The Best of 2011 (So Far)

41 FEA The Tree of Life Brad Pitt H
Fox Searchlight Pictures

A critic tries to tune out the Oscar prognostication and keep the focus on the films.

The general sense you get from all the chatter, informed and otherwise, about the movies of 2011 is that there's no decisive front-runner in any category for the diverse year-end honors, of which there are now far too many. To me, that's a good thing and a fine excuse for everyone to abstain from further crystal-ball gazing until all of the year's films have been seen.

But since there's no chance of that happening, and as much as I'm averse to guessing what's in other people's minds, I'll just say it has been a not-great but nonetheless good year thus far, with American independent filmmakers generally stepping up while the major Hollywood studios, having largely abandoned the quality adult dramatic field, have demonstrated they can produce first-rate franchise blockbusters when they really try.

All through the year, the independents and specialty distributors have yielded work by talented filmmakers old and new. Still ahead, of course, is the latest from veteran heavy hitters including Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, along with David Fincher, Brad Bird, Jason Reitman, Cameron Crowe and Stephen Daldry. How can anyone prognosticate without having seen these directors' films?

Even when restricted to movies that were picked up at Sundance and/or have subsequently been released, the festival's list was strong: Sean Durkin's Martha Marcy May Marlene, Drake Doremus' Like Crazy, Jeff Nichols' Take Shelter, J.C. Chandor's Margin Call, Mike Cahill's Another Earth, Paddy Considine's Tyrannosaur and John Michael McDonagh's Irish film The Guard stood out from the pack and continue to make an impression as the year goes along.

Three independently made films, two by celebrated veteran auteur directors and one by a maverick Dane, were the dominant American titles at the Cannes Film Festival in May: Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, which won the Palme d'Or; Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, which went on to become one of the surprise hits of the summer and Allen's most successful film in U.S. release; and Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive.

It's worth noting that the distributors of those first two films, Fox Searchlight and Sony Pictures Classics, respectively, have enjoyed the most consistent success in the specialty release field that so many others have abandoned, proving it still can be done when standards of good taste, prudent spending and consistent management are maintained. As for FilmDistrict, which successfully distributed Drive, time will tell in light of distribution head Bob Berney's departure.

Three well-received independents -- Chris Weitz's A Better Life, Cary Joji Fukunaga's Jane Eyre and Gavin O'Connor's Warrior -- braved the marketplace without the benefit of festival exposure that, in retrospect, might have proved beneficial. Some claim that critics' influence is decreasing, but this sort of in-betweener film needs all the help it can get -- so in this realm, I believe we remain vitally important.

Of the late-year specialty titles, my personal favorites have been Alexander Payne's wonderful The Descendants and David Cronenberg's brilliant diamond A Dangerous Method. But also well up the list are Steve McQueen's Shame, Tomas Alfredson's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Roman Polanski's Carnage.

So, then, how does major-studio fare stack up against these estimable films? Not so well. The studios have all but given up trying to compete in the realm of serious films made for adults. To my mind, the only mainstream Hollywood production that deserves to be grouped with the best films thus far mentioned is Bennett Miller's Sony release Moneyball.

Meanwhile, the studios have impressed in one area in 2011 -- that of getting high-budget sequels and reboots just right. In particular, David Yates' Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 was an entirely satisfying and splendidly made finale to one of the better-managed series of recent vintage. Matthew Vaughn's series resurrection X-Men: First Class was pretty nearly first-class, and Rupert Wyatt's Rise of the Planet of the Apes, while a mixed bag, supplied enough flair and fresh energy to legitimize another go-round for that hairy franchise. As far as Harry Potter goes, is it possible that, given this last chance, awards-minded people will finally take the series seriously? The Lord of the Rings analogy, often made, doesn't really stand up, as the first two entries received rafts of serious praise and attention. Potter has mostly remained a disregarded orphan, so it remains an uphill battle to turn that around on the final lap.

There were a handful of other good mainstream Hollywood efforts: Paul Feig's Bridesmaids, Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar, J.J. Abrams' Super 8 and the year's best animated feature, Gore Verbinski's Rango.

There are two wild cards in the mix. First is Asghar Farhadi's A Separation, which is by far the most widely accessible Iranian film ever to be shown in the West and which would, were it an American film, no doubt be considered a so-called front-runner in many categories. The other is French director Michel Hazanavicius' black-and-white silent The Artist, a charmer about Hollywood in the late 1920s that was actually shot here. You have to hand it to Harvey Weinstein for betting with his checkbook in Cannes that this amusing comic melodrama would not just play with buffs but could break through with the American public; after all, without dialogue, there's no tip-off that it's a dreaded foreign film.

Just think about it: How many know-it-alls were predicting a mini-sweep for The King's Speech at this moment a year ago? Or the year before, Sandra Bullock? And Slumdog Millionaire the year before that? If you think you know how the prizes will fall, bet in Vegas. If you're an Academy member, see all the films and don't give your ballot to someone else to fill out, as one prominent boss I had years ago asked me to do.

But on second thought, that person had the right idea; having seen nearly all the year's releases instead of a mere handful of them, I knew better what deserved to win.

So, as I said, never mind the prognosticators, just wait until the end of the year when I run my picks for 2011. Then you'll know how to vote. It's going to be a great awards season.