The end of the year is all about one thing: lists! Ahead, my favorite 11 movies of 2011, from Harry Potter to Billy Beane. Apologies in advance if your fave didn't make the cut!
11. 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2'
The Harry Potter films were invariably disappointing, but both parts of the 'Deathly Hallows' were actually good movies as opposed to live-action book readings. It all ended ... well. Also, R.I.P. Snape.
10. 'Midnight in Paris'
Reasons 'Midnight in Paris' is hella charming: Owen Wilson's non-Woody Allen impersonation (no easy feat; looking at you, Will Ferrell, Kenneth Branagh, Josh Brolin, Scarlett Johansson), everything Corey Stoll says as Ernest Hemingway, Alison Pill's Zelda Fitzgerald, Marion Cotillard. Reasons it's not: Rachel McAdams. Charming wins! Easily one of Woody's lightest and most enjoyable films in a while.
9. 'War Horse'
Be brave. 'War Horse,' Steven Spielberg's latest epic, takes you through an emotional ringer -- and to the brink -- before reminding you that hope can spring forth from the darkest places on Earth. Based on the young adult novel by Michael Morpurgo (and adapted for the screen by Richard Curtis and Lee Hall), 'War Horse' is often as wordless as fellow Best Picture contender 'The Artist.' That's because the film is told from the point of view of Joey the horse -- from his upbringing with the Narracot family (Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan and Emily Watson, offering up sturdy, 1950s-era performances) to his first encounters with World War I (don't blink or you'll miss Tom Hiddleston as the kindest soldier ever). Unabashedly schmaltzy, 'War Horse' is a throwback to a time when people put aside their differences for the greater good. In 2011, that idea is quaint; perhaps 'War Horse' can help remind everyone that quaint isn't always bad.
8. 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo'
If you needed any proof about the importance of the director in the filmmaking process, cast your gaze toward 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,' which David Fincher transforms from a stock thriller into something so much more. Part of that is because of his success with actors. As the titular tattooed female, Rooney Mara becomes an instant star with an iconic performance as Lisbeth Salander. As her cohort, disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist, Daniel Craig provides needed stability, while having more fun than he ever seems to in the James Bond films. Thanks to Fincher's expert technique, 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo' is the mainstream movie of the year ... for adults. No small task, this one delivers on the hype.
You probably didn't see 'Warrior,' which is a shame since it was one of 2011's most emotionally satisfying bits of adult drama. The story of two estranged brothers (Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy) who meet inside the octagon-shaped ring of an ultimate fighting championship -- a log line which certainly provides ample opportunity for schmaltz -- 'Warrior' plays things with a close-to-the-vest honesty that few 2011 releases even attempted. Edgerton and Hardy are outstanding as two sides of the same coin, while Nick Nolte, as their alcoholic and formerly abusive father, steals his scenes with the gusto of a guy gunning for an Oscar nomination. In a just world, Nolte, Hardy and writer/director Gavin O'Connor would get some Academy recognition for 'Warrior'; unfortunately, as 'Warrior' proves in both content and reception, the world isn't always just.
The greatest bromantic cancer comedy of all time? Perhaps! '50/50' is a near impossible sell -- do you wanna spend two hours watching a young man suffer through his cancer diagnosis? -- but those who took the chance were rewarded with a funny and honest film about relationships and how people deal with illness. Demerits for Bryce Dallas Howard's one-note lady villain are balanced out by the bonus points earned by "Yellow Ledbetter" being chosen as the film's closing music cue.
5. 'Young Adult'
The non-feel-good movie of 2011. Written with welcome vitriol by Diablo Cody and directed, surprisingly, without any cloying pretense by Jason Reitman, 'Young Adult' focuses on Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), a busted YA author who wallows in booze, Diet Coke, one-night stands and the idea she is still destined for the greatness that her high-school years as Queen Bee promised. Mavis is self-destructive and mostly awful, but it's hard not to empathize with her at times; after all, who doesn't harbor the hope for "more than this"? Well, maybe one person: Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), an old high-school classmate of Mavis who has long closed off his heart to anything more than his lot in life. The relationship that forms between Mavis and Matt makes up the bulk of this anti-romcom, and hurtles 'Young Adult' toward its unwavering climax. This is a movie that basically should not have been made; that it was -- that Mavis, as ostensibly unlikable a lead character as has graced the screen in a while, exists -- is good news for viewers. Also, bad news, since 'Young Adult' could make you ask some harsh questions about yourself while looking in the mirror.
Or, what would happen if Wes Anderson and Woody Allen had a baby? 'Beginners,' director Mike Mills's second feature following 'Thumbsucker,' is the indie naval-gazer that people who don't like indie naval-gazers will love. About the changing relationship between a father and son (Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor) after the elder man comes out as homosexual at age 75 (Mills based the film, in part, on his own life), 'Beginners' squeezes a lot into its 100 minute running-time: love, loss, commitment-phobia, Woody Allen-like jazz music, and a dog that talks in subtitles. A buffet of mish-mashed emotion, the film never strays off course, thanks to some deft sleight-of-hand by Mills and his extraordinary cast. Plummer has gotten deserved Oscar buzz for his role as the recently out Hal, but it's Ewan McGregor who drives 'Beginners' with his sad-sack lost-boy performance.
