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The 25 Best Films of 2011

A scene from Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life. [Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures]

The 25 Best Films of 2011

The auteurs had it in 2011, which delivered such a feast of fantastic domestic and international cinema that it's difficult to remember a year in which it was harder to compile a consensus Top 25. Nonetheless, best-of-year rankings wait for no critic, and our list is practically overflowing with films by young and old masters at the apex of their games, be it Terrence Malick's sumptuous spiritual odyssey The Tree of Life, Edward Yang's long-unreleased 1991 classic A Brighter Summer Day, or Abbas Kiarostami's formalist masterwork Certified Copy. Not that there weren't new faces making headway into the cinematic upper echelon, as Radu Muntean's gripping Tuesday, After Christmas and Asghar Farhadi's blistering A Separation (2010 and 2011 New York Film Festival alums about marital chaos, respectively) signaled the arrival of two major new voices who married aesthetic rigor with empathetic narrative complexity. The year's most heralded film that no one saw, Margaret, received scant support from Fox Searchlight, leading our own Jaime Christley to start a December petition for the studio to provide screenings and screeners for critics, but plenty of praise from those few fortunate enough to experience Kenneth Lonergan's epic drama. Many other small, powerful indies (In the Family, Tomboy, Extraordinary Stories) received a similarly undeserved unseen fate, further proving the need for more creative alternate means of new-release distribution. Yet even those with access only to the most marquee art-house offerings were blessed with strong new efforts from David Cronenberg (A Dangerous Method), Pedro Almodóvar (The Skin I Live In), and Martin Scorsese (Hugo). So bountiful was 2011 that it could even sustain a relative dearth of revelatory horror and documentary gems—though from the desolate Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and barren Meek's Cutoff to the apocalyptic Take Shelter, there remained, throughout the year's many great films, no shortage of palpable real-world and existential dread. Nick Schager

[Editor's Note: Click here for individual ballots and list of the films that came in 26—50.]

Of Gods and Men25. Of Gods and Men. "Why is faith so bitter?" pleads one of the eight Trappist monks whose moral crisis animates this humanist drama of devout individuals valuing their lives through an increasingly firm refusal to make saving them a priority. When their contemplative life of prayer and self-sufficiency, along with service to Algerian mountain villagers who rely on them for scarce medical attention and new sneakers, comes under imminent threat of annihilation by a band of local terrorists, writer-director Xavier Beauvois doesn't render the men as martyrdom-ready saints. Mortal peril doesn't unhinge them, but is reconciled within the parameters of their religious identities and with the ideal of universal love implicit in their vows. Beauvois is careful to acknowledge the primary suffering of the Muslim population at the hands of the extremists, and the legacy of French colonialism in the monks' plight, not in guilt-ridden checklisting but as part of a tough, tender vision of an aspiration to healing grace. Of Gods and Men reaches an apex in a late sequence where the brothers share wine and a Tchaikovsky recording, having achieved a resolve that, in a montage of close-ups, shows an existential joy washing over fear. Bill Weber

Hugo24. Hugo. Hugo, the tale of the titular boy (Asa Butterfield) in 1930s Paris who meets a forgotten but eventually legendary filmmaker, is Martin Scorsese's most beautiful and entrancing fictional film since his idiotically rejected Kundun. Of course, this film is catnip for cinephiles, as the filmmaker that Hugo encounters is eventually revealed to be Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), the magician-turned-director who is said, with A Trip to the Moon, to have made the first science-fiction movie. Méliès's story is tied in nicely with Hugo's search for the missing part of his dead father's automaton, but Scorsese is clearly more concerned with staging a very thinly veiled plea for the kind of film preservation that he's been tirelessly championing all of his life. While that's undeniably important and resonant, Hugo touches on a broader truth of greater urgency: the rapid erosion of shared cultural heritage in a contemporary world that prizes disposable quips and sound bites above all else. For two hours, a master filmmaker restores hope in a seemingly endangered medium. Chuck Bowen

The Skin I Live In23. The Skin I Live In. Pedro Almodóvar's adaptation of Thierry Jonquet's novel Tarantula is his most emotionally thorny and complex melodrama since Bad Education. The film's layered narrative floats the idea that our bodies are, more often than not, the thin membrane that helps us to form our respective identities. If you puncture, reshape, or damage your bodies, we become monsters. Antonio Banderas's deranged plastic surgeon secretly experiments on a mysterious but alluring victim (Elena Anaya) in his enormous personal estate. And while he plays God, we watch, through a delicately balanced series of interwoven plot threads, as his life and the people who are most immediately affected by his actions fall apart. The Skin I Live In is a yo-yoing cycle of violence where characters struggle to become new people only for their lives fall apart again. The characters' tragic imperative to fix, to alter, and to recklessly right wrongs by affecting other people's bodies—Pedro really brings the pathos this time around. Simon Abrams

Extraordinary Stories22. Extraordinary Stories. A 240-minute pick-up game between verbal and visual storytelling, Extraordinary Stories begins with a deal gone wrong, frustratingly captured in a static long shot on grainy low-def digital. From there, director Mariano Llinas devotes himself to repeatedly confounding expectations, and each unconventional move—whether it's conveying reams of story entirely through narration, torrents of language with which subtitles struggle to keep up, trapping a primary character alone in a hotel room for a good chunk of the story, or depicting the movie's most exciting scene through La Jetée-style still photos—provides the occasion for another nifty bit of sleight of hand, another dazzling escape from a complicated situation. The result is a kind of small masterpiece that also feels warmly overstuffed, bursting with ideas and concepts, an addictive film so full of stories and life that it feels like it could go on forever. Jesse Cataldo

The Time that Remains21. The Time that Remains. Everything is a complex allegory enacted by the simplest of all setups in Elia Suleiman's film about Palestinians living as aliens in their own territory. Although structured similarly to Jacques Tati's deadpan tableaux and comedy sketches, The Time That Remains's is a humor more rooted in the acerbic simplicity of popular jokes, that spring up organically as emblems of a culture, than anything cinema has carefully crafted. Like the ones told by the old, mustachioed, wife beater-wearing neighbor in the film who stops by every once in a while to repeat a short anecdote, whenever he's not unsuccessfully setting himself on fire. Neighbors, in fact, play a large role in the film, coming and going in one another's homes in a tellingly unceremonious laissez-passer. They are more like functions than actual people, their presences triggering not much more than collective neurasthenia. Beyond its socio-political gravitas, The Time That Remains works so beautifully just as a series of poetic motifs: two men go fishing at night (completely unaffected by lazy calls from guards for identification); a woman writes a letter about yearning to see the clean streets of Amman; a child gets scolded for calling America imperialistic; a school teacher blocks a film projector as it shows a scene of passionate heterosexual kissing ("Girls, he is like a brother to her!"). Diego Costa

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