The best of 2011: film

Time Out's film team nominate their favourite movies of 2011

There was little consensus about the year’s best films, but when it came to end-of-year stocktaking, two American works grabbed the limelight: Terrence Malick’s ‘The Tree of Life’ and Kenneth Lonergan’s ‘Margaret’. 2011 was also a strong year for British cinema, and our critics honour homegrown films as diverse as ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’, ‘Senna’, ‘Kill List’ and ‘We Need to Talk about Kevin’. It was also a big year for the European titans, with new films from Pedro Almodóvar (‘The Skin I Live In’), Wim Wenders (‘Pina’) and Lars von Trier (‘Melancholia’). Elsewhere, some of us were enraptured by a quiet Italian movie about goats (‘Le Quattro Volte’), while others loved a tender tribute to silent cinema (‘The Artist’).

All of Time Out's film critics have chosen their favourite five films and one turkey. See all the lists below:

Dave Calhoun, Film editor

  • 1. Margaret

    Dir Kenneth Lonergan, US

    Maybe it’s risen to the top because I saw it this month – but Kenneth Lonergan’s long-awaited character study of a New York teen (a superb Anna Paquin) in crisis is an exemplary study in trauma and the most interesting film I’ve seen so far about America in the wake of 9/11.

  • 2. Pina

    Dir Wim Wenders, Ger

    In an era when audiences are happy to watch theatre, dance and opera beamed live into cinemas, Wim Wenders’s documentary about German dance pioneer Pina Bausch showed how performance can be taken out of theatres and represented on film with true love and imagination.

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  • 3. We Need To Talk About Kevin

    Dir Lynne Ramsay, GB

    Not only was it exciting to have Lynne Ramsay’s ideas back on the big screen after too many years away, but this British filmmaker’s adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s book – bold, scary, uncomfortable – made the wait worthwhile.

  • 4. The Skin I Live In

    Dir Pedro Almodóvar, Sp

    Pedro Almodóvar turned Thierry Jonquet’s mildly interesting novel ‘Tarantula’ into a stylish and irresistably creepy exploration of many of his recurring themes: mother-son relationships, masks, sexual identity and power. It was pleasing, too, to see him welcoming Antonio Banderas back into his gang.

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  • 5. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

    Dir Tomas Alfredson, GB

    It took a Swedish director, Tomas Alfredson, to take the Brit-lit thriller somewhere interesting, as this adaptation succeeded in retaining many of the nuances of John Le Carré’s novel, often with just a nod here and a wink there. Gary Oldman offered a parallel Smiley to savour alongside the memory of Alec Guinness.

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  • 2011's turkey: The Beaver

    Dir Jodie Foster, US

    Puppetry of the penis – the idea of Mel Gibson and Jodie Foster playing man and wife was as ridiculous as the idea of a man’s depression and suicidal thoughts being solved in cahoots with a fluffy toy. Ghastly.

David Jenkins, film critic

  • 1. The Tree of Life

    Dir Terrence Malick, US

    Towers over the competition. Terrence Malick’s cosmos-spanning film is the spiritual cinematic high of the twenty-first century so far.

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  • 2. Margaret

    Dir Kenneth Lonergan, US

    I can't recall a contemporary American film that has gotten as close to encapsulating the mellifluous, metaphysical and profoundly humane spirit of Eric Rohmer. Depressing to think it nearly slipped through the cracks.

  • 3. The Portuguese Nun

    Dir Eugène Green, Fr

    Finally, French iconoclast Eugène Green gets some love in the UK. Some compared Green's film to the work of Robert Bresson, but this is like nothing else out there.

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  • 4. Tomboy

    Dir Céline Sciamma, Fr

    It’s been a vintage year for female filmmakers (extra shout outs to Julia Leigh’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and Kelly Reichardt’s ‘Meek’s Cutoff’). This second film by French director Céline Sciamma was petite but perfect.