3. 'The Artist'
It's a gimmick film, that's true. And in the hands of a less-talented creative group than director Michel Hazanvicius and stars Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo, 'The Artist' would likely be an insufferable twee exercise that hipsters, real and faux, embrace as a bit of old-school cool. What makes Hazanavicius's silent black-and-white curio rise above that fray? At its core, 'The Artist' is about the evolution of society at the expense of the old guard. It's a poignant reminder that the top dogs won't always be on top, but that doesn't mean we should discard them without any care or concern. (Especially Uggie.) In a year of feel-good movies, 'The Artist' is one of the most feel-good-y; it's also one of the sweetest -- despite what the growing cacophony of haters might have you believe.
2. 'Crazy Stupid Love'
Without a doubt, the romantic comedy of the year -- maybe even years. Buoyed by a winning cast (Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Julianne Moore), 'Crazy Stupid Love' doesn't try to reinvent the rom-com wheel; instead, it revels in the genre cliches, yet feels new by remembering that people want to fall in love with characters. The results are enjoyable beyond belief. Credit for 'Crazy Stupid Love' goes to directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (for doing their best James L. Brooks impersonation), screenwriter Dan Fogelman (for doing his best Cameron Crowe impersonation), as well as the likable cast. For Gosling completists, this could be his ultimate performance -- a charm offensive that includes many scenes of The Gos, sans shirt. Hey, girl, indeed.
You actually can't call 'Moneyball' a home run. Not because it's such a hack pun related to the premise of Bennett Miller's adaptation of Michael Lewis's seminal book about how statistical analysis changed baseball forever, but because 'Moneyball' isn't about home runs. It's about the little things. This is a movie that features a montage devoted to taking pitches for goodness sake. Oh, sure: there's a bit of on-field heroism in the third act, but even that is fleeting; after all, it occurs in September during the regular season instead of October and the World Series. This is baseball as it has never been depicted onscreen before: 'Moneyball' is filled with tiny failures, small successes, and doesn't conclude with a trophy. Brad Pitt gets the role of his life as Billy Beane -- his golden hair and golden-er skin recalls a younger Robert Redford -- but the real surprise of the cast is Jonah Hill as Pitt's onscreen apprentice. The best baseball movie ever, and the best movie of 2011; in 'Moneyball' terms, it's better than a home run -- it gets on base.
Gallery | The Best Movies of 2011
The Best Movies of 2011
From 50 to 1, the best movies of 2011.
50. 'Breaking Dawn'
The second-to-last installment of the record-breaking 'Twilight' franchise certainly ups the ante in terms of urgency. Edward, Bella and Jacob each grow exponentially in the movie, and we witness several rites of passage in under two hours: marriage, loss of virginity, the honeymoon, pregnancy, childbirth and (almost) death. Toss in some werewolf-on-vampire battle sequences and you've got yourself one dense film. -- Chris Jancelewicz
49. 'Transformers: Dark of the Moon'
Under the most basic definitions of good and bad, 'Transformers: Dark of the Moon' probably qualifies as bad: the plot is ridiculous and the performances are cardboard-thin. (The female lead is played by a Victoria's Secret model, for goodness sake!) That said: who cares about basic definitions?! 'Dark of the Moon' was the biggest funhouse of the year, an exercise in excess and overabundance that seemingly only had one thing on its minuscule brain: melting the audience's faces. Mission accomplished! Directed with a fevered brilliance by Michael Bay, 'Dark of the Moon' improved on the horrendous 'Revenge of the Fallen' by remembering what makes a good 'Transformers' film: exploding giant robots and Shia LaBeouf wise-cracks. This was the Milton Berle of summer blockbusters -- a thoughtless bit of pop-art that was the biggest thing in the room. -- Christopher Rosen
48. 'The Trip'
Gentlemen to bed! If you know any men between the ages of 25 and 54, the chances are good you've seen a clip from 'The Trip' play on their iPhones over the course of the last 12 months. Reuniting director Michael Winterbottom with his 'Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story' stars Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, 'The Trip' follows semi-fictional versions of Coogan and Brydon as they travel the English countryside on a food tour and engage in a game of oneupmanship that includes some of the best impersonations you'll see this year. A festival fave, 'The Trip' -- based on a BBC miniseries of the same name -- is likely one indie that you'll watch at home again and again and again. -- C.R.
You didn't see 'Warrior,' which is a shame since it was one of 2011's most emotionally satisfying bits of adult drama. The story of two estranged brothers (Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy) who meet inside the octagon-shaped ring of an ultimate fighting championship -- a log line which certainly provides ample opportunity for schmaltz -- 'Warrior' plays things with a close-to-the-vest honesty that few 2011 releases even attempted. Edgerton and Hardy are outstanding as two sides of the same coin, while Nick Nolte, as their alcoholic and formerly abusive father, steals his scenes with the gusto of a guy gunning for an Oscar nomination. In a just world, Nolte, Hardy and writer/director Gavin O'Connor would get some Academy recognition for 'Warrior'; unfortunately, as 'Warrior' proves in both content and reception, this isn't always a just world. -- C.R.
