Wasn't 2011 a terrific year for movies? Certainly it's been better than the previous year: looking back at my Best Of 2010 list there were a few films that probably didn't deserve to be there, but they ended up there simply by way of there not being enough competition. Happily, 2011 has produced a sterling set of titles, and not only am I generally satisfied with my final choices but I'm annoyed that some perfectly decent titles haven't made the cut.
On the subject of last year's list, there was of course one glaring omission: the original Swedish version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. That was because I'd seen it back in 2009 so I forgot about it when compiling. No such oversight this year: I've used the UK release schedules as a guide so even if I saw the film in 2010 it counts to this year's lists if it's had a general - or even limited - theatrical release in 2010 rather than festival screenings. (Sadly, The Artist isn't going to be available to include in the list due to the distributors not releasing it out of the West End until the start of 2012.)
Not that I'm anywhere near qualified enough to detect themes, but if there has been a theme this year that I've particularly welcomed, I'd suggest that it's films harking back to earlier eras of film: two of my top three all refer back to earlier styles of film-making, openly celebrating the actual technique of making movies in days long gone. Here's hoping people can actually learn from this: not just to celebrate the days of better film making, but to actually make better films.
Enough prattle. The list:
10. THE AWAKENING
A solid, well-crafted and creepy ghost story in the best British tradition, although with an occasional feel of an episode of The X-Files, The Awakening boasts a strong female lead (Rebecca Hall), a nicely conveyed period setting and several damn good scares and jumpy moments. Maybe it loses it slightly towards the end with a too implausible extra twist, but overall I thoroughly enjoyed it. More please.
I'm not much of a comicbook superhero fan. Nor am I colossally interested in the ongoing Avengers uberproject in which a whole bunch of absurdly costumed weirdos face off against each other. But Thor was such unexpected fun: visually terrific in the Asgard scenes, and Thor himself was an interesting and likable enough hero. Lord Sir Kenneth Shakespeare Of Branagh may have been an unlikely choice to direct (it's a bit like hiring Stanley Kubrick to direct The Dukes Of Hazzard), but it's paid off.
8. BLACK SWAN
This was on many lists for last year because of festival screenings but it didn't actually come to commercial cinemas until January 2011, so there. Everyone loved it, and I certainly liked it a lot: it's a weirdo psychological horror movie with a ballet setting and that lovely sense while watching it that you haven't got the faintest clue where the hell it's going. I somehow still wish I'd liked it more, and probably need to see it again.
7. RED WHITE AND BLUE
This emotionally raw and powerful love story knocked me sideways when shown at the 2010 Frightfest, to the extent that I couldn't bear to go back in for the next movie (The Last Exorcist), and had to go for a long walk to let it sink in. Shocking, brutally violent, and yet ultimately quite moving; nowhere near enough people saw it.
6. TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY
Sometimes the public get it right and support a movie that justifies it. In 2010 it was Inception, in 2011 it was this incredibly miserable and grimy spy drama entirely bereft of helicopter chases, kickass explosions and anyone under 50: espionage as an abstract game of imaginary chess where you didn't know which pieces were whose. And it makes no concession to the audience: pay attention or you're lost. Oh, and the cast is breathtaking.
5. 13 ASSASSINS
It's from the certified nutjob director of Visitor Q and Ichi The Killer, but this superbly paced and gorgeously photographed samurai action movie almost makes it worthwhile putting up with the usual incoherent Takashi Miike gibberish. Culminates in an apparently endless village battle that leaves just about everyone dead, but just as gripping is the first act's political exposition and plot machinations. Marvellous.
4. JULIA'S EYES
Watching this absorbing Spanish thriller (produced by Guillermo Del Toro) I was suddenly thrust back to the Scala Cinema more than twenty years ago, watching vintage Argento gialli. Genuinely exciting and beautifully done. Why can't we Brits make genre films as good as this? Why aren't we even trying?
An absolutely charming movie that may be all over the place, veering wildly between moving drama, knockabout comedy, kiddie fantasy, action - but finally hangs a hard right turn out of nowhere into the joys of the very birth of cinema with the strange and surreal fantasies of Georges Melies. And it's probably the best showcase yet for intelligently used 3D in mainstream cinema (although the case for 3D has yet to be indisputably made).
The most genuinely scary time I've had in a cinema for years: from the creators of the gory but unscary Saw franchise and the increasingly tiresome and unscary Paranormal Activity series comes an entirely bloodless and truly frightening haunted house movie. Granted that it drops the ball in the third act, but it works not just while it's screening but days later when you're alone in the flat, late at night and it squirrels back into your mind. Utterly brilliant.
1. SUPER 8
Joyous, joyful and thrilling kids' action/SF movie that's not just a near-perfect recreation of the late 1970s (I don't give a toss that this song or that toy wasn't actually there until 1980 - it's still in the spirit of the era) but the idea of kids making movies for the sheer fun of it. I'd love for children to come out of Super 8 inspired to grab the nearest camera and start shooting. Beautiful, exciting, a near perfect kids' movie and a damn good summer blockbuster. (And if you're carping about the lens flares - get over it.)
Honourable Mentions to some films that bubbled under but didn't quite make the cut. In no particular order: Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, Rango, Fast Five (shut up!), Red State, Drive, The Skin I Live In, I Saw The Devil, Confessions, A Lonely Place To Die and True Grit. And to be honest, that list alone would have made an acceptable Top Ten.