The best movies of 2011

Cinema levels and liberalises the planet. A critic surveys the best films that became part of the world’s story in 2011 – the story of its thoughts, hopes, anxieties, dreams – and realises that the countries many came from are among the least powerful on the globe. Every nation, though, has a voice and cinema is still, oneirically, the world’s great loudspeaker system.

Denmark? That little peninsula gave us Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, a tale of colliding planets from a filmmaker for whom collision seems a vocation: witness the collision course he set himself on with the authorities at Cannes by a few rash words at a press conference. (But if an enfant terrible cannot be terrible, what is he for?) South Korea? That gave us Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry, a masterpiece of insight into generational schism and the poignancy of aging. Iran? Its government can make noise, but its artists and people need courage to do so. Filmmaker Asghar Farhadi had that courage in the marvellous A Separation, anatomising a society to expose its guilts, terrors, tyrannies and deceits. Italy? A once-great nation sinking into red ink and political incertitude gave us Le Quattro Volte, which pursues eternal verities – serenely, surreally – in remote southern Italy.

And tiny Britain? The former empire ended its year by appearing to cast itself adrift from its last geopolitical mooring. British cinema, though, gave us so many dark, remarkable films that they constitute, artistically, a restitution of power and status. What other nation came up with a half-dozen features as low in cost yet high in intensity of vision as Kill List, Black Pond, Weekend, Archipelago, Tyrannosaur, Dreams of a Life?

Since the UK also played its “Rule Britannia” card in 2011, trumping overseas Oscar rivals with The King’s Speech – and since next week it plays another winning hand with The Iron Lady, the screen portrait of Margaret Thatcher, directed by a Brit (Phyllida Lloyd) and performed by Brit-for-a-day Meryl Streep (thanks to her accent virtuosities, now a Citizen of the World) – it proves our starting contention. You can be the humblest player at the economic or political gaming tables. But you can still win at cinema. It respects the performance of the moment, not the prosperity, power or pedigree of the past.

Take Hollywood, notionally the picture world’s superpower. It had a paupered artistic year. The best American release – forget the overpraised The Tree of Life – was a six-year-old film with a tormented history. Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret finally struggled free of lawsuits, relating to the filmmaker’s failure or reluctance to produce an acceptable-length final cut (acceptable to the studio, that is). Released at last, this chamber epic about life, pain, anger and emotional survival in the years after 9/11 proved a masterwork.

Only two other Hollywood movies were worth hurrah-ing: Rango and Hugo. They sound like twins and for fractious, inventive pizzazz they were. The first starred Johnny Depp as a digimated lizard-gunslinger in a surreal west: totally hilarious. The second was Scorsese in 3D, proving you sometimes need an old master to do justice to a new – or arduously renewed – screen process.

From other, less well-provided US filmmakers I liked Paul and Sandra Fierlinger’s My Dog Tulip, a delectably mournful feature cartoon set in dog-loving Britain (Ronald Searle meets Sylvain Belleville Rendezvous Chomet). Now we’ve started, let’s name and acclaim three other successful oddballs from around the world. From Australia: the scary, accomplished crime drama Snowtown. From Turkey: the lyrical, prize-winning growing-up tale Honey. (The title alone demanded the Golden Bear at Berlin.) From Herzog-ovina, a country of the imagination ruled by the indefatigable Werner Herzog: Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

The year’s international flavour will surely be recognised even by that chauvinistic institution, the Hollywood Academy. Meryl Streep, a shoo-in for Best Actress Oscar nomination, is tipped to be in competition with Yoon Jeong-hee of Korea’s Poetry. Japan’s Arrietty, conceived if not crafted by the great Hayao Miyazaki, will demand a nomination as Best Animated Feature. France’s The Artist (opening in the UK this week), the silent comedy pastiche that has caused raptures everywhere, is a certainty for the Best Picture short list . . . 

My point is proved again. Cinema is a parallel planet where everything is possible. It teaches us – or should teach us – how to live on the real planet. There, most of the time, every country is at every other country’s throat. We blame our neighbours for bankrupting us, badmouthing us, betraying us; for fighting wars we don’t want fought, for not fighting wars we do want fought. In cinema, by contrast, we sit about sharing and comparing visions. All is dialogue, exchange, mutual curiosity, multilateral illumination.

Will 2012 keep up the good work of artistic globalism? We can be encouraged by the number of films opening, now or soon, that seem to carry multiple flags – and are none the worse for doing so. Roman Polanski’s festival-acclaimed Carnage is a Polish-born Hollywood refugee’s adaptation of a French play featuring an Anglo-American cast. As a piece it is all of a piece, a sardonic, witty seriocomedy dissecting the cocktail classes. Steve McQueen’s Shame passes off German-Irish Michael Fassbender and Brit Carey Mulligan as New Yorkers in a Manhattan whose unworldly, nocturnal tableaux are like a sci-fi take on tormented love and sexuality. Cyril Tuschi’s Khodorkovsky is a German documentarist’s portrait of the imprisoned Russian oil tycoon and a look (more topical now than ever) at Putin and anti-Putinism. Even Steven Spielberg’s War Horse, cantering towards the Oscars, is a Hollywood American’s vision of Europe at war, with a cast of Brits, photographed by a Pole (the longtime Spielberg collaborator, Janusz Kaminski of Schindler’s List).

A rich mix. But that is becoming the modern movie world’s character and, for many of us, its appeal.

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