2011 has been the best year for Tamil cinema in recent times with even the biggest stars surrendering to the demands of the script. Directors are back with a bang, says Sudhish Kamath who draws up his list of the best

1. Aaranya Kaandam

Not a single saleable star, many newcomers, a debutant director, a crackling script and an instantly likeable retro score. Despite the odds stacked against it, including a face-off with the censors, Tamil cinema's first foray into neo-noir films explored the wild side of humanity and is the most original, radical Tamil film in years. A star is born — director Thiagarajan Kumararaja, that is.

2. Aadukalam

Vetrimaran's Shakespearesque drama could have settled to be a riveting sports film about cock-fighting. Instead, it chose to dwell deeper into the psyche of man, and showcased hubris as never before as Dhanush showed us why he's becoming one of the country's finest actors with a gloriously restrained performance and let a complete newcomer walk away with the meaty part. A triumph for Tamil cinema where a star shed his ego and a filmmaker studied it.

3. Engeyyum Eppothum

One of the most under-rated films of this year, debutant director M. Saravanan's film is one of the most powerful, even if a little sentimental. With equal parts tragic and comic, this bittersweet “Alai Payuthey” of 2011, is so fresh with its treatment of romance, gender types (finally filmmakers are writing equally important roles for women) and the frailty of life. The incredibly shot collision scene packs a wallop and leaves you with a lump in the throat once you've invested in the characters.

4. Mayakkam Enna

Selvaraghavan's finest, most subtle and responsible film till date, intentionally or otherwise, serves as an apology to feminists who haven't exactly been happy with how he treats his women. Man is the weaker sex in “Mayakkam Enna” as Dhanush once again plays second fiddle to the actress and shines. This tribute to the strength and resilience of the Indian wife is a little slow and understated, which is why the rare burst of loud emotion jars.

5. Mouna Guru

Another rocking debut, this well-scripted crime thriller settles for much less than what it sets up by giving the suspense away voluntarily and so blandly half an hour before the film ends. Director Santha Kumar is a talent to watch out for, with his eye for detail and flair for realism. This ensemble is just too awesome to miss, even if not entirely satisfying. Next time, just get rid of the mandatory romance track too, Santha Kumar.

6. Avan Ivan

Bala's attempt at commercial cinema is strangely his artistic best as well. No loud, manipulative poverty porn here or actors contorting their faces to say: “Please give me a National award”. No, wait… Okay, Vishal has indeed worked hard but it's great to see that Bala hasn't milked it for sympathy this time. If all his films have been one-note dark, “Avan Ivan” is the director at his most balanced best. This is his “Agni Natchatram” and he uses the template of warring step-sons to actually explore the notion of family, the ones we are a part of by blood (by nature) and the ones we create (by nurture).

7. Yuddham Sei

Mysskin's police drama is gritty, realistic with great attention to detail and police procedure and a well-concealed twist. But the stylisation of the larger-than-life action sequences seems completely out of place as the film keeps jumping between the real, the unreal and the surreal rather inconsistently. Similar to last year's “Eesan” in its innocent-turned-vigilante theme, it keeps you engaged till the very end, a good comeback for Mysskin after “Nandalala”.

8. 7aum Arivu

This experiment by A.R. Murugadoss that tries to approach history through science fiction works more than it fails. “7aum…” employs the chase-movie template with a powerful villain to keep things going at breakneck speed, earning its license to suspend your disbelief, thanks to its history-book superhero-from-the-past plot. Sadly, the film gets over even before our superhero gets his powers back. Which would have been okay if it was a franchise such as “Batman Begins” but no, instead it becomes an advertisement on the need to learn history.

9. Mankatha

“Mankatha” earns its place here simply because it took a fairly dark genre like noir and celebrated evil minus the darkness. “How many days do I keep playing the good guy?” asks Ajith in this irreverent Venkat Prabhu mind-game. This comic heist film is the best thing Ajith has ever done since “Billa”. Full points to Ajith for breaking his image and disbanding fan clubs. Now, it's time to get rid of that ‘thala-vali' (headache), the weight of that tag is coming between him and meaty roles.

10. Velayudham

This movie deserves a pat on its back simply for Vijay asking his fans to shut up and look within for a hero. Well done, M. Raja. It's high time stars cut themselves free from the baggage of fan demands of six songs and six fights and did films that would be remembered for the right reasons. Yes, this was “Tirupaachi” redux with a “Captain” movie plot Never mind that the costume was copied from a videogame, the vigilante-superhero treatment made this a fairly engaging film.

The ones that almost made it:

Ko, Deivathirumagal, Nadunisi Naaygal, Poraali, Azhagarsaamyin Kuthirai.

Keywords: Kollywood