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The Best and Worst Movies of 2011 – So Far

Peter Travers ranks the Oscar chances of ‘Bridesmaids,’ ‘The Tree of Life’ and more

Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics (Midnight in Paris), Cottonwood Pictures (Tree of Life)

It's here — the midpoint of the movie year — so what to do if Oscars had to be doled out now for the best of 2011 so far? My head hurts thinking about it. No way could I come up with 10 nominees for Best Picture. So far, there are only two sure bets:

Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life
The Tree of Life dwarfs the big-budget guppies swimming at the multiplex. Drown those suckers. Shot with a poet's eye, Malick's film is a groundbreaker, a personal vision that dares to reach for the stars.

Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris
For all the film's bracing humor and ravishing romance, there are also haunting shadows. That alone makes it a keeper.

Oscilloscope Pictures

Best Picture: Wishful Thinking

What else could be a Best Picture nominee? These sound like wishful thinking:

Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff
The director of River of Grass, Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy is a gifted minimalist who believes that the tiniest detail can open up a universe. Kelly Reichardt has crafted a haunted dream of a movie to get lost in.

Tom McCarthy's Win Win
This movie wins you over, head and heart, without cheating. It's just about perfect.

Joe Wright's Hanna
Out of a script by David Farr and Seth Lochhead, Joe Wright (his Atonement won an Oscar nod for Ronan) carves a surreal fable of blood and regret. Saoirse Ronan is an acting sorceress, and her scenes with the excellent Eric Bana cut bone-deep.

Best Picture: Popcorn Movies

There's no room for even the better popcorn movies:

Paul Feig's Bridesmaids
Though the laughs are hit-and-miss, Bridesmaids lucks out in director Paul Feig (The Office, Nurse Jackie), who has the gift of letting scenes play out just long enough to be both hilarious and heartfelt.

Duncan Jones' Source Code
Working from a tight script by Ben Ripley, Jones creates scary, hairy, high-octane tension. Disbelief? Suspended, until the logic lapses kick in later. It's a small price to pay for a ride that starts at wild and accelerates from there.

Neil Burger's Limitless
Limitless is a potent provocation for the Age of Adderall. It's a wet dream for anyone who's ever dreamed of getting an edge on the information highway. The worst side effect is that you won't believe a word of the damn thing in the morning. Fair exchange.

Brad Furman's The Lincoln Lawyer
This is rock-solid entertainment. Matthew McConaughey, a cunning mesmerizer in the courtroom, steers this Lincoln into what could be a hell-raising franchise. More, please. Soon.

J.J. Abrams' Super 8
What happens when a kid with a camera finds reality rocketing beyond his eeriest alien fantasies? For answers, catch Super 8, a retro monster mash with a child's heart, a prodigy's unstoppable imagination and FX dazzle to spare.

Matthew Vaughn's X-Men: First Class
In this cheerfully perverse origin tale of Magneto, Professor X and their mutant team, Vaughn delivers a fireworks display of action, smarts and fun, plus a touch of class from actors who can really act.

Best Picture: Indie Cred

Indie cred is not enough to book winner's-circle passage for these movies:

Mike Mills' Beginners
Delicate business is being transacted in this touchingly personal and altogether extraordinary film from writer-director Mike Mills.

Miguel Arteta's Cedar Rapids
Thanks to a tartly observed script by Phil Johnston and direction from the gifted Arteta that stays attuned to the sadness and pain that seep in between the cracks, Cedar Rapids is both hilarious and heartfelt. It's also powered by a dream cast, led by the outstanding Ed Helms.

Robert Redford's The Conspirator
Redford doesn't star in The Conspirator, but as the film's director he eases with hypnotic skill into this largely untold tale of American justice in the aftermath of Abraham Lincoln's assassination.

Acting: Cable Only

The glow of these actors was confined to pay cable, which disqualifies them for Oscar:

Kate Winslet in Mildred Pierce
What can you say in a few words about a five-hour HBO miniseries adapted from James M. Cain's landmark 1941 novel that follows the rise and fall of an independent Los Angeles woman during the Great Depression? Apply "magnificent" to the tour de force Kate Winslet delivers in the title role, a divorced mother who climbs from waitress to tycoon.

Peter Dinklage in Game of Thrones

Best Actors

Brad Pitt and Hunter McCracken (The Tree of Life)
Like the Texas-born Malick, young Jack O'Brien (the remarkable newcomer Hunter McCracken) grows up near Waco in the 1950s. His father – Brad Pitt, in a performance of indelible implosive power – raises Jack and younger brothers R.L. (Pitt spitting-image Laramie Eppler) and Steve (Tye Sheridan) with a fierce discipline visible even in rare moments of affection. This father is broken by his own sense of underachievement, and Pitt subtly lets us feel his pain.

Christopher Plummer (Beginners)
A never-better Plummer is simply stupendous, refusing any call to sentiment as he shows us Hal's resonant lunge at life.

Michael Fassbender (X-Men: First Class)
James McAvoy as telepathic Professor X and Michael Fassbender as the metal-bending Magneto are both dynamite. They take roles created, respectively, by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen and give them an exuberant jolt of youth and flawed ambition.

Mel Gibson (The Beaver)
If you can get past your feelings for the troubled Gibson, you get to watch a high-wire performance of the highest caliber.

Best Actresses

Jessica Chastain (The Tree of Life)
For tenderness, the boys in The Tree of Life turn to their mother, given a nurturing purity by the radiant Jessica Chastain.

Mia Wasikowska (Jane Eyre)
The splendid Aussie actress Mia Wasikowska, 21, is best known for playing the lead in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland. And she brings innocence and carnal curiosity to the role of Jane

Elle Fanning (Super 8)
Fanning, so luminous in Sofia Coppola's Somewhere, shines brighter here. She delivers a shooting-star performance that takes you places you don't see ­coming.

Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy (Bridesmaids)
Kristen Wiig is an indisputable goddess of comedy. And this rowdy fem-friendship movie she stars in and wrote with Annie Mumolo is infused with the Wiig brand of wicked mischief.