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To insert a slightly clunky line into a Frank Sinatra classic: when I was 28, it was a very good year. At least, I think so. So often, when I tell a friend or colleague that this has felt like the richest 12 months for cinema-gathering of my admittedly brief career as a film journalist, I'm met with hard Paddington stares or outright opposition. It's been a weak year, I'm told, and I'm handed the slate of current Oscar frontrunners (peppered with unremarkable titles as "The Help" and "War Horse," with only one cracking the list below) as evidence.
Which, well, yes. If a year in a film is measured by its head-prefect awards contenders and multiplex behemoths alone, then 2011 hasn't been the strongest of vintages (even if it doesn't strike me as markedly worse, by those standards, than 2009 or 2010). But like most artforms splintered by the array of options and platforms in the 21st century, cinema now requires a little bit of legwork to find the goods, and dedicated cineastes didn't even have to wade too far into the fringes to find the good stuff: a banner year for British film, a strong showing for American indies and a healthy crop of challenging, festival-grown foreign hits. Seek and ye shall find (and keep).
In short, I liked a lot of films this year. So many, in fact, that the running list of possible Top 10 material was beginning to run worrying long by September, when Venice added its annual donation of treasures. By the time I'd finished playing festival catch-up at the London Film Festival in October, I was beginning to secretly hope I wouldn't love too many of the late-year prestige releases; the thought of what I had to leave out was getting disheartening. It didn't work: earlier this month, a wild card arrived, five years in the making (and waiting), that undid the house of cards yet again. So it was that I decided on a Top 20 instead of a Top 10: still ranked, so the sticklers can stop counting halfway if they wish, but a more rounded reflection of the films that fired me up this year.
Even then, there were painful omissions. I toyed with a Top 25, before realizing that there were enough films to widen the goalposts even further if I let them; a line had to be drawn somewhere. Looking at the list I finally, after much doleful deliberation, assembled below, I can't believe that everyone's favorite foreign-language film of the year, "A Separation" isn't on it: Asghar Farhadi's film is an undenied marvel, and yet there's room in my heart to love more than 20 films this year, believe it or not. (On a side note: I'm surprised that this is the most English-language-dominated year-end list I've yet assembled. Coincidental or otherwise, I suppose it makes a change from French productions topping my list for the last three years running.)
Other films that were all in various drafts of this list at one point or another: "Shame," "Senna," "Pina," "Beauty (Skoonheid)," "Arrietty," "I Wish," "The Myth of the American Sleepover," "Rango" and, yes, "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol." On another day, in another mood, any of them could have made the cut; I can't wait to see each one of them again.
Before we get started, a note for those who are unfamiliar with my year-end lists: I am privileged enough to attend a number of film festivals where I get to see many outstanding films that won't hit U.S. screens until the next year (and, sometimes, beyond). I could wait until the year of their release to include them (which is the perfectly sensible approach that Kris takes), but I choose not to: writing an appreciation of a film nearly two years after I saw it feels false to me, and with many festival standouts struggling to find distribution at all, why not fly the flag for them earlier?
All of which is to say there are a few titles in the Top 20 that you might not yet have had an opportunity to see: please don't think of it as obscure showing-off, but rather as planting a flag for films you should be looking forward to. And with that, here's my Top 20 -- as always, do share your thoughts in the comments.
Directed by Tarsem Singh
In a mostly uninspired year for multiplex fare, only three big, silly blockbusters really rocked me: if "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol" and "The Adventures of Tintin" were a little too machine-tooled to crack the final list, Tarsem's rapturously beautiful swords-and-sandals-and-fetishwear spectacular, however, is sufficiently bonkers to stand as an auteur statement independent of its audience obligations. Reaching new highs in multiplex homoeroticism ("Will you go south with me, or the way of the lady?" Stephen Dorff growls to Henry Cavill), the film's singular styling is as refreshingly unhinged as its mythology.
Directed by Ulrich Köhler
Two European filmmakers hugged their Joseph Conrad volumes close to their chests in new films: the esteemed Chantal Akerman had festival critics doffing their hats with her languid adaptation "Almayer's Folly," but it was the lower-profile Ulrich Köhler who indirectly came closer to the heart of darkness with his structurally jackknifed study of two foreign doctors -- one white, one black -- who respond in radically different ways to the feverish advances of the Cameroonian landscape. My highlight of February's Berlinale, where it won the Best Director award, it's still seeking a U.S. distributor -- here's hoping that changes in 2012. (Longer review here.)
