You need only look at the individual directors who contributed to some of the year’s best films to know that 2011 was packed with provocative and experimental forms of filmmaking. New and increasingly bold visions burst onto the scene that transported audiences to uncomfortable places, but if anything that disturbed feeling that I associate with many of the year’s best just proves how effectively they carried out what they promised to do, create an emotional response. What is also surprising is just how many newcomers there were to the top tier in 2011, as ever there were plenty of seasoned veterans to offer up their usual brand of quality but a majority of films in my top ten come from directors whom I wasn’t hugely aware of beforehand but am unlikely to forget after their efforts.
As ever though there are numerous honourable mentions to hand out first. This distinct sense of auteur quality even managed to sneak its way into the blockbusters of the year, with Matthew Vaughn lending his unique sensibilities to ‘X-Men: First Class’. The same could be said for Brad Bird’s ‘Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol’ as well as ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’. Also, though it pains me that I couldn’t find room for it in the top ten, the Harry Potter series ended in spectacular fashion with ‘The Deathly Hallows Part 2’, goodbye childhood.
Even if they were not being made on a blockbuster level there were also a few brilliant smaller genre films to go alongside the big hitters. Though it’s inclusion here is likely to be accompanied by the traditional “the original Swedish one was better” I thought David Fincher’s ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ was a chillingly efficient example of a high stakes thriller. Speaking of chilling, we also saw Lynne Ramsey’s twisted psychological terror ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’. Then on the other side of the scale (sort of) there’s ‘50/50’ that despite sounding like the worst idea on paper actually handles its subject matter and tone with effective grace.
But as ever there was no shortage of high drama to keep us on high alert. There was Alexander Payne’s heart wrenching drama ‘The Descendants’ with its Oscar winning screenplay by Jim Rash (who knew Dean Pelton was such a good writer?), but while we’re on the subject of good screenplays you can’t ignore the brilliance that is Aaron Sorkin and ‘Moneyball’. Then there is also the culturally significant as well as emotionally involving ‘A Separation’. Finally, while I don’t think it’s the masterpiece some proclaim it to be, there is no denying the grandiose ambition and personal resonance of Terrance Malick’s epic ‘The Tree of Life’.
Lars Von Trier has never been one to comply to convention (in fact I am fully confident in saying he doesn’t know the meaning of the word) and ‘Melancholia’ continues to cement that. Anchored by an emotionally resonant performance from Kirsten Dunst that dare I say stands as the best of her career, it’s a quietly beautiful look at the end of the world with too many breath-taking images to count. It’s Von Trier at his most elegant without ever abandoning the ideologies that set him apart as a filmmaker, being so refreshingly original at the same time that it is almost awe inspiring. Though I can understand some being frustrated by its sprawling outlook and methodical pace, ‘Melancholia’ represents a filmmaker in complete control of his own vision, underlying his unique qualities as well as his versatility and ability to adapt.
9: Midnight in Paris
Though it may not measure up to his timeless masterpieces, ‘Midnight in Paris’ stands as a pleasant reminder of why we love Woody Allen’s movies. Exploring themes of nostalgia and modernism but probably in the most delightful way possible, the movie boasts many brilliant performances from Tom Hiddleston, Marion Cotillard, Rachel McAdams, Martin Sheen, Alison Pill and Adrian Brody. But even among this impressive ensemble it’s Owen Wilson who shines the brightest, his enthusiasm and humanity is infectiously charming as well as his elegantly handled emotional arc to a point where you can feel ever emotion exuding from his character by the end of the movie. Allen distinguishes himself as a filmmaker who trusts his audience’s intelligence, even when his story is as relatively basic as this, his craftsmanship and intelligence are obvious within ever scene, as are his subtle methods of informing the audience whilst transporting them.
8: Take Shelter
A movie that is sure to evoke plenty of discussion and thought, Jeff Nichols psychological drama is deeply layered and open to many interpretations but even when taken on face value it earns its praise as a terrific piece of cinema. So much of the movie relies on Michael Shannon’s powerhouse performance that stands as one of the best of the year. He conveys so many differing moods to the audience that he can change the entire tone of the movie on a whim, sometimes enforcing a sense of stability but the turning his character, and the whole movie, in on itself by injecting an ounce of vulnerability that throws everything into a new light. Nichols superb direction only highlights this increasing unease and dread even more, to a point where if you ask five different people what the movie means, chances are you will get five different responses.
If you were not already aware of just how versatile of a filmmaker Martin Scorsese is, then ‘Hugo’ should cement his reputation as one of the greatest creative forces in the history of cinema. It’s unlike any other film he has made but the expertise and craftsmanship that are evident within the movie means that ‘Hugo’ never once feels like Scorsese trying to do a fantasy film, it just feels like an amazing fantasy film. It’s both a brilliant adventure with universal appeal as well as Scorsese’s own love letter to cinema, inspiring a great love of film’s earliest pioneers in the process. It has the best use of 3-D I have ever seen in a movie (and if you can’t take my word for that then take it from James Cameron since he is the one who said it) as well as a brilliant cast to bring out the humanity within the story. ‘Hugo’ is simply a delight from start to finish.
