The 50 Best Movies of 2011

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From the smallest art films to the biggest blockbusters, documentaries and narratives from more than a dozen different countries, we present the 50 best movies of 2011.

50. War Horse
As a story, it’s heavy-handed and sentimental. As a character study, it’s laughably sleight (as with Spielberg’s ET, the most three dimensional character isn’t even human). The score is John Williams in full nudge-nudge-let-me-tell-you-how-to-feel-mode. But there are some moments of real drama, and some irresistibly beautiful imagery—enough to sneak it into our Top 50.

49. Bridesmaids
Kristen Wiig is brilliant. This remains true despite a concerted effort on SNL’s part to make us hate her—a campaign that Lorne Michaels ran consistently since the ‘90s against some of their funniest women. Unlike The Hangover, which was basically a long (but consistently funny) comedy sketch, Bridesmaids is actually a movie. And it’s going to have staying power in the typically bro-dominated pantheon of film comedy.—Ryan Carey

48. Kati with an I
This simple story of a lovestruck high schooler remains one of the more captivating documentaries of the year. Director Robert Greene’s unique perspective as Kati’s step brother is partly responsible, even while his lens maintains a remarkable neutrality. Moments like Kati preparing for graduation, shopping with her boyfriend or hobnobbing with her girlfriends surprisingly make for a compelling tale. And it’s the earlier childhood footage merging with her ascension to young womanhood that brings it all together.—Tim Basham

47. happythankyoumoreplease
Radnor’s tale of seven young New Yorkers searching for love and self-acceptance probably won’t win much praise among elements of the film crowd who require their films to lay bare the darkness and hopelessness of life. It’s not a tortured existential tour de force. But it’s also not the fluffy fare you might expect from a mainstream sitcom star; its emotions are real and handled with depth and sophistication. Anytime there’s a Sundance film this tightly written, this well-acted, this deftly directed, that sends viewers from the theater feeling uplifted and with smiles on their faces, that’s an impressive accomplishment. Of special note is Tony Hale in a decidedly un-Buster Bluth performance. Casting him as Sam #2 took some imagination from Radnor.

46. The Muppets
The filmmakers’ approach overflows with the same adoration as their characters on screen. A wistfully placed camera pan on a wall adorned with vintage banjos and memorabilia carries with it as much emotion as the kinetic dance numbers in the gratifying finale. Even modern touches like a hilarious barbershop cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” embody the original show’s subversive zaniness.—Sean Edgar

45. The Guard
In the end, it’s hard to tell if this movie is really good or just really cute. The buddy/cop element is (thankfully) handled with taste and never gets saccharine. The side-plot about Boyle’s ailing mother is more a cul-de-sac than an avenue, but for all the less-than-thoroughly explored sub-themes, one has to stop and admire the amount of entertainment crammed into a lean hour and a half. It’s refreshing to get an ethnic fish-out-of-water buddy/cop flick that doesn’t beat you over the head with Irish countrysides, endless pub-going, cheesy predictable dialogue, or anything else we cliché-sick entertainment consumers have trouble tolerating. This film treats you like an adult who can still have silly inappropriate fun while still fighting for what’s right.—Ryan Carey

44. Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Rise of the Planet of the Apes intelligently tells us how the seemingly upside-down world led by apes could have come about. Winking at the 1968 original, we get touches here and there that pay homage to the Charlton Heston film. And somehow, by playing everything straight and somber, these references don’t seem forced or too cute. Rise is a true prequel that understands the best science-fiction cinema doesn’t rest on the effects but on the ideas and characters.—Jonathan Hickman

43. We Were Here
Sometimes film’s power lies in its simple, straightforward ability to let people tell their stories. We Were Here, a documentary about the AIDS epidemic’s decimation of the San Francisco gay community, doesn’t attempt any great stylistic feats. Directors David Weissman and Bill Weber simply let the people who lived through the tragic time tell their stories, from the initial shock to the ever-lingering sadness. The filmmakers masterfully intercut several lives into a vivid portrait of an era and an unforgettable emotional gut punch. This film is essential for its history and its humanity.—Jeremy Matthews

42. Tuesday, after Christmas
Romanian director Radu Muntean’s clinical study of an extramarital affair has far fewer scenes than the average film. But each of those scenes is packed with telling details and mounting turmoil. Without ever breaking the film’s established point of view, Muntean closely examines every party involved in a betrayed marriage, touching on longing, passion, shame, suspense and anger. The superb cast delivers truthful performances throughout long, unforgiving takes. Tuesday, After Christmas never judges its characters, but follows them down a path that will greet each of them with a different mix of pleasure and pain.—Jeremy Matthews

41. Bill Cunningham New York
Half of making a great documentary is finding a great subject, and Press has absolutely done that in this affectionate treatment of the New York Times’ irresistibly charming octogenarian street fashion photographer.

