Christmas is a stressful time. Pruning your Christmas card list based on who bothered to send you one last year; dealing with the human tidal wave every time you set foot on the high street (people might not be spending, but they’re still out there looking); trying to avoid eating that first chocolate even though you know it will open the floodgates to more chocolates…
But by far the most stressful aspect of the pre-Christmas run-up is calculating what your favourite films of the year were. It’s an impossible task. But here goes. My top 12 favourite movies released in 2011. Many of these will already be available on DVD.
Ryan Gosling had an amazing year, but although The Ides of March and Crazy, Stupid Love showed him off, this was the film that surely anointed him as one of the most exciting, sexy, subtle actors of our time: as a driver-for-hire in Nicolas Winding-Refn’s superstylised LA-set thriller, Quentin Tarantino-like in its sheer arrogance. Although horribly violent in places, I found it a treat to revisit, and that can’t be said of many movies.
2. A Separation
An Iranian film that pushed back the boundaries of what could be portrayed in a kitchen-sink drama in a still-oppressive country, this was a tantalising glimpse into the world of day-to-day middle-class life in Tehran, in which a couple simply seek a divorce in the face of a patriarchal society. If a film can be a window on another culture, then Asghar Fahardi’s domestic drama is it.
It’s odd to recommend a film that’s violent, harrowing and depressing but actor Paddy Considine’s feature-length directorial debut is not a film you’ll forget easily. Peter Mullan, Olivia Colman and Eddie Marsan are superb as a triangle of damaged souls, whose individual calamities seem insoluble. In the best tradition of British film-making. Perhaps avoid if you find implied violence towards dogs difficult to stomach. (Other notable debuts from British comedic talents branching out were Richard Ayoade’s Submarine, and Joe Cornish’s Attack The Block.)
Arguably Lars von Trier’s best work, certainly his most visually sumptuous; an end-of-the-world disaster movie combined with a Mike Leigh-esque wedding reception from hell. I found it profound and moving, and actually very scary. Best thing Kirsten Dunst has done, too.
5. Animal Kingdom
As if we needed any more proof that the Australian film industry was in tip-top shape, this brooding, tense but thoroughly believable suburban crime drama was a smash hit in Oz in 2010 (released here in February this year) and earned Jacki Weaver, as the Melbourne family matriarch, an Oscar nomination.
6. The Deep Blue Sea
Terence Davies, a unique British talent who stays away for too long at a time, provided the year’s most torridly romantic film in his liberty-taking adaptation of the 1952 Terrence Rattigan play set in bombed-out, postwar London. Rachel Weisz is impeccable, rising star Tom Hiddleston (also seen in Archipelago, Midnight in Paris and, less probably, Thor) looks like a 1950s matinee idol.
7. The Guard
An Irish film in all but funding – and its talented writer-director John Michael McDonagh (brother of Martin) is London Irish by birth – this low-budget, Connemara-set police buddy movie is all heart. Witty and scurrilous by turns, it gives Brendan Gleeson a homegrown role that only he could properly play as a Galway Garda visited by Don Cheadle’s FBI man to help bust a drug ring.
8. Kill List
More horrible violence, but narratively justified in Ben Wheatley’s follow-up to the low-budget Down Terrace, in which two hitmen get mixed up in something far nastier than they imagined. Seems like it was a good year for British, and Irish, cinema, with original talent everywhere you looked. You may need to avert your eyes, at least once. I did.
9. Meek’s Cutoff
I love a modern western, and Kelly Reichardt’s dusty, authentic Oregon Trail fable was the height of visual splendour and languid storytelling. Michelle Williams – also fantastic in Blue Valentine and My Week with Marilyn, and totally convincing as a single-minded settler – might be America’s most reliable screen actress.
10. We Need to Talk about Kevin
Our own Lynne Ramsay made her American debut with this stark and inventive telling of Lionel Shriver’s bestselling novel about the gulf between mother and first-born son. It’s actually a UK/US co-production, and it stars Tilda Swinton, but the subject matter is definitively American: high-school shootings. Ramsay finds beauty amid all the hate and violence.
Documentary of the year, in a crowded field, Asif Kapadia’s skilful and compelling montage of Formula One star Ayrton Senna’s firework-like ten-year Grand Prix career, which ended in tragedy, tells its tale without narration, using only existing footage and spoken testimony. I hate motor racing, and I was gripped.
12. The Tree of Life
With Terence Davies and Terrence Malick back in the same year, somebody is spoiling us. Malick also takes his time between films, but really pulled one out of the hat with an apocalyptic tale that takes us back to 1950s America and uses abstract, scientific imagery to suggest the creation of life and its apparent doom. Heavy stuff, but how nice for US cinema to produce something this challenging.
Mentioned in dispatches: Archipelago; Beginners; Blue Valentine; 127 Hours; Contagion; Pina; The Skin I Live In; Sarah’s Key; Midnight in Paris; 13 Assassins; Salt of Life; X-Men: First Class; George Harrison: Living in the Material World; Black Swan; True Grit; Take Shelter
Worst film of the year: The Tourist