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10. Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol
Exciting and amazing at the same time. In his debut as a live-action filmmaker, the animation wizard Brad Bird (The Incredibles) creates scenes so audacious—a break-in at the Kremlin staged like a magic trick; a vertiginous, how the hell did they film that? crawl across the tallest building in the world; a nuclear countdown that redefines down-to-the-minute?that they get you moving around in your seat and laughing at your own susceptibility. Tom Cruise, in his fourth turn as IMF agent Ethan Hunt, has a pulsating presence, a dynamic mind-body fusion. This is not only the best entry in the Mission: Impossible series but the most vibrant thriller since the Bourne films and Casino Royale. In an action-ride culture that offers so much fake adrenaline, it's cathartic to encounter the real thing.
Click here to jump to Lisa Schwarzbaum's 10 best movies of 2011
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9. The Trip
In a perfect world, Steve Coogan would always be cast as Steve Coogan: He's a Byronic clown who plays his narcissism like a violin. In this enchantingly funny road comedy, Coogan and Rob Brydon go on a restaurant tour of northern England, and whether they're doing their dueling impersonations of Michael Caine or treating the ludicrous high-end cuisine with the amused indifference it deserves, they're a sublime team. Yet The Trip goes deeper than that: It's really a salute to what acting means to the English soul.
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8. Crazy, Stupid, Love
It's hard for a love comedy to gain much respect these days when it has a hero as mild and defeated as Cal Weaver (Steve Carell), a schlub in Dockers who splits with his wife (Julianne Moore) and has to learn once again how to find the swing in bachelor hood. Fortunately, Cal's tutelage in the ways of women comes at the hands of a happy-hour smoothie played with velveteen polish by Ryan Gosling, who is so effortless here he's like the great-great-grandson of Cary Grant. Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, from a script by Dan Fogelman, Crazy, Stupid, Love suggests a movie made by the Woody Allen of suburbia. It's a luscious confection, with Carell at his most wittily forlorn.
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This ultimate bad-L.A.-cop movie announces the arrival of a major directorial voice. It's the second feature by Oren Moverman, who made The Messenger, but here he works in a style of hallucinatory realism, with the camera swirling around the face—and mind—of Dave Brown, a sociopathic enforcer who prowls the city like a jungle cat. He's played by Woody Harrelson, in a performance of feral, complex brilliance. A thriller on fire, Rampart is one of the rare movies that shows you what corruption looks like from the inside out. It's heady, suspenseful, toxic, and mesmerizing.
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After his mother dies, a young man (Ewan McGregor) discovers that his father (Christopher Plummer) is gay and has spent his entire life in the closet. The father comes out, ready to make up for 40 years of hiding who he is—only to confront a diagnosis of cancer. What I just described probably sounds like a god-awful mishmash of tear-jerk family-hug message movies. But writer-director Mike Mills works in a style of tossed-off, time-jumbled delicacy, and the result is like a miracle from the early '70s: a portrait of all the meanings that liberation can have. Plummer, as a man suddenly freed from a kind of prison (and damned if he's going to let a little thing like death get in the way of that), gives the performance of his life.
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5. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
David Fincher, a master of high-grunge cinematic style (and of violence at its most transgressive), has crafted the most dizzyingly effective movie version you could imagine of Stieg Larsson's Swedish serial-killer novel. Rooney Mara, as the sullen waif hacker Lisbeth Salander, sports the spiky black plumage of a punkette peacock, and she's a revelation: She wears her piercings like scars and acts with a quiet power—a rage chilled into silence—that is almost ghostly. Larsson's plot, in which a disgraced leftist journalist (Daniel Craig) is hired to investigate a homicide that has haunted an aristocratic family for 40 years, is no more (or less) than a clever conventional whodunit festooned with glimmers of depravity. But Fincher and his splendid cast (Craig at his terse best, a creepy-elegant Stellan Skarsgård) do what the 2009 Swedish film version couldn't: They tease out the full mythological grandeur of the material. They have made a 21st-century vision of women who recoil from, or take revenge on, the men who fear and loathe them.
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4. A Separation
I have almost never seen a film from Iran that wasn't quiet, and Asghar Farhadi's masterpiece fits that description. Yet just beneath the quietude, this drama of marital discord expands, almost invisibly, into the most searingly organic of thrillers. In Tehran, a couple separates, the wife (Leila Hatami) leaving the country, the husband (Peyman Moadi) staying behind to care for his Alzheimer's-stricken father. He hires a pregnant woman (Sareh Bayat) as a nurse, and a prickly encounter between them blows up into a legal nightmare. Farhadi has sculpted a Rashomon of domestic lying, with male privilege, the under-the-head-scarf stirrings of Islamic feminism, and even the surprise possibility of murder all heating up under the magnifying glass of Iran's stern judicial culture. A knockout.
