I’m a big fan of top ten lists and their assorted brethren (best of this, top twenty that, pre-mortem 1001 something or other). They don’t have the best of reputations these days, thanks to cynical examples such as 1001 Golf Holes You Must Play Before You Die and the omnipresent TV fodder that counts ITV2’s upcoming #tweets of the year amongst its latest crop, but if you can sort the wheat from the chaff (and DN is, of course, wheaty indeed) they can often prove to be the gift that keeps on giving as you work your way (as I do – OCD-geek-systematically) through them.
Having said all that, this is the first time I’ve compiled one of my own, so cue childlike excitement along with a few glaring regrets over films I didn’t manage to see (Drive: I know – I’ve let you down, I’ve let Ryan Gosling down, but most of all I’ve let myself down; and The Artist: technically not released yet, but still – I could’ve done better), and a couple of awkward oddities that deserve a mention despite failing, for one reason or another, to squeeze into my ten (Animal Kingdom: would’ve been way up there, but thanks to early festival screenings Team DN Top Ten 2010 beat me to it; and Submarine: it won’t go down as one of the greats, but has nonetheless set a crucial precedent for British film in the stylish idiosyncrasy stakes).
Regrets, oddities and excitement aside, these are my top ten films of 2011…
10. Pina – Wim Wenders
It doesn’t trumpet the unexpected arthouse wonders of 3D in the same way that Cave of Forgotten Dreams manages to, but the mesmerising mix of dance and documentary that Wenders weaves is gracefully hypnotic and absolutely unique. It had me googling Bausch and dance and Sadlers Wells for hours afterward.
9. The Tree of Life – Terrence Malick
The number one on everybody’s lips at the moment, it seems. I missed the cinema release and only caught it in humble home HD, which may explain why I wasn’t truly blown away. There’s no denying it’s quite a piece of work though – deep, abstract, beautiful and complex. It has a sense of the forced magnum opus about it, but because Malick is Malick it doesn’t land very wide of that mark.
Read the DN review of The Tree of Life.
8. Tomboy – Céline Sciamma
A powerful evocation of childhood and the endless hazy summers that go with it, Sciamma’s follow-up to Water Lilies ripples with prepubescent echoes of Boys Don’t Cry, but is handled with such a delicate touch and an eye for detail that it almost lulls you into being ten again.
Read the DN review of Tomboy.
7. Jack Goes Boating – Philip Seymour Hoffman
All the depth and crackling dialogue of a brilliant play, adapted splendidly for cinema – both behind and in front of the camera – by Philip Seymour Hoffman in his directorial debut. This is a tight four-hander that maintains its focus on character and story whilst exploring some interesting visual territory – a simple, honest human drama, no bombast required.
Read the DN review of Jack Goes Boating.
6. Margaret – Kenneth Lonergan
One of the most cynically under-publicised greats of the year – a 150 minute teen odyssey on an epic, operatic scale that meditates comprehensively on grief, youth, life as performance, and the development of the self. Detailed and all-encompassing, almost novelistic in depth and reach, this is a sleeper hit that subtly plays itself out and then lingers in the mind for a long while after.
5. Little White Lies – Guillaume Canet
An ensemble exploration of friendship that offers up a genuine slice of life – the highs as well as the ugly selfish lows. Tender, tragic, funny and most of all very real, this is a detailed and recognisable insight into the ‘middle’ of life (class, age, essence) in all its comfort and directionless confusion.
4. We Need to Talk About Kevin – Lynne Ramsay
A masterpiece of adaptation and film language, this is the dark, brooding brother of Malick’s The Tree of Life – an abstract collage of images that gradually builds to form a complex narrative. Lynne Ramsay uses every tool in the modern cinematic arsenal to create a truly sublime trip from the textual tangle of Lionel Shriver’s source novel.
3. Rabbit Hole – John Cameron Mitchell
John Cameron Mitchell balances the offshoots of the imagination with the harsh realities of parental grief with exquisite care. This is an oddball of a film, but no less brilliant, nor agonisingly true, because of it.
2. Black Swan – Darren Aronofsky
A heady, breathtaking rush of a film that blends all the grit and gristle of The Wrestler with the precise spectacle of ballet and live performance. An experience not to be missed, not least for its heart-pounding finale.
1. Shame – Steve McQueen
A subtle, sophisticated deep-dive into sex, in all its shame and glory. You’ll struggle to find a less gratuitous, and yet utterly unflinching, treatise on carnality in the history of cinema. McQueen choreographs this difficult dance, of so many traditionally polarised elements, with a masterful command of nuance, and in doing so has quietly, unassumingly, created a modern paragon of film.