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With more movies in limited and general release than ever before, 2011 was a ridiculously crowded year for both casual and discerning moviegoers alike. One by-product of the glut is a refreshing lack of consensus; so many films have been championed in so many corners – while those same films get trashed in others – that our cultural need to rally behind obvious points of praise and awareness have been gloriously undercut. 2011 was the year to see and love films that spoke to you, and to be prepared to argue the case with fellow cinephiles. In other words, 2011 was the year the gloves came off. To say that none of the 30 films on our staff-voted list is universally beloved is putting it mildly; but then, that’s the nature of polls like these.
Every year we’ve run this poll, there’s been a runaway winner; this year, the top 2 films were tied up until the last ballot; three crossed the hundred-point threshold. Only five films earned the support of over a third of the contributors. That’s the sort of year it was. (In the event of a tie, which only occurs when the films get the same number of votes AND points, they share the poll number. Got it?)
Worth noting: Incendies, La Quattro Volte, and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives all made it onto our 2010 staff list.
15. Bellflower (5 votes, 32 points)
The Micro-Indie That Could, Bellflower was one of the most fiercely debated movies of the year; part Mad Max, part Blue Valentine. Director-writer-star-editor-engineer Evan Glodell’s movie drew plenty of ire thanks to the film’s relaxed, naturalistic acting style and its rank depiction of a man who grows to despise the woman he fell helplessly in love with, but its roughshod charms helped it to stand out in a year where indies tended to look and feel slicker and less distinct than ever before.
14. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (5 votes, 34 points)
While the great majority of the year’s blockbusters played it safe, Rupert Wyatt’s unexpectedly bold prequel to the iconoclastic 1970s sci-fi series stood out for its clarity, urgency, and heart. That the last part of that equation was mostly delivered through a performance-captured CGI ape (Andy Serkis, in what might be the first such performance ever to nab an Oscar nod) is only one remarkable feat in a movie that produced a number of the most awe-inspiring moments of any film this year.
13. The Interrupters (4 votes, 38 points)
Steve James made what might be the most critically acclaimed doc of all time, Hoop Dreams, back in 1994, but he hasn’t reapsed the rewards of the genre’s subsequent rise to (relative) prominence. Hopefully The Interrupters, which is equal parts inner-city portraiture and social advocacy piece, re-cements him as a household name. Both heart-wrenching and surprisingly empowering, James’s look at inner-city violence and conflict resolution is never less than riveting.
12. A Separation (5 votes, 40 points)
Asghar Farhadi’s critically adored family drama tensely unravels a dense tale of intra-familial conflict, societal forces, and cruel fate, carefully deploying key revelations (both on- and off-screen) for maximum dramatic effectiveness, but never feeling sanctimonious or excessive. The film is further proof of the continued vitality of Iran’s harshly repressed filmmaking culture.
11. Hugo (5 votes, 44 points)
Early looks at Martin Scorsese’s Hugo suggested that maybe he’d finally go the way of so many other directors and cash in on kiddie-friendly material in the name of blank commercial appeal. Instead, Hugo is Scorsese’s best movie in some time, both a dazzling tribute to early cinema and a hopefully appeal for the medium’s future. That the movie manages to act as both a buttress for Scorsese’s film-presevation efforts and a beguiling family film in its own right is no small feat.
10. Hanna (8 votes, 46 points)
Saiorse Ronan cuts through the screen in Joe Wright’s unexpectedly playful thriller, which juxtaposes innocence and brutality at will. Ronan is one of the most charismatic and distinctive young actors around, and watching Hanna define herself in a strange and unfamiliar world while danger lurks not far behind was one of the earliest film pleasures of 2011.
9. We Need to Talk About Kevin (9 votes, 51 points)
Possibly the most misunderstood movie of the year, Lynne Ramsay’s long-awaited return is a vividly rendered horror film with a keen sense of subjectivity that seemed to go over a few critics’ heads. Tilda Swinton continues a career-long streak of intense, idiosyncratic performances, and Ramsay’s camera lingers on details both over-the-top and seemingly incidental. The result is demented arthouse for manic-depressives.
8. Attack the Block (11 votes, 57 points)
For those not so keen on JJ Abrams’s nostalgic take on preadolescent adventuring, Attack the Block is a buoyant counterattack; a lean, mean, funny, and surprisingly brutal actioner that balances a keen sense of place (set in the North London equivalent of a housing project) with a genuine feel fro universal themes and accessible characters. Genre fans will likely be keeping a close eye on first-time helmer Joe Cornish for some time.