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Kristen Wiig, in the best performance by an actress this year, plays sweet, nice, ordinary Annie, who has just enough bad luck and squirmy self-loathing that when she's asked to be the maid of honor for her best friend's egregiously upscale wedding, it pushes her over the edge into masochistic loserdom. Annie's descent is explosively funny—but only because it's such a nakedly honest, three-dimensional projection of contemporary feminine anxiety, competitiveness, and romantic yearning. As for the rest of those bridesmaids, led by the caustic effrontery of Melissa McCarthy, they're a brigade of sisters as memorably raunchy and inspired as any male wolf pack. Wiig also co-wrote the script of this classically structured, dizzyingly witty comedy, which is why Bridesmaids marks her not merely as a superb actress but as a future force in Hollywood.
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2. The Descendants
The director Alexander Payne does more than tell stories. He takes us on journeys — he makes road movies of the soul. His first film in seven years is the richly woven and moving tale of a Hawaii land baron whose life has become a comedy perched on the precipice of tragedy. George Clooney, dressed down as a dorky dad but as magnetic as ever, is commanding as Matt King, whose wife lies in a possibly fatal coma. It's up to Matt to take care of his wayward daughters (the terrific duo of Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller), yet when he learns that his wife was having an affair, his decision to track down her lover becomes an obsession driven by scenes of rueful hilarity; it's also his way of keeping the deeper reality of what's happening at bay. The Descendants combines love, medical terror, real estate, adultery farce, and the wounded salvation of family in a way that only an Alexander Payne movie could. That is, brilliantly.
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1. Tree of Life
There's been so much talk about the cosmic dimension of Terrence Malick's visionary and transporting movie (that astro-evolutionary prologue! scenes set in—God forbid—the afterlife!) that the whole debate, in many ways, has overshadowed the stirring intimacy of Malick's achievement. He has made the rare mystical drama that's planted in the everyday—a slice of 1950s life and death told with such startling, off-center vividness that it's like the movie James Joyce might have made if only he?d had a handheld camera. True, not every Hollywood drama opens with a 17-minute sequence depicting the formation of the earth. Yet that prelude, which marries evolution and creationism, is so stunning—and, if watched with open eyes, so accessible—that it reduced this critic to a 10-year-old staring awestruck at a planetarium. Malick lures us into viewing the earth, and its inhabitants, as clashing natural forces, so that when we leap ahead to a pastoral Texas suburb and the troubled family that lives there, we don't just see the American postwar trappings. We see the characters, through Malick's God's-eye-view camera, as touchingly vulnerable creatures. Chief among them is Brad Pitt, magnificent as a strict, loving, raging, and deeply reverent father. The Tree of Life is a great film, because it cues us to the transcendence of every moment.
NEXT: Owen names the 5 worst films of 2011
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OWEN GLEIBERMAN'S WORST FILMS OF 2011 5. Bad Teacher
If you're going to make a black comedy about a teacher who's a heartless, lying shrew, you need to make sure she's funny. But Cameron Diaz just seems to be playing the one-note villain in a movie that totally forgot to give the audience anyone to root for.
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OWEN GLEIBERMAN'S WORST FILMS OF 2011 4. Another Earth
In a year of cosmic art films (The Tree of Life, Melancholia), this one stands out for its plodding pretension. A young woman who caused the death of a man's wife and child in a car accident shows up at his door. She then spends the entire film not telling him who she is, and not saying anything remotely interesting, either. There is also the arrival in the sky of a literal ''alternative'' planet Earth. Maybe on that one, this movie has a pulse.
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OWEN GLEIBERMAN'S WORST FILMS OF 2011 3. Carnage
The four characters in Roman Polanski's loudly acted version of Yasmina Reza's contrived and didactic stage play (including Kate Winslet's Nancy) are mild middle-class parents who, in the course of 80 minutes, turn into savages—that is, if savages kept doing ridiculously implausible things like saying that they want to leave the room (and meaning it) but not leaving, or carrying on ''private'' cell-phone confabs out in the open, or yelling and drinking and playing truth games like people in a ninth-rate sitcom knockoff of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
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OWEN GLEIBERMAN'S WORST FILMS OF 2011 2. Battle: Los Angeles
A war-of-the-worlds snoozer. It has noise, guns, aliens, digitized clutter—but no story, nothing that holds a movie together. Or maybe this is what a movie now is.
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OWEN GLEIBERMAN'S WORST FILMS OF 2011 1. I Melt With You
Jeremy Piven, Thomas Jane, Rob Lowe, and Christian McKay play college buddies who reunite to turn into the ''free'' guys they once were. This men-behaving-badly ''shocker'' is outrageously awful, like some drug-drenched hetero version of The Boys in the Band staged like the most badass Michelob commercial of 1991.