Review of 2011: My Top 40 Movies of 2011

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And that’s it, another year gone. For the third time in four years, the number of films I saw in the cinema was in three figures, but thanks to attending two festivals and also working away from home a lot, when the cinema became the only activity to occupy the little spare time I had, this was a record year for me, and one which I believe will never be exceeded by me. But then again, I’ve said that twice before.

So just a few quick stats to start you off before we get into the full list. I sat in a cinema 166 times watching a film in 2011, beating my previous record by 25. Two of these were second viewings of films, due to seeing them with different groups of people – Rango just missed out on this list, and the other made it to the list at number 32. Four films I saw were released in cinemas significantly prior to 2011 and I saw as re-releases or at those festivals, which leaves a grand total of 160 films that were released in or about 2011 that I saw in a cinema for the first time. This list is the top 25% of those 160. (For an explanation of why this is a top 40, see the start of last year’s list.)

I made one attempt to catch up with a film I’d missed in the cinema, buying Kill List on Blu-ray earlier this week, then spectacularly failing to find time to watch it before the year ran out. There were a few other films which might have been in the list, but you just can’t get to everything. This list includes, but isn’t exclusive to, the likes of Hugo, The Deep Blue Sea, Archipelago, George Harrison: Living In The Material World, The Interrupters, Dreams Of A Life, Gasland, Life In A Day, Mysteries Of Lisbon, Margaret, Poetry, Pina and Tucker And Dale Vs Evil. But for all that, I still believe this is a pretty solid list, and would definitely recommend you catch any of these if you’ve not already seen them.

40. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

A very late entry into the list, David Fincher’s rather too immediate version of Stieg Larsson’s first in the Millennium trilogy suffered by comparison to the original. Despite many of the individual moments and the overall film-making skill being better in this version, the let-downs were Rooney Mara, who while great just wasn’t as good a Lisbeth as Noomi Rapace, and the pacing and storytelling construction; taking a film with a confused ending which ran well over two hours, an odd mix of Swedish and English (in print, not just the accents) and confusing the ending even more in a version 20 minutes longer were the deciding factors in the “which version is better” argument.

39. I Saw the Devil

Gaining a little notoriety for the heavy violence which denied it a full cinema release (and consequently the reason I made a trip all the way to London to see it on the only screen in the country showing it), the other factor to affect perception of I Saw The Devil was that it’s a South Korean thriller with revenge themes, and Oldboy has set a standard in that field against which all others will be compared for years to come. While not quite up to that gold standard, I Saw The Devil still had enough going for it to make it a worthy watch, and genuinely pulled at the emotions at times, although it was not for those without a strong stomach.

38. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

Apparently Tom Cruise is an action star again, and all is forgiven. Proving that there’s still life in the old dog yet, a central set-piece that was a cross between Spider-Man and Die Hard on steriods and more of a generally lively tone and good humour than any of its predecessors, M:I-GP (which sounds oddly like a light aircraft rather than a film) ended up being the best Mission so far, if you can overlook the bizarrely sentimental coda. Even more impressive if you managed to catch it in IMAX, where you could genuinely feel all of the 130 stories that Tom Cruise would have fallen had the wire snapped.

37. Tangled

The year’s best animated movie was the 50th from the Disney stable, and had a refreshingly old-fashioned feel to it in places. As with many Disney films, the animals almost stole the film out from under the humans, even if in this case the horse and the chameleon weren’t allowed any dialogue. Donna Murphy was a memorable Disney villainess and it was great to hear Alan Menken’s music back in animation again. It is with great regret that I didn’t even bother seeing Pixar’s effort this year, and I’m praying that Brave and the Monsters, Inc. prequel will see a return to form next year.

36. Bombay Beach

A fascinating documentary about one of the poorest communities in America was elevated in an unexpected manner. Yes, if you look at the IMDb page for Bombay Beach, you’ll see it’s described as Documentary | Drama | Musical, and it’s the choreographed song and dance elements that sprinkle a dusting of magic over the honest portrayal of three sets of lives on the Salton Sea. Thankfully the more unusual artistic choices don’t overbalance as they are used sparingly and effectively and Bombay Beach turned out to be one of the year’s best docs.

