I haven't really compiled, or been able to compile, a year end top ten in quite a long time. Perhaps after I've caught up with more titles I can add something. Usually what I've done, annually, around the 31st of December is to make a list of memorable first time viewings from the year. Generally, highlights are decidedly 20th century. But that doesn't satisfy me this year - I could cite incredible things that I only just saw in 2011 (like Garrel's L'Enfant secret on a digital copy, or a print of Raoul Walsh's wonderful Sailor's Luck, or the monumental Eniaios II screening that the Siskel Center showed here in Chicago). But instead I want to look to the future, and so I'll just write a few words about a few important films from the past year ...
Howls in Favor of Sade Award. Qu'ils reposent en révolte (des figures de guerre) (Sylvain George, 2010), which has a rare balance for "political" cinema in that one can discern the virtues of both patience (human and aesthetic) and urgency (in feeling and in policy). Sadly, few will have seen it. And I myself can offer little in the way of analysis, certainly not the verbiage I've spilled on Tree of Life, because I've only seen Qu'ils reposent... once, and it calls for greater contextualization than I am able to provide. But these readings might prove instructive, here and here.
Film of the Year. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011). I've already written a lot about this film. No need to keep going now; those who were disappointed (either because the movie didn't tell a clear story or that it allegedly "universalizes") won't find what I write convincing. It would be interesting to re-read the love letters & hate mail to the movie just to see how they use the name of Papa Malick. This points the way to the sociopolitical "problem" of The Tree of Life that I do think is worth calling into question but that almost nobody seems to want to talk about. Perhaps this reticence stems from the possibility that it might implicate critics too (gasp! clutch the pearls!) and not just the figurehead of the author. I'm referring specifically to the construction of The Tree of Life as a high romantic modernist work, and the subsequent, cannibalistic critical lineage which then denigrates that moment before it as too naïve, too recherche, too declasse. The underbelly of the history of criticism (maybe just one underbelly) is also a history of fashion, and what one says often carries greater significance for what it strategically leaves unsaid, but communicated, to the right kind of listener. This, I feel, is a problem in a lot of criticism of The Tree of Life but also a problem in the film, itself, this address to a specialized audience.
Commercial cinema was very disappointing in 2011, though the 2010 festival cinema provided a number of good works filtering, in 2011, into area theaters and the digital domain (like Apichatpong's Uncle Boonmee, Guzman's Nostalgia for the Light, Breillat's La Belle endormie, Hellman's Road to Nowhere, among others). My favorite genre film, just off the cuff, was probably Takashi Miike's 13 Assassins.
The best (very) short film I saw would have to be Ars Colonia (Raya Martin, 2011).