1. Lipstikka (dir. Jonathan Sagall). Brilliantly constructed film that plays with time, memory, and personal history with performances that are thoroughly engaging and convincing, though unpredictable.
2. In Our Name (dir. Brian Welsh). This British movie was so intense that I still can’t stop thinking about it, two months after seeing at Pacific Cinémathèque’s EUFF. Joanne Froggatt stars as a soldier returning from Iraq to the challenges of a young daughter who won’t speak to her, a husband who gets insanely jealous, and her mounting PTSD. Despite the serious themes the movie is not unpleasant to watch; every scene is perfectly executed.
3. Footnote [הערת שוליים] (dir. Joseph Cedar). This likely will get an Oscar nomination for foreign-language film; it is an intelligent, engaging family comedy-drama set in academia. A large part of what makes this film great is its playful style that is perfectly suited to the content, the quick edits and on-screen clever narration are something that many directors have been experimenting with recently but usually unsuccessfully; Cedar incorporates it perfectly: the film is highly enjoyable while raising philosophical issues about the nature of knowledge and the recognition of academic work.
4. Source Code (dir. Duncan Jones). This film won’t get the recognition it deserves because it is science fiction, but the story is compelling and the script is absolutely brilliant. As I wrote earlier in this blog, Jake Gyllenhall is fantastic in the starring role, and the supporting cast are some of the best new actors of the last few years: Michelle Monaghan (from Gone Baby Gone), Vera Farmiga (from Up in the Air), and Jeffrey Wright (from Syriana).
5. Play (dir. Ruben Östlund). This Swedish movie had me wanting to say “holy fuck” all the way through.
6. Tyrannosaur (dir. Paddy Considine). Standout performance by the great Peter Mullan.
7. Color of the Ocean [Die Farbe des Ozeans] (dir. Maggie Peren). I saw many films last year about illegal migration to Europe; this one (set in the Canary Islands) was far and away the best. It avoids all clichés and gives its characters some sympathetic, believable ambiguity.
8. The Co(te)lette Film (dir. Mike Figgis). I’m not generally a fan of dance and especially not of dance movies, but this one at VIFF had me entranced from beginning to end.
9. The Kid with a Bike [Le Gamin au vélo] (dir. Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne). Of course the Dardenne Brothers are great, Cécile de France is great, and the young Thomas Doret is great. Not much more to say.
10. One Day (dir. Lone Scherfig). I guess this is the most mainstream movie on my list so far, but the director is Danish so it shouldn’t be a surprise. And I love movies like this which set limitations for themselves in terms of structure, especially relating to the passage of time. I would expect this to get a few Oscar nominations, particularly Patricia Clarkson, Anne Hathaway, and David Nicholls for the screenplay based on his book.
11. Twilight Portrait [Портрет в сумерках] (dir. Angelina Nikonova). To plagiarize myself: Angelina Nikonova’s début feature Twilight Portrait is rivetting even though its scenes of humiliation, hardship, and sexual violence are so raw and realistic that you want to look away. Set in Rostov-on-Don, the film portrays a dysfunctional Russia in which bureaucrats actively discourage the reporting of crime, while policemen cavalierly rape women. Olga Dykhovichnaya, who co-wrote the script, gives a searing lead performance as Marina, a social worker who is raped by three cops and then seeks one of them out, her motives ambiguous. Shot on DV in a style that evokes early Dogme95, Twilight Portrait is the kind of movie that makes TIFF worth while. The film won prizes at 11 festivals, and won the White Elephant prize for best début feature, awarded by the Russian Guild of Film Critics.
12. A Separation [جدایی نادر از سیمین] (dir. Asghar Farhadi). I’ve never been an aficionado of Iranian cinema, but this film is great. Very likely to win the best-foreign-language-film Oscar.
13. The Timekeeper (dir. Louis Bélanger). Probably the best ever Canadian feature with an all-male cast.
14. Guilty [Présumé coupable] (dir. Vincent Garenq). Based on (closely based on, apparently) a true story of a gross, sad miscarriage of justice in modern-day France, this disturbing film resonates with its convincing, heart-rending performances.
15. Midnight in Paris (dir. Woody Allen). Woody Allen’s funniest comedy in maybe 20 years.
16. The Loneliest Planet (dir. Julia Loktev). Slow-paced but never boring, Gael García Bernal and Hani Furstenberg are terrific as American hikers in lush, mountainous Georgia.
17. Nuit #1 (dir. Anne Émond). With frank visuals and poetic dialogue, this two-character film has a rare honesty and openness about sex.
18. Stricken [Komt een vrouw bij de dokter] (dir. Reinout Oerlemans). Carice van Houten is stunningly good (as usual) in this drama about a woman diagnosed with breast cancer, but unfortunately Pacific Cinémathèque screened the film in some video format that looked like crap. If I had seen it in 35mm this film would almost certainly be higher on my list, because there were many shots that looked like they might have been eye-popping cinematography.
19. Margin Call (dir. J.C. Chandor). I loved the first ⅔ of this movie but found the ending a bit weak. Still, a highly intelligent script and amazing performances from Zachary Quinto, Paul Bettany, Stanley Tucci, and Simon Baker, among others.
20. Project Nim (dir. James Marsh). A revealing, sad documentary about the life of a chimpanzee who was taught sign language in a scientific experiment.
21. Limitless (dir. Neil Burger). Visually dynamic science fiction thriller about pharmaceutical brain-boosters.
22. Like Crazy (dir. Drake Doremus). Endearing comedy-drama about a transatlantic relationship, with improvised dialogue.
23. Martha Marcy Mae Marlene (dir. Sean Durkin). Tense, ambiguous, rivetting drama with brilliant performances by Elizabeth Olsen, Sarah Paulson, and John Hawkes.
24. Dreileben (dir. Christian Petzold, Dominik Graf, and Christoph Hochhäusler). Three interlocking films by different directors, yes it’s a gimmick but the sort of gimmick I love when it’s done well, which this is.
25. Happy, Happy [Sykt lykkelig] (dir. Anne Sewitsky). Sharp Norwegian snowy relationship comedy.
In addition to those 25 features, I recall two excellent short films from 2011: Che Vuoi (dir. Marina Roy) and Vapor (dir. Kaveh Nabatian).