Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, USA)
At first glance, ‘Black Swan’ appears similar to Aronofsky’s previous film, ‘The Wrestler’, with its shaky documentary style and focus on a single struggling performer. But soon enough the film reveals itself as an out-and-out horror film with a fresh treatment of genre tropes (transformation, mirrors and doubling). Perhaps what seals it as not only my favourite film of the year, but my favourite cinema experience, is that I saw it amid a well-to-do North Oxford audience who’d been terribly misled. Many of them were ballet aficionados who saw ‘Black Swan’ following a screening of the Bolshoi Ballet’s ‘Swan Lake’, and seemed utterly unprepared for Aronofsky’s nightmare film, which resulted in an electric tension in the cinema.
The Tree of Life (Terence Malick, USA)
Watching the credits at the end of ‘The Tree of Life’, I felt less like I’d finished watching a film, and more like coming to after a protracted daydream. I struggled at the start, where the structure of the film comprises of tiny snippets of footage, but lost any scepticism during the ‘creation of life’ sequence (and felt that the dinosaurs fitted in perfectly well). After that point the pacing slows and the story becomes more accessible, I think, and I was totally won over. The ending on the beach may have enraged some critics but I thought it was wonderful and that it didn’t compromise Malick’s vision at all.
True Grit (Ethan and Joel Coen, USA)
‘True Grit’ contained some of my favourite suspense sequences that I’ve seen in any film this year. Jeff Bridges may have been wonderful, but I think it’s Hailee Steinfeld that steals the show, and it was great to see Matt Damon tackle something out of his normal range. After ‘True Grit’ and ‘No Country for Old Men’ (and the teeth-grinding awfulness of ‘Burn After Reading’), I’m starting to dread the Coens’ return to comedy.
Rango (Gore Verbinski, USA)
It was the involvement of the Coen’s cinematographer, Roger Deakins, as visual consultant that tipped me off that ‘Rango’ might be a treat. The film pastiches are accurate and funny and all the western signifiers are in place, but I wasn’t prepared for the tightness of the script. All of the key elements are laid out within the first twenty minutes, whereupon the rest of the film plays out satisfyingly. It makes ‘Toy Story 3’ seem rambling and incoherent in comparison. And the creature designs are so gruesome and gormless that it’s hard to imagine anyone involved believed that they were really making a children’s film.
Win Win (Thomas McCarthy, USA)
Yet another reason to hate Thomas McCarthy, director of ‘The Station Agent’ and ‘The Visitor’, respected actor starring in the fifth season of ‘The Wire’ among other things, and by all accounts a very nice man. There was no easy way to promote this midlife crisis/wrestling/parenting tale, but it’s a real shame that more people didn’t get to see this at the cinema.
Tyrannosaur (Paddy Considine, UK)
From the brutal opening sequence to its bleak ending, ‘Tyrannosaur’ is hard to watch, but the moments of humour lift the film from gratuitous misery. Olivia Colman has deservedly garnered lots of praise – her character is introduced with apparent whimsy recalling Colman’s ‘Peep Show’ persona but then changes out of all recognition – but Peter Mullan’s Joseph is equally compelling, in particular in any scenes without dialogue where his suffering is most apparent.
Point Blank (A Bout Portant) (Fred Cavayé, France)
This is the only film on this list that I’ve seen more than once, and just thinking about it makes me eager to see it again soon. At 84 minutes, it’s one of the punchiest action thrillers I can imagine. There may be some plot twists that challenge credulity, but this is a fantastic rollercoaster ride as Gilles Lellouche’s main character becomes trapped in a violent world, making bizarre choices that always seem perfectly logical in context.
Troll Hunter (André Øvredal, Norway)
Another action film that really delivers. Øvredal surprises us by laying out all his cards on the table almost immediately, as it becomes apparent that the trolls aren’t going to be shrouded in mystery, but seen up close throughout. The pacing is surprisingly nimble and the film gives viewers everything they could possibly hope for, with humour, scares, a variety of trolls and some fantastic chase sequences.
The Ides of March (George Clooney, USA)
It’s not quite up there with ‘Good Night and Good Luck’, but ‘The Ides of March’ at least proves that Clooney is dependable at delivering considered, mature political thrillers. Ryan Gosling comes into his own, and the support cast is fantastic, particularly Paul Giamatti and Philip Seymour Hoffman. We saw this at the Nitehawk Cinema in Williamsburg and even the horrendous hotdogs with George Washington sauce couldn’t detract from this excellent film.
Beginners (Mike Mills, USA)
Like ‘Win Win’, this is another film that must have caused headaches for the marketing department. The pre-release emphasis on Christopher Plummer’s character, an elderly father who comes out as gay, suggested an entirely different film. The true focus is on Ewan McGregor’s Oliver, to whom his father’s attitude is just another factor in his wavering indecision about his own life. Mills fills the film with curious touches which add up to create an intimate portrait of his lead character and produce a romantic comedy that feels natural and reaffirming.
Just outside of my top ten of films released in 2011:
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson, UK)
Submarine (Richard Ayoade, UK)
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Rupert Wyatt, USA)
Source Code (Duncan Jones, USA)
And some notable, high-profile disappointments. All of these films make me shiver slightly to recall them:
The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodovar, Spain)
Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen, Spain/USA)
Hanna (Joe Wright, USA, UK, Germany)
The Fighter (David O. Russell, USA)
There are various films released in 2011 that I haven’t yet got around to seeing, including Lars Von Trier’s ‘Melancholia’, the Dardenne Brothers’ ‘The Kid with a Bike’, Terence Davies’ ‘The Deep Blue Sea’, Steven Soderbergh’s ‘Contagion’, Alexander Payne’s ‘The Descendants’, David Cronenberg’s ‘A Dangerous Method’, Steve McQueen’s ‘Shame’, Asghar Farhadi’s ‘A Separation’ and particularly Michel Hazanavicius’ ‘The Artist’, which I’m really excited about.