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The best movies of 2011

Apes, black birds and dinosaurs rise to the top

Photo: Merie Walla, License: N/A

Merie Walla

Of course, leave it to that lovable scamp Lars von Trier to opt for full-blown annihilation with his Melancholia, a film in which one young woman’s depression manifests itself as nothing less than a planet-killer. That was also one of several films that subjected their audiences to the increasingly cockeyed perspectives of their protagonists: the delusional journey central to Jason Reitman’s Young Adult, the dispassionate sexual gymnastics of Shame, the fallible memory and moral doubt which defined the little-seen Margaret and the soon-to-open A Separation, the dead-father distress and youthful wonder of both the charming Hugo and the cloying Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

Trust also took its toll on our silver-screen surrogates with considerable frequency. Elizabeth Olsen masterfully demonstrated the psychological frailty that would come from embodying the multi-monikered Martha Marcy May Marlene; Ryan Gosling saw his political idealism rot from within during The Ides of March; a once-loved chimpanzee suffered at the hands of irresponsible humans in Project Nim, while suspicion ran rampant through the ranks of both the early settlers of Meek’s Cutoff and the Cold War operatives of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

For better and worse, harsh economic realities came down on the leads of Margin Call, Warrior, Everything Must Go and even that scooter-riding sonuvabitch, Larry Crowne. Financial strain certainly played a part in feeding Michael Shannon’s paranoia in Take Shelter, but it was primarily fueled by parental priorities to provide for and protect one’s own, as also witnessed in The Tree of Life, The Descendants and We Need to Talk About Kevin. Mere lovers weren’t safe from romantic hurdles either, as Like Crazy, Midnight in Paris and Tabloid each demonstrated a unique knack for keeping their central couples apart.

Even our heroes came from unlikely places. Source Code stuck an American soldier in the thick of a terrorist attack on our soil after the fact and still enlisted him to save lives not yet destroyed. The hoodlums and reprobates of Attack the Block and Hobo With a Shotgun were forced to clean up some seriously mean streets themselves. And then there’s the matter of rubber literally meeting the road, as Rubber’s psychotic tire (yes, tire) blew heads while DJ-turned-director Quentin Dupieux blew minds with his wanton disregard for conventional narrative.

But at the end of the day, it came down to normal people coming to grips with uncommon circumstances: 20-somethings coping with terminal illness in 50/50, professionals dealing with a dying industry in Page One: Inside the New York Times, cops and doctors breaking all sorts of rules in the name of justice with I Saw the Devil and The Skin I Live In. When the Hippocratic oath becomes more hypocritical than anything else, that should be indication enough that down is officially up, and while we might go to the movies in order to escape from the woes of the world, this year showed us multitudes of characters desperate to do the same.

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