35. Rise of the Planet of the Apes

This simply shouldn’t have worked. Taking a concept which was butchered spectacularly by one of America’s finest film-makers not ten years ago and replacing the men in highly realistic suits with men in leotards covered in ping-ping balls to be later replaced with CGI, Rupert Wyatt made possibly the best Apes film since the classic original, made Tom Felton a more effective bad guy than the Harry Potter films ever did and gave us yet another reason to bemoan that the Oscars don’t recognise acting achievements if they’re from Andy Serkis and his accompices Weta, and it worked an absolute treat.

34. Senna

Asif Kapadia’s documentary about the life and (spoiler) death of Ayrton Senna, legend in his own lifetime and whatever’s-more-than-a-legend in his death, was a triumph of a powerful narrative woven out of archive footage and interviews, which held slightly less power for me than it did for others thanks to my familiarity with the story at the time. Somehow watching Formula One has always felt a little ghoulish since, but Senna was a little cathartic in that sense, and a fitting tribute to the life of perhaps the greatest star the sport had ever seen.

33. Benda Bilili!

The true power of Benda Bilili! was in making the disability of most of its members, and unlikely stars, feel almost incidental. Watching these men and boys fighting every adversity placed in their way, supported by the film makers in attempting to get their music heard, the combination of their their empowering story and their music, a mix of rumba, rhythm ‘n’ blues and reggae had me wanting to dance in the aisle, their infectious enthusiasm practically leaping off the screen in a way that would put many 3D films to shame. (I was then gutted to discover I could have heard Staff Benda Bilili play live not half an hour from my house.)

32. X-Men: First Class

After Matthew Vaughn and Bryan Singer had both turned their backs on Fox and the X-Men franchise, the only sensible thing to do was for them to get back together and give us the first film since the first two worthy of the brand. Great performances from McAvoy and Fassbender which reminded of their predecessors without resorting to imitation, some stunning set-pieces and a couple of throwback cameos, it was the best in a satisfying string of summer blockbusters with the Marvel name up front.

31. Dimensions: A Line, A Loop, A Tangle Of Threads

One of the most charming films of the year, the product of two creatives from the film industry (one a production designer, one a composer, with credits ranging from Harry Potter to Six Feet Under between them) who decided to fund their own venture into film making and produced a Twenties time-travel movie that felt like the love child of a period drama and Back To The Future, and one which had inherited the best characteristics of both its parents. Well received at the Cambridge Film Festival and a fine example of what can be done with a little money, a lot of effort and a fair amount of inspiration.

30. Snowtown

One of two high-profile Australian movies, this was based on the real life story of John Bunting, Australia’s most prolific serial killer, and it was the most emotionally and physically brutal of the two, but somehow gave slightly less in terms of dramatic satisfaction. Claustrophobic at times and difficult to the point of being unwatchable at others, it still packed enough of a punch in its own terms as a film – when you remember at the end that this was based on true events, it becomes all the more shocking. I’ll never be able to look at an ice cream van in the same way again.

29. Submarine

The directorial debut of geek icon Moss off of the IT Crowd, Richard Ayoade, and proof that the British film industry is in fine form, even if this entry wore its French and American influences a little too clearly on its sleeve to be truly great. Still, Craig Roberts and Yasmine Paige were one of the year’s great screen couples and Paddy Considine was deliciously sleazy and the soundtrack, featuring songs from Arctic Monkey Alex Turner, was one of the year’s best. Can’t wait to see what Richard Ayoade has for us next.

28. TrollHunter

The found-footage schtick is going to wear thin sooner or later, but this Norwegian take on it in the form of a documentary about troll hunting had enough dry humour and well-judged impressive special effects to make another trip to that well justified. The troll design was sufficiently well thought through to give variety to each encounter but there were as many good moments when the trolls weren’t front and centre. To any prospective writers or directors, though, I think we’ve had enough of the found footage format now. (Expect at least half a dozen more examples in 2012 if Hollywood is as predictable as normal.)

27. Melancholia

Say what you like about Lars von Trier, because he’ll probably say what he likes about you. What came out of the director’s mouth somewhat overshadowed what came out of his cinema brain this year, which is a shame as Melancholia has a powerful effect on at least two of your five senses. The opening sequence might have a power that the rest of the film occasionally struggles to live up to, but one of the most effective and strangely obtuse discourses on the nature of depression you’re ever likely to see.

26. Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Forget your epic space battles and giant fighty robots, the definitive use of the 3D format this year was from an eccentric German film-maker and documentarian who also made an appearance on The Simpsons. I’m not saying that shots of 30,000 year old cave paintings and a self-styled experimental archaeologist knocking out tunes on a bit of bone unequivocally demanded 3D, but the shots of the Chauvet cave with all of their contours and curves were absolutely stunning, and Herzog’s more eccentric moments (albino alligators, anyone?) helped to enliven the moments that weren’t taken up with breathtaking views of the cave.

25. Hanna

There’s a reason that this modern-day fairytale from Joe Wright might not have gathered a big audience, and it can be clearly seen in the photo; when you have Tom Hollander running around with blonde hair, a yellow tracksuit and a strange accent, it’s no wonder that Hanna was something of an acquired taste. For those who acquired it, though, Hanna had plenty of delights in store, and even ramming the point about fairy tales home with scenes set at the Brothers Grimm’s house didn’t diminish the fun of Saoirse Ronan and Eric Bana doing some ass-whooping and Cate Blanchett camping it up royally.

24. Tomboy

There was a risk that Tomboy might have come across as a teenage version of the Hilary Swank starrer Boys Don’t Cry from a few years back (the first time I ever cried in a cinema, so a few scars there), but this French tale of adolescence managed to be much lighter and fresher without shying away from difficult situations. Smart touches abound in the way that Laure deals with becoming Mikael to her / his new friends, and Tomboy is an excellent study of the difficulties of the transition from childhood to adolescence.

23. Biutiful

Alejandro González Iñárritu is getting a reputation of something of a miserabilist, based on previous laughter fests including 21 Grams and Babel, and Biutiful took that to a new level. Without Javier Bardem’s brilliant performance at its heart, Biutiful could have been unbearable or at the least unwatchable, but Bardem brought humanity in the face of the his character’s terminal cancer and his attempts to bring resolution to the various strands of his life. Did I mention that I’m extremely excited about Bardem being a Bond baddie later this year?

22. Moneyball

I quite like baseball – although it’s no cricket, is it? – and I love statistics, but Moneyball isn’t, at its core, a film about either. It’s about being willing to take risks and about creative thinking, but it’s also about the benefits of man management and at times feels more like a stock market film than one about baseball. Jonah Hill might be pretty much playing a dialled down version of himself, but Brad Pitt does some of his best work and a few shiny trinkets on the mantelpiece in the next couple of months would be the least he deserves. Having its cake and eating it, though, Moneyball still drops in a sports sequence to rival the climax of any sports film.

21. The King’s Speech

A film that, if it actually had veins and arteries, would have awards potential coursing through them, it’s easy to forget that The King’s Speech is actually a cracking film. At the centre are two towering performances from Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush, but there’s a lot to admire around it, not least the Anglo-Australian accent exchange programme (Guy Pearce and Jennifer Ehle, and how nice it was to see her back on the big screen regularly last year) and the plethora of other historic figures that by necessity fill in the story. Congrats to Colin Firth for finally getting the recognition that his performances of the last few years have deserved.

20. Never Let Me Go

Like a Who’s Who of up and coming British acting talent, Never Let Me Go serves as an excellent reminder of how good they all actually are. What I didn’t see coming was that, despite all of the acclaim being laid on Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield for their performances here and elsewhere, it’s the occasionally maligned Keira Knightly that’s on top form. A fascinating premise is deftly handled by Mark Romanek from Alex Garland’s screenplay. I would strongly recommend avoid doing what I did, though, and watching it back to back with Biutiful; a test of the strength of even the most positive optimist.

19. TT3D: Closer to the Edge

While Senna has received most of the critical acclaim, the best documentary of the year was based on two wheels, not four. Reasons why TT3D had the edge over Senna? Partly the footage, which as it was filmed for the documentary had the edge in capturing the thrill of hurtling round the Isle Of Man at 200 miles an hour, partly the pathos – somehow the tragedy of the lives risked and lost seems even more poignant here – but also the star of the show, rider Guy Martin, mad as a box of frogs and given free rein to charm you with his ramblings. Another shining example of how 3D seems to be more at home in the documentary than it does the feature film.