46. 'Cave of Forgotten Dreams'
Calling this documentary "one of a kind" undersells the uniqueness of its cinematic experience. German director Werner Herzog, who has never shied from adventure, is granted rare access to document the 30,000-year-old cave paintings in the Chauvet Cave in France. The technical requirements needed to document one of mankind's earliest works of art, while still preserving its inviolability, is enough of an incredible story, but 'Dreams' also offers Herzog's philosophical musings on humans' inherent need for artistic expression. And if it wasn't enough to attempt to record the exploration of the soul at the dawn of civilization, Herzog made 'Dreams' in lush 3D to truly capture the cave's natural wonders. -- Eric Larnick
45. 'The Iron Lady'
It should be a required prerequisite to watch 'J. Edgar' before watching 'The Iron Lady,' in an effort to really illustrate how the biopic of a political figure should not be done, as opposed to the way one should be done. While watching 'J. Edgar,' a viewer is led to think, Leonardo DiCaprio is doing a decent impression of Hoover, I suppose; in 'The Iron Lady,' it's uncanny how Meryl Streep just becomes Margaret Thatcher. Like 'J. Edgar,' 'The Iron Lady' jumps back and forth through time, but there's a life to Thatcher’s rise to power that, no matter what you think of her politics, is enthralling. -- Mike Ryan
44. 'We Bought a Zoo'
This one's probably not going to wind up on too many "Best Of" lists because, well, it’s about a family that buys a zoo, and that’s corny. (And, yes, this is a corny movie.) But everyone in this movie is just so darn nice -- so much so that it’s nearly impossible not to be won over by a slightly pudgy Matt Damon trying to do something nice for, well, everyone. (There's also a very tall Patrick Fugit is in this movie, which is also nice.) Damon plays Benjamin Mee, who -- after the passing of his wife -- buys a partially deserted zoo in an effort to (A) help his troubled family and (B) help the zoo. Yes, this film is sap. But at least it’s tasty sap with an excellent soundtrack. -- M.R.
43. 'Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol'
That title! What does it mean? It means things have gone so wrong for our Impossible Missions Force that the United States government has disavowed the entire organization. In terms of the four 'Mission: Impossible' films, 'Ghost Protocol' gives the Brian De Palma original a run for its self-destructing money. But in terms of movies from 2011, the sequence that takes place outside of the Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai is the first to make my stomach queasy in quite some time. I mean this in the best possible way. -- M.R.
42. 'Horrible Bosses'
The quietest $117 million grossing comedy of the summer was also the funniest. By far. Out 'Hangover'-ing 'The Hangover Part II,' 'Horrible Bosses' provided not only laughs, but legitimate breakout performances from Charlie Day and Jason Sudeikis. (Somewhere, the casting directors from 'Going the Distance' are raising their fists to the sky in anger.) A wish-fulfillment fantasy about working-class stiffs plotting to murder their titular terrible taskmasters, the Seth Gordon-directed film is dirty, fast-paced and unbelievably enjoyable -- basically the opposite of 'Bad Teacher' and 'The Hangover Part II,' two R-rated comedies that seemed to get infinitely more press during this past Summer of Raunch. Bonus points for Kevin Spacey, who lives it up as the worst boss this side of 'Swimming with Sharks.' -- C.R.
Remember those 1970s blockbusters like 'The Towering Inferno' and 'The Poseidon Adventure'? Sprawling stories filled with a cavalcade of stars doing their best to cheat death in terrifying scenarios (and usually failing)? Steven Soderbergh has updated the disaster movie for modern audiences in 'Contagion,' the story of a global viral epidemic that kills off the population in mass quantities. But unlike those classic spectacles, 'Contagion' is a paranoia-filled worst-case-scenario; in an increasingly connected world where inaccurate information spreads as fast as germs, the idea of "running away to safety" becomes more impossible. 'Contagion' will probably never be turned into an attraction at Universal Studios, but it's still an adrenaline rush. -- E.L.
40. 'Winnie the Pooh'
As children's entertainment seems to just get louder and more obnoxious, it's a welcome relief that 'Winnie the Pooh' exists in 2011. Adapting more stories from the A.A. Milne classics, 'Pooh' documents the silly old bear along with Piglet, Tigger and their animal friends in the Hundred Acre Woods, as they go on a series of adventures involving pots of honey, Eeyore's tail and Christopher Robin. Simple lessons about kindness are expressed earnestly, and the whole picture is rendered in gentle hand-drawn animation, reminiscent of the Disney classics. Its charm was too subtle to light the box office on fire, but it's easy to see why it's the best reviewed animated film of the year. -- E.L.
