A major caveat needs to be applied to this exhaustively thought-through list of the year’s best cinema, and I don’t mean the usual caveat I add about missing some key movie. The number 4 film on this list is so fresh in my mind (I watched it about 5 hours ago) that I’m not entirely sure it belongs in that place. It’s such a rich movie, such a complex and challenging piece of drama that there’s a good chance it should feature even higher, and yet I cannot place it where I think it will belong in future. Listmania is about how I feel at the moment I hit Publish, for better or worse. This means that sometimes I make almighty fuck-ups like including Megamind on last year’s list instead of How To Train Your Dragon, or putting Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and Up below Michael Mann’s Public Enemies in ’09. As a result, it’s at 4, and if I decide that’s wrong in future, I’ll mention it somewhere.
Another thing to note; this year’s list doesn’t include a Best Documentary entry as I broke my new year’s resolution by not watching a single one. The Interrupters is on my Sky+ box, and I really wish I’d seen Senna even though I have next to no interest in Formula One. The one big documentary highlight of the year that I have seen — Errol Morris’ Tabloid — was shown during the 2010 London Film Festival and I wrote about it then, so my arbitrary rules demand I can’t add it this year. Those rules are very important, I’ll have you know. Contravention of the rules requires flagellation and right now I’m already feeling sorry for myself after one of our cats decided to use my face as a scratching post. ::sigh:: It’s been a long day.
As for the movies we traditionally didn’t get to see, the only possible contender for this list was The Descendants, which we could’ve seen at the 2011 London Film Festival if we’d been able to afford £25 each for gala tickets (which… no). Other than that I bet there was a ton of great stuff out there that would have surprised us and warranted inclusion, but I really doubt The Iron Lady (January release over here, rather perversely), Harry Potter and the End of the Franchise, or Jack and Jill would have made the cut. So, for about ten minutes at least, I feel pretty satisfied with this list. Yes, even the placing of Fast Five. You have no idea how much I enjoyed that movie. No idea. #ActionMovieBoner #CrushingOnTheRock
25. Wu Xia
How to describe this thrilling curio, other than to list the mashed-up elements: CSI, A History of Violence / Reign of Assassins, One-Armed Swordsman, Seven, and a dash of Raising Cain meld together to create a unique modern martial arts classic. Donnie Yen, Takeshi Kaneshiro and the legendary Wong Yu-lung face off in a relentlessly surprising tale of hidden identity, suspicion, and obsession. Yen is especially good as a family man thrust into a situation that jeopardises the lives of those he loves, but Kaneshiro matches him in the acting stakes as a possibly-demented detective who suspects he is on the brink of arresting a notorious and deadly killer. All the while, his distorted view of justice threatens to trigger a chain of events that could destroy an entire town. The battle for his soul, and the innocents of Yen’s village, is thrilling and unpredictable, aided by assured direction from Peter Chan, and beautifully photography by Yiu-Fai Lai and Jake Pollock. The well-controlled madness culminates in a final battle of epic intensity that is well worth the wait. Ignore critics who complain that Wu Xia is too much of a slow burn; the build-up contains pleasures too, before paying off in memorable fashion.
24. The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn
Two legendary filmmakers experimented with new technology this year, following in the pioneering footsteps of James Cameron and Robert Zemeckis. Those men made movies that have been critically shunned; perhaps Scorsese and Spielberg would have better luck. Hugo was embraced by film buffs for its loving homage to the works of a revolutionary filmmaker, but while Scorsese’s use of 3D and CGI FX was beautifully handled, the result was a little indulgent, too long, too personal to really breathe. Spielberg’s adaptation of the works of Herge was, on the other hand, derided by many. But it does more than just breathe; it hyperventilates with enthusiastic abandon as it leaps and gambols and sprints in an effort to entertain. The first half is less involving as it introduces beloved characters with too much reverence, but around the halfway mark Spielberg takes his new toy out for a real test drive, and from then on the audience is treated to a whirl of inspired choreography, unbridled imagination and sheer filmmaking genius. The series of setpieces that close out the film – especially the dizzying chase sequence through the elaborate Escher-like maze of Bagghar – are trademark Spielberg; beautiful, unconventional, technical marvels that left me giggling like a drunkard. The promise of further installments is enough to make this former Tintin-sceptic giddy with joy. More! Now!
