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Well it’s that time of year again: this is the definitive list for the best films of the year. Much like last year, the field of good films runs quite deep, even though it isn’t very top heavy– that is, there aren’t many ‘elite’ films; but lots of good ones. I usually only rank the top 15, or 10 (in down years), but this year I even considered extending the list to 25. That said, this is also one of those years that the Academy Awards are destined to get wrong. Most of the year’s best films are smaller, indie films or far too edgy or violent for Oscar sentiments to handle. In fact, many of the major Oscar categories are filled with mediocre films this year (one perfect example: “War Horse” is not just bad, it is probably Spielberg’s worst film ever). Acting nominations are also awry, as many of the best performances of the year– especially from women– were completely unrecognized (Glenn Close in “Albert Nobbs” instead of Carey Mulligan in “Shame”? Seriously?). If you’re the type to use the Oscars as a guide at year’s end to catch up on some of the best films of the year, you really need this list instead this year.

Before getting to the list, the usual disclaimers: I can’t see every film. While I have a pretty stringent vetting process, there are some good movies that I might have missed. Also, many foreign films are impossible to find and watch until later into the following year, so this list is always up for revision and occasional reshuffling. Secondly, several of my reviews of movies on this list are critical. Those criticisms are there to justify why I have ranked the films as I have, not to suggest that any film on this list is not worth seeing. If it’s listed, it’s a good film.

Now without further delay, here’s the 20 best films of 2011!

(20) 50/50

This is a film I avoided until much later into the year. Any film that advertizes the fact that it’s from the same people who created “Superbad,” but is about a young man who gets cancer, can’t leave many people with high expectations, can it? The good news is this film is actually only barely a comedy, and treats the subject with honesty. Don’t get me wrong, it has its faults, but in the end 50/50 tugs at genuine heartstrings.

(19) Margin Call

‘Margin Call”s biggest strength lies in its excellent script, even though the acting is, with a few exceptions, largely dry. Dialogue is punchy and smart, filled with poignant reflections on the warped values that ultimately led to the financial collapse of ’07.

(18) We Need to Talk About Kevin

Tilda Swinton is the first notable actress among many from the movies on this list that got snubbed by the Academy this year. She easily deserves a nomination over all those who did receive one, with the only exception being perhaps Michelle Williams. ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’ is an edgy, creepy thriller, beautifully shot and edited, and as said, well acted too. It falters, however, in the non-linear way with which the storyline unfolds. The narrative gets a bit lost for the concept, and for this reason I found myself occasionally bored and disconnected from the plot. Even so, the film brilliantly unfolds like a nightmare– and may leave you laying awake at night pondering its premise.

(17) Tyrannosaur

This is one of those obscure little gems that come from out of no where to leave an impression. Paddy Considine’s directorial debut is rough around the edges, but soft on the interior. It never tries to be anything more than what it is, which is just enough. Acting is also superb: each character is deeply damaged, but somehow retain the best of intentions.

(16) My Week with Marilyn

Among those nominated for best actress this year, Michelle Williams is the most deserving. This is a side of Marilyn Monroe we’ve not fully seen before, a vulnerability that Williams captures flawlessly. Ironically, though, the film’s biggest asset is also its biggest obstacle– Williams’ performance. Quite simply, filling the role of one of the greatest sex symbols of a generation is no simple role call. As wonderful as Williams’ portrayal is, she just doesn’t carry the allure that the role demands. This is no fault of Williams– who transcended her own boundaries in many ways here– but the shoes are just too big to fill, and as a result the film fell a bit flat.

(15) The Artist

Oscar bait. Odds are strong that this film will win for Best Picture this year. First, what worked: cinematography is stunning. Really beautiful. Acting is also top notch– Jean Dujardin deserves to be in the discussion for best actor. Lastly, the film’s concept is extremely clever. The problem, though? Who wants to honestly sit through a silent film anymore? Sound does get incorporated into the film incrementally, but this technique is too under-utilized. If sound had been more consistently incorporated as character development escalated and the plotline progressed, I think this movie really could have transcended itself. But instead it just embraced itself as a silent film. It just didn’t follow through with the concept enough to engage me with it. In the end, the antique aspects of the genre just won’t appeal to the modern movie goer.

(14) The Skin I Live In (La Piel Que Habito)

Before saying anything about the film, take note: If you’re watching the trailers I’ve posted for these movies, this trailer is one of the worst, most amateurish trailers I’ve ever seen. Best to ignore the text in it entirely– it’s awful. Please, do yourself a favor and don’t judge this movie based upon its trailer. That said, on to the movie itself: anyone who is a fan of Pedro Almodóvar will probably think this film is another masterpiece– and they wouldn’t be terribly far off. The narrative is a bit zany, but there are some poignant philosophical quandaries explored here. (Think along the lines of gender being only ‘skin deep’).