39. 'Win Win'
If his diabolical performance in 'Ides of March' made you pine for the lovably schlubby Paul Giammati of yore, pull up an iTunes search for this charming indie by Thomas McCarthy ('The Station Agent'). Giammati plays Mike Flaherty, a struggling lawyer/high-school wrestling coach who decides to make a little extra cash by assuming legal guardianship of
Rocky's brother Pauliean elderly client (Burt Ward). When the old man's knucklehead grandson shows up in town, Flaherty reluctantly takes him in, only to discover that the kid's the "Stone Cold" Steve Austin of the cold-auditorium circuit. Amy Ryan, Jeffrey Tambour, and Bobby Canavale co-star, so we can stop typing, right? You're convinced? -- M.H.
37. 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy'
I, along with some of the cast (ahem, Colin Firth), are still a bit clueless as to what went down in this movie. Based on the John Le Carre novel of the same name, 'Tinker Tailor' is far from the masterpiece it initially made itself out to be. However, a stellar cast (Firth, Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Tom Hardy), a haunting score, and grim-yet-gorgeous set designs give this spy thriller its edge. As for the actual story, yes: it's confusing -- like, read-the-Wikipedia-page-after-the-movie confusing -- but it accomplishes what few other dramas this year (or, in recent memory) have dared to do. It makes you think. Like any great spy movie, the 'Tinker Tailor' puzzle is tricky and the pieces, no matter how hard you try, don't always fit. -- Alex Suskind
We always knew there was something special about Saoirse Ronan, and in 'Hanna' this is proven 10 times over. Her icy glare and kickassery steal the movie -- she is absolutely riveting as the titular character. An honorable mention goes to the supporting Cate Blanchett, who shadows Hanna throughout. This tale of ultimate survival will have you on the edge of your seat. -- C.J.
36. 'Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close'
Admittedly, a tough sell for a Christmas Day film. In other words: Not many people are going to find the imagery of Tom Hanks falling to his death on 9/11 a pleasant experience. Thomas Horn plays Oskar Schell, a boy who lost his father (Hanks) on, as Oskar calls it, "the worst day." A mysterious key in his late father’s closet leads young Oskar on a quest to find what it unlocks. At the very least, the key will probably open up an Oscar nomination for Max von Sydow (who does not speak one word in this film), whom Oskar meets along the way. -- M.R.
35. 'The Interrupters'
To call this documentary a real-life 'Wire' would be doing a disservice to how important it really is. Directed by Steve James, the man behind the award-winning 1994 film 'Hoop Dreams,' 'The Interrupters' follows a group of "violence interrupters," men and women who have served time in jail and are now looking to help kids stay away from gang life in inner-city Chicago. It's heart-wrenching, it's angry, and above all, it's honest. -- A.S.
34. 'Crazy, Stupid, Love'
Without a doubt, the best romantic comedy of the year -- maybe even years. Buoyed by a winning cast (Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Julianne Moore), 'Crazy Stupid Love' doesn't try to reinvent the romcom wheel; instead, it revels in the cliches, and makes them feel new by remembering that people want to fall in love with characters when they go to the movies. The results are charming beyond belief. Credit for 'Crazy Stupid Love' goes to directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (for doing their best James L. Brooks impersonation), screenwriter Dan Fogelman (for doing his best Cameron Crowe impersonation), as well as the likable cast. For Gosling completists, this could be his ultimate performance -- a charm offensive that includes many scenes of The Gos sans shirt. Just sayin'. -- C.R.
33. 'The Guard'
Chances are you haven’t seen 'The Guard.' Hell, I only saw it because I needed to kill two hours at the Tribeca Film Festival and it happened to be starting at an opportune moment. Brendan Gleeson plays an Irish cop who isn't too pleased to be taking orders from an American FBI agent (Don Cheadle) who's in the country investigating an international drug-smuggling ring. Gleeson gives perhaps the funniest performance of the year (in what is now the most financially successful Irish film of all time), as the slightly alcoholic and, at times, casually racist Boyle. Hopefully we haven’t seen the last of Gleeson and Cheadle as an unlikely crime fighting team. -- M.R.
32. 'Captain America: The First Avenger'
To some, this movie was just a speed bump on the way to the ultimate prize: next summer's superhero blockbuster, 'The Avengers.' But when we finally got a look at the All-American hero in action, we suddenly realized that this thing could stand on its own. And a lot of that is thanks to the Captain himself, played with plucky earnestness by Chris Evans. We never thought we'd have higher expectations for 'The Avengers,' but, we do. -- A.S.
31. 'The Ides of March'
Political movies aren't usually very riveting, but 'Ides' breaks the genre with a stellar cast (George Clooney, Ryan Gosling, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood) and an intelligent script. The film removes the polished sheen that normally covers campaigning for political office and exposes the oft-ugly machinations spinning underneath. And c'mon, let's face it, we know this is just a preliminary taste of Clooney and politics, so we'd better get used to it. -- C.J.
Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor are father and son -- convincingly -- in this movie about coming to terms with and accepting who you really are (but not in a pandering sort of way). Plummer's character both comes out of the closet and announces that he has terminal cancer to his son at the same time, and we watch McGregor's shell-shocked reaction to the news. Heartfelt and genuine, this is the sleeper hit of the year. -- M.H.
29. 'Martha Marcy May Marlene'
Elizabeth Olsen’s breakout performance comes as a former cult member who seeks out her older sister for help; help that’s not entirely related to escaping the cult itself -- and the cult’s sinister leader, played quite brilliantly by John Hawkes -- but more to escape the memories of a now past life that she’s still confused about. The tone of the film is a constant dread -- dread that eventually establishes itself in the guise of ambiguity. -- M.R.
28. 'A Dangerous Method'
All cerebral and a little kinky, David Cronenberg's latest film is an exercise in psychological discussion and analysis. Not content to paint the surface strokes of the lives of psychotherapy fathers Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, Cronenberg digs deeper into the mens' psyches and motivations, including the windstorm that was patient/guinea pig/rumored lover Sabina Spielrein. Keira Knightley, Michael Fassbender and Viggo Mortensen are all in their element here as tortured souls on the path to enlightenment. -- C.J.
27. 'The Adventures of Tintin'
The most fun movie of the year? Perhaps. From the opening credits -- which are reminiscent of 'Catch Me If You Can,' right down to John Williams's jazzy score -- to the multiple chase scenes, director Steven Spielberg seems to be having a blast behind the camera of his first 3D outing. The motion-capture technology allows Spielberg to do things previously only possible in imagination. Never mind if the source material for 'Tintin' -- the Belgiam comic by Herge -- is Dutch to you; this is the movie 'Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull' should have been. Enjoy the ride. -- C.R.
26. 'Bill Cunningham New York'
For a certain breed of fashion-conscious New Yorker, there is no higher compliment than to be photographed by Bill Cunningham for his street-style and nightlife columns in the New York Times. In this affectionate (but never soft) documentary, director Richard Press examines the man behind the lens, reveling the dissonance between the fashion world's opulence and Cunningham's near-monastic modesty. If you see only one documentary about the paper of record this year, make it this one. -- M.H.
25. 'We Need to Talk About Kevin'
Hands-down one of the most visceral movies of the year, 'Kevin' may just be a motion-picture contraceptive. Without exaggeration, Kevin is the offspring from hell -- even as a toddler -- and the audience is forced to deal with an emotion one doesn't feel very often: absolute loathing of a child. Ezra Miller (Kevin) and Tilda Swinton (Kevin's mother, Eva) dial up the intensity with long stares, harsh soliloquies and aching back-and-forth exchanges. The eventual climax and the build-up to it are so acute, you'll leave the theater physically (and emotionally) exhausted. -- C.J.
24. 'Young Adult'
In a year of feel-good movies, 'Young Adult' stands out as one of the biggest exceptions. Written with welcome vitriol by Diablo Cody and directed without any cloying pretense by Jason Reitman, the film focuses on Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), a busted YA author who wallows in booze, Diet Coke, one-night stands and the idea she is still destined for the greatness -- and her married former boyfriend -- that her high-school years as Queen Bee promised. Mavis is self-destructive and mostly awful, but it's hard not to empathize with her at times; after all, who doesn't harbor the hope for "more than this." Well, maybe one person: Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), an old high-school classmate of Mavis who has long closed off his heart to anything more than his lot in life. The relationship that forms between Mavis and Matt makes up the bulk of this anti-romcom, and hurdle 'Young Adult' toward its unwavering climax. This is a movie that basically should not have been made; that it was -- that Mavis, as unlikable a lead character as has graced the screen in a while, exists -- is good news for viewers. Also, bad news, since 'Young Adult' could make you ask some harsh questions about yourself while looking in the mirror. -- C.R.
23. 'My Week With Marilyn'
Whether the story is true or not, the tale of Colin Clark's week-long romp with the most famous woman in the world is one of the most fascinating to make it to theaters this year. But make no mistake, the spotlight here belongs to Michelle Williams and her brilliant portrayal of Marilyn Monroe. As soon as she steps off the plane at Heathrow Airport, Williams takes us on a wild journey of fun, frustration and, ultimately, heartbreak. The walk, the talk, the look -- it was more than an impersonation, it was Williams totally immersing herself in the character. Bonus points for Kenneth Branagh, who plays a prickly, midlife-crisis version of Sir Laurence Olivier, putting up with Monroe's shenanigans. No, Olivier may not have fallen for Marilyn in 'My Week,' but we sure as hell did. -- A.S.
22. 'Margin Call'
Is this the best Wall Street movie ever made? By refusing to demonize its subjects, director J.C. Chador's ultra-confident debut feature sidesteps Oliver Stone-style outrage to expose an even darker truth: the market is a leviathan with a mind of its own, and we're all just barnacles clinging to its scales. The bankers -- injected with varying levels of paranoia and arrogance by a murderers' row of actors (Kevin Spacey, Zachary Quinto, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons) -- just happen to dwell closer to the mouth of the beast, for better and worse. -- M.H.
21. 'X-Men: First Class'
After the disaster that was 'Wolverine,' we were praying 'X-Men: First Class' would turn out OK. Thankfully, it exceeded expectations. 'First Class' traces the origins of some of our favorite mutants, including Charles Xavier, Mystique, Magneto, Havok and Beast. As for the villain, you knew Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) was the perfect pick after seeing the awful things he did during the opening sequence. Sure, the story line isn't that close to the comic books, but that doesn't matter. While watching the mutants take on the Cuban Missile Crisis, it's clear that 'First Class' injects this franchise with exactly what it needed: new life, new stars and a fresh energy to build on. -- A.S.
20. 'Attack the Block'
In a year with a lot of mediocre-to-downright-awful "Earth vs. aliens" movies, it may seem like the concept is on its last legs. But fear not, because 'Attack the Block' has come along and flipped the sci-fi genre on its head. In 'Block,' inner-city youth delinquents from London head out for another night of criminal behavior, only to stumble upon an invasion from some freaky fang-bearing aliens. It's left up to these anything-but-heroes to save their neighborhood (and the world). 'Attack the Block' works so well because its young cast gets to live out every teenage boy’s bad-ass action hero fantasy; even when they’re running for their lives and fighting off blood-thirsty monsters with samurai swords, you’ll be jealous at how much fun they’re having. -- E.L.
Don't be fooled by the ostensible subject matter or the NC-17 rating: director Steve McQueen's sex-addiction movie is about as sexy as his last collaboration with star Michael Fassbender, the stomach-turning prison-starvation-strike film 'Hunger.' This time, at least, Fassbender maintains full fighting weight as Brandon, a man whose all-consuming appetite for porn and commercial sex blocks him off emotionally from his nutty sister (Carey Mulligan) and douche bag boss (James Badge Dale). If that all sounds too cold and repellent to endure, however, don't be so sure: Fassbender's Oscar-ready performance and McQueen's canvas-like compositions make this a fascinating journey into the soul of a badly hurting man. -- M.H.
18. 'Super 8'
'Super 8' is one of our favorites this year, mainly because it correctly answered this question: How do you create a 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind' for the iPod generation? You have J.J. Abrams direct, bring in Steven Spielberg to produce, get an incredibly talented young cast to star, and then throw in a freaky government conspiracy and an alien to tie it all together. (Also, Coach Taylor.) 'Super 8' was a sci-fi movie and a nostalgic suburban flick all wrapped into one. -- A.S.
The Lars von Trier Nazi controversy threatened to derail this movie before it even began. Luckily, 'Melancholia' spoke for itself. Named after a planet that has been hiding behind the sun and now heading for Earth, 'Melancholia' explored the grim reality of depression, human emotion, and -- in general -- how one would act if they knew the world was about to come to an end. (Hint: Not well.) Kirsten Dunst's harrowing performance as a depressed newlywed should finally get her out of the 'Spider-man' bubble, and Kiefer Sutherland -- as her curious-but-cowardly brother-in-law -- should surprise fans of '24.' The visuals are stunning, the ending is dark, and von Trier, as always, makes it impossible to turn away. -- A.S.
16. 'The Muppets'
Back in the '80s, there was no stopping these not-quite-puppets; they were a tour de force with both adults and children alike. Knowing the state of remakes and reboots today, 'The Muppets' turned into a surprising hit. Featuring slap-happy performances by humans Jason Segel (who co-wrote the film) and Amy Adams, the little felt protagonists (Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear) warmed hearts as they sang, danced and joked their way across the screen. Hey, a little nostalgia never hurt anyone (see: 'Super 8'). -- C.J.
15. 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes'
This one wasn't supposed to be any good. Based on the marketing campaign, it appeared that Fox even thought they had a stinker on their hands. Boy, were they wrong. In the biggest surprise of the summer movie season, 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' didn’t just provide a serviceable movie experience -- which seems to be the ultimate goal with summer movies -- but, shockingly, turned out to be one of the best films of the year. Director Rupert Wyatt crafted, yes, a film with action, but also a film without a defined villain twirling his mustache screaming, "I’m the bad guy, let’s fight!" -- M.R.
14. 'Tree of Life'
Terrence Malick's unflinchingly ambitious meditation on childhood, family, spirituality, evolution and existence itself isn't for everybody -- it received angry boos and the Palme d'Or at Cannes, helped stoke a media debate about the value of "boring" movies, and prompted one theater to post a warning notice for unsuspecting Brad Pitt fans. But for those who believe that film is also an art form, 'Tree of Life' is a welcome respite from the never-ending onslaught of self-assembling robots and juiced-up action heroes (though, be warned, there are dinosaurs). Lovers of great acting, meanwhile, may prefer to focus on the revelatory performances by Jessica Chastain and young newcomers Hunter McCracken and Laramie Eppler. -- M.H.
