Jean Dujardin stars in a scene from the movie "The Artist." John Mulderig, assistant director for media reviews at Catholic News Service, cited the film as one of the top 10 films of 2011 suitable for a variety of audiences. CNS photo/Weinstein

Innovation becomes tradition: 2011's top 10 films, best family films

By  John Mulderig, Catholic News Service
  • February 2, 2012

NEW YORK - In late 1965, the three-decade-old National Legion of Decency announced that it was changing its name to the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures.

That switch represented more than just altered terminology. It signaled an intent on the part of the U.S. church's officially sanctioned film agency to take a more open and positive -- though by no means uncritical -- approach in its assessment of cinema.

In keeping with this new emphasis, that same year, the film office issued its first list of the 10 best movies released over the previous 12 months.

As with many an innovation, the list gradually became a tradition, one that the Media Review Office of Catholic News Service -- which now performs the work originally done by the Legion and its successors -- intends faithfully to honor. So here -- in alphabetical order - are, first, our choices of the Top 10 films of 2011 suitable for a variety of audiences, followed the 10 best films for family viewing.

Here are the 10 best films overall.

A modern-made silent film, "The Artist" recounts the contrasting fortunes of a dashing star (Jean Dujardin) for whom the arrival of the "talkies" presages decline, and one of his adoring fans (Berenice Bejo) who's destined for stardom. French director Michel Hazanavicius' film is, by turns, zany and hilarious, sad and affecting, uplifting and inspiring (A-III, PG-13).

"The Conspirator" is an engrossing historical drama about the lawyer (James McAvoy) who defended Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), the pro-Confederate widow charged with conspiring to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. Director Robert Redford's portrait of a protagonist admirably committed to the rule of law is made all the more effective by the fair assessment of those with other legitimate priorities (A-III, PG-13).

Stylish -- though frequently violent -- "The Debt" follows a game of cat-and-mouse across two time periods as three Mossad agents (Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson and Ciaran Hinds) track down and capture a Josef Mengele-like Nazi war criminal (Jesper Christensen). While suitable only for mature viewers, as directed with flair by John Madden, this gritty drama will certainly keep them guessing right up to the end (L, R).

In "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2," director David Yates' gratifying wrap-up to a decade of blockbuster adaptations, the titular wizard (Daniel Radcliffe) continues to battle his evil nemesis (Ralph Fiennes) aided, once again, by his two closest friends (Rupert Grint and Emma Watson). Many of the symbols and themes in this final narrative echo Scripture and comport with Judeo-Christian beliefs (A-II, PG-13).

Set in the early 1960s, the warm, deftly acted drama "The Help" compellingly portrays the efforts of a rebellious white Southerner and would-be journalist (Emma Stone) to write a book documenting the lives of group of black housemaids (most prominently Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer). Writer-director Tate Taylor's adaptation of Kathryn Stockett's best-selling novel uses vivid characterizations to bring the Civil Rights-era struggle for human dignity alive (A-III, PG-13).

The 3-D fable "Hugo" follows the adventures of a 12-year-old orphan (Asa Butterfield) who lives in one of Paris' great train stations during the 1930s. Director Martin Scorsese's paean to the City of Lights, the human imagination and the pioneers of early cinema casts a charming spell (A-II, PG).

"The Ides of March" is a savvy but raw political drama about an up-and-coming press spokesman (Ryan Gosling) who discovers that the campaign manager (Philip Seymour Hoffman) for whom he works and the candidate (George Clooney) in whom he deeply believes are not all they seem. With a sharp script and a powerful cast, Clooney, who also directed and co-wrote, turns in a slick study in the corrupting effects of power (L, R).

Writer-director Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris," asks the question: Would you be happier living in a long-ago, mythically remembered past? A frustrated Hollywood screenwriter and would-be novelist (Owen Wilson) gets to find out when he gains mysterious entree to the French capital of the 1920s (A-III, PG-13).

