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Best films of 2011

How good was 2011 for cinema? So good that even an unusually tepid awards-season crop didn’t keep us from expanding from our Top 10 lists to a Top 15 (plus a bonus five), which still left a diversity of great films off our ballots. If there’s a common theme to the year’s best, it’s the wealth of ambitious personal visions, from Terrence Malick evoking creation to tell the story of his upbringing in The Tree Of Life to Martin Scorsese channeling his boyhood enthusiasm for spectacle in Hugo to Kenneth Lonergan finally delivering the beautiful, wounded Margaret after six years in post-production purgatory. It was a year where documentaries sought to expand the form, where the best American independent films went far out on a limb, and where old masters like Abbas Kiarostami and Pedro Almodóvar released films that felt exuberant and alive with possibility. A few titles weren’t available to see before press time—The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close, and Alvin And The Chipmunks: Chipwrecked among them—but we’ve worked hard to give a special year its due. For your consideration…

The Top 15

15. Submarine
Some wrote off the directorial debut of The IT Crowd’s Richard Ayoade as Wes Anderson lite, but his singular coming-of-age story owes more to The 400 Blows than to Rushmore. The young hero (Craig Roberts) plots his life like a military offensive, calculating the right mixture of cruelty and cool to gain his first sexual partner, but life moves faster than his ability to respond, and his shallow mastery of teenage mores is challenged by traumas that can’t be assuaged by the right choice of mix-tape. Although Ayoade is known as a comedian, his approach is more wistful than laugh-out-loud: Submarine is saturated in dark, almost brooding colors and scored with plangent songs by Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner. It’s a film out of time rather than one attuned to the current trends, destined to be a cult object no matter when it was released, but grateful teenagers will still be stumbling across it years from now.

14. The Interrupters 
For his latest documentary, Steve James (Hoop Dreams, Stevie, Reel Paradise) has trouble bringing an entire area and social issue into focus: His attempt at an overview of troubled Chicago neighborhoods during a period of extraordinary violence focuses on three of the people trying to improve the situation, in the process following so many players and focusing on so many intense, immediate, ephemeral situations, it’s hard to keep track. But as the film blurs into a morass of angry, frustrated people, The Interrupters gets at all the common ground between them and their situations—particularly how their environment trains them to fight, escalate, and never back down, while their own instincts often make them conciliatory at the first sign of reasonableness and a socially acceptable escape from a hairy situation. And moments stand out, as the three “violence interrupters,” working with a group called CeaseFire, intervene to set up conversations between combatants, and memorably, between a robber and his past victims. James’ documentary is a heartbreaking look at some of the causes of systemic inner-city violence, and some of the people working toward a solution: On the micro level, it’s unsettlingly intimate, as when one troubled girl confronts how she keeps letting herself and her sponsor down. And on the macro level, it’s food for uncomfortable thought, as James lets the participants’ words and actions speak for themselves, asking whether it is actually possible to end the violence on a larger scale, instead of just one moment and one fight at a time.

13. The Arbor
Clio Barnard’s documentary about the short, fierce life of Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar and the three children she left behind makes use of a simple, ingenious device. The film is comprised of interviews with Dunbar’s family and others who knew her or her work, but we don’t see them on camera. Instead, actors, a little more polished, a little more photogenic, lip-sync their recorded words to the camera in what aren’t quite re-enactments—they’re more restagings. The theatricality matches Dunbar’s medium, and means that the factual scenes don’t look so different from the performances of snippets from her plays peppered throughout the film, simultaneously removed and painfully immediate. As the awful cycles of poverty, neglect, and substance abuse unfold, The Arbor provides a piercing reminder of the humanity behind these accounts.

12. Tabloid
In a year filled with outstanding narrative documentaries, the old master Errol Morris kept pace with Tabloid, a film about the chatty, personable Joyce McKinney, best-known (for those who know her at all) for her involvement with a 1977 kidnapping/rape case that the British press dubbed “The Manacled Mormon.” Morris allows people with different angles on McKinney’s story to tell their piece of it—including reporters from competing British tabs, one of whom championed McKinney and one of whom trashed her—but he makes no real effort to investigate the truth of what happened, because that isn’t really Tabloid’s point. The film is more about how easy it is to skew a story for entertainment purposes, and thereby make celebrities of people who haven’t really done anything except be nutty. Case in point: Tabloid itself, which is crazily entertaining and unpredictable.

11. Weekend
Two men hook up at a bar in Nottingham, England, and their drunken one-night stand leads to something more substantial in Andrew Haigh’s beautiful writing and directing debut feature, which might crudely be called a gay Before Sunrise. Tom Cullen plays the more reserved of the two, insecure in his sexuality and unable to come out to his family, yet open to a long-term commitment; Chris New is his opposite, brash and promiscuous and suspicious of convention, especially as it applies to romance. What’s thrilling about Weekend is how much their relationship takes on a life of its own, something neither of them could have planned or controlled. Cullen and New start as types, but they grow into more specific characters as the film goes along and their conversation deepens. Weekend is full of wit and intelligence, and tells the story of this relationship with admirable explicitness, whether its characters are in the bedroom or baring their souls. 

10. Margaret
New York teenager Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) may be the most vibrantly realized movie character of the year, a precocious, entitled, well-meaning, infuriating 17-year-old who witnesses (and partially causes) a terrible bus accident that leaves a woman dying in her arms. Her quest to right her perceived wrong gets twisted beyond the hope of any satisfaction, she picks fights with her divorced mother, flirts with her math teacher, and loses her virginity to a classmate in a brilliantly awkward scene, and the film spirals out to turn its infinitely empathetic gaze on other characters in her world, from the boy who harbors a crush on her to her remarried dad in California to her mom’s suave new boyfriend. Margaret is messy, but marvelously so—it’s a film about the trauma of realizing that life will go on without you when you’re gone, but even more than that, it’s a testament to how rich, complex and ripe with possibility life is.

9. Hugo
Once upon a time there was a lonely kid who discovered a sense of purpose and a makeshift family when he began to study the history and craft of cinema. That describes the hero of Hugo—an orphan who lives in a Paris train station in the ’30s—and it describes the film’s director, Martin Scorsese, who spent much of his youth in movie theaters or watching films on TV because he was too sickly to play outside. Hugo is a fairly faithful adaptation of Brian Selznick’s innovative children’s book, to the extent that its plot and themes have struck some as too simplistic for a Scorsese picture. But there’s nothing unsophisticated about Hugo’s visual design, which is very much in keeping with Michael Powell’s concept of the “composed film,” where the editing, sound, and camera moves work in conjunction to create a feeling like listening to a great piece of music. And there’s certainly nothing impersonal about the way Scorsese illuminates the aspects of Selznick’s novel that mean the most to him: the notion of people dedicated to using mechanical contraptions to record our thoughts and our histories in ways that bring us all closer together.

