By AARON CUTLER
By INKOO KANG
By SIMON ABRAMS
By SHERILYN CONNELLY
By NICK SCHAGER
By STEPHANIE ZACHAREK
By CHRIS KLIMEK
By NICK SCHAGER
3. MEEK'S CUTOFF
Kelly Reichardt, United States
Has a better American film been made about survival instincts in the face of economic desperation since the start of the downturn than Reichardt's gorgeously unsettling Oregon Trail tale? In a great year for supporting actors, Bruce Greenwood's incredible transformation into the rugged titular character is the most unjustly overlooked.
4. THE TREE OF LIFE
Terrence Malick, United States
Even if the reach of Malick's infinite loop exceeds its grasp, that reach is unprecedented. At Cannes, it was tempting to pick a side between Tree of Life and Melancholia—Team Terry's earnest theological questioning versus Team Lars' Dogme dystopia. But even in their wildly diverging stylistic and philosophical approaches to life, death and the mysteries of the universe, the two films defined the year in film with their implicit dialogue between each other.
5. THE ARBOR
Clio Barnard, United Kingdom
Not just the best nonfiction film of 2011, Barnard's hybrid of primary-source reporting and dramatic staging to tell the tale of alcoholic British council estate bard Andrea Dunbar and the daughters she left behind is also the most innovative—not a small feat in a year that also brought the archival super-edit The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu.
6. A SEPARATION
Asghar Farhadi, Iran
A master class in storytelling and character study under any circumstances, Farhadi's Berlinale winner, about the reverberations of one middle-class housewife's decision to leave her family when her husband refuses to leave Iran, is all the more impressive as an implicit—but, in an incredible feat of footwork, never direct—critique of the standards and practices of the Iranian government that sanctioned its production.
Nicolas Winding Refn, Denmark
The best music video Michael Mann never made. Ryan Gosling's (unsuccessful) campaign ad for the crown of Sexiest Man Alive. A movie-length, escalating joke about the manipulative seduction of genre-film tropes, Drive is the visual-pleasure bomb that critiques itself.
Steven Soderbergh, United States
A filmmaker whose primary obsessions have been work and sex, Soderbergh turned an outbreak story that demonizes both into an unflinching, dispassionate nail biter. Contagion is uniquely Soderberghian in its appropriation of a Hollywood genre for personal ends. When the big emotional catharsis comes, it's all the more devastating as a break from the total coldness that preceded it.
9. THE FUTURE
Miranda July, United States
The best of 2011's many Sundance-hits-turned-box-office-bombs. The reception accorded July's second feature—a deeply personal and fully unique hybrid of hipster relationship drama, lo-fi sci-fi and filmed performance art—only affirms its courage as a would-be commercial endeavor.
Bennett Miller, United States
Am I biased as a baseball fan? Maybe, though as a faithful follower of the Dodgers—whose 2011 season offered a gripping seesaw of tragedy and triumph—I hardly needed to go looking for baseball drama elsewhere. Less an adaptation of Michael Lewis' best-seller than a cinematic rendering of the unlikely marriage between passion and fiscal ration that motivated the sport to put its faith in sabermetrics, Moneyball moved me to tears. Twice. My vote for most satisfying popcorn movie of the year.
The following films (listed alphabetically) almost made the cut: The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, Beginners, Certified Copy, City of Life and Death, A Dangerous Method, Dragonslayer, Fast Five, Go Go Tales, House of Pleasures, Jane Eyre, The Lincoln Lawyer, Love Exposure, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Mysteries of Lisbon, Rubber, Silver Bullets, Take Shelter, The Trip, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, and Winnie the Pooh.
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