For helmers, 2011 was a year of novelty. Even the best-known contempo filmmakers found themselves forging new trails or adopting new technologies — and competing for year-end kudos as a result.
All of the directorial achievements dominant in early critics-circle tallies seemed determined to prove a point:
Martin Scorsese’s headfirst plunge into “Hugo” showed off 3D’s capacity for depth perception of emotion and character.
Michel Hazanavicius’ U.S. visit mined the long-ignored realm of shimmering silent film with “The Artist.”
Nicolas Winding Refn pumped high-octane life into the existential 1970s road genre with “Drive.”
The unpredictable Terrence Malick veered ever further from linear narrative, convinced that 1950s boyhood nostalgia woven with footage of dinosaurs ruling the earth could reveal the roots of “The Tree of Life.”
Even Steven Spielberg, whose “War Horse” couldn’t have been more in his comfort zone, went the novelty route by also taking on his first animated feature, “The Adventures of Tintin.”
Veterans, even those working within their wheelhouse, took chances and tested themselves. In “Midnight in Paris,” Woody Allen made greater use of real-life figures than ever before, juxtaposing 1920s literati with tense moderns in an echo of his magical-realist New Yorker pieces. Alexander Payne, having traveled westward to Napa for “Sideways,” veered further west for “The Descendants,” finding the same quirky decency among the Hawaiians as his fellow Nebraskans.
Stephen Daldry gambled Americans were ready to embrace the emotional legacy of 9/11 in “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” Clint Eastwood that they’d be willing to confront the man behind the ideology in “J. Edgar.”
Also, 2011 was a year of firsts. David Fincher took on his first remake in the powerful “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” helmer Tomas Alfredson’s worked for the first time in English. Both adapted to the geography with distinction.
Filmmakers at the beginning of their careers made an impact far beyond their nominal track record. Tate Taylor (“The Help”) and Bennett Miller (“Moneyball”) took to the scope of big-studio filmmaking as if they’d been managing it for years. Mike Mills sensitively explored a father and son’s secret desires in “Beginners.” J.C. Chandor pointedly revealed the heart of Gotham’s financial darkness in “Margin Call,” Steve McQueen and Dee Rees its sexual subculture with, respectively, “Shame” and “Pariah.”
May our best filmmakers continue to push the envelope.
• Directors on directors