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The 10 best movies of 2011

December 22, 2011

It's been an interesting year in film. But in all frankness it's been somewhat disappointing. Nevertheless, it's a distillation of a year in film that I broadly liked, but didn't particularly love in any deep way.

Whittling the list down was strangely difficult as a result. That said, there were a few gems, and 10 stood out from the pack this year. The bulk of these films, deal with intense internalisations, bottled up characterisations, a lot of deep currents betraying ripples on the surface. But here you go, here’s to a brighter and better 2012.

10. The Help Directed by Tate Taylor

The Help stars Emma Stone as Skeeter, Viola Davis as Aibileen and Octavia Spencer as Minny — three very different, extraordinary women in Mississippi during the 1960s, who build an unlikely friendship around a secret writing project that breaks societal rules and puts them all at risk. From their improbable alliance a remarkable sisterhood emerges, instilling all of them with the courage to transcend the lines that define them, and the realisation that sometimes those lines are made to be crossed-even if it means bringing everyone in town face-to-face with the changing times.


9. MONEYBALL Directed by Bennett Miller

Bennett Miller's "Moneyball," from one of the year's best screenplays, will be a consistent watch for years to come, but given that it was Aaron Sorkin, it’s no surprise. Brad Pitt stars as Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A's and the guy who assembles the team, who has an epiphany: all of baseball's conventional wisdom is wrong. Forced to reinvent his team on a tight budget, Beane will have to outsmart the richer clubs. The onetime jock teams with Ivy League grad Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) in an unlikely partnership, recruiting bargain players that the scouts call flawed, but all of whom have an ability to get on base, score runs, and win games. It's more than baseball, it's a revolution — one that challenges old school traditions and puts Beane in the crosshairs of those who say he's tearing out the heart and soul of the game.

8. THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN Directed by Steven Spielberg

The "animated" aspect of Steven Spielberg's one-two punch this year is a dazzling experience, full of the director's trademark cinematic energy. It's his best film in a long time. The experience put a smile on my face and kept it there. It's Spielberg invigorated, the performance-capture and animation process allowing him to do things with the camera that he had only dreamed of, conjuring angles and set-pieces that surely have existed only in his head for decades, but now have the freedom to run wild on the screen. The film is simply a landmark of visual conception, briskly paced, assured in its capacity to entertain.


7. A SEPARATION Directed by Asghar Farhadi

Asghar Farhadi’s “A Separation” is a masterful piece of work that will be with me for a very long time. On the surface it is about the fallout of an Iranian couple headed for divorce, but side-tracked by a tragic accident that leaves the husband tangled in a judicial web. On a deeper level it’s about so much more. Call it “divorce and its discontents,” because it is, ultimately, a study of parenthood and integrity and situational decisions that impact the impressionable, as well as a portrait of a region, boiled to an essence. The film features a number of expertly tuned performances and the humanity of Farhadi’s work, its skillful grace, is incredibly moving.


6. THE RUM DIARY Directed by Bruce Robinson

It’s 1960 in San Juan, Paul Kemp (Depp) has just arrived to work at the San Juan Star, run by a cantankerous editor (Richard Jenkins), who takes one look at Kemp’s bloodshot eyes and warns him to lay off the liquor. Fat chance, so long as Kemp is rolling with the colourful likes of world-weary photographer Sala (Michael Rispoli) and wild eccentric Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi), who likes to experiment with narcotics and listen to old recordings of Hitler’s speeches. It might have done poorly at the box office, but I still felt it was one of the better movies of the year.


5. SHAME Directed by Steve McQueen

The story of Steve McQueen's "Hunger" follow-up, "Shame," is Michael Fassbender’s remarkable performance as a sex addict with a dark past that is only vaguely addressed on the page, allowing the actor to indicate with subtlety and precious strokes. Once again, McQueen utilizes long takes to allow his actors to explore under the harsh gaze of the camera. But the technique, perhaps more than his previous effort, even, becomes a tool for navigating the viewer. The effect goes beyond mere observation, ushering us, without cheap manipulation, into a character’s mindset.


4. THE ARTIST Directed by Michel Hazanavicius

What audacity to make a silent film in black and white in 2011, and what a film Michel Hazanavicius has made! Jean Dujardin won the Best Actor award at Cannes for his work as a silent star who is cast aside with the advent of the talkies. His career is rescued by a young dancer (Bérénice Bejo) he was kind to when he was at the top. This film is many things: Comedy, pathos, melodrama. For many people, this will be their introduction to silent movies, and cause them to reconsider if they really dislike black and white. It's an audience pleaser, and many in the audience won't be expecting that. It also seems to be leading the year-end lists of award nominees, and could even become the first silent film to win an Oscar as Best Picture since "Wings" in 1927.

3. Midnight in Paris Directed by Woody Allen

A fabulous daydream for American lit majors, Woody Allen's charming comedy opens with a couple on vacation in Paris. Gil (Owen Wilson) and Inez (Rachel McAdams) are officially in love, but what Gil really loves is Paris in the springtime. He's a hack screenwriter from Hollywood who still harbours the dream of someday writing a good novel and joining the pantheon of American writers whose ghosts seem to linger in the very air he breathes: Fitzgerald, Hemingway and the other legends of Paris in the 1920s. By (wisely) unexplained means, each midnight he finds himself magically transported back in time to the legendary salon presided over by Gertrude Stein. He meets Scott and Zelda, Ernest, Picasso, Dali, Cole Porter, Luis Bunuel and, yes, "Tom Eliot."  Kathy Bates makes an authoritative Miss Stein, and Marion Cotillard plays Adriana, who has already been the mistress of Braque and Modigliani, is now Picasso's lover, and may soon fall in love with Gil. Nicolas Winding Refn is the most exciting filmmaker working today, offering an invigorating injection of originality in the cinema landscape.

2. THE TREE OF LIFE Directed by Terrence Malick

Heavily anticipated for a number of years, "The Tree of Life" is director Terrence Malick’s epic endeavor. Paradoxically, it is also his most intimate. It is a film, which love it or hate it, makes its way inside you and, if you allow as much, forces you to consider it. It asserts that, despite the intense drama of everyday circumstance, that plight is but a spec in the perspective of the greater cosmos around us. That theme mingles with a Malick standby: man's capacity for violence and impulse as well as love and compassion. They are themes Malick has flirted with throughout his career, but here he aims to reconcile them with the great unknown.


1. HUGO Directed By Martin Scorsese

In the guise of a delightful 3D family film, Martin Scorsese makes a love letter to the cinema. His hero Hugo (Asa Butterfield) had an uncle who was in charge of the clocks at a Parisian train station. His father's dream was to complete an automated man he found in a museum. He died with it left unperfected. Rather than be treated as an orphan, the boy hides himself in the maze of ladders, catwalks, passages and gears of the clockworks themselves, feeding himself with croissants snatched from station shops, and begins to sneak off to the movies.

His life in the station is complicated by a toy shop owner named Georges Méliès. Yes, this grumpy old man, played by Ben Kingsley, is none other than the immortal French film pioneer, who was also the original inventor of the automaton.

Without our quite realizing it, Hugo's changing relationship with the old man becomes the story of the invention of the movies, and the preservation of our film heritage. Could anyone but Scorsese have made this subject so magical and enchanting? I'm not one of those flays against 3D but it is usually an unnecessary annoyance.  The way Scorsese employs it here is the best use of it since James Cameron’s Avatar.

The writer is a reporter for