Arts review of 2011 - Film 2: A divorce drama set in a flat in Tehran – and other thrills and spills


No film this year gripped the attention as tightly as A Separation.

Asghar Farhadi's intense social drama kept pulling our sympathies in different directions as it revealed what went on one fateful afternoon in a Tehran flat between a man, his frail father, and his devout maid. The religious observance and ramshackle legal procedures were quintessentially Iranian, but the class divisions and human frailties were universal. The other Best Film contenders (in my opinion, we critics do differ sometimes) are Lars von Trier's towering Melancholia, which cast a spell with its magnificent opening montage; and Lynne Ramsay's mesmeric We Need to Talk About Kevin – even if Kevin was so loathsome that I was desperate for it to end. Also on the shortlist is Michel Hazanavicius's joyous black-and-white silent movie, The Artist, which contains the performance of the year from Jean Dujardin. Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret was a compromised but classy exploration of life in post 9/11 New York. Oren Moverman's The Messenger was a heavyweight drama about the US Army's Casualty Notification Officers. Drive was cinema at its most cool and stylish, and it proved, alongside Blue Valentine, that Ryan Gosling is Hollywood's most fascinating young actor. True Grit was one of the Coen brothers' most entertaining films.

Trend of the year, Part 1: Stranger than fiction

The phenomenon of 2011 was the brilliance of British documentary-making. As cinematic as any fictional film, Asif Kapadia's Senna was one of the all-time great sports movies. Richard de Aragues's tragicomic take on the TT races, TT3D: Closer to the Edge, wasn't too far behind. Donor Unknown was an hysterical artificial insemination comedy. And the heart-rending Project Nim, which recounted an experimental 1970s attempt to treat a chimp as a human child, was uncannily similar but superior to Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Factor in Kevin Macdonald's global YouTube compilation, Life in a Day, and you might wonder whether we still need actors.

Trend of the year, Part 2: Bad influences

Three stunning films featured neglected teenage boys falling in with the criminal element. From the UK, there was Peter Mullan's daring Neds, which channelled Gregory's Girl, then Quadrophenia, then Halloween. From Australia, came the grubbily authentic Animal Kingdom and Snow Town, which suggested all the crooks we transported there are alive and well and living in suburbia.

Comedy of the year

Kristen Wiig's triumphant Bridesmaids was seen by some as heralding a new wave of female-centric comedies. Well, maybe. But surely the gender of its writer-star was less important than the number of laughs she got, so let's hope Bridesmaids heralds a wave of comedies that are funny.

Cartoon of the year

Pixar lost its way with Cars 2, and Disney got back on track with Tangled, but 2011's most impressive cartoon was also its oddest: Rango. On one level it was a funny animal 'toon featuring a chameleon who became a Wild West sheriff. On another level it was a psychedelic companion piece to There Will Be Blood and Chinatown. Kung Fu Panda 2 was good, too.

Turkey of the year

Not just the turkey, but The Beaver. You'd think that Mel Gibson (star) and Jodie Foster (director and co-star) would be better placed than anyone to craft a smash, but this was a lurching embarrassment. Less catastrophic, but similarly incompetent, Larry Crowne was directed by Tom Hanks. It turns out William Goldman's maxim – "In Hollywood, nobody knows anything" – applies to megastars as much as to everyone else.