In a year in which Johnny Depp appears in three movies, it’s remarkable that the best one -- by far -- is an animated film about a lizard. 'Rango' proved that just because something is animated, it doesn't have to be dumbed down into one of those "for the kids, but parents will find something they like" clichés that only Pixar seems to consistently avoid. 'Rango' is the opposite. 'Rango' is a PG-rated movie (that really does flirt with PG-13) that features smart, biting humor and even a cameo from an animated Hunter S. Thompson that no one under the age of 25 is likely to appreciate. -- M.R.
12. 'The Help'
There are a lot of reasons 'The Help' shouldn't work -- mostly because it puts Hollywood gloss on the civil rights movement and hedges a bit into white-savior myth territory. Social implications aside, though, this is just old-fashioned moviemaking of the highest order. Like 'Steel Magnolias,' but without out-of-left-field deaths. Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer shine -- and have deserved Oscar buzz surrounding them -- as the two Alabama maids who decide to help young journalist Skeeter (Emma Stone) blow the lid off the conditions of "the help." Equal parts heartbreaking and hilarious, 'The Help' is also notable because it features a villainous turn by Bryce Dallas Howard. Between this and '50/50,' it wouldn't be a surprise if Howard's next role involves kicking a puppy. -- C.R.
There was some debate at Moviefone HQ about whether 'Moneyball' should be this high on the list because of what some describe as a lackluster finale. Final answer: it should, especially since the finale -- which follows Michael Lewis's source book almost to the letter -- ties up the themes of 'Moneyball' even if it doesn't offer a traditional sports-movie ending. (That being: changing an industry is not usually met with a victory parade, but a stone wall.) Directed with an old-pro's hand by Bennett Miller (his first film since 'Capote' in 2005), 'Moneyball' is one of the best baseball movies ever simply because it stays true to the game itself: it's filled with tiny failures, small successes, and doesn't conclude with a World Series title. Brad Pitt gets the role of his life as Billy Beane -- his golden hair and skin recalls a younger Robert Redford -- but the real surprise of the cast is Jonah Hill as Pitt's onscreen apprentice. By dialing down his previously rambunctious nature, Hill succeeds in doing what most actors and major leaguers have difficulty accomplishing: reinvention in the face of age. -- C.R.
A comedy about cancer is a huge risk. Based liberally on writer Will Reiser’s own experience with the disease, '50/50' takes the viewer on Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s wild ride of emotions that range anywhere from elation to desperation. Seth Rogen provides the comic relief to what, in essence, is a heartbreaking look at the very real horrors of a cancer diagnosis. -- M.R.
Often silent, morose and straight-up gory, 'Drive' is nothing like what you might have expected. Rather than a gritty car-racing tale, it's the story of Driver (Ryan Gosling), a man who gets caught up with the wrong people after falling for a neighbor (Carey Mulligan). Featuring a couple of kick-ass car chase scenes, the more spellbinding feature of 'Drive' is Gosling's tour-de-force performance as the sullen, nearly mute protagonist. Bonus points go to Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks, the former for his foul-mouthed supporting role, the latter for channeling the murdering, knife-wielding badass we never knew he had in him. -- C.J.
8. 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo'
If you needed any proof about the importance of the director in the filmmaking process, cast your gaze toward 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,' which David Fincher transforms from a stock adult thriller into something so much more. Part of that is because of his success with actors. As the titular tattooed female, Rooney Mara becomes an instant star with an iconic performance as Lisbeth Salander, one that will likely be copied and discussed for years to come. As her cohort, disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist, Daniel Craig provides needed stability, while having more fun than he ever seems to in the James Bond films. Buoyed by Fincher's expert technique, 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo' is the mainstream movie of the year ... for adults. No small task, this one delivers on the hype. -- C.R.
7. 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II'
Fin. Finito. Finished. The end. Whatever you want to call it, 'Deathly Hallows, Part II' was the swan song for Harry Potter and the Wizarding World you've come to know and love. And what a way to go out! For every fan of the series, this film was a two-hour-plus emotional roller-coaster ride filled with death, destruction, love and redemption. We still get goosebumps thinking about Alan Rickman's Oscar-worthy performance as Snape (seriously, we are officially on the Alan Rickman Academy Award bandwagon). And it all culminated in one humongous hair-raising duel at Hogwarts between good and evil. When the dust finally settled, our three heroes, Harry, Ron and Hermione, stood tall, having defeated the most dangerous dark wizard of all time. To quote Ron, it was wicked. -- A.S.
6. 'Midnight in Paris'
Leave it to Woody Allen to make the movie of our times. Owen Wilson stars as Gil, a bored writer trapped with his in-laws on a joyless vacation in Paris; late at night, while roaming the streets alone, he magically stumbles backward in time to the 1920s and begins drinking, dancing and laughing along with the likes of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Josephine Baker. Along with the newfound burst of joy and inspiration, Gil also finds romance with a mysterious and beautiful muse (Marion Cotillard). What gives 'Midnight in Paris' its meaning beyond simple wish fulfillment is the way it pokes fun at modern people's disappointment in how things are now and their longing for "older, better days." Bonus points to Owen Wilson for actually doing something other than a Woody Allen impression, and giving some real hilarious neurotic energy to his character. -- E.L.