(13) Carnage

I found myself laughing out loud throughout this film. The escalation of the dialogue is like a symphony into chaos, carefully stripping away the facade of civilization into the raw carnage that lies underneath. The cast here is fantastic, with excellent acting by each. If one performance stands out, though, it belongs to Kate Winslet (another actress this year who may have deserved an Awards nod).  The first half of the film is far more effective than the second half– it begins to lose its authenticity, or believability, as things progress (and by this, I don’t mean in the way that the film had intended to descend into chaos– I mean that the dialogue and character swings became unrelatable). This isn’t a long film, you can watch it in a little over an hour, but you may want to watch it again.

(12) The Tree of Life

As a huge Terrence Malick fan, I went into this film with the highest of possible expectations. This was supposed to be his magnum opus; an all-encompassing epic that would profoundly answer all of nature’s mysteries about humankind’s place in the cosmos. In other words, I was pretty much destined to be disappointed. And by comparison to those expectations, and to Malick’s body of work, this film did fall short. First, though: the cinematography in this film is some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. If you go into this film thinking of it more as a videographer’s portfolio than a film with a real narrative, you’ll have your breath taken away. The problem with the movie comes with the narrative. The narrator’s dialogue is extremely vague and abstruse– it adds almost nothing to the progression of the narrative, or to the imagery (basically, the narrator only asks the vaguest of questions throughout the film, things like: “Who am I?”, “Why am I here?”, etc. with little nuance). I’d rather it just have been left out. Several other aspects to the narrative, such as a few brief scenes at Sean Penn’s character’s workplace, are left completely undeveloped. In the end, the ethereal aspects of this film’s narrative just leave you floating aimlessly in thin air. For those who require something to grasp onto here: don’t overthink it. The entire plotline is really just a story about a family coping with the death of a child– trying to make sense of it in the grand scheme of life on Earth. That’s all this really is, at heart. It’s a beautiful film, but also a tad overarching.

(11) Midnight in Paris

Many people are lauding this as the best Woody Allen movie in over a decade. Not quite. “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” was easily superior, but it was a few years ago and how quickly we forget. It’s true that Allen hasn’t left us with many memorable films in these latter years, though; Allen has been shooting blanks for a long time. So ‘Midnight in Paris’ was a welcome relief! The script is endlessly charming and endearing, and the plotline is original and well-executed. Where this film can be criticized, it’s in the acting. Owen Wilson does a half-hearted Woody Allen impersonation– he was poorly cast. Most of the supporting performances are forgettable too. But overall, this is an endearing film. It’s nice to have you back, Woody Allen.

(10) Martha Marcy May Marlene

What’s this? An Olsen sister that can actually act? Elizabeth Olsen doesn’t just act– she delivers one of the best performances of the year by a female lead. It’s yet another great female performance that went overlooked by the Oscars this year. This film is extremely smart as it unravels psychologically– even the viewer is likely to mix up dreams and nightmares from reality– much as a cult might weave its way into a young woman’s vulnerable psyche. I’ll guarantee you one thing about this film: it’s got an ending that you’ll never see coming.

(9) Incendies

Technically part of last year’s Oscar class, “Incendies” wasn’t released to most audiences until later into 2011, so for me it’s included in this year’s class. A haunting, haunting film that is as engaging as it is poignant. And poignant it is. Conflict in the Middle East is tragic for many reasons, but perhaps the most devastating is the fact that when you strip away the veneer of history, it’s really just neighbor killing neighbor; or maybe an even closer relation than that.

(8) Beginners

An endearing script, “Beginners” is director Mike Mills’ autobiographical dramatization of his own life. But you don’t need to know that fact to enjoy this film. Non-conventional modes of storytelling are interwoven seamlessly throughout the film, such as a dog which gets its own subtitles, and narration that gives the story both a place in time and a generalized, universal relatedness that is timeless. In the end, it’s just a sweet story about people finding their own value in each other. Christopher Plummer has the noteworthy performance here, as a man who “comes out” to his son at the age of 75.

(7) Take Shelter

This is one of the true indie gems from this year. The way the drama escalates is done to subtle perfection, ultimately climaxing in a riveting final 20 minutes. The film seems to end in a flawlessly-executed faux-resolution, until that ending is usurped by the true ending, one which ties it all together brilliantly, and will leave many audiences both perplexed and enlightened. It’s simply great filmmaking. Michael Shannon deserved an Oscar nod for this performance, but was overlooked. The thing that really makes this film transcendent, however, is in what it represents. Few films better capture the insecurity and restlessness of the current American psyche. Is it really so crazy to prepare for a coming storm?

