Looking back over my favourite films of 2011, it’s clear that many of the directors who impressed me most this year have been doing precisely that – looking back. Some of them did so simply by setting their movies in the past – 1950s Texas in the case of Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, 1970s Britain for Tomas Alfredson and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Others found inspiration in earlier forms of filmmaking – such as the silent cinema celebrated by Michel Hazanvicius in The Artist and by Martin Scorsese in Hugo. JJ Abrams managed to pay homage simultaneously to 1970s Spielberg and the era’s home movies in Super 8, while Nicolas Winding Refn recaptured the mood of classic thrillers from the 60s and 70s in Drive – my film of the year.
Not everyone on the list below fits this template, however. Arch contrarian Lars von Trier certainly bucks the trend – by looking forward to the end of the world. Now there’s a cheery thought to take into the supposedly apocalyptic year 2012.
Drive: At the wheel of Nicolas Winding Refn’s precision-tooled neo-noir thriller, Ryan Gosling oozed charisma and proved an instant icon of laconic loner cool.
A Separation: Asghar Farhadi’s heartbreaking drama springs out of the marital troubles of a middle-class Tehran couple but goes on to cast light on class, religion and other turbid undercurrents in modern Iran.
The Artist: Michel Hazanavicius recreated the look and feel of Hollywood silent cinema for his tragi-comic tale of the rise and fall of a dashing movie star and came up with the year’s most purely enjoyable film.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: With Gary Oldman in superb form as John Le Carré’s spycatcher George Smiley, Tomas Alfredson’s fiendishly gripping thriller more than measured up to the iconic BBC TV series.
We Need To Talk About Kevin: Tilda Swinton grappled movingly with grief and guilt in director Lynne Ramsay’s compelling screen version of Lionel Shriver’s 2003 bestseller.
Tree of Life: Some found it baffling, others brilliant. For me, Terrence Malick’s Palme d’Or winner conveyed the emotional turmoil of a 1950s Texas boyhood and throbbed with luminous and lyrical images.
Melancholia: A rogue planet looms on a collision course with Earth and Kristen Dunst’s depressive bride throws a wedding-day wobbly in Lars von Trier’s exasperating and sublime end-of-the-world extravaganza.
The Skin I Live In: Pedro Almodóvar reunited with Antonio Banderas for the first time in 20 years, and their dark thriller about a deranged plastic surgeon showed they were still on the cutting edge.
Hugo: Martin Scorsese’s first ever film for children was both a joyful and enchanting adventure tale and an affectionate tribute to a neglected pioneer of silent cinema.
Super 8: JJ Abrams paid homage to his mentor Steve Spielberg with this terrific sci-fi mystery revolving around a bunch of kids making a zombie movie in 1979 small-town Ohio.
Mentioned in dispatches
Best reissue – Brazil
Turkey of the Year – Your Highness