1. Senna (Asif Kapadia)
Like all great documentaries, Senna transcends its nominal subject matter, in the process becoming less of a factual document and more a haunting elegy.
Detailing the fascinating life and tragic death of Formula One racing driver Ayrton Senna, someone who lived his life in the fast lane, Asif Kapadia’s film exposes us to a man who was by turns compassionate and reckless, considered by many to be the greatest F1 racer ever to have lived. The film’s greatest achievement is that one needn’t be a racing fan in order to enjoy it. Senna’s quest for success and his relentless pursuit of his goals carries universal relevance, and the insights into the battles with rival Alain Prost are genuinely eye-opening. Compiled exclusively from archive footage and devoid of platitudinous narration, it’s as passionate a project as we were ever likely to see in 2011. The cars bring the noise, but what really haunts us is the focus on the man behind the wheel.
2. We Need To Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay)
Lynne Ramsay made her long-awaited return to the director’s chair with We Need To Talk About Kevin, following her aborted attempt to get The Lovely Bones off the ground. And what a comeback it was. A deeply unsettling tale adapted from Lionel Schriver’s book, an exquisitely brittle Tilda Swinton stars as a mother forced to scrutinise the tormented bond she shares with her son when he commits a massacre at his school. Riding high on Swinton’s heart-rending performance, Ramsay brilliantly clouds the nature/nurture debate by deftly jumping back and forth in time, filtering the events through the mindset of Swinton’s character and adding troubling layers of subjectivity. Beautifully filmed and brilliantly acted (Ezra Miller as the teenage Kevin is a standout), Ramsay’s ability to expose us to terrifying home truths was unmatched elsewhere in 2011.
3. Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt)
Taking the viewer so brilliantly into the old American frontier that it literally takes the breath away, Kelly Reichardt’s Meeks Cutoff is a tough old slog but rewards patience. Trudging through the dusty wilderness, a group of settlers, led by Bruce Greenwood’s titular character, are seeking the promised land. That is, if they can conquer the landscape itself. Few scenes this year were more heart-stopping than a simple attempt to lower a covered wagon down a ravine but that’s how successful Reichardt is in immersing us in the period. The ever-excellent Michelle Williams heads a top cast doing a lot with very little, and the story later takes on eerie allegorical significance, lamenting the loss of the frontier. A movie with such a keen sense of visceral reality, you almost feel the need to remove the grit from your shoes.
4. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson)
Tomas Alfredson follows up on the promise of acclaimed vampire drama Let The Right One In with his tremendous adaptation of John Le Carre’s novel, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Meticulously adapted by Peter Straughan and Bridget O’Connor, the film transports us back to the grimy, tobacco infested 1970s: the height of the Cold War, in which the very mechanics of spying take precedence over glamour and attitude. An exceptional cast, toplined by a magnetic Gary Oldman, inhabit a smoky, seedy world in which loyalty and betrayal are conveyed with little more than a meaningful sideways glance. If the film is somewhat chilly emotionally, Oldman’s haunting performance pulls us through, and so successful is Alfredson in bringing the period to life that the film is nothing less than a completely engrossing experience.
5. Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen)
Throughout his career, Woody Allen has veered between a pragmatic and an idealistic, even romantic, outlook. It was best summed up in the opening scene of Manhattan, where he self-consciously revised his own narration. It’s therefore delightful to note that the Allen of Midnight in Paris advocates a romantic sensibility above all else -could it be this most neurotic of directors has mellowed over the years? On viewing Midnight in Paris, it certainly seems like it. Owen Wilson inhabits the familiar Woody persona brilliantly as he finds himself transported back to the Paris of the 1920s, a plot device that defies reason but which gives rise to a charmingly understated exploration of nostalgia and philosophy. However, it’s no didactic lecture; more a frothy, refreshing treat, underscored by Allen’s bracing intellect.