8. The Skin I Live In
Pedro Almodóvar has gotten so good at crafting exquisite melodramas and finding emotional riches in lurid subject matter that it’s almost become possible to take him for granted. With The Skin I Live In, he has even more lurid material than usual—to say more than it involves the extremes of plastic surgery would give too much away—but beneath the shocks, there’s a haunting, masterfully made movie about identity, guilt, responsibility, and redemption.

7. The Future 
Combining overworked tropes with the magic-realist quirk that drives her detractors nuts, Miranda July’s second feature has all the elements of a potential train wreck, plus intervals narrated by a cat. But July’s story about a pair of thirtysomething slackers struggling with the most meager forms of adult responsibility is grounded in painful truth and a firm grasp of consequence. Sure, Hamish Linklater’s mumbling man-child can stop time, but only for himself; the world outside keeps turning, and chances slip away as the film’s feline narrator waits to be rescued from an animal shelter. July uses naïveté as a weapon, daring her audience to drop its collective guard rather than simply offering a retreat into childish simplicity. It’s a high-wire act, a delicate balance of tones that could easily have ended in a shattered heap. July’s ability to pull it off at all, let alone with such honesty and grace, is movie magic of the most satisfying kind. 

6. Drive
Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive follows reverently in the footsteps of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï, Walter Hill’s The Driver, and especially William Friedkin’s To Live And Die In L.A. in stripping away the frills and clichés of the action drama until all that’s left is its diamond-hard core. Ryan Gosling cements his iconic status as an ace stuntman who doubles as a getaway driver for some extremely unsavory folks. Gosling is an existential nowhere man with no past and no real attachments until he becomes infatuated with Carey Mulligan and develops paternal feelings toward her young son. A mood piece peppered by moments of intense, shocking violence, Drive captures the profound, bone-deep loneliness of living life outside the law. It’s an action film of powerful quiet. That extends to Albert Brooks’ revelatory supporting turn as an alternately pragmatic and sociopathic crime kingpin who doesn’t need to raise his voice to strike terror in underlings’ hearts. Like no other film this year, Drive hurtles itself irrevocably into the annals of cool.

5. Meek’s Cutoff
Kelly Reichardt’s stark Western, inspired by a real historical incident along the Oregon Trail, portrays rising tensions among a party of settlers traveling the Oregon High Desert. As supplies run low and their destination seems to recede into the distance, the party members turn on one another, project their fears on a Native American captive, and question their leader (Bruce Greenwood), who doesn’t seem to have any more answers than they do. There’s a metaphor in there somewhere, but it never gets in the way of Reichardt’s gripping, you-are-there storytelling or another fine performance from Michelle Williams, as a woman who realizes she has to take matters into her own hands.

4. Martha Marcy May Marlene
Kevin Smith made a lot of noise and an exuberant spectacle of himself when he auctioned Red Statea grindhouse thriller about a cult led by a Fred Phelps-like figure who takes a proactive stance toward dishing out vengeance to evildoers—to himself at Sundance, but a strangely named, much-less-hyped film about a cult leader and a sensitive young woman who works up the courage to escape his grasp ended up making a deeper impression at Sundance and in the real world. Martha Marcy May Marlene is an utterly haunting psychological thriller about a strong-willed but impressionable young woman (Elizabeth Olsen, in a star-making performance) who falls in with a rural cult led by John Hawkes and later escapes to the emotionally remote confines of the home of her older sister, Sarah Paulson. In a performance of intense physicality, Olsen lets her big, expressive eyes convey the lingering damage of having witnessed things too horrifying to put into words, let alone understand. Martha Marcy May Marlene drains the cult drama of hysteria and overwrought melodrama, leaving behind a heartbreakingly human story of how the search for connection and meaning can go awry and leave behind scars that only deepen with time. 

3. A Separation
Rendering a domestic dispute with the car-crash intensity of a Breaking Bad episode, Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation considers what happens when a middle-class Iranian man and his wife petition for a divorce. She wants to move away from Tehran; he can’t leave his ailing, elderly father. Their intractability seems to infect everyone around them, from their moody teenage daughter to the devoutly religious woman they hire to be the old man’s caretaker. When something terrible happens to the family, the fragility of their respective positions is revealed by their journey through the court system, where every gesture demands justification, and every memory needs to be backed by evidence. What emerges from A Separation is a vivid depiction of marriage, parenthood, class, and religion, all filtered through the ever-fluctuating notion of what constitutes justice. The movie couldn’t be much more universal in its themes, or more riveting in the way it plays out.

2. Certified Copy
Director Abbas Kiarostami (Taste Of Cherry) once said “the best form of cinema is one which poses questions for the audience,” and Certified Copy, his beguiling twist on the talky European relationship movie, leaves quite a puzzle to be solved. What begins as a tour through Tuscany with a visiting author (William Shimell) and an antique-store owner (Juliette Binoche, by turns feisty and heartrending) deepens into something more mysterious as their relationship is revealed to have a longer history than first appearances imply. (Or does it?) By refusing to concretely define the nature of Shimell and Binoche’s relationship, Kiarostami leaves viewers unmoored, yet the memories and emotions at play are no less resonant than they would be otherwise. The question of whether the real thing holds more intrinsic value than a copy hovers over the proceedings, but the miracle of Certified Copy is that it works as more than mere gamesmanship. There’s something for the mind and the heart. 

1. The Tree Of Life
Director Terrence Malick makes pretension look good with his deeply felt examination of godhood, humanity, and the break between them. Nominally a portrait of a boy caught between his mother’s gentle, spiritual side and his father’s urge to fight and win, The Tree Of Life explores the boy’s inner life, then expands to cover natural phenomena—from microscopic life forms to churning galaxies, and from the Jurassic age to the future, all in order to put his turmoil into perspective and focus. It’s an achingly personal film for Malick, one caught up in his own childhood traumas and his own struggles with the nature of God and the meaning of life. But while it rests in the details of one family’s life in Texas, it doesn’t get caught up in specificity: It tackles big questions while acknowledging that they have no firm factual answers, just emotional ones, which Malick brings across with gorgeous images and a soaring, expansive, poetic tone.