18. We Need to Talk About Kevin

Lynne Ramsay disappeared for seven years, and part of that time was taken up with a failed attempt to bring Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones to the big screen; based on the evidence of this literary adaptation, she would likely have come up with something much more interesting than Peter Jackson ultimately managed. Tilda Swinton is at the centre and puts in a gripping turn, and if you overlook the slightly miscast John C. Reilly then there’s barely a false note throughout. Don’t take another seven years to make another please, Lynn.

17. Warrior

I can remember hearing the first word of mouth reviews of Warrior, and was genuinely surprised that it seemed to be getting raves across the board. Then I saw it, and worked out why; while Moneyball might be the antithesis of everything that the traditional sports movie represents, then Warrior takes sports movie stereotypes long past their sell by date and gives them a fresh spin. Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton were both utterly committed, Jennifer Morrison and Nick Nolte were excellent in support, and somehow amid all of the clichés I genuinely couldn’t call the outcome.

16. Le quattro volte

The most unusual cinematic relay race you’re ever likely to see, Le quattro volte (or The Four Times to give it an English translation) is a story of a man, a goat, a tree and a pile of charcoal, with each story connecting in ways that suggest something mystical about the cycle of life and nature. Running the full range of emotions from humour to despair despite being almost entirely dialogue free, and filled with remarkable imagery and a single take on a hillside which delights and astonishes in its composition and execution, Le quattro volte was one of the year’s most unexpected treats.

15. Black Swan

I was expecting, based on prior word of mouth, to be pulling the patented Joey Tribbiani face of pleasure whenever two women engage in a sapphic act. What I wasn’t expecting was the expressions of the rest of the audience, mainly composed of teenage girls and their mothers who had unwittingly wandered into a psychological horror. They might not have appreciated the gradual transition into insanity of Natalie Portman and some of the brutal imagery now, but hopefully they’ll be able to come back to it one day, as Black Swan is worth a lot more than a single watch.

14. Source Code

Two years ago, Duncan Jones announced his arrival as a film-maker of note with his debut feature, Moon. If you’ve not seen it, then you may also have missed his latest work Source Code, which if anything improved on the original with a bigger budget and greater emotional resonance. Two years ago, Duncan Jones… sorry, it’s easy to get stuck in these time loops once you get started. An excellent match of high concept, great performances and Jeffrey Wright auditioning to be a smaller black Brian Blessed. Two years ago…

13. Midnight in Paris

Two years ago (last one, I promise), you wouldn’t have thought Woody Allen had another good film in him. But just as he revitalised himself briefly a few years ago with a move to London, a trip to Paris seems to have brought out the best in Woody Allen. Not only that, Allen films often stand or fall on whether the person being the Woody Allen avatar is a good Woody or not, and here Owen Wilson is an excellent substitute, wandering round Old Time Paris with a mixture of delight and confusion plastered all over his face. Let’s all hope against hope that this isn’t a one off.

12. Neds

Peter Mullan’s tale of growing up in Scotland is one of a number of coming of age stories on this year’s list; if there’s any element of truth in the kind of childhood that John McGill went through, then I’m quite glad I didn’t grow up north of the border. Excellent performances from a young cast, some striking imagery (thanks Jesus) and possibly my favourite final image of any film in 2011, which I won’t spoil here. I will admit to having had a very slight struggle with the cast iron dialects at the very beginning, but Mullan does well enough with plot and structure that the odd word missed here or there won’t detract too much.

11. Weekend

Pretty much everyone on the face of this earth has been or will be involved in a relationship at some point in their life, so why is it normally so difficult to portray relationships convincingly on screen? All the more impressive that Weekend, the first feature film from Andrew Haigh, makes this look so utterly effortless. It’s a British film in the vein of Before Sunrise (Before Monday?), a sort of encounter in briefs if you will, and manages to be charming and fulfilling without ever feeling the need to resort to stereotypes or glib moralising. Hopefully all involved will go onto extensive careers in the next few years.