From the smallest art films to the biggest blockbusters, documentaries and narratives from more than a dozen different countries, we present the 50 best movies of 2011.

40. Pina
Wenders’ film demonstrates how Pina Bausch’s attitude and vision toward dance and choreography transcended the theater, how she saw dance in everything, and everything as dance. Bausch once said that in order to dance, “Everyone must have the freedom, without inhibitions, to show everything.” Although the audience might not always understand the precise story behind her choreography, the emotions that lie beneath it are palpable and unwavering, whether boundlessly happy or intolerably sad. Ultimately, Bausch’s choreography is relatable because it draws from life, from day-to-day experiences and emotions with which we are all familiar. Seeing this art reintroduced back into the life it mimics and enhances—and in three dimensions no less—is a breathtaking spectacle. Pina is an effusion of all the emotions, good and bad, that shape our daily lives and make us human, but most of all, it is a haunting and beautiful elegy to a woman who changed the world’s conception of dance.—Emily Kirkpatrick

39. Page One
The always entertaining Times reporter David Carr could easily have been the focus of the entire film but director Andrew Rossi smartly uses Carr as an appropriate voice of experience, albeit an unabashed defender of the paper. The grizzled, ex-drug addict journalist is a film editor’s dream as he speaks in sharp, insightful and seemingly effortless sound bites. “If you work for the media long enough,” says Carr, “eventually you’ll type yourself back to your own doorstep.”—Tim Basham

38. Tabloid
Since his breakthrough feature, 1988’s The Thin Blue Line, every one of Errol Morris’ features has essentially been about searching for the truth. It’s been a wide-ranging exploration, one that’s been equally fruitful delving into the mysteries of the universe and displacing common beliefs about Vietnam. With Tabloid, Morris continues probing into this theme, but here he’s found a case in which everyone is lying and the truth itself may may unobtainable—which is likely why its story fascinated him so much.—Sean Gandert

37. Poetry
Winner of the screenplay prize at the Cannes Film Festival, Poetry is a masterfully constructed film from Korean director Lee Chang-dong. Mija (veteran actress Yun Jung-hee) is a single grandmother, taking care of her ungrateful grandson, who decides to enroll in her first poetry class when she discovers she has the onset of Alzheimer’s. While she struggles to make a living by nursing a paralyzed elderly man, her life gets further complicated by her grandson’s potential involvement with a horrendous crime. Despite the tragedy she faces, Mija’s poetry class pushes her to focus on the small pleasures daily life offers. Beautifully acted and shot, the film unfolds with a grace and seeming simplicity rarely seen.—Will McCord

36. Carnage
A daring, perfectly cast comedy, this mannered story of a day in the lives of well-to-do Americans might only have been brought to us by a French-German-Spanish-Polish production. Shot in Paris and in real time, but appropriately set in Brooklyn, Polanski’s latest masterpiece gives the savage being a new home that is equal parts “cruelty and splendor, chaos and balance.”—Shannon Houston

35. Circumstance
It’s hard enough being a teenager in Iran these days, especially if you’re fascinated by Western culture, rock ’n’ roll, techno, designer drugs, sex, alcohol, and movies like Milk. If you also happen to be a lesbian, life gets exponentially more difficult. Circumstance, the new film from Iranian-American filmmaker Maryam Keshavarz, is an excellent look at how the modern youth of Iran skirts the boundaries between the religious state and personal freedom, and all the risks that are involved.—Jonah Flicker

34. Meek’s Cutoff
Kelly Reichardt continues the Oregon exploration she began in Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, but this time the exploration is more literal and less current—a mid-19th-century expedition through the Oregon desert. It’s slow-moving, quiet, and utterly transfixing. Bruce Greenwood is as irresistible as he is unrecognizable.

