2011 was an excellent year for international films. I do not believe in ranking films (though, I will say the Iranian film A Separation is definitely the best film of the year), so the below list of stellar flicks is in alphabetical order.
Drive (U.S.): Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn won the award for Best Director at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival for his dark tale about an unnamed man (a very appealing Ryan Gosling) who works as a stunt driver in Hollywood while also moonlighting as a getaway driver. A robbery goes wrong, and Drive takes a graphic violent tone, which has made some audience members walk out of theaters. A strong supporting cast, led by Albert Brooks in a rare non-comic role, soundtrack by Cliff Martinez, and Newton Thomas Sigel’s cinematography make Drive a gripping and sexy noir.
Hugo (U.S.): After the humongous box office success of James Cameron’s Avatar, many in Hollywood jumped to make 3-D films, some adding the technology as an afterthought. But there are only a handful of films that have succeeded in capturing the enhanced cinematic experience of 3-D technology. Martin Scorsese tried his hand at 3-D, and Hugo—based on a children’s book The Invention of Hugo Cabaret by Brian Selznick—is an absolute delight. The film is Scorsese’s homage to the old silent films by the French master Georges Méliès, using the most modern technology available to filmmakers. Hugo was shot on an elaborate set—a Parisian railway station, with an old clock and a functioning train track—all recreated in a studio near London. Scorsese said he made the film for his young daughter, and the result is one of the most fun time adults and kids alike had in a movie theater this year.
Incendies (Canada): After their mother’s death, Lebanese-Canadian twin brother and sister find they have to fulfill her last wish—that to search for their father and also their brother, who they did not know about until now. Thus begins their harrowing journey through the heart of their war torn home country, Lebanon, where they discover their mother’s history and the missing piece of their own life’s puzzle. A stunning French-Canadian film, Incendies was Canada’s official entry for the 2011 Oscar for the Best Foreign Language Film.
Martha Marcy May Marlene (U.S.): A very disturbing indie made by a group of New York University film school graduates, Martha Marcy May Marlene follows a young woman, who has recently left a violent and abusive cult. Elizabeth Olson gives a strong performance as the troubled woman on the run. Her past at the commune is narrated to us in flashbacks and dreams. Martha Marcy May Marlene is one of the best American films of the year.
Pina (Germany): Another success in 3-D is German director Wim Wenders’s stunning dance documentary on the works of Pina Bausch. In Pina the dancers from Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal company talk about their collaborations with the late choreographer and perform her best known pieces. The film is an exhilarating, sensory experience. With 3-D glasses we are thrown right in the middle of the stage, with the dancers performing around us.
Poetry (Korea): A sixtysomething-year-old grandmother in Korea (played by Yoon Jeong-hee), copes with the early stages of Alzheimer and the discovery that her high-school-going grandson may have committed a disturbing crime. The only balance in her life is a Poetry writing class she attends at a local community school. Director Lee Chang-dong creates a compelling story of a woman finding purpose in life, when everything else is failing. A moving film, Poetry won the Best Screenplay award at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival.
Shame (UK): A seemingly well-adjusted thirtysomething Manhattan resident has a hidden secret: he is addicted to sex. Add to that, his sister, keeps dropping by and is falling apart for other reasons. In Shame British filmmaker Steve McQueen introduces us to our protagonist Brendan (a very brave performance by Michael Fassbender) at a point where his decline is already in progress. Since the film deals with sexual addiction, McQueen has his characters bare themselves and their souls. But their nakedness and sexual situations makes it a difficult film to watch.
A Separation (Iran): Winner at this year’s Berlin Film Festival (Golden Bear for best film and the two Silver Bears for it ensemble cast of male and female actors), Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation is a stunning piece. It is also Iran’s official entry for the 2012 Oscar for the best foreign language film. A Separation is an engaging, yet complex story about a marriage dissolving. It works like a thriller, but explores the various layers of class, religious, legal, and social issues in contemporary Iranian society.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (UK): Swedish filmmaker Tomas Alfredson, best known for the vampire love story Let The Right One In, has mounted a handsome production of the 1974 Cold War spy thriller by the British master John le Carré. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’s production design, recreating every last detail of the MI6’s bureaucratic structure, the cinematography, and terrific all-round performances by a stellar cast, led by Gary Oldman as George Smiley, make it highly entertaining and satisfying.
Weekend (UK): Two gay men, one working class and the other educated, employed by an art gallery, meet by chance on a Friday night at a club. They end up spending the whole weekend together, talking, eating, drinking, getting to know each other, flirting, and engaging in sex. The weekend ends, and we are all left with heartache that most of us—straight or gay—will connect with. Director Andrew Haigh works with two remarkably talented new actors: Tom Cullen and Chris New. Weekend is one of the most romantic films of this year.
Special Mention—Dhobi Ghat (India), My Week with Marilyn (UK), Ides of March (U.S.), I Saw The Devil (Korea), Moneyball (U.S.), Rango (U.S.), Senna (UK), Submarine (UK), Take Shelter (U.S.), The Adventures of Tintin (U.S./New Zealand), The Guard (Ireland) The Descendants (U.S.), The Trip (UK), Tuesday After Christmas (Romania), We Are What We Are (Mexico).