23. Kung Fu Panda 2
This year’s crop of animated features was pretty disappointing, but that’s not to say there weren’t gems there. The blaze of publicity – and anxious online concern – for Pixar’s car-crash Cars 2 meant that attention was directed away from this Dreamworks sequel. The oddly dismissive reaction to the original might have contributed to the muted response but, for those of us who think the original is an underrated masterpiece of both computer animation and martial arts cinema, this was a cause for celebration. While not as thrilling and powerful as the first movie, KFP2 did the most important thing; it honoured that original, finding new ways to build Po’s character that followed on from his first arc, both by giving him a new source of inner pain to conquer, and by providing an antagonist whose own pain echoes that of our hero. Even the nigh-perfect Toy Story movies trod the same ground from one end of the franchise to the other; to see the KFP franchise show new facets of its central character was most welcome. On top of that, Jennifer Yuh Nelson – who provided the magnificent opening of KFP1 – does stunning work here too. Her direction is hectic but clear, packing giddy setpieces alongside well-judged character moments and perfectly timed gags. If this level of quality can be maintained, let’s hope Jeffrey Katzenberg’s pledge for a dozen sequels will come true.
22. Rise of the Planet of the Apes
What seemed like the most unnecessary movie of the summer season turned out to be one of the year’s highlights. It’s probable that no one thought we needed another Apes movie after Tim Burton’s woeful remake hurled scat bombs at the franchise, but hallelujah, Peter Chernin figured there was enough juice left to be squeezed out, and the result was a rousing triumph. Director Rupert Wyatt took the brilliantly “simple” script by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver and treated it with respect, conjuring up some breathtaking setpieces more thrilling than any amount of crazy Bayhemian pyrotechnics. The fully realised cast of ape characters may have made the humans seem dull in comparison, but that’s only fair; this is a story about the emancipation of our poorly-treated simian brothers, after all. There’s lots to love about RotPotA, but special praise and garlands must be thrown at the amazing Andy Serkis. He’s terrific in Spielberg’s Tintin, but he’s even better here, bringing to life a truly great character. Caesar’s arc from innocent companion to vengeful freedom fighter is the key to this movie’s considerable success, and Serkis does thrilling performance capture work that deserving of award recognition. This summer may have opened with light mocking about RotPotA‘s existence, but the season ended with millions of us impatient for further installments. Who could’ve seen that coming?
21. We Need To Talk About Kevin
The formal daring of Lynne Ramsay’s long-awaited return to cinema is almost frightening, but welcomed gratefully. This adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s novel could, in less intelligent hands, have been reshaped into a run-of-the-mill thriller, but thankfully Ramsay is an artist of the highest order. Her crimson vision of cruelty and misplaced guilt washes over the audience like a wave, playing elliptical games with time and sensory input to create a sense of bafflement similar to that experienced by poor mistreated Eva. As with her previous movies, We Need… is an epic ambient hum compared to the three-minute manufactured ditties that we are usually served up. However, it would have been higher up this list were it not for the character of Kevin, here portrayed as a ludicrous force of pure malevolent evil, not a human being, whose actions are so dreadful as to unbalance the film. As a metaphor for the guilt and pressures placed on women as mothers, and a way to dramatise the vile rejection of Eva by a society that has yet to learn how to process grief, the demonic Kevin works brilliantly. As a believable person, less so. That means the movie’s higher allegorical purpose lacks the human core that would allow it to work on two levels, but even so, there is greatness here. Cinema needs Ramsay’s purity of vision; let’s hope she doesn’t stay away so long next time.
