Best of 2011: Movies

13 Assassins

Whatever I was expecting from Takashi Miike's remake of the 1963 samurai epic, it wasn't this. The weirdly fetishized violence that marks films like Audition and Ichi the Killer are in short supply here. There's one moment so intensely horrific that it will burn itself into your brain forever, but the rest of 13 Assassins goes down easy. Miike's blockbuster tale of a group of warriors who unite to kill the hell out of a corrupt, sadistic feudal lord has everything you'd expect from a big-budget action flick—jaw-dropping set pieces, expertly choreographed fight scenes, noble heroes and a despicable villain—but it's all couched in an artful elegance that we don't see enough of on this side of the Pacific. (April Snellings)

Attack the Block

Joe Cornish's ripsnorting 'hood sci-fi is 2011's most assured debut, succeeding effortlessly, almost incidentally, at the Amblin head-rush Super 8 worked so very hard for but never quite nailed. There's no innocent haze of youth around the gang of South London street toughs that inhabit Cornish's airtight action-horror tale, but there is a marauding band of pitch-black, bear-sized extra-terrestrials, and that's all there needs to be. (Plans have been announced to remake the film for American audiences, but as with the similarly perfect-to-begin-with Let the Right One In, the best-case scenario is redundancy.) (Nick Huinker)

Drive

Nicolas Winding Refn's breakout is both an homage to '80s L.A. neon-noir and a fairy tale featuring a knight errant (satin-bomber-clad Ryan Gosling in a ferociously contained performance) out to save a damsel in distress (Carey Mulligan, breaking our hearts yet again in yet another ill-starred relationship). But what elevates Drive far above the usual would-be-gritty urban action flick, in truth, is Albert Brooks' performance as an aging gangster, his weary fatefulness grounding the story in this mean world, not some cinema fantasy land. (Lee Gardner)

Final Destination 5

It's telling that both horror guru Stephen King and trash auteur John Waters picked Final Destination 5 as one of their favorite pop-culture events of 2011. FD5 delivered all of the carnage and lunacy that horror fans wanted from a 3D splatter flick, but the filmmakers didn't stop there. After giving us 90 minutes of cheerfully demented, Looney Tunes-inspired death scenes where attractive if bland young people are twisted, crushed, cleaved in half, charred, punctured or otherwise smeared across the pavement, FD5 folded the franchise in on itself with an honestly clever, didn't-see-it-coming twist at the end. The film's writer called it a love letter to the franchise, but it's really a love letter to gutter cinema in general. (A.S.)

The Future

Miranda July's quirky, intimate drama—about a thirtysomething couple determined to change their lives before their pending cat adoption comes through—was divisive, mostly because of the voiceover narration of Paw Paw the cat (provided by July herself). But underneath the whimsy is a hard tale of stunted ambition and hurt, presented with magic and imagination as well as rare intelligence and honesty. (Matthew Everett)

Hanna

Equal parts espionage thriller and naturalistic travelogue, Joe Wright's underseen story of a preternaturally talented young assassin and her first exposure to the civilized world is as absorbing as action films get. Alternately heart-rending and pulse-pounding, Hanna is wonderfully difficult to predict or pin down, thanks to fine performances, the Chemical Brothers' surprisingly classy score, and Wright's own confidence as a stylist. (N.H.)

Stake Land

If the Joads had been forced to contend with bloodsuckers of the more literal sort, the result might have been something like this mournful, haunting vampire yarn from filmmaking collective Glass Eye Pix. By turns brutal and elegiac, Stake Land follows an orphaned teenager who is taken under the wing of a vampire hunter known only as Mister. The two must make their way across a post-apocalyptic America that has been ravaged by monstrous vampires and right-wing extremists, picking up (and sometimes losing) a family of fellow survivors along the way. Director Jim Mickle's vision of an embattled working class, struggling to survive in a country at war with monsters of its own creation, stays with you long after the credits roll. (A.S.)

Tabloid

Having spent the last decade on decidedly serious topics, Errol Morris turned around and made what may be his most playful film, taking on a stranger-than-fiction tale of Mormons, beauty queens, sex prisoners, and rival publishers, with a dash of mad science toward the end. The lowered stakes enable a nuttiness that suits the material—several interviewees, decades into a scandal, still lack even a cursory knowledge of the religious tradition at its center—but that doesn't stop Morris from turning Tabloid into another visually and structurally sophisticated treatise on the slippery nature of truth. (N.H.)

Take Shelter

It looks like a salt-of-the-earth indie, and it starts out like a supernatural thriller, but Jeff Nichols' sophomore feature is something altogether more subtle and rare. It's a film about the way the world really falls apart for people, as Midwestern working man Curtis (Michael Shannon in the role of a lifetime/performance of the year) loses his grip on reality and wrecks every little thing he holds dear in the process, one bad decision, expensive mistake, and irrational act at a time. And then Nichols manages to hit you with his best punch last and not leave you feeling like a sucker. (L.G.)

The Tree of Life

Terrence Malick's middle-aged symphony to God lost some of the Malick faithful with its hyper-Malickness: its elliptical and fragile wisp of a narrative, the intuitive visual poetry taken to an unfettered extreme (bordering on self-parody in spots), the absolute bedrock sincerity of every frame. And it's a little hard not to mentally recut a version without compassionate dinosaurs and sad Sean Penn. But the central section concerning a young boy (Hunter McCracken) growing and coming to understand the world is filmmaking as accomplished and captivating and flat-out sublime as any put onscreen this year; as a whole, The Tree of Life is cinema-art-as-personal-expression at a level all but unseen anymore. (L.G.)