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  • 5. Norwegian Wood

    Dir Tran Anh-Hung, Japan

    Vietnam’s Tran Anh-Hung worked his languid magic on Haruki Murakami’s supposedly ‘unfilmable’ novel and delivered a depressing film about depression that was richly philosophical and visually gorgeous to boot.

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  • 2011's turkey: How Do You Know

    Dir James L Brooks, US

    I’d rather have my limbs amputated then tossed into an industrial mincer and fed to diseased pigs than sit through this humour-neutral smug bomb again. How it got on to the cover of Film Comment I’ll never know…

Tom Huddleston, film critic

  • 1. Kill List

    Dir Ben Wheatley, GB

    2011 didn’t offer up a perfect film, but the movie which was flawed in the most fascinating way was undoubtedly ‘Kill List’, the best British crime flick in decades, balancing nightmarish beauty and heartstopping terror with astonishing confidence, depth and intelligence – even if it didn’t make complete logical sense.

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  • 2. 13 Assassins

    Dir Takashi Miike, Japan

    The age-old legend of a plucky band of mismatched heroes pitched against an oppressive system was repurposed and revitalised in Takashi Miike’s bold, brilliant, zero-bullshit return to the Samurai classics of yore, now with added eye-scorching action, fountains of gore and herds of burning cows.

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  • 3. The Tree of Life

    Dir Terrence Malick, US

    Yes, it was pretentious, impenetrable, occasionally listless and clearly incomplete – but oh, it was so beautiful, a dizzying ode to life, love and pain with all the swooning grace and full-throated force of those soaring chorales on the soundtrack. Bring on the six-hour cut.

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  • 4. Margaret

    Dir Kenneth Lonergan, US

    Even in its crippled 150-minute version, Kenneth Lonergan’s embattled sophomore feature glitters with brilliance: it’s a film of unique, unexpected scenes, and if the pieces don’t entirely fit together that only adds to the mystery and magic of this extraordinary character study.

  • 5. Attack the Block

    DIr Joe Cornish, GB

    There may have been more technically impressive films this year – ‘A Separation’ and ‘The Deep Blue Sea’ came close – but nothing was as breathlessly, exhilaratingly, unself-consciously joyous as Joe Cornish’s slapstick sci-fi satire – the year’s best London movie, hands down.

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  • 2011's turkey: Will

    Dir Ellen Perry, GB

    In a year which saw the release of ‘Sucker Punch’, you have to pull off something pretty spectacular to get noticed… ‘Will’ combined brutally manipulative melodrama, Christian propaganda, terrible accents, artless filmmaking, logic-free plotting and footballers trying to act. The most misguided movie of the year.

Derek Adams, film critic

  • 1. Le Quattro Volte

    Dir Michelangelo Frammartino, It

    Michelangelo Frammartino’s gentle, languorous three-part essay on Italian pastoral life remains for me the most harmonious, thought-provoking film of the year. All human life is here? Affirmative.

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  • 2. True Grit

    Dirs Ethan and Joel Coen, US

    Epic in scope, the Coens’s Western remake won me over with its engaging, naturalistic screenplay delivered with gusto by Jeff Bridges and young newcomer Hailee Steinfeld.

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  • 3. Senna

    Dir Asif Kapadia, GB

    Who would have thought a documentary about a Formula One racing driver could be so enthralling, emotionally uplifting and downright entertaining. A brilliant slice of documentary making.

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  • 4. The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn

    Dir Steven Spielberg, US

    Steven Spielberg’s first Hergé adaptation hasn’t pleased some purists but for me it’s easily the most entertaining mainstream film of the year – and the most gorgeous to look at.

  • 5. Limitless

    Dir Neil Burger, US

    A great concept imaginatively mounted, Neil Burger’s stylish, briskly-paced pharmaceutical thriller lured me to the edge of the seat with its gripping premise and extraordinary special effects.

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  • 2011's turkey: Big Mommas Like Father Like Son

    Dir John Whitesell, US

    This contemptible, barrel-scraping farrago of a sequel lacked laughs and any form of common decency. Enough already.

