It was a year in which the film industry – particularly Hollywood – told us left was right, up was down and any preconceived notions you have about the cinema ought to be left at the candy bar. 2011 was as unpredictable as they come, a mixed bag of surprises, pleasures and stinkers. Here we focus on the pleasures.

It was a year in which a movie most dismissed sight-unseen as a dumb big budget exercise in franchise flogging turned out to be a rousing and soulful look at man and animal, morality and science. It was a year in which a provocateur whose last film was unceasingly gratuitous chipped in a masterpiece. It was a year in which a Hollywood hunk led an edgy and brilliant genre piece, and another Hollywood hunk whose CV is washed out with forgettable lowbrow fare starred in the best film of the year.

For films to be eligible to appear in this list, they must have been released in Australia (a few screenings at a festival or two do not count) anytime during the calendar year.

And now onto the winners, arranged in no particular order other than the last title, which takes the Cinetology trophy for best film of the year.

Honourable mentions

Midnight in Paris, Barney’s Version, Submarine, Beginners, The Illusionist. 

The Yellow Sea (South Korea)

It takes a while to click into high gear and, at nearly two and a half hours, it’s a long ride — but there ain’t a dead minute in writer/director Hong-Jin Na’s noirish South Korean crime epic about a down-on-his-luck Korean Chinese cabbie (Ha Jung-woo) who decides to pay off his mah-jong debts by taking on an assignment to whack a gangster. Naturally nothing goes to plan and his efforts create a trail of blood and violence; knives, axes and even soup bones carving up those kissed goodbye by Hong-Jin’s keen eye for grisly departures. The story mixes lower-class suburban desperation with a killing assignment, gangland war and one protracted hellzapoppin’ manhunt that comes on like a steam train and ups the ante of Hong-Jin’s terrific previous feature, The Chaser. Shot, acted and directed with frenetic eye-bulging style and detail, and brilliantly edited by Sun-min Kim (The Host), The Yellow Sea makes virtually every other 2011 action movie look like a trip to a puppy farm.

Drive (USA)

Not many hard-boiled crime films — or any films, for that matter — can pull off an 80s soundtrack and extensive use of pink Brush Script MT but Nicolas Winding Refn’s neo-noir scorcher, starring man-of-the-moment/month/year Ryan Gosling as a getaway car driver, can do no wrong. This is how they make noir these days: violent, uncompromising, bereft of the snap crackle dialogue of yesteryear. Nevertheless Drive is immaculately designed, tensely acted and tightly directed and plotted.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (USA)

Ignore any preconceived notions you have about the Planet of the Apes movies. Director Rupert Wyatt makes a mockery of their monkey business by creating the biggest artistic surprise of cinema in 2011 — a deeply personal and searingly atypical multiplex movie with heart, soul, moral complexities and a plethora of superbly staged action sequences. The story of Caesar, a super intelligent ape raised as a human (and brought to life by actor Andy Serkis, with the aid of performance capture technology) provides a compelling companion piece to James Marsh’s documentary Project Nim. Hollywood blockbusters don’t get much better — or bolder — than this.

True Grit (USA)

Veteran writer/director/producer tag-team the Coen brothers are running out of genres to master. In this hard-boiled western the Coens remake a John Wayne classic and transform it into a dark, brooding, wickedly entertaining film showcasing another portfolio of handsome images from cinematographer and long-time collaborator Roger Deakins. If the ghost of John Wayne were to arise and challenge star Jeff Bridges (in a mesmerising Oscar winning performance) to put down his bottle and join him for a good ol’ round of pistols at dawn, there’d be no doubt which drunkard would head back to the saloon victorious.

Snowtown (Aus)

First time feature filmmaker Justin Kurzel’s harrowing depiction of Australia’s infamous ‘bodies in the barrels’ case isn’t just a brilliant piece of blood curdling cinema and a study of how evil can poison lives and communities — it is also the most frightening Australian film ever made. A suburban drama with shocking verisimilitude, Kurzel’s debut sits on the same shelf as hard-hitting Australian masterpieces such as Samson & Delilah (2009), Breaker Morant (1980) and Wake in Fright (1971).

Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll (UK)

It’s one helluva title to live up to, but director Mat Whitecross does so with liver-breaking lung-smashing chutzpah in this warts-n-all, pills-n-booze biopic of British punk icon Ian Dury. Featuring a gob-smacking turn from actor Andy Serkis — best known for CGI lathered roles such as Gollum in Lord of the Rings and Caesar in Planet of the ApesSex & Drugs & Rock & Roll is a pastiche of bad craziness, savage beauty and startling pathos. Finally released on DVD in Australia, it’s a must-see.

Melancholia (USA)

Danish provocateur Lars von Trier, whose divisive CV spans greatness to garbage, summons the full force of film atmospherics to colour his apocalyptic wedding drama about a woman (Kirsten Dunst) suffering from depression who finds some solace in the fact that the world is about to end. Von Trier’s ability to hold a frame is his most stunning achievement yet, combining extreme close-ups with extreme long shots so nicely choreographed the images seem weep from the frame. On visual terms, Melancholia is hands-down the film of the year. A bunch of perfect performances from Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, John Hurt, Keifer Sutherland and others breathe bewitching life into characters embroiled in double meanings and subtexts. The film is about the dark recesses of depression, told in a manner infinitely more sophisticated than von Trier’s previous venture into similar territory in the relentlessly gratuitous Antichrist (2009).

Face to Face (Aus)

A long stream of fluid dialogue in a largely single setting uses a violent workplace incident to springboard heated discussions between a small group of people — led by calm-headed group mediator Matthew Newton (oh the irony) — in writer/director Michael Rymer’s terrific adaption of a David Williamson play. Face to Face is a modest stroke of heartfelt genius, Rymer taking what initially appears to be a no-brainer situation and flipping it into a spiraling study of duelling origins, motivations and consequences.

Certified Copy (France)

Can plagiary be just as good as the real thing? What’s the difference between a kid saying “so what?” about death and a philosopher saying the same thing? There are many questions Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami raises in his beautifully shot and acted Tuscany-set drama about an author (William Shimell) and an antiques dealer (Juliette Binoche) who spend a day debating art and relationships. At around the half way point it becomes clear that Kiarostami is using his modest setup to play slippery intellectual mind games. Are the couple strangers pretending to know each other, or people who know each other pretending to be strangers? And in cinema, in which everything is an artifice, what difference does it make? One can watch hundreds of films a year and not see anything quite like this sleight, curious achievement in mind-expansion.

Cinetology’s film of the year: The Lincoln Lawyer (USA)

The film of the year — a perfect cross between PI style whodunit and courtroom thriller, adapted from a novel by Michael Connelly — proves three things: 1) neo-noir doesn’t have to be excessively violent, like Drive, 2) the deflated genre of legal thrillers can still pack a hell of a punch and 3) Matthew McConaughey can act with the best of them when he sets his mind to it. McConaughey, whose baggy eyes appear guilt ridden by the weight of so many bad movies, is perfectly cast as Mick Haller, a smug got-ya-number Southern American attorney whose greatest fear is representing an innocent man. His cool and collected universe is thrown helter skelter when a new client (Ryan Phillipe) enters his professional and personal life.

One almighty half time twist involving Haller’s new client’s relationship with a man he previously represented sends the story hurtling into a zero-oxygen cat and mouse power play. With whispers of Roman Polanksi’s Chinatown (1974) and Gregory Hoblit’s Primal Fear (1996), The Lincoln Lawyer is a case study in measured style from the opening credits set to Bobby Blue Bland’s ‘Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City’ to the script’s commentaries on the court as a political playground: cutting deals, spinning truth, twisting legalities, playing ‘loaded decks’, scrounging together shards of justice from a broken system. The at first unflappable Haller — up there with the best characters the courtroom genre has to offer — discovers a crisis of conscience the hard way, determined to correct mistakes of the past by “making it right.” McConaughey, perhaps, was driven by the same impetus, and the result is a twisty, intricately crafted chef d’oeuvre.