Dec. 27 Update: Check out Paste’s final list of the 50 Best Movies of 2011.
We’ve seen a lot of good movies in the first half of 2011. And while our various film writers and editors will undoubtedly like to take the next six months to round-out their viewing, we’d also like to give you our preliminary thoughts on the films of 2011, so far. Here are 20 films from 2011 well worth a couple hours and the ever-escalating price of a ticket.
20. Midnight in Paris
Late-era Woody has been an interesting phenomenon to watch, as his occasional hits (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) and stupefying misses (Scoop) come hard on each other’s heels. This year’s offering in his recent “Cities I Have Loved” series is set in Paris, and of course, given the setting and the auteur, is a heady love story. But more importantly, Midnight in Paris is also an exploration of nostalgia, the artistic impulse, and even happiness itself. It’s an entertaining and sometimes hilarious film that belongs squarely in Allen’s “hit” column.—Michael Dunaway
19. Meek’s Cutoff
Kelly Reichardt’s commendations for Rivers of Grass, Wendy and Lucy and Old Joy might not have won her a huge budget for Meek’s Cutoff, but they did help her secure a great cast, including Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood and Paul Dano for this little Western set in 1845. The film examines a group of settlers encountering a native culture they don’t understand.
This taut drama follows a pair of twins trying to fulfill a request from their mother’s will: to find their lost brother and unknown father and hand them a pair of mysterious letters. It soon turns out that the pair knew little of their mother’s life, so their exploration is one of their own family history. Incendies cleverly cross-cuts the siblings’ search with their mother’s life, allowing the audience to learn with them each twist and turn of who she was. Stylistically the film is mesmerizing, and director Denis Villenueve fills every frame with the maximum level of suspense. On the level of storytelling the movie’s a true tour de force, every bit as thrilling as a Bourne movie.—Sean Gandert
17. Super 8
Proving that star power isn’t limited to those in front of the camera, Steven Spielberg and J.J. Abrams delivered a little bit of old-school, mainstream, pop-corn, sci-fi summer fun.
While it may not be well-known here, the United States isn’t the only Western nation to send troops into Afghanistan. Denmark and Britain also maintain stations against the Taliban in the area, and Armadillo sets out to show what it’s like for soldiers to go through a single six-month tour of duty there—no more and no less. The film might not be as exciting as some other documentaries about war, let alone fictional features, but it feels less exploitative than other entries in the genre. It also features some of the best photography a film of this kind has ever had, often using evocative compositions to tell its story—even while the filmmakers and soldiers are risking their lives. You may be sick of war films about Afghanistan by now, but Armadillo’s boldly objective take on the situation shouldn’t be missed.—Sean Gandert
15. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
When it comes to sheer impenetrability in film, there’s everyone else and then there’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Even avant-garde filmmakers like Stan Brakhage or Jonas Mekas at least seem to have a logic for what appears in their films, but Weerasethakul’s choices are hard to fathom, such that even when you’re largely aware of what he’s trying to do, things don’t get any easier. Anyone interested in watching Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives should know going in that what they’re about to see makes David Lynch look like Chris Columbus, and whether or not that’s a good thing is very much in the eye of the beholder. Still, it’s undeniably groundbreaking, and while the film’s experiments miss nearly as often as they hit, that doesn’t detract much from how mesmerizing of an experience it can be.—Sean Gandert
Krisen Wiig is brilliant, and unlike The Hangover, which was basically a long comedy sketch, Bridesmaids is actually a movie. Even in the bro-dominated pantheon of film comedy, it’s going to have staying power. Wiig should feel proud about an outstanding performance in a very good film.—Ryan Carey
13. Of Gods and Men
Of Gods and Men depicts what happened to a Trappist monastery in Algeria during 1996, events which largely consist of the monks attending to their normal monk business while the country around them is collapsing. Of course, a movie like this has a heavy spiritual component, and director Xavier Beauvois highlights this by breaking up the monks’ daily business in fields and helping the town where they live with spiritual ceremonies. These are all heavy on singing and chanting, and they speak of something going on beyond what we see on-screen. What we do have of a plot is inspiring, with the monks all gradually accepting their fates and staying with their town despite almost certain death.—Sean Gandert
12. Cave of Forgotten Dreams
3-D skeptics might have to rethink their stance after witnessing Werner Herzog’s stunning tour of the oldest cave drawings ever found.
11. My Perestroika
Children of the Cold War will be fascinated by this peek behind the Iron Curtain as the film follows the lives of five Russians—from a rock musician to an up-scale retailer—from their childhoods in the U.S.S.R. through the enormous changes of the last two decades.—Josh Jackson