Geoff Andrew, contributing editor

  • 1. True Grit/The Princess of Montpensier

    Dirs Joel and Ethan Coen, US/Dir Bertrand Tavernier, Fr

    Slightly cheating, I’ve picked five imaginary double-bills to sum up 2011. These first two films represent genre filmmaking at its best: the past thrillingly, plausibly and very affectingly brought back to life.

  • 2. Archipelago/A Separation

    Dir Joanna Hogg, GB/Dir Asghar Farhadi, Iran

    Families, hired help, generational and class tensions… and deliciously destructive deceits galore.

  • 3. Le Quattro Volte/Nénette

    Dir Michelangelo Frammartino, It/Dir Nicolas Philibert, Fr

    What, philosophically, does it really mean to be alive? Existence and consciousness illuminatingly and amusingly reconsidered.

  • 4. Contagion/Men on the Bridge

    Dir Steven Soderbergh, US/Dir Asli Ozge, Turkey

    How we survive, crowded together in today’s urban environments, explored in ways both intelligent and worrying.

  • 5. Poetry/A Screaming Man

    Dir Lee Chang-dong, S Kor/Dir Mahamet-Saleh Haroun, Chad

    Familial responsibilities and wider ethical dilemmas, examined with lyrical simplicity and disarming honesty.

  • 2011's turkey: Melancholia

    Dir Lars von Trier, Den

    A waste of time, probably, to select a film with no artistic ambition, so... this was portentous, frequently tedious and not a little silly.

Cath Clarke, film critic

  • 1. The Tree of Life

    Dir Terrence Malick, US

    Who else could stretch cinema to its limits like Terrence Malick? A boy’s life, dinosaurs and the beginning of life on earth: we were talking about ‘The Tree of Life’ for weeks in our house. Poetic, beautiful and fierce.

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  • 2. The Artist

    Dir Michel Hazanavicius, Fr/US

    The most heart-singingly lovely film of the year. I was quite literally singing in the rain (or tap-dancing like a four and a half year old) after Michel Hazanavicius’s homage to silent movies.

  • 3. Cave of Forgotten Dreams

    Werner Herzog really showed what you can do with 3D, filming the 32,000 year-old Chauvet cave paintings. A tight race with Wim Wenders’s ‘Pina’: Herzog swings it with his voiceover.

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  • 4. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

    Dir Tomas Alfredson, GB

    What a brilliant year for British film with ‘Submarine’, ‘Archipelago’, ‘Neds’, ‘Weekend’, ‘Tyrannosaur’ ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘Dreams of a Life.’ For the sheer thrill of watching so many world-class actors in one film – not least that leading-man comeback by Gary Oldman – this gets my vote.

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  • 5. Bridesmaids

    Dir Paul Feig, US

    Another nail in the coffin for that dusty old ‘women aren't funny’ line.

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  • 2011's turkey: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

    Dir Rob Marshall, US

    It looked like whimsy when Johnny ‘I’m not blockbuster boy’ Depp first sashayed into the multiplex wearing eyeliner. Now, I’m not sure even a new film with Tim Burton can dry out his soggy reputation.

Nigel Floyd, film critic

  • 1. The Skin I Live In

    Dir Pedro Almodóvar, Sp

    Pedro Almodóvar's fetishistic, gender-bending drama, starring Elena Anaya and Antonio Banderas, sees the Spanish director back on shocking, subversive form.

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  • 2. Melancholia

    Dir Lars von Trier, Den

    Kirsten Dunst is a heartbreaking revelation, as crippling depression and potential apocalypse are given the inimitable Lars von Trier treatment.

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  • 3. Snowtown

    Dir Justin Kurzel, Australia

    Justin Kurzel's bleak, insightful account of Adelaide's infamous 'Bodies in the Barrels' killings majors in nerve-shredding tension and dread.

