In 2011 the big screen resembled a rearview mirror more than ever before. The death of originality has never been more evident: 2011 saw a record 27 sequels, including eight of the 10 top-grossing films. On the other hand, the box-office champ, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, was a rousing finale that pointed to a positive trend: flashes of convergence between Hollywood muscle and creative nerve. Tabloid dad Brad Pitt showed us the actor behind the celebrity with superb performances as utterly different fathers in Moneyball and The Tree of Life. And it was a thrill to see movie stars take risks in both Tree and Melancholia, two cosmic visions of humanity that tried to bust poetry out of the arthouse. Even 3D acquired some class, bringing prehistoric art to life in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, and uncovering the magic of early cinema in Hugo. Between Hugo and the silent black-and-white delight of The Artist, film went far enough back to reclaim some of its vanished pedigree.
I’ve compiled 11 personal favourites for 2011. Strong contenders that missed the cut include Le Havre, Café de Flore, A Dangerous Method, Bridesmaids, The Trip, 50/50, Attack the Block, War Horse and Martha Marcy May Marlene. And some of the best performances were not always found in the best films: Michelle Williams in My Week With Marilyn, Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady, Michael Shannon in Take Shelter and Michael Fassbender in Shame. At press time I had yet to see a couple of titles.The list has since been revised online since its publication in Maclean’s.
1. The Tree of Life. With Avatar-scale ambition, Terrence Malick takes ’50s nostalgia all the way back to the Big Bang. Grounded in intense performances by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, this boy’s-eye view of Paradise Lost is ecstatic, evocative and sobering. It restores faith in cinema’s power to enlarge the moment and touch the divine.
2. The Descendants. Surfing tears of laughter and grief, Alexander Payne finds the perfect wave. Giddy melancholy! George Clooney is a shambling cuckold with a wife in a coma, two unruly daughters, and a family land deal to finesse. Watching him try to keep his balance is a treat, as Payne does for Hawaii what he did for pinot noir in Sideways.
3. A Separation. Asghar Farhadi’s drama about feuding spouses, an elder with Alzheimer’s and a skittish caregiver is a narrative marvel, mined with a covert critique of Iran’s patriarchy. It’s a miracle it even got made.
4. Moneyball. The odd-couple act of Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill has the crack timing of a double play. Baseball nuts adored this true story of a game-changing underdog, but it’s even better when you don’t know how it ends.
5. The Artist. Finally, a French movie that doesn’t need subtitles. Silent and black-and-white, it’s the year’s most unlikely crowd-pleaser—a clever, charming romcom about star-crossed stars at the dawn of talkies.
6. Melancholia. Depression weds apocalypse at the end of the world. Lars von Trier’s images are full of aching beauty, as Charlotte Gainsbourg bares raw emotion and Kirsten Dunst plays Truth or Dare with the camera.
7. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Nordic noir redux, deluxe edition. David Fincher upgrades the Swedish novel—and film—in a fluid feat of procedural spit and polish. Daniel Craig lets Rooney Mara lead in note-perfect tango.
8. Drive. Ryan Gosling is the silent, smouldering samurai—a getaway driver who hotwires the moll next door (Carey Mulligan). Firing narcotic suspense with bursts of psychotic violence, Nicolas Winding Refn navigates L.A. noir with a neo-Tarantino road map.
9. Margin Call. Of various movies that tried to occupy Wall Street (In Time, Tower Heist), J.C. Chandor’s first feature, about an investment bank shooting the falls of the financial crisis, hit the mark. Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Irons lead a great ensemble cast.
10. Hugo. A Scorsese kids’ flick sounds like a cruel joke. But using 3D magic to restore the lost films of Georges Méliès, Hugo pulls a cinephile rabbit from a Hollywood hat.
11. Pina. Like a military technology fall into civilian hands, 3D has found a new home in the art house. Wim Wenders planned his mesmerizing 3D tribute to choreographer Pina Bausch even before Avatar. It may revolutionize the documentary.