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Year in Review: Betsy Sharkey's best film picks of 2011

December 16, 2011 |  2:30 pm

The Descendants
This year, I found myself drawn to certain themes as well as specific films, what follows are my favorites on both fronts.

1. “The Descendants” and other family matters: Exquisite examinations of family pain topped my list this year starting with George Clooney exceptional at being ordinary in “The Descendants.” Other standouts were a surprising Iranian divorce saga “A Separation,” Tilda Swinton’s excruciating tribulations in “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” the clashing Shakespearean politics of family and country in Ralph Fiennes’ “Coriolanus” and finally a boy’s father lost and found in “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.”

2. “City of Life and Death” in black-and-white: Filmmakers proved that black-and-white can be artistically powerful and emotionally unforgettable with Chuan Lu’s heartbreaking Nanjing massacre in “City of Life and Death,” with a nod to Michel Hazanavicius’ buoyant ode to the end of the silent era in “The Artist.”

3. “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and high anxiety: Tension was everywhere but especially well-crafted in the spy-jinks of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” followed by the dark intrigues of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” with Rooney Mara’s searing work, Michael Shannon melting down in “Take Shelter,” Michael Fassbender’s body work in “Shame” and Peter Mullan and Olivia Colman shredding emotions in “Tyrannosaur.”

4. “Beginners” and aging gracefully: The final years of long lives were tackled with great wisdom and affection, anchored by superb performances led by Christopher Plummer’s 70-year-old coming out in “Beginners,” Yun Jung-Hee’s grandmother in distress in director Chang-dong Lee’s “Poetry” and Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher caught up in her past in “The Iron Lady.”

5. “Drive” and other road rages: Two films took to the streets of L.A. with a vengeance, delivering some of the year’s most riveting turns with Ryan Gosling goodness and Albert Brooks badness splashed across my favorite “Drive,” almost passed by Woody Harrelson’s fiercely frightening compromised cop behind the wheel and out of control in “Rampart.”

6. “Melancholia” or as the world turns: There were expansive and provocative treatises on the meaning of life and the world as we know it, close to out-of-body experiences for audiences watching with Lars Von Trier’s “Melancholia,” starring Kirsten Dunst, narrowly edging Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” with Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt for my favor.

7. “Moneyball” had the sporting goods: A couple of sports stories stole home and my heart this year with their metaphors about how you play the game, topped by “Moneyball’s” mesmerizing slow pitch with a wonderful Brad Pitt. Next up was “Win, Win” with Paul Giamatti painfully wrestling with his ethics.

8. “Martha Marcy May Marlene” led the Young Bloods: Emerging filmmakers gained fast traction with verve and edge with director Sean Durkin’s “Martha Marcy May Marlene’s” edgy storytelling and Elizabeth Olsen’s star turn my top choice, then writer-director William Mapother’s ethereal “Another Earth” and its equally ethereal star and co-writer, Brit Marling, and finally Drake Doremus’ “Like Crazy,” which brought us love and star Felicity Jones.

9. “The Help” and a sense of place: Some films took us somewhere so specific you could almost believe you were there, the attention to detail so refined. My favorite was the saturated Southern charm of “The Help,” with Octavia Spencer, Viola Davis and Emma Stone heading a cast peppered with terrific performances, followed by the Paris connection -- Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo,” which made the train station a place you wouldn’t mind getting lost in and Woody Allen’s ode to love and other times in “Midnight in Paris.”

10. “Young Adult” and other fun: Comedy this year was off-center, raw and outrageously headed by Charlize Theron’s mean girl grown up and her sparring partner Patton Oswalt in “Young Adult.” Just barely behind were Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy, absolutely winning in “Bridesmaids,” and Johnny Depp reimagined as a cowboy lizard in the righteous, raucous animated “Rango.”

Deplorable:Sequel-itus — it was rampant this year, and with the exception of a bang-up job of the “Harry Potter” finale, woefully disappointing. Even Pixar crashed with “Cars 2.”

For more, here's an essay on film in 2011.


Critic's Notebook: 'The Help' goes beyond stereotypes

Year in Review: Kenneth Turan's best film picks of 2011

Critic's Notebook: The star quality of Ryan Gosling and Jessica Chastain

— Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times film critic

Photo: George Clooney and Shailene Woodley in "The Descendants." Credit: Merie Wallace / Fox Searchlight Pictures