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The 50 Best Movies of 2011

December 27, 2011  |  10:09am
From the smallest art films to the biggest blockbusters, documentaries and narratives from more than a dozen different countries, we present the 50 best movies of 2011.

10. Project Nim
In Man on Wire, director James Marsh recounted French tightrope walker Philippe Petit’s exploits, most notably his unauthorized 1974 walk between the Twin Towers that held most of the city of New York breathless for an entire morning. In Project Nim, a team of researchers (only one year earlier, in 1973) sets out to accomplish an even more audacious and thrilling goal—to teach a chimpanzee human sign language and initiate meaningful dialogue. Technically the film is flawless. But the really compelling angle for the film is the very idea of inter-species communication.

9. Beginners
Beginners is directed by Mike Mills, who hasn’t made a feature film since 2005’s Thumbsucker. And this time, Mills drew on his own life for the story of Beginners. Like Hal, Mills’ father also came out of the closet after the death of his mother. Cancer took both of his parents and there’s a subtle jab at smoking in the film. But Beginners is not a message movie; it’s an ambitious play on coming-of-age late in life, of course for Hal but also very much for Oliver, and perhaps for Mills himself.—Jonathan Hickman

8. Bellflower
The best recommendations at Sundance always seem to come from random strangers, and they usually come on one of the shuttle buses festivalgoers spend so much time on. This year, someone described Bellflower this way: “It’s kind of like an edgier 500 Days of Summer, except when she leaves him, instead of getting all sad and mopey, he starts building a monster car with flamethrowers and blowing shit up, and then the whole film turns into this crazy acid trip.” She paused. “Oh, and there’s lots of fire.” The man behind Paste’s favorite debut of the year is the sweet, goofy, awkward, audacious, brilliant figure of Evan Glodell. His debut is like seeing a Tarantino or Rodriguez film for the first time, and he’s certain to have many, many doors open up as a result.

7. General Orders No. 9
A deeply rich baritone with an accent dripping of old bourbon muses—intermittently—over footage of city and country, group and individual, as hypnotic music plays. It’s as if Terence Malick filmed a newly discovered William Faulkner memoir. A decade in the making, it’s the most wholly original vision in years.

6. Drive
Drive offers a number of remarkable performances. Despite minimal dialogue and a scene count you can tally on one hand, Christina Hendricks is engaging, justly earning her own movie poster. Bryan Cranston (Shannon), who never ceases to impress, took his less than supporting role and molded it into something notable. Drive stands out as one of the best films to have been released thus far this year. Will you leave the theater happy? Sad? Appalled? Inspired? Yes. All of the above.—Caitlin Colford

5. A Separation
Divorce in the big city is never pretty, especially when that city is Tehran in director Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation. Simin (Leila Hatami) desperately wants to leave Iran, even if it means divorce. Her husband Nader (Peyman Moadi) is willing to let her go, but not if involves taking their studious tween daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi). The relationship is at a stalemate as Simin moves in with her parents, leaving Nader and Termeh to adjust to the arrival of the religious Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a caregiver for Nader’s father who suffers from Alzheimer’s. Tragedy strikes when Nader accuses Razieh of stealing and the ensuing investigation causes everyone to question their beliefs and the consequences. The actors’ voices carry equal weight thoughout the film. Every relationship is equally at odds from father and daughter and husband and wife to church and state, where religion offers very few shades of gray in its judgement and usually has the final say. None of the characters give an inch in tone or actions, which builds to a shocking admission and an unexpected conclusion. Farhadi captures the hustle and bustle of the city that seems oddly familiar even to the most cynical of Americans. Although, he makes it easy to get lost in the mystery of whodunit, Farhadi always lets the characters overshadow the quest for truth. As dialogue-heavy as any French film, A Separation is a welcome respite from big screen excess.— Billy Tatum

4. The Interrupters
Steve James is justly deified for Hoop Dreams, which no less an authority than Roger Ebert declared the greatest documentary of all time. The Academy famously snubbed it, denying it even a nomination for Best Documentary of the year. The Interrupters is the first film since then in which James approached those heights, and inconceivably, the Academy has done it again, as the year’s best documentary didn’t even make the short list for a nomination. Pay them no attention. Don’t miss James’ majestic account of a group of former gang members who toil tirelessly on the streets of Chicago to prevent disputes from escalating into violence.

3. Hugo
With Hugo, director Martin Scorsese has created a dazzling, wondrous experience, an undeniable visual masterpiece. In his adaptation of Brian Selznick’s novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Scorsese weaves together his many passions and concerns: for art, for film, and for fathers and father-figures. He retells the story of a boy (Hugo Cabret, played by Asa Butterfield) in search of a way to complete his father’s work. Alongside Hugo’s tale is the true story of Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), one of the world’s first filmmakers.—Shannon Houston

2 . Take Shelter
Take Shelter is built on deliberate pacing and deliberately restrained performances. As such, the acting is crucial, the difference between being nod-worthy or nodding-off-worthy. Fortunately, both Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain (as Curtis’ wife, Samantha) are riveting as a loving couple whose relationship comes under sudden, pronounced strain. Purposefully given very little to work with in terms of scripted embellishment—Curtis spends half his screen time looking at things, thinking about things and uttering monosyllabic responses concerning things—Shannon’s performance as a tortured everyman is eye-opening.—Michael Burgin

1. The Tree of Life
Terrence Malick’s sixth film in 42 years is, without a doubt, the most ambitious film of the year. In two-and-a-half hours, the writer/director tackles every big question about God through a mid-20th-century coming-of-age story, long shots of the natural world, heavenly voiceovers and yes, dinosaurs. It’s a beautiful, thoughtful, emotional, disorienting and sometimes frustrating film, and your enjoyment will depend on how much you buy into Malick’s very personal and very singular vision. At the film’s core is the story of the O’Briens, a 1950s suburban family with three boys and a tragedy in its future. Rather than staying with any one scene for any length of time, Malick gives us snatches of life with the O’Briens, cutting away periodically and at length to show stunning footage of creation, from the interstellar to the cellular. He stops briefly during the age of dinosaurs, following a single creature on a bad day. We also see one of the boys all grown up (Sean Penn), reflecting on the death of a brother, wandering from the world of corporate success to a walking dream state with figures from his past. It’s these elements—many of which are difficult to decipher or unpack—that had some audience members at Cannes booing, even while the festival was preparing to crown it with the Palme d’Or. But between shots of bubbling lava, there’s a family that you come to care deeply about, including the very flawed patriarch. The themes are grand and punctuated by a sermon on Job in the middle: Why do bad things happen to good people? What’s the value of selflessness? Do the sins of the father need to be revisited by the son? Malick touches on creation and evolution, the existence of heaven and the purpose of life, but does so as much through the humble world of Waco, Texas, in summertime, as through the direct questions from a boy to his Creator that transition between epochs. It’s as much a meditation as a narrative, asking a tremendous amount of patience from viewers and rewarding that patience with something entirely new.—Josh Jackson

Follow @PasteMagazine, editor @JoshJackson and film editor @MichaelDunaway on Twitter.

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