10. Tyrannosaur

Paddy Considine’s had a fairly varied career on screen, working with everyone from Shane Meadows to Paul Greengrass via Edgar Wright, and his directorial debut (inspired by an earlier short film called Dog Altogether, also featuring Peter Mullan and Olivia Colman) shows him to have a voice all his own, while calling to mind some of the other greats of British drama of the past few decades. Unlike some other films this year where the domestic violence becomes too painful to watch, Mullan and Colman create characters that you simply can’t take your eyes off, no matter what happens to them, and that remains true to the end. I just hope 2012 is a better year for dogs in the cinema than 2011, and especially Tyrannosaur, turned out to be.

9. A Separation

I normally have some as many grumbles about the selections for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars as I do about almost every other category, but this year I’m hoping that the best film will come out tops, as it’s been appearing frequently on critics’ best lists at the end of 2011. The acclaim is well deserved, as A Separation has been described quite fairly as almost Hitchcockian in its construction and demeanour, but manages to overlay that on a thoughtful and complex portrayal of the lives of an Iranian family on the verge of division and the other families that intersect their lives. This is one movie that doesn’t look for easy answers, but manages to retain its moral and structural richness without compromise.

8. Animal Kingdom

Normally the awards season is packed with cries of “The British are coming!” but it’s been a good year for the Aussies this year, too. Although there were a couple of familiar faces in the cast with the likes of Guy Pearce, Joel Edgerton and Sullivan Stapleton, but it was a standout ensemble across the board and if A Separation had a feel of Hitchcock to it, then Animal Kingdom could stand toe to toe with the best work of Scorcese and not be embarrassed. Full of surprises and the odd twist and turn, this tale of Melbourne crime families thrilled and gripped in equal measure and hopefully writer / director David Michôd is another name to watch out for in the next few years.

7. Super 8

I think JJ Abrams was born in a light house. That can be the only explanation for his two most overused motifs; the lens flare, which made Star Trek look as if you were watching it through a prism, and the new affectation developed in Super 8, the crane shot, which must be a side effect of going up and down a tall, narrow building so often. However, these appear to be his only two flaws; his storytelling remains exemplary and this was a true 21st century addition to the great ensemble kids films of the Eighties. Cloverfield meets The Goonies? Fair enough, although it was more focused than the former and a shade more mature than the latter. The actual short film that the characters make playing out over the end credits is worth the price of admission alone, though.

6. Take Shelter

This is the point in the list where I reach films I consider to be 10/10 – I had seven last year and one less this year. This first top scorer might be one of the most controversial choices on the list, with an ending that’s likely to enthral as many people as it infuriates, but the beauty of it is that it’s open to interpretation. What’s likely to appeal universally is the quality of the performances, Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain both being astounding. I also never thought, in this lifetime at least, I’d give 10/10 to a film with Colin and Greg Strause’s names in the credits, but the effects here are subtle, sparingly used and help to ramp up the tension at the most appropriate moments.

5. The Guard

Two manky hookers and a racist dwarf? That’ll be In Bruges, from Martin McDonough, but it seems he was the polite one in the family. Martin’s a cuddly, fluffy bunny compared to potty mouth brother John Michael, who was just as blunt and profane when I saw him in person at a Q & A, and he’s poured all of that into the most politically incorrect script you could possibly imagine. While that would on its own be great, what elevates this above the level of In Bruges (yes, it’s that good) are Brendan Gleeson’s weathered performance, his double act with the wonderfully deadpan Don Cheadle and a genuine poignancy mixed in to the laughs. The ending will also leave you contemplating just how clever the script was.

4. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

I’ve tried playing Fantasy Football a fair few times over the years, but I always seem to end up with a team that’s more Conference South than top of the Premiership. If I was attempting to put together a line-up of fantasy actors, though, I’d be very pleased if I had a line-up half as good as this. Every single one of the cast puts in a top draw performance, it’s bound together with wonderfully understated direction from Tomas Alfredson and despite the Seventies colour palette, every frame feels like an artwork. When Colin Firth’s barely only in the top 5 great things in your movie, you know you’ve done something really right. Alec who again?