Taking the usual Judd Apatow slacker-who-must-grow-up formula and pinning it to the manic 'SNL' all-star Kristen Wiig, 'Bridesmaids' is a nonstop escalation of hilariously awkward conversations, passive-aggressive bickering and neurotic breakdowns. Featuring a bevy of talented comediennes as the most wacked-out bridal party in film history, 'Bridesmaids' proves that no joke is too raunchy and toilet humor knows no gender. While critics were too busy talking about what this movie means for "women in comedy," 'Bridesmaids' simply did one thing: tell great jokes. Above and beyond everything else this year, this movie united its audience; man or woman, young or old, the overwhelming majority of viewers laughed their assess off at it, and turned it into a monster hit. -- E.L.
4. 'The Descendants'
Right from the start, Alexander Payne's long-awaited follow-up to 'Sideways' asks viewers to accept two fairly hard-to-swallow premises: (1) that Hawaii can be a depressing place to live, and (2) that anyone who looks, talks, and charms like George Clooney could wake up to discover that his wife has been sweating up someone else's sheets. Moviefone's advice: sit back, suspend your disbelief, and enjoy the show. With a fabulous cast firing on all cylinders (watch for Matthew Lillard's career-rescuing turn) and a story that weaves together humor and heartbreak without veering into schmaltz, this may be the picture to beat on Oscar night. -- M.H.
3. 'War Horse'
Be brave, audiences. 'War Horse,' Steven Spielberg's latest epic, will take you through an emotional ringer -- and to the brink -- before reminding you that hope can spring forth from the darkest places on Earth. Based on the young adult novel by Michael Morpurgo (and adapted for the screen by Richard Curtis and Lee Hall), 'War Horse' is often as silent as fellow Best Picture contender 'The Artist.' That's because the film is told from the point of view of Joey the horse -- from his upbringing with the Narracot family (Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan and Emily Watson, offering up sturdy, 1950s-era performances) to his first encounters with World War I (don't blink or you'll miss Tom Hiddleston as the kindest soldier ever). 'War Horse' is schmaltzy, but in the best way possible -- a throwback to a time when people put aside their differences for the greater good. In 2011, that idea is quaint; perhaps 'War Horse' will remind everyone that quaint isn't always bad. -- C.R.
2. 'The Artist'
It's a gimmick film, that's true. And in the hands of a less-talented creative group than director Michel Hazanvicius and stars Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo, 'The Artist' would likely be an insufferable twee exercise that hipsters, real and faux, embrace as a bit of old-school cool. What makes Hazanavicius's silent black-and-white curio rise above that fray? Genuine warmth, heart and melancholy. At its core, 'The Artist' is about the evolution of society at the expense of the old guard. It's a poignant reminder that the top dogs won't always be on top, but that doesn't mean we should discard them without any care or concern. (Especially Uggie.) In a year of feel-good movies, 'The Artist' is one of the most feel-good-y. -- C.R.
In a year of raunchy comedies, superhero epics and box-office disasters, it's an innocuous family film that ends up topping Moviefone's Top 50 list. When Martin Scorsese announced that he'd be adapting the legendary children's book, 'The Invention of Hugo Cabret,' to the big screen, people were likely scratching their heads. A mafia master like Scorsese doing a family film? No way this could work. (Plus, it's not like there's a good track record for this; Francis Ford Coppola's 'Jack,' anyone?) But between then and now, something improbable happened: Marty, the man behind the most violent, heart-stopping mob movies in history, turned a kids' story into the best film of 2011.
'Hugo' was similar to 'The Artist,' in that it explored the art of the silent film. However, this was more than just an homage; it was a visually stunning adventure set in 1930s Paris. Taking viewers on a journey through the mind of the late Georges Melies (played with fire and sadness by Sir Ben Kingsley), a legendary filmmaker whom the orphaned Hugo (Asa Butterfield) discovers working at a toy shop in a train station, you can feel Scorsese's love of directing and his fascination with movie history throughout the entirety of 'Hugo.' (Marty may also be the only director alive to make a turn-of-the-20th-Century filmmaker seem interesting in 2011.) The performances are terrific, the story is engaging and the 3D -- a tool many of Scorsese's peers have written off -- is used in a completely engrossing, non-gimmicky way, that makes the audience feel like they're apart of the action instead of merely witnessing it: The opening shot, where the viewer wanders into the bustling scene of the Gare Monparnasse railway station, through the toy stores and cafes and even the clocks -- Hugo is the unofficial master clockmaker of the building -- is one of the most thrilling sequences of the year.
So, no: No one's head is thrown in a vice in this movie; there are no scenes where the characters boost cigarettes or walk through the Copacabana, nor does the end of the film feature a maniac cab driver gunning down everyone in his path. 'Hugo' is just an emotional, all-ages adventure that will leave you smiling as soon as the closing credits roll. It's also a film that will likely tell you more about Martin Scorsese than any gangster flick ever will. -- A.S.
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