This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
While Hollywood continued to churn out generic blockbusters led by superheroes and toys, the year's best movies explored what mattered most to us: Love, grief, fear, and the enjoyment of the movies themselves.
1. "Beginners" • "This is what love feels like," says Oliver (Ewan McGregor), the gentle graphic artist who watches as his septuagenarian father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), starts his life over as a gay man at the same time he's diagnosed with cancer. The life lessons from Hal, who's learning to live just as he learns he's dying, later inform Oliver's romance with a free-spirited actress (played by Mélanie Laurent). Writer-director Mike Mills, impishly lifting from his own life's story, creates a brilliantly precise and emotionally universal drama that shows us that love is all in the details.
2. "The Artist" • Writer-director Michel Hazanavicius' valentine to the power of movies takes a lot of risks it's silent (mostly), black and white (completely) and led by a French star, the dashing and expressive Jean Dujardin, whom the rest of the world has never heard of. And, magically, it works like a dream.
3. "Contagion" • So this is how the world nearly ends, not with a bang but by a virus. Steven Soderbergh combines documentary-like immediacy and an all-star cast (starting with Gwyneth Paltrow, dead in the first 10 minutes) to dramatize how governments and everyday people would react to a flu pandemic.
4. "Another Earth" • Newcomers Mike Cahill and Brit Marling (he directed, she stars, both wrote) gracefully employ a classic science-fiction idea a planet parallel to our own to explore themes of grief and renewal, as Marling's young woman tries to atone for ruining the life of a professor (William Mapother).
5. "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" • The best case of a master filmmaker experimenting with 3-D isn't Martin Scorsese's "Hugo," but Werner Herzog's luminous documentary that takes us inside a cave in southern France where early human artwork is perfectly preserved and provides an amazing record of humanity's time on Earth.
6. "Super 8" • Middle-schoolers circa 1979 make an amateur zombie movie and end up uncovering a real government conspiracy, as writer-director J.J. Abrams frames a riveting thriller around the ideas of childhood wonder and the joy of filmmaking.
7. "The Last Lions" • Dereck and Beverly Joubert have spent years chronicling the endangered lion population in Botswana's Okavango Delta, and the compelling footage they capture in this documentary forms a powerful narrative of maternal ferocity.
8. "The Adjustment Bureau" • Destiny, free will and true love collide in director-writer George Nolfi's smart and sweet adaptation of Philip K. Dick's novella, in which a promising politician (Matt Damon) falls for a dancer (Emily Blunt) to the consternation of the fedora-wearing angels watching over us all.
9. "Moneyball" • The score that matters in baseball, director Bennett Miller's funny and insightful movie tells us, is how big a payroll a team pays. That is, until Billy Beane (charmingly played by Brad Pitt) comes along to rewrite the rules and turn the small-market Oakland A's into contenders.
10. "Martha Marcy May Marlene" • A shattering performance by newcomer Elizabeth Olsen (who will no longer be identified as Mary-Kate and Ashley's sister) propels writer-director Sean Durkin's debut about a fragile young woman being drawn into and later escaping from a charismatic cult leader (chillingly played by John Hawkes).