2011 was a good year for film, and particularly for depictions of faith in film - but not in the Hollywood mainstream on either count.
This year, in one Hollywood film after another, religion was strikingly absent in tragic or crisis-filled times. George Clooney was widowed in The Descendants; Matt Damon widowed in both Contagion and We Bought a Zoo; Nicole Kidman bereaved of a child in Rabbit Hole (which had a limited opening in December 2010). All suffered bereavement with scarcely any acknowledgment of religion (except, in Kidman's case, to reject it). Contagion, in particular, depicted all sorts of social consequences of a global pandemic except the role of faith in times of crisis.
It wasn't all that bleak. A few Hollywood films, especially period pieces like The Help and War Horse, found room for religion and piety. Soul Surfer embraced its heroine's evangelical faith, and The Rite was a straightforwardly Catholic horror film. On the other hand, anti-religious or even blasphemous sentiments cropped up in films like Red Riding Hood, A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas and Priest.
Beyond the multiplex mainstream, it was a very different story. The French drama Of Gods and Men (easily my favorite film of the year) and the English documentary No Greater Love offered in-depth depictions of monastery life. Passion plays featured in two art films: Polish artist Lech Majewski's The Mill & the Cross and Milanese architect Michelangelo Frammartino's Le Quattro Volte (The Four Times).
Hollywood maverick Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, the Portuguese melodrama Mysteries of Lisbon, the Robert Redford-directed indie The Conspirator and the Sheen/Estevez family project The Way all used Catholic culture as a backdrop for their characters' journeys. Roland Joffe's There Be Dragons depicted the life of St. Josemaria Escriva and the founding of Opus Dei. Also worth noting is the high profile of Islam in films, including Of Gods and Men, A Separation and The Interrupters.
Family audiences had an unusual, overall mediocre year, highlighted by Pixar's disappointing Cars 2. A trio of unusual family films from veteran directors — Gore Verbinski's Rango, Martin Scorsese's Hugo and Cameron Crowe's We Bought a Zoo — aimed higher than average, with uneven results. DreamWorks and Blue Sky hit their marks with Kung Fu Panda 2, Puss in Boots and Rio. Unexpectedly, the brightest spot was Disney's back-to-back successes with nostalgic returns to form for a pair of venerable but previously flagging franchises, The Muppets and Winnie the Pooh.
The Year's Best
This year, for the first time in a while, I've decided to do a ranked list rather than an alphabetical one. Ranking my list forces me to be franker about my preferences and allows me to give greater prominence to the films that most moved me.
10 Films That Stood Out
Of Gods and Men. Xavier Beauvois' sublime, fact-based drama about nine French Trappist monks living in peace with their Muslim neighbors until they are kidnapped by Muslim terrorists and murdered is more than a beautifully acted and photographed drama: It is simply the most powerful cinematic tribute to the beauty of the Christian ideal in at least the last quarter century. Brief graphic violence, a few disturbing images and references; a single obscene expression. Subtitles. Teens and up.
A Separation. Iranian director Asghar Farhadi's unerringly precise portrait of a family in crisis spirals into unexpectedly fraught territory, with ever-rising stakes for a cast of likable, persuasive characters at tragic loggerheads with one another. Some coarse language and obscenity; some frank medical realities, including a character's incontinence and a miscarriage; tense family scenes. Subtitles. Mature viewing.
The Mill & the Cross. Polish artist Lech Majewski's English-language film is an indescribable experiment, an homage to Flemish Renaissance painter Pieter Brueghel's The Way of Calvary that visualizes both the world of the painting itself and the world in which Brueghel worked. Some violent sequences, including crucifixion and execution of heretics; brief full female nudity; fleeting sexuality. Adults.
Buck. Luminous and uplifting, documentarian Cindy Meehl's homage to laconic, low-key "horse whisperer" Buck Brannaman is a powerful portrait of leadership, redemption, healing and understanding — a film that's as much about being a better person as a better horseman. Mild language; references to an abusive childhood; a couple of violent horse moments and a moderately serious injury. Fine for older kids.
The Conspirator. Directed by Robert Redford, the American Film Company's debut feature is an engrossing exploration of a little-known but fascinating and sobering chapter in American history, and a rare historical drama that credibly captures a sense of another era. Violent content, including a brief battlefield scene, at least two shooting deaths, a violent stabbing and a group hanging; references to drunkenness and a few other mature references. Teens and up.
Moneyball. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin's crackerjack dialogue highlights Bennett Miller's exhilarating fictionalized account of the Oakland A's' unlikely 2002 winning streak in a sports film that hits the sweet spot of appealing to fans and non-fans alike. A couple of obscenities and much crass language; a few sexually themed references. Teens and up.
Mysteries of Lisbon. Based on a Portuguese novel, Raul Ruiz's visually opulent, 4½-hour period piece is an absurdly dizzy melodrama of romantic intrigues, betrayals, coincidences, secrets and revelations, anchored by a Catholic milieu embodied in the commanding Father Dinis. Premarital and extramarital affairs, dueling violence, suicide and other soap-operaish goings-on. Subtitles. Adults.
The Muppets. The year's best family film is a delightful musical throwback to the Muppets' glory days, co-written by star Jason Siegel and directed by James Bobin. Very mild rude humor; a brief scene of comic violence. Fine family viewing.
The Tree of Life. At turns, for me, transcendent (mostly in the first hour) and frustrating (mostly after that), Terrence Malick's epic meditation on the mysteries of life, the universe, suffering and God asks the big questions with more urgency than any other film I've seen this year. Some disturbing content, including troubled family situations and brief domestic violence; religious questioning. Teens and up.
Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol. Brad Bird's live-action debut makes big-screen action more fun than it has been in years, highlighted by a number of bravura set pieces. Much intense action violence; brief unclear reference to killings in a heroic character's past; some suggestive content; a few instances of profanity and some crass language. Teens and up.
A number of films listed here as Runners-Up (in alphabetical order) could easily have made the list above — and this year I had a harder time than ever before narrowing my Runners-Up list to only 10 films, so there are films in the third tier of Honorable Mention that could easily have made this list. This is a lovely problem to have: too many films to be able to honor all as you would like.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Werner Herzog's poetic, sometimes loopy 3-D documentary expedition to Chauvet Cave, with its prehistoric cave paintings. Teens and up.
Certified Copy: Abbas Kiarostami's trippy art-house meditation on art, life and love, a puzzle box of a movie, insightful and enigmatic. Mature viewing.
Hugo: Martin Scorsese's adaptation of Brian Selznick's book: a beautiful curiosity, a sort-of family film that's also a dazzling tribute to early cinema magic. Mostly fine for kids.
The Interrupters. Documentarian Steve James' riveting, wrenching portrait of ex-gang members in Chicago's CeaseFire movement working on the streets to prevent acts of violence. Adults.
Jane Eyre. A passionate, smart, morally serious take on Brontë's novel, directed by Cary Fukunaga and starring Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender. Teens and up.
Le Quattro Volte. Michelangelo Frammartino's dialogue-free meditation on the circle of life, inspired by Pythagoras' concept of the passage of the soul from human to animal to vegetable to mineral. Teens and up.
Midnight in Paris. Woody Allen's charmingly nostalgic parable about seeing through the illusion of nostalgia and yet not being disillusioned; about cherishing the past, while living in the present. Adults.
No Greater Love. British filmmaker Michael Whyte's lovely, contemplative documentary look at life in a Carmelite monastery in London's Notting Hill. Kids and up.
Win Win. Thomas McCarthy's wryly insightful comedy about honesty, moral compromises and responsibility. Adults.
Winnie the Pooh. A heartwarming return to the spirit of Disney's Many Adventures and the original A.A. Milne tales. Kids and up.
The Artist. Michel Hazanavicius' silent-film romp (teens and up)
Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey. Constance Marks' heartwarming documentary (kids and up)
Contagion. Steven Soderbergh's sober, highly plausible exploration of a global pandemic scenario (adults)
Martha Marcy May Marlene. Sean Durkin's unnerving portrait of a young woman escaping a cult (mature viewing)
Meek's Crossing. Kelly Reichardt's tense, unconventional Western about a wagon train crossing the desert (teens and up)
My Perestroika. Robin Hessman's engrossing documentary about a number of ordinary Russians coming of age during the collapse of the Soviet Union (adults)
War Horse. Steven Spielberg's painterly WWI-era epic (tweens and up)
The Way. A cinematic pilgrimage of sorts on the Camino de Santiago, with Emilio Estevez directing his father Martin Sheen (teens and up)
We Bought a Zoo. A Hollywood family sitcom with more soul than average, from Cameron Crowe (tweens and up)
Also Worth Noting
Kids and Up. The Adventures of Tintin; Arthur Christmas; Born to Be Wild; Cars 2; Dolphin Tale; Kung Fu Panda 2; The Mighty Macs; Monte Carlo; Puss in Boots; Rio; Soul Surfer
For Teens and Up. A Better Life; Captain America: The First Avenger; Courageous; Green Lantern; The Help; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2; Life Above All; Nostalgia for the Light; Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides; Rango; Rise of the Planet of the Apes; Super 8; The Three Musketeers; Thor
Mature Viewing. The Adjustment Bureau; City of Life and Death; Cowboys & Aliens; Crazy, Stupid, Love; The Ides of March; In Time; My Week with Marilyn; Project Nim; Rabbit Hole; The Rite; Source Code; Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; Warrior; X-Men: First Class
Steven D. Greydanus. "The Best Films of 2011." National Catholic Register (January 17, 2012).
This article is reprinted with permission from National Catholic Register. To subscribe to the National Catholic Register call 1-800-421-3230.