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To be fair, visual artist-turned-filmmaker Mike Mills had some pretty extraordinary material to draw on for this artfully shaped and shaded semiautobiographical drama. Like the man played so tenderly by Ewan McGregor opposite Christopher Plummer, Mills is the adult straight son of a father, now deceased, who came out of the closet late in life, embracing his homosexuality and finding satisfying love only after the death of his wife. How Mills knits a father's late-life blossoming with a son's trepidations as he embarks on his own serious romance, though, is highly original. The movie isn't for every taste; people who don't like dogs talking through subtitles, for instance, might balk. But that's exactly what I love about Beginners: It's as true to its own character as the men in this optimistic tale are to theirs.
Click here to jump to Owen Gleiberman's 10 best movies of 2011
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9. The Interrupters
This must-see documentary is intentionally sprawling, unresolved, and troubling. And that's exactly what's great about The Interrupters. This patient, observant film directed by Hoop Dreams' Steve James (and produced by Alex Kotlowitz, who wrote the essential book There Are No Children Here) spends a lot of time with three Chicago ''violence interrupters'' whose street cred is impeccable: They all have past gang life on their résumés. Now their almost impossible mission is to wade into trouble and try to avert catastrophe in hopeless neighborhoods. The filmmakers don't have solutions; what they have are respect and integrity. They're rewarded with priceless trust.
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Yep, I'm on the Moneyball team too, and here's why, in four pitches: (1) Brad Pitt knocks it out of the park, wow; (2) Jonah Hill's curveball performance makes him Rookie of the Year, not counting his previous movie-comedy years as a fat, funny sidekick; (3) Philip Seymour Hoffman continues his winning streak; (4) Director Bennett Miller takes a book that's literally an inside-baseball business story — it could have been shot using only a desk calculator as a prop — and turns it into a movie about calculating life.
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Trying to reduce the year's best documentaries to one or two list-worthy specimens isn't fair. But it's reality. If my heart could go on and on, this year's list would also include Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, Bill Cunningham New York, Senna, Buck, Undefeated, Hell and Back Again, and Dragonslayer on the honor roll. But since my heart has an assignment ?of 10 best pictures, I insist on including Pina, Wim Wenders' absolutely spectacular 3-D documentary about the work of ? the late German avant-garde choreographer ?Pina Bausch, as performed by members of her acclaimed dance troupe, ?the Tanztheater Wuppertal. You say you don't care about dance, or the avant-garde, or even 3-D? Doesn't matter. Put on the funny glasses and be wowed.
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6. The Descendants
In the Aloha State of Hawaii, the exceedingly gifted auteur Alexander Payne applies? his own close attention to domestic crisis, particularly as it affects his favorite study subject: the vulnerable American male. The result is a mature, tragicomic character study about How Men Behave Today, distilled in the woes of George Clooney as a guy who has to deal with a whole lot of headaches while his wife is in a coma. In Clooney—never more unexpectedly pathetic a sight than when running, in full distress, while wearing flopping beach sandals—Payne just may have found a muse.
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5. A Separation
In a year of memorable foreign-language films, including Aki Kaurismäki's Finnish gem Le Havre and the late Portuguese master Raúl Ruiz's stately, dreamy historical saga Mysteries of Lisbon, Asghar Farhadi's riveting Iranian drama about the end of a marriage stands out for the stunning matter-of-fact intimacy of its focus. This keen observation of social, religious, judicial, and parental clashes (and especially their effects on the ailing aged and the bewildered young) is specifically rooted in contemporary middle-class Iranian culture. That's the movie's first revelation. The second is how universal the issues and emotions are. Every shot in this nuanced production conveys vital information, and every line of dialogue matters as an ordinary man and an ordinary woman separate.
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In one of those unusual 2011 cultural confluences bound to excite trend pundits, two of the year's best movies pay homage to cinematic history, each an exquisite production inviting the viewer into a magical alternative universe. With Hugo, Martin Scorsese has fashioned an intricate adaptation of the award-winning children's book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, about an orphan boy in 1930s Paris whose hunger to know how things work leads him, one adventure after another, to the home of the great forgotten pioneer filmmaker Georges Méliès and an opportunity to restore the old man's place in history. With his sophisticated, typically avid exploration of very new 3-D technology, Scorsese simultaneously sings a beautiful love song to very old movies and spreads the gospel of ?his own enduring passion ?for film preservation.
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3. The Artist
One of the marvels of movies from the black-and-white silent era is that everyone could understand them, everywhere in the world. The ability to read title cards was an advantage for the literate, true. But the great melodramatic Hollywood silents spoke loudest through the universal language of action — dance, sight gags, and visual cues. In The Artist, French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius creates an enchanting and skilled 21st-century evocation of an Old Hollywood pre-talkie. In its ingenious loveliness, there are layers of enjoyment available to moviegoers of all ages, beginning with the Star Is Born relationship between dashing Jean Dujardin as a silent-era matinee idol whose fame is fading and a younger, perkier, talkie-ready ingenue, played with twinkle and spunk by Bérénice Bejo. Those who know a lot about movie history can enjoy the shout-outs, samplings, and homages strewn throughout The Artist. But I assure you, those who know nothing about the old days can still, happily, love every word.
