02 January 2012

My best and worst films of 2011

My movie-going has been rather disjointed this year, so this year’s film round-up is a slightly ramshackle list. I started the year in London without a job, and ended it back in the workforce in New Zealand, and this meant that for at least half the year I missed out on new releases. I certainly wasn’t going to stump up for London first-run movie tickets at their astronomical prices! Since relocating to New Zealand I’ve enjoyed the Film Festival (always the highlight of the winter months) and since I picked up full-time work in August, I’ve also been able to take in a wider range of movies at the cinema.

I’ve decided this time around to limit my list to current films only, mainly because I saw (and loved) The Social Network in 2011, but that’s unquestionably a 2010 production. To have that film as one of my top three 2011 titles seems a bit odd, so I’m restricting myself to just 2011 films in these lists - or, to be precise, I'm aiming to do so - apologies if I've made any errors with the dates. This means I have to omit some superb films that I saw in 2011 that were produced in 2010, such as the gripping Of Gods and Men, and a clutch of quality non-fiction films like Armadillo, Inside Job, Cave of Forgotten Dreams 3D, Senna and Tabloid. On the plus side it also means that I dodge the potential for being snarky about Sofia Coppola’s aimless Somewhere and the decent but massively over-hyped Black Swan.

So here’s my rundown of my top 10 films of 2011 in reverse order, with the usual caveats that if you like a film and it’s not on the list, it’s probably just that I just haven’t seen it. I’ve also included a trio of three disappointing films, and I consider myself lucky that I didn’t notch up enough stinkers for a full list of five like last year!

My best films of 2011

10. Hanna (dir. Joe Wright)
At the outset Hanna appears to be the same old indestructible killing machine fantasy, but once the near-albino wunderkind rejoins society from her Arctic isolation and comes into contact with electricity, music and (gulp!) boys, how will she adapt? Saoirse Ronan is as strong as ever in the lead role, and Eric Bana, Cate Blanchett and an amusing Tom Hollander all essay truly atrocious accents that add to the daft whirl of excitement. With a driving Chemical Brothers soundtrack scoring its heart-pounding and smartly-shot chase and fight scenes, and the welcome addition of the scene-stealing Jessica Barden who lit up the English farce Tamara Drewe, Hanna is a fine confection - this decade's Run Lola Run, even.

9. Midnight in Paris (dir. Woody Allen)
Sure, Midnight in Paris is in some regards a self-indulgent travelogue, but if you suspend your disbelief at the touristy clichés and the occasionally workmanlike dialogue then there's plenty to enjoy here. There's so many memorable luminaries in Allen's fantasy Paris and most of the performances are so smartly executed that it's hard not to find something to admire, whether it's Alison Pill's firecracker Zelda Fitzgerald, Adrien Brody's quixotic, finger-waving Salvador Dali or Kathy Bates' matronly Gertrude Stein. Certainly the large number of characters that Allen has thrown into the mix means that the flashback scenes tend to feel a little crowded, and in modern Paris there's little for Rachel McAdams to work with as Owen Wilson's unsympathetic and bitchy fiancé. Just don't take it too seriously and you'll emerge having had a surprisingly good time. But please Woody - next time no accordion music, okay?

8. 13 Assassins / Jûsan-nin no shikaku (dir. Takeshi Miike)
There are a few tastes of Japanese director Takeshi Miike's panache for visceral gore at the start of his samurai epic, 13 Assassins. Evidence of monumental cruelty, the grisly deaths of captives, plus a couple of unflinching ritual suicides all serve to underline the rather obvious point that the Caligula-esque lord who is the target of the film's assassination plot deserves everything thrown at him by the titular heroes and is a Thoroughly Bad Egg. After that initial burst of ultra-violence, 13 Assassins is much less unsettling and quickly becomes engrossing, as the hugely outnumbered but plucky team assembles and plans its raid against stupendous odds. There are refreshing touches of gruff samurai humour along the way, and the climactic ambush at a deserted mountain village is an extended masterclass of action filmmaking, with jaw-dropping battle scenes and a fittingly thrilling conclusion.

7. Page One: Inside the New York Times (dir. Andrew Rossi)
Print media junkies will enjoy this rare chance to peek behind the scenes at the venerable New York Times. The documentary offers an intriguing glimpse at the practicalities of responding to the major stories of the day, and in particular the Wikileaks-related material that dominated the headlines when the film was being made. The plight of traditional print media in an era of rapidly declining advertising revenue and burgeoning competition from online rivals with lower cost structures is a predominant theme, and it's by no means certain if the NYT can survive, even if its demise would be a tragedy for serious news reporting. Ultimately, Page One doesn't provide any answers to this looming problem. Rather, it offers up a snapshot view of the business of modern news-gathering, perhaps as it nears the end of its lifetime. The film certainly shines when telling the story of its gravel-voiced narrator, the formerly hard-living David Carr, who is awash with pithy quotes. If he was given a trilby and a Remington manual typewriter he'd fit right into any of the newsroom scenes in His Girl Friday.

6. Mysteries of Lisbon / Mistérios de Lisboa (dir. Raoul Ruiz)
It's rare to find a film these days that justifies an intermission, but this four and a half hour Portuguese historical epic certainly does. It tells a myriad of intertwined stories of 19th century Portuguese life amongst the nobility, with detours in place and time to Venice and revolutionary France. Sticklers might find the emphasis on patient story-telling and gradual reveals frustrating, but personally I relished the chance for the various characters' stories to stretch out and breathe; indeed it became something of a running joke for characters to utter lines like "let me tell you my story right from the beginning". Replete with multiple identities, honour-staked duels, unknown legacies, wronged noblewomen, grand masked balls, vengeful suitors, quixotic adventurers, villainous pirates and dozens and dozens of cast members, Mysteries of Lisbon sprawls most enjoyably on the big screen, and rewards viewers who appreciate cinema on the grand scale. My only complaint pertained to the slightly melodramatic score, which occasionally swelled to intrusive proportions.

5. The Trip (dir. Michael Winterbottom)
Michael Winterbottom’s odd-couple road movie features British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon reprising their chummy rivalry from 2005’s Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story, only this time the story is built around improvised scenes. Originally appearing as a well-received 6-part BBC series, the film has been edited from the TV broadcast for cinematic release. Each man plays a fictionalised version of himself, and the dynamic is surprisingly effective: Coogan as an insecure, impatiently ambitious would-be ‘serious movie star’, and Brydon as the contented family man, happy with his lower station in the comedy food chain. Roped in to replace Coogan’s (fictional) American girlfriend on a restaurant-reviewing tour of the north of England for the Observer Food Magazine, Brydon spurs Coogan’s competitive urges with his caricatures, leading to a series of entertaining mealtime impersonation jousts - Michael Caine and Woody Allen being two particular highlights. As Coogan struggles to land a major role and pines for his distant girlfriend, the viewer is treated to a finely-observed comedy of two spotlight-seeking middle-aged entertainers forced to spend a week in the close quarters, and to the sweeping vistas of the northern scenery, which Winterbottom’s camera shows off to magnificent effect.

4. Bridesmaids (dir. Paul Feig)
The ridiculous notion that women can't be funny on the big screen has hopefully been banished by this refreshing comedy. The chemistry between the female cast-members in Bridesmaids is clear, and much of the material is highly entertaining. The charming Kristen Wiig has been due a major hit for ages, and the success of Bridesmaids - a defiantly female-focused film that is a hit with both genders - is a testament to the consistently-overlooked talents of female comedians and writers. Perhaps this will kick-start a bandwagon of new films to counteract the heavy male-dominated imbalance of recent years (decades!). Only complaint: 124 minutes for a knockabout comedy? Editing please!

3. Bill Cunningham New York (dir. Richard Press)
I challenge anyone watching Bill Cunningham New York to come away from this film with any less than unalloyed respect and admiration for the profound joy and pleasure this genial octogenarian takes from his life's great passion: [photographing beautiful clothes on interesting people. His monkish asceticism is legendary, and the camera crew takes you inside his minuscule bathroom-less and kitchen-less studio flat (in Carnegie Hall, no less!) which is full to the brim with filing cabinets containing his life's work and precious little else. He is not even slightly interested in the trappings of celebrity, has never owned a TV and takes pride in rejecting monetary reward whenever it is offered. The sight of wizened Bill cycling between glittering Manhattan parties in his high-vis vest or in the front row at Paris Fashion Week, snapping away whilst wearing his $20 street sweepers' raincoat, is a breath of fresh air in this most artificial and contrived of environments. Here is a man who is universally admired both for his consummate skilfulness at depicting the beauty and foibles of the mercurial world of fashion and the characters who wear it, and for his remarkably humble and sunny disposition. It is a privilege to spend 84 minutes in his company through the medium of this simple but hugely effective documentary.

2. Submarine (dir. Richard Ayoade)
This utterly charming novel adaptation by first time director Richard Ayoade (who plays the socially challenged Moss in The IT Crowd sitcom) absolutely nails the misfit awkwardness of teenage romance in a hilarious and refreshingly unsentimental black comedy. The casting is perfect, with the young duo winningly portraying teen weirdos experimenting with A Proper Relationship (preferably with no hugging), and the comedic foils of the grown-up actors lavishing every scene with wry humour. Sally Hawkins is as sparky as ever as Oliver's uptight mum; Noah Taylor gives an quality portrayal of his hollowed-out, nerdy dad; and Paddy Considine is laugh-out-loud funny as the spiky-mulleted new age mystic who threatens to break up the family by stealing Oliver's mum away. Oliver's school friends are also reliably entertaining, offering consistently awful personal advice to the sensitive, clueless youth. With its grimy, handheld shots of a grey-skied Welsh industrial town and its deft soundtrack by Alex Turner of Arctic Monkeys, and with too many brilliant moments of bleak comedy to count, Submarine is without a doubt a modern classic.

1. TT3D: Closer To The Edge (dir. Richard De Aragues)
The Isle of Man TT motorbike races have killed 237 people since they began in 1907. Each year they wound and sometimes kill more and more riders. Yet the ones who survive are ever eager to pick themselves back up, get their wounds stitched, bones re-set and spines bolted into place, and get out racing again on the most dangerous roads in motorbike racing. It's a form of collective insanity demonstrated time and again in the interviews that form a large part of TT3D: these are people, mainly men but a few women too, absolutely in the thrall of this ultimate motorcycling challenge. In a sensible world, the TT would be banned. But luckily, the people who participate and the fans who love the sport are not sensible people. You can see it in their eyes and the repeated tales of being cruelly injured one year and being back racing the next.

The clear star of the film is the rebellious larrikin Guy Martin, with his Wolverine muttonchops and rakish charm: he talks non-stop and most of what he utters is complete tosh, but the camera loves him and so do the crowds, who will him on to the winning title he has thus far never claimed. He tinkers with his bike incessantly, sleeps rough in his van re-watching old race videos searching for a lost fraction of a second, and foolishly flouts track regulations out of sheer petulance. Every second he's on screen is a small joy. The other riders are equally fixated to the point of obsession: a veteran champion in his golden Winnebago trying for one last trophy, a quietly-spoken local Manx tryer hoping to delight his hometown fans, and the compulsive Steve Davis-like figure of a would-be champion, pumping iron in his gym in case it gives him the slightest edge.

I've never ridden on a motorbike, and perhaps I never will. It looks pretty dangerous to me. But being in the company of people insane enough to race these machines and run the very real risk of falling off them at 170mph going around a tight corner hemmed in by drystone walls? That's a rare pleasure. TT3D is a must-see documentary for anyone who appreciates an exciting story peppered with tremendous imagery and fascinating, yet somewhat mental, characters.

For a longer review, see here.

My three worst films of 2011

3. The Adjustment Bureau (dir. George Nolfi)
Matt Damon and Emily Blunt are both relatively likeable in this modern-day fantasy from writer-turned-director George Nolfi, in which a mysterious agency deploys equally mysterious powers to subvert everyday lives in keeping with its shadowy master plan for the universe. But the script, despite being lifted in the traditional fashion from a Philip K Dick short story, is so wafer-thin that the resulting film is a real disappointment, with a farcical ending and a laughable plot device ('we need to wear our hats before we can teleport through doors, you know') that bears all the hallmarks of a screenwriter failing to think of a good excuse to include cool 1940s-style headwear in his movie. The only highlight for me was Emily Blunt's impressive modern ballet moves in one scene - she clearly cuts a fine leg.

2. Cowboys & Aliens (dir. Jon Favreau)
When I say that aspects of Jon Favreau's adaptation of the graphic novel Cowboys & Aliens strains credibility in key respects, don't assume that I'm talking about the fact that it's a Western with creepy space aliens as the villains. In fact, I'm fine with that. Rather, it's the simple implausibility of many of the turning points of the film that frustrate, and particularly so given that this isn't as bad a film as some reviwers have made out. Sure, it's far too long and this stretches the viewer's patience - an overblown two hour flick when an 80 minute actioner would have suited. It has a decent cast, including Harrison Ford getting to play more or less his actual age for once, plus Daniel Craig's cowboy, who is suitably rugged, taciturn and generally baffled by proceedings. The problems lie in some arbitrary plot points that fail to make sense and the reliance on big-budget explosions instead of decent dialogue that rises above the level of hoary old cliches. And did anyone else notice that the nasty aliens in the Spielberg-produced Cowboys & Aliens look rather a lot like the nasty alien in the Spielberg-produced Super 8? Perhaps a more knowing, tongue-in-cheek approach that recognised the cartoonish nature of the source material would have generated a more appealing mix, as would a stronger focus on Sam Rockwell's weedy Doc character - an odd couple pairing of Rockwell and Craig would have been much more interesting. At least the widescreen scenery's pretty, and the effects and sound are both top-notch.

1. Melancholia (dir. Lars von Trier)
Lars von Trier's Melancholia deserves plaudits for the talent that produced its striking visuals. The opening slow-motion apocalyptic premonitions are beautiful and powerful, and the closing shots of the looming, implacable world of Melancholia as it bears down on Earth are hauntingly effective. The film benefits from some decent performances too, particularly from Charlotte Gainsbourg as the anxious Claire; Kirsten Dunst is also perfectly acceptable as the depressive Justine, bowed down with ennui and gripped by visions of the end of the world. However, the film's two chapters - the tortuously long wedding scene in which everything goes horribly wrong, and the build-up to the world's close encounter with the onrushing rogue planet Melancholia - both overstay their welcome and should have been subject to heavy editing to cut down over-long scenes. None of the adult characters is particularly likeable so it is hard to summon any sympathy for their plight or even, at some points, tolerate their presence on screen. And while it doubtless seems like nit-picking, it can hardly have escaped viewers' attention that while Justine and Claire's parents are English, one daughter appears to have grown up French and the other is American. No matter, it is a trifling complaint compared to the major fault of the aimlessly pretentious Melancholia - this is a topic worthy of a short film stretched out to a tedious 137 minutes, with little to enjoy apart from the technical aspects of its visuals. Death by massive glaring metaphor? No thanks, Lars.

See also:
Blog: My best and worst films of 2010
Blog: Watching the 2011 Oscars
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