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Looking back at the best of 2011
Film Review-50-50-ref
Seth Rogen, right, reacts to what Joseph Gordon-Levitt tells him in "50/50."

We’ve looked ahead to the Oscars in recent weeks, but we all know the Academy voters miss the mark as often as they hit it. And one of the funnest things about this time of year is debating what was best about the cinematic year that was. What follows is not an awards forecast, but my own list of the films that merit mention.

Disclaimers: I have yet to see "Drive" or "Take Shelter" (I saw around a hundred other new films this year but missed those two), both of which might are likely top 20 films. Also, after the top six, the order of this ranking becomes much less important. They are all very good in different ways.

1. "Tree of Life"

The most ambitious, most divisive film of the year reminds us that a movie can be a spiritual experience. Director Terence Malick situates one family’s tragic loss in the grand scheme of human history, in a visually stunning film that is both personal and universal in scope. Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain deliver outstanding performances. Viewers either love or hate the meditative pace. What is not up to debate, though: "Tree of Life" is one of the few 2011 releases that actually dares to try something new.

2. "The Artist"

The movie industry’s future has never looked more bleak, so filmmakers and film lovers are returning to the cinema’s glorious past. "The Artist," virtually silent and shot in beautiful black and white, is the best of those love notes to the movies. Jean Dujardin plays a silent movie star whose career is ruined by the conversion to sound and who is torn as he watches his love interest, Berenice Bejo, become famous. Classic stories make for a loving tribute that is loads of fun.

3. "Beginners"

Writer/director Mike Mills brings a unique visual style to this bittersweet comedic love story about a graphic artist named Oliver (Ewan McGregor) trying to cope with a series of shocks. After he loses his mother (Mary Page Keller), his father (Christopher Plummer) promptly comes out of the closet, then a few years later his father dies. Oliver then meets his dream girl at exactly the wrong time. We laugh and cry with Oliver as he searches for happiness and understanding.

4. "Melancholia"

"Melancholia" offers more family dysfunction, but in a completely different context. Two sisters, played perfectly by Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg, battle their own demons and sibling tensions as a rogue planet approaches Earth, threatening to ruin all human life. Perhaps writer/director Lars von Trier’s greatest accomplishment here is that he makes all of this uplifting.

5. "Project Nim"

Back in the 70s, researcher Herbert Terrace took an infant chimp, dubbed Nim, from his mother and had a team of mostly young women raise him as a human child. Based on the classic nature versus nurture debate, the project aimed to test how "human" a chimpanzee could become. However, the project proved much more about humans than animals. "Project Nim" reveals just how barbaric humans can be, even when operating on the best of intentions. This documentary is heartbreaking but thoroughly fascinating.

6. "Shame"

Filmmaker Steve McQueen goes into the abyss with Michael Fassbender, who plays a sex addict whose life is thrown into disarray when his sister (Carey Mulligan) visits unexpectedly. "Shame" is a brave film acted and directed as well as anything this year — a difficult but highly rewarding journey through one man’s darkest corridors.

7. "50/50"

"50/50" laughs through tears and perseveres through pain. This comedy/drama about a 27-year old diagnosed with cancer doesn’t shy away from the most difficult aspects of the disease, yet it makes us laugh more than cry. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anjelica Huston, and Anna Kendrick all give great performances, yet inexplicably and shamefully, awards givers are completely ignoring "50/50," except for Will Reiser’s script.

8. "Midnight in Paris"

Disillusioned writer Gil (Owen Wilson) walks the streets of Paris in search of inspiration, but through a nifty conceit finds himself in the 1920s, the age when Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and all the other ex-patriates mingled with some of the greatest European artists of the 20th century. "Midnight in Paris" is witty, absurd, and an absolute delight.

9. "The Descendants"

Alexander Payne’s latest comes with a great deal of hype, and while it doesn’t quite live up, it’s still an engaging drama with some humor sprinkled in. George Clooney gives another fine performance, and Shailene Woodley breaks out as Clooney’s daughter.

