Ultimately, when starting to compile this list, I threw out my star ratings and just considered the titles that jumped out at me most—the ones I felt worthy of a top 10. There were a total of 17, and I'll start the countdown with the seven honorable mentions. And for more best-of-2011 talk, check out my year-in-review post.
Bill Cunningham New York was until very recently my favorite documentary of the year—just a supremely pleasant film. Ultimately, it just couldn't quite measure up to the heavyweights on this list.
Not long ago, I called Drive merely an exercise in style. I do very much appreciate Nicholas Winding Refn's unique approach to this revenge story, as well as Ryan Gosling's fantastic performance, but the film didn't speak to me like so many others this year did.
Moneyball was on this list for a while. I totally dig the way Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian took this very inside baseball (literally) story and turned it into something incredibly universal. Plus, Brad Pitt is exceptional.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is what a blockbuster should be. Its special effects serve the story, and it achieves more emotional satisfaction than almost every other film this year.
Take Shelter and We Need to Talk About Kevin are two showcases for extremely talented directors (Jeff Nichols and Lynne Ramsey, respectively), as well as two of the best lead performances of the year from Michael Shannon and Tilda Swinton.
A Separation was actually on this list less than 48 hours ago. I shared my list on Twitter Thursday night and called it a storytelling tour-de-force. I just happened to see something later that evening that floored me a little more. Still, Iran's Oscar candidate deserves all the praise it's gotten, and then some. Seek it out as soon as you can.
Now, the top 10:
10.) The Tree of Life
I never even formally reviewed this film because after I saw it the first time, I didn't know what to make of it. I knew I had major problems with the Sean Penn material, but I also knew that Malick's formless style of storytelling through imagery was awe-inspiring. A second viewing enhanced all the film's positives while making the negatives easier to forgive. I hope that trend continues on my inevitable rewatches.
Yes, it's really depressing, and the wedding scenes drag on a bit too long, but the second half is sensational. I can just picture Von Trier laughing maniacally as his fictional giant blue planet comes to wipe us all out.
8.) Midnight in Paris
No one was happier than I to discover that Woody Allen was back, and it's clear he's having an absolute blast with this whimsical and wonderfully nostalgic adventure.
Apparently, I like this one much more than most others. But a second viewing confirmed what I suspected the first time I saw it: Steven Soderbergh is clearly having a blast with this cold but relentless epidemic film. The ensemble is also very strong, as is Cliff Martinez's score.
6.) The Interrupters
Steve James' hands-off approach to Chicago gang violence yields honest and uncompromising results. The film's three subjects are the heroes of 2011. Their courage will shake you to the core.
The best ensemble work of the year comes from the unlikeliest of comedies—one about cancer. JGL is as fantastic as always, but the best-in-show award goes to Anjelica Huston. Her arc is both heartbreaking and heartwarming.
4.) How to Die in Oregon
The film that replaced A Separation on the list. I started crying within the first five minutes of Peter Richardson's documentary on Oregon's controversial Death with Dignity law, and I kept it up for the duration of the film. Along with The Interrupters, this is one of 2011's real must-see films.
3.) Martha Marcy May Marlene
This immaculately composed character study features the best performance, male or female, that I've seen in years. Elizabeth Olsen's work is unparalleled. I can't wait to see what she and first-time writer/director Sean Durkin do next.
2.) Certified Copy
The ultimate art-house flick. There haven't been many films this year as challenging as Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy, but if you can stick with it all the way through, you won't find many films as rewarding, either. Juliette Binoche is tremendous, in what's really a dual role, but the star is the director who composes every shot very deliberately and with a real eye for detail.
Yet, as much as I admired Kiarostami's incredible work, no film filled me with as much joy as Martin Scorsese's Hugo. It's so ironic, too, because I went in with little to no expectations. Part of it was the bizarre trailer, but I think a lot of it was due to the 3D, which I had completely written off. The way it's used here, however, is probably better than any other film I've ever seen. But that's just one reason why it's my #1 film. The art direction, cinematography, and editing are all fantastic. The score is one of my favorites of the year. The cast—even Asa Butterfield—fills each role perfectly. Ultimately, however, it's about something so near and dear to my heart—the movies. Scorsese is telling a story that's both personal and deceivingly universal. It's a heartwarming ride that holds up so well on second viewing, and I'm so happy it's getting the recognition it deserves. I know I have a lot more to see still in the coming weeks and months, but for now, it's Hugo that has my heart. It's my favorite film of 2011.