Better late than never, this is the inevitable look back at the filmic year 2011 in an arbitrary ranking of personal favourites. Many other lists I’ve read in the last weeks praised 2011 as a year of so many great films that it was hard to narrow it down to just ten. I felt the opposite way, having a hard time to even come up with ten films that justify the label „best“ or „favourite“ (at least Dana Stevens felt the same way).

Note that this list goes by German cinematic release dates (hence the inclusion of some nominal 2010 films) and that many of the movies in everyone else’s list haven’t been released yet in Germany (e.g. The Artist, Drive, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Hugo etc.). As always, I also simply didn’t get to see some of the films that were released and so wasn’t able to rate them, like A Separation and Winter’s Bone.

1. Cave of Forgotten Dreams

When I visit a cinema, some part of me is always out there, looking for that sense of wonder that drew me to movies in the first place: a flush of awe and excitement about the world on the screen that tingles down my spine. There have been very few films in the last ten years who managed to create this feeling. I admire Werner Herzog as a maverick film maker, but I cannot say I have really been a fan of his actual work so far. Cave of Forgotten Dreams changed this. From the moment its first three-dimensional images of the beautiful paintings in the Cave Chauvet appear onscreen, there was magic happening in the cinema and I, for one, was completely enchanted by it. Add to this Herzog’s philosophical ruminations and his quixotic coda about albino crocodiles and I came out of the theater thinking that I very probably just saw my film of the year.

2. 127 Hours

I have always admired Danny Boyle for his ability to convey his stories with visceral images. 127 Hours, the fiendishly clever construction of „an action movie about a guy who can’t move“ pits about 15 minutes of visual representations of absolute freedom against over an hour of claustrophobic imprisonment. And new freedom can only be obtained by self-mutilation. The film stayed with me for a long time, even though I didn’t buy the DVD.

3. Black Swan

If nothing else, Black Swan is a stunning visual feat. But Darren Aronofsky’s film also manages to marry the seemingly sublime beauty of ballet with horror from the darkest aspects of the soul, and that’s what makes it so powerful. As usual, Aronofsky is as unsubtle about this as he can be, but sometimes cinema needs this unsubtlety to keep you locked in your seat.

4. Midnight in Paris

Woody Allen’s most successful film in decades didn’t really hit me until several weeks after I had seen it. Of course I laughed at the depictions of cultural icons that seem almost like a big humanities scholar in-joke parade, I admired the staging of Paris as a city and I agreed on critics‘ assessment of Owen Wilson as a succesful Allen surrogate. But what really stayed with me was the film’s central thesis about the relativity of nostalgia. If every time has another time it nostalgically looks back on, because life was apparently so much better then, the converse argument can only be that we should, in fact, be looking ahead instead. This feeling of discarding nostalgia for prospect, coupled with the feeling that something big is going to happen is probably the most memorable thought that I will take with me from 2011.

5. Melancholia

Melancholia fed right into the aforementioned idea I took away from Midnight in Paris. Even though Lars von Trier’s film has enough flaws that have been mentioned elsewhere, I simply loved his intellectual exploration of „How would you react if global doom were upon you“ coupled, as usual, with images designed to club you insensible to that intellectual exploration. Add to that the reading of the film as a reflection on depression, and you’ve earned a spot on my list.

6. The Adventures of Tintin

Screw the uncanny valley. I’m more than willing to let my complaints about it go, if someone presents me with a film that is simply so beautiful to look at and so well-constructed, clever and exciting. Nevermind that it is also overcrowded with story and setpieces, suffers from more exposition than the book of Genesis and might actually have worked better in key frame animation. For once, I’ll ignore all that and simply enjoy myself.

7. The Tree of Life

I cannot really bring myself to actually like this film. For many critics, the dreamlike retelling of a childhood was what made the film great. To me, this part didn’t speak at all. I grew tired of distraught faces staring into the distance while a whispered voiceover churns out platitudes. But I do admire Terrence Malick for his bombast and the sheer audacity of harnessing the power of cinema like no one else would dare to. That sequence with the birth of planets and the wacky dinosaurs? That was awesome as hell.

8. Bridesmaids

I can only repeat what so many other critics have already written: female-centric, broad and character-driven comedy that had me laughing more than any other film this year. You don’t need a long explanation why it made it onto this list. It simply deserved it.