33. Rango
The most surprising thing about Rango is how much Johnny Depp disappears into the character of a nameless pet chameleon who creates his identity when his terrarium falls out of the back of a car into the desert frontier. Unlike a certain cartoon panda, who was basically an animated version of every Jack Black character ever, Rango is no Keith Richards with an eye-patch or crazy barber/milliner/chocolatier. He’s a cipher who becomes a fraud who becomes a hero.—Josh Jackson

32. Of Gods and Men
If not for The Tree of Life, this would have been the most spiritual experience of 2011. It’s a simple story of simple men, Trappist monks in Algeria who quietly serve their largely Muslim neighbors in peace until the insanity of the world around them finally comes to exact its due. Based on a true story, it’s quiet, meditative, tragic and—in both form and subject matter—one of the most countercultural films of the year.

31. Cave of Forgotten Dreams
3-D skeptics might have to rethink their stance after witnessing Werner Herzog’s stunning tour of the oldest cave drawings ever found.

From the smallest art films to the biggest blockbusters, documentaries and narratives from more than a dozen different countries, we present the 50 best movies of 2011.

30. Another Earth
The synopsis of Another Earth sounds misleadingly sci-fi heavy: Scientists suddenly discover a second Earth whose unusual orbit has hidden it from view behind the sun all this time, and soon learn that there are strange parallels between that Earth and our own, including the possibility of alternate selves for each one of us. Sounds like an episode of The Twilight Zone, right? In fact, all that is just a setup for a deeply personal and philosophical exploration of identity, remorse, loss and reconciliation.

29. Young Adult
Theron proved in her Oscar-winning role in Monster that she can play as ugly as she is beautiful, and here she demonstrates that transformation, for Mavis is a hot mess when she’s not trying to woo Buddy, and the day-long prep it takes to get from before to after entails grody pedicures, faux hairpieces and tone-deaf outfits. (She wears a little black dress to a franchise sports bar.) Mavis is sexy and clever but also oblivious and cruel, and Theron embraces all of it, shoving her inevitable awkward humiliation at us. We can’t turn away, and as a result, finally, we see her.—Annlee Ellingson

28. Uncle Boonme Who Can Recall His Past Lives
A lot of events and elements that seem random or unnecessary during the film make more sense with some consideration, but it’s hard to think of a more difficult manner of communicating than through such a morass of piled-on oddity. But this essential strangeness gives a sense of wonder to the film, and is in some sense its reason for existence. There are parts of the picture that seem opaque for the sake of opaqueness, only there on-screen in order to be analyzed by film professors—Weerasethakul’s films are tinged with a Joycean need to have others give them significance. Still, though, Uncle Boonmee is undeniably groundbreaking, and while the film’s experiments miss nearly as often as they hit, they’re always exciting. It’s that rarity in any medium, a totally unique work of art, and that it’s a bit of a mess doesn’t detract much from how mesmerizing of an experience it can be.—Sean Gandert

27. Into the Abyss
Into the Abyss, the latest work from acclaimed documentarian Werner Herzog, lives up to its weighty title. The captivating film takes us into the endless depths of the human soul as it explores life, death and everything between. The story centers on two young convicts, Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, who were found guilty of a triple homicide in a small Texas town. Perry sits on death row, eight days away from his execution, while his accomplice, Burkett, faces a life sentence. Thus begins a documentary on capital punishment, but like all Herzog’s work, the film looks far beyond a single idea and, despite a transparent agenda, never sermonizes.—David Roark

26. Attack the Block
Joe Cornish doesn’t just borrow from Edgar Wright aesthetically; he also exhibits the same sense of humor that’s made films like Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World cultural phenomena. This comedy—a precise blend of slapstick and clever dialogue—comes through in the well-crafted script, but it’s most notable in the characters and the chemistry between them. Thanks to some fine performances from a young cast of actors, as well as Luke Treadaway and Nick Frost who play a pair of stoners, we get a believable group whom we can just sit back and enjoy.—Maryann Koopman Kelly

25. The Trip
Two British actor/comedians playing versions of themselves travel the beautiful and bleak north England countryside, stopping to eat at various upscale restaurants, but mostly just talking. And talking and talking. And doing impressions of Michael Caine, Woody Allen, and Liam Neeson, as well as British personalities an American audience might not recognize. But mostly just talking, with overlapping affection and competition. Sound like a good idea for a film? It absolutely is.—Jonah Flicker

24. Another Year
Writer/director Mike Leigh (Vera Drake, Secrets & Lies, Topsy-Turvy) takes us through a year-in-the-life of a rather ordinary London couple and their relationships with family and friends. Like many of his films, Another Year relies on superb acting, where the study of social behavior through the actions of interesting though often sedate characters is the strength of the film.—Tim Basham