3. True Grit

I love the Coen Brothers. It feels like they’ve been making films just to suit my eccentric tastes for the past 20 years. The oddest thing though, is that I’ve never had much of a fondness for Westerns, so the fact that my two favourite Coen films are now both Westerns of sorts is just the sort of oddness that would appeal to them. Not only that, but this is another adaptation of another writer’s material which just feels as if they composed the dialogue themselves, but they’ve complemented it with some sumptuous visual stylings, especially the elegiac prologue and the sentimental ending which avoids any sort of the neat convenience that only exists in movies. Add Hailee Steinfeld to the list of people I’m hoping to see again in the next couple of years as well.

2. Drive

There’s been very little that seems to have united critics and the general public alike this year. Those that have seen it seem to have loved The Artist, but there’s few films that appear on almost every top 10 list. The film of the year of both Empire and Total Film magazines this year, and also appearing on a large proportion of other lists, was Nicolas Winding Refn’s urban epic. It’s the perfect fast car, stripped down to the bare essentials, totally dangerous and possibly bad for your health but stylish and iconic all the same, with a roaring, pulsing soundtrack the equal of any finely tuned engine. (Expect to see men in scorpion jackets at movie fancy dress parties for years.) It wouldn’t be possible without Ryan Gosling’s mannered performance or Carey Mulligan’s doe-eyed grace, but while it has the trappings of another modern-day fairytale it feels just a shade more cynical. It will define action movies for the next five years, and in lesser hands that can only be a bad thing.

1. Confessions

Drive is at or near the top of pretty much ever list of the top films of 2011. Confessions is on barely any of them. (Credit to Mostly Film for being one of the few exceptions.) There’s a good chance you haven’t even seen it – it was on in roughly three cinemas, and I just happened to be in the vicinity of one of them. If I hadn’t seen the last showing of the day, I would have walked out and bought another ticket, for Confessions was, by some distance in the end, my favourite film of the year and the only one I’ve seen to which I would attribute true classic status.

On the presumption you’ve not seen it, Confessions is the story of a school teacher who, in the process of instructing her class one day, reveals that she believes two of the class to be responsible for the recent death of her daughter. As they are too young to be prosecuted for the crime, she has exacted her own punishment; the school milk of the two pupils has been laced with HIV, thus imparting a slow acting revenge. The film explores the motives and motivations of the two students, and slowly an intricate web of revenge is revealed through the various confessions of the participants.

So what makes Confessions so special? The plot is labyrinthine, but has the feeling of the best murder mystery writers and the only modern equivalent I can think of is Christopher Nolan in terms of the ability to ground a complex narrative so effectively. There are also favourable comparisons to be made to the likes of Rashomon in terms of the differing perspectives. The cinematography by Masakazu Ato and Ashushi Ozawa is spellbinding and is perfectly complemented by the soundtrack, featuring the likes of Radiohead and The XX as well as bands closer to the Japanese home of the film. And not a moment is wasted, from the creeping tension of the initial school room confession to the killer last line. Full of striking imagery and well-constructed narrative twists, Confessions has a dark soul but revels in that darkness and embraces it to the fullest effect without ever resorting to the most violent excesses of its J-horror cousins. For every single sublime frame of this dark delight, Confessions is my film of 2011.

7 thoughts on “Review of 2011: My Top 40 Movies of 2011

    […] Oscar world.) But, as much as I love the Muppets, I think the odds of this list providing three of my top 10 of the year are non-existent. Hopefully March will be better, with the Julia Roberts Snow White comedy movie by […]

    […] Scenes, Performances and even Gingers, and the traditional (two years is a tradition, right?) Top 40 of the […]

    […] of my favourite parts of putting together this list over the past three years (see also 2010 and 2011) has been to find the images to go with it, in each case not picking the first picture to come up […]

    […] past few years, from Oldboy to The Host and The Yellow Sea, but the fact that Confessions was my favourite film of 2011 sits as something more of an anomaly in my viewing habits. I bought a batch of around 40 DVDs from […]

    […] Drive. You really liked Drive, didn’t you? Yes, I did too, putting it number two in my Top 40 of 2011. So Nicolas Winding Refn’s new film has got Ryan Gosling in again. So yes, you’d expect […]

    […] The Top 40 Movies Of 2011 […]

    […] My Top 40 Movies Of 2011 WINNER: Confessions […]

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