With the ever-reliable award season upon us, here are my favourite movies of 2011. All of these films were released in the UK in 2011 (which is a long way of saying I haven’t seen Shame). That still doesn’t mean I saw all the year’s releases, and there are probably movies that equally deserved a place, but these are all films I have either already seen more than once or eagerly look forward to watching again.
10. MIDNIGHT IN PARIS
I remember Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald came home from their wild New Year’s Eve party. It was April. Scott had just written Great Expectations, and Gertrude Stein and I read it and we said it was a good book but there was no need to have written it, because Charles Dickens had already written it. And we laughed over it and Hemingway punched me in the mouth. –
Woody Allen, The Nightclub Years
The most popular movie Woody has made in decades, Midnight in Paris may not be among his very best material (there are two types of Allen fans, and I’m one of the ones that think Match Point is a great movie) but it is the most charming and entertaining he has made in recent years. It seems to flesh out the (40+ year old) bit of stand-up quoted above and in so doing appeals to a basic fantasy: its protagonist goes back in time and meets his heroes, who a) are as exciting and interesting as he hoped and b) actually like him.
It’s a romantic movie, in the broadest sense, taking a sentimental view of the modern Paris just as much as the Paris of the early 20th century. That the story then has the gall to tell us that Golden Ages didn’t exist and the grass is always greener, etc., should not really be held against it; there is a paradox in there, but to mull over it is to look a gift horse in the mouth. Allen has no trouble finding actors who want to work with him, and this one stars Owen Wilson (who is being filed under ‘Woody Doppelgänger’, despite the fact it might be his best performance), and features several memorable supporting roles, the finest of which is surely Corey Stoll’s: his portrayal of Ernest Hemingway is brilliantly funny and perfectly judged.
Some documentaries are cinematic, some aren’t, and it’s not all that easy explaining the difference. Here is a film made up entirely of – mostly TV – footage of a F1 racing driver and his races, and yet it is undeniably cinematic in scope. This may be because of the larger-than-life figure of Ayrton Senna, about whom I knew little before seeing this movie. Most filmmakers would intercut this material with interviews and stylistic flourishes but director Asif Kapadia (who made the memorable 2001 movie The Warrior) was canny enough to see that the footage could just about speak for itself, and simply holds it together through voiceovers with many of those most directly involved with Senna’s professional life.
Aided by editors Chris King and Gregers Sall, and by the effective music of Antonio Pinto, Kapadia finds a compelling narrative amongst the footage; though inevitably the visual quality of some of it is variable, this doesn’t harm the movie or make it any less cinematic. If anything, it adds both to its sense of historical context and immediacy.
8. THE TURIN HORSE
Hungarian master Béla Tarr says this is to be his last movie, and it is a strange and haunting one on which to end his career. It’s almost a waste of time setting up the plot (because if your main reason for seeing a movie is its plot, don’t see this movie), but the movie hypothesises what might have happened to a horse that, according to the opening text, was spotted by Nietzsche while it was being beaten. Nietzsche threw his arms around its neck, and lived the last decade of his life in near silence, while in this movie the horse returns with its owner to a fairly barren farmland. The film then unfolds with precision and simplicity, following the man and his daughter over the course of the week as gradually their resources dry up.
Or that is, at least, what it seems to be about. Something positively apocalyptic is going on beneath the surface though – why does the horse stop eating? Why doesn’t anything grow? Is God punishing them, or is God dead? Tarr films the pair with incredibly beautiful black and white photography, and the music by Mihály Vig is haunting and memorable. Some will find it unutterably dull (on the way out I overheard someone ask why they kept only eating potatoes); I thought it grew in the mind after seeing it, and its images have stayed with me.
For my full review of The Turin Horse, click here.
I’m not always entirely convinced by Ryan Gosling who, though a fine actor, has a coldness behind his eyes that just doesn’t fit some characters. In Nicolas Winding Refn’s (whose name I am unable to say aloud without sounding like I’m doing Crazy Frog) stylish B-movie he finds the perfect role and his performance knocked me out. He hardly says a thing in the movie, but holds the screen with an unusual intensity. This is partly heightened by what we know about his character, a stunt driver on movie sets who moonlights as a hired getaway driver.
The film follows his relationship with a neighbour, played by Carey Mulligan, who is under threat from Scary Big Men who knew her husband in prison. Among the SBMs are Ron Perlman, Bryan Cranston and Albert Brooks, all giving superb supporting performances. Refn, whose previous movies have included Bronson and the underrated Fear X, raises the movie above its exploitation origins through sheer intensity of style – the movie doesn’t have the depth some people have read into it – and that’s the level it works on. It finds the perfect mood for its material.