"Of Gods and Men" is a brilliant dramatization of real events, recounting the fate of a small community of French Trappist monks (led by Lambert Wilson and including Michael Lonsdale) living in Algeria during that nation's civil war in the 1990s. Using the tools of the monastic life itself, director Xavier Beauvois finds a path to the heart of the Gospel through simplicity, a compassionate sense of brotherhood and an atmosphere of prayer enriched by sacred music and potent silence (A-III, PG-13).

In "The Way," after his semi-estranged son (Emilio Estevez) dies while hiking the ancient pilgrimage route to the Spanish shrine of Santiago de Compostela, a California doctor (Martin Sheen) resolves to complete the journey as a means of honoring the lad's memory. Estevez, who also wrote and directed, takes viewers on a reflective, and ultimately rewarding, exploration of elemental themes that challenges materialistic values (A-III, PG-13).

And here are the 10 best films for families.

In "The Adventures of Tintin," director Steven Spielberg's visually sumptuous animated adaptation of Belgian cartoonist Herge's famed comic books, the curiously coiffed young reporter (voiced by Jamie Bell) finds himself drawn into a centuries-old mystery. Themes congruent with Judeo-Christian values are advanced through sympathetic main characters, a screenplay faithful to its classic source material and envelope-pushing 3-D technology (A-I, PG).

Actor Samuel L. Jackson narrates "African Cats," an impressive nature documentary charting the varied fortunes of a pride of lions and a clan of cheetahs. Directors Keith Scholey and Alastair Fothergill provide the whole family with a top-quality cinematic safari (A-I, G).

Director Joe Johnston's comic book adaptation "Captain America: The First Avenger" relates the origins story of the superhero (Chris Evans) with a complete absence of cynicism and a crackling undercurrent of dry wit (A-II, PG-13).

"Cars 2," director John Lasseter's winsome sequel, sees a veteran racecar (voice of Owen Wilson) competing against a cocky Italian speedster (voice of John Turturro) in the first-ever World Grand Prix. Amid the sight gags and belly laughs are good lessons about family, friendship, self-esteem and acceptance of others (A-I, G).

In "Gnomeo & Juliet," it's love at first ceramic clink for two garden gnomes -- voiced by Emily Blunt and James McAvoy. Director Kelly Asbury's clever animated comedy offers wholesome fun for the entire family (A-I, G).

Vivid animation and a ringing endorsement of the traditional family combine to make director and co-writer Simon Wells' endearing adventure "Mars Needs Moms" a film kids can enjoy and parents will appreciate. Seth Green plays a 9-year-old boy who comes to recognize the deep love his mother (Joan Cusack) has for him after she's kidnapped by Martians (A-I, PG).

Kermit the Frog (voice of Steve Whitmire) and Jim Henson's other singing, dancing, wisecracking puppets return to the big screen in "The Muppets," an old-fashioned and genuinely funny comic outing directed by newcomer James Bobin. (A-I, PG)

"Rio" is a buoyant animated adventure with music about a Brazilian-born macaw (voice of Jesse Eisenberg) who returns to his homeland after being raised as a cosseted pet in Minnesota. Lessons about environmental stewardship and love-inspired loyalty are decked out in kaleidoscopic colors in director Carlos Saldanha's 3-D flight of fancy (A-I, G).

Director Sean McNamara's fact-based drama "Soul Surfer" recounts the story of a devoutly Christian competitive surfer (AnnaSophia Robb) whose life is changed forever by a shark attack. It's an uplifting tale bolstered by stunning cinematography and an unapologetic treatment of religious faith (A-II, PG).

In "Winnie the Pooh," directors Stephen Anderson and Don Hall's delightfully innocent, predominantly animated adaptation of A.A. Milne's classic children's books, the immortal bear (voice of Jim Cummings) finds his characteristic quest for honey interrupted by his friend Eeyore's (voice of Bud Luckey) latest crisis -- and by other complications (A-I, G).

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