Outliers: Notable films on one critic’s list, but no others

Another Earth
Mike Cahill’s directorial debut, Another Earth, is essentially this year’s Moon: a chilly, atmospheric, strikingly assured debut that’s nominally science fiction, but has as much to do with personal portraiture and emotional exploration as plot gimmicks. That said, where Moon focused on a handful of twists, Another Earth is more about raw emotion than story reveals. When promising astrophysics student Brit Marling (who co-scripted with Cahill) causes a car crash while drinking, her life dissolves into a morass of guilt and self-abasing attempts to relieve it. The appearance of a second, mirror Earth in the sky causes a great deal of soul-searching, for her and for others, as they wonder whether the people on the other Earth made the same mistakes they did, and what their lives might be like as a result. Cahill and Marling use that setup as a springboard for a moody, grimly thoughtful piece about regret, grief, and forgiveness. It’s a delicate film, necessarily limited in budget and consciously limited in scope, but effective and affecting, and completely in control of its messages. [TR]

Yasmina Reza’s play, God Of Carnage, is pretty thin gruel, but Roman Polanski turns it into a feast. When a playground altercation prompts a meeting between two bourgeois couples, the veneer of polite interaction is quickly stripped away, and liberal platitudes give way to verbal bloodsport. Polanski wisely retains the play’s real-time action, using the limitations of time and space as the impetus for a master class in cinematic technique. The quartet of perfectly tuned performances features Jodie Foster’s best work in decades as the film narrows to a cage match between her left-wing campaigner and Christoph Waltz’s glib social Darwinist. The unchecked slide toward savagery feels a bit rote, but Polanski attacks the material with poisonous glee. [SA]

House Of Pleasures
Bertrand Bonello’s sad yet intoxicating look at life in a French country brothel at the turn of the 20th century is like the European analog to Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flowers Of Shanghai: Both are about hothouse flowers suffocating out of the light. Though the film is rich in period detail, Bonello reveals how the world’s oldest profession never changes in any era, no matter the luxurious surroundings: Prostitutes work off debts that only accumulate over time, wait for clients to rescue them with proposals that never come, and remain vulnerable to disease or abuse from men who believe that money entitles them to do anything. But harrowing as it is at times, House Of Pleasures isn’t a wallow in misery, it’s a sympathetic portrait of women who have entered into servitude, yet still share a deep, complex bond. And Bonello makes some thrillingly bold choices, including a brilliant sequence set to a pop song that wasn’t recorded until 70 years later. [ST]

Into The Abyss
Under the gaze of Werner Herzog, run-down suburban Texas transforms into a dramatic land of dark myth in which every other father is in jail, every other son is just out on bond, and no family lacks its own deadly brushes with violence and tragedy. The crime the film chronicles—the murder of three people for the sake of a Camaro—was senseless and horrendous, and led to the additional death, by lethal injection, of convicted killer Michael Perry. But Herzog loves the living most, and while piecing together the case, he continually uncovers moments that are fantastic and perfect, from an impossible pregnancy to an account of a screwdriver-stabbing. It’s an incredibly intimate portrait of pain, loss, and the weighty pull of love. [AW]

Director Azazel Jacobs and screenwriter Patrick deWitt fashioned something special with Terri, a movie about high-school misfits that acknowledges the neuroses, the petty jealousies and—yes—the sense of wonder that accompany adolescence. Jacob Wysocki plays an overweight teenager who lives with his mentally ill uncle and suffers through his classmates’ teasing. But Wysocki doesn’t make it easy on himself; he’s a sweet, smart kid, but he’s also sullen, which annoys his teachers. (The one person who tries to help is his principal, John C. Reilly, who had a rough boyhood himself.) Jacobs has a terrific eye—Terri has a luminescent look, like a late-’60s coming-of-age drama—and deWitt’s script builds to a powerful scene in which Wysocki, scrawny psychopath Bridger Zadina, and damaged cute girl Olivia Crocicchia get hammered in a tool shed and confront the underlying tensions in nearly every male-female teen relationship. The sequence is well-written and staged, and provides a graceful climax to a movie that’s full of keen detail about kids who feel like “monsters.” [NM]

War Horse
Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 children’s novel—adapted into a popular play in 2007—follows a boy and his horse from England to the battlefields of World War I. It’s a self-consciously old-fashioned piece of storytelling that draws on past masters—particularly John Ford—to reaffirm film’s ability to express humanistic values, even when the din of war threatens to drown those values out. It’s idealistic but unflinching, growing grimmer and bloodier as it goes along, while letting the horse at the center reflect humanity’s best and worst impulses. Spielberg directs with the control of a master craftsman, which should go without saying, but few directors this deep into their careers are still as committed to finding new ways to startle and move moviegoers. [KP]

Win Win
Like George Clooney in The Descendants, Paul Giamatti in Win Win plays a fundamentally decent person mired in a situation that grows more impossible with each passing moment. Giamatti plays a struggling lawyer and wrestling coach who agrees to be the guardian for a dementia-stricken senior (Burt Young) for mercenary reasons, then confronts the unexpected consequences of his actions, good and bad, when the man’s teenage nephew (Alex Shaffer) comes looking for him and turns out to be a championship wrestler. Complicated as it gets, Win Win, like Thomas McCarthy’s other intricately drawn character studies (The Station Agent, The Visitor), is less about plot than about exquisitely realized moments of connection and resignation. Shaffer lends his wrestler an animal sweetness and vulnerability, but Win Win rests securely on the slumped shoulders of Giamatti, who makes his character’s commitment to simply schlepping his way from one day to another with some modicum of dignity and self-respect seem borderline-heroic. [NR]

Individual Ballots

Sam Adams

Top 15
1. The Future
2. Certified Copy
3. Carnage
4. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
5. Higher Ground
6. The Tree Of Life
7. Meek’s Cutoff
8. The Skin I Live In
9. The Interrupters
10. Submarine
11. Take Shelter
12. Margaret
13. Rango
14. Super
15. Rubber

The next five
There’s inevitably too much canned uplift, but for long stretches, Steven Spielberg’s War Horse is a marvel, laying hands on the tradition of Hollywood epics and finding a new way to express the horrors of war. Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion is appropriately chilly, given its paranoid take on social contact, stigmatizing every casual touch of flesh on flesh—a horror movie for the virtual age. Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory is more the cap to an epic masterpiece than a stand-alone film, but even those who’ve followed the story of the West Memphis 3 will be shocked at the details still emerging after a decade-plus of investigation, not to mention thrilled by its unexpected conclusion. Real Steel and Warrior (see below) were populist art at its most engaging, playing to the cheap seats with thrilling abandon.

