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Best of 2011 in movies: Betsy Sharkey

If you count on the movies for escape, to take you away from your cares and woes for a while, you’ve not found much comfort there, not this year.

In some cases the names alone have been the tipoff — “Shame,” “Melancholia,” “Take Shelter,” “Carnage,” “Contagion,” “A Dangerous Method.” Others — “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” “We Have to Talk About Kevin,” “Drive,” “Rampart,” “Margin Call” — have teased around the edges with the title hinting at the coming storm, assuming you don’t already know chapter and verse of the novels or events that were their inspiration. And let’s face it: If the mission is impossible, can death or devastation be far behind?

Even the comedies, the romances, the family films have come with a more caustic edge. Consider “Young Adult,” for example, with Charlize Theron’s narcissistic passage to destruction, or Paul Giamatti in “Win Win,” letting his financial slide get the better of his ethics. Meanwhile, Martin Scorsese’s magical “Hugo” has an orphaned boy at its center dealing with abandonment issues, while the uplift of “We Bought a Zoo” with Matt Damon begins with a mother’s death. As does my favorite film of the year — “The Descendants” — with a winning George Clooney at its warm heart but worrying his way through his wife’s grave injury, his kids’ anger and the legacy of the betrayals left behind.

The question becomes whether it is worth it for you. Worth paying for the pain you know is coming? Giving up precious leisure hours for excursions into depressing terrain? If you don’t like the look of things, a way to force filmmakers to pull back from the bleak is to reject their movies out of hand. But if you do that this year, you will miss the exciting and rewarding work to be found in all those dark recesses. Everyone has a threshold for these sorts of films, but I’d argue for taking the risk with the returns coming in searing performances, anxieties exposed, emotions trampled, betrayals of trust, hope, love, self, ambition, dreams, lovers and strangers. Capping this season of discontent are a few apocalyptic visions — Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia” the apex — that are simply breathtaking.

Do keep in mind that this angst isn’t being plucked out of thin air, as always the movies ‘r us. For filmmakers, our moods become their inspiration; our pulse, and their measure of it, set the beat of this drum. The payoff is a kind of understanding made possible by being able to step back to observe the various distress signals on screen that are harder to get when you’re living through them.

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There is also solace to be found in knowing that whatever is upsetting your apple cart in these troubled times, you’re not alone. The movies not only mirror our world, they take it to extremes. As a result, almost nothing could be worse than what filmmakers have conjured up this year, with the actors stepping into the fray in our stead and pulling it off with aplomb.

Consider just a few of the year’s more meaningful conflicts. Don’t trust the cops? Woody Harrelson in “Rampart” will help you synthesize the reason for those fears. Worried that your kids are beyond redemption? Tilda Swinton in “We Need to Talk About Kevin” will shake you to the core with her parenting pain yet leave you relieved that the burden is hers, not yours. Frustrated that criminals are getting away with their white- or blue-collar badness? “Margin Call,” “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and “Drive” are on the leading edge of some satisfying payback. Fear the end of the world? Shudder at Michael Shannon digging himself into a hole literally and metaphorically in “Take Shelter.”

The year’s descent into the inner world of our demons is perhaps never more visceral or nakedly exposed than it is in “Shame” and “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” Culturally we remain more at ease with violence, actually less bothered by nearly everything else on the bothersome list, than sex. David Fincher’s “Dragon Tattoo” and Steve McQueen’s “Shame” demand that we consider exceedingly discomforting elements. In “Dragon,” Rooney Mara’s Lisbeth’s repression, rage and motivation are defined by it, while Michael Fassbender’s Brandon is ravaged by its uncontrollable nature — sex is his “Shame,” which is the filmmaker’s way of suggesting in some ways it is ours as well.

None of it easy watching, but if we face the things that unsettle us in a theater, maybe it will make real life’s travails a bit more bearable. Not escape exactly, but compelling, gripping, provocative entertainment. So for now, prepare to be battered, and better for it. Maybe 2012 will usher in the light.

betsy.sharkey@latimes.com


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