10. "My Week With Marilyn"

It’s difficult enough to breathe life into one cinematic legend, but to resurrect two in one film is quite a feat. Michelle Williams completely inhabits her role as Marilyn Monroe, while Kenneth Branagh gives his own interpretation of his hero, Laurence Olivier. "My Week With Marilyn" is a funny, touching love note to Monroe, both the icon and the woman.

11. "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy"

Spy movies have (d)evolved into action movies rather than the elaborate puzzles they once were. "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" is a throwback to the slowly unfolding mole hunt stories of classic spy movies. Gary Oldman anchors an astounding cast that also includes Colin Firth, John Hurt, and Tom Hardy.

12. "We Need to Talk About Kevin"

Tilda Swinton plays a mother whose son (Ezra Miller) has committed a mass school shooting. Wracked by the fact that she has raised a veritable monster and treated as if she is as guilty as her son, she struggles to understand and to love her son. This is a dark, dark movie, but it’s a topic we have yet to talk about honestly. And regardless of social agenda, this film is as riveting as it is uncomfortable.

13. "Undefeated"

"Undefeated" (not to be confused with the Sarah Palin documentary "The Undefeated," which even her fans ignored) is a documentary as enthralling as any scripted sports movie. Volunteer coach Bill Courtney tries to lead an inner city Memphis football team to a playoff win, but much more profound and inspiring are his attempts to help his young men build better lives for themselves. Whether you love or hate football, you must not miss this when it reaches theatres in February.

14. "The Muppets"

Muppet fans will revel in this self-aware attempt to resurrect the franchise, lovers of musicals will love the campy song-and-dance numbers, and those new to the Muppets will discover a new brand of joy. More pure fun than any other 2011 movie.

15. "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo"

David Fincher’s remake doesn’t equal the power of the Swedish original, but it comes awfully close. His stunning imagery complements strong performances from Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara. The story and characters are compelling even after Hollywood waters them down a bit.

16. "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II"

The most successful continuous franchise in movie history concludes in stunning fashion. It seemed impossible that the final cinematic chapter of Harry Potter would meet expectations, but the cast and crew pulled it off.

17. "Rise of the Planet of the Apes"

Expectations were extremely low for "Rise," but this is possibly the best action movie of 2011. Dramatizing the same themes explored in "Project Nim," this franchise reboot is both thoughtful and exciting. Andy Serkis provides the pantomime for Caesar, the motion-capture ape around which the film is built. The filmmakers were smart enough to let the primates steal the show, but as with the original Planet of the Apes, the underlying question is, what makes us human?

18. "Moneyball"

Exquisitely written and acted, "Moneyball" is a thinking man’s sports movie. Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill both give Oscar-worthy performances in what is a rather slow yet funny and moving film that is more about dreams and perseverance than baseball.

19. "Young Adult"

Charlize Theron plays Mavis Gary, a character who can only be described as a hot mess. She was the prettiest girl in school, but now she is a divorced, alcoholic ghost writer who returns to her small Minnesota hometown to rekindle romance with her high school sweetheart (Patrick Wilson), now a happily married new father. Mavis is a delusional, emotionally stunted trainwreck we can’t look away from, especially when she is sparring with former high school loser Matt (Patton Oswalt). "Young Adult" is thoroughly ironic and hilarious.

20. "Albert Nobbs"

Glenn Close plays the title character, a deeply scarred woman who lives as a man in 19th century Dublin. She puts on masculine clothes as both a protective cocoon and a means to support herself. Close co-wrote the script and theme song, produces, and stars. She gets tremendous support from Mia Wasikowska and Janet McTeer, who is a lock for a best supporting actress nod. "Albert Nobbs" is a gem.

21. "Martha Marcy May Marlene"

"Martha" is a breakout for its first-time director, Sean Durkin, and its lead actress, Elizabeth Olsen. The film blends past and present as it delves into the wounded mind of Martha (Olsen), an opaque yet intriguing young woman who stays with her sister (Sarah Paulson) and her husband (Hugh Dancy) while she recovers from a sojourn with a cult. John Hawkes gives another quiet, menacing role as the cult leader.

Jeff Marker teaches film and literature at Gainesville State College. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on