Juliette Binoche, Certified Copy
It’s often said that an actor carries a film, but few are called upon to shoulder a burden as great as the one that lands on Juliette Binoche’s bony shoulders in Certified Copy. Abbas Kiarostami’s first feature shot outside his native Iran is a puzzle-box movie with no fixed answer, exploring a relationship whose nature shifts between scenes, and sometimes within them. Opera singer William Shimell is well-cast as Binoche’s sparring partner and possible ex-husband, but given his total lack of screen experience, it falls to Binoche to provide the movie’s emotional undercurrent. She does so without explaining, or even understanding, how she and Shimell’s character are associated, and that’s nothing short of miraculous.

Like Crazy
My colleague Sean Burns nailed it when he commented, “These are the two least interesting people anyone has ever made a movie about.” The endless separations and reunions between Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones’ transatlantic lovers are meant to convey something of the vicissitudes of love, but the monotony of their on-again/off-again pairing is almost instantly overwhelming. Viewers are meant to take the couple’s enduring passion as read, but there’s nothing to justify the devotion they show each other. (It doesn’t help that Yelchin is a black hole of charisma whose screen presence reeks of unearned confidence.) Partisans tout the film’s improvised dialogue as proof of its realism, but it’s more like an object lesson in the uses of a decent script.

Sucker Punch
The critical dogpile on Zack Snyder’s loopy fantasia produced plenty of sharp one-liners, but precious little insight; the flood of fanboy digs amounts to a mass dereliction of duty. It isn’t good, exactly, but Sucker Punch is Snyder’s most personal film by miles, the first entry in his oeuvre to be of genuine interest. The movie’s overstuffed battle scenes play like the action equivalent of Moulin Rouge’s pop OD, shamelessly pilfering from The Two Towers and Brazil, a series of references too eccentric and mismatched to be the product of mere calculation. Snyder was accused of pandering to the Comic Con crowd, but even when Emily Browning dons a schoolgirl outfit to go with her samurai sword, it’s oddly demure. (Snyder responded to criticisms on that point by saying the movie’s women were dressed according to prevailing tastes—“That’s what pop culture demands”—which manages to be both accurate and a complete dodge.) Even if it isn’t wholly defensible, Sucker Punch deserved a lot better than it got.

Most Pleasant Surprise
Real Steel/Warrior
Warrior and Real Steel worked the populist angles of the fight genre with skill and just the right amount of shamelessness. Tom Hardy’s scraggly UFC aspirant in the former is linked to Rocky’s hometown, and the robot in Real Steel actually does The Robot. They’re solidly made, emotionally involving stories that play like gangbusters with a full house. All up-the-middle entertainments should be so well made.

Future Film That Time Forgot
The Reunion
You know you’re in trouble when pro wrestler John Cena gives only the second or third worst performance in a movie’s cast. Cena, who’s built like a cinderblock with the range to match, plays one of three estranged brothers forced together by their late father, whose will Brewster’s Millions them into taking on a common task. (Standing by helplessly is lone sister Amy Smart, whose career decline will hopefully reach its nadir here.) Considering the movie’s raison d’être is watching people fight, writer-director Michael Pavone takes his sweet time working up to the action, but when it finally gets going, it’s so ineptly staged, it feels endless. 

Noel Murray

Top 15
1. Martha Marcy May Marlene
2. Hugo
3. A Separation
4. The Future
5. Weekend
6. Tabloid
7. Certified Copy
8. Terri
9. The Tree Of Life
10. Rango
11. Tuesday, After Christmas
12. The Arbor
13. Winnie The Pooh
14. Project Nim
15. Super 8

The next five
Bertrand Bonello’s House Of Pleasures depicts the grind of early-20th-century sex-work with a profound feel for feminine camaraderie and an unabashed love of cinematic sensuality. Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives uses multiple modes of movie storytelling to meditate on what it means to let go of aging people, either via respectful mourning or mere neglect. Todd Rohal’s gleefully dopey comedy The Catechism Cataclysm strands a priest (Steve Little) and a roadie (Robert Lonsgstreet) on a canoe trip to nowhere, to make a larger point—sort of—about pointless stories. In Take Shelter, writer-director Jeff Nichols re-teams with his Shotgun Stories star Michael Shannon to examine how preparing for a disaster can be disastrous in and of itself. And Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes offers an arc of abandonment and redefinition-of-self using very little dialogue, in one of the year’s purest exercises in visual storytelling.

Michael Fassbender, Shame
It was a strong year overall for Fassbender, who was a suitably moody Rochester in Jane Eyre, a brooding Magneto in X-Men: First Class, and an anxious Carl Jung in A Dangerous Method. But no 2011 Fassbender performance was as quietly powerful as his turn as a sex addict in Steve McQueen’s Shame. Avoiding the temptation to play the character as a smirky lecher, Fassbender internalizes what the movie’s really about: how hard it is to redefine yourself while living with painful secrets and a crippling compulsion. Carey Mulligan has one of the year’s standout scenes when she sings a melancholy rendition of “New York, New York” in a nightclub, but Fassbender’s silently tearful reaction to the song is what lingers, and changes Shame’s entire dynamic.

Cars 2
No, it’s nowhere near as emotional as Up or Toy Story 3, nor as clever as WALL-E or Ratatouille. But neither is Cars 2 as cynical or flat as its harshest critics insist: It’s a fleet, sweet, funny globe-hopping spy adventure, which forgoes Pixar’s usual heavy themes in favor of a simpler celebration of friendship and self-confidence. Granted, it’s heavy on the Mater—and thus heavy on the hayseed jokes—but Cars 2 is so fast-paced that the clunker jokes quickly give way to new visual gags or high-speed chases. Is this the weakest Pixar feature? Perhaps. (The first Cars may fall a notch below, if only because it’s more maudlin.) But the way some people savaged the movie, you’d think that Pixar producing a merely good movie was tantamount to committing infanticide.

Troll Hunter
The “found footage” horror-movie format shouldn’t be an excuse for endless shaky-cam scenes of inarticulate young people driving through the Norwegian countryside. Granted, when the traveling stops and the monsters appear, André Øvredal’s Troll Hunter is both funny and creepy, as the title beasts come lumbering out of the woods or mountain caves, and tower over humans who have to blast them with light to get them to explode. But in the end, this movie has too much hunting, not enough trolls.

Most pleasant surprise
Friends With Benefits
Will Gluck’s younger, hipper update of the When Harry Met Sally premise falls prey to some of the usual romantic-comedy clichés, as stars Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis move through the blandly predictable boy-meets-girl stations. And yes, there are one too many “flash mob” scenes in Friends With Benefits. (Or, okay, two too many.) But Timberlake and Kunis have terrific chemistry as best friends who try to meet each other’s sexual needs without any messy commitments, and Woody Harrelson gives a hilarious supporting performance as an aggressive gay sportswriter. Best of all, Friends With Benefits engages with life as it’s lived today, complete with social media and persistent annoyance with John Mayer.

Future Film That Time Forgot
Salvation Boulevard
George Ratliff’s flip adaptation of Larry Beinhart’s mystery-thriller Salvation Boulevard stars Greg Kinnear as a born-again Christian and former Deadhead whose faith is tested when he witnesses his pastor, Pierce Brosnan, “accidentally” shooting famous atheist professor Ed Harris. From the narrow conception of what a Christian is (or a Deadhead, for that matter, or a college professor) to the excessively muggy performances, Salvation Boulevard is like a computer-generated model of the painfully unfunny, needlessly star-studded indie comedy, trafficking in broad stereotypes under the guise of being “subversive.”

Keith Phipps

Top 15
1. Certified Copy
2. The Tree Of Life
3. War Horse
4. Martha Marcy May Marlene
5. A Separation
6. Hugo
7. Meek’s Cutoff 
8. The Skin I Live In
9. Tyrannosaur
10. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
11. Drive
12. Le Havre
13. The Mill And The Cross
14. Young Adult
15. Tabloid

The next five 
Shame earned a lot of attention, and an NC-17 rating, for its depiction of sex addiction, but the sex is just a gateway into a harrowing depiction of how any kind of compulsion can create a living hell. The sex in Weekend only starts out casual; then it turns into an extended conversation about what it means to be gay and out (or sort of out) in contemporary Britain. Samurai fans looking for a dark, stylish take on the genre need look no further than Takashi Miike’s remarkable 13 Assassins. And the double feature of the year belonged to Project Nim and Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, two different but complementary films about the dangers of crossing the line dividing humanity and the animal world.

Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Gary Oldman can chew the scenery as well as any actor alive, but in realizing John le Carré’s master-spy George Smiley, he heads in the opposite direction. Here, Oldman sits and watches, letting the slightest gesture and change in expression take on extraordinary significance. It’s a master class in how to run a room by serving as its still, calm center.

Mars Needs Moms
Robert Zemeckis spent much of the ’00s experimenting with performance-capture technology, with results ranging from creepy (The Polar Express) to forgettable (A Christmas Carol) to not-so-bad (Beowulf). In spite of a garish middle section, the Zemeckis-produced Mars Needs Moms gets the balance right, finding a middle ground between action and animation that’s convincing on its own terms, then using it to build to a moving finale. Virtually nobody showed up for it, though, which suggests the Zemeckis school of digital filmmaking may have hit a dead end.

Many saw Evan Glodell’s directorial debut as a boldly realized personal vision that daringly conflated personal heartbreak with post-apocalyptic fantasies. And they weren’t wrong. But praising it meant overlooking a final half that descended into an ugly, misogynistic revenge fantasy barely disguised by muddled storytelling. 

Most pleasant surprise
Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes
Movie theaters have long been clogged with reboots, sequels, and remakes seemingly summoned into existence because market research suggests that viewers might conceivably be willing to spend money on, say, a fresh take on the Meatballs franchise. Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes looked beyond unnecessary, but proved to be one of the summer’s best movies, a rousing science-fictioner with a point about humanity’s fragile position at the top of the food chain, powered by thoughtful direction and a terrific Andy Serkis performance as a soulful, super-intelligent chimp.

Future Film That Time Forgot
Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son
On the other hand, if you make a movie just because a familiar name might drum up some business, you sometimes end up with something like this barely noticed, bargain-basement sequel to a pair of Martin Lawrence hits from a few years back, which tries to breathe new life into the old formula by having some new blood don drag in the hopes of stopping crime. Every time Lawrence thinks he’s out of the fat-suit business, they pull him back in. (He’s probably done this time, however.)


Nathan Rabin

Top 15
1. The Tree Of Life 
2. Martha Marcy May Marlene
3. Submarine 
4. Drive
5. Young Adult
6. Project Nim 
7. A Separation 
8. Meek’s Cutoff 
9. Certified Copy
10. Win Win
11. The Descendants 
12. The Muppets 
13. Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels Of A Tribe Called Quest 
14. Corman’s World 
15. We Need To Talk About Kevin 

The next five
John C. Reilly seems to deliver a career-defining performance every year. This year, he turned in memorable work in Carnage, We Need To Talk About Kevin, and Cedar Rapids, but he really distinguished himself as a kind-hearted, offbeat principal who takes an interest in a morbidly obese teenager in the wonderfully bittersweet comedy-drama/coming-of-age movie Terri. Michael Shannon was just as ubiquitous and distinguished, popping up everywhere from the long-shelved Russian-roulette drama 13 to Boardwalk Empire, but his real triumph involved playing a man facing an apocalypse that might exist only in his own mind in the punishingly intense drama Take Shelter. The young man formerly known as Zowie Bowie (and now known as Duncan Jones) made a slick transition from art-world grime to shiny Hollywood entertainment with Source Code, a crackerjack science-fiction thriller that casts Jake Gyllenhaal as a soldier who wakes up inside a body that is not his own and is called upon to prevent the bombing of a Chicago train at the behest of a shadowy governmental organization. Producer Judd Apatow has caught a lot of flak for making movies for boys, yet he scored his biggest commercial hit to date with the Paul Feig-directed Bridesmaids, a vehicle for popular repertory player and Saturday Night Live standout Kristen Wiig (who also co-wrote the script) that traffics in the same smart combination of raunch and surprising emotional resonance that has long distinguished Apatow’s work as a producer, writer, and director. The inner city goes up against outer space when tough street kids square off against alien monsters in Attack The Block, Joe Cornish’s science-fiction sleeper, which marries a can’t-miss premise with deft, playful, clever execution. 

Patton Oswalt, Young Adult
Comedian, actor, writer, and all-around geek god Patton Oswalt has such a well-defined persona that the character he plays in the Jason Reitman-directed/Diablo Cody-written dark comedy Young Adult—a sardonic, hyper-verbal, comic-book-loving geek who makes his own whiskey—would qualify as a Patton Oswalt-type even if another actor played him. In a performance that builds on his revelatory starring turn in Big Fan, Oswalt plays a wounded soul who uses irony as defensive armor against a cruel world that never stops landing blows on him, literally and metaphorically. He’s a good, principled man smart enough to see through misanthropic young-adult novelist Charlize Theron and her brittle façade of non-despair (she no longer has the energy or capacity to feign something as challenging to pull off as genuine contentment), even as he’s powerless to keep himself from falling for her. When Oswalt finally lets his defenses down just enough to let another person in and risk getting hurt irrevocably in the process, the result is shattering.

