Top movies of 2011: Ken Eisner

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      There were some fine, or at least impressively large, films from Messrs. Spielberg, Scorsese, Eastwood, and Malick—and, hey, where were big films from the misses? The splendour continues into January, with films that we, sadly, won’t include on next year’s lists. (So may we ask you to please keep Margaret, Pina 3D, and A Dangerous Method in mind?) Maybe size matters, but almost everything that really stayed with me this year was pitched on a smaller scale.

      The Descendants
      Alexander Payne, a poet of literary discomfort (Election, About Schmidt, Sideways) gets one of the best performances ever from George Clooney as a befuddled father and husband whose casual-Friday lifestyle in Hawaii unravels in a very short and bittersweet period. Great slack-key music, too.

      Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
      Missed the ’70s? Recapture all the brown-corduroy glory, dour English division, in this most perfect adaptation of a classic Cold War spy novel from John le Carré. As George Smiley, Gary Oldman almost makes you forget Alec Guinness.

      The Artist
      Although Hugo is a very nice movie determined to inform you about the wonders of silent cinema, The Artist is a wonderful movie that makes you experience the magic of purely visual storytelling firsthand, with a simple fable so elegantly told.

      Midnight in Paris
      Woody Allen revives his passion for art, human foibles, and the written word in this light-touch comedy starring new alter ego Owen Wilson as a sad-sack screenwriter who discovers his inner Hemingway—and the real one (sort of)—by travelling back to 1920s Paris in a special midnight coach.

      Higher Ground
      Rarely has the religious impulse, in its more tribal form, been given more compassionate treatment as in Vera Farmiga’s stunning directorial debut, in which she stars as a woman who never stops questioning her own beliefs.

      Beginners/The Future
      When taken together, these separate bookends—made, respectively, by married artists-turned-filmmakers Mike Mills and Miranda July—add up to a complex and darkly funny portrait of how people love today. Oscar-worthy Christopher Plummer is unforgettable as the gay dad who has a late start-over in Beginners.

      There are plenty of coming-of-age flicks out there, so maybe that’s one reason people missed this exceptionally smart look back in acne at those difficult years, made tougher (and funnier) by happening in Wales in the 1980s. Paddy Considine is hilarious as a new-age charlatan.

      Certified Copy
      A film as much about the pleasures of cinema as it is about the difficulties of amour, this non-Farsi debut from Iran’s great Abbas Kiarostami (The Wind Will Carry Us) stars Juliette Binoche, in peak form, as a mysterious Frenchwoman who may or may not be married to the stiffly erudite Englishman she meets in Italy.

      Surviving Progress
      The Canadian-made documentary of the year takes you beyond current surface environmental and financial disasters (see below) into the major mindset adjustments we must undertake if we’re not going to simply build bigger Band-Aids every year until the lights go out.

      Margin Call
      J. C. Chandor’s debut feature rivets with its steely, doc-like eye and quietly intense performances—especially from Kevin Spacey as a burned-out Wall Street analyst—as a morally varied crew of investment hotshots face the 2008 moment when it all went to shit. In case you forgot.