The Artist - Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo
Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo star in The Artist, the most enjoyable film of the year © 2011 The Weinstein Company

We start the year with a look back at the films of 2011. It’s impossible for any critic to see every movie Hollywood releases, or anywhere near the total number of movies produced in other countries.

Below are my 10 favorites of the nearly 150 films I reviewed in 2011. Just missing the cut were The Debt, The Adventures of Tintin and the documentary The Whale, which would have made this list a baker’s dozen.

You can click on the film titles for the full original review or the tags to the left for the list of articles on the film.

1. The Artist

This flawless romantic comedy is the most sweetly sincere, wonderfully acted and completely enjoyable movie of the year. Critics often are accused of seeing so many films that their jaded tastes gravitate toward bizarre, transgressive or intellectual fare that leaves mainstream audiences cold. (My number two pick, in fact, fits all three of those categories.) But although The Artist is unusual in that it’s a modern version of a black-and-white silent film with a symphonic score, it is so universally appealing that I can’t imagine anyone resisting its charms.

Melancholia - Kirsten Dunst
Kirsten Dunst stars in director/writer Lars von Trier's Melancholia, a love-it-or-hate-it masterpiece © 2011 Magnolia Pictures

2. Melancholia

I adored this minimalist end-of-the-world fantasy, for which Kirsten Dunst should receive a Best Actress Oscar. If artsy existential dread isn’t your thing, be warned that you may be bored, confused or angered by director/writer Lars von Trier’s anxiety-filled nightmare — but you never will forget it.

3. The Future

Director/writer/star Miranda July’s second film, about an aimless 30-something couple whose lives are changed by the prospect of adopting a cat from a shelter, is a magic-realism fable about love, responsibility and a chat with the man in the moon. July is perfect as the droll, attention-craving Sophie, who abandons one unsatisfying identity for what turns out to be another. Unexpectedly disturbing, but undeniably moving.

4. Rango

Director Gore Verbinski’s fantastic first animated film, featuring Johnny Depp as the voice of the title lizard, is a CGI wonder to behold. To say that Rango easily out-Pixared Pixar this year doesn’t give this offbeat and thoroughly original comedy enough credit, considering that Pixar’s 2011 offering was the disappointing Cars 2.

5. Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life

Like 2007’s La Vie en Rose biography of Edith Piaf, this imaginative and wonderfully stylish bio about French singer/songwriter/cultural icon Serge Gainsbourg is much more than a conventional life story. Combining puppetry, animation and an occasional sense of surrealism, what’s onscreen is more dreamland than drama. Although director/writer Joann Sfar freely admits his film is not entirely factual, that kind of creative license seems somehow fitting for its instinctively outrageous subject.

6. Cowboys & Aliens

The most underrated movie of the year, Cowboys & Aliens had everything going for it except people willing to buy tickets. Daniel Craig brilliantly underplays the part of an old west cowboy who wakes up with a piece of alien technology strapped to his wrist. Director Jon Favreau had the courage to take the material completely seriously, instead of resorting to easy irony or camp. It’s a shame that poor box-office performance turned the movie into an undeserving punchline.

7. Drive

Ryan Gosling is alternately emotionless, sentimental, professionally detached and brutally primal as a driver whose skills are for sale to anyone who needs a quick getaway. His character’s relationship with a young mother (Carey Mulligan) whose husband is in prison can’t help but end badly. Bryan Cranston and Albert Brooks are excellent in supporting roles as an unreliable friend and an unforgiving frenemy. Director Nicolas Winding Refn has created a modern noir classic.

8. Young Adult

Charlize Theron shines as a would-be homewrecker out to steal an old boyfriend from his wife and new baby in this very sardonic comedy. Director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody, who previously teamed on Juno, go more for cynical than sweet this time — until a final-act breakdown that proves conniving monsters have hearts, too.

9. The Guard

Brendan Gleeson is the world’s least dedicated and most sarcastic policeman in this pitch-black Emerald Isle comedy from director/writer John Michael McDonagh. Gleeson’s character is teamed with a by-the-book American FBI agent (Don Cheadle) to investigate drug smugglers, but this is anything but your typical odd-couple buddy-cop movie. The Irish accents are so thick you may resort to subtitles while watching the DVD, because you won’t want to miss a word.

10. Bunraku

Ever notice how a lot of top-10 lists include one completely off-the-wall pick that looks like an example of shameless self-indulgence on the part of the critic? Here’s mine. This cool and crazy combination western, martial-arts adventure and tongue-in-cheek gangland parody is the most gleefully theatrical and comic-book colorful flick of the year.

What were your picks? Feel free to add your favorites in the comments section below!

James Dawson

Jim is Film Review Online's Los Angeles based reviewer.