Going over the list of films released in 2011 that I saw (which does not include the dozens from film festivals that may or may not be released), it was an excellent year for me. Narrowing my list down to 10 films was almost impossible; hence another 10 honourable mentions at the end, and that too was almost impossible. But narrow it I must.
I chose my top three films on the basis of pure emotion: each elicited one overwhelming feeling from me and sustained it. That is why we go to movies, read books, look at art, etc. And that's why I chose them.
1. The Artist
To call this film simply a love letter to the silent film era is selling it far too short. It is a love letter, but it is so much more. It is the perfect kind of pastiche: despite its narrative homage to films such as 'A Star is Born' and 'Singing in the Rain', it is entirely its own story. Even in the silent, black and white film era, no film like this existed. It proves that you do not need big name stars, special effects or things blowing up to enjoy a film. To watch it, is pure joy. If you do not leave the theatre wanting to dance, you have no soul.
2. The Last Circus
As soon as Santiago Segura's clown-in-drag drew his sword and ran slicing through a crowd of enemy soldiers, my jaw dropped and didn't close for the rest of the film. Alex de la Iglesia's films have always been audacious, but this is his great opus, a grand opera of a film that glories in extremes and its metaphor of Spanish history. I've always found clowns a little scary, but they take on epic proportions in this film, the accumulation of de la Iglesia's filmic examinations of fear, horror, love, sex, and extremities. This is the crown jewel of his career.
This film is like a proverbial punch in the stomach: it batters you down with the weight of pain and revenge and yet you cannot look away. Adapted from a stage play, the story of Nawal (played by the astonishing Lubna Azabal) and her journey through personal disintegration in the midst of civil war in Lebanon, the journey on which she sends her children after her death to find their long-lost father and brother, is harrowing, draining, and unmissable. Gorgeous cinematography is a terrifying contrast to the drama of the story.
4. We Need to Talk About Kevin
Continuing with family disintegration themes, Ramsay's adaptation of Lionel Shriver's novel about a woman's examination of her role as mother to a mass murdered is raw and prompts as many questions as it attempts to answer. Is there such a thing as mothering instinct? Can we blame the parents for the sins of the child, or are some children just born bad and there is nothing that even the most well-meaning parent can do? As usual, Tilda Swinton delivers in spades as the mother now left to ponder her shattered life and what she, as mother, must do in the wake of her son's crime.
What Harold Pinter is to the pause in playwriting, Steve McQueen is to the long take in film. He takes to unblinking, painful heights of such discomfort that he seats the viewer at the table with siblings Brandon and Cissy as they dissect their relationship, and Brandon attempts to escape his sexual addiction. This could be about any kind of addiction, but the sexual variety makes the audience pause, as what could be wrong with enjoying lots of sex? Plenty, it would seem, when it is far from enjoyable. Michael Fassbender again proves why he's likely the best actor of his generation by showing a man nearly destroyed by his own pain and volatility.
6. Meek's Cutoff
Reichardt's film is part of a new wave of Westerns, ones that focus on characters previously neglected, examine the harsh realities of a landscape that does not yield easily to human hands, and where survival is not a given just because one has a gun. By shooting in 4:3 aspect ratio (as oppose to widescreen), Riechardt removes the landscape as the primary vision and keeps the characters tightly together. Between Bruce Greenwood's harsh and deceptive cowboy, Michelle Williams' strong settler wife, and Rod Rondeaux's taciturn native, the sense of enclosure, powerlessness, and struggle make for a work of quiet brilliance.
7. Wuthering Heights
Instead of the usual adaptation, director Andrea Arnold's film is an interpretation of the famous Bronte novel, and an extraordinary and daring one at that. She strips away the layers to reveal the beating heart of the novel: the isolation of Heathcliff and the primal love shared between him and Catherine, reflected in the barren Yorkshire moors. Arnold frequently shoots directly behind Heathcliff's shoulder, forcing the audience to see what he sees, and more importantly, how he is seen. This is an unsterilized and passionate film, that seeks the truth hidden in the dirty corners of the landscape and human behaviour.
8. Another Earth
Director Mike Cahill and co-screenwriter and star Brit Marling create a very intimate science fiction film, one that looks at the more philosophical side of the consequences of space exploration and knowledge, and the very real consequences of terrible mistakes. The duality of the immenseness of a second Earth and the weight of guilt, loneliness and grief on the first earth, told with cameras hidden in the shadows as if the audience were watching from a chair in the room, give a sense of immediacy and tenderness in an impossible situation.
In another in the new wave of Westerns, Mateo Gil's film is a study in minimalism and landscape both outside and in. Imagining the possible later years of Butch Cassidy, with Sam Shepard returning to the screen in fine form, the film is elegant in its lack of pretentiousness and gorgeously photographed, without resorting to effects or gimmicks. It haunts the viewer with the vastness of the Bolivian wilderness and the sad history of exploitation, regret and reflection.
James Gunn's tale of a short order cook to going to extremes to get his wife back from the hands of a drug dealer is outrageous and audacious. Just when you think it won't cross the line, it sprints over with glee. Not for the faint-of-heart, and featuring a top-notch cast (with Ellen Page almost stealing the film,) it is a daring look at our obsession with heroes and power, and the clever script revels in its unhingement of one man's fragile and vulnerable psyche.Honourable Mentions: Melancholia, Midnight in Paris, The Skin I Live In, Take Shelter, The Future, Thor, Submarine, The Adventures of Tintin, We Are What We Are, A Horrible Way to Die