Directed by Michel Hazanavicius
Should the Academy crown Michel Hazanavicius's frisky silent-movie tribute 2011's Best Picture in two months' time -- which I sense they will -- I expect the club of detractors will extend even to some of those critics who were enchanted by its elegant, film-drunk game-playing at its morning press screening in Cannes, days before it became A Harvey Weinstein Cause. Their loss, I say; the film's a lark, certainly, but it's also a thoughtful and heartsore one, mourning departed artists and artforms even as it ultimately, joyously, celebrates the elasticity of it own medium. Cute dog, too. (Longer review here.)
"TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY"
Directed by Tomas Alfredson
I've heard a lot of people complain that Tomas Alfredson's wistfully stately adaptation of John le Carré's knotty espionage novel -- a more evocative and affecting watch than the beloved 1970s TV miniseries, for my money, sticklers be damned -- is impossible to follow. It's not an issue I have, for even if the spot-the-mole puzzle plot had left me behind, it'd still be of secondary importance: this is a film actively about tweed, cigarette smoke and a period fading before its inhabitants' own eyes. As affecting a tale of professional transience, in its own way, as "The Artist," though the final outlook is a lot less rosy. (Full review here.)
Directed by Cary Fukunaga
Contemporary cinema wasn't exactly crying out for another adaptation of Charlotte Brontë proto-feminist Gothic romance, even if the last major go-round, the 1996 Franco Zeffirelli-Charlotte Gainsbourg edition, left room for improvement. Wisely, then, Fukunaga's airily traditional take aimed to be definitive rather than subversive, and squarely hit its target with bang-on casting (Mia Wasikowska's just-askew beauty is ideal, while Michael Fassbender's rough dourness balances his sexed-up taked on Rochester), astute rejigging of the familiar narrative and Adriano Goldman's exquisite pastel-and-gold lensing, its embrace of natural light keeping it fresher than any postmodern tinkering might have.
Directed by Lars von Trier
From "Contagion" to "Kaboom," "Take Shelter" to "Another Earth," filmmakers in 2011 seems determined to announce the end of world as we know it. That it fell to Lars von Trier to formally bring on the apocalypse was hardly surprising; that he did so with one of his most lyrically ruminative films to date, with nary a clitoridectomy in sight, was perhaps a little more unexpected. Its diagnosis of humanity cleverly filtered through a see-sawing character study of two sisters who may as well be named Depression and Anxiety, brilliantly played by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Kirsten Dunst, "Melancholia" is a silent alarm that couldn't have been more misleadingly advertised by the requisite media furore surrounding its maker. (Full review here.)
Directed by Gerardo Naranjo
"That could be a crossover hit," I remarked to a colleague as we left a screening of Naranjo's blazing formalist drug-cartel thriller, a commendably cool Oscar submission from Mexico, only to be met with a look of gentle pity at my cluelessness. "Are you kidding?" he said. "It's genre fare for people who think Michael Bay made 'Gomorrah.'" He may have been exaggerating (though the film didn't do much business in the UK), but I know what he's getting at: in this bristling study of a young woman's unwitting recruitment into underworld wars, Naranjo daringly ratchets up urgency by slowing the pace, spitting furiously at Mexican authorities all the while. (Full review here.)
Directed by Justin Kurzel
I know at least one entirely respectable critic who had to leave a screening of Justin Kurzel's icily claustrophobic true-crime thriller, which lays out the improbably domestic origins of Australia's most notorious serial killer, to be sick. I like to imagine that's less due to its admittedly gruelling but intelligently measured violence than its overwhelmingly oppressive prefab-suburban atmospherics. Eitherway, it's a testament to the riveting control wielded by debut helmer Kurzel, not to mention devastating work by a mostly non-pro ensemble, that the critic in question actually came back: I couldn't have left if I'd tried. (Full review here.)
Directed by Julia Leigh
A distinctly frosty reception greeted Australian novelist Julia Leigh's compulsively precise debut film on the opening night of the Competition at Cannes, though even that couldn't match the impressive chilliness of the film itself: a ruthlessly calm deconstruction of the very personal politics of fucking, its every frame appears to have been assembled with tweezers. That startling auteurist austerity only makes the emotional chaos inside the head of protagonist Lucy (an astonishing Emily Browning), a directionless girl whose yen for human feeling leads her into an unusual brand of prostitution, all the more evident, not to mention upsetting. (Longer review here.)
