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Staff Picks: Kevin Polowy's Top 10 Movies of 2011

The Descendants
Fox Searchlight

It's useless trying to sum up 2011 movies in a nutshell. As in every year, there were those that wowed (see below) and those that almost made you lose faith in all of humanity ("Green Lantern," "Jack and Jill"). And then of course, there were those movies that didn't live up to the hype.

But as I've always said, expectations are a bee-yotch. "The Descendants" and "Drive," for instance, are both films that I saw in advance, yet that had already been built up by fellow journos ("Descendants" as the Best Picture frontrunner, "Drive" as just Best. Picture. Ever.). I appreciated but was slightly disappointed by both. And then there's "Hugo," of which I saw an early cut that was overly long (Scorsese later edited it) with not-quite-finished 3-D.

Of the 150 or so movies I watched in '11, these are simply just the 10 I enjoyed the most, with an additional 10 honorable mentions (otherwise known as "cheating").

10. 'Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest'

Beats, Rhymes and Life
Sony Pictures Classics

Okay, this is the luxury pick. A Tribe Called Quest are my Beatles, so the bias level is turned up to 11; it is the movie I saw more than any other this year (three times and counting), so that's worth something. Michael Rapaport feels the same way about Tribe, and you can feel the actor-turned-documentarian's reverence throughout this riveting look at the Queens alt-rap legends. Yes, he focuses too much on the drama between Q-Tip and Phife, not enough on the music (why no mention of "Scenario"; why so little time spent on "Midnight Marauders"?), but this is still required viewing for music lovers everywhere.

9. 'Take Shelter'

Take Shelter
Sony Classics

Enjoy a good mind-f**king? Then you'll love this engrossing stunner of a film about a Midwestern man so haunted by visions of an apocalyptic storm that he ruins his life building a storm shelter underneath his backyard. Driven by an excellent, understated performance from Michael Shannon, it's the perfect scarefest to take us into 2012, playing on our fears of extreme weather and financial ruin. Not to mention crazy people from the middle of nowhere. I'll take this small, quietly shocking disaster movie drama over some brainless, overwrought Roland Emmerich spectacle any day.

8. 'Moneyball'

Moneyball
Sony

Director Bennett Miller has insisted his sharp drama about the sabermetrics movement in professional sports is "not a baseball movie." Guess what, dude, it's a baseball movie. But that doesn't make it any less fascinating for sports fans and non-fans alike; the drama is so engaging we don't even seem to mind that the story's most suspenseful buildup focuses not on a championship run but a 20-game win streak (yep, a win streak). In one of Brad Pitt's most Brad Pittiest roles in years, he forgoes showiness for natural charisma and in turn delivers one of the most convincing performances of his career. This one's money.

7. '50/50'

50/50
Summit

It's been oversimplified as "the cancer comedy" by media types like myself, but don't approach "50/50" with that stamp in mind; there's some pretty heavy stuff here. It's about a twentysomething (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) battling The Big C, and the laughs tapped from it are not of the "Pineapple Express" variety, but far more bittersweet. Okay, fine, there are a couple clutch bong jokes. Jonathan Levine is one of the most exciting young filmmakers in Hollywood (make sure you've seen "The Wackness") and he impresses again here, but game balls to Seth Rogen and writer/BFF Will Reiser for bringing an inspired-by-true-life tale to the screen in such an honest and entertaining fashion.

6. 'The Muppets'

The Muppets
Disney

You'd have to be dead inside to walk out of "The Muppets" without a big fat cheesy grin on your face (no offense to those dead inside, by the way). This return to glory for Kermit, Piggy and company -- dreamed up and cowritten by star Jason Segel -- is 103 minutes of nostalgic, unadulterated bliss … with musical numbers (Including the best cover of Cee-Lo's "F**k You" that will ever exist). Consider this franchise fully reinvigorated (well played, Segel). I'm still humming a month after seeing it. For the record, it's spelled "Mah Na Mah Na."

