A fading silent-film star and a chimpanzee that uses sign language. A sand-miner with apocalyptic visions and a Hawaiian land baron. A distraught mother and a getaway driver.
They’re all leading characters in my favorite films of 2011. Here’s my Top-10 list, in alphabetical order:
“Another Earth”: Brit Marling stars in this wondrous drama about a young woman seeking redemption for causing a fatal car crash. She finds hope in a newly discovered planet that mirrors Earth.
“Buck”: A touching documentary about Buck Brannaman, the inspiration for Robert Redford’s equine trainer in “The Horse Whisperer.” Brannaman overcame a Dickensian childhood to become a world-famous horse handler known for his uncanny ability to communicate with the animals.
“Drive”: Ryan Gosling channels Clint Eastwood in his quiet-hero role as a Hollywood stunt man who moonlights as a getaway driver. Albert Brooks is shocking as a vicious gangster.
“Incendies”: Canadian siblings explore their mother’s mysterious Middle East past after she dies and leaves them envelopes for a father they thought was dead and a brother they never knew about. A little-seen gem.
“Margin Call”: J.C. Chandor makes a scintillating directing debut with this dark drama about an investment firm on the brink of collapse during the 2008 financial meltdown. The first-rate cast includes Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Simon Baker, Stanley Tucci and Jeremy Irons.
“Project Nim”: The true story of a chimp raised by humans and taught sign language before being shipped back to the primate center where he was born and later sold to a medical research lab. An important lesson about the folly of trying to treat animals like people.
“Take Shelter”: Michael Shannon stars in this spooky story about an Ohio sand-miner plagued by nightmares of an upcoming storm. Makes you want to avoid the Weather Channel.
“The Artist”: A silent film about silent films, this French production is a gorgeous homage to an era when movie stars were as mum as Marcel Marceau.
“The Descendants”: George Clooney expands his repertoire in Alexander Payne’s bittersweet drama about a Hawaiian father who must raise his two daughters alone after their mother is seriously injured in a boating accident.
“We Need to Talk About Kevin”: The mother of a Columbine-type killer tries to figure out what went wrong in this powerful adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s novel. Tilda Swinton delivers a bravura performance as the bewildered mom.
Other noteworthy films from the past year: “Hugo,” “Carnage,” “Midnight in Paris,” “Tabloid,” “Rampart,” “Melancholia,” “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” “A Separation” and “Winter in Wartime.”
(Rick Warner is the movie critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)