7. Being Elmo and Buck These two documentaries struck me as similarly flawed and similarly brilliant. Both proved thin in diligent curiosity, opting instead to present a puppeteer and a rugged cowboy as who they are at their best, but maybe not their most honest. In both cases, the subjects’ magical authenticity and humanitarian goodness blasted out a blinding laser beam of heart that didn’t just compensate for the respective directors’ journalistic shortcomings, but may have reaffirmed my belief in people as a whole. This year, that was no small feat.
8. HannaPride and Prejudice director Joe Wright told the modern-day fairy tale that Tom Tykwer never quite mastered in this lovely film about a girl (the effervescent Saiorse Ronan in one of the year’s best female performances) so disconnected from humanity that her very presence elicits first-contact awe from us mere mortals.
9. 50/50 Once again, Joseph Gordon-Levitt electrifies in a beguiling cancer dramedy so full of landmines that its success lies in its very existence. On paper, a stoner comedy about a young man (Gordon-Levitt, a stand-in for 50/50 writer and cancer survivor Will Reiser) who contracts a rare spinal tumor, forcing him to confront his mortality much earlier than most, should have been an awkward and maudlin affair. But Seth Rogen as Gordon-Levitt’s sidekick and invaluable distraction generator, along with the always welcome Anjelica Huston and a cast of warm, all-too-human treatment vets elevate 50/50 to something wholly surprising.
10. Take Shelter Michael Shannon gives the year’s best male performance as a man extra-cautiously navigating a descent into madness, spurred on by bad genes, a swarm of black birds and a high-stakes (and, in 2011, timely) family life marked by financial tightrope-walking and wavering trust.
Honorable mentions (in alphabetical order): Although many other films came close to Top 10 placement, these were the ones that had the toughest row to hoe. From resurrecting an embarrassingly outdated superhero to unflinchingly offering an anti-heroine for the ages, these movies pulled off the near-impossible in some form or fashion.
Captain America: The First Avenger
Crazy, Stupid, Love
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
CERN, Hollywood, CERN
2011’s celestial cinema couldn’t have come at a better time
by Justin Strout
Every good sci-fi thriller needs a big MacGuffin machine, a doomsday thingamajig of some sort that, if activated, will inevitably lead to unspeakably bad things that only the dashing hero can avoid. It doesn’t have to do anything, exactly; it just needs to loom large, fulfilling its destiny as a reminder of the stakes of the mission. Its very existence means that humanity could or already has crossed a kind of threshold from which there is no return.