2011 was the best year for film since I really started caring about the medium. I feel as though I should get that out of the way to start with, as I’ve been reading in some places people talking about the year in less than glowing terms. Perhaps my perspective is different from others – there have been very few mainstream hits of the likes of No Country for Old Men or The Hurt Locker which garner both critical admiration and box office success – but underneath the mainstream there’s been a groundswell of creativity.
Established directors like Terence Malick, Pedro Almodovar and Lars von Trier have created their best films in years, while newer voices like Kelly Reichardt and Asghar Farhadi have emerged with their strongest statements of intent thus far. Films that have been left off this list – Drive, Take Shelter, Kill List – would have been near the top any other year, and that’s before considering the great films I saw this year that haven’t yet been give a UK release date.
Anyway, here it is! In reverse order:
10 – The Woman
As nasty as it is thoughtful, The Woman aims to explore the inherent misogyny at the heart of the idea of the nuclear family. Tonally disconcerting and as wince-inducing as they come, it has the talent and brains to transcend its low-budget horror roots and become something that stays with you for days after.
9 – The Interrupters
The year’s best documentary is also it’s most vital, and it’s most moving. The people who work as violence interrupters – they themselves having escaped the street culture that they’re helping others escape from – do great work, yes, but it’s the stories and interactions of the people stuck in this world that provides the film its tremendous power.
8 – Super 8
It may be a blatant Spielberg homage, yes, but why is that a bad thing? As tender and nostalgic a story of childhood as they come, a fairy rote second half doesn’t detract from the massive emotional punch of its high points.
7 – The Skin I Live In
As twisting and intricate as Bad Education and as nasty, this is Almodovar’s best film since that landmark in his career. Perverse in theabstract but clinical in its execution, The Skin I Live In constantly hides its true nature from the viewer, even after its revealed its (really great) twist.
6 – Melancholia
It never beats its stunning prelude and its first half suffers from never being entirely sure what it wants to be, but von Trier has nevertheless created one of the loneliest and most haunting apocalypses imaginable. Not only that, it’s also a sensitive and understanding portrait of depression, from a man not usually known for his subtlety.
5 – Meek’s Cutoff
Any other year this would have topped my list, as Reichardt’s brutal, sparse vision of the Oregon trail is a bleak, uncompromising allegorical tale. With breathtaking landscapes and a mood of creeping dread, Meek’s Cutoff announces Reichardt as not only a good director, but one of the best American directors working today.
4 – A Separation
A masterpiece of a screenplay, A Separation’s writer/director Asghar Farhadi manages something almost impossible: a heavily plotted film full of twists and turns that is also an intimate detailed character piece. Sensitive and even-handed with a sophisticated visual style and some tremendous performances, Farhadi may be one of the strongest voices in a film movement full of strong voices.
3 – The Tree of Life
At one point in The Tree of Life, Jessica Chastian’s mother figure points upward and proclaims “That’s where God lives!”, and as the camera wheels round to take in the whole blue expanse of the sky you can almost see him, such is the overwhelming power of Terence Malick’s camera. Breathtaking when travelling through and time and space and tender when telling the story of a young boy growing up in 50s America, this is Malick’s most personal film, and maybe his best. People have been calling it religious as though it’s a criticism – in truth, this is one of the beautiful and reverent evocations of one man’s faith I’ve ever seen.
2 – Weekend
Calling it a gay Before Sunrise is incredibly reductive when in reality Andrew Haigh’s Weekend is so much more than that. Tom Cullen and Chris New’s Russell and Glen are two individuals falling for each other over one intense weekend, but they’re also representative of an entire kind of gay person – one that I’ve never seen represented on screen before. Every frame has a verisimilitude that is almost uncanny and Haigh has a talent for character writing that is both detailed and recognizable, creating a world that seems to live and breathe away from the screen, so full of specifics that it touches upon the universal.
1 – Margaret
Not everyone will love Margaret as much as I did. Most will see it as a messy, occasionally brilliant film. But for those of us willing to navigate the thorny semantic arguments and directionless loose threads that make up the majority of its running time, they’ll find a startling statement about America in the 21st Century. Until we get the three-hour plus director’s cut that the film deserves it remains to be seen how much of the film is messy by design and how much of the film’s jarring editing style is due to it being butchered in the cutting room, but either way, Kenneth Lonergan has created of the most daring, and one of the most devastating, films about the confusion of modern life
Best performance: Anna Paquin – Margaret
Best single scene: The train station scene from Super 8
Most overrated film: Miss Bala
Still haven’t seen: The Deep Blue Sea, Snowtown, Hugo, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Submarine, We Were Here, probably a whole bunch of others I haven’t thought of.
See you all in 2012!