Also Check Out: The 25 Best Movies of 2011

5. 'Bridesmaids'

Bridesmaids
Universal

The storyline that this gut-busting ensemble "proves" women are funny is pretty tired -- we know they're funny -- and not to detract from any of the amazing comediennes involved, but who knows, with a script this strong, it might've been just as hilarious acted out by a troupe of drag queens. Let's be glad it wasn't: All involved here just kill it. Melissa McCarthy deserves all the love she's been shown (including an Emmy, and let's also hope an Oscar nom) for hijacking every scene she's in, but it's also great to see the inimitable (yet bizarrely divisive) Kristen Wiig emerge as a relatable yet still comical leading lady. All in all, I haven't laughed so hard and so consistently through a movie since 2005's "The 40-Year-Old Virgin."

4. 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2'

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2
Warner Bros.

Eight movies and a bazillion dollars later, "Harry Potter" is the most successful franchise of all time. What a ride it's been, and the fact that these movies have gotten continually stronger over the years, culminating with the triumph that is "Hallows - Part 2," is such an achievement. The final, weep-worthy installment makes for the perfect climax, tying up every loose knot while also, similar to "Lord of the Rings: Return of the King," standing alone as a singular work of genius. A brilliant finale to a brilliant series.

3. 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo'

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Sony

Master filmmaker David Fincher follows up the excellent "Social Network" with another tour de force, injecting Steig Larsson's murder mystery introducing us to outcast hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) and embattled journalist (Daniel Craig) with style, intensity and relentless suspense. Mara is a revelation (and man, is Lisbeth supposed to be so sexy?), and the film's daunting 160-minute runtime breezes by thanks to one heart-racing scene after the next. Dark and tough to watch at times, but a triumph all around.

2. 'Warrior'

Warrior
Lionsgate

And now for the most criminally underseen gem of the year (and no, it's not a prequel to "The Warriors"). Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton play estranged brothers who reunite to fight each other at a high-stakes mixed martial arts championship, and the phenomenal Nick Nolte is their broken-down father who cries a lot. Tense and emotionally stunning from beginning to end, "Warrior" is fueled by amazingly choreographed fight scenes and stinging familial drama. Did I mention Nick Nolte cries a lot? You have to have a high threshold for that. Maybe audiences had brothers-in-combat-sports-movie fatigue after "The Fighter," but they missed a real winner.

1. 'The Artist'

The Artist
Weinstein Company

Insisting you must run to theaters to see a black-and-white silent film? Yep, sounding pretty film geeky (pretentious?) right about now. But you'll see what I mean five minutes in -- that's about how long it takes to fall head over heels in love with this love letter to Old Hollywood about a silent movie mega-star whose career fades when "talkies" arrive. It's funny, touching, sweet, charming, technically amazing and a true crowd-pleaser. Look for it to win Best Picture at the Oscars next year, and possibly even do for silent black-and-white films what "Avatar" did for 3-D. Okay, probably not that second part.

Honorable Mentions

Third Best Alexander Payne Movie Yet: "The Descendants"
Film I Really Enjoyed and Appreciated but Sorry, Not Nearly as Much as Other Film Geeks Who Will Call Me an Idiot for Not Including: "Drive"
Best Michael Fassbender Movie of the Year: "X-Men: First Class"
Second Best Ralph Fiennes Movie of the Year: "Coriolanus"
Cutest Martin Scorsese Movie Ever: "Hugo"
Best Movie Set in Iowa: "Cedar Rapids"
Greatest Gary Old-Man Film: "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy"
Best Film Featuring a Subtitled Dog: "Beginners"
Best English-Language Film That Needed Subtitles: "Attack the Block"
Best Angelina Jolie-Directed War Film That Sounds More Like an Angelina Jolie-Directed Sexual Fantasy: "In the Land of Blood and Honey"

NextMovie executive editor Kevin Polowy (a.k.a. "DJ Kevlar") wishes there were more movies in 2011 with subtitled cats. Or at least one. Follow him on Twitter.

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