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  • 4. Senna

    Dir Asif Kapadia, GB

    Asif Kapadia's dramatically tense and involving documentary is a moving testament to the charming Brazilian racing driver who lived to compete.

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  • 5. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

    Dir Tomas Alfredson, GB

    A forensic, stripped-down adaptation of John le Carré's 1974 espionage novel, by Swedish director Tomas Alfredson ('Let the Right One In').

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  • 2011's turkey: Wuthering Heights

    Dir Andrea Arnold, GB

    Inexplicable artistic decisions, absurd political correctness, dubious casting and director Andrea Arnold's characteristic focus on micro details at the expense of narrative sense.

Trevor Johnston, film critic

  • 1. Le Quattro Volte

    Dir Michelangelo Frammartino, It

    A genuine original from Italian director Michelangelo Frammartino, exquisitely made, filled with wisdom and compassion.

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  • 2. Poetry

    Dir Lee Chang-dong, S Kor

    Social commentary done with subtlety, enterprise and insight as Lee Chang-dong gets a UK release at last.

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  • 3. Mysteries of Lisbon

    Dir Raúl Ruiz, Port/Fr

    Raúl Ruiz departs on a high with the best nineteenth-century literary adaptation since Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Barry Lyndon’.

  • 4. Pina

    Dir Wim Wenders, Ger

    Space and movement, joy and pain, as Wim Wenders single-handedly justifies the existence of 3D.

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  • 5. Miss Bala

    Dir Gerardo Naranjo, Mex

    Michael Mann meets Robert Bresson on Mexican backstreets. Like wow…

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  • 2011's turkey: Mother's Day

    Dir Darren Lynn Bousman, US

    Not the year’s worst, but so shrill, cynical and annoying it’s profoundly depressing.

Anna Smith, film critic

  • 1. We Need To Talk About Kevin

    Dir Lynne Ramsay

    With its knockout performances, suspense, visual splendour, dark humour and disquieting psychological insights, this ticked a lot of boxes for me.

  • 2. The Guard

    Dir John Michael McDonagh, Ire

    There’s a lot of joy to be had from this mischievous, clever crime comedy with the always-wonderful Brendan Gleeson.

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  • 3. Dreams of a Life

    Dir Carol Morley, GB

    Utterly gripping and haunting in a very real sense, this docu-drama is one of the most memorable and original films of the year.

  • 4. Melancholia

    Dir Lars von Trier, Den

    I’m not always willing to be drawn into Lars von Trier’s world but this one had me hooked with its jaw-dropping cinematography and offbeat take on the disaster-movie genre.

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  • 5. The Artist

    Dir Michel Hazanavicius

    If there’s one film this year I’d recommend to anyone – of any age or taste – it’s ‘The Artist’: an uplifting, playful and delightfully humorous tribute to silent cinema.

  • 2011's turkey: Big Mommas Like Father Like Son

    Dir John Whitesell, US

    Martin Lawrence wasn’t funny in a fatsuit the first time round – three times certainly is not the charm.

Anil Sinanan, Bollywood film critic

  • 1. Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara

    Dir Zoya Akhtar

    Three 'desi boyz' decide that 'you live only once' and go on a life-changing credible road trip across Spain. Olé!

    Buy this film on DVD

  • 2. Delhi Belly

    Dir Abhinay Deo

    Shit happens (literally) in this comedy of errors you can laugh along with, rather than at.

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  • 3. Dhobi Ghat

    Dir Kiran Rao

    Realistic examination of love and loss across the huge class divide in India's 'maximum city'.

  • 4. That Girl In Yellow Boots

    Dir Anurag Kashyap

    Gritty expose of life in Mumbai's underworld as experienced by a single white British female.

  • 5. Ra.One

    Dir Anubhav Sinha

    Shah Rukh 'King' Khan retains his throne in this enjoyable sci-fi 3D singing superhero flick.

  • 2011's turkey: Ready/Bodyguard

    Dir Anees Bazmee/Dir Siddique

    Mindless masala trash with gym bunny Salman Khan equating stripping to acting.