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A couple of weeks ago, Mike White dropped into Toronto for an onstage chat. White has staked out a corner of L.A. for himself, writing, directing and acting in TV shows and films ( Enlightened, Chuck & Buck) that probe uncomfortable situations, resulting in the kind of pain/pleasure you get from touching your tongue to a sore tooth. About his recent work, however, he said something that struck me and stuck: "The older I get, the more I'm interested in compassion."

Compassion – more and more, that's what I'm yearning for, too. And judging by ticket sales for noisy Hollywood fare, which are sagging like sad socks this season, it seems lots of people are.

It's a tricky chord to hit, though. One note wrong, and it's treacly, preachy or just plain dull. And not every film has to belabour it – something that sizzles your nerve endings can be fun for an hour or two. But the films that settle in my heart are the ones that open a window into how other people experience being alive. Here in alphabetical(ish) order are 12 that did that for me in 2011.

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Beginners, written and directed by Mike Mills. How do people end up in lives that don't make them happy, and why are they afraid to change? Mills explores those questions in the story of a father and son who don't miss their last chance to connect. Not only does it achieve a near-impossible tone of lighthearted sadness, it also boasts one of the best performances of Christopher Plummer's storied career.

Coriolanus, written by John Logan from the Shakespeare play, directed by Ralph Fiennes. This is Fiennes's directorial debut, and it's impressive. He keeps the language, but updates the period to a modern-day Balkans-style civil war, and employs everything he ever learned about Shakespeare and film to cracking effect. I think you'll be startled by how timely he proves this story of posturing politicians making pointless war.

Melancholia, written and directed by Lars Von Trier; and Take Shelter, written and directed by Jeff Nichols. Together, these two offer a master class in the different ways one medium can explore what seems at first glance to be the same subject – in this case, mental illness and the end of the world. Von Trier's take is operatic, lush, at times bitterly comic. Nichols's is smaller, sparer, more grounded. Both are wonderfully humane and make you shiver at how fragile sanity, not to mention our little experiment of life on Earth, really is.

Moneyball, written by Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, directed by Bennett Miller; and Win Win, written and directed by Tom McCarthy. This pair is not linked because they're sort-of sports movies (the former about pro baseball; the latter, high-school wrestling). They're linked because they're bittersweet dramas about good men on the cusp of something great. And they're standouts because they prove that, in the right hands, character is drama.

Pina, directed by Wim Wenders. This documentary, shot in 3-D, demonstrates the passion in compassion. Pivotal German dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch died in 2009, and Wenders and Bausch's company of dancers pay homage to her in the best way: with a few words, and a lot of stunning dance. Thanks to the close-ups only film can provide, the full spectrum of emotions in Bausch's pieces come alive in a way they can't from the distance of a stage. The 3-D is seamless – it's the first film that let me forget I was wearing those ridiculous glasses. (The only other one to have come close was Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Who'd have thunk it would be German documentary-makers who would perfect Hollywood's new toy?)

Project Nim, directed by James Marsh. Another documentary, this time focusing on language-development researchers in the 1970s who tried to raise a chimp in a human family, with shattering results. Like Marsh's previous doc, Man on Wire (one of my favourite films of 2008), it operates on many levels. It's about human exuberance and folly; it's about the chaos that comes with breaking mores; and most of all, it's about the passing of time. No other medium can compete with documentary, and its juxtapositions of footage from then and now, in showing us what we gain and lose as the clock ticks forward.

Shame, written and directed by Steve McQueen. I've written about this movie in previous columns, and tons of people have joined in the debate about whether its story – an urban man at the nadir of sex addiction – is revelatory or a retrograde morality tale. But I still maintain it's the film of 2011, because it's so about this moment in time: the nexus we're living in of social and sexual freedoms, technology that should but doesn't always make us feel more connected, and (most of all) unprecedented access to pornography. Believe it or scoff at it, but you should see it.

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The Tree of Life, written and directed by Terrence Malick. Yes, it's long, and some of the imagery seems incomprehensible, and yes, I'm not sure he pulled off the dinosaur bit. But it tackles head-on the mystery of life, what we alone in the known universe are up to on this little blue ball. This is a movie that aches – to feel, to know, to break free, to find home, to love. You can't just watch it casually. You have to give over to it. Is it pretentious? Sure. But name me an act of trying to make art that isn't.

The Trip, directed by Michael Winterbottom. This docu-comedy, largely improvised by its stars Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, made me laugh like nothing else this year. Not much happens: Winterbottom films Coogan and Brydon on a culinary tour of northern England. But in the hands of these three, who previously collaborated on one of my all-time favorites, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, that's plenty. They're geniuses at reducing deadly sins – pride, envy, lust – to their smallest iteration, rendering them hilarious.

The Whistleblower, directed by Larysa Kondracki, written by Kondracki and Eilis Kirwan. An underrated Canadian film is not news. But this political thriller, about a UN peacekeeper (Rachel Weisz) confronting the moral mess of postwar Bosnia, made news this year when it prompted the UN to take a hard look at some of its hiring practices – and alleged cover-ups. It's also a wrenching look at human trafficking, and features a note-perfect performance by Weisz that deserves a lot more attention.

And now I can think of no better way to close out one year and begin the next than with a defining quote from Pina Bausch: "Dance, dance, otherwise we are lost."

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