The Tree of Life, Brad Pitt

Brad Pitt plays the patriarch of a family in 1950s Texas in Terrence Malick’s beautiful and confounding “The Tree of Life.”

It’s that time of year again — one last chance to look back and remember all the highlights of the year in Madison. Our writers have assembled their lists of the best of Madison’s music, movies, food and the arts in 2011. Let us know your favorites of the year.

It must have been a good year for movies, because I don’t feel as haunted this year about the probably awesome 2011 movies that won’t come to Madison until 2012 — “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” “Shame,” etc.

No, I feel pretty good about this list, that these were the movies that challenged, moved and thrilled me in the past year. The best did all three.

1) “The Tree of Life” — When I saw Terrence Malick’s masterpiece for the second time in the theater, I intended to go to see the beautiful, confounding imagery of the film one more time on the big screen — the “2001”-style birth of the universe sequence, the idyllic images of small-town life, and, of course, the dinosaurs. But more than that, I ended up sucked in to the moving portrait of an ordinary childhood, full of things wonderful and terrible. My original review is here. (Available on DVD)

2) “The Interrupters” — If it hadn’t been for the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art’s Spotlight Cinema program and the Driftless Film Festival, Madison wouldn’t have had the chance to see the outstanding new documentary by Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”) on the big screen. It’s an intense, harrowing and compassionate look at how hard and necessary it is to break the cycle of inner-city gang violence. My original review is here. (No DVD release date announced, but the film will premiere on PBS’ “Frontline” Feb. 14)

3) “Moneyball” — The best baseball movie since “Bull Durham” is also a zingy comedy with a great screenplay co-written by Aaron Sorkin, as well as a gripping drama about maverick thinking and the organizational structures that hold innovation back. My original review is here. (Available on DVD Jan. 10)

4) “Win Win” — Two movies about dads in crisis round out the top five on the list. For me, the messiness and ambiguity of Tom McCarthy’s comedy-drama about a lawyer (Paul Giamatti) who takes an ethical shortcut and gets entangled in another family’s life gives it a slight edge. It’s very funny, well-acted and satisfyingly honest. My original review is here. (Available on DVD)

5) “The Descendants” — Alexander Payne hits one long, beautifully sustained tone that mixes comedy and tragedy in his new film, sometimes in the same moment. The prospect of watching a father (George Clooney) grieve his wife and marriage seems almost too much to bear, but there’s just enough lightness and sweetness to make the experience satisfying and true. My original review is here. (Now playing at Point and Sundance Cinemas)

6) “Melancholia” — Lars von Trier’s meditation on the end of the world is harrowing, beautiful and cryptic. You’d think the notoriously button-pushing director would use the apocalypse to lecture and berate his audience, but “Melancholia” feels more thoughtful and mature, even a little humane.  My original review is here. (Now playing at Sundance Cinemas)

7) “Hanna” — Here’s a rarity, a baroque action movie, containing all the pleasures of the genre (including Tom Hollander and Cate Blanchett as hilariously weird villains and an awesome single-take fight between Eric Bana and four henchmen), but as inventively conceived and shot as an arthouse film. Bonus props to that hypnotic “Chemical Brothers” soundtrack. (Available on DVD)

8) “Meek’s Cutoff” — This is a Western without heroism or thrills, as Kelly Reichardt effectively puts us in the dusty shoes of the denizens of a lost wagon train in the desert. Beyond its stark and effective sense of peril, the film becomes a meditation on trust — how we earn it, and why we give it to others. My original review is here. (Available on DVD)

9) “Certified Copy” — Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami’s brilliant intellectual puzzle of a film keeps us off balance as we meet a couple (Juliette Binoche and William Shimell) who are either strangers or a longtime married couple. Or both. The strength of the performances and the deep emotional core of their connection keep us riveted. My original review is here. (Available on DVD Jan. 18)

10) “Source Code” — Genre films get short shrift on year-end lists, but Duncan Jones followed up “Moon” with a crackerjack sci-fi thriller that took a ridiculous premise and made it relentlessly clever, suspenseful and, when you least expected it, quite poignant. (Available on DVD)

The runners-up: “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” “Margin Call,” “X-Men: First Class,” “The Trip,” “Bridesmaids,” “Bonsai,” “Warrior,” “Incendies,” “Midnight in Paris,” and “Weekend.”

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