In a year replete with comic-book/mythological figures, Thor soared above the rest, raking in $181 million domestically. It certainly helped that Australian hunk Chris Hemsworth filled the title role in this Kenneth Branagh film that mixes family conflict with hammer-wielding. Oscar winner Natalie Portman supplying the love interest complemented the heft and brawn with heart and brains.
2 of 17 John P. Johnson/Warner Bros. Pictures
The movie's premise — killing the awful person you work for — was reason enough to love this comedy. And the idea's execution (ahem!) worked wonderfully with Jason Bateman, Charlie Day and Jason Sudeikis as the put-upon employees in this raunchy farce that never quite succumbs to going over the top. The large-and-in-charge targets are hilariously played by Kevin Spacey, Colin Farrell and, best of all, Jennifer Aniston as a sex-crazed maneater/dentist.
3 of 17 Columbia Pictures
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
David Fincher's virtuoso filmmaking never fails to disappoint. Good thing, too, because this film — an adaptation of the international best-selling novel starring Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara as a disgraced journalist investigating a years-old murder and his troubled research assistant, respectively — was as hotly anticipated as anything during the late-year Oscar-bait season. Thanks to a thrilling whodunit, Mara's breakout performance and her unusual chemistry with Craig, the film more than lives up to those expectations.
4 of 17 Merie Wallace/Fox Searchlight Pictures
Alexander Payne's first feature since Sideways stars George Clooney as a Hawaiian land baron trying to hold himself and his family together after he learns that his comatose wife has been cheating on him. Clooney brilliantly balances grief with out-and-out anger, and much of the delight of the film is watching Clooney playing a character who isn't as slick as a Danny Ocean or Michael Clayton. As the oldest daughter who clues in her father to mom's infidelity, Secret Life of the American Teenager star Shailene Woodley gives a strong performance that will surely earn her many return trips to the big screen.
5 of 17 Kimberly Wright/20th Century Fox
The ever reliable Paul Giamatti stars as Mike, a lawyer so down on his luck that he has a second job as a high school wrestling coach. This small film from Tom McCarthy (who gave us The Station Agent) involves a sullen teenager (Alex Shaffer), whom Mike takes in as part of a shady deal. Turns out, the kid's a champion wrestler. Bobby Cannavale is a delight as a friend of Mike's who's reeling from his divorce. The movie's greatest strength is that its characters are flawed yet decent. And they realize life involves winning — and losing.
6 of 17 Patrick Wymore/Walt Disney Pictures
What's not to love?! Well, except that this story begins with a bittersweet focus on how the Muppets went through a dry spell of being unloved. How I Met Your Mother's Jason Segel co-wrote and stars in this clever film that interweaves nostalgia, hipness and endearment. The late Jim Henson's creations are poised for a big comeback.
7 of 17 Dale Robinette/DreamWorks
This stirring adaptation of the much-beloved novel wound up polarizing some book lovers, but the appealing Emma Stone kept her star ascending with a superb performance. Viola Davis, as always, is great as one of the hired help in the Jim Crow South. And Jessica Chastain built on her breakout year that included the Cannes winner The Tree of Life.
8 of 17 20th Century Fox
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
This sleeper hit surprised critics as not just another schlocky summer franchise film. While it featured a boatload of action and CGI like most midyear blockbusters, the film reminds us that character and story are always the key ingredients to success. As the scientist who inadvertently kick-starts the primate revolution, James Franco acts more committed than many of his recent roles. But the film belongs to the ape Caesar, who, as brought to life via motion capture by Andy Serkis (Lord of the Rings' Gollum), is every bit as nuanced as the finest human characters in cinema.
9 of 17 Ben Glass/Warner Bros. Pictures
Crazy Stupid Love
Steve Carell again shows he can lead a strong ensemble in this dramedy about a man stunned by his wife (Julianne Moore) asking for a divorce. Unmoored, he returns to the single scene, getting help from a bachelor buddy (Ryan Gosling). The chemistry of the spirited cast — including Emma Stone, Marisa Tomei, Kevin Bacon and Jonah Bobo — forges this multigenerational tale of love and pain.
10 of 17 Chris Helcermanas-Benge/Summit Entertainment
Long referred to as the "cancer comedy," this film seemed like it could go one of two ways: unbearably bad or surprisingly good. It turned out to be the latter for the movie, written by Will Reiser and based on his own battle with a rare form of spinal cancer. Balanced with effortless warmth and dark, wry humor that hits at precisely the right time, it's further enhanced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt's understated and honest performance, in which he neither makes a saint nor a martyr of his stricken character. Instead, he and the film simply remind us that when life hits you the hardest, laughter is indeed the best medicine.
11 of 17 GK Films
Oscar winner Martin Scorsese's film, already deemed Best Picture by the National Board of Review, is not only a touching 3-D masterpiece for all ages, but also a love letter to one of moviemaking's true pioneers. His virtuoso camerawork is on display from the first shot to the last, and Asa Butterfield is heartrending in the title role. Bonus: This is the most unmannered performance by Ben Kingsley in years.
12 of 17 Columbia Pictures
This movie doesn't have a big Hollywood ending (Spoiler Alert: the Oakland Athletics don't win the World Series). Rather, the film, director Bennett Miller's first effort since 2005's Capote, celebrates the small victories along the way and allows the audience to feel the sting of loss. Brad Pitt shines in a non-Brad-Pitt way as A's General Manager Billy Beane, but the real surprise is Jonah Hill, who, as Beane's assistant, brings the funny in a far more understated way than he has before.
13 of 17 Jaap Buitendijk/Warner Bros. Pictures
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2
The movie of the year — even if just by the objective measure of being the top box-office draw of 2011, racking up $381 million just in the U.S. ($1.33 billion worldwide). Over the last decade, we saw Harry, Ron and Hermione grow up. No amount of Butterbeer will help us cope with how much we're going to miss them.
14 of 17 François Duhamel/Paramount Pictures
J.J. Abrams' paean to Steven Spielberg's films from 30 years ago wonderfully captures life in 1979, offering a heartwarming adolescent world tenanted by the charming Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning (who share a sweet puppy love) and Riley Griffiths (as an Orson Welles in the making). The summer blockbuster's fear factor stemmed not just from the monster, but from the kids taking tentative steps toward becoming adults.
15 of 17 FilmDistrict
As a recent Internet groundswell showed, lots of people think Ryan Gosling is the sexiest man alive. They may have noticed he's a nuanced actor, too. And he delivers yet again, playing a stunt driver who moonlights as a criminal wheelman in this noirish flick that co-stars Carey Mulligan and Albert Brooks, who's so wonderfully menacing that the New York Film Critics Circle cited him as Best Supporting Actor. Nicolas Winding Refn took the Best Director prize at Cannes for his work.
16 of 17 Sony Pictures Classics
Midnight in Paris
Each film Woody Allen has made in the past decade has been touted as a "comeback film," but this one truly felt like it, capturing the magic, melancholy and whimsy of such films as The Purple Rose of Cairo and Zelig. Owen Wilson performs as Allen's avatar this time, a writer going back in time in The City of Light to get inspiration from the likes of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dali and Picasso — and romance from a woman played by Marion Cotillard.
17 of 17 Suzanne Hanover/Universal Studios
Starring and co-written by Saturday Night Live's Kristen Wiig, this buddy-comedy had a lot of people busting a gut. Co-starring Maya Rudolph and Rose Byrne and featuring a career-changing performance by Melissa McCarthy, the film grossed $169 million domestically and showed it's not just boys who can indulge in scatological humor.