20. The Tree of Life
Terrence Malick’s semi-autobiographic cosmic meditation not only divided critical opinion but has such a split personality that viewer sympathies can change wildly from one moment to the next. Is this too self-indulgent, even for a Malick movie? Is it transcendental? Is it profound or profoundly stupid? The truth almost certainly lies somewhere in the middle, but for fans of the great man’s formless musings and pro-nature fixations, this triggered epiphanies that dwarfed the frustrations. Brad Pitt excels as the cold father who alienates his son, driving him to flirt with feelings of isolation that haunt him for the rest of his life. The microcosm of this transference is given an extra dimension by Malick’s startling decision to present a view of the macrocosm, an infinity of randomness and loneliness that seemingly extends beyond our lives. Tree of Life is arguably more compelling in its wilder moments; Sean Penn’s sojourn into what might be a barren and baffling afterlife, and the early Doug Trumbell-hewn effects sequences, are unexpectedly moving, grandiose bookends to a story of tainted childhood that can’t help but pale in comparison. Nevertheless, this peek into what makes Malick tick is also worth the effort. A filmmaker who for so long has been an enigma opened his heart to his audience, and in its finest moments, his honesty makes that journey worthwhile.
There have been a number of adaptations of Mary Norton’s Borrowers novels — just this week the BBC showed a new version that featured lots of familiar Beeb-approved actors screaming and shouting and getting into all sorts of hi-velocity scrapes. Studio Ghibli’s version couldn’t be more different; it’s so relaxed that the only antagonist in the movie is revealed late in the movie and barely presents a credible threat. Hiromasa Yonebayashi and Hayao Miyazaki’s tale of dislocated family is disarmingly gentle, and focuses more on the details of life within the walls of our houses than the possibility of danger. The gloriously rendered background paintings and exquisite animation reintroduce us to our world from this new perspective, helped by stunning sound design that turns the ambient noise of a house into something alien. There is no need for empty histrionics; the tale of Arrietty’s growth into an adult, and the strain that puts on her overprotective parents, is drama enough. Arrietty’s friendship with Shô provides the rest of the narrative force; against all caution she befriends this potential enemy and inadvertently saves him from despair. This delicate, achingly lovely movie might not have the flights of imagination that other Ghibli movies have, but its grounded nature works in its favour. There is magic and beauty in this ode to friendship, this instant classic of pastoral fantasy.
18. Friends With Benefits
The profitability of cheap, bawdy comedies has led to a glut of films unafraid to depict gross-out bodily humour or frank discussions of the literal ins and outs of heteronormative sexuality (and its unfortunate homosexual partner, high-larious gay panic jokes). This year we’ve had the good (Bridesmaids), the bad (Bad Teacher), the lazy (The Hangover Part II), and the underrated (What’s Your Number?). Only one truly verged on greatness. Friends With Benefits trounces its other fuck-buddy rival No Strings Attached thanks to a good heart that is never swamped by the hilarious sex chat, rampant irreverence, and high energy hijinx, as well as a winning co-starring combo of Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake at their most charming. Will Gluck provides the same enthusiastic movie-referencing nerdery as he did with last year’s exemplary Easy A, this time drawing attention to the conventions of the romcom genre. Quite rightly, our cynical heroes, hurt by past lovers and eager to strip relationships of their romantic baggage, gleefully mock those conventions, and yet are unable to escape their draw when they finally, inevitably fall in love. Some have said Gluck is having his cake and eating it. I say he’s depicting the emotional arc of his protagonists. Honestly, what are critics paid for these days? Not enjoying transparently wonderful comedies? SADFACE.
It doesn’t have to be all Nolan-esque sourness in the superhero movie world, and Thor is the best example of the sheer fun that can be had within this maligned genre. Kenneth Branagh’s remarkably confident experiment with caped heroics does almost everything right, from introducing an audience to an alien world and unfamiliar hero, to using that new world to expand a recently established one, to matching its tone to its predecessors. The Marvel Film Universe has now been established as a place of high adventure and sneaky humour, both of which Thor has in spades. The perfect cast bring the ambitious script to life with infectious verve, with special honours going to scenestealers Anthony Hopkins and Kat Dennings, new star Chris Hemsworth, and especially the amazing Tom Hiddleston. His work here as the tragic and tortured Loki, “God” of Mischief – the year’s best villain – is a revelation. Branagh was right to think of this movie in Shakespearean terms; Loki’s anguish over his birth and insecurity over the love of the King Lear-ean Odin has shades of Richard III with a touch of Don John’s malevolence as he tries to undermine his brother by exploiting his Prince Hal-esque hubris. Thor takes the comic subject matter simultaneously lightly and seriously; it’s that balance between the two states that makes the best superhero movie of the year such a triumph.
For the majority of its running time, Nicholas Winding Refn and Hossain Amini’s pared-down crime thriller features the purest kind of cinematic iconography, using classic elements from the past thirty years of movies to create their simple tale of a getaway driver doing the wrong thing to protect the wholesome girl. It’s a glorious painting done in primary colours, depicting a luminous LA in which our near-silent anti-hero – a professional from the Michael Mann / Walter Hill school of perfectionists – performs miracles, but is undone and/or saved from solitude by a connection to the human world. File this alongside Refn’s previous movie, Valhalla Rising, as a portrait of a man whose singular purpose cannot change his inevitable future, as all around him complicate their lives with suspicion and misguided ambition. Refn’s pure imagery and purposefulness was revelatory, and his playful use of 80s-style imagery went some way to redeeming that ugly decade’s bad reputation. What a shame that overplotting in the last half hour had to tarnish this almost crystalline object. It’s a frustrating final act stumble that dampens the impact of what came before, but even taking that into account, Drive‘s mixture of innocence and grotesque violence is still remarkable, all the more so thanks to thrilling work from Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, and an unexpectedly terrifying Albert Brooks.
15. Martha Marcy May Marlene
Much like Jennifer Lawrence won a legion of fans with her appearance in Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone, Elizabeth Olsen’s debut performance in this dark drama is one of the highlights of the year. Her titular character is a mystery, an uncomfortable presence in our world and a sympathetic one when trapped in her cult. John Hawkes is the link between Bone and Marlene; his menace crosses over, but here he adds a layer of messianic charisma, controlling his minions and compelling them to commit terrible crimes. The question at the heart of this remarkable and bleak movie is whether Martha (Marcy May / Marlene) is a victim or a participant, and Olsen’s achievement here is to never tip us off. Sean Durkin’s directorial debut may feature a pleasingly ambiguous protagonist, but the one thing that’s not in doubt is his skill at using the natural world to generate an oppressive atmosphere of dread, one which curls over our anti-heroine from the first frame to the last like a closing fist. That gradual darkening, brilliantly evoked by the photography of Jody Lee Lipes and paced to perfection by editor Zachary Stuart-Pontier, is more effective than any horror movie made this year; when combined with the humanity of Olsen’s work, the result is unforgettable.
14. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Tomas Alfredson’s dour adaptation of John Le Carre’s classic novel is the kind of movie that gets plaudits just for being so out of sync with modern populist tastes; all of those garish loud movies that no one will admit to enjoying. Luckily there’s another reason for the critical praise; Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a riveting and intelligent thriller, made with exacting care by Alfredson, here proving that he is a major talent. The complex novel is cleverly condensed by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan (redeeming himself for the mess he made of The Men Who Stare At Goats), wasting no time in feeding the audience swathes of information. Full attention is necessary, aided by the anti-distracting spartan visuals and authentically glum mise-en-scene; there’s an argument to be made that Tinker… captures Britain’s damp melancholic soul better than any other movie. Every performance is pitch-perfect, with special praise to be given to Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy and a never-better Gary Oldman. Their task is to take something that seems dry and clinical and show that the espionage element of the plot rests on subdued and submerged emotions. They leak out at times, giving us a peek into a world of immense, unaddressed grief. The result is a quietly devastating movie about betrayal and compromise, and the toll it takes on the secret guardians of society.
13. Fast Five
The summer season kicked off with Thor and Fast Five hot on each other’s tails around the globe, bringing with them the possibility that this could be the best summer season of them all. Sadly it was not to be. Nevertheless, at least we got this. Fast Five may be “just” an action movie, something that attracts derision from the criterati, but this “lowest-common denominator” action movie was like mainlining adrenaline. Embracing its humble origins, Justin Lin and Chris Morgan’s cacophonous action extravaganza is unapologetically crazy, doing everything it can to entertain its target audience, exceeding all expectations. It’s a perfect example of what a late entry into a series should do; it expands the franchise’s world without abandoning its roots, it adds new elements to enhance what we already have, and it pays off emotional beats that have been lying around for years. It also atomises most of Rio de Janeiro thanks to a joyous disregard for the laws of physics. No one here will win any awards, except for awards in my head, such as Best Movie Uniting Underrated Action Icons. Fast Five is Ocean’s 11 in cars mixed with The Fugitive, and the big showdown in the movie pits a sweat-spritzed Rock against an angst-ridden Diesel. If Shades of Caruso believed in the concept of guilty pleasures it’d file this in that category, but fuck that. This is just pure, delirious pleasure, a classic of the genre.
12. Wuthering Heights
Odd to think that this project has been in the works since 2008, considering the regular TV adaptations of Charlotte Bronte’s novel. There’s an industry at work doing nothing but churning out movies and TV dramas that try to depict the surface of Bronte’s story without capturing its essence. Adaptations need to break their source material apart to get at the meat within, and this version by Andrea Arnold and Olivia Hetreed does just that. By casting black actors to play young and “old” Heathcliff, they have done the impossible; they have breathed life into characters who have long lived as alien icons trapped in amber. With the rejection of Heathcliff here caused by ignorant bigotry due to his ethnicity, the motivations of all involved make sense in an instant, and from there we can empathise with them as people and not as tragic romantic caricatures. For the first time in my life I now understand Cathy and Heathcliff, feel their pain, ache for their tragic loss. This single move is a miraculous bravura flourish made even more profound by depicting this world as a kind of hell, in which Heathcliff can only rage and suffer. Arnold and Hetreed show how he brings everyone down into the depths with him, but they never lose sight of his humanity, inhumanity, and aching soul. Aesthetically perfect, atmospherically oppressive and thematically precise; this is the definitive visual adaptation.
Doomsday fiction usually has to operate on a fantastical plane to generate a menace large enough to threaten all of society, but the plague subgenre doesn’t have to fake it. Which is why Contagion is so welcome, after years of Cassandra Crossing / Outbreak-style wackiness. Only Robert Wise’s Andromeda Strain ever got close to depicting the uniquely fascinating world of virology / epidemiology with any real rigour before, but Soderbergh and Burns’ terrifying vision of societal meltdown knocks even that terrific movie into a cocked biohazard mask. A brilliant cast tamps down its emotions to dramatise humanity’s reaction to imminent pandemic horror; muted emotions, delayed sadness, dutiful conscientiousness. Where lesser plague movies have succumbed to melodramatics, Soderbergh has made a forensic experience, using multiple narrative arcs to cover a lot of ground, all depicted with his trademark neat visuals. There are no pyrotechnics here, no races against time or miracle cures; there is only bureaucracy, panic, stupidity, and venality. Nevertheless, these qualities are balanced by the scientific minds that dispassionately work to prevent calamity. Contagion will probably scare the bejeezus out of you, but there is hope there too, because Soderbergh and Burns show that the connective web that threatens to destroy us is also the thing that will keep us alive.
They should call 2011 Annus Fassbenderis. After being the best thing about Jane Eyre, X-Men: First Class, and almost every movie he’s been in for the past five years, Michael Fassbender proved fans like SoC right by giving us the year’s most memorable performance, one that would send shockwaves through the culture if it wasn’t about that icky sex that people don’t want to reveal that they’re thinking about. His depiction of a sex addict’s psychological meltdown is mesmerising and courageous, and is enhanced by Steve McQueen’s evocative portrait of night-time New York, lit by the remarkable Sean Bobbitt to match Fassbender’s calm facade, all sterile, gleaming perfection hiding a darker core. Abi Morgan’s script wisely avoids providing explicit information about what made the protagonist, Brandon, the way he is. This isn’t about a journey into darkness. It’s about the arrival, and we are invited to look at ourselves without excuses or reasoning. It’s not an anti-internet message either, or a political statement about an over-sexualised culture. McQueen, Morgan and Fassbender may be trying to trigger a conversation about how we’ve all arrived at the point we’re at, alone and scared of opening up to others, without making facile assumptions. A problem doesn’t get fixed until we recognise it; perhaps that’s Shame‘s purpose, as well as to grip us, and horrify us.
9. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol
The thought of Brad Bird following Ratatouille — one of the most profound meditations on art and creativity ever made — with another attempt to justify the existence of cinema’s most malfunctioning franchise made SoC depressed. It’s like hearing David Cronenberg is going to adapt a Robert Ludlum novel. And yet while that project was so deformed and weird that it never happened, Bird’s Ghost Protocol blasted onto IMAX screens in a flurry of confidence, taut suspense, and epic audience satisfaction. Bird’s beautifully designed and filmed setpieces are rightly attracting praise from even the most critical of viewers, with the Burj Khalifa scene on its way to becoming a new star in the action pantheon, maybe eclipsing even De Palma’s Topkapi homage in the first Mission Impossible. Supporting those thrilling highlights is a strong framework of improved character work (only Ving Rhames has registered in previous installments), propulsive pacing, and a giddy sense of silliness that compliments the drama. These touches, which turn a good spy movie into a great one, bear Bird’s fingerprints, more than justifying the decision to bring the great man on board. Yes, the villain’s terrible. Yes, the threat’s outdated. But Bird knows this genre so well, and can transmute the basest elements into gold, so what could’ve been another boring MI movie becomes 2011’s best action movie.
It’s a dark thought to have midway through Lars Von Trier’s brilliant end-of-the-world movie, but his recent awful experience with depression may have brought about a renaissance in his art, replacing his petty taunting of the audience with a greater awareness of himself, and his ambivalence toward himself. The result of this redirection has been the remarkable Antichrist and now Melancholia, which depicts the crushing weight of Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg’s depression as the inevitable end of the world due to collision with a metaphor in the shape of a planet. As blunt as this metaphor is, it’s effective in capturing the scale of a depressive episode within a person’s life, and is mitigated by subtler details that express with devastating accuracy society’s exasperating and uncaring attitude to those who suffer from mental health problems; the first half of the movie, with Dunst’s bride pushed and pulled by meaningless social obligations that she has become unable to comprehend or care about, is especially good. Dunst is mesmerising as the woman who dissolves into her depression, reaching something like a state of grace as her sister (Gainsbourg, also phenomenal) succumbs to her own version of this dread. Von Trier’s frank and honest exploration of his experience is an invaluable aid for those of us fortunate enough to escape its misery, and for that he should be thanked.
Kenneth Lonergan’s long-delayed movie-as-novel is here presented with approximately a sixth of itself missing, and who knows how the restoration of that chunk would alter the movie. But what multitudes are already contained here, what glorious truths, what immense joy and anger. Lonergan has weaved a tale about perception and interpretation by making a movie that is intentionally opaque and misleading, but his primary achievement is to transcribe the fractured, confusing experience of PTSD into disorienting dramatic beats and unpredictable explosions of emotion. This unconventional approach is especially apparent during the final hour, as precocious student Lisa tries to mitigate her feelings by lashing out at everyone. Anna Paquin gives the performance of a lifetime as a young woman who believes she knows herself and her place in the world, despite all evidence to the contrary. What Lonergan has done is perceptively capture the exasperation of those adults who have stepped aside to let their progeny find their feet, only see watch in horror as they founder and then fall back on obnoxious bluster. Many commentators decry this as “merely” an outdated movie about 9/11, but it’s as much about how parents can fuck up their children, while offering hope that eventually those children will come to realise and accept they are a part of society, not above it.
6. A Dangerous Method
The accumulated works of David Cronenberg have shown his fascination with the life of the mind, and how our inner selves contain secret things that can bring us low. This metaphysical horror has been overtly addressed by him many times, but this is a more subtle exploration of the threat of our hidden self poses to ourselves. The Carl Jung here brought to us by Cronenberg, Christopher Hampton and Michael Fassbender is an enthusiastic man of high ideals and loyalty who is undone by a lust he could not have anticipated, one which erodes his marriage, his public reputation, his friendship with father-figure Sigmund Freud, and eventually his expectations for his future. But this superb film keeps this torrent of disappointment and longing out of sight; Cronenberg’s subtle direction means only Keira Knightley’s explosive catalyst Sabina Spielrein gets to unleash her emotions, often against her will. Jung’s yearning for such freedom, and Freud’s reaction to the young man’s ambitions, leak out in occasional moments of recognisable childish weakness at odds with our image of them as great men. These relationships are the engine for this masterful dramatisation of their theories in action; psychoanalysis as psychodrama. Though this hasn’t landed with as big a splash as Cronenberg’s most recent movies, SoC suspects time will be kind to it. One day it will be ranked among his best.