(6) Young Adult

This film really shows the maturity of screenwriter Diablo Cody (“Juno”), and is her best work to date. Charlize Theron also deserves recognition for putting on a fantastic performance– she was perfectly cast. Theron plays an author of books in the ‘Young Adult’ genre– a label with meanings on multiple levels within the movie. Aside from being funny, this script is devastating (in the best possible way) during its protagonist’s final redemption. Despite a few plot bumps (why was Mavis’ mother and father at the party at the end?), the script completely floors you by the time it’s over. There’s no holding back here, no time for pleasantries. The dialogue is cutting and honest, especially in the film’s last series of scenes and interactions. (The last conversation in the film is brutally authentic!). Anyone with ambition who has a hometown that they have left, but occasionally return to, will find this film poignantly relatable. On the other hand, those who live ordinary lives having never left their hometown may want to be forewarned: this film will kick your ass.

(5) The Descendants

Alexander Payne has quickly become one of my favorite screenwriters (Sideways, About Schmidt, 14e Arrondissement), and I really, really wanted to rank this film higher than fifth. In the end, though, I couldn’t do it in good faith. The film has all the wonderful elements characteristic of a Payne script: character faces a major change or life moment, goes on some kind of journey to find resolution through a series of missteps, then reaches an existential resolution. Part of what makes his scripts so charming is that he finds this resolution in otherwise ordinary characters. With “The Descendants,” though, there were a couple of elements in the script that just didn’t fit right. Namely, the comedic elements. Case in point: the young man who Matt King’s daughter brings along on the journey. The character is meant to be a comedic element, but instead his placement throughout the film is just awkward and doesn’t really make much sense. A number of other comedic moments also fall short. Where this film earns its top 5 ranking, however, is in its dramatic elements. Payne is simply a master at creating authentic dramatic climaxes that are gut-wrenching and true, and which are relatable to just about anyone. “The Descendants” is no where near the level of the brilliant “Sideways,” but it was still one of the best films of this year.

(4) Moneyball

Aaron Sorkin has done it again: turned a story which has no business being made into a film, into a really good film. Last year, he somehow turned out a script about Facebook into one of the best films of the year. This year, he turned a book about baseball statistics (baseball statistics!) into a complex, brooding character study. How does he find these stories buried underneath otherwise un-filmable content? Anyone who hears the premise of this movie would be forgiven for being turned off– but you’d also regret it. “Moneyball” is layered with value. The best movies also find a way to wow you in the end, and that’s exactly what “Moneyball” does. The final scene with Pitt driving in his car contains so much value in such a subtle moment– a moment which is set up deliberately throughout the whole film. You just have to appreciate great screenwriting when you see it.

(3) Shame

Not a flaw to be found in this filmmaking. “Shame” is a penetrating character study which uses sexual addiction as its metaphor; and it’s simply captivating. It also contains the two best performances of the year. If I had my way, both Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan would win for best actor and actress respectively (unfortunately this film might be too dark and real for the Academy to handle.) Mulligan, in particular, takes it to another level. Her performance absolutely blew me away. Not just the best performance from an actress this year, but I would now place Mulligan atop a shortlist of the best actresses in the business right now– from this performance alone. I can’t speak more highly of it. Beautifully filmed and utterly heart-wrenching, I wouldn’t fault anyone for ranking “Shame” as the best movie of the year. For me, though, there were two others…

(2) Like Crazy

Every once in a while a film comes out of no where, totally unexpected, and just floors you by how right it gets it. Few films have captured at once the beauty and destructiveness of first love better than “Like Crazy”. It’s simply one of the best films on the obsessiveness of young love that I’ve seen in a long, long time. Anyone who has dealt with the ambiguity of a long distance relationship on top of it will find this film crushingly relatable. Acting is also great, with Felicity Jones being another overlooked actress this year. There are a lot of good films. There are a lot of great films. But I think the best films are the ones that somehow, someway just get it completely right. This film hit me there, in that place. Also, the trailer for this film might be the best trailer of the year. I dare you not to watch this film after seeing that trailer.

(1) Drive

In a year when many of the best films turned out to come from no where, it’s appropriate that ‘Drive’ should be #1. When I went to see this film, I didn’t go with high expectations. I knew it had received trustworthy reviews, but in my head I just assumed it would probably turn out to be an arthouse attempt at “Fast and Furious,” or something. Instead, I got blown away. Unfortunately, this film is likely too dark and violent for the Academy– which is a shame, because it was the clear-cut best film of the year. Thematically, this is simply a classic anti-hero character study done to perfection. I suppose the highest compliment you can afford any movie is just to say that it was good cinema. Yes, this film has great acting (notables: Carey Mulligan, again… as well as Albert Brooks), a great script, beautiful cinematography. But it was also just damn good cinema. This is what people go to the movies for. Did I mention that it was beautifully filmed? And just damn cool?

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