Top 20 best films of 2011

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The intense Ryan Gosling in 2011's best film, "Drive." (Photo courtesy of Film District)

20. Young Adult – Charlize Theron makes it her mission in “Young Adult” to prove a miserable shrew of a character can be compelling, and succeeds thanks to help from Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody, giving an acidic performance. Patton Oswalt almost steals the show as a damaged man caught in Theron’s hurricane of self-destruction.

19. Hugo – Equal parts kiddie adventure fare and film history lesson, Martin Scorcese’s “Hugo” is a love letter to cinema that can only improve on repeat viewings. Scorcese’s use of 3D threatens to redefine what the medium can do, and Ben Kingsley’s mysterious shopkeeper makes for one of the year’s best redemption stories.

18. Win Win – Tom McCarthy has carved out a small cinematic niche for himself portraying unlikely families coming together in times of hardship, and “Win Win” is the best realization of that formula yet thanks to a humanizing performance from Paul Giamatti and a characteristically great, warm script by McCarthy.

17. Rango – Gore Verbinski’s bizarre, inspired animated Western benefits from a strong sense of creativity and a fascinating vocal performance from Johnny Depp, not to mention a revitalization of the Western tropes behind its narrative.

16. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 – The climax to the “Harry Potter” series had nearly a decade of anticipation propelling it to screens, and yet it still managed to satisfy. Director David Yates’ staging of the final showdown between good and evil was given all of the weight it needed, and made for a rare franchise that completely stuck the landing.

15. Hanna – Easily one of the oddest, most violent coming-of-age films ever made, “Hanna” blends Joe Wright’s keen visual acumen with an understated, smartly written script and an unexpectedly badass performance from Saoirse Ronan. Also worth mentioning is the phenomenal, vibrant score by the Chemical Brothers.

14. The Adventures of Tintin – Of the two new Spielberg movies hitting screens in 2011, “The Adventures of Tintin” was the clear standout, a spiritual successor to “Raiders of the Lost Ark” that finds Spielberg working with an invigorating sense of adventure that’s been missing from his most recent work.

13. Attack the Block – 2011 brought us the debuts of Joe Cornish and John Boyega, both of whom impress in “Attack the Block.” Cornish stuffs the film with big payoffs and memorable creature design, making for a director to watch in the future, while Boyega is intense as his Moses slowly shifts from terrifying street thug to hero.

12. 50/50 – A sobering yet hilarious examination of potentially terminal cancer is given both comedy and drama thanks to a great performance from Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays well with impeccable supporting players Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick, and Anjelica Huston.

11. Warrior – Tom Hardy and Nick Nolte shine in Gavin O’Connor’s exceptional sports drama, one that’s careful not to cast heroes or villains, preferring to challenge audiences by placing its sympathies with both of the characters headed for a climactic, satisfying final showdown.

10. Undefeated – Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s documentary about an inner-city Memphis high school’s mad dash toward their first playoff game was an absolute highlight at this year’s SXSW, transplanting the unabashedly emotional “Friday Night Lights” aesthetic into a documentary format wonderfully. The film is rarely subtle about going for its big emotional payoffs, but when it sticks the landing, “Undefeated” is every bit as effective as any fictional sports film.

9. I Saw the Devil – Imagine Dexter and Jason Bourne engaging in an epic cat-and-mouse battle filtered through the brutal sensibilities of Korean cinema, and you begin to grasp just how insane Jee-woon Kim’s blood-soaked thriller is. Min-ski Choi brings a terrifying energy to his serial killer, and the exaggerated reality the film builds is one where everyone’s a psychopath and blows to the head are handed out like candy, making for a “Looney Tunes” of blood, guts, and vengeance.

8. Take Shelter – Jeff Nichols crafts a haunting slowburn of a thriller with “Take Shelter,” which boasts an impressive performance from Michael Shannon with strong support by Jessica Chastain. The film’s visions of an impending apocalypse contrasted with the disintegration of Shannon’s mental state make for an unsettling film that comfortably worms into the back of your mind and refuses to budge from your thoughts.

7. Shame – Michael Fassbender gives the year’s best male performance in Steve McQueen’s sex addiction drama, a stylized, hypnotizing New York picture. Fassbender’s fearless, near-predatory performance is complimented by Carey Mulligan’s subdued, melancholy work as his sister, and McQueen’s lethargic but confident control of pacing and music make “Shame” stand out.

6. We Need to Talk About Kevin – There was no better performance in 2011 than Tilda Swinton’s tour-de-force as a mother whose instincts are challenged by her repulsive son. Lynne Ramsey’s film is a challenging gut punch, and her dreamlike direction and ballsy color scheme make the onscreen happenings increasingly unsettling. Before you know it, “Kevin” has its hooks in you, and the film is an enthralling, disturbing experience that’s very hard to shake.

5. Super 8 – While J.J. Abrams’ tribute to Spielberg may have a shaky finale, the film gets the coming-of-age story at its center so right that it’s impossible to leave off this list. Magnificent performances from Elle Fanning and Joel Courtney make for several wistful, heartwarming moments, and Abrams nails the awe-inspired Spielberg aesthetic that made many of the films he’s trying to emulate classics.

4. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – Tomas Alfredson’s US debut has a plot that’s insanely hard to follow, a labyrinth filled with twists, turns, and dead ends, yet still stands out thanks to elegant, icy direction and strong performances. However, repeat viewings allow viewers to reap the numerous rewards in the film’s narrative and uphold the value of Alfredon’s impeccable eye for detail and tension, along with Gary Oldman’s quietly wonderful leading role.

3. Beginners – The twin storylines of Mike Mills’ semiautobiographical “Beginners” each serve a different purpose, one to showcase an excellent supporting performance from Christopher Plummer and another to show off Mills’ touch for lyrical, poetic depictions of falling in love. For every artistic flourish that doesn’t work, “Beginners” has one that’s effortlessly beautiful and moving, and the film’s intimate, smartly restrained portrayals of love, death, and family are starkly personal and universally appealing all at once.

2. Midnight in Paris – There wasn’t any film this year as undeniably pleasant as “Midnight in Paris,” a wonderfully literate and funny high-concept comedy. While the nooks and crannies of its plot are best left unspoiled, it’s necessary to highlight supporting performances from Corey Stoll and Marion Cotillard, who represent the best of the film’s rich, inspired concept and starry-eyed romanticism, respectively.

1. Drive – Even though “Drive’s” storyline is far from original, Nicolas Winding Refn layers on the style and intensity with help from a mostly silent and dangerous Ryan Gosling, and declares himself as a bold and original voice, a master at placing audiences firmly on the edges of their seats. Albert Brooks has justifiably been getting lots of attention for his work as a ruthless gangster, but the likes of Bryan Cranston, Carey Mulligan, and Ron Perlman all add to the tapestry of violent, impeccably choreographed beauty and blood that make up “Drive’s” neon-tinged Los Angeles.