5. Attack The Block
It’s rare that a British filmmaker has enough control over his urge to emulate his directorial heroes that he can pay homage to them without making a hollow copycat exercise, and Joe Cornish deserves plaudits for his expert handling of suspense and pace. But this is more than just a proficient sci-fi homage. The real-life mugging that inspired Attack The Block has been transformed through Cornish’s compassionate and questioning approach into a treatise on the ethnic and social tensions that exist between the victims of our unjust economic system and those who glamorise it. There’s no patronising here; Cornish is aware of the wrongness of his protagonist’s crimes, and doesn’t excuse them, but he at least tries to understand what drives those who are sickeningly referred to as “the feral underclass” to such lows. This curiosity and empathy is almost unheard-of in British culture, especially after the recent riots that caused a shudder of sneering disgust to ripple through our media. That it has taken so long for someone fortunate enough to not sit at the bottom of Britain’s socio-economic ladder to sympathetically wrestle with these themes is a black mark on our country. AtB isn’t just a thrilling horror-action movie; it’s an attempt to communicate something about the UK that no one wants to think about, a time-capsule representation of who we are and what we’re doing to our disenfranchised youth.
4. A Separation
Proof, if proof was needed, that a movie about a simple gamble within a marriage could create the dramatic equivalent of a train crash. Asghar Farhadi’s riveting drama begins simply as the tale of an Iranian couple considering divorce, with Simin (Leila Hatami) testing the resolve of her stubborn husband Nader (Peyman Maadi), before becoming a cross between Kramer Vs. Kramer and Rashomon. Farhadi’s stunning movie becomes complicated with such stealth that it’s not until you’re an hour in that you find yourself engaged in a kind of dialectic with the movie, questioning everything you have seen in an effort to keep up with the shifting narratives of the protagonists. The stubbornness of Simin and Nader, which causes such damage to those around them including their daughter and the tragic figure of Razieh (Sareh Bayat), should make them unsympathetic but Farhadi’s humanity means we recognise every stupid, selfish thing they do. His direction is forensic, his cast uniformly impressive, and his script is the screenwriting highlight of the year. This is a movie to watch and study to in order to pick up all of its subtleties and surprises, and that’s before you consider its allegorical richness. But it’s not necessary to know the intricacies of Iranian politics to get the most from A Separation. All you need to do is be a human, with all the understandable flaws so perceptively captured here.
3. The Artist
There are numerous arguments against Michel Hazanavicius’ silent movie homage:” it’s too light”; “the melodrama is overplayed”; “there’s not much to it”; “it’s too derivative of several movies”; “the dog’s not in it enough”; “why is it black and white and why are there no words”; “there’s no way I could possibly enjoy this as being happy is anathema to me and my very serious ways”. It’s all a load of stuff and nonsense. Experiencing this ode to joy, this gratifyingly weightless and ecstatic love letter to the power of populist art, is the best time you will have in the cinema at the moment, and being a part of the collective audience experience – as depicted very pointedly in the opening moments of this modern classic – is an unforgettable treat. Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo are delightful as lovers separated by pride and fear of the future; their infectious joy and indestructible attraction to each other is the secret of The Artist‘s considerable success. As opined here, it’s also a tribute to the artists who have been part of the tapestry of culture that is still being woven, and the way in which an idea generously given can flourish. One act of flirtatious kindness pays dividends in the future, with the recipient paying it back in order to save a loved one’s soul. But forget about that; see it, succumb to its delirious, enthusiastic embrace of cinema and romance, and don’t forget to bring your dancing shoes.
