Better late than never, this is the inevitable look back at the filmic year 2011 in an arbitrary ranking of personal favourites. Many other lists I’ve read in the last weeks praised 2011 as a year of so many great films that it was hard to narrow it down to just ten. I felt the opposite way, having a hard time to even come up with ten films that justify the label “best” or “favourite” (at least Dana Stevens felt the same way).
Note that this list goes by German cinematic release dates (hence the inclusion of some nominal 2010 films) and that many of the movies in everyone else’s list haven’t been released yet in Germany (e.g. The Artist, Drive, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Hugo etc.). As always, I also simply didn’t get to see some of the films that were released and so wasn’t able to rate them, like A Separation and Winter’s Bone.
1. Cave of Forgotten Dreams
When I visit a cinema, some part of me is always out there, looking for that sense of wonder that drew me to movies in the first place: a flush of awe and excitement about the world on the screen that tingles down my spine. There have been very few films in the last ten years who managed to create this feeling. I admire Werner Herzog as a maverick film maker, but I cannot say I have really been a fan of his actual work so far. Cave of Forgotten Dreams changed this. From the moment its first three-dimensional images of the beautiful paintings in the Cave Chauvet appear onscreen, there was magic happening in the cinema and I, for one, was completely enchanted by it. Add to this Herzog’s philosophical ruminations and his quixotic coda about albino crocodiles and I came out of the theater thinking that I very probably just saw my film of the year.
2. 127 Hours
I have always admired Danny Boyle for his ability to convey his stories with visceral images. 127 Hours, the fiendishly clever construction of “an action movie about a guy who can’t move” pits about 15 minutes of visual representations of absolute freedom against over an hour of claustrophobic imprisonment. And new freedom can only be obtained by self-mutilation. The film stayed with me for a long time, even though I didn’t buy the DVD.
3. Black Swan
If nothing else, Black Swan is a stunning visual feat. But Darren Aronofsky’s film also manages to marry the seemingly sublime beauty of ballet with horror from the darkest aspects of the soul, and that’s what makes it so powerful. As usual, Aronofsky is as unsubtle about this as he can be, but sometimes cinema needs this unsubtlety to keep you locked in your seat.
4. Midnight in Paris
Woody Allen’s most successful film in decades didn’t really hit me until several weeks after I had seen it. Of course I laughed at the depictions of cultural icons that seem almost like a big humanities scholar in-joke parade, I admired the staging of Paris as a city and I agreed on critics’ assessment of Owen Wilson as a succesful Allen surrogate. But what really stayed with me was the film’s central thesis about the relativity of nostalgia. If every time has another time it nostalgically looks back on, because life was apparently so much better then, the converse argument can only be that we should, in fact, be looking ahead instead. This feeling of discarding nostalgia for prospect, coupled with the feeling that something big is going to happen is probably the most memorable thought that I will take with me from 2011.
Melancholia fed right into the aforementioned idea I took away from Midnight in Paris. Even though Lars von Trier’s film has enough flaws that have been mentioned elsewhere, I simply loved his intellectual exploration of “How would you react if global doom were upon you” coupled, as usual, with images designed to club you insensible to that intellectual exploration. Add to that the reading of the film as a reflection on depression, and you’ve earned a spot on my list.
6. The Adventures of Tintin
Screw the uncanny valley. I’m more than willing to let my complaints about it go, if someone presents me with a film that is simply so beautiful to look at and so well-constructed, clever and exciting. Nevermind that it is also overcrowded with story and setpieces, suffers from more exposition than the book of Genesis and might actually have worked better in key frame animation. For once, I’ll ignore all that and simply enjoy myself.
7. The Tree of Life
I cannot really bring myself to actually like this film. For many critics, the dreamlike retelling of a childhood was what made the film great. To me, this part didn’t speak at all. I grew tired of distraught faces staring into the distance while a whispered voiceover churns out platitudes. But I do admire Terrence Malick for his bombast and the sheer audacity of harnessing the power of cinema like no one else would dare to. That sequence with the birth of planets and the wacky dinosaurs? That was awesome as hell.
I can only repeat what so many other critics have already written: female-centric, broad and character-driven comedy that had me laughing more than any other film this year. You don’t need a long explanation why it made it onto this list. It simply deserved it.
9. The Ides of March
I saw three films based on stage plays this year. Of those, only one did not feel like a play. Instead, George Clooney renders his talkative scenes in soft images that somehow express the yearning for the honesty and beauty that the films narrative of political manipulation so aptly deconstructs. Clooney did this before in Good Night, and Good Luck, a film I also loved, and it proves to me once again, that he is a very talented director that will probably, one day, be compared to Clint Eastwood more often than he wants to. (The other two were Carnage and A Dangerous Method)
10. Jane Eyre
Cary Fukanaga’s adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s novel is a very classic one, but maybe that’s why I liked it. I enjoyed the starkness of the landscapes in which it is set, the quiet determination of Mia Wasikowska and the fiery eyes of Michael Fassbender, the effortless, sweeping camera and Dario Marinellis score. Maybe not a film that will be talked about in ages to come, but a moviegoing experience that somehow managed to stick with me long enough to convince me of its place in this list.
The Guard would have been at number ten, if I hadn’t decided at the last minute to make at least one leftfield choice for the list. I probably laughed as much as I did in Bridesmaids and the film might even have the better staying power and a one-of-a-kind central character. But somehow, it just didn’t lodge itself into my subconscious strongly enough.
I enjoyed Thor immensely. I thought it was well-directed, funny and full of strong characters. Captain America, which most critics found somehow more interesting, however, I found dull and superficial. There is no explanation for these things.