The 12 Best Movies of 2011


Earlier this week, we gave you a glimpse at the movies you should mark down to see in 2012. While we're diving headlong into the new year of film, we don't want to let the end of 2011 pass by without a final reckoning of the best movies we saw over the past calendar year. So that's just what we'll do. Below is our countdown of the dozen movies released in 2011 that were better than all the rest.

As always, enjoy the list, and please let us know where we went wrong in the comments. Lists such as these aren't meant as consensus builders so much as they are conversation starters.

12. Moneyball

Loving Moneyball meant letting go of a personal attachment both to Michael Lewis' seminal 2003 book and to the real-life people in it, especially the main character in the movie, Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane. That was no easy task for someone who covered baseball for the better part of a decade, but Brad Pitt's interpretation of Beane -- poetic license taken to be sure -- gradually won us over, and, in the end, we were treated to a movie less about baseball and more about the risks and rewards of innovation and bucking convention in a staid industry.

11. Super 8

We're still not quite sure why people seem so lukewarm on Super 8, the latest effort from director J.J. Abrams. Yes, we understand that it was derivative of Steven Spielberg's classic alien-and-kids flick ET, but we're not quite sure why that matters. The alien mystery kept us on the edge of our seats, and the young actors trying to solve it -- Elle Fanning, Joel Courtney, Riley Griffiths, Ryan Lee -- had us pulling for them all the way. Originality counts for something, but we're not sure why it seems to count for so much in lists like these. Super 8 was tremendously enjoyable, and that was enough to earn a spot here.

10. The Artist

Whimsy and nostalgia were big in 2011 -- especially with The Artist, a silent film that has captured quite a following in an age of Dolby Digital Surround Sound and the like. That director Michel Hazanavicius was able to pull this off -- and by this we mean making a silent film that is truly a commercial and critical success in the United States -- is a true feat. We didn't fall head over heels for The Artist like some folks, but we enjoyed every last second of the film, especially Berenice Bejo's turn as talkie film star Peppy Miller. We hope to hear -- *rimshot* -- more from everyone involved going forward.

9. Warrior

The only true commercial flop on our list, Warrior was every bit as good as 2010's Oscar-nominated fight film, The Fighter. The differences here: mixed martial arts instead of boxing and a fictional tale in place of one based on a true story. Apparently that matters to some folks, but it didn't to us, even though we certainly find boxing more appealing than MMA, generally speaking. Both Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton turned in exceptional performances as the estranged Conlon brothers, especially Hardy who seems on the verge of a true breakout. Ditto for Nick Nolte as the recovering alcoholic patriarch of the dysfunctional and broken family.

8. Win Win

Thomas McCarthy has a familiar face. He's one of those that-guys -- appearing briefly but memorably in everything from Meet the Parents to The Wire to Michael Clayton. If he keeps writing and directing movies like Win Win, he's going to be known more for his skill off-camera. If a movie that stars Paul Giamatti as a high school wrestling coach sounds quirky, well then your instincts are pretty good. Win Win has tons of quirk, but it also has loads of charm, and, more importantly, true redemption for the misbehaving adult protagonist at the center of it all -- something we wish Jason Reitman's Young Adult would have included.

7. Cedar Rapids

Cedar Rapids is part of the reason we continue to be so disappointed with The Office. Why? It's glaring proof that Ed Helms can be a leading man -- and not just any leading man, but a naive, well-meaning one with comedic chops. We loved every bit of this humorous take on Midwestern unworldliness, even the dark part where Helms' Tim Lippe ends up high on crystal meth. Laughs abound in Cedar Rapids. The lion's share of them belonged to the terrific John C. Reilly and his abrasive but lovable character Dean Ziegler, but almost everyone on the cast -- from Helms to Anne Heche to Isiah Whitlock Jr. to Alia Shawkat to even Sigourney Weaver -- played a part in making us smile.