Directed by Alma Har'el
It's been an invigorating year for documentaries, not that the Academy's typically safe-playing shortlist in the category would have you know it. Israeli-American video artist Alma Har'el's feature debut is the most striking non-fiction statement left off (or indeed on) the list: a freeform study of manifold bruised-and-broken lives in the eerie virtual no-man's-land of California's Salton Sea, the film is unafraid of aestheticizing feeling, which isn't to say that it shies away from it. "A doc can dance," has been Har'el's mantra in promoting this heartbreaking hybrid, wild with music and symbolism: purists may demur, but her subjects seem eager for the light. (Full review here.)
Directed by Andrea Arnold
"Love is a force of nature" ran the tagline for Andrea Arnold's uncompromising new take on the Emily Brontë chestnut -- the year's second Brontë adaptation to use simple, literal fresh air to resuscitate a text, though to markedly more aggressive effect. It may have been stolen from "Brokeback Mountain," but it wears well on a film that exposes the primal nature of Heathcliff and Cathy's truthfully unromantic romance by equating them with the elements: breathtakingly shot in the Academy ratio by Robbie Ryan, this is the rare literary film that finds a new visual and aural turn of phrase, buffeted by a howling Yorkshire wind, for the source's every word. (Full review here.)
Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev
A crisp, cruel comedy of manners that admittedly isn't very funny at all, Zvyagintsev's third feature is the film I've found myself most strenuously recommending to undecided festival attendees, not least because it won't be landing on arthouse screens for a while yet. (It opens in the U.S. in May.) It's been a tough sell, though. Those not turned off by the promise of a study of a middle-aged woman in moral crisis might still be wary after the dour disappointment of the director's last film, "The Banishment," to which the fine-bone-china delicacy, economy and wit of his latest, the cinematic equivalent of Chekhov short story, couldn't be a sharper tonal about-face.
"WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN"
Directed by Lynne Ramsay
In its own way as exemplary a cinematic reappropriation of literary source material as "Wuthering Heights," Lynne Ramsay's searing adaptation of Lionel Shriver's unlikely bestseller -- a worst-case parenting scenario tinged with post-Columbine era panic -- succeeds by making every decision a standard prestige filmmaker wouldn't: eschewing voiceover (and, frequently, dialogue) where the novel's epistolary nature instructs otherwise, bravely soaking the screen in red where more timid symbolism might do, her filmmaking bravado happily refuses to buckle to a peak-form Tilda Swinton. It simply can't be nine years until Ramsay's next film. (Full review here.)
"DAMSELS IN DISTRESS"
Directed by Whit Stillman
Continuing the theme of too-long-absent auteurs, Whit Stillman's gleefully daffy campus bauble, his first feature in a criminal 13 years, is the first out-and-out laugh riot to crack one of my top 10 lists since 2008. Does that make it my favorite comedy of the last four years? Quite possibly. There's no one in American cinema at the moment who writes quite like Stillman: his complexly structured, patiently planted gags, as literate on the subject of academic etiquette as on the spiritual properties of anal sex, equal Woody Allen at his loosest. And if it took him this long to find a star as tuned into his wavelength as the never-spryer Greta Gerwig, so be it. A release date hasn't been set yet, but you'll feel a little warmer whenever it lands. (Longer review here.)
Directed by Céline Sciamma
In a year when a number of major releases focused on the often underestimatated emotional crises of childhood, none rivalled Sciamma's exquisite, ideally scaled miniature -- at a compact 80 minutes, neither overworking nor diminishing its protagonist's drama -- for compassion, perspicacity or, indeed, reach. The sexual and gender insecurities of a pre-teen girl over a single summer would appear to be a dangerously fragile subject for film treatment, yet, aided by an alert, resourceful lead performance by newcomer Zoé Héran, Sciamma artfully avoids assumptions about her past or future, appreciative of all the directions this uncertainty could lead.