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There's no accounting for taste in comedy. But there are standards by which to measure quality in a movie comedy, and most of them are the same as the standards by which any great movie distinguishes itself: The story has integrity, originality, and a sharp intelligence. The characters are distinctive and fully formed. The action unfolds organically, driven by those characters, rather than arbitrarily, driven by writerly cleverness. The cast works in sync as an ensemble, each actor elevating and supporting the work of the others. The pacing is appropriate to the story. The audience doesn't know what's coming, and is delighted by surprise. By every measure, Bridesmaids — about one interesting, unmarried woman's complicated emotional reactions to the impending wedding of her best friend — is one of the very best movies of the year. With Kristen Wiig (who co-wrote), Maya Rudolph, Rose Byrne, and Melissa McCarthy leading the cast, it's also hilarious. Actually, Bridesmaids is so good that the female-driven, feminist intelligence that drives the project doesn't need to be mentioned. Except I think it does.
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Melancholia doesn't sweat the small stuff. It considers the cosmos. It explains how the world will end—with a rogue planet named Melancholia crashing into Earth. And ?it dramatizes what it's like to be in the grip of a profound despair—a melancholia—that feels as if? the world is ending. You'd think this would make for ?a Scandinavian downer, coming from depression-prone Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier. Instead, he inspires ecstasy. How? That?s an earthly mystery. ?Of all the big or small, traditional or experimental, fantasy or reality based movies of 2011 that moved, delighted, provoked, surprised, or otherwise impressed me this year, Melancholia burns brightest as an enthralling work of creativity and cinematic power. Kirsten Dunst gives the performance of her career as a sad, beautiful bride, tormented by mood swings. Charlotte Gainsbourg creates a perfect psychological inverse as the bride's sister. As Melancholia the planet draws nearer and nearer, borne on swoons of music by Richard Wagner, the audience for Melancholia knows the end is near. And yet we vibrate with pleasure.
NEXT: Lisa names the 5 worst films of 2011
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LISA SCHWARZBAUM'S WORST FILMS OF 2011 5. The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn—Part 1
That does it. I am so over Bella Swan, especially with Kristen Stewart drooping through the role—the dullest girl ever to be? loved by a ?vampire. (She looks pained on an average day; here, during marriage, honeymoon, and the world?s most hideous birth experience, she looks tortured.) And while I'm at it, I'm over this credulous, ?dutifully reverent, drawn-out movie adaptation of such an insipid fantasy. ?I said it before ?and I'll say it again: You who love The Twilight Saga deserve a much better saga to love!
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LISA SCHWARZBAUM'S WORST FILMS OF 2011 4. Larry Crowne
Sometimes niceness is a slippery slope to worst-list-worthy phoniness. Exhibit A, 2011 ?edition: this fake-?cute, fake-inspirational, truly out-of-touch comedy about real, ?unfunny middle-aged unemployment, ?with a fake-adorable subplot about second-chance romance between fake-average folks, played with unseemly ingratiation by un-average ?Tom Hanks and ?Julia Roberts.
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LISA SCHWARZBAUM'S WORST FILMS OF 2011 3. Jack and Jill
You say it's not fair to pick on Adam Sandler for this one awful comedy about obnoxious adult twins when Sandler is merely doing the kind of broad shtick he does so often in Sandler movies? You're right: ?I also want to pick on the awful 2011 Adam Sandler comedy Just Go With It.
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LISA SCHWARZBAUM'S WORST FILMS OF 2011 2. Sucker Punch
This is what happens when videogame aesthetics infect moviemaking like a virus: We get a repellent action-fantasy that glories in dull, pounding, monotonous violence; screeching? music; fetishistic, soulless? visuals; and oppressed, psycho-slut female characters who have been ''empowered'' ?to avenge their sexual degradation by fighting in their underwear. We suckers have been punched. Game over.
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LISA SCHWARZBAUM'S WORST FILMS OF 2011 1. I Don't Know How She Does It
Stay-at-home mothers get mocked in this bogus chick-flick, which is crappy. Men—particularly male co-workers—get dismissed as oblivious and insensitive, which is a cheap shot. And fortysomething working mothers trying to juggle home and workplace get Sarah Jessica Parker as their coy mascot, dithering girlishly like Sex and the City?s perpetually thirtysomething Carrie Bradshaw, complete with voice-over soliloquies in front of a laptop computer. Which is a deal breaker.