The 50 Best Movies of 2011

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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.

40. Pina
Wenders’ film demonstrates how Pina Bausch’s attitude and vision toward dance and choreography transcended the theater, how she saw dance in everything, and everything as dance. Bausch once said that in order to dance, “Everyone must have the freedom, without inhibitions, to show everything.” Although the audience might not always understand the precise story behind her choreography, the emotions that lie beneath it are palpable and unwavering, whether boundlessly happy or intolerably sad. Ultimately, Bausch’s choreography is relatable because it draws from life, from day-to-day experiences and emotions with which we are all familiar. Seeing this art reintroduced back into the life it mimics and enhances—and in three dimensions no less—is a breathtaking spectacle. Pina is an effusion of all the emotions, good and bad, that shape our daily lives and make us human, but most of all, it is a haunting and beautiful elegy to a woman who changed the world’s conception of dance.—Emily Kirkpatrick

39. Page One
The always entertaining Times reporter David Carr could easily have been the focus of the entire film but director Andrew Rossi smartly uses Carr as an appropriate voice of experience, albeit an unabashed defender of the paper. The grizzled, ex-drug addict journalist is a film editor’s dream as he speaks in sharp, insightful and seemingly effortless sound bites. “If you work for the media long enough,” says Carr, “eventually you’ll type yourself back to your own doorstep.”—Tim Basham

38. Tabloid
Since his breakthrough feature, 1988’s The Thin Blue Line, every one of Errol Morris’ features has essentially been about searching for the truth. It’s been a wide-ranging exploration, one that’s been equally fruitful delving into the mysteries of the universe and displacing common beliefs about Vietnam. With Tabloid, Morris continues probing into this theme, but here he’s found a case in which everyone is lying and the truth itself may may unobtainable—which is likely why its story fascinated him so much.—Sean Gandert

37. Poetry
Winner of the screenplay prize at the Cannes Film Festival, Poetry is a masterfully constructed film from Korean director Lee Chang-dong. Mija (veteran actress Yun Jung-hee) is a single grandmother, taking care of her ungrateful grandson, who decides to enroll in her first poetry class when she discovers she has the onset of Alzheimer’s. While she struggles to make a living by nursing a paralyzed elderly man, her life gets further complicated by her grandson’s potential involvement with a horrendous crime. Despite the tragedy she faces, Mija’s poetry class pushes her to focus on the small pleasures daily life offers. Beautifully acted and shot, the film unfolds with a grace and seeming simplicity rarely seen.—Will McCord

36. Carnage
A daring, perfectly cast comedy, this mannered story of a day in the lives of well-to-do Americans might only have been brought to us by a French-German-Spanish-Polish production. Shot in Paris and in real time, but appropriately set in Brooklyn, Polanski’s latest masterpiece gives the savage being a new home that is equal parts “cruelty and splendor, chaos and balance.”—Shannon Houston

35. Circumstance
It’s hard enough being a teenager in Iran these days, especially if you’re fascinated by Western culture, rock ’n’ roll, techno, designer drugs, sex, alcohol, and movies like Milk. If you also happen to be a lesbian, life gets exponentially more difficult. Circumstance, the new film from Iranian-American filmmaker Maryam Keshavarz, is an excellent look at how the modern youth of Iran skirts the boundaries between the religious state and personal freedom, and all the risks that are involved.—Jonah Flicker

34. Meek’s Cutoff
Kelly Reichardt continues the Oregon exploration she began in Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, but this time the exploration is more literal and less current—a mid-19th-century expedition through the Oregon desert. It’s slow-moving, quiet, and utterly transfixing. Bruce Greenwood is as irresistible as he is unrecognizable.

33. Rango
The most surprising thing about Rango is how much Johnny Depp disappears into the character of a nameless pet chameleon who creates his identity when his terrarium falls out of the back of a car into the desert frontier. Unlike a certain cartoon panda, who was basically an animated version of every Jack Black character ever, Rango is no Keith Richards with an eye-patch or crazy barber/milliner/chocolatier. He’s a cipher who becomes a fraud who becomes a hero.—Josh Jackson

32. Of Gods and Men
If not for The Tree of Life, this would have been the most spiritual experience of 2011. It’s a simple story of simple men, Trappist monks in Algeria who quietly serve their largely Muslim neighbors in peace until the insanity of the world around them finally comes to exact its due. Based on a true story, it’s quiet, meditative, tragic and—in both form and subject matter—one of the most countercultural films of the year.

31. 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.

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