The best films of 2011

More sequels may have been released in the year 2011 than any year previous, but none of them made much of a contribution to the film world from an artistic standpoint. In fact, the year’s best films were the ones that played with an audience’s expectations and gave us something thrilling and original. Here are the Top 10 movies of 2011.

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Martha Marcy May Marlene trailer

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Sean Durkin’s debut film “Martha Marcy May Marlene” is dripping with menace. A young woman escapes a cult and attempts to return to normalcy, but the movie embeds the audience with her paranoia and is structured around her thoughts and memories. Elizabeth Olsen is riveting in a star-making performance as the title character, and John Hawkes plays the cult leader with edgy charm. “Martha Marcy May Marlene” may have a title that is the hardest to remember of the year, but it’s a movie you’ll never forget watching.

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The Descendants trailer

The Descendants

George Clooney’s subtle, earnest performance in Alexander Payne’s latest filmic exploration of the middle-aged man is one of the reasons “The Descendants” is able to nimbly jump from comedy to tragedy in a single scene. It also helps that Payne’s script and direction are whip-smart and not interested in playing big, broad comedy. “The Descendants” contains deft characterization all around and plenty of poignancy, sometimes when you least expect it.

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Young Adult trailer

Young Adult

With the wicked black comedy “Young Adult,” director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody give us a very different movie than “Juno,” the pair’s last collaboration. Charlize Theron does some very fine work as one of the least likable main characters in recent movie memory and the film itself is unpredictable in the most thrilling way. “Young Adult” doesn’t have any jokes, but it is laugh-out-loud funny as it fearlessly walks a tightrope of uncomfortable situations and reveals some surprising truths about its characters.

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Terri trailer

Terri

This year, John C. Reilly gave great performances in “Cedar Rapids,” “We Need to Talk About Kevin” and “Carnage,” but nothing was as well-rounded and touching as his turn as Assistant Principal Fitzgerald in the overlooked independent film “Terri.” As he struggles to help an overweight 15-year-old misfit at his school, it’s gradually revealed that Fitzgerald doesn’t have all the answers and that he was very probably in the same situation himself when he was in high school. Reilly has genius comic timing, but it’s his unique ability to bring depth and nuance to Fitzgerald that gives the film its heart.

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A Separation trailer

A Separation

Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi’s “A Separation” is a morally complex tale of a middle-class family thrown into chaos under societal pressures when a man makes the decision to care for his sick father at home. From that description, you may expect a self-important civics lesson, but Farhadi’s film moves swiftly and with the expert timing of a thriller, even as it raises all kinds of complex questions about contemporary Iranian life.

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Take Shelter trailer

Take Shelter

Jeff Nichols’ new movie “Take Shelter” takes one father’s fears of providing for his household and gives them a physical presence — a gathering storm. Michael Shannon, usually cast in more sinister roles because of his craggy, expressive face, is perfect in the everyman role here. It’s impossible not to sympathize with him, even though he might be losing his mind. Nichols creates an atmosphere of mounting dread and taps into contemporary fears with “Take Shelter,” a riveting and haunting movie that sticks with you.

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Melancholia trailer

Melancholia

From its rapturously beautiful and impressionistic still-life opening shots to its breathtaking finale, Lars Von Trier’s “Melancholia” is a triumphant return to form for the Danish provocateur. The entire film is anchored by a revelatory Kirsten Dunst, who plays a self-destructive new bride awaiting the end of the world with a sense of acceptance. “Melancholia” helped the director himself out of a depression and the movie mixes penetrating personal filmmaking with a majestic scope for a unique and thrilling experience.

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Hugo trailer

Hugo

Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Brian Selznick’s award-winning 2007 illustrated kids’ book “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” is full of exactly the kind of film magic that it pays tribute to. It’s an arresting adventure fantasy shot in 3D and featuring the kind of daring shots and art direction that silent film innovator Georges Méliès would be proud of. That Méliès becomes an integral part of the story is no coincidence, nor is the dreamlike feeling of the entire story.

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Drive trailer

Drive

Nicholas Winding Refn’s “Drive” is everything modern action movies aren’t these days. It’s stylish, methodical, efficient and relies very little on plot. The story is one you have seen a million times before (criminal with a code breaks code, everything goes to hell), but you’ve never seen it told like this. A synthesizer-heavy beat pulses through the movie, while Refn employs slow motion, dissolves and slick nighttime cinematography to create a thick atmosphere. Ryan Gosling exudes tough-guy manliness with barely any dialogue and the movie surprises at every turn.

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Tree of Life trailer

The Tree of Life

No other movie this year was as narratively ambitious and challenging as Terrence Malick’s hotly debated “The Tree of Life.” On one hand it is a deeply affecting portrait of a middle-class Texas family in the 1950s, with stellar performances from Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain and the young Hunter McCracken. On the other hand, it tackles the entirety of human existence on this planet with one eye towards a deep sense of spirituality. Besides sporting the most exquisite cinematography of the last decade, “The Tree of Life” is a fascinating movie that pushes the boundaries of what filmic storytelling can be.

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