Midnight In Paris
Late in Midnight In Paris, Owen Wilson shares that he’s had the “minor revelation” that even the inhabitants of a golden age like that of the Lost Generation are convinced they were born too late and missed out on a true renaissance. To illustrate his point, Woody Allen stages a literary dress-up party where contemporary author Wilson (who seems like the sort of man who would write a book before reading one) gets to mix it up with his literary idols after a mysterious vessel begins regularly transporting him back to the Paris of the 1920s. Midnight In Paris is a featherweight wisp of a movie, slight and inconsequential, yet it became Allen’s top-grossing film to date and a critical darling because it’s so skilled at telling audiences what they already know while making them feel smart—or at least vaguely literate. 

Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels Of A Tribe Called Quest
Michael Rapaport’s documentary attracted a lot of attention at Sundance this year when A Tribe Called Quest frontman Q-Tip (who also happens to be one of the film’s producers) came out against Beats Rhymes & Life for allegedly tarnishing the group’s legacy. Its actual release generated far less buzz and enthusiasm. That’s a shame, since Beats Rhymes & Life doubles as a loving, incredibly overdue overview of the Native Tongues scene of the late ’80s and early ’90s, and the most penetrating and insightful exploration of the joys—and more significantly, the pains—of collaboration this side of Metallica: Some Kind of Monster. Making an assured directorial debut, actor Rapaport smartly homes in on the electric, prickly working relationship between Q-Tip, a bohemian workaholic perfectionist for whom nothing is ever good enough, and sidekick/foil Phife Dawg, a funky, unmistakably frail diabetic who can never live up to his partner’s exacting standards, and pays a terrible price for coming up short. The Travels Of A Tribe Called Quest is simultaneously a celebration of everything the group has achieved and an elegy for a magical, lost era of hip-hop.  

Most pleasant surprise
A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas
History, especially recent history, has offered little reason to be excited about second sequels, stoner comedies, or 3D. Yet A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas sailed above the low, low expectations engendered by 3D sequels to stoner comedies by lustily embracing excess and self-indulgence in all its forms, whether that means using the miracle of 3D to have tough-guy character actor Danny Trejo ejaculating on a Christmas tree (it should be noted that he really, really likes the tree) or fucking with audiences’ fragile, possibly THC-addled psyches with an extended Claymation sequence that begins cutesy and ends with a massacre. A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas is the rare second sequel that qualifies as the best of the series, but the filmmakers might want to consider quitting while ahead before attempting a fourth go-round. That might be pushing it just a little. 

Future Film That Time Forgot
All that needs to be known about the Joel Schumacher-directed camp-classic-in-the-making hostage thriller Trespass is that at one point, Nicolas Cage yells to wife Nicole Kidman, “Your filthy lust invited them in!” about a group of kidnappers who have invaded their home, presumably drawn by the musky scent of Kidman’s filthy lust. That line captures the delicious absurdity of a wonderfully overheated thriller where the bad guys are engaged in an all-out death battle to determine who can overact most egregiously, and Cam Gigandet keeps disrobing gratuitously in Cinemax-ready flashbacks that grow increasingly hilarious as the film progresses. Cage, Gigandet, and Schumacher are bad-movie supernovas, and the enjoyably preposterous Trespass somehow manages to be even more insane than the sum of its ridiculous parts. 

Tasha Robinson

Top 15
1. The Tree Of Life
2. Drive
3. Another Earth
4. The Skin I Live In
5. Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey
6. Beginners
7. The Interrupters
8. Certified Copy
9. The Future
10. Amigo 
11. Martha Marcy May Marlene
12. Hanna
13. The Adventures Of Tintin
14. Melancholia
15. Tabloid

The next five
Asghar Farhadi’s rich, tragic Iranian drama A Separation probably should have been called A Lengthy Series Of Separations, given all the divides its simple story covers: between genders in his society, between classes, between the more and less religious, between spouses, between the old and young, and much more. Martin Scorsese’s Public Speaking is far less weighty; his portrait of author Fran Lebowitz is hilarious, largely because it just spends time with her, listening to her acerbically holding forth on all the ways in which the world doesn’t live up to her standards. Shotgun Stories’ writer-director (Jeff Nichols) and star (Michael Shannon) reunite for the uneasy, low-key, beautifully visual drama Take Shelter, about a man whose apocalyptic hallucinations may be a sign of familial madness. Werner Herzog’s Cave Of Forgotten Dreams gets weirdly pretentious and loses the plot toward the end, but it’s an unforgettable examination of art and history, in the form of a recently discovered, heavily protected cave full of 30,000-year-old drawings. It’s a terrific example of cinema’s power to take viewers to places they could never go on their own. We Need To Talk About Kevin takes viewers to another unusual place: Inside the head of a woman (Tilda Swinton) dealing with a possibly very justified discomfort with motherhood. It’s a hyperbolically disturbing film, and hard to swallow as any sort of objective reality, but as a subjective processing of emotions that are hard to verbalize and impossible to publicly defend, it’s a riveting experience, along the line of Eraserhead or Repulsion.

Elena Anaya, The Skin I Live In
From the first moments of Pedro Almodóvar’s grotesque, fascinating drama The Skin I Live In, it’s evident that there’s something terribly wrong between cohabitants Elena Anaya and Antonio Banderas, and something wrong with Anaya in general. Seemingly placid, grounded, and devoted to yoga and art, Anaya betrays a touch of something more unsettled, which manifests in a number of forms. It takes the whole movie to explain her history, her issues, and all the emotions she’s hiding, but she does a striking job of letting the complicated, repressed emotions of a long and unlikely relationship leak out around the corners. In some ways, her role lacks dignity—at one point, she’s called upon to ineffectually attempt to manipulate a man as he’s raping her, and she spends much of the movie in a seeming state of nearly blank, passive acceptance—but Anaya gives the lurid material a depth and humanity by precisely finding the gap between the face her character wants to present to her tormentors, and the real self she’s fighting to conceal. Both are evident at all times in her extraordinary portrayal.

