Bosnia and Herzegovina)
Ceylan synthetically constructs his portrait of bi-continental Turkish national identity from the tissues of high-modernist European and Middle Eastern masters, from the metaphysical phantasmagoria of Tarkovsky to the cosmological landscapes of Kiarostami. With the sun setting on the autumnal latter, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia descends into an endless digital expanse of sensual blacks, cut by glowing high-beams, which in turn will give way to an unforgettable gas-lit interlude. Ceylan's latest, easily his best, is 2011's most inexhaustible work of cinema.
The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky, Hungary/
Purportedly Hungarian master Tarr's final film, The Turin Horse provides the most distilled expression of the director's style to date: Tarr's heavily choreographed, phenomenological long-takes bleakly inscribe a series of quotidian gestures on a perpetually windswept Central European plane. No less signature is Tarr's Nietzschean take on a European civilization that has already collapsed. This is Tarr bringing both his corpus and Europe's fin de siècle late modernism - in form and in content - to a highly masterful conclusion.
A sign of life in an increasingly endangered corner of world cinema, Farhadi builds one of the art's more comprehensive portraits of human relations under theocratic rule, constructing a private social sphere in which virtually nothing exists outside the sight of fundamentalist Islam's invisible monitors. A Separation's consistently transparent architectural spaces fulfill an especially crucial role in enabling the the surveillance that provides the film with its inherently critical subject. A masterpiece of Iran's latest filmic wave.
4. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, United States)
A rare example of a genuinely American art cinema - and easily the year's most ambitious work - The Tree of Life reproduces God's Book of Job answer to his human interrogators, combining the beauty of divine creation that provides this response with a form of confessional autobiography that looks to the director's adolescent origins. The latter sequences showcase the exceptional impressionistic power of Malick's subjective film craft, which ultimately outweighs Malick's reliance on New Age cliché.
5. This Is Not a Film (Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, Iran)
A home movie of unparalleled personal courage, festival auteur Panahi (under house-arrest and a twenty year ban from filmmaking at the time of production) and documentarian Mirtahmasb combine a series of tangential forms - surveillance, the reading and blocking of a screenplay, the scouting of a location - that stand outside Panahi's prevailing narrative practice. Constructed out of the medium's remainders, few works have ever made what is forbidden to Panahi any more meaningful.
Ever the most Mizoguchian of contemporary directors, Davies's latest tragic masterstroke reprises the disjunctive Proustian temporality of the director's very great Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes in cinematically adapting Terrence Rattigan's eponymous 1952 play. Davies remains gloriously stuck in the postwar moment of his legit source material, nostalgically remembering a bygone working class public that the filmmaker elegantly casts in a warm amber glow.
7. Le Havre (Aki Kaurismäki, Finland/France/Germany)
Espousing the virtue of humanistic resistance in the face of punitive immigration-law enforcement, leading Finnish auteur Kaurismäki's first French-set film in almost two decades finds the director in his default deadpan comedic style and preferred proletarian milieu. The level of Kaurismäki's filmmaking however exceeds his standard high quality, with the the director employing a thematically significant, metronomic economy of primary colors that offers a parallel source of formal interest.
Old Dog (Pema Tseden, China)
A modern-day classic of humanist cinema that reinforces the art’s perpetual role in dramatizing the contested arrival of modernity, one of the medium’s primary subjects for the past 120 years, Old Dog situates Tibet and Tibetan culture as sites of exploitation for a newly wealthy urban China. Directed with great intelligence by Pema Tseden, Old Dog is a breakthrough for a newly emergent Tibetan cinema, and the nation's art cinema more generally.
9. Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, United States)
Reviving the mid-level American action filmmaking of Michael Mann and Walter Hill at a time when both have made the transition to long-form cable television, the Danish-born Refn borrows his carefully mapped nocturnal cityscapes from the former's Collateral and almost everything else from the latter's The Driver, including Drive's no less deep professionalism, its late 70s consciousness and even its nameless protagonist. A very welcome revival - not to mention 2011's best cast film.
A profoundly humanistic companion-piece to Le Havre, The Kid with a Bike similarly features an at-risk youth who finds his savior in a charitable adult stranger. Where Kaurismäki engages with contemporary politics, the Dardenne brothers opt for a more archetypal, though no less personally urgent narrative treating the appeal of adolescent gang life. Breathlessly rendering their on-the-move young subject with equally mobile camera work, The Kid with a Bike is boundlessly cinematic.