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.
50. War Horse
As a story, it’s heavy-handed and sentimental. As a character study, it’s laughably sleight (as with Spielberg’s ET, the most three dimensional character isn’t even human). The score is John Williams in full nudge-nudge-let-me-tell-you-how-to-feel-mode. But there are some moments of real drama, and some irresistibly beautiful imagery—enough to sneak it into our Top 50.
Kristen Wiig is brilliant. This remains true despite a concerted effort on SNL’s part to make us hate her—a campaign that Lorne Michaels ran consistently since the ‘90s against some of their funniest women. Unlike The Hangover, which was basically a long (but consistently funny) comedy sketch, Bridesmaids is actually a movie. And it’s going to have staying power in the typically bro-dominated pantheon of film comedy.—Ryan Carey
48. Kati with an I
This simple story of a lovestruck high schooler remains one of the more captivating documentaries of the year. Director Robert Greene’s unique perspective as Kati’s step brother is partly responsible, even while his lens maintains a remarkable neutrality. Moments like Kati preparing for graduation, shopping with her boyfriend or hobnobbing with her girlfriends surprisingly make for a compelling tale. And it’s the earlier childhood footage merging with her ascension to young womanhood that brings it all together.—Tim Basham
Radnor’s tale of seven young New Yorkers searching for love and self-acceptance probably won’t win much praise among elements of the film crowd who require their films to lay bare the darkness and hopelessness of life. It’s not a tortured existential tour de force. But it’s also not the fluffy fare you might expect from a mainstream sitcom star; its emotions are real and handled with depth and sophistication. Anytime there’s a Sundance film this tightly written, this well-acted, this deftly directed, that sends viewers from the theater feeling uplifted and with smiles on their faces, that’s an impressive accomplishment. Of special note is Tony Hale in a decidedly un-Buster Bluth performance. Casting him as Sam #2 took some imagination from Radnor.
46. The Muppets
The filmmakers’ approach overflows with the same adoration as their characters on screen. A wistfully placed camera pan on a wall adorned with vintage banjos and memorabilia carries with it as much emotion as the kinetic dance numbers in the gratifying finale. Even modern touches like a hilarious barbershop cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” embody the original show’s subversive zaniness.—Sean Edgar
45. The Guard
In the end, it’s hard to tell if this movie is really good or just really cute. The buddy/cop element is (thankfully) handled with taste and never gets saccharine. The side-plot about Boyle’s ailing mother is more a cul-de-sac than an avenue, but for all the less-than-thoroughly explored sub-themes, one has to stop and admire the amount of entertainment crammed into a lean hour and a half. It’s refreshing to get an ethnic fish-out-of-water buddy/cop flick that doesn’t beat you over the head with Irish countrysides, endless pub-going, cheesy predictable dialogue, or anything else we cliché-sick entertainment consumers have trouble tolerating. This film treats you like an adult who can still have silly inappropriate fun while still fighting for what’s right.—Ryan Carey
44. Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Rise of the Planet of the Apes intelligently tells us how the seemingly upside-down world led by apes could have come about. Winking at the 1968 original, we get touches here and there that pay homage to the Charlton Heston film. And somehow, by playing everything straight and somber, these references don’t seem forced or too cute. Rise is a true prequel that understands the best science-fiction cinema doesn’t rest on the effects but on the ideas and characters.—Jonathan Hickman
43. We Were Here
Sometimes film’s power lies in its simple, straightforward ability to let people tell their stories. We Were Here, a documentary about the AIDS epidemic’s decimation of the San Francisco gay community, doesn’t attempt any great stylistic feats. Directors David Weissman and Bill Weber simply let the people who lived through the tragic time tell their stories, from the initial shock to the ever-lingering sadness. The filmmakers masterfully intercut several lives into a vivid portrait of an era and an unforgettable emotional gut punch. This film is essential for its history and its humanity.—Jeremy Matthews
42. Tuesday, after Christmas
Romanian director Radu Muntean’s clinical study of an extramarital affair has far fewer scenes than the average film. But each of those scenes is packed with telling details and mounting turmoil. Without ever breaking the film’s established point of view, Muntean closely examines every party involved in a betrayed marriage, touching on longing, passion, shame, suspense and anger. The superb cast delivers truthful performances throughout long, unforgiving takes. Tuesday, After Christmas never judges its characters, but follows them down a path that will greet each of them with a different mix of pleasure and pain.—Jeremy Matthews
41. Bill Cunningham New York
Half of making a great documentary is finding a great subject, and Press has absolutely done that in this affectionate treatment of the New York Times’ irresistibly charming octogenarian street fashion photographer.