Screen gems: The year's 11 best movies
"You know what's a drag about being a grown-up?" a friend asked the other night. "Nobody makes movies for me anymore."
He's not entirely correct, but I know how he feels. Hollywood's focus on young viewers has been intensifying for decades -- at least since the original "Star Wars," if not before -- and this year was no exception. From the latest "Pirates of the Caribbean" installment to the third "Transformers" blockbuster, the box-office biggies of 2011 were largely cinematic junk food marketed to the PG-13 crowd. Even the year's most popular R-rated film, "The Hangover Part II," seemed made for (and by) enormous eighth-graders. The final chapter of "Harry Potter" was a special case, the rare film that appealed to anybody big enough to sit in a chair.
The dearth of adult fare may explain why Woody Allen's light comedy "Midnight in Paris" became his biggest-ever financial success in North America. It wasn't exactly "Annie Hall," just a whimsical romance starring Owen Wilson as a writer who time travels to the glamorous 1920s. But it was smart, charming and had nothing to do with aliens or men in tights -- manna from heaven for moviegoers of a certain age. Ditto for "The Help," a racially-themed drama that 20 years ago might have been dismissed as Hollywood fluff but today feels well-tempered and positively refreshing (and there'd be no arguing in any era with the superb performances of Bryce Dallas Howard and Viola Davis).
Unexpectedly, some of the year's comic-book and sci-fi offerings were also worth noting. "Captain America: The First Avenger" was a marvelous-looking piece of pop entertainment, while "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" gave the campy franchise a jolt of serious energy and could even bring Andy Serkis (as an eerily smart chimp) the first-ever Oscar nod for a motion-capture performance. Special mention goes to "X-Men: First Class," a smart, snazzy superhero flick with a dollop of minority politics.
My favorite film of the year, "The Artist," may seem like a typical critics' pick -- it's French, black-and-white and silent -- but there is absolutely nothing stuffy or snobby about this movie. The story of an outmoded silent star (Jean Dujardin) and a chatty newcomer (Berenice Bejo), "The Artist" is a genuine crowd-pleaser, full of humor, drama, romance, even dance numbers. As the cigar-chomping moguls used to say, it's got everything.
Though I haven't seen two of the year's major contenders -- the Streep-as-Thatcher biopic "The Iron Lady" and David Fincher's long-awaited version of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" -- here are my top 11 movies for 2011. Grown-ups, take heart.