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.

30. Another Earth
The synopsis of Another Earth sounds misleadingly sci-fi heavy: Scientists suddenly discover a second Earth whose unusual orbit has hidden it from view behind the sun all this time, and soon learn that there are strange parallels between that Earth and our own, including the possibility of alternate selves for each one of us. Sounds like an episode of The Twilight Zone, right? In fact, all that is just a setup for a deeply personal and philosophical exploration of identity, remorse, loss and reconciliation.

29. Young Adult
Theron proved in her Oscar-winning role in Monster that she can play as ugly as she is beautiful, and here she demonstrates that transformation, for Mavis is a hot mess when she’s not trying to woo Buddy, and the day-long prep it takes to get from before to after entails grody pedicures, faux hairpieces and tone-deaf outfits. (She wears a little black dress to a franchise sports bar.) Mavis is sexy and clever but also oblivious and cruel, and Theron embraces all of it, shoving her inevitable awkward humiliation at us. We can’t turn away, and as a result, finally, we see her.—Annlee Ellingson

28. Uncle Boonme Who Can Recall His Past Lives
A lot of events and elements that seem random or unnecessary during the film make more sense with some consideration, but it’s hard to think of a more difficult manner of communicating than through such a morass of piled-on oddity. But this essential strangeness gives a sense of wonder to the film, and is in some sense its reason for existence. There are parts of the picture that seem opaque for the sake of opaqueness, only there on-screen in order to be analyzed by film professors—Weerasethakul’s films are tinged with a Joycean need to have others give them significance. Still, though, Uncle Boonmee is undeniably groundbreaking, and while the film’s experiments miss nearly as often as they hit, they’re always exciting. It’s that rarity in any medium, a totally unique work of art, and that it’s a bit of a mess doesn’t detract much from how mesmerizing of an experience it can be.—Sean Gandert

27. Into the Abyss
Into the Abyss, the latest work from acclaimed documentarian Werner Herzog, lives up to its weighty title. The captivating film takes us into the endless depths of the human soul as it explores life, death and everything between. The story centers on two young convicts, Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, who were found guilty of a triple homicide in a small Texas town. Perry sits on death row, eight days away from his execution, while his accomplice, Burkett, faces a life sentence. Thus begins a documentary on capital punishment, but like all Herzog’s work, the film looks far beyond a single idea and, despite a transparent agenda, never sermonizes.—David Roark

26. Attack the Block
Joe Cornish doesn’t just borrow from Edgar Wright aesthetically; he also exhibits the same sense of humor that’s made films like Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World cultural phenomena. This comedy—a precise blend of slapstick and clever dialogue—comes through in the well-crafted script, but it’s most notable in the characters and the chemistry between them. Thanks to some fine performances from a young cast of actors, as well as Luke Treadaway and Nick Frost who play a pair of stoners, we get a believable group whom we can just sit back and enjoy.—Maryann Koopman Kelly

25. The Trip
Two British actor/comedians playing versions of themselves travel the beautiful and bleak north England countryside, stopping to eat at various upscale restaurants, but mostly just talking. And talking and talking. And doing impressions of Michael Caine, Woody Allen, and Liam Neeson, as well as British personalities an American audience might not recognize. But mostly just talking, with overlapping affection and competition. Sound like a good idea for a film? It absolutely is.—Jonah Flicker

24. Another Year
Writer/director Mike Leigh (Vera Drake, Secrets & Lies, Topsy-Turvy) takes us through a year-in-the-life of a rather ordinary London couple and their relationships with family and friends. Like many of his films, Another Year relies on superb acting, where the study of social behavior through the actions of interesting though often sedate characters is the strength of the film.—Tim Basham

23. The Mill and the Cross
The Mill and the Cross is an imaging of what inspired Pieter Bruegel’s masterful painting The Way to Calvary, an epic work featuring over 500 figures. What Majewski finds in Bruegel’s painting is an aesthetic expression of truth so powerful that it overcomes the tragedies it was drawn from. It’s in fact a truth so profound to the picture that it’s almost religious, and the devotion Majewski has towards painting and art is recognizable in the devotion Bruegel had towards Christ. The result, slow and tedious as it may be at times, is a work of tangible passion and a moving testament to the place art has in overcoming any hardships.—Sean Gandert

22. Thunder Soul
During the early 1970s, there was a group in Houston that was acclaimed by some as the greatest funk band in the world. Amazingly enough, it was made up of high-school students, the Kashmere High School Stage Band. After 35 years, alumni return to give legendary band director Conrad “Prof” Johnson one more concert as he nears the end of his life. Mr. Holland’s Opus meets The Commitments, but real.

21. The Artist
In his black-and-white ode to the Golden Age of Hollywood, Gallic writer-director Michael Hazanavicius honors form as well as content, packaging his romantic melodrama about the rise of a new ingénue and the fall of a silent movie star in 1920s and ’30s Los Angeles in luxurious black, white, and shades of shimmering silver. It’s a beautiful, ambitious, nostalgic endeavor that demonstrates its makers are, indeed, artists.—Annlee Ellingson