12/12/2011 11:04 am ET Updated Feb 11, 2012

The 10 Best Films of 2011

I've seen what feels like a surprising number of movies that genuinely excited and moved me this year, films as different as The Descendants and Drive -- both of which are on my 10-best list below.

The Descendants is my favorite film of the year for its ability to find the pain, dignity and humor in the story of a man watching his way of life die, even as he has to act as steward to its demise.

But I loved Drive in a different way when it saw it at a screening last summer -- and loved it even more when I saw it again in the late fall.

As I watched Nicolas Winding Refn's measured, explosive film unfold, I kept thinking that it reminded me of movies from the 1970s, something I said in my review. Something a lot of people said.

I felt the same way when I saw -- and then re-saw -- Sean Durkin's Martha Marcy May Marlene. Here was a movie that refused to smooth things out for audiences, or to supply them with a neatly wrapped-up happy ending -- a trait of some of the better films of that decade.

So what it is about the 1970s that still makes critics who were working -- or seeing movies then -- drool when they talk about what is considered a golden era?

It was the willingness, even the eagerness, to do something that went against the grain -- to make movies that were thoughtful and complicated, movies that refused to give audiences an easily understood or even likable main character. They were movies that didn't hedge their bets in order to maximize their audiences.

Above all, they were movies that weren't afraid to end unhappily or, worse, inconclusively, a trait shared by Drive and MMMM. I'd also include Oren Moverman's Rampart in my little round-up of movies with that 1970s feel. And Jason Reitman's Young Adult, a movie that puts the happy ending to shame. Think Chinatown, Night Moves, Nashville, McCabe & Mrs. Miller or Taxi Driver.

What was special about the 1970s was not just that willingness to tell serious and provocative stories. It was the fact that so many of those most subversive of films were being turned out by the studios, which, for a brief period, sort of lost their collective minds in the wake of Easy Rider and the rise of the baby-boom generation.

It was a transitional period, when the studios gave the chance to make movies to any number of adventurous young filmmakers, who had nothing to lose as they made their first films.

Which is why the new movies that seem to echo the '70s most vibrantly are the ones being made by fresh talents being given some of their first chances. Who knows where they'll go from here?

Too often in the past, this year's wunderkind becomes next year's director of a remake or a comic-book movie -- or a comic-book movie remake. That's been one of the key disappointments of the independent-movie era, or at least the portion that really clicked into place in 1989: that so many directors of the boldest films have since become the helmsmen for Hollywood product that has nothing to do with any kind of vision except for that of the marketer.

Keep in mind: There were plenty of duds in the 1970s. Though there weren't as many movies being made, there were roughly the same proportion as today of truly wonderful, visionary films to product that had no ambition beyond being multiplex filler. There weren't as many movies back then -- but then, there weren't as many multiplexes, or TV cable channels. Or people.

What gave those '70s movies their spark was their willingness to go against the grain, to look at old ideas in new ways. That's still the case - and that's what the best of today's most exciting films share with their predecessors.

So let's celebrate films such as Drive and Martha Marcy May Marlene -- and the rest of the films on this list as creative visions that challenge conventional wisdom of what a movie can be. Enjoy them for what they are. And hope that they don't remain so few and far between.

1. The Descendants
2. Drive
3. Shame
4. Incendies
5. The Artist
6. Moneyball
7. Margin Call
8. Martha Marcy May Marlene
9. A Separation
10. Young Adult

Find more reviews, commentary and interviews on my website.