George Clooney and Shailene Woodley star in "The Descendants."

Story highlights

Clooney has worked hard at overcoming his heartthrob image and expanding his range

Jessica Chastain deserves special praise -- she was in seven films in 2011

Shailene Woodley plays Clooney's rebellious daughter in "The Descendants"

CNN  — 

Movies are an especially fluid form of art.

A person’s feelings about a particular film are based on many factors, including his or her mood when watching. On a more cynical day, I might not have enjoyed Cameron Crowe’s “We Bought a Zoo” as much as I did.

Letting a film sink in over time can change things, too. For example, in a relatively short period, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” moved from No. 10 to No. 6 on my own personal list of the year’s best films.

However, I’m not going to rank this list in a strict one through 10 fashion. It’s not fair to the films.

This has been a truly excellent year in the cinema. I could easily include 25 “top” films on my list, not to mention the films I haven’t had a chance to see that are appearing on “Best of” lists around the Web.

Still, my favorite film of the year has remained the same since the moment I saw it at the Toronto International Film Festival. I won’t say that Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants” is a better film than any other released this year, but I will say it’s my favorite.

It’s as honest a film as I have seen in many years. And, without getting into specifics, I can relate to some of the issues and emotions that make up the core of this film. Sometimes when a loved one is dying, you have to laugh because there’s no more crying to be done. Sometimes you do get angry at them. Angry for doing something foolish that made them sick in the first place (drinking, smoking, etc.) or even angry at them for doing something as “selfish” as leaving you.

George Clooney’s performance is also my favorite by a male actor this year. Over the years, Clooney has worked to overcome his heartthrob image and expand his range. As the cuckolded husband dealing with his dying wife, he suddenly becomes the only parent to two girls. He’s also dealing with a major business deal that affects the entire state of Hawaii.

Clooney works with all these emotions and more. I’m not sure he could have played this role as convincingly 10 years ago, but he has matured and grown as an actor to the point where he’s got about as much range as anyone out there.

Which brings me to my favorite supporting role of the year: Shailene Woodley in “The Descendants.” She plays the rebellious elder daughter forced by life to grow up exactly when she needs to. She’s dealing with many of the same emotions as her father, but, at 17, hasn’t learned to control them as well. She wears them on her sleeve and has to try and put them in check while serving as a co-parent for 10-year-old little sis Scottie (Amara Miller). It’s hard enough being a teenager, but dealing with such a dramatic upheaval at the same time is a double whammy. Her progress from drunk, night-golfing truant to responsible older sister is not without bumps, but Woodley is natural and a joy to watch.

Another reason I’m touting the strength of the cinema this year is the acting, especially by women. Michelle Williams (“My Week With Marilyn”), Kirsten Dunst (“Melancholia”), Carey Mulligan (“Shame”), Rooney Mara (“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”), Leila Hatami (“A Separation”), Charlize Theron (“Young Adult”), Elizabeth Olsen (“Martha Marcy May Marlene”), Felicity Jones (“Like Crazy”) and Keira Knightley (“A Dangerous Method”) are collectively an astonishingly good group of performances. That doesn’t even include Glenn Close in “Albert Nobbs” or anyone in “The Help,” as I haven’t seen them yet.

Jessica Chastain deserves special praise, however. She was in seven (yes, SEVEN!) films in 2011: “The Debt,” “Tree of Life,” “Coriolanus,” “The Help,” “Wilde Salome,” “Texas Killing Fields” and “Take Shelter.” I’m still making my way through all seven, but this gives me an opportunity to mention a film that just missed my top 10: Jeff Nichols’ “Take Shelter.”

Wow. This one pretty much blew me away and nothing would make me happier than if Chastain and co-star Michael Shannon (“Boardwalk Empire”) were to receive Oscar nominations. Shannon gives a magnificent performance as husband and father Curtis, who may just be going out of his mind and who is deeply aware of that possibility. (His mother was institutionalized for paranoid schizophrenia when he was a child). We’ve all seen actors portray someone going mad, but watching Shannon walk the tightrope between having delusions and recognizing them as such – while being powerless against believing them as the truth – is truly harrowing.

Top 10:

“The Artist”

“The Descendants”

“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”

“Martha Marcy May Marlene”


“Midnight in Paris”


“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”

“A Separation”


Honorable mentions:

“A Dangerous Method”

“Hell and Back Again”

“The Ides of March”

“Like Crazy”

“Margin Call”

“Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol”

“Life in a Day”

“My Week With Marilyn”

“Page One: Inside the New York Times”


“Take Shelter”

“The Skin I Live In”

“The Trip”

“We Bought a Zoo”

“Winnie the Pooh”

“Young Adult”

Best Lead Male Performance:

George Clooney, “The Descendants”

Jean Dujardin, “The Artist”

Michael Fassbender, “Shame” and “A Dangerous Method”

Peyman Maadi, “A Separation”

Gary Oldman, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”

Brad Pitt, “Moneyball”

Michael Shannon, “Take Shelter”

Best Lead Female Performance:

Kirsten Dunst, “Melancholia”

Leila Hatami, “A Separation”

Felicity Jones, “Like Crazy”

Keira Knightley, “A Dangerous Method”

Rooney Mara, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”

Elizabeth Olsen, “Martha Marcy May Marlene”

Charlize Theron, “Young Adult”

Michelle Williams, “My Week With Marilyn”

Best Supporting Male Performance:

Kenneth Branagh, “My Week With Marilyn”

Albert Brooks, “Drive”

John Hawkes, “Martha Marcy May Marlene”

Patton Oswalt, “Young Adult”

Brad Pitt, “Tree of Life”

Corey Stoll, “Midnight in Paris”

Uggie, “The Artist”

Best Supporting Female Performance:

Bérénice Bejo, “The Artist”

Jessica Chastain, “Take Shelter” and “Tree of Life”

Charlotte Gainsbourg, “Melancholia”

Carey Mulligan, “Shame”

Shailene Woodley, “The Descendants”