6. Rango (Gore Verbinski)
Many animated films subversively sneak in adult themes under the guise of a kiddie-friendly exterior. Rango, however, is that rare beast: animation which caters more for grown-ups than their sprogs. Gore Verbinski’s wonderfully twisted return to form marks Industrial Light and Magic’s first foray into feature-length animation, so it’s no surprise than the film is a visual treat throughout (ace cinematographer Roger Deakins was on-hand as visual consultant). However, backing up the stunning visual design is a diabolically witty script from John Logan, drawing on a plethora of references, from Sergio Leone to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. With a fantastic streak of surreal humour that embraces and parodies the staples of classic westerns, Rango is an off-kilter joy, and boasts a charming vocal performance from Johnny Depp.
7. Thor (Kenneth Branagh)
The most enjoyable blockbuster of the year (although Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol runs it close), Thor benefits from an approach that is neither self-serious nor overly campy. Instead, Kenneth Branagh walks a marvellous tightrope act between respecting the Marvel comics and playing the material for laughs. That a big budget property can be treated with such humility is refreshing, but that’s not to say Branagh skimps on the visual extravagance or excitement. Rather, he’s able to blend a sense of Shakespearean scale with tongue-in-cheek humour, and the performances are terrific, from a roaring Chris Hemsworth in the title role to a serpentine Tom Hiddlestone as the duplicitous Loki. A charming, exciting, hugely entertaining inclusion in the Marvel canon -now all eyes look forward to The Avengers!
8. Submarine (Richard Ayoade)
We all feel awkward during adolescence and in Submarine, Richard Ayoade (making his feature-length directorial debut) captures this feeling beautifully. Adapted from Joe Dunthorne’s book, an excellent Craig Roberts stars as Oliver Tate, the confused teen who aims to lose his virginity and prevent the break-up of his parents marriage. Deploying a multitude of camera tricks, Ayoade renders Tate’s life in self-consciously cinematic terms (let’s face it, many of us like to think of our lives in just such a fashion) before exposing the painful truth: that imagining our lives in terms of artificial reality doesn’t help anyone. Consequently, there’s a quiet poignancy underlying Ayoade’s vision, reflected in the stark Welsh setting and Roberts’ deceptively blank performance. Submarine therefore is no empty exercise in style but a hilarious, touching portrait of what it’s like to be a teenager.
9. Las Acacias (Pablo Giorgelli)
Every year, a film comes along that so completely immerses us in the lives of its characters that it takes on a kind of wondrous quality. In 2010, it was Mike Leigh’s Another Year; in 2011, it’s Las Acacias. German De Silva stars as grizzled long distance truck driver Ruben who transports a woman (Hebe Duarte) and her baby from Paraguay to Buenos Aires. The film draws strength from its minimalism: very little happens outside of the description above, but so well cast are the actors, so expressive are their features, that it becomes unexpectedly gripping. The amount of dialogue in this 80 minute feature would barely fill ten pages of a script, but why rely on words when beautiful close-ups can tell us the history of the characters in a matter of seconds? Rife with undertones of regret, kindness and second chances, Pablo Giorgelli’s film proves the human face is the greatest special effect of all.
10. Hugo (Martin Scorsese)
Elegantly fusing a children’s fantasy story with a heartfelt message about the importance of silent cinema, Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Brian Selznick’s book Hugo is as magnificently crafted as one would expect. The much touted inclusion of 3D is rendered moot when compared to Scorsese’s ability as a storyteller. It’s not the illusion of added depth that draws us in but Scorsese’s passion for the films that inspired him, namely Georges Melies, who plays a key role in this story of the titular orphan boy (Asa Butterfield) seeking to unlock the mystery of the clockwork automaton left to him by his dead father. Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helen McCrory are just some of the stars putting in wonderful performances and fleshing out Scorsese’s vision. That the film is able to inform without being didactic is proof positive of Scorsese’s status as a master filmmaker.