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Screen gems: Top movies of 2011

“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 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.

1. “The Artist”: Not in IMAX, 3-D, color or even sound. But this silent-film throwback is the freshest, most imaginative movie of the year, and one of the most unabashedly romantic.

2. “The Help”: Some criticized its soft treatment of racism, but I was grateful for a message movie that didn’t browbeat me into submission. Funny, tender and filled with great performances, it’s a near-perfect example of intelligent Hollywood entertainment.

3. “Midnight in Paris”: Sometimes Woody Allen still gets it right, as he does in this deceptively light comedy-fable about love, literature and time travel.

4. “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”: This reboot of the hokey franchise proved absolutely electrifying, with hair-raising action and a career-high performance from motion-capture veteran Andy Serkis.

5. “Moneyball”: An unsentimental, cliche-free drama about Major League Baseball, with fine performances from Brad Pitt and ― surprise! ― Jonah Hill as number crunchers dismantling the game they love. It’s a pro-sports but anti-sports movie.

6. “Melancholia”: Lars von Trier’s apocalyptic drama about a chronic depressive (Kirsten Dunst) is designed to provoke strong reactions, not all of them pleasant. Mission accomplished. Whatever you think of it, you won’t soon forget it.

7. “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”: A cool, stylish version of the classic British spy novel, with ace performances from Tom Hardy, Colin Firth and Gary Oldman as owl-eyed agent George Smiley. Thomas Alfredson (“Let the Right One In”) is now officially a director to watch.

8. “Martha Marcy May Marlene”: A tense, tingly drama about a young girl fleeing from a violent cult leader (John Hawkes, “Winter’s Bone”). Elizabeth Olsen’s remarkably raw and surely Oscar-worthy performance is not what you’d expect from someone related to the “Full House” twins.

9. “Sleeping Beauty”: Emily Browning (“Sucker Punch”) plays a co-ed moonlighting as a prostitute ― while unconscious. It’s a discomfiting fairy tale from Australian novelist Julia Leigh, who borrows from Stanley Kubrick and feminist filmmaker Chantal Akerman but thanks Jane Campion in the credits.

10. “Magic Trip”: Painstakingly assembled from footage shot by the Merry Pranksters during their famous 1964 bus trip, Alex Gibney’s documentary is a vivid, vibrant chronicle of idealism, recklessness and the start of a revolution.

11. “Captain America: The First Avenger”: A gorgeous, golden-hued action-adventure, with Chris Evans as the best do-gooder since Christopher Reeve. However next year’s “The Avengers” turns out, we’ll always have this.

By Rafer Guzman

(Newsday)

(Distributed by MCT Information Services)
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