23. The Mill and the Cross
The Mill and the Cross is an imaging of what inspired Pieter Bruegel’s masterful painting The Way to Calvary, an epic work featuring over 500 figures. What Majewski finds in Bruegel’s painting is an aesthetic expression of truth so powerful that it overcomes the tragedies it was drawn from. It’s in fact a truth so profound to the picture that it’s almost religious, and the devotion Majewski has towards painting and art is recognizable in the devotion Bruegel had towards Christ. The result, slow and tedious as it may be at times, is a work of tangible passion and a moving testament to the place art has in overcoming any hardships.—Sean Gandert

22. Thunder Soul
During the early 1970s, there was a group in Houston that was acclaimed by some as the greatest funk band in the world. Amazingly enough, it was made up of high-school students, the Kashmere High School Stage Band. After 35 years, alumni return to give legendary band director Conrad “Prof” Johnson one more concert as he nears the end of his life. Mr. Holland’s Opus meets The Commitments, but real.

21. The Artist
In his black-and-white ode to the Golden Age of Hollywood, Gallic writer-director Michael Hazanavicius honors form as well as content, packaging his romantic melodrama about the rise of a new ingénue and the fall of a silent movie star in 1920s and ’30s Los Angeles in luxurious black, white, and shades of shimmering silver. It’s a beautiful, ambitious, nostalgic endeavor that demonstrates its makers are, indeed, artists.—Annlee Ellingson

From the smallest art films to the biggest blockbusters, documentaries and narratives from more than a dozen different countries, we present the 50 best movies of 2011.

20. Martha Marcy May Marlene
First-time feature writer-director Sean Durkin has crafted an assured and exquisitely controlled indie drama about a young woman’s escape from a cult commune and her uneasy reentry into the real world. In the lead is Elizabeth Olsen (younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley) in her first film role—a naked performance (literally and emotionally) that exposes a fresh, raw talent. Like a peach, she’s vulnerable on the surface, malleable and easily bruised, but with a stone of conviction at her core.—Annlee Ellingson

19. Midnight in Paris
Late-era Woody has been an interesting phenomenon to watch, as his occasional hits (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) and stupefying misses (Scoop) come hard on each other’s heels. This year’s offering in his recent “Cities I Have Loved” series is set in Paris, and of course, given the setting and the auteur, is a heady love story. But more importantly, Midnight in Paris is also an exploration of nostalgia, the artistic impulse, and even happiness itself. It’s an entertaining and sometimes hilarious film that belongs squarely in Allen’s “hit” column.

18. Kinyarwanda
It would be easy to label Kinyarwanda as Crash meets Hotel Rwanda. Like Crash, it tells six stories of seemingly unrelated characters whose lives eventually intertwine. Like Hotel Rwanda, it centers around historical acts of great cruelty and great courage during the hundred days of the Rwandan genocide. But Kinyarwanda is arguably a better movie than either. It’s the first feature film produced by Rwandans, and its treatment of the crisis is so personal and compelling, so deeply felt, that it will take your breath away. It was a thrill to see such an enobling film win the Audience Award at Sundance.

17. Nostalgia for the Light
The largest dead space on earth is the Atacama desert in Chile, a place so desolate that not even insects or retiles live in the zero-humidity environment. Acclaimed Chilean documentarian Patricio Guzman returns there to examine the work of the astronomers in the observatory there (he was passionate about astronomy as a child), but ends up also exploring the work of the archaeologists who uncover evidence of ancient inhabitants of the desert, and of a group of people who search for dead bodies dumped there by the Pinochet regime. It’s thoughtful, heartfelt and gorgeous.

16. Hesher
It’s safe to say you haven’t encountered a film character like Joseph Gordon Levitt’s title character in Spencer Susser’s fantastic Hesher. He loves pornography, heavy metal, trespassing, arson and many other chaotic pursuits, but he pursues them with such an unselfconscious near-innocence that he’s an immediately compelling character. He’s also responsible for some of the biggest surprises in one of the year’s best films.

15. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Steeped in the monochrome color palette and noir soundtrack of 1970s espionage cinema, Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of John le Carré’s classic bestselling spy novel offers smart, nostalgic entertainment for a discerning adult audience. Alfredson previously directed Let the Right One In, and in some ways his follow-up is as chilly as that Swedish vampire flick. Like his adolescent bloodsucker, these career spies are always on guard, even among those they consider their closest friends. In a profession founded on loyalty and ideals, what they fear most is deceit and betrayal—of each other and of themselves.—Annlee Ellingson

14. 13 Assassins
I hesitate to make any grand statements about Miike growing as an artist because he’s always shifting and most of his pictures don’t find distribution here—case in point one of his 2011 productions is the certain-to-be-ridiculous Ninja Kids!!!. But 13 Assasssins feels like the work of a more mature filmmaker and perhaps the beginning of a new road for Miike, still unrestrained in its content but more considered with what that content is saying. It’s a Miike film that for once can be recommended without caveats, boldly treading new ground but also taking stock of what’s come before and not rejecting it outright.—Sean Gandert

13. The Descendants
Many critics, including our own, were unimpressed with Alexander Payne’s latest. But we found it a compelling, compassionate, wry story of grief, betrayal and family. George Clooney has seldom been better, and Shailene Woodley will absolutely deserve the Best Supporting Actress nomination that’s likely headed her way.

12. Senna
Asif Kapadia was already a BAFTA-award-winning narrative director, but there are plenty of narrative directors who haven’t made the transition to documentaries effectively. He doubled the degree of difficulty by deciding to use all period footage of his subject, ’80s and ’90s Gran Prix legend Aryton Senna. He pulled it off in spades, and Senna is one of the greatest sports documentaries of all time.

11. We Need To Talk About Kevin
While Scottish director Lynne Ramsay’s previous films, Ratcatcher (1999) and Morvern Callar (2002), took linear (albeit drifting and dreamlike) forms, for her first film in nine years she has chosen a more ambitiously fragmented approach. Based on the novel by Lionel Shriver, We Need To Talk About Kevin concerns the experience of a mother struggling with the aftermath of a school massacre carried out by her own son. Incorporating the intense, sensual cinematography of her previous work with a more rigorous and archly stylized approach, Ramsay lures us into the world of Eva (Tilda Swinton, the perfect mix of iciness and fragility for the role) as she reflects on the upbringing of her son, the eponymous Kevin (played as a teenager by Ezra Miller, a similarly well-cast blend of charisma and aloofness) and the growth of her family, in the aftermath of its disintegration.—Donal Foreman

From the smallest art films to the biggest blockbusters, documentaries and narratives from more than a dozen different countries, we present the 50 best movies of 2011.

10. Project Nim
In Man on Wire, director James Marsh recounted French tightrope walker Philippe Petit’s exploits, most notably his unauthorized 1974 walk between the Twin Towers that held most of the city of New York breathless for an entire morning. In Project Nim, a team of researchers (only one year earlier, in 1973) sets out to accomplish an even more audacious and thrilling goal—to teach a chimpanzee human sign language and initiate meaningful dialogue. Technically the film is flawless. But the really compelling angle for the film is the very idea of inter-species communication.

9. Beginners
Beginners is directed by Mike Mills, who hasn’t made a feature film since 2005’s Thumbsucker. And this time, Mills drew on his own life for the story of Beginners. Like Hal, Mills’ father also came out of the closet after the death of his mother. Cancer took both of his parents and there’s a subtle jab at smoking in the film. But Beginners is not a message movie; it’s an ambitious play on coming-of-age late in life, of course for Hal but also very much for Oliver, and perhaps for Mills himself.—Jonathan Hickman

8. Bellflower
The best recommendations at Sundance always seem to come from random strangers, and they usually come on one of the shuttle buses festivalgoers spend so much time on. This year, someone described Bellflower this way: “It’s kind of like an edgier 500 Days of Summer, except when she leaves him, instead of getting all sad and mopey, he starts building a monster car with flamethrowers and blowing shit up, and then the whole film turns into this crazy acid trip.” She paused. “Oh, and there’s lots of fire.” The man behind Paste’s favorite debut of the year is the sweet, goofy, awkward, audacious, brilliant figure of Evan Glodell. His debut is like seeing a Tarantino or Rodriguez film for the first time, and he’s certain to have many, many doors open up as a result.

7. General Orders No. 9
A deeply rich baritone with an accent dripping of old bourbon muses—intermittently—over footage of city and country, group and individual, as hypnotic music plays. It’s as if Terence Malick filmed a newly discovered William Faulkner memoir. A decade in the making, it’s the most wholly original vision in years.

6. Drive
Drive offers a number of remarkable performances. Despite minimal dialogue and a scene count you can tally on one hand, Christina Hendricks is engaging, justly earning her own movie poster. Bryan Cranston (Shannon), who never ceases to impress, took his less than supporting role and molded it into something notable. Drive stands out as one of the best films to have been released thus far this year. Will you leave the theater happy? Sad? Appalled? Inspired? Yes. All of the above.—Caitlin Colford

5. A Separation
Divorce in the big city is never pretty, especially when that city is Tehran in director Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation. Simin (Leila Hatami) desperately wants to leave Iran, even if it means divorce. Her husband Nader (Peyman Moadi) is willing to let her go, but not if involves taking their studious tween daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi). The relationship is at a stalemate as Simin moves in with her parents, leaving Nader and Termeh to adjust to the arrival of the religious Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a caregiver for Nader’s father who suffers from Alzheimer’s. Tragedy strikes when Nader accuses Razieh of stealing and the ensuing investigation causes everyone to question their beliefs and the consequences. The actors’ voices carry equal weight thoughout the film. Every relationship is equally at odds from father and daughter and husband and wife to church and state, where religion offers very few shades of gray in its judgement and usually has the final say. None of the characters give an inch in tone or actions, which builds to a shocking admission and an unexpected conclusion. Farhadi captures the hustle and bustle of the city that seems oddly familiar even to the most cynical of Americans. Although, he makes it easy to get lost in the mystery of whodunit, Farhadi always lets the characters overshadow the quest for truth. As dialogue-heavy as any French film, A Separation is a welcome respite from big screen excess.— Billy Tatum

4. The Interrupters
Steve James is justly deified for Hoop Dreams, which no less an authority than Roger Ebert declared the greatest documentary of all time. The Academy famously snubbed it, denying it even a nomination for Best Documentary of the year. The Interrupters is the first film since then in which James approached those heights, and inconceivably, the Academy has done it again, as the year’s best documentary didn’t even make the short list for a nomination. Pay them no attention. Don’t miss James’ majestic account of a group of former gang members who toil tirelessly on the streets of Chicago to prevent disputes from escalating into violence.

3. Hugo
With Hugo, director Martin Scorsese has created a dazzling, wondrous experience, an undeniable visual masterpiece. In his adaptation of Brian Selznick’s novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Scorsese weaves together his many passions and concerns: for art, for film, and for fathers and father-figures. He retells the story of a boy (Hugo Cabret, played by Asa Butterfield) in search of a way to complete his father’s work. Alongside Hugo’s tale is the true story of Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley), one of the world’s first filmmakers.—Shannon Houston

2 . Take Shelter
Take Shelter is built on deliberate pacing and deliberately restrained performances. As such, the acting is crucial, the difference between being nod-worthy or nodding-off-worthy. Fortunately, both Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain (as Curtis’ wife, Samantha) are riveting as a loving couple whose relationship comes under sudden, pronounced strain. Purposefully given very little to work with in terms of scripted embellishment—Curtis spends half his screen time looking at things, thinking about things and uttering monosyllabic responses concerning things—Shannon’s performance as a tortured everyman is eye-opening.—Michael Burgin

1. The Tree of Life
Terrence Malick’s sixth film in 42 years is, without a doubt, the most ambitious film of the year. In two-and-a-half hours, the writer/director tackles every big question about God through a mid-20th-century coming-of-age story, long shots of the natural world, heavenly voiceovers and yes, dinosaurs. It’s a beautiful, thoughtful, emotional, disorienting and sometimes frustrating film, and your enjoyment will depend on how much you buy into Malick’s very personal and very singular vision. At the film’s core is the story of the O’Briens, a 1950s suburban family with three boys and a tragedy in its future. Rather than staying with any one scene for any length of time, Malick gives us snatches of life with the O’Briens, cutting away periodically and at length to show stunning footage of creation, from the interstellar to the cellular. He stops briefly during the age of dinosaurs, following a single creature on a bad day. We also see one of the boys all grown up (Sean Penn), reflecting on the death of a brother, wandering from the world of corporate success to a walking dream state with figures from his past. It’s these elements—many of which are difficult to decipher or unpack—that had some audience members at Cannes booing, even while the festival was preparing to crown it with the Palme d’Or. But between shots of bubbling lava, there’s a family that you come to care deeply about, including the very flawed patriarch. The themes are grand and punctuated by a sermon on Job in the middle: Why do bad things happen to good people? What’s the value of selflessness? Do the sins of the father need to be revisited by the son? Malick touches on creation and evolution, the existence of heaven and the purpose of life, but does so as much through the humble world of Waco, Texas, in summertime, as through the direct questions from a boy to his Creator that transition between epochs. It’s as much a meditation as a narrative, asking a tremendous amount of patience from viewers and rewarding that patience with something entirely new.—Josh Jackson

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