The Perfect Host
Some reviewers dismissed The Perfect Host as a mechanical twist-fest, a series of unlikely, disconnected events assembled for shock value. But that analysis seriously underestimates the sheer loopy fun of the movie, which pits an unlucky bank robber (Clayne Crawford) against the mild-mannered party-thrower (David Hyde Pierce) whose home Crawford invades after a heist gone wrong. Like a much weirder take on Sleuth or Deathtrap, The Perfect Host follows the reversals and re-reversals of fortune as they vie for advantage, and it alternates crazed humor with authentic chills. (Don’t watch the trailer beforehand, it gives far too much away.) It does go on maybe three twists too long, and it’s impossible to take too seriously as a narrative, but that’s a late-film issue following 80 minutes of deliriously fun surprises and a boundary-stretching performance for Pierce that seems like the most fun he’s had this decade.

Yes, yes, Martin Scorsese’s kid-flick Hugo is all about the magical transportive power of cinema, particularly as experienced by both a wee, asthmatic, isolated Scorsese in childhood, and as mapped from that real-life experience into the character of a lonely orphan who lives in the walls of a train station, maintaining the clocks and waiting for something or the other with magical transportive power to come along and help him out. But Scorsese’s real-life experience doesn’t lend any particular verisimilitude to Hugo, which is a shiny, overpolished echo chamber, a CGI gimcrack designed to deliver sentiment by the bucket-load. The long, painful pauses, conversational repetition, and overblown emotions all stretch the film out where it should be sleek and propulsive, and the cliché cup runneth over, from the prophetic dream to the romance-for-everyone (even the dogs!) conceit to the wide-eyed orphan who breathes life back into a cranky old curmudgeon. At the end, Hugo finally justifies its “You should love cinema because cinema is magical!” message with a look at some real-life magical cinema, but up until then, the message and the emotions are as hollow and artificial as the computer-generated settings.

Most pleasant surprise
Neil Burger’s slick, high-concept thriller follows a scruffy loser (Bradley Cooper, playing awkwardly against type) as he accidentally acquires a miracle drug that turn him into a slick, brilliant, hard-charging asshole (Bradley Cooper, playing to type extremely effectively); the premise sounds ridiculous, but the fantasy is compelling. What if genius—and with it, fame, financial success, friends, sex, adventure, boundless creativity, and much more—were all just a simple pill away? But Limitless doesn’t just rely on that hook, it explores it via a crackling thriller story packed with danger and dread, and directed with confident, playful visual verve. Onscreen drug trips are often ridiculous and laughable, but Burger conveys Cooper’s trips, good and bad, with compelling panache. The film largely falls apart at the end, but getting to that point is a memorable journey. Limitless is trashy, slick wish-fulfillment, but it’s a blast, too.

Future Film That Time Forgot
The Beaver
Twenty years from now, some bright-eyed, bushy-tailed young A.V. Club writer will no doubt be delighted to discover the existence of The Beaver, a film directed by and starring multiple Oscar-winner Jodie Foster, and centering on a multiple Oscar-winner and disgraced Hollywood mega-power-player (Mel Gibson) cavorting around wearing a beaver puppet on one hand, and talking to himself in a silly accent. The film is an odd, never particularly cogent blend of comedy and ultra-dark tragedy, starring Gibson as a deeply depressed businessman who takes up the puppet as a coping mechanism after a failed suicide attempt. It’s far from terrible—even at its worst, it’s queasily fascinating—but its attempts to get at some of the emotions behind depression and mental distress are entirely at odds with its comedic edge and its hyperbolic drama, and it seems to have been designed with an audience of about three people in mind—people flexible enough to take all its ridiculous extremes in stride.

Scott Tobias

Top 15
1. Meek’s Cutoff
2. Certified Copy
3. A Separation
4. The Tree Of Life
5. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
6. Martha Marcy May Marlene
7. Drive
8. Weekend
9. Margaret
10. The Arbor
11. House Of Pleasures
12. Tabloid
13. Hugo
14. Tuesday, After Christmas
15. The Interrupters

The next five
Belgian director Lucas Belvaux made his genre mastery evident back in 2002, when he made “The Trilogy,” an interconnected series of films (On The Run, An Amazing Couple, After The Life) that each tackled different forms (the thriller, the screwball comedy, the melodrama) with overlapping events and characters. Rapt, his ingenious twist on the abduction thriller, follows the kidnapping of a wealthy industrialist whose scandalous affairs in his personal and business life makes the prospect of rescue as unappealing as his capture. The premise for the lovely Korean drama Poetry—an aging woman with Alzheimer’s takes a poetry class—sounds like a recipe for schmaltz, but Lee Chang-dong steers it into darker and more mysterious territory, and earns the emotions when they come. Only in a special year would 13 Assassins, Takashi Miike’s best film since Audition, not make the Top 10, but it’s an instant midnight classic, a nasty bloodbath that takes the stuffing out of the samurai genre. But for sheer depravity, Miike’s film has nothing on Kim Ji-woon’s I Saw The Devil, an epic Korean revenge thriller that locks a pitiless avenger in a stylish cat-and-mouse game against a figure of unfathomable evil. Pixar movies excepted, the dominance of CGI animation isn’t usually something to get excited about, but if it opens the door to more surreal, gonzo, visually stunning comedies like Rango, there may be hope for the form yet. 

Yun Jung-hee, Poetry
As a elderly woman who elects to take a poetry class while in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, Yun Jung-hee plays a role that keeps demanding more from her as the film unfolds, and she’s up for the challenge. It would be enough for her to convey the newfound wonder and intellectual pleasure she gets out of poetry itself, and how it teaches her to look at the natural world a different way. But developments in the plot, particularly her pissy grandson’s involvement in a horrific crime, evokes an inner shame and fury that takes her performance to another end of the emotional spectrum. Yun’s character takes an unexpected and sometimes terrifying journey throughout the film’s 139-minute sprawl, and the actress is convincing at every turn. 

An easy way to determine the year’s most underrated movies is to ask, “What was the scariest horror movie?” Perhaps their reputation as the team responsible for Saw pitted film critics against them, but director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell didn’t get enough respect for Insidious, a clever play on the haunted-house movie that’s steeped with cheeky references to Poltergeist and Ghostbusters, but stakes out its own scrap of horror territory. Though it’s concept better demonstrated than explained, the use of astral projection in Insidious gives a nice sliver of originality to a film that’s otherwise devoted to the back-to-basics creaks and displacements that have long defined the genre. It pays homage to horror-movie classicism while amplifying its effects.

