Margaret, written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me), starring Anna Paquin with key supporting performances from Matt Damon and Mark Ruffalo, is a coming-of-age tale infused with post-9/11 anxiety. Margaret features Paquin — in the performance of the year — as Lisa, a Manhattan high schooler whose role in a fatal bus accident leads to a battle with her self-absorbed actress single mom, a few reckless (if awkward) seductions, and the obsessive retribution on behalf of the accident victim. Margaret opened in Los Angeles on September 30, on a single screen, and closed two weeks later. It never opened in South Florida at all. Given its production history, it's something of a miracle that it played anywhere.
The sheer beauty and personal depth of this triangle of depression, anxiety, and cosmic apocalypse has been well documented. What has been overlooked, and what pushes Melancholia into masterpiece realm, is its subversion of Hollywood's two primary currencies: the special-effects epic and, in the casting of Kirsten Dunst as writer-director Lars von Trier's alter ego, the celebrity confessional.
3. Meek's Cutoff
Has a better American film about survival instincts in the face of economic desperation been made since the start of the downturn than this gorgeously unsettling Oregon Trail tale? In a great year for supporting actors, Bruce Greenwood's incredible transformation into the rugged titular character is the most unjustly overlooked.
4. The Tree of Life
It's tempting to pick a side between Tree of Life and Melancholia — earnest theological questioning versus dogma dystopia. But even in their wildly diverging stylistic and philosophical approaches to life, death, and the mysteries of the universe, the two films defined the year in film with their implicit dialogue between one another.
5. The Arbor
Not just the best nonfiction film of 2011, this hybrid of primary-source reporting and dramatic staging to tell the tale of alcoholic British council estate bard Andrea Dunbar and the daughters she left behind is also the most innovative.
6. A Separation
A master class in storytelling and character study under any circumstances, A Separation is about the reverberations of one middle-class housewife's decision to leave her family when her husband refuses to leave Iran. It is all the more impressive as an implicit — but, in an incredible feat of footwork, never direct — critique of the standards and practices of the Iranian government that sanctioned its production.
The best music video Michael Mann never made. Ryan Gosling's (unsuccessful) campaign ad for the crown of Sexiest Man Alive. A movie-length escalating joke about the manipulative seduction of genre-film tropes, Drive is the visual-pleasure bomb that critiques itself.
A filmmaker whose primary obsessions have been work and sex, Steven Soderbergh turned an outbreak story that demonizes both into an unflinching, dispassionate nail-biter. Contagion is uniquely Soderberghian in its appropriation of a Hollywood genre for personal ends. When the big emotional catharsis comes, it's all the more devastating as a break from the total coldness that preceded it.
9. The Future
The best of 2011's many Sundance-hits-turned-box-office-bombs. The reception accorded this deeply personal and fully unique hybrid of hipster relationship drama, lo-fi sci-fi, and filmed performance art only affirms its courage as a would-be commercial endeavor.
Less an adaptation of Michael Lewis' bestseller than a cinematic rendering of the unlikely marriage between passion and fiscal rationing that motivated baseball to put its faith in sabermetrics, Moneyball is moving. It's the most satisfying popcorn movie of the year.