Who would have believed that Gore Verbinski had this in him? Shades of Caruso is proud to call itself a pro-Gore blog, having been one of the five audience members to have enjoyed the determinedly peculiar Mousehunt on release. Even taking that early oddity into account, Rango is a startling leap into the weird for Verbinski. A Chinatown homage that mangles the Western genre and goes out of its way to alienate the audience it needs to be a success? Just for taking that risk it deserves to be praised, but tokenism like that isn’t necessary when the end product is this much fun. As SoC tweeted at the time — in a state of some shock and joy — it’s like a Grant Morrison Animal Man comic directed by Sergio Leone, breaking the fourth wall and probably even a hypothetical fifth wall as Rango seeks to define his personality by pulling our new modern cinematic mythology into his world to form a path of self-discovery. Much of the rambling discourse on how we define ourselves makes it seem like the recording of the dialogue – done by Verbinski with all the cast present, acting out their parts on a soundstage – was actually an informal group therapy session. There’s structure within this berserk adventure, and Verbinski stages a couple of delirious action sequences too, but it’s the doodling in the margins, the asides and self-inspection of Rango himself that make this one of the most exciting and lovably deranged movies of the new century. It’s also a vision of beauty; thanks to the stellar production design of Mark “Crash” McCreery and the lighting design of consultant Roger “King” Deakins it’s almost too much to take in on first viewing.
1. Take Shelter
For far too many of us, the world has become a buzzing, unpredictable maelstrom of doubt and fear, as established institutions crumble and threaten to take everything familiar with them. A combination of things beyond our control have conspired to alter the world too quickly for us to keep up with, so that we’re assailed by external and internal strife that manifests in global pessimism about the future; there was too much news this year, too many things going wrong. The earth shifted beneath our feet metaphorically and literally in 2011, and no other cultural experience captured that terrifying feeling like Jeff Nicholl’s magnificent end-of-days movie. Expertly combining a sense of imminent world-shattering event and the personal story of one man’s battle to overcome his seemingly inevitable mental collapse, Take Shelter is suffused with the sense that devastating things can happen to us and there’s nothing we can do can stop them.
The final scene can be seen as either hopeful or not, but for anyone who feels their stomach drop every time they turn on the TV or look at Twitter or read a newspaper, and hear that the world as we know it has become alien and newly fragile, it’s the slow build of dread that makes this the most immersive and upsetting cinematic experience of recent times. Nicholls has put his finger right on the synapse that controls our terror; watching this exhausting experience, and marveling at the mesmerising performances from Jessica Chastain and Genius-Level firebrand Michael Shannon is to see your fears realised before you. For those of an optimistic bent, there is still much to enjoy here, but for the rest of us, this is the movie of our time, the touchstone and representation of our psyche.
Children Who Chase Lost Voices From Down Below: Makoto Shinkai’s magical trip into the underworld is an afterlife myth for our time, as a young girl and a shady operative both seek to deal with their feelings of loss and loneliness by embarking on a death-thwarting journey into Agartha. CWCLVFDB‘s epic sweep and honesty make this a visual and emotional success.
Weekend: Comparisons to Before Sunrise are inevitable, but this depiction of a brief encounter is transformed into something different due to the inevitable political element within. Andrew Haigh is to be commended for not making this romance specifically about gay politics, but addressing it cleverly provides an extra emotional level. It’s also just very romantic.
Footloose: More to come on this Craig Brewer remake in a forthcoming post. Suffice it to say, it did everything right, nothing wrong, and fixed everything wrong with the beloved but heavily flawed original. A hugely underrated crowdpleasing treat.
Super 8: 2011 was a year in which our best filmmakers were eager to plunder the history of cinema, and J.J. Abrams’ homage to the golden years of Spielberg’s Amblin so accurately captured the look and feel of those movies that all structural flaws could be forgiven. To those who grew up watching the movies referenced here, Super 8 was a glorious reminder of their power and beauty.
Moneyball: Brad Pitt co-produced this, and it’s pretty much his show. Eschewing the usual mythologising of baseball (at least until its final act), Bennett Miller, Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin use a dry tale of statistical manipulation to depict the slow awakening of a man to life’s possibilities. Pitt “knocks it out of the park”. (UK readers note that this is a baseball metaphor.)
Coming up, once I’ve harnessed my considerable grumpiness — Listmania ’11: Worst Movies of the Year. There will be grump.