9. The Ides of March

I saw three films based on stage plays this year. Of those, only one did not feel like a play. Instead, George Clooney renders his talkative scenes in soft images that somehow express the yearning for the honesty and beauty that the films narrative of political manipulation so aptly deconstructs. Clooney did this before in Good Night, and Good Luck, a film I also loved, and it proves to me once again, that he is a very talented director that will probably, one day, be compared to Clint Eastwood more often than he wants to. (The other two were Carnage and A Dangerous Method)

10. Jane Eyre

Cary Fukanaga’s adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s novel is a very classic one, but maybe that’s why I liked it. I enjoyed the starkness of the landscapes in which it is set, the quiet determination of Mia Wasikowska and the fiery eyes of Michael Fassbender, the effortless, sweeping camera and Dario Marinellis score. Maybe not a film that will be talked about in ages to come, but a moviegoing experience that somehow managed to stick with me long enough to convince me of its place in this list.

Honorable Mentions

The Guard would have been at number ten, if I hadn’t decided at the last minute to make at least one leftfield choice for the list. I probably laughed as much as I did in Bridesmaids and the film might even have the better staying power and a one-of-a-kind central character. But somehow, it just didn’t lodge itself into my subconscious strongly enough.

I enjoyed Thor immensely. I thought it was well-directed, funny and full of strong characters. Captain America, which most critics found somehow more interesting, however, I found dull and superficial. There is no explanation for these things.

3D is coming at us from several angles at the moment, but has yet to prove that the medium is not the message. I take a look at five directors who drive 3D forward and try to predict what role they will play in the future of stereoscopic filmmaking.


James Cameron

Rise to Power: Made two of the best, action packed Science-Fiction Sequels and created some of the most memorable effects scenes in cinema history with Aliens, the Terminator films and The Abyss. Then went off and realized the highest-grossing film ever. Twice.

Claim to Fame: Almost single-handedly convinced the movie industry that 3D is worth pursuing.

Defining Characteristics: Epic epicness coupled with sentimentality of the highest degree.

Lined up: Two sequels to Avatar that will continue to explore the world he created.

The Verdict: Cameron is a force of nature. What his films lack in artistic merit, they make up for in sheer, inescapable, gripping bombast. There are no signs of this changing in the near future.


Robert Zemeckis

Rise to Power: Married effects, character drama and the manipulation of the space-time continuum in classics like the Back to the Future trilogy and Forrest Gump.

Claim to Fame: Pioneered and developed „perfomance capturing“, and with it digital 3D, in a series of films that were really not great but succesful enough to keep him going.

Defining Characteristics: Creates settings that eerily sit between animation and live action aesthetics with few cuts and sweeping camera moves to explore 3D.

Lined up: As producer, Mars needs Moms for Disney in which Seth Green plays his inner child. As director, Yellow Submarine, the remake of a film about a band whose latest achievement is making it onto iTunes.

The Verdict: Zemeckis has left his mark in the development of 3D but his style has become a bit predictable and even seems slightly old-fashioned compared to the general zeitgeist.


Zack Snyder

Rise to Power: After directing several commercials, he revived the American zombie film and brought a new quality of aestheticized violence to Hollywood cinema with 300 and Watchmen.

Claim to Fame: Directed an animated fantasy film about, of all things, owls, which looked stunning but suffered from an overcrowded story.

Defining Characteristics: Applies 3D to both space and time with his signature slow motion fight scenes. Seems to like the grandiose iconography of fascism.

Lined up: His first original screenplay, Sucker Punch, will be converted to 3D, while he tackles the next reboot of the most boring of all superheroes, Superman: Man of Steel.

The Verdict: One of the most challenging visual directors around, to whom 3D seems to come naturally. However, the quality of his films seems to be very dependent on that of the source material.


Henry Selick

Rise to Power: Gave stop-motion animation its mainstream groove back by directing Tim Burton’s phantasmagoria The Nightmare before Christmas.

Claim to Fame: Coraline, a film that reads like the book on how 3D should work, especially in animation.

Defining Characteristics: Builds worlds that are slightly askew, both visually and storywise.

Lined up: Has returned to Disney/Pixar to work on more stop motion films.

The Verdict: Might produce the first film for Pixar that actually embraces 3D in its mise-en-scene.


Werner Herzog

Rise to Power: Made films about maniacs of all colours as part of Germany’s new wave in the 70s, then became one of the most leftfield directors around, creating motion pictures in every genre, form and country.

Claim to Fame: Got exclusive access to ancient French caves to film them in 3D in Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

Defining Characteristics: Embraces everything that fascinates him and turns it into something strange … and good.

Lined up: No word yet if there’s more 3D to come.

The Verdict: Herzog, with his oddball mentality and his talent for tearing down cinematic borders, might be one of those who leads 3D from childhood to maturity.

Photos by Steve Jurvetson, David Shankbone, rwoan, Thomas Crenshaw and erinc salor, used under a Creative Commons 2.0 licence.
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