The year 2011 started extremely promisingly on the cinematic front. Within the first two months a string of impressive dramas emerged, from the Coen brothers' sumptuous western remake True Grit to the British period drama The King's Speech, David O Russell's gritty boxing picture The Fighter and Darren Aronofsky's truly extraordinary thriller, Black Swan.
But this flood of quality merely proved to be the annual Oscar rush, and things soon settled into a rut of mediocrity, particularly during the summer, which was bereft of decent blockbusters. Summer audiences were mainly faced with a diet of uninspired sequels, as the Pirates of the Caribbean, Transformers and Harry Potter franchises churned out derivative and unremarkable films.
The second Hangover was an exercise in contextless vulgarity, and a huge disappointment. Even the normally infallible Pixar came a cropper with the dire and confusing Cars 2.
Captain America: The First Avenger was probably the best superhero film in a surprisingly crowded field, and JJ Abrams' Super 8 was the summer's standout blockbuster, despite being a shameless tribute to the early films of Steven Spielberg. Rise of the Planet of the Apes was pretty good fun too, while the crude but hilarious all-girl caper Bridesmaids was probably the comedy of the year.
Overall, then, the summer was nothing to write home about, but there were a few films to get excited about in 2011. Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life did not disappoint, and neither did Lars von Trier's Melancholia, which marked a spectacular return to form.
Tomas Alfredson's stylish rethink of John le Carre's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was the year's standout thriller, and Lynne Ramsey's adaptation of Lionel Shriver's novel We Need to Talk About Kevin was an unforgettably intense experience.
While no vintage year, 2011 undoubtedly had its moments, and here's our pick of the best -- and worst -- films and performances.
2011 was an exceptional year for documentaries, from Asif Kapaida's Senna to James Marsh's Project Nim and Charles Ferguson's Inside Job, which brilliantly dissected the 2008 economic crash. On the foreign front the Korean drama Poetry and the Russian thriller How I Ended This Summer stood out, as well as Lars von Trier's Melancholia.
The King's Speech went down big at the Oscars, and the Coen brothers' True Grit didn't but deserved to. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and We Need to Talk About Kevin also deserve a mention, but for me the standout film of 2011 was Darren Aronofsky's ballet saga Black Swan, which was part melodrama, part grotesque horror film.
While his film was most definitely not for everyone, I hugely admired Michelangelo Frammartino's direction on his slow-moving rural drama, Le Quattro Volte. David Bowie's son Duncan Jones did a fine job on the clever sci-fi thriller Source Code. I liked Kelly Reichardt's minimalist western Meek's Cutoff, too, and Terrence Malick's breathtaking The Tree of Life.
Lynne Ramsey did a brilliant job of catching the dread and discomfort of Lionel Shriver's novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, which examined the aftermath of a high-school shooting. I've never liked Lars von Trier, so it pains me hugely to admit that I thought that his superb Melancholia was for me the best piece of direction this year.
I sometimes find Rachel Weisz's acting superficial, but she was believably desperate as a compromised woman in Terence Davies' The Deep Blue Sea.
Michelle Williams was absolutely extraordinary as Marilyn Monroe in My Week with Marilyn, and her performance deserved a better film.
Jessica Chastain was very good in The Tree of Life and several other films, and is definitely a name to watch.
Kirsten Dunst was really stretched in Melancholia, and rose to the challenge, and Tilda Swinton was stunning as a mother at the end of her tether in We Need to Talk About Kevin. Natalie Portman was rightly praised for her Oscar-winning portrayal of a deranged ballet dancer in Black Swan, but Korean actress Yun Jung-hee (above, left) would get my best actress award for her exceptional performance in the moving drama, Poetry.
Best Supporting Actor
I really enjoyed Matt Damon's turn as a boastful but essentially decent Texas Ranger in True Grit, and Colin Firth was very good as the seedy spy Bill Haydon in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Veteran actor Albert Brooks was a revelation as a chilling sociopath in Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive, and I loved Christopher Plummer's portrayal of a gay man in his 70s in Beginners.
Kenneth Branagh gave us a hugely entertaining impersonation of Laurence Olivier in My Week With Marilyn, and John C Reilly was extremely effective as a husband in denial in We Need to Talk About Kevin. But I was most impressed by Australian actor David Wenham's understated turn in Jim Loach's Oranges and Sunshine.
Best Supporting Actress
Samantha Morton impressed me very much playing a confused war widow in The Messenger. Emily Watson was brilliant as a woman determined to get to the bottom of a child abuse scandal in Oranges and Sunshine; Lubna Azabal was unforgettable in the Canadian film Incendies; and Mila Kunis was a memorably sensuous counterbalance to Natalie Portman's brittle diva in Black Swan.
Jessica Chastain was excellent as a social outcast in 1960s Mississippi in The Help; and Melissa McCarthy stole the show with a brilliant comic turn in Bridesmaids. But I thought Helena Bonham Carter (right) was superb as the dogged and indomitable future Queen Mother Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon in The King's Speech.
Best Irish Film
Times are tough for Irish filmmakers these days, and budgets are harder and harder to raise. But three directors managed to release movies of exceptional quality this year, beginning in the spring with Carmel Winter's Snap. Aisling O'Sullivan starred as a troubled woman whose neglect for her son is rooted in a childhood trauma.
Tom Hall's Sensation was a dark but curiously heartwarming comic drama starring Domhnall Gleeson as a gormless country boy who becomes an unlikely pimp. But Conor Horgan's low-budget drama One Hundred Mornings was my favourite Irish film of 2011, and memorably imagined an apocalypse in the Wicklow mountains.
One is always spoilt for choice when it comes to this category. Considering the excellence of the first film, The Hangover: Part II was a real letdown, and the ghastly medieval comedy Your Highness was even crasser, and much worse. Gwyneth Paltrow was more than usually odious in Country Strong, a contrived mess of a country music saga.
Andrea Arnold's profanity-strewn Wuthering Heights was pretty offensive, and the British horror movie Demons Never Die was one of the worst films I've seen in a long time.
But my least favourite film of 2011 was Killing Bono, Nick Hamm's truly dire drama based on Neil McCormick's book about his youthful rivalry with U2.