Cinema Lists

The Best Films of 2011

Although it was a year with a record number of sequels, there was much to feast on if you really looked for something different.

The year will be remembered for momentous events which overshadowed anything Hollywood could come up with: the Arab Spring, the Japanese Earthquake, Hackgate, the death of Osama Bin Laden and the continuing meltdown of the global economy.

But cinema itself underwent some seismic changes: in April the thorny issue of the theatrical window raised its head, whilst James Cameron suggested films should be projected at 48 frames per second instead of the usual 24.

But by far the biggest story was the news that Panavision, Arri and Aaton were to stop making film cameras: although the celluloid projection will effectively be over by 2013, it seems the death of 35mm capture is only a few years away.

So the medium of film, will soon no longer involve celluloid. That’s a pretty big deal.

As for the releases this year, it seemed a lot worse than it actually was.

Look beyond the unimaginative sequels and you might be surprised to find that there are interesting films across a variety of genres.

Instead of artifically squeezing the standout films into a top ten, below are the films that really impressed me in alphabetical order, followed by honourable mentions that narrowly missed the cut but are worth seeking out.


A Separation (Dir. Asghar Farhadi): This Iranian family drama explored emotional depths and layers that few Western films even began to reach this year.

Drive (Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn): Nicolas Winding Refn brought a European eye to this ultra-stylish LA noir with a killer soundtrack and performances.

George Harrison: Living in the Material World (Dir. Martin Scorsese): Scorsese’s in-depth examination of the late Beatle was a passionate and moving tribute to a kindred soul.

Hugo (Dir. Martin Scorsese): The high-priest of celluloid channelled his inner child to create a stunning digital tribute to one of the early pioneers of cinema.

Jane Eyre (Dir. Cary Fukunaga): An exquisite literary adaptation with genuine depth, feeling and two accomplished lead performers that fitted their roles like a glove.

Margin Call (Dir. J.C. Chandor): The best drama yet to come out the financial crisis is this slow-burn acting masterclass which manages to clarify the empty heart of Wall Street.

Melancholia (Dir. Lars von Trier): Despite the Cannes controversy, his stylish vision of an apocalyptic wedding was arguably his best film, filled with memorable images and music.

Moneyball (Dir. Bennett Miller): The philosophy that changed a sport was rendered into an impeccably crafted human drama by director Bennett Miller with the help of Brad Pitt.

Project Nim (Dir. James Marsh): A chimpanzee raised as a human was the extraordinary and haunting subject of this documentary from James Marsh.

Rango (Dir. Gore Verbinski): The best animated film of 2011 came from ILMs first foray into the medium as they cleverly riffed on classic westerns and Hollywood movies.

Senna (Dir. Asif Kapadia): A documentary about the F1 driver composed entirely from existing footage made for riveting viewing and a truly emotional ride.

Shame (Dir. Steve McQueen): The follow up to Hunger was a powerful depiction of sexual compulsion in New York, featuring powerhouse acting and pin-sharp cinematography.

Snowtown (Dir. Justin Kerzel): Gruelling but brilliant depiction of an Australian murder case, which exposed modern horror for the empty gorefest it has become.

Take Shelter (Dir. Jeff Nichols): Wonderfully atmospheric blend of family drama and Noah’s Ark which brilliantly played on very modern anxieties of looming apocalypse.

The Artist (Dir. Michel Hazanavicius): An ingenious love letter to the silent era of Hollywood is executed with an almost effortless brilliance.

The Descendants (Dir. Alexander Payne): Pitch-perfect comedy-drama which saw Alexander Payne return to give George Clooney his best ever role.

The Guard (Dir. John Michael McDonagh): Riotously funny Irish black comedy with Brendan Gleeson given the role of his career.

The Interrupters (Dir. Steve James): The documentary of the year was this powerful depiction of urban violence and those on the frontline trying to prevent it.

The Skin I Live In (Dir. Pedro Almodovar): The Spanish maestro returned with his best in years, as he skilfully channeled Hitchcock and Cronenberg.

The Tree of Life (Dir. Terrence Malick): Moving and mindblowing examination of childhood, death and the beginnings of life on earth.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Dir Tomas Alfredson): Wonderfully crafted John le Carre adaptation which resonates all too well in the current era of economic and social crisis.

Tyrannosaur (Dir. Paddy Considine): Searingly emotional drama with two dynamite lead performances and an unexpected Spielberg reference.

We Need To Talk About Kevin (Dir. Lynne Ramsey): Audio-visual masterclass from Ramsay with a now predictably great performance from Tilda Swinton.

Win Win (Dir. Thomas McCarthy): Quietly brilliant comedy-drama with Paul Giamatti seemingly born to act in this material.