The Trip
Who doesn’t like The Trip? Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon are a delightful pair, their contentious voyage through the inns and eateries of Northern England is full of humor and camaraderie, and their dueling Michael Caine impressions provided maybe the year’s most YouTube-able clip. And yet, is it really that good? Director Michael Winterbottom whittled a feature film out of six half-hour episodes of a BBC series, and it results in a fragmented and repetitious journey without much of an arc. Add to that Winterbottom’s visual indifference—an unforgivable sin against such a beautiful backdrop—and The Trip is a distinctly minor pleasure, more disposable than it should be. 

Most Pleasant Surprise
Fast Five
After piling on four movies’ worth of mythology in a series that doesn’t need any mythology at all, The Fast And The Furious franchise took on so much weight that the marginal pleasures of CGI-aided gearhead stunts had dissipated like so much nitrous oxide. Fast Five reinvigorated the series through a shrewd combination of stripped-down plotting and absurdly excessive setpieces. Moving the action to the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, the film neatly gathers all the characters it can from the previous films for an Ocean’s Eleven-style super-heist, adds The Rock for extra testosterone/homoeroticism, and unleashes chase scenes that defy both the laws of physics and common decency. Just like a dumb summer movie should do. 

Future Film That Time Forgot
The Roommate
When a movie opens at No. 1 at the box office, as The Roommate did—it was early February, and America was drunk and feeling a little pervy—that’s usually an automatic disqualification from FTTF status. But consider this: Leighton Meester, Minka Kelly, and Cam Gigandet are at the peak of their CW-certified star power now, and will be remembered mainly for having moderately hilarious names. Consider this also: The Roommate is a neutered, PG-13 rated knockoff of the 1992 thriller Single White Female, which itself borrows a page or two from Roman Polanski’s 1968 classic Rosemary’s Baby. Given the choice among those three, how many people will pick The Roommate 30 years from now? If there’s such a thing as a digital cut-out bin, they can look for it there. 

Alison Willmore

Top 15
1. Melancholia
2. A Separation
3. Into the Abyss
4. Take Shelter
5. Margaret
6. The Tree Of Life
7. Certified Copy
8. The Arbor
9. Warrior
10. Shame
11. The Mill And The Cross 
12. Martha Marcy May Marlene
13. Weekend
14. Beginners
15. I Saw The Devil

The next five
Meek’s Cutoff wrings an unbearable amount of tension out of how difficult so many quotidian tasks were for its pioneers—watching Michelle Williams fire a warning shot on a rifle, then spend the next minute frantically working to reload, gets across the vulnerability and fragility of the group’s existence. The heartbroken geologist who narrates I Travel Because I Have To, I Come Back Because I Love You turns the sights of the arid region of Brazil through which he’s driving into a funny, sad, gorgeous paean to his failed relationship. The Guard is a reminder of how delicious dialogue can be—its tough guys talk about Nietzsche and Bobbie Gentry in a style that’s a lot like Quentin Tarantino without coming across as an awkward fannish imitation, and Brendan Gleeson’s central performance is pure pleasure. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives doesn’t cohere as much as Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s earlier films, but coherence was never his primary quality; dreamlike, moving imagery, on the other hand, this meditation on death has in spades. The divide between the doldrums of the lonely days of Leap Year’s freelance writer and the nights she spends picking up strangers in hopes of engaging in sadomasochistic sex is a striking one, and it parallels the damaging past she’s previously managed to repress and compartmentalize.

Anna Paquin, Margaret
Paquin’s performance in Margaret is a fearless high-wire act with no safety net. She doesn’t soften the character of Lisa Cohen, hold back, or put in bids for audience sympathy. When she’s shrill, unfair, self-pitying, or passive-aggressive, it’s without apology. She’s a stunningly imperfect creation in ways that are all too relatable, and her moments of vulnerability and angst are just as authentic without a hint of pandering. In her early 20s when the film was shot, Paquin plays a teenager remarkably well, not just in how she carries herself, but in the casual, never-malicious self-centeredness with which her character approaches everything, a quality that comes from still being so new to the world that she takes ownership of each fresh experience as if it were a personal belonging instead of something shared.

Our Idiot Brother
The holy fool played by Paul Rudd in Our Idiot Brother isn’t the typical chaos-causing comedy buffoon. He’s genuinely, actively nice, and the fact that this quality sparks so much instant trouble amongst his urbane New Yorker sisters is a great, underlying joke. Rudd’s good intentions lead to some keenly funny segments—such as his gamely trying to go along with a threesome he’s not at all comfortable with, out of fear of hurting one of his partners’ feelings—but also means the inevitable heartwarming conclusion doesn’t come across as a sop. This film may come off as an Apatow knockoff, but it’s a damn entertaining one.

The Artist
Can we acknowledge what a dinky offering this improbably acclaimed silent love letter to the movies actually is? Yes, it’s cute, it’s cheery, and its leads are made all the more charming by the fact that they don’t have to speak. But The Artist is all details and little heart, a very long short that does wear out the welcome of its embrace of period filmmaking. As pastiches go, it’s a cinephile’s dream, a soap-bubble-light portrait of the old studio system as it surely wasn’t, a careful recreation of an outdated style of cinema. But take away the novelty, and what’s left is a suffocating blanket of self-congratulatory nostalgia. 

Most pleasant surprise
Fright Night
Remaking a mediocre ’80s horror comedy most notable for its homoerotic undercurrents is not, off the bat, an incredibly promising endeavor. Add the unreliable Colin Farrell as the vampire next door, and it’s still far from a safe bet. But writer Marti Noxon brings some Buffy The Vampire Slayer spark to this unexpectedly smart flick, which casts its villainous bloodsucker as a suburban-asshole bachelor who drives a big black truck, watches reality TV, and threatens to sleep with both the hero’s mom and girlfriend. Rather than genuflecting to an original that doesn’t deserve it, Fright Night provides a clever update that uses the tract-housing outskirts of Las Vegas to great effect.

Future Film That Time Forgot
The Double
This everyone’s-a-spy thriller already seems to exist out of time thanks to its throwback plot about Russian sleeper agents living among us and killing our dudes. The film doesn’t bother to go into details about modern Russia or connect the events to recent incidents like the Anna Chapman arrest, so it seems like the filmmakers decided just to pretend the Soviet Union never fell apart. Richard Gere sleepwalks through his role, though future audiences should appreciate the opportunity to reflect on the memorable small screen turns of his many co-stars, who include Topher Grace, Stana Katic, Martin Sheen, and Stephen Moyer.

Coming up tomorrow: The A.V. Club’s unsung films of 2011.