2011 may well have been the Year of the Sprawling Art House. Or, perhaps, the Year of the Comic Book Adaptation. The two genres could not be less alike, but they seemed to dominate the silver screen. With Black Swan, The Tree of Life and Melancholia all falling firmly into the ‘epic, grandiose, art house’ category, and films such as Captain America, Thor and X-Men: First Class representing the ‘slick, stylish, super-hero’ category, 2011 was a case of high vs. low art. Or was it? Black Swan was almost an adaptation itself, of a ballet; and Melancholia was a science fiction about the end of the world. Captain America and X-Men First Class dealt with issues of patriotism and racism respectively. Perhaps films cannot be so clearly categorised. Let’s just call it a Year of Quality Cinema, shall we?
Tangled was a return to form for the ‘Disney Princess’ films, delivered with a pinch of self-parody. It featured a feisty heroine, a thoroughly modern and witty script, and magical animation – and the delight of seeing a kid’s animation with a female protagonist. For all of Pixar’s virtues, boy are they male-protagonist heavy.
A cool, fresh coming-of-age film, Submarine was the directorial debut from Richard Ayoade (Moss from The IT Crowd). Following Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) an outcast who doesn’t even necessarily want to belong, Submarine had a distinctive style, with stark colours and interesting cinematography.
8. Page One: Inside the New York Times
Rarely are documentary makers given such extensive access as director Andrew Rossi as when going behind-the-scenes of the most famous newspaper in the world. Page One is an illuminating investigation into the death of print media, the rise of the internet and the decline in quality journalism.
An understated film that barely registered upon its Australian release, Beginners is a somewhat twee romance and drama, which nonetheless manages to explore the depths of the human heart with wit and warmth. Starring Ewan McGregor, Melanie Laurent and Christopher Plummer, Beginners was a quietly moving film about beginning to live.
6. 127 Hours
Based on the true story of an American man trapped under a boulder in the Utah desert for 127 hours, who eventually escaped only by sawing off his own arm, 127 Hours is just as tense and harrowing as the synopsis suggests. It is gut-wrenching, stomach-churning, nail-biting, and a generally body part-affecting film.
5. Bill Cunningham New York
This documentary manages to paint a touching, warmly humorous portrait of the iconic street fashion photographer Bill Cunningham, and although it doesn’t dare invade his closely guarded privacy, Bill Cunningham is an insightful, special film that shows there is more to fashion than clothes, and more to any individual than meets the eye.
4. The Tree of Life
This sprawling, slow-moving film from Terrence Malick was divisive, but for some patient viewers the film was an emotional and visual masterpiece. Both an intensely personal and existential, extensive film, The Tree of Life was a meditative look at everything from the nature of memories, to the nature of mankind. Brad Pitt turned in an exceptional performance.
3. Midnight in Paris
Midnight in Paris was a surprisingly sweet love letter to the city from Woody Allen, a writer/director best known for his bittersweet stories set in New York. With a witty script, a magic-realism twist and stunning scenery of Paris, the film goes down a treat – like a buffet of French baked goods, with sweet wine for dessert.
Drive was a hyper-stylised, fully-realised arthouse action, featuring a fantastic synth soundtrack and lush cinematography. It cemented Ryan Gosling as one of the best actors of his generation – as if there were even a contentious point – and blended entertainment with originality, high art with low. Drive was a film about what drives people.
1. Black Swan
Black Swan was robbed of the best film title as the Academy Awards earlier this year, and remains by far the best film of 2011. A beautiful and brutal re-imagining of Swan Lake, Black Swan veers towards magic realism, with supernatural themes blurring the line between insanity and reality. A truly exceptional film, in every regard. It missed out on the Best Picture statue, but gets this reviewer’s top spot. Surely consolation enough?