snoozed through "The Artist" and missed a fine movie. Was it the lack of chat that sank you?

Having grown up in the South of the '50s and early '60s I can testify that "The Help" is, despite some sitcom devices, essentially accurate about the old racial divide. Since racism is sadly still alive in America (and in current politics), it was good to see a hit entertainment that reminded people of the hard history. And what a terrific group of women. Finally, "Le Quattro Volte" played downtown at the Gaslamp and "Le Havre" had a Landmark screen, but for any such imports viewers had better move fast. They are not likely to storm the boxoffice charts, and often get little mainstream attention. I shine a spotlight where I can, to help the good ones.

thx 4 the FYI...i want to see the Artist and Hugo

got any opinion about War Horse??

Nan. "War Horse" made it into my weed patch at column's end, and was the lead review of the Dec. 29 column, still posted. I can only underline my disappointment that Spielberg should use his populist talent as a filmmaker to tell the horrors of World War I through a horse story. It's the sort of confusion of categories you get when a huge budget and epic ego combine with a naive desire to reach a mass public sentimentally. You should rent or buy a copy of "The Black Stallion."

thx 4 the opinion about War Horse

i wish i could get to NY to see the play...it won a Tony last year...the horse puppetry is amazing i understand

i agree the Black Stallion was superb

i saw Buck last nite because of your column and would have missed it otherwise....Buck is a natural wonder!!!

will check the others out as i can

have already seen The Help and it took me back to a visit to Nawlins in the 60's and an incident that occurred related to Civil Rights that happened to me there

perhaps i'll write about it this in MLK time frame

I was recently in NYC. The tickets for the play are $450 & up. I watched the movie for $20 instead.

it the puppetry i'm mad to see Ponzi...has the play become a movie???

if there is a link can u toss it this way please and thank u ;-D

Buck is a natural wonder and truthful with both people and horses!!! he cuts thru the thinking manure with clean delft strokes that are typical of many country bred long eyes on the horizon 5 generational men...that's why they're called "straight shooters"...bless em...

i don't quite understand monaghan's remark about The Help because the truth of the taste of the pudding definitely was there with a somewhat glossy veneer

my mother told me in the 60's that Blacks were lovely people and they made great Nannies...before that i never knew my mom was prejudiced...she was from Oklahoma

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