I have not yet seen The Artist, Drive, A Separation, Take Shelter, My Week with Marilyn, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Margaret, Meloncholia, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, and a few of these others that have made some top-ten lists, and I'll probably edit this list as I do see them, but of the 117 titles I've seen in 2011, these were the best.
Enjoyed But Not in My Top 20:
The Adventures of Tintin, Beginners, Black Death, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Cedar Rapids, The Company Men, Contagion, Crazy Stupid Love, The Debt, The Descendants, Fast Five, Fright Night, Hanna, Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows Part 2, Horrible Bosses, The Ides of March, Insidious, Jane Eyre, Kung Fu Panda 2, Limitless, The Lincoln Lawyer, Puss in Boots, Real Steel, Sons of Perdition, Terri, Thor, The Trip, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, Unknown, Win Win
Meek's Cutoff, The Tree of Life, War Horse
Honorable Mentions (my 12-20, alphabetically):
ARTHUR CHRISTMAS - Destined to become a perennial holiday Christmas, like Polar Express, but this is better. It has the Aardman spirit infused in the Blue Sky look, with Santa Claus protrayed as a benvolent monarchy, a tradition that's handed down from father to son. It has some other original ideas which makes the journey seem fresh.
BRIDESMAIDS - Very funny Apatow-produced comedy with some drama sprinkled in. Kristen Wiig plays a more complex character than usual, and she's able to pull it off swimmingly. It help that she co-wrote the script.
MARGIN CALL - This tightly-wound corporate thriller has a major powerhouse cast, all taking place over 24 hours when one of the largest investment firms in the world realizes they're on the verge of losing everything. Do they let the ship sink or do they let their toxic assets go ruin some other people's lives instead? These talks may well have taken place at Lehman Brothers or AIG one night. King among kings is Jeremy Irons as the CEO, probably my favorite work of his in years.
MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - GHOST PROTOCOL - Director Brad Bird (The Incredibles) shows his sense of pace holds true in the live-action world. Together he and Tom Cruise have made the best entry in the series.
OF GODS AND MEN - Very quiet French movie about grace under pressure. Based on a true story, it's about a group of monks who choose to stay in their monastery even while Muslim radicals are overthrowing the village around them. Most memorable for Lambert Wilson and Michael Lonsdale as two of the chief monks.
SOURCE CODE - This nifty little Twilight Zone episode of a movie has a straight-forward conceit that never feels repetitive, even as we relive the same eight minutes over and over.
TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY - An old-fashioned spy thriller. Actually it's the one that defined the modern spy thriller. Gary Oldman is the outside observer in British Intelligence who must determine which colleague is actually a Russian mole. It never dumbs down its plot and it requires close attention to keep up.
X-MEN: FIRST CLASS - I like how this reboot goes back to 1963, when the first x-Men comics originally appeared. You have two friends, Charles (James McAvoy) and Erik (Matthew Fassbender) who have mutant powers and are trying to figure out how to adapt in the world, but the plot spins along like a James Bond caper
YOUNG ADULT - This anti-romantic comedy has biting laughs, starring Charlize Theron as one of those shallow popular girls who hasn't matured twenty years out of high school. She goes back to her hometown to pursue her old boyfriend, and she won't let little things like his wife and baby stand in her way. Brilliant ending, too.
11. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER - Sometimes superhero movies can be done right. Director Joe Johnston restores much-needed earnestness to the good guy (part of why Chris Reeve's Superman was so appealing). Chris Evans is actually pretty good as Steve Rogers, the 98-pound weakling who wants more than anything to serve his country, and gets that chance thanks to some experimental drugs that pump him up to a super-soldier. It handles the mythology right, the evolution of the costume, the dastardly villain Red Skull (Hugo Weaving, having fun). My only complaint is how it, like the other Marvel movies, in the end, has to tie itself to the upcoming Avengers movie.
... My Top Ten
10. HUGO - 'The Invention of Hugo Cabret' was a wonderful book, and Martin Scorsese was the perfect choice to bring it to life on-screen. His camera dives and swims through the inner workings of the Parisian train station, and the story glides into a tribute to early cinema.
9. THE HELP - Race relations are explored in 1960's Jackson Mississippi, when black women couldn't seem to get a job outside of the service industry. It's sweet and soluable, with several good performances from its mostly female class, including Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard, Emma Stone and Jessica Chastain.
8. RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES - Man, this came out of nowhere, didn't it? Motion-capture king Andy Serkis should have been nominated for his work here as Caesar, the ape that started it all. Perfect example of how big-budget summer movies can still be great.
7. THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO - I liked the Swedish version, but under director David FIncher's eye, Steig Larsson's pulp mystery is sleeker, more stylish, and places more emphasis on the procedure than the results. Noomi Rapace was great as Lisbeth Salander, but Rooney Mara owns the role with equal grit and poise. Really hoping Fincher's able to make the next one.
6. 50/50 - Joseph Gordon-Levitt's plan to land in my Top Ten every year is working. This touching cancer comedy-drama hits all the right notes, and gives strong moments not just to JGL, but Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick, Bruce Dallas Howard and Anjelica Huston all leave lasting impressions.
5. THE MYTH OF THE AMERICAN SLEEPOVER - I don't want to overhype this one, but this quiet gem just worked for me. Its thin night-in-the-lives-of plot is deliberately drawn from American Graffiti and Dazed & Confused, but all the kids and situations feel so real, it could have been a documentary.
4. WARRIOR - I'd heard good things, I wanted to see it in theaters, but I just never did. I repented by renting it on DVD, and I'd recommend others do the same; it deserves to find an audience. Outstanding acting from the three leads - Tom Hardy as the ex-Marine, Joel Edgerton as the family man, and Nick Nolte as the regret-filled father of both. The MMA choreography and sound is as bone-crushing as any fight movie can be.
3. MIDNIGHT IN PARIS - I've seen most of Woody's movies and this is the best movie of his in the past couple decades. Owen Wilson is the Woody stand-in here, as a Hollywood screenwriter who longs to make art, lounging around Paris with his fiancee until something magical happens and he runs into literary heroes of his from the 1930's, including Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) and F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston), but the highlight is Corey Stoll's Ernest Hemingway.
2. RANGO - I love this homage to cinema old and new, where it can switch from a High Noon feel to Sergio Leone to John Huston to Apocalypse Now. Much of that might be over the heads of kids, but they can still appreciate the critters dressed like cowboys. Johnny Depp is Rango, a pet lizard who finds himself stranded out in the desert, where he comes across a small town called Dirt. I loved the details, like the turtle in a wheelchair, or the voice work that sounds like Andy Devine and Pat Buttram. I loved every minute.