6. The Muppets

More than a month after its release, we're still humming "Life's a Happy Song" and "Man or Muppet" on our way to work. Yes, the soundtrack for The Muppets is still in regular rotation on our iPhone. Such is the infectious and unbridled joy of Jason Segel's take on Kermit and company. As we wrote in our review of the movie way back in November, it's rare these days that you get something that makes you smile and is also almost totally free of irony. That's just what The Muppets delivered, though, and we hope this isn't the last collaboration between Kermit and Segel.

5. Contagion

Contagion is the best movie of 2011 that we absolutely never want to see again -- lest our dreams be haunted and our mild hypochondria stoked. Director Steven Soderbergh and a tremendous ensemble cast that included Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law and Marion Cotillard succeeded in making a faceless, senseless disease -- the fictional, but not too unrealistic MEV-1 -- the terrifying and merciless main character. It's the realism that's so unnerving here. While there is plenty of Hollywood dramatization sprinkled throughout the film, Contagion is tremendous because it feels like something like this -- maybe not exactly this, but something close -- could happen in real life. If nothing else, it ought to make you self-conscious about how many times you touch your face and want to get a flu shot.

4. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Everything you've read about Rooney Mara's performance as Lisbeth Salander -- at least the bits of critical acclaim -- is true. She's tremendous as the troubled prodigy that drives Dragon Tattoo, a captivating thriller that centers both on the brutal treatment she receives and on the wealthy Vanger family's long history of doing the same to other women. In stark opposition to most of our other choices on this list, Dragon Tattoo runs quite long, closer to three hours than two. It's hardly noticeable, though, not with the depth and breadth of director David Fincher's adaptation of the first book in Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy.

3. Hugo

We know director Martin Scorsese best for Goodfellas and The Departed and Casino -- jaunts into the seedy underbelly of organized crime. Turns out he can spin a wondrous children's tale just as well as one with wise guys. Hugo is truly beautiful, both with its 3D and its story -- that of orphaned Hugo Cabret and the mysterious automaton he keeps in his meager residence that doubles as a Paris train station. There's plenty to love here -- the comedic relief provided by Sacha Baron Cohen as the Station Inspector, the sad and stern George Melies portrayed by Ben Kingsley -- but we continue to be amazed by young Chloe Grace Moretz, who made a brilliant film feel complete.

2. Midnight in Paris

Whimsy, whimsy, whimsy. Midnight in Paris, written and directed by Woody Allen, was the best of the delicate, twinkle-in-your-eye films that are peppered throughout this list. It was also Allen's greatest success in terms of the box office. That's not surprising when you see the movie. Owen Wilson does a terrific job as a younger, blonder twist on the hyper-self-aware character channeled by Allen in so many of his movies. But the most memorable parts of Midnight in Paris belong to the fantastical historical characters Wilson interacts with -- everyone from Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll) to Zelda Fitzgerald (Allison Pill) to Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates).

1. The Descendants

Unlike Midnight in Paris, The Descendants is not light or whimsical or delicate. It is heavy and crushing ... and beautiful all the same. George Clooney's portrayal of Matt King, a haole land baron in Hawaii who is trying to balance a major real estate deal, his wife's grave injury in a boating accident and the revelation that his comatose spouse was cheating on him, is nothing short of brilliant. Director Alexander Payne has a gift for this sort of melancholy, as we saw in 2004's Sideways. For us, though, The Descendants far eclipsed that excellent film. It sticks with you -- all the themes and messages and implications -- in a way that Midnight in Paris couldn't quite, and that's why it tops our list.

Honorable Mention: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, The Help, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Bridesmaids, Conan O'Brien Can't Stop, Attack the Block, Red State, Our Idiot Brother.

Editor's Note: Because 2011 was our first year taking on this Screening Room project, and because it was only a partial year at that, we'd be remiss if we didn't mention a few of the movies that we missed and, based on the buzz around them, might have ended up on our list. So apologies to Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, War Horse, J. Edgar, The Rum Diary, My Week With Marilyn, Shame, Melancholia, Drive, 50/50, A Dangerous Method, Take Shelter, Margin Call, Like Crazy and Martha Marcy May Marlene. We'll do better by you in 2012.