7. The Artist (6 votes, 58 points)
Michael Hazanavicius shifted his loving, lightly parodic gaze away from the spy spoofs of the Oss 117 series long enough to craft what may end up as the most broadly adored movie of 2011, a love letter to the silent-film era and a showcase for returning collaborator Jean Dujardin, whose charismatic turn as the titular, possibly doomed star has already earned him reams of plaudits.
6. Midnight in Paris (tie; 8 votes, 66 points)
Woody Allen’s umpteenth comedy turned out to be his most warmly received in ages – both critically and commercially. If that means Allen is definitely no longer a New York filmmaker, most didn’t seem to mind, embracing Allen’s new role as a Euro-centric comic chronicler of romantic and existential woe.
6. Martha Marcy May Marlene (tie; 8 votes, 66 points)
Like Winter’s Bone last year, Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene emerged from Sundance early in the year to prove that American indies have more to offer than quirky dramedies and misery porn. Elizabeth Olsen’s fractured title figure is the beating heart of this taut, carefully constructed thriller, whose air of menace and mystery is convincingly ever-present.
4. Shame (11 votes, 71 points)
Steve McQueen’s sophomore feature has had a tough go of it, gaining plaudits for Michael Fassbender’s incredible central performance, but generally enduring a whole lot of grief for its central concept and approach. For anyone willing to engage with the film on its own terms, though, Shame is one of the most effectively gruelling emotional gauntlets in recent memory, while also calling into question the cavalier way we portray and consume sex in the age of porn.
3. Melancholia (13 votes, 103 points)
Danish provocateur Lars von Trier had his, well, von Trier-est year ever in 2011, managing to get himself banned from Cannes while actually presenting one of his tamest films ever. Melancholia manages athe neat trick of annihilating the Earth in its opening minutes, then actually turning out to be one of von Trier’s most weirdly optimistic films.
2. The Tree of Life (11 votes, 111 points)
Terrence Malick’s long-in-the-wings, impressionistic dare of a movie kicks off what appears to be a new and more productive era for the famously reclusive director, who apparently has two more new films more or less in the can. Despite his track record for long breaks, this bit of news isn’t necessarily surprising when you’ve seen The Tree of Life, which feels like the cinematic equivalent of a creative dam bursting, in the best way possible.
1. Drive (17 votes, 133 points)
If 2011 was a year of divisive movies, none polarized audiences and critics quite like Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, a movie so stylistically brazen it both won Refn a Best Director prize at Cannes and inspired at least one lawsuit. A tightly knit patchwork of film and pop-culture touchstones that also happens to fit within Refn’s small oeuvre of idiosyncratic tough-guy flicks, Drive is a movie both of its time and indebted to several others; it might prove to be ahead of the curve, too.
31- The Descendants (3 votes, 20 points)
32- Cave of Forgotten Dreams (3 votes, 18 points)
33- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part Two (3 votes, 18 points)
34- Miss Bala (3 votes, 17 points)
36- The Skin I Live In (tie: 2 votes, 15 points)
36- She Monkeys (tie: 2 votes, 15 points)
37- Young Adult (3 votes, 13 points)
39- Incendies (tie: 2 votes, 13 points)
39- Win Win (tie: 2 votes, 13 points)
41- Submarine (tie: 2 votes, 12 points)
41- The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (tie: 2 votes, 12 points)
41- War Horse (2 votes, 11 points)
43- The Turin Horse (tie: 1 vote, 11 points)
43- Salt White (tie: 1 votes, 11 points)
43- Life In A Day (tie: 1 vote, 11 points)
43- Wuthering Heights (1 vote, 11 points)
43- Samsara (tie: 1 vote, 11 points)
44- Headhunters (2 votes, 10 points)
47- Tomboy (tie: 1 vote, 10 points)
47- A Lonely Place To Die (1 vote, 10 points)
47- Way Back (tie: 1 vote, 10 points)
47- Rabies (tie: 1 vote, 10 points)
47- Darwin (tie: 1 vote, 10 points)
47- Policeman (tie: 1 vote, 10 points)
47- Tomboy (tie: 1 vote, 10 points)
47- Mysteries of Lisbon (tie: 1 vote, 10 points)
47- Cafe De Flore (tie: 1 vote, 10 points)
50- I Saw The Devil (tie: 2 votes, 9 points)
50- The Adventures of Tin Tin (tie: 2 votes, 9 points)
50- Poetry (tie: 2 votes, 9 points)