In what was a solid if not spectacular year for films, I find myself unable to nominate – for the third year running – a #1 favourite film. Call it a cop-out (I'll pay that) but I've listed, in alphabetical order, 10 films I really enjoyed, connected with and, in some cases, truly loved in 2011.*
And with some of those, I've mentioned another film which shares similarities and I'd suggest checking out, as well as an Honourable Mentions list for films that I also enjoyed but just missed out on a place in the 10.
As always, feel free to question my choices but also to provide a list (not necessarily as many as 10) of your own favourite films of 2011.
*Note: lists are compiled from films released in Australian cinemas between January 15, 2011 and January 15, 2012.
For mine, the funniest film of 2011. Yes it’s overlong but then what wedding isn’t? Writer-star Kristen Wiig’s female buddy comedy put the men to shame this year, disproving the ridiculous theory that women aren’t funny. Bridesmaids was also a terrific showcase of female talent, with Melissa McCarthy the standout.
Special Mention: The Help. Not a comedy but a wonderful female ensemble which I'm not ashamed to say, brought me to tears both times I saw it. Jessica Chastain, Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis all deserve awards attention.
Arguably the coolest film of the year, Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s homage to the cars and heist B-films of the ’80s was assisted greatly by Cliff Martinez’s score and Ryan Gosling’s intensely quiet performance.
MIDNIGHT IN PARIS
Rejuvenated by a change of locale, Woody Allen’s delightful paean to nostalgia, as well as the titular City of Lights, was one of the year’s gems. An impressive cast – Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Kathy Bates, Adrien Brody, Corey Stoll, and a luminous Marion Cotillard – brought Paris, of 2011 and the 1920s, to wondrous life.
Only the tiniest, blackest of hearts will fail to be charmed by the big screen return of The Muppets. Using that hoary old chestnut of “putting on a show”, Kermit, Miss Piggy and the rest of the gang sing, dance and joke their way through a film that will have adults regressing into childhood and leaving the cinema with a smile on their face and a song in their heart. Opens January 12.
My favourite documentary of 2011 looked at the relationship between man and beast, and found man to be seriously lacking. A 1970s experiment to teach chimps sign language went from good to bad to nightmare for Nim Chimpsky, the chimp involved, when his humans ignored his inherent nature and then abandoned him when it outed and the funds expired. James Marsh's doco was an eye-opener and a heartbreaker.
Special Mention: Rise of the Planet of the Apes. One of the year's biggest surprises, this prequel/reboot was smarter than expected, helped greatly by one of the best performances of the year: Andy Serkis's Caesar.
Easily the best animated film of 2011, Gore Verbinksi’s tale of a chameleon (voiced by Johnny Depp) suffering an identity crisis was a film buff’s delight. Owing a great debt to Polanski’s Chinatown, and a great many Westerns, Rango boasted a distinctive look and a structure as ornery as many of its characters.
A serial killer film made all the more scary for being based on fact: the infamous 'bodies in the barrels' murders in South Australia. Debuting director Justin Kurzel created a sense of dread and foreboding, while Daniel Henshall's chilling portrayal of killer John Bunting was one of the year's best performances and the stuff of nightmares.
Special Mention: We Need To Talk About Kevin. A similar sense of dread pervades Lynne Ramsey's nightmare of a domestic nature, starring an as-always terrific Tilda Swinton. Kevin made one seriously rethink their views on parenthood.
The best Steven Spielberg film of 2011 wasn’t by that director at all but by fan and one-time assistant, J.J. Abrams. A smartly crafted homage to the early works of Spielberg (particularly E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind), Super 8 was a kids-and-aliens film with a lot of heart – and a helluva lot of flare lensing!
Special Mention: Attack The Block. The other kids-and-aliens film of 2011, Joe Cornish's debut feature was made on the catering budget of Super 8 but was super impressive just the same.
THE TREE OF LIFE
Did any other film polarise audiences so much this year? Most critics loved Terrence Malick's first film in seven years (and just his fifth in 40 years) but the general public were less enthused. Some walked out, others wanted to. But those who stayed – and stayed openminded – were treated to something beautiful and rare. In relating the creation of the universe and the meaning of life with a 1950s Texas family, Malick's grasp may have exceeded his reach but I'd prefer that to the alternative.
A remake of the John Wayne classic was made wholly original thanks to the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, and leading men Jeff Bridges (in the Rooster Cogburn role) and Matt Damon. But the real star was young Hailee Steinfeld, making her film debut as the determined Mattie Ross. One of the best LEAD performances of the year.
Barney's Version, Beginners, Bill Cunningham New York, The Fighter, Hugo, Oranges and Sunshine, Source Code, Submarine, Take Shelter, Win Win.