6: The Kid with a Bike
The many comparisons between the Dardenne brothers’ ‘The Kid with a Bike’ and Vittoria de Sica’s timeless classic ‘Bicycle Thieves’ go beyond the mere fact of both films featuring a bike. Jean Pierre and Luc succeeded in evoking a sense of neo-realism that many thought had been lost to modern cinema, telling a heart-wrenching story of childhood, loss and trust. The camerawork and cinematography possess this amazing lightness to them, evoking a sense that anything is possible in this world of harsh realities. The characters are brilliantly drawn and so empathetic, so it’s little wonder that the performances of Thomas Doret and Cecile de France evoke such raw emotions. Its screenplay is so intricate and personal that never fails to evoke a powerful response from the audience and speaks volumes about its central themes as well as its characters.
5: The Skin I Live In
Pedro Almovodar has always had a fascination with themes of exploitation and taboos. But ironically in what, based on its premise, looked to be his most brutal film is actually his most elegant to explore said themes. Described by its own director as “a horror without scares or frights” it’s certainly a film that defies convention, twisted yet mystical, patient yet thrilling. It may have the dressing of a horror movie but ‘The Skin I Live In’ reaches into the broader territory of existentialism without ever feeling unfocussed or unguided. Its thrills are just as effective as its philosophy, being sure to unnerve the view in one scene and have them pondering on the deep questions in the next. In the hands of anyone else ‘The Skin I Live In’ might implode upon itself, but Almovodar never loses sight of his unique vision and stays true to his own deeply unsettling but masterfully crafted horror story of isolation and obsession.
4: The Raid
If you want a complex narrative and layered characters then go somewhere else. For everyone else, experience what I can confidently label one of the best action films ever made in the form of Gareth Evans’ ‘The Raid’. As well as earning points for being Welsh, Evans marks himself as an esteemed auteur in the field of heat pounding action sequences that defy belief in how frenetic and refined they are. Evans keeps his story and dialogue to a minimum, choosing to convey most of his story beats through visual storytelling and making his fight scenes integral to the story to a point where the action never lets up but also never feels exhausting, one scene just builds upon the next to a point where you think that the next could get any better, but then it does. The result is an astonishing display of genre filmmaking that is not only hugely entertaining but for someone who wants to see a filmmaker in complete control of their genre then you can’t get much better than ‘The Raid’.
Keeping on the subject of narratively sparse films, we come to what must surely be the pinnacle of visual storytelling, ‘Samsara’. It is cinema at its purest and most basic form, a medium beyond language that uses images to tell its story. That story in question is about everyone and everything. It uses its images to compare and contrast different cultures and societies, highlighting their differences but also observing upon their parallels. Filmed over the course of 5 years in 25 different countries, it is a monumental feat of filmmaking and with the level of attention and care put into capturing each new environment that effort only becomes even more apparent as ‘Samsara’ stands as one of the most visually stunning collection of images ever put to celluloid. It’s open to a different interpretation from all who see it but I’m sure everyone will agree that it needs to be experienced on the biggest screen possible.
After the hauntingly powerful ‘Hunger’ in 2008, Steve McQueen managed to do one better with ‘Shame’. It is unspeakably powerful and endlessly empathetic in its portrayal of its characters and their deep seated trauma. McQueen’s method of filmmaking is so subtle yet so resonant that his balance of the two is astonishing, he evokes such a raw intensity from the film through the most effective and almost invisible of methods. Michael Fassbender gives a tour de force as the films painfully damaged main character, one that is made all the more heart breaking when shown alongside Caery Mulligan as his sister whose trauma is just as devastating but underpinned with an unspoken vulnerability. There is an emptiness to the movie that plays to our own sense of existential dread but also a humanity that instead of giving us hope, makes us realise how real these struggles are and how horrifying it truly is.
A balance of style and substance is a difficult thing when you are Nicholas Winding Refn, whose filmmaking sensibilities are so extravagant that they can sometimes detract from the main story. But that is not the case with ‘Drive’ at all, telling one of the most effective anti-hero tales since Scorsese’s ‘Taxi Driver’. Its stunning visuals and tense action sequences are only outdone by its humanity and themes, which are explored to a great extent through both of the aforementioned elements as well as its soundtrack and dialogue. As well as being a compelling tale of redemption, ‘Drive’ stands as a perfect blend between brutality and tenderness. In a hyper stylised display of violence Winding Refn has brought forward a superb character study. Flawlessly framed and composed as well as being soaked in visual flair, ‘Drive’ has all the substance to back up its splendour, especially from its hugely talented ensemble cast. It defies trends and subverts conventions, being a homage to a grittier era of cinema whilst also demonstrating how modern advancements can elevate filmmakers visions. It is artful and ruthless, accessible yet uncompromising and the best film of 2011.