A Dangerous Method (Dir. David Cronenberg)
Anonymous (Dir. Roland Emmerich)
Another Earth (Dir. Mike Cahill)
Attack the Block (Dir. Joe Cornish)
Bobby Fischer Against The World (Dir. Liz Garbus)
Confessions (Dir. Tetsuya Nakashima)
Contagion (Dir. Steven Soderbergh)
Four Days Inside Guantanamo (Dir. Luc Cote, Patricio Henriquez)
I Saw the Devil (Dir. Kim Ji-woon)
Into the Abyss (Dir. Werner Herzog)
Life in a Day (Dir. Kevin MacDonald)
Martha Marcy May Marlene (Dir. Sean Durkin)
Midnight in Paris (Dir. Woody Allen)
Page One: Inside The New York Times (Dir. Andrew Rossi)
Super 8 (Dir. JJ Abrams)
The Adventures of Tintin (Dir. Steven Spielberg)
The Beaver (Dir. Jodie Foster)
The Deep Blue Sea (Dir. Terence Davies)
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Dir. David Fincher)
The Ides of March (Dir. George Clooney)


Armadillo (Dir. Janus Metz)
Beginners (Dir. Mike Mills)
Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Dir. Werner Herzog)
Submarine (Dir. Richard Ayoade)
Cold Weather (Dir. Aaron Katz)
Tabloid (Dir. Errol Morris)

Find out more about the films of 2011 at Wikipedia
End of year lists at Metacritic
> The Best Film Music of 2011
The Best DVD and Blu-ray Releases of 2011

DVD & Blu-ray

UK DVD & Blu-ray Releases: Monday 10th October 2011


Senna (Universal): Asif Kapadia’s riveting documentary about the life and times of F1 driver Ayrton Senna is hands down one of the films of the year. Beginning with his early career in Europe, it charts his rapid ascent to Formula One and his rivalry to reigning world champion Alain Prost. Stylistically bold and filled with the kind of real life drama fiction can’t emulate, it has even out-grossed Justin Bieber at the UK box office. [Read our full review] [Read our post on the film’s use of social media] [Buy it on Blu-ray or DVD from Amazon UK]

George Harrison: Living in the Material World (Lionsgate UK): Martin Scorsese’s new documentary about the former Beatle, which features rare footage from his childhood, his time in The Beatles, his solo career and his unlikely career as a movie producer through Handmade Films. Interviewees include Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Yoko Ono and Olivia and Dhani Harrison. [Buy it on Blu-ray or DVD with Amazon UK]

Le Quattro Volte (New Wave): A slow but exquisitely realised drama about an elderly goatherd living in rural Italy. Directed by Michelangelo Frammartino, it is a stunning evocation of the revolving seasons – even if it non-arthouse audiences may be perplexed by its pace and spiritual themes. [Buy it on Blu-ray or DVD from Amazon UK]

Cape Fear (Universal Pictures): Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake of J. Lee Thompson’s 1962 film, about a lawyer who is stalked by an ex-convict, was originally going to be a Steven Spielberg film until he decided to do Hook (1991) instead. The choice allowed Scorsese to make one of his most commercial movies with Nick Nolte and Robert De Niro taking the Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum roles, respectively. In a nice touch, both Peck and Mitchum appear in sly cameos that reverse their roles in the original film. [Buy it on Blu-ray or DVD from Amazon UK]


7 Lives (Revolver Entertainment) [Blu-ray / Normal]
Bunraku (G2 Pictures) [Blu-ray / Normal]
Candyman (Universal Pictures) [Blu-ray / Normal] Chicago (Optimum Home Entertainment) [Blu-ray / Normal]
Dark Vengeance (Optimum Home Entertainment) [Blu-ray / Normal]
Drive Angry (Lionsgate UK) [Blu-ray / Normal]
Eastbound and Down: Season 1 (Warner Home Video/HBO) [Blu-ray / Normal]
Hidden (G2 Pictures) [Blu-ray / 3D Edition] Le Quattro Volte (New Wave) [Blu-ray / Normal]
Legend of the Soldier (Optimum Home Entertainment) [Blu-ray / Normal]
Original Sin (Optimum Home Entertainment) [Blu-ray / Normal]
Potiche (Optimum Home Entertainment) [Blu-ray / Normal]
Quatermass and the Pit (Optimum Home Entertainment) [Blu-ray / with DVD – Double Play]
Regan (Network) [Blu-ray / Normal]
The Adventures of Tintin: Complete Collection (Anchor Bay Entertainment UK) [Blu-ray / Box Set]
The Frighteners (Universal Pictures) [Blu-ray / Normal]

> UK Cinema Releases for Friday 7th October 2011
> The Best DVD & Blu-ray releases of 2010


Senna and Social Media

F1 documentary Senna has used the web in interesting ways as it continues to impress audiences around the world.

Like many modern day organisations with something to sell, film companies have embraced websites such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

After early doubts, the major studios seem particularly in love with it as the feedback on these platforms helps them build buzz and gauge feedback from audiences.

Big Hollywood stars like Russell Crowe, major producers such as Jerry Bruckheimer and directors like Jon Favreau regularly use and communicate via the service.

But whilst big studio releases still largely rely on traditional marketing techniques like TV advertising and outdoor posters, how can social media help out smaller releases?

Senna offers a particularly interesting case study.

A documentary about the life of legendary Brazilian motor-racing champion Ayrton Senna, it faced considerable commercial challenges.

After getting permission from Senna’s family, director Asif Kapadia faced the prospect of sifting through hours and hours of archive footage.

He had access to the F1 archives but also used the biggest video library on the planet: YouTube.

Much of the film consists of TV footage of Senna’s races from broadcasters like Brazil’s Globo or Japan’s Fuji TV.

Obviously, the production had to eventually get official clearances from those channels, but Kapadia has admitted that the concept for the documentary came as he researched YouTube footage in pre-production.

Speaking to David Poland in a recent interview he says:

“I had eight months to look at footage on YouTube and that’s when the idea came about, well, I don’t think we need to shoot talking head interviews – I don’t think we need to see them – we may well do research, we may well talk to people and hear their voices but actually it’s all there. The rushes, the dailies, are so amazing, I don’t know if there is anything I could shoot that would improve what’s already in existence”

YouTube was not only an invaluable research tool that helped shape the aesthetic of the film, it also helped it get greenlit:

“We cut a short film that came purely from YouTube material, which was 12 minutes long, to show this is how the movie could work. And that’s was how we got greenlit by Working Title and Universal”

The film benefits enormously from consisting entirely of found footage, as it makes it stand out from more conventional ‘talking head’ documentaries.

There is also the neat effect of seeing video technology progress as Senna ages, from the grainy 16mm footage of his early days to the sharper video images of the early 1990s.

Once the film was finished, the filmmakers and distributors faced the challenge of opening it around the world.

The F1 hotbeds of Japan and Brazil were obvious places to start and it premiered in October 2010 at the Japanese Grand Prix before opening in Brazil a month later.

Next stop was the festival circuit and the film played to rave reviews and awards at Sundance, SXSW, Los Angeles and Adelaide.

When it opened in the UK, it achieved a terrific screen average of £5,600 from 67 cinemas and an opening weekend of £375,000.

Over that weekend it was fascinating to watch Kapadia use Twitter to communicate with people who had seen or were thinking of seeing his film.

Before he appeared on a national radio station, he was already fielding questions and interacting with other users.

When you think of the tweets under the official movie account (@SennaMovie) and Kapadia’s own account (@asifkapadia), it provided the filmmakers and distributors with an amazing amount of direct feedback.

This was augmented by a Facebook page and an amazing YouTube channel which is a terrific video archive of interviews and other related material.

After a month on release – including a special day where it screened at multiplexes across the land – it had outgrossed the Justin Bieber film Never Say Never, and is currently the third highest grossing documentary ever at UK cinemas, behind Fahrenheit 9/11 and March of the Penguins.

For the US release, the movie faced the challenge of opening in a country where F1 is nowhere near as popular.

Given that Universal acted as the UK distributor, one might have expected their indie arm Focus Features to have picked it up at Sundance.

Cinetic Media were the film’s sales agent at the festival and decided to opt for the same approach they took with last year’s Exit Through The Gift Shop.

Released through upstart distributor PDA (Producers Distribution Agency), which Cinetic boss John Sloss co-founded with his partner Bart Walker, the Banksy documentary had surfed the buzz from a Sundance premiere, to gross $3.3m and get nominated for an Academy Award.

The innovative faux-documentary even outgrossed Kick Ass at the Arclight cinema in Los Angeles on its opening weekend.

Senna producer James Gay Rees had also worked on the Banksy film and seen the grass roots approach reap rich rewards.

Last weekend in the US it achieved the best opening this year for a documentary with a pre-screen average of $36,749 and rave reviews.

So far it has scored 80 on Metacritic, 93 on Rotten Tomatoes, and a 8.8/10 user rating on IMDb.

It will be fascinating to see how much it ends up making in America as word of mouth spreads.

But what lessons can be learnt from Senna and its clever use of social media?

Here are a few:

  1. A great movie is the best marketing tool: Ultimately the movie has to be good, but if it plays with an audience (and Senna really does) then social media can be a great amplifier for positive feedback.
  2. Direct, passionate engagement works: Seeing a passionate director communicating with any audience member on Twitter is kind of infectious. Kapadia didn’t just tweet ‘go see my movie’, he really embraced the platform and interacted with users, which is often what some people fail to do. I saw one tweeter complain about a cinema’s projection and Kapadia wanted to know details and also answered all sorts of questions about the film. At times watching his feed was like a permanent online press conference. His genuine passion for the film was evident and if anyone sees that on Twitter, the infectious enthusiasm transmits to other users. They in turn pass that on to their followers, and so it goes.
  3. Efficient screening information: With an indie release like Senna, the biggest question is usually ‘where can I see this film?’. Mainstream media often overlooks people who don’t inhabit large cities like London, New York or Los Angeles. So a rave review of a film in limited release is no good to someone in the provinces who can’t actually see it. However, the @SennaMovie twitter feed and Facebook page provided a wealth of detailed screening information that traditional media can’t or won’t supply. As social media grows, perhaps traditional movie listings may morph into specialised feeds which, thanks to modern smartphones, can be personalised to local areas.
  4. Think global: F1 truly is a truly global sport, only surpassed by football (a.k.a soccer) in terms of its reach around the world. Senna is not a blockbuster by any means but when the final grosses and ancillary profits are added up, it looks like there will be a nice spread of box office from around the world. Partly this comes from the hero at the heart of the film, but also because inspirational figures translate into any language be it Japan, Brazil or Europe. Its success in the US also disproves the doubters who felt Americans just wouldn’t get it. Not all subjects can be as popular as the F1 legend, but certain figures can translate into more cultures than we might initially think.
  5. The drama of documentary: Some of the raw footage in Senna is truly remarkable and reminds you of the challenges faced by biopics. Will Smith is really good in Ali (2001) but is not a patch on the real fighter in When We Were Kings (1996). Even if a crack team of Hollywood A-listers wanted to make a drama of this, they just can’t compete with the raw materials. The drama is embedded in the documentary form.
  6. The power of YouTube: Many traditional Hollywood types curse YouTube for the way it has essentially reshaped copyrighted material. Google (who own the site) remove copyrighted material on request, but the sheer amount that is uploaded means that it is still a haven for illegal sourced video, which studios don’t see any money from. But whilst they should bite the bullet and cut deals with Google for legal streaming of their movies, it remains an incredible research tool for filmmakers. Not only is it the biggest video library in the history of the world, it can lead to ideas, inspiration and – as the Senna team have shown with their dedicated channel – can be an effective way of spreading the word about the movie.
  7. Small can be beautiful: There is something fantastic about what PDA have done with Exit Through The Gift Shop and Senna. By adopting a grass roots approach they have shown that there is an alternative to the big ad spends of the major studios and the kind of distorted thinking that inflated the indie bubble which popped loudly in 2008. The marketing and release is truly driven by the actual films and the social media tools have connected the filmmakers with audiences in new and exciting ways. In a terrible financial climate for independent filmmaking maybe PDA have shone a light which others can follow.

> Official site and the film on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube
> More on Ayrton Senna at Wikipedia

Cinema Documentaries Reviews Thoughts


Asif Kapadia’s documentary about the life and career of Ayrton Senna is a riveting portrait of the F1 driver.

Using only archive footage alongside voiceover contributions from those who knew and wrote about him, it constructs a compelling story of a sporting icon.

Beginning with his early career in Europe, it charts his rapid ascent to Formula One where he joined the McLaren team in the late 1980s and quickly established himself as a precocious rival to reigning world champion Alain Prost.

Exploring his extraordinary feats on the track and the joy his three world titles brought to his native Brazil, it then covers his tragic early death at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994.

With judicious use of archive footage, which really comes alive on the big screen, it also covers the murkier politics off the track with former FIA boss Jean-Marie Balestre coming across as another rival to be beaten.

Although this will be devoured by motor racing fans, it also works as a fascinating introduction for those who know little or nothing about Senna and his impact on the sport.

Part of what makes it so exciting is his life story, which whilst not a rags-to-riches tale (he was from a wealthy Brazilian family), feels like the subject of an epic novel filled with memorable touches.

His iconic yellow helmet, loving and devoted parents, faith in God, millions he donated to charity, glamorous girlfriends and the driving skills which established him as one of the greatest racing drivers of all time are just some of the rich details which make up the story.

The film contains many of his greatest moments: his amazing F1 debut at Monaco in 1984; his victory at the 1988 Japanese Grand Prix to clinch his first world title and his electrifying win at the Brazilian Grand Prix in 1991.

Assembled from hours of footage from various broadcasters and the F1 archives, the editing is frequently inspired, providing an unusual level of excitement for a documentary.

At one point we see some especially prophetic comments from Prost (“Ayrton Senna has a small problem, he thinks he can’t kill himself because he believes in God and I think that is very dangerous for other drivers”) as well as footage from family home videos.

Some of the internal F1 videos of driver meetings are an eye-opening glimpse into the world of a dangerous sport and Senna’s pleas for more safety add to the tragic irony of his untimely demise.

There are also astute voiceover contributions from journalist Richard Williams, F1 doctor Sid Watkins and racing commentators Galvão Bueno and John Bisignano which explain and illuminate his impact on the sport and his home country.

For director Asif Kapadia this marks a change from his previous feature films (such as The Warrior and Far North) but he seems to have a natural feel for the drama of real life and of the intense highs which sport can deliver to both participants and fans.

A subtle but atmospheric use of music augments the film nicely and the use of internal F1 footage of the drivers observing the horrific accidents during that fateful weekend in 1994 brings a new perspective to what would be a turning point the sport as a whole, as major safety changes were brought in following the crash that killed Senna and Roland Ratzenberger.

Although the exact cause of Senna’s crash at Imola still remains a mystery, it seems an unlikely confluence of events was ultimately to blame: the new rules imposed on the Williams car that season, an engineering fault, a previous crash at the start of the race and bad luck in how the car actually crashed on impact.

On paper this might sound like a film just for devoted F1 fans, but perhaps its greatest achievement lies in how it not only makes the races truly thrilling but finds universality in the details of a sportsman’s life.

After scoring major buzz at Sundance earlier this year, Universal and Working Title will be quietly confident that it finds a deserving audience hungry for engaging factual entertainment.

With the summer movie season fuelled by comic book fantasy, Senna provides a welcome injection of real-life drama and excitement.

> Official site
> Find out more about Ayrton Senna at Wikipedia
> Follow Asif Kapadia on Twitter
> Follow the film on Facebook and Twitter


UK Cinema Releases: Friday 3rd June 2011


X-Men: First Class (20th Century Fox): Set in the early 1960s, this prequel to the X-Men series explores the formative years of Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) and Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), as they discover their special powers and fight to stop a mysterious villain (Kevin Bacon) from exploiting Cold War tensions. Directed by Matthew Vaughn, it co-stars Jennifer Lawrence, Rose Byrne, January Jones, Oliver Platt and Nicholas Hoult. [Nationwide / 12A] [Read our full review here]

Senna (Universal/Working Title): Documentary about the life and career of Brazilian F1 racing driver Ayrton Senna, who won the world championship three times before his untimely death at the age of 34 in 1994. Directed by Asif Kapadia, it was awarded the World Cinema Audience Award for Documentary at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. [Nationwide / 12A]

Last Night (Optimum Releasing): Drama about a married couple (Keira Knightley and Sam Worthington) who find their relationship disrupted by a work colleague (Eva Mendes) and an old lover (Guillaume Canet). Directed by Massy Tadjedin. [Key Cities / 12A]

Prom (Walt Disney): Comedy about a detail-obsessed prom committee leader who is caught off guard when she unexpectedly falls for the school’s bad boy. Directed by Joe Nussbaum, it stars Aimee Teegarden, Thomas McDonell, Danielle Campbell, Yin Chang, Kylie Bunbury and Nicholas Braun [Nationwide / U]


Screwed (Lionsgate UK): Prison drama based on ex-prison officer Ronnie Thompson’s memoir about the battle between a warden (James D’Arcy) and a prisoner (Noel Clarke). Directed by Reg Travis. [Key Cities / 18]

Mammuth (Axiom Films): Road movie about a fat meat worker (Gérard Depardieu) who is confronted with his past as he travels around France. Directed by Benoit Delephine and Gustave Kervern, co-stars Yolande Moreau and Isabelle Adjani. [Key Cities]

The Flaw (Studio Lambert): Documentary about the 2008 financial crisis directed by David Sington, featuring contributions from Joseph Stiglitz, George Cooper, Professor Robert Frank, Robert Schiller and Louis Hyman [Key Cities]

Donor Unknown (Redbird Productions): Documentary about children born through artificial insemination trying to find their sperm-donor fathers. Directed by Jerry Rothwell. [Key Cities / 12A]

> Get local cinema showtimes at Google Movies or FindAnyFilm
UK DVD & Blu-ray releases for Monday 30th May 2011, including Treme: Season 1