6. TAKE SHELTER
The pairing of Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain was a highpoint of the year for me. Shannon got most of the attention for this movie, understandably; he plays Curtis, a construction worker having increasingly vivid and disturbing visions. They might be dreams, they might be hallucinations, or they could just possibly be real visions of the end of the world. He becomes increasingly obsessive and increasingly worried about his family’s future. His wife, in turn, becomes increasingly worried about him.
His wife is played by Chastain who, though she has received almost no nominations for this movie gives one of the performances of the year (she keeps getting nominated for supporting actress for The Help, an inferior film and performance). If you had any doubt about her talent see her in this movie and change your mind. She is clearly the most exciting new talent to emerge in cinema in 2011 and she brings great subtlety and truthfulness to the role. Writer-director Jeff Nichols (who directed Shannon in Shotgun Stories) lets the story build slowly and powerfully and lets his actors dominate.
For my full review of Take Shelter, click here.
5. WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN
Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s novel throws the structure of the book – told entirely through letters – out and in so doing raises more questions about subjectivity. The book clearly has an unreliable narrator, and we only know her son, Kevin, through her. The movie appears to be less subjective, observing Kevin as a fact, but after I saw it I became increasingly less certain about how objectively it views him, and about his character in general.
The friend I saw the movie with said, when we left, that Kevin clearly loves his mother (played brilliantly in the film by Tilda Swinton), which I immediately dismissed. But the idea grew in my head and I had to concede, later, that he might have a point. The movie is really about the Oedipal battleground between the two characters – Kevin’s dad (played by John C. Reilly) doesn’t know the first thing about him, and to think of the movie as being about high school shootings is missing the point. Ramsay casts newcomer Ezra Miller in the title role, and he’s obviously got a career ahead of him; he’s so good-looking and charismatic that I took a little while before I could believe in him as an outsider, but by the end it’s impossible to think of anyone else in the part. This sharp, unsettling movie reaffirms the sadly underused talent of Ramsay, and will hopefully help increase her output.
The opening shot of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo convinced me that he knew what he was doing filming it in 3D. I don’t like 3D, and usually find it ranges from the pointless to the literally nauseating. Here Scorsese’s cinematographer, Robert Richardson, really seems to have put some effort into avoiding the problems that 3D tends to fall into. Most camera movement in films is left and right; most camera movement in Hugo is backwards and forwards. The camera and its subjects never move too fast for the audience to take the image in. And the technique fits in thematically with the story.
The film, which seems at first like an anomaly from Scorsese, is an adaptation of a children’s story by Brian Selznick called The Invention of Hugo Cabret. It follows the fate of a young orphan who operates the clocks in a Parisian train station while avoiding the Station Inspector, who would have him sent to an orphanage. His dead father (Jude Law, who is onscreen for a matter of seconds) leaves him a broken automaton and in his quest to repair it he gradually gets to know a mysterious older man (Ben Kingsley) with a significant link to the early days of cinema. It is in this last aspect that you recall Scorsese, who has probably done more to preserve and protect classic movies than any other filmmaker, is behind the camera. Newcomer Asa Butterfield and Chloë Grace Moretz (from Kick-Ass) offer unusually strong child performances. Here is a movie that doesn’t look like a Scorsese movie, doesn’t feel like a Scorsese movie, and couldn’t have been made by anyone else.
3. A SEPARATION
I didn’t think, too much, about the photography and performances in A Separation, because I was simply too engrossed in its story. It held me in its unusual power from start to finish, and I found myself caring deeply on some level about all five of the main characters. It begins as a story of the separation of a middle-class couple in Tehran and gradually becomes about something else, but what happens in the movie never feels like ‘plot,’ nor does it feel exhaustingly Realist. It works as an engaging human drama.
That isn’t to say the movie is without politics; this is a film about class difference and religion and the importance of the culture you are born into. That context allows us to understand the characters as they take sides against each other; while different people may find they have different sympathies, the movie never tells us who we should be supporting. It is more concerned with the way that events, particularly when factors like sex and religion and politics and human pride are involved, can spiral out of control and it isn’t necessarily the fault of any one person. It shows the inherent dishonesty attached to the legal system and trials, where suddenly truth and honesty can become relative terms. Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi gets incredible performances from all five of his leads, and shows a subtle mastery of storytelling; the way he paces and reveals his story is wonderful, given how organic and authentic he is simultaneously able to make it feel.