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
The Oscar-nominated critics' darling "Dogtooth" may not have been director Yorgos Lanthimos's debut, but his follow-up, "Alps," still had 'difficult second album syndrome' stamped all over it from a distance: following the stark allegorical nature of his breakthrough, Lanthimos has headed into headier, still more cryptic territory, both structurally and thematically, for his latest. In mapping the inevitable chaos that occurs when an enigmatic group offers a relative-replacement service for bereaved families, the film splits narratives as nervily as its characters split identities. The results could descend irretrievably into murk, but Lanthimos keeps a tight leash on his delicious absurdities: it's a cool formalist freakout that somehow made me want to call my family. (Longer review here.)
"MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE"
Directed by Sean Durkin
"Alps" would make one hell of a double feature with "Martha Marcy May Marlene," another brisk meditation on the alternate selves that ultimately shadow and threaten their unhappy inventors, and the most assured and searching debut in a year of many. That last tag could apply with equal aptness to writer-director Sean Durkin or actress Elizabeth Olsen, whose open, never-quite-readable face does much of the legwork in this ingeniously structured, deceptively unfussed horror film about a cult escapee trying, with limited success, to deprogram herself in the presence of her bewildered sister. "Settles upon you like a slow strangle," I wrote after my first viewing; seven months later, I haven't shaken it off. (Full review here.)
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
"I won't lie to you, I pretty much want to have sex with this movie," I tweeted after seeing "Drive" late in the Cannes Film Festival, the pop-fuelled sugar rush of Nicolas Winding Refn's hot, clipped, nasty fast-car thriller having impeded any more profound insights. Two viewings later, I have yet to find a better way to describe how the film makes me feel: there's an inclination among some critics to distrust immediate sensual pleasure, and I've heard many complain that there's nothing beneath the surface of "Drive," as if its surface, wrapped up in an all-purpose crush on Los Angeles, Walter Hill movies and Ryan Gosling himself, isn't explicitly what this gorgeous gut-punch is about. (Full review here.)
Directed by Kenneth Lonergan
This time last year, I wouldn't have believed that I'd be in a position to consider "Margaret" for any 2011 list at all, much less that it'd be a fierce contender for the #1 spot. (It's been flip-flopping with the next film for the past month, believe you me.) Miraculously, what emerged from the ashes of creative blockage, editing conflicts and legal disputes wasn't just the interestingly scarred sophomore feature we cautiously hoped for from Kenneth Lonergan, but a fully-fledged phoenix of a movie: masterfully dramatized and performed, raging with love and hurt and fury, structuring the aftermath of a single traffic accident as a self-seeding spider-plant of sorrow, and somehow offering the most profound reflection on post-9/11 New York City into the bargain. And we thought we had it good with "You Can Count on Me." (Longer review here.)
Directed by Andrew Haigh
There were plenty of films in 2011 that announced their humane intentions and social currency with more volume and grandeur than Andrew Haigh's wry, raunchy, finally shattering study of an extended one night stand between two very ordinary Nottingham blokes, but nothing this year has felt more like a quietly emphatic landmark. Homosexuality isn't a condition to be evaluated and processed by either the characters (played, in the year's most beautifully welded two-headed performance, by newish faces Tom Cullen and Chris New) or the audience: the chief takeaway here is that love is no more or less elusive, exciting or mundane for gay men than for anyone else. The acute attention to detail of Haigh's writing is mirrored by his crisp, sponteneous shooting style: even its most intimate pillow talk belongs expressly in the cinema.
And there you have it: a 20-film playlist that doesn't just evoke memories of a very nourishing year at the movies for me, but, I feel sure, will provide me with repeated pleasure and provocation on smaller screens in the future. All in all, I feel so good about this year that I'm not inclined even to consider a Worst of 2011 list (consider this my gesture of Christmas charity to Madonna), so here's a recap of the best:
4. "Martha Marcy May Marlene"
7. "Damsels in Distress"
8. "We Need to Talk About Kevin"
10. "Wuthering Heights"
11. "Bombay Beach"
12. "Sleeping Beauty"
14. "Miss Bala"
16. "Jane Eyre"
17. "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy"
18. "The Artist"
19. "Sleeping Sickness"
And finally, since I know my "If I saw it in 2011, it's a 2011 film" approach irks some list purists, here are my top 10 U.S. releases of the year:
3. "Meek's Cutoff"
4. "Certified Copy"
6. "Martha Marcy May Marlene"
8. "We Need to Talk About Kevin"
9. "Cold Weather"
10. "Bombay Beach"
For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter.