While the following are my film-going highlights of 2011, be advised that a lot of potential "best of" contenders haven't opened in southeastern Connecticut yet or didn't open in time for this round-up. That said, this year brought some memorable movies.
This unassuming gem - my favorite film of 2011 - never caught on the way I thought it would. It's got the comedy/drama alchemy that writer/director Tom McCarthy worked in previous films "Station Agent" and "The Visitor." Paul Giamatti plays a lawyer in financial trouble. But he also volunteers as a high-school wrestling coach who finds a superb wrestler in a wayward teen he and his wife take in.
Let this be the beginning of a new trend: smart comedies aimed at women. What a concept. The script by Kristin Wiig and Annie Mumulo felt real, even as it found outrageous comedy in female friendships ... and in food poisoning. Wiig and Melissa McCarthy gave the two most hilarious performances of the year - period.
Didn't live up to the hype. It was a good, solid film - just not as sublime as critics would have you believe.
MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE/TAKE SHELTER
Off-kilter lead roles gave Elizabeth Olsen and Michael Shannon amazing showcases in, respectively, "Martha Marcy May Marlene" and "Take Shelter." Olsen expressed so much with so little dialogue as a young woman who has escaped a cult, yet remains a lost soul. Shannon practically vibrates with intensity as a man who might be having visions of a coming apocalypse - or who might just be insane.
If the divine Viola Davis doesn't win the Oscar, there is no justice.
MIDNIGHT IN PARIS
Who knew that, as a writer/director, septuagenarian Woody Allen could return to comedy form?
A movie about baseball and numerical analysis? Yawn! But wait! Before you curl up for a nap, be assured that this is a fascinating film. Brad Pitt gives one of his best performances (he underplays beautifully here) as the Oakland A's general manager who used sabermetrics to build a top-notch team despite the A's woeful finances.
I've always thought that Leonardo DiCaprio was a bit overrated. Not anymore. He really gets under J. Edgar Hoover's skin - and into his old-man makeup, too, aging believably into the man's 70s.
COWBOYS & ALIENS
Daniel Craig + Harrison Ford should = lots of stoic machismo and old-school charisma. And yet ... nada. Director Jon "Iron Man" Favreau lost his mojo, and apparently his sense of fun, with this movie. It's loud and dull. Most disappointing of the year.
Meryl Streep was here! Meryl Streep was here! Yes, arguably the greatest actress ever filmed scenes for "Great Hope Springs" in Stonington during August. Local folks served as extras, and others gathered to watch the moviemakers at work. Streep and Tommy Lee Jones were here, although, alas, co-star Steve Carell was not. I can't wait to see the finished product, which is scheduled to be released at the end of 2012.
... AND ZOMBIES
The zombie thriller "Steve Niles' Remains" was shot in Norwich and Mystic. After a brief theater run at Lisbon Landing Cinemas, it moved onto the Chiller TV network, for which it was filmed. It's the handiwork of Synthetic Cinema International out of Rocky Hill. If you hear zombies and made-for-TV and your conclusion is "low-rent," you'll probably be pleasantly surprised by "Remains." The acting is solid, the script tosses around some funny lines, the direction maintains a lively pace. And you've got to love seeing zombies rampaging through the streets of Norwich.