2. THE ARTIST
I’ve already heard The Artist referred to as a ‘novelty film,’ and the description makes my blood boil. Though silent film was effectively – though never totally – wiped out by the popularity of the talkies, it’s still a perfectly legitimate medium in which to make a film, and The Artist is simply a wonderful silent movie. It is self-aware, to be sure; the story draws on several clear inspirations and there are countless homages to other movies. But that shouldn’t suggest for a second that the film has a lack of imagination: its trick is to be continually inventive while evoking all those old movies.
The appeal of the film – which is about a silent star unable to make the transfer to talking pictures – is currently reaching far beyond cineastes and critics; the film is a general hit, and its audiences are responding to it with great warmth. This is not just because of the cute dog (although it is terrific, and the moment a policeman realises it wants help and he is actually going to have to follow it is sublime). It confirms the basic appeal of silent movies to a universal audience, and may encourage viewers who know little of classic cinema to look back at the Golden Age of American Film (this movie is, almost inevitably, French). As with Hugo it is directed by someone – Michel Hazanavicius – whose love and passion for the medium is there in every frame.
1. TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY
Gary Oldman gave the performance of the year in this superb thriller, and he’ll almost certainly get no awards for it because there’s nothing showy about what he’s doing. In fact, he seems to be fighting his own actorly instinct to externalise his feelings, instead suggesting a man for whom feelings have become a liability. During the film he raises his voice, only slightly, only once. His George Smiley complements the 1979 TV adaptation of John le Carré’s seminal novel and so does the movie, which is differently structured and paced. It is directed by Tomas Alfredson, who made one of the best modern horror movies with 2009’s Let the Right One In.
The casting of the piece in general is perfect: Oldman is joined both by established talent like Colin Firth, John Hurt and Ciarán Hinds and by the fresher faces of Tom Hardy and Benedict Cumberbatch. Their parts are of course reduced from the book and TV series, and so the casting is essential both for artistic and pragmatic reasons: it’s a complex plot, and it can’t afford to have us trying to remember who is who. That shouldn’t imply, though, that the adaptation simplifies the material; its achievement is in being able to tell that difficult story while creating a world of its own.
That world is a damp, smoky London in the 1970s, but it is also a world where your job is your life, where you have to be able to keep one eye over your shoulder and another on yourself, where fake emotions are useful and real emotions are dangerous. That world is in part created also by Alberto Iglesias’s music, Hoyte Van Hoytema’s photography and Maria Djurkovic’s set designs (the offices of the Intelligence Services – the ‘Circus’ – have the feeling of authenticity I associate with the newspaper room in All the President’s Men). The script, by the late Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan, is incredibly agile and economic. The first line is John Hurt’s: ‘Were you followed?’ The best is Tom Hardy’s: ‘I want out, I want a family, I do not want to end up like you lot.’ But given everything we know by the end of the movie, he probably will.
For my full review of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, click here.
So there we are, ten rather wonderful movies. It wasn’t a bad year – among the movies that didn’t make this list, I’d certainly recommend:
Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In, which plays like a modern reworking of Eyes Without a Face (and, therefore, Frankenstein) with a touch of David Cronenberg filtered through the weird and melodramatic mind of Almodovar.
Documentaries Project Nim, a fascinating story from the director of Man On Wire about a misguided scientific experiment with a chimpanzee in the 1970s, and Bobby Fischer Against The World, which is like Senna another tale of a tragic genius (Fischer may be the more interesting subject of the two, but Senna is the more likeable).
Duncan Jones’s engaging and intelligent Source Code, starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a soldier stuck in a timeloop until he figures out how to stop a crime from happening – not quite as good as Moon, Jones’s debut, but head and shoulders above the average sci-fi blockbuster.
Steven Spielberg’s jolly and entertaining The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, which though not perfect approached its material in exactly the right spirit (and offered a more engaging Spielbergian rollercoaster than the last Indy movie, at least).
John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard, for its script and humour but primarily for its knockout central performance from Brendan Gleeson.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes, directed by Rupert Wyatt, which along with Tintin reaffirms Andy Serkis as the Laurence Olivier of motion capture and, though flawed, offered a far more entertaining experience than I anticipated.
I wish the very best to all of you in 2012. Except Roland Emmerich.
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