Sunday, 18 December 2011

My Top 30 Films of 2011: 10-1

This is the concluding part of my 2011 top 30 films list. You can read the previous entries here: 30-21 and 20-11.

10) Pina, dir Wim Wenders, GER

What I said: "[Wenders'] use of space, the way he stages the action, is just incredible and wholly new, whilst the cinematography and camerawork is beautiful to behold. 'Pina' is a technical masterpiece and a bold piece of work all ways around. Watching it I was struck by how conceivably any film characterised by incredible blocking and interesting use of space would not only work in [3D] but would in fact be enhanced by it... 'Pina' proves there is a place for 3D in the arthouse and in the hands of auteurs."

3D adds depth, obviously, but is that useful and if so how? Its advocates often compare stereoscopy to the additions of sound and colour, yet it seems clearer to us what those advancements have enabled filmmakers to convey from a dramatic or artistic standpoint. A Marx Brothers comedy would simply not work if we couldn't hear Groucho's rapid-fire one-liners, whilst 'The Wizard of Oz' would probably not dazzle us so much if it remained in black and white after Dorothy set foot in the fantasy realm of the title. But, by comparison, what does 3D offer and what do we stand to lose without it? How can the addition of depth be used beyond the initial spectacle, in order to assist a director in telling a particular type of story or giving a very specific experience?

This year 3D has been used by some heavyweight talents, whose movies are perhaps more familiar to arthouse patrons than mass audiences. Werner Herzog used the technique to give us a rare glimpse inside the Chauvet caves in 'Cave of Forgotten Dreams', whilst Martin Scorsese had a lot of fun with its possibilities making 'Hugo' (more on that below). But it's really Wim Wenders who has provided the most compelling evidence that 3D can undeniably add something to a cinema experience that you'd miss greatly if it were taken away. I'd watch most other 3D movies in 2D with minimal complaint, but to me it seems central to what made Wenders' 'Pina' work.

A quasi-documentary, the film is a tribute to the late experimental dance artist Pina Bausch, bringing together a series of dance sequences as performed by her troupe. These expressionistic pieces range from harrowing to comical to downright bizarre and are separated by passionate monologues delivered by those who knew her, talking about Bausch's character and attitude to art. The 3D allows us to appreciate the dances more fully than we might otherwise, giving a proper sense of how the performers negotiate space. Wenders shoots almost every scene from a slightly elevated angle that emphasises the depth of each frame and gives us the best possible view of Bausch's inimitable choreography.

9) The Skin I Live In, dir Pedro Almodóvar, SPA

What I said: "When reviewing so-called "World Cinema" you often encounter brilliant films that you know stand next to no chance of reaching a wide audience. For most 'Of Gods and Men' would be far too austere and ponderous, whilst even 'The Tree of Life' was far too esoteric for the crowds that flocked to see "that Brad Pitt movie". Yet 'The Skin I Live In' has such tremendous, heartening potential for cross-over appeal, thanks to its tight, well-paced and surprise-filled story. It's never less than engaging for a single frame and, with its ruminations on identity and moral complexity (to put it lightly), must also rank among the year's most intelligent and thought-provoking films."

It's a slightly tawdry premise in keeping with the bulk of director Pedro Almodóvar's filmography, handled with the same mix of black humour, cheerful amorality and brightly lit, intensely colourful cinematography. In 'The Skin I Live In' a mysterious prisoner (Elena Anaya) is kept locked up within the mansion of a mad scientist (Antonio Banderas). He's a world class plastic surgeon and it becomes clear that this beautiful woman has undergone extensive, experimental surgery transforming her unrecognisably from whoever she once was. But who is she?

Seldom does a plot twist have this much impact on me, but 'The Skin I Live In' kept me guessing all the way through and, when the big reveal is made, left me gasping. Almodóvar very cleverly misdirects the viewer, making them draw conclusions throughout which, with each passing scene, make events seem more outrageous and Banderas' character seem ever more psychotic. But beyond this guessing game the film is surprisingly profound as an exploration of identity. To what extent are we defined by what we look like and how people treat us? Are we much more than the skin we inhabit?

8) Rise of the Planet of the Apes, dir Rupert Wyatt, USA

What I said: "'Rise' is a dramatic story first and an action film second and this all comes courtesy of [Andy] Serkis and WETA. It is a combination of a skilled character actor and tremendous animators that creates such a compelling and credible character in Caesar. A chimp adopted by James Franco's scientist after his mother is killed in the lab, he is the focus of the entire film and we follow him from newborn to energetic teenager, before he is brutalised and locked away. Caesar then (perhaps reluctantly) takes up the mantle of revolutionary leader to free apes from their human oppressors, grappling with moral and existential concerns along the way. What nuance the film has is in this journey, as key moments include subtle looks in the ape's eyes as we see his worldview change wordlessly."

The human characters - who include James Franco and Freida Pinto - might be a little bland, but 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' is all about the titular chimps as they get smart and begin a revolution which will (eventually) lead to the crazy, upside down world of the original 60s movie. As nominal head of the ape revolution, Caesar is the focus of the story - as played by Andy Serkis in a masterpiece of motion capture performance - and we see events through his eyes, coming to empathise with the apes rather than our own kind. But it's more than just an animal welfare story, with the apes' rise emblematic of how a mistreated underclass may act if pushed too far. That the press screening I attended coincided with the London riots was lost on no one.

I think a large part of my loving it also came from the film's use of the city of San Francisco, where I had been only weeks before the screening. Hitherto unknown director Rupert Wyatt shoots the city in a way which is entirely consistent with the real layout and - although the climactic (magnificently staged) battle takes place on the Golden Gate Bridge - he doesn't overdose on landmarks. I was also really amazed by how credible Wyatt's movie is able to make the entire 'Apes' premise. How is it possible for chimps to organise the overthrow of mankind, with all our guns and helicopters? This is how.

As the marvellously dystopian credits rolled, my cheering for the apes gave way to the realisation that it would soon be curtains for mankind. Proof if it were needed that we will basically root for anything if asked to by a filmmaker.

7) Hugo, dir Martin Scorsese, USA

What I said: "'Hugo' is not the most exciting, consistent or perfectly structured children's film you'll ever see. In fact it often seems like a slick piece of educational programming rather than a fun family movie - with the slapstick chases around the station the least effective sequences. It's almost as if Scorsese has engineered a self-indulgent piece of fan fiction as a clandestine way to educate children about the art form he loves and give some of his favourite film clips a fresh airing for a new audience. But as a fellow lover of cinema I find this entirely admirable. It's heartening to see such an unabashed celebration of art."

It's perhaps not an entirely successful family film, seeing as how every person I've spoken to saw it with only half a dozen middle aged men for company, but 'Hugo' made me smile with its brazen, unapologetic love for cinema. It's less a children's adventure story than an excuse for Martin Scorsese to show us all his favourite silent movie clips and even stage an overdue lifetime's achievement evening for cinema's first magician Georges Méliès. Though it hardly matters when the result is this joyful and affirmative about the importance of art - as well as the preservation, history and criticism of that art.

I worry that it's ended up only preaching to the converted, though I fancy a lot of kids would find themselves inspired by Martin Scorsese's beautiful cinema history lesson, even if just as many were bored to tears. And whilst not as experimental or accomplished as that in 'Pina', the use of 3D here is another powerful statement of intent from a respected pro. Scorsese may be approaching 70 but he's clearly still every bit as excited about the future and the possibilities of his medium as anyone.

6) Hanna, dir Joe Wright, GER/UK/USA

What I said: "The first time we hear anything of the intricate, energetic Chemical Brothers score is when Hanna makes a conscious decision to leave the safety of life with he father and accept her deadly mission. The music makes her anxiety and excitement palpable, and every time we hear it subsequently – such as when she is escaping from a military facility in a spectacularly choreographed light show – it forms part of a hyper-stylised representation of Hanna’s psyche. When soldiers surround her log cabin near the start of the film, the score stands for the nervous anticipation of first contact with people other than her father. In this way 'Hanna' is an example of proper cinema which, rather than being a slave to dialogue, tells its story through the harmonious marriage of sound and image – and with magnificent economy."

An exuberant, hi-octane modern fairytale, 'Hanna' is a coming of age story about one young woman whose years in near isolation are ended suddenly, opening up a new world of senses, sounds and experiences. The titular teen assassin (Saoirse Ronan) spans Europe, running for her life to a breathless Chemical Brothers score, chased by a wicked witch (Cate Blanchett's obsessive CIA operative) and her campy German goons (led by Tom Hollander). Director Joe Wright tells a very simple story with singular vision and confidence, with sound and image merging together in a way that makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.

I liked it the first time I saw it, especially because of its immensely capable if socially challenged heroine, but only really started loving it on repeat viewing where it all started to make much more sense. It's the sort of film I find literally mesmerising, in that I'd be compelled to continue watching it if I saw a single scene.

5) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, dir Tomas Alfredson, UK/FRA

What I said: "This is not a glossy, establishment picture of Britain we're being sold. It's a world very alien from that James Bond inhabits, as our spies juggle with mundane concerns and petty office politics as well as the very real risk of death at the hands of enemy agents. It's a film where our heroes spend most of the movie secretly investigating their friends and, in effect, battling their own government whilst (ironically) trying to catch out one charged with doing the same. Seldom have the words "we're not so very different you and I" seemed less like hollow cliche as they do here, as [protagonist George] Smiley - not an idealist or ardent anti-communist by any standard - ponders on the moral equivalence of it all."

The source of more violent disagreements than any other on this year's entire top 30 list, Tomas Alfredson's follow-up to 'Let the Right One In' is not to everybody's taste. It's cold, slow, complicated and packs little action. There isn't much to be gained here by trying to guess who the Soviet spy is either, with little effort made to plant seeds, and I don't think that's the intention anyway: the reveal is supposed to be anti-climactic and disappointing (a fact which is clear in the novel). For a film which, on the face of it, promises to be a Cold War thriller, it isn't exactly thrilling. It's in many ways the anti-Bond, where spies live quiet, unfulfilled lives and never get the girl. Yet as a study of isolation and faded idealism it can't be beat.

I enjoyed Afredson's adaptation so much that I read John le Carré's original novel (which I also enjoyed greatly) straight afterwards and discovered, to my delight, that the film version still holds up incredibly well. The novel is, of course, much bigger: with more detail, more incident and a greater number of characters. But viewing the film subsequently I don't think there's anything important missing, as Peter Straughan's screenplay combines with Alfredson's eye for the smallest detail to ensure everything is there, even if it's only captured in a glance or a brief close-up. 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy' is a film that rewards those who watch films with both eyes open and their brain switched on. It desires to be read, studied and actively engaged with - not merely because of the labyrinthine plotting, but because Alfredson shows all and tells almost nothing.

It needn't be said that Gary Oldman gives a performance of understated brilliance as protagonist George Smiley (a man of more advanced years than his own), whilst everyone else, from Colin Firth to Mark Strong, is also terrifically cast and linger in the memory even with minimal screen time. Especially Tom Hardy as cocky maverick Ricki Tarr and Benedict Cumberbatch as Peter Guillam, here re-conceived as a closet homosexual.

4) Captain America: The First Avenger, dir Joe Johnston, USA

What I said: "The best thing about Johnston’s Captain America is that it’s completely earnest... Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers is played almost completely straight. Other characters make jokes about his shrimpy pre-experiment figure, but Steve himself is on the level. When asked why he wants to kill Nazis he delivers what is, for me, the film’s key line of dialogue: “I don’t want to kill anybody. I just don’t like bullies.” Laugh if you want but that’s a glorious sentiment at a time when cold-hearted revenge movies are at a premium. It also serves to ensure that Steve’s wish to go to the front isn’t because he is some kind of wide-eyed boy adventurer who never read any Wilfred Owen... He isn’t an alpha-male douchebag, he’s a little guy motivated by a desire to protect the weak from the strong. His motivations are pretty much that simple and it makes for a likable, surprisingly compelling character, with Evans a thoroughly engaging presence from beginning to end."

My most controversial choice here, by some distance, 'Captain America: The First Avenger' is not a film I suspect will register on the best film lists of even the most blockbuster-friendly critics. But it's no fluke that I've put it here. I've seen it four times since release at the time of writing, and I've enjoyed it just as much on each occasion. In fact the last time I saw it I was moved to tears (I honestly was) by its simple, honest charm and unimpeachable good nature.

You see, as someone who was bullied and carries a certain amount of insecurity and anxiety with him as a result, a hero like Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) means a great deal. He's a man defined by weakness of body and faltering health; a man whose every day has been lived as the butt of every punchline. Yet he's kind and compassionate to a fault in spite of it all. This is his greatest strength: he is basically a nice guy. Living in 40s New York, Steve believes in everything America represented and without question. He believes in the idea of America regardless of the reality and this is something Joe Johnston's comic book adaptation allows this unambiguous hero to do without sniggering and covering its ass with irony.

It's completely earnest and totally lacking in cynicism. Which is - beyond being admirable - disarmingly brave in an age where ironic distance is a knee-jerk response for so many. When Rogers is made a beefcake super soldier, and assumes the mantle of Captain America, we don't hate this newly muscle-bound Adonis because he remains at heart the same weedy kid with wide-eyes and good intentions, not intent on killing enemies but solely set on protecting the weak against the strong.

But beyond the fact it clearly touched me on a personal level, it also made me smile - almost more than anything else this year. Alan Silvestri's triumphant score accompanies daringly stylised visuals from Johnston, reminiscent of his 90s flop 'The Rocketeer' and with a definite Steven Spielberg's 'Amazing Stories' vibe. There is even a song, with lyrics by Disney veteran Alan Menkin, sung by chorus girls during a sparkly USO show (my favourite section of the film). In 2D the special effects look somehow much less impressive - and the ending is more about setting up next year's 'The Avengers' than closing Johnston's movie - but I could care less. I just plain love this movie.

3) Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, dir Takashi Miike, JAP

What I said: "With '13 Assassins' Miike playfully mocked Japanese tradition and criticised the country's historic cultural values. He questioned why honour and death are so often linked and had his heroes kick dirt in their enemies faces - fighting for survival rather than as part of some slickly choreographed pageant. Here these criticisms are foregrounded. Social class, poverty and a culture of obligation are targets, as well as the wisdom of bushido. And just as the child-murdering, woman-deforming lord in '13 Assassins' represented all that's contradictory about a society which saw swordplay as equivalent to penmanship and poetry - outwardly representing all that was considered beautiful - in 'Hara-Kiri' such vanity is attacked again."

Takashi Miike is fast becoming one of my favourite active filmmakers, having produced two masterful samurai epics (probably the greatest of all genres) in as many years. I find it hard to choose between this and '13 Assassins' (high up on last year's list) but at the moment I'm leaning towards regarding 'Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai' as the superior film - even if it's far less exciting in terms of visceral bloody action.

What I really like about 'Hara-Kiri' is that it takes Miike's subversion of tradition and satire of violence to new levels as he abandons his usual fun, anarchic sensibility to make a heartfelt and passionate period melodrama. In this deeply humanist film, Miike contrasts real honour and courage with the pretence of honour, found in ritualised (dehumanising) behaviour. I don't want to repeat myself, so I'll just put a link to my review here - if you're interested in how he subverts feudal Japanese values and why I loved it so much.

The film is also notable in that it's the first straight drama I've seen designed for 3D (in fact it's the first 3D film in history to play in competition in Cannes) and it works very well. It seems entirely appropriate that a film involving the elaborate and precise staging of a ritual should wish to fully exploit depth and create a sense of space, though this also has a dramatic effect, distancing our hero from those who sit in judgement and occupy more lofty positions in society.

2) A Separation, dir Asghar Farhadi, IRN

What I said: "[A Separation] is a tightly made ensemble piece that is as enthralling as it is tear-inducing. It is quite simply the best film I have seen so far this year and the first film to really knock me for six at [this year's Berlin Film Festival]. A human story of great social relevance as well as unmatched depth of feeling. Sincere, passionate and intelligent."

I feel as though I've been going on about this one all year - