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.

20. Martha Marcy May Marlene
First-time feature writer-director Sean Durkin has crafted an assured and exquisitely controlled indie drama about a young woman’s escape from a cult commune and her uneasy reentry into the real world. In the lead is Elizabeth Olsen (younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley) in her first film role—a naked performance (literally and emotionally) that exposes a fresh, raw talent. Like a peach, she’s vulnerable on the surface, malleable and easily bruised, but with a stone of conviction at her core.—Annlee Ellingson

19. 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.

18. Kinyarwanda
It would be easy to label Kinyarwanda as Crash meets Hotel Rwanda. Like Crash, it tells six stories of seemingly unrelated characters whose lives eventually intertwine. Like Hotel Rwanda, it centers around historical acts of great cruelty and great courage during the hundred days of the Rwandan genocide. But Kinyarwanda is arguably a better movie than either. It’s the first feature film produced by Rwandans, and its treatment of the crisis is so personal and compelling, so deeply felt, that it will take your breath away. It was a thrill to see such an enobling film win the Audience Award at Sundance.

17. Nostalgia for the Light
The largest dead space on earth is the Atacama desert in Chile, a place so desolate that not even insects or retiles live in the zero-humidity environment. Acclaimed Chilean documentarian Patricio Guzman returns there to examine the work of the astronomers in the observatory there (he was passionate about astronomy as a child), but ends up also exploring the work of the archaeologists who uncover evidence of ancient inhabitants of the desert, and of a group of people who search for dead bodies dumped there by the Pinochet regime. It’s thoughtful, heartfelt and gorgeous.

16. Hesher
It’s safe to say you haven’t encountered a film character like Joseph Gordon Levitt’s title character in Spencer Susser’s fantastic Hesher. He loves pornography, heavy metal, trespassing, arson and many other chaotic pursuits, but he pursues them with such an unselfconscious near-innocence that he’s an immediately compelling character. He’s also responsible for some of the biggest surprises in one of the year’s best films.

15. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Steeped in the monochrome color palette and noir soundtrack of 1970s espionage cinema, Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of John le Carré’s classic bestselling spy novel offers smart, nostalgic entertainment for a discerning adult audience. Alfredson previously directed Let the Right One In, and in some ways his follow-up is as chilly as that Swedish vampire flick. Like his adolescent bloodsucker, these career spies are always on guard, even among those they consider their closest friends. In a profession founded on loyalty and ideals, what they fear most is deceit and betrayal—of each other and of themselves.—Annlee Ellingson

14. 13 Assassins
I hesitate to make any grand statements about Miike growing as an artist because he’s always shifting and most of his pictures don’t find distribution here—case in point one of his 2011 productions is the certain-to-be-ridiculous Ninja Kids!!!. But 13 Assasssins feels like the work of a more mature filmmaker and perhaps the beginning of a new road for Miike, still unrestrained in its content but more considered with what that content is saying. It’s a Miike film that for once can be recommended without caveats, boldly treading new ground but also taking stock of what’s come before and not rejecting it outright.—Sean Gandert

13. The Descendants
Many critics, including our own, were unimpressed with Alexander Payne’s latest. But we found it a compelling, compassionate, wry story of grief, betrayal and family. George Clooney has seldom been better, and Shailene Woodley will absolutely deserve the Best Supporting Actress nomination that’s likely headed her way.

12. Senna
Asif Kapadia was already a BAFTA-award-winning narrative director, but there are plenty of narrative directors who haven’t made the transition to documentaries effectively. He doubled the degree of difficulty by deciding to use all period footage of his subject, ’80s and ’90s Gran Prix legend Aryton Senna. He pulled it off in spades, and Senna is one of the greatest sports documentaries of all time.

11. We Need To Talk About Kevin
While Scottish director Lynne Ramsay’s previous films, Ratcatcher (1999) and Morvern Callar (2002), took linear (albeit drifting and dreamlike) forms, for her first film in nine years she has chosen a more ambitiously fragmented approach. Based on the novel by Lionel Shriver, We Need To Talk About Kevin concerns the experience of a mother struggling with the aftermath of a school massacre carried out by her own son. Incorporating the intense, sensual cinematography of her previous work with a more rigorous and archly stylized approach, Ramsay lures us into the world of Eva (Tilda Swinton, the perfect mix of iciness and fragility for the role) as she reflects on the upbringing of her son, the eponymous Kevin (played as a teenager by Ezra Miller, a similarly well-cast blend of charisma and aloofness) and the growth of her family, in the aftermath of its disintegration.—Donal Foreman