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Art of Darkness

Las-acacias-german-de-silva-hebe-duarte
Verve Pictures

The year 2011 was probably not one that will be best remembered for its cinema. As the world swirled with upheaval, the movies we saw didn't quite manage to capture the frenetic pace of change around us. Since movies usually take about three years to make, this is not completely surprising; but it does seem a shame that so few of our artists are ahead of the times. This is also the year in which Steven Spielberg — executive producer of "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" — proclaimed his disappointment that so few truly great movies were being made these days. Darkness was one theme very visible in the year's films, usually darkness without real reason other than the director wanted to see what he could get away with. So among other things we had — spoiler alert — a father selling his child for cash ("Real Steel"), a man sleeping with his girlfriend's mother in a fit of pique ("Beautiful Lies") and — possibly worst of all — Buzz Aldrin lending credibility to Michael Bay's hard-on for space-program conspiracies (the aforementioned "Transformers"). This is very depressing. No wonder we’re not as interested any more. To top it off, when all the comedies that actually like their characters have moved to television, is it any wonder that people stay in?

Here in Britain, the dissolution of the U.K. Film Council is complete, with "The King's Speech" as its last hurrah. No one seems to know yet how the British Film Institute is exactly going to complete its new remit, but in the uncertainty it does seem like British directors are becoming a bit smarter about finding their funding. There was also, blessedly, less period pandering in British films this year, which — with the success of "Downton Abbey" — seems to be something else that has also migrated to television.

Sarah Manvel's Top Movies of 2011 in alphabetical order

AS IF I AM NOT THERE If you want darkness in your cinema, all you need to do is watch this once. I hope I never have to see it again, but it has stayed with me all year — which rarely happens. As a critic who is also a woman, its critical reception has been interesting to me. It seemed like there were an awful lot of men out there who — no matter the circumstances — would find a way to blame the woman. Perhaps the horror of what happened in this movie was something male film critics must distance themselves from at all costs. Or perhaps a movie like this one can be an excellent opportunity for people to think about rape, sexual power and the right to choose.

THE EAGLE I loved the book on which this is based as a child. But as an adult, I can see its empire mind-set differently. The movie itself was not great. But Channing Tatum is growing on me; Jamie Bell has made the transition to adult star with class and interesting career choices; and Tahar Rahim is in it, painted blue and speaking Gaelic. And sometimes that's enough.

4 DAYS INSIDE GUANTANAMO This Canadian documentary about the treatment of Omar Khadr — the Canadian child soldier who was 15 when he arrived in Guantanamo in 2002 — is absolutely essential viewing if you are interested in the war on terror, interrogation techniques or were ever a child, alone and scared and crying for your mother.

THE INBETWEENERS MOVIE Every episode of the TV show would, without fail, have me both shrieking with laughter and thanking the gods that I was never a teenage boy. (Your next box set!) Sending them on a boys-gone-wild summer vacation was always going to be comedy gold. (That's right, Americans, in Europe you get to go on spring break when you're 18.) The dynamic of the group of friends survived the transition because they are all as bad as each other, with each actor willing to humiliate himself completely. Despite this, everyone is surprised that this is now the highest-grossing British comedy of all-time. Although we were all young, drunk, stupid and horny once — and clichés do sometimes exist for a reason — the major delight of this movie was that everyone involved in its making held his or her nerve.

LAS ACACIAS If you see this movie and don't feel better about the world, then you are a robot only pretending to be human. The absolute miracle of the interactions between the two adult actors and the baby made "Las acacias" a truly impossible achievement. It is not possible to recommend a movie more strongly.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE — GHOST PROTOCOL Tom Cruise served us all. He — rather brilliantly — reminded us that there are still movie stars working in Hollywood, if only they are willing to put in the effort. Not that I, with my terrible vertigo, could watch much of the Burj Khalifa sequence. Brad Bird can apparently do anything; and you can almost hear the producers of the next Bond and Bourne movies gnashing their teeth. What a wonderful action movie, and what a treat to have a lead actor who is happy to own the cinema. Matt Damon, Daniel Craig: Please go, and take notes.

POETRY This is a small movie about a little old lady who gives up her job, her family and her future so that she can live with herself. She does this after coming under an immense amount of pressure from a bunch of men who do not care about little old ladies, one of whom is her grandson. Her slow realization that she needs to do the right thing for herself is astonishing. "Poetry" also gave us one of the most potent images of the past year: A man in Mija’s (Yun Jeong-hie) poetry class, when asked to describe the happiest moment of his life, explains that his life has never been happy; but a few months ago he was — after 20 years in a windowless basement efficiency — finally able to move into an efficiency with a window. He said he lay on the ground in the light from the window, and felt as if he could fly.

VIVA RIVA! When I was at university, I attended a virtually empty film-festival screening of a Cameroonian film called "Quartier Mozart," made in 1992. That remains one of the few African films I have ever seen, but I still remember the vitality and the fullness of the life within that movie. "Viva Riva!" felt very much like it was cut of the same cloth, in that it told an exciting and sexy story about people — not stereotypes — and made a budget of thruppence-whatever feel like an awful lot. Although the characters were not stereotypes, they were clichés, which made the story easy to follow for those of us who knew nothing about Democratic Republic of Congo.

WUTHERING HEIGHTS To my mind, Andrea Arnold is the most interesting director currently working in Britain. Her choice of casting black actors to play Heathcliff was scandalous, which said a great deal about the mindset of privilege here in Britain. Considering that there were several references to Heathcliff’s color in Emily Brontë’s novel, the fact that it has never been done before should be an embarrassment. Ms. Arnold has a gift for working with untrained amateurs and pulling performances of shocking raw power out of them. She also has a very clear-eyed understanding of human nature, so that we understand the casual thoughtlessness of her characters and choices they make, whether we respect them or not. In her films, no one is left off the hook; and the consequences that logically follow like pins scattering under a bowling ball are always explored to the most riveting extreme. "Wuthering Heights" came out in Britain several months after Cary Joji Fukunaga's "Jane Eyre," the more polished and glossy picture; and its box office almost certainly suffered for the comparison. But when Solomon Glave— the young actor playing Heathcliff — walked into a room and said an Anglo-Saxon four-word sentence that Brontë never wrote, you realized with a gasp what Ms. Arnold had done: She drilled into the essence of the story underneath the novel and showed it to us, fresh. I cannot wait to see it again.

X-MEN: FIRST CLASS I once went through an airport in Texas wearing a Wolverine t-shirt. A man stopped me, walked in a circle around me twice telling me how cool I was, and then offered me $40 for it. Since his offer did not include a new shirt, I declined. So I have always liked the "X-Men" and most related things that do not include Brett Ratner and that tragically ridiculous "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" movie. When they remember the importance of their female characters to their mythology, the whole "X-Men" concept is so strong it's very difficult for the movies to go too wrong — although Jane Goldman's involvement was very welcome. So this movie had me at hello. Plus, Michael Fassbender looks really hot in a black turtleneck.

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