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When 'Pirates' Becomes the Pirated

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Central Pictures Corporation

If you were one of the 9 million people who illegally downloaded “Fast Five,” it might not occur to you that 2011 was a magnificent year at the movies. And you wouldn’t be interested in any of the myriad 10-best lists, let alone one you’re about to read from some obscure critic. This is not about fancy art films with subtitles being more legitimate than Hollywood blockbusters. If you pride yourself on being a movie buff, you would insist on seeing “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol” in Imax. Then you would agree that 2011 was indeed awesome. But since you already know movies like “Hugo,” “A Dangerous Method,” “The Tree of Life,” “Melancholia” and “The Descendants” to be great, this list champions films that need a little cosmic extra push.

M. Tsai’s Top Movies of 2011

A BRIGHTER SUMMER DAY Made in 1991 and only getting a proper U.S. theatrical release a full two decades later, Edward Yang’s dramatization of real-life overachievers-turned-juvenile delinquents has stood the test of time and proven to be the definitive historical document on life in Taiwan under martial law. Ultimately, it’s about escape from the strict regimen of life — with any reward for hard work seeming intangible at best— to just feel, love and live. The innocence of that time and place — also encapsulated by Hou Hsiao-hsien in one of the “Three Times” segments — is now lost; and all we can do is romanticize.

A SEPARATION A gripping whodunit under the guise of a domestic drama, Asghar Farhadi’s cautionary tale warning against the modernization of Iran was impeccably written, directed and performed. If you were guileless enough to think “Circumstance” was great Iranian cinema, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

THE ARBOR An unprecedented documentary told almost entirely through reenactments, Clio Barnard’s groundbreaking film captured the devastating cycle of familial neglect, low self-esteem and self destruction that completely ruined lives that were once so full of promise.

MARGARET Kenneth Lonergan officially joined the ranks of Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee in delivering a thoroughly authentic New York experience. Although slightly outdated, the film was the perfect emblem for our collective post-9/11 grieving process.

BEGINNERS Mike Mills’s semiautobiographical tale about the life traps of a commitment phobe was sober, unsentimental and — as a result — genuinely moving. Navigating abstract memories and psychosis through mementos, it nicely transcended any indiewood quirkiness.

THE LAST CIRCUS It was everything you would expect from an allegory for Franco-era Spain by the deranged genius Álex de la Iglesia.

CERTIFIED COPY By stepping out of Iran, Abbas Kiarostami proved his artistry was no fluke. And with “Certified Copy,” he blurred the line between life and art the same way he did the one between drama and documentary.

INCENDIES Denis Villeneuve masterfully rendered a brutal and compelling meditation on war, survival and reconciliation, through a daughter tracing her late mother’s steps from the Middle East to Canada.

THE FUTURE Anyone who’s ever been a struggling artist (or a struggling anything, really) knows that Miranda July told the truth.

UNITED RED ARMY A colossal recounting of how the 1960s Japanese student movement disintegrated from committed radical to unfocused extremist fringe, Koji Wakamatsu’s uncompromising and towering achievement was required viewing in the year of Occupy Wall Street.

M. Tsai’s Top Albums/Singles of 2011

KARA “Step” (DSP) This was their year, and the phenomenal title track pretty much spelled out why. But the bonus track “Dear Kamilia” was possibly the best song heard anywhere in the world in 2011. Deceptively simple, the Korean remake of the end-credits theme from TV Tokyo’s “Urakara” series is an impeccably crafted pop song with a bittersweet crescendo and a breathtaking climax all its own.

MBLAQ “Blaq Style” (J.Tune Camp) If you don’t believe the best R&B songs in the world are now being produced in South Korea, all you need do is take a listen to “Cry.”

SDN48 “Ai Tyuseyo” (Universal) Although all members will be “graduating” from the group in 2012, this song more than justified its raison d'être.

2PM “Republic of 2PM” (JYP/Ariola Japan) The single “I’m Your Man” alone would have made the list, but nearly every track here is blazing. Ultimately the album made the cut because “Hanarete Itemo” — composed by group member Jun.K — was so unexpectedly spectacular.

TVXQ! “Why? (Keep Your Head Down) Repackage” (S.M.) Just in case you had any doubts that “Why?” was hands-down the most infectious anthem of the year, the twosome TVXQ! served up a one-two punch with the slow jam of the ages, “Before U Go.”

MARSHA AMBROSIUS “Late Nights & Early Mornings” (J) Technically the single “Far Away” came out last year, and hopefully this entry makes up for my glaring omission.

BEAST “Fiction and Fact” (Cube) Topping “Shock” was no easy task, but they probably achieved it with the slick single “Fiction.”

SISTAR19 “Ma Boy” (Starship) I wasn’t completely sold on the song until I heard it full blast at the KBS New York Korea Festival at New Overpeck County Park in New Jersey. That glorious bass line is something to behold.

4MINUTE “4Minutes Left (Jewel Version)” (Cube) Not to diminish 4Minute member Hyuna making waves with her “Bubble Pop,” but one shudders to think how berserk Spin magazine would go if its staff only knew how ferocious a track “Geo Ul A Geo Ul A” was.

AKB48 “Sakura no Ki ni Narou” (King) The track’s terrific, but Hirokazu Kore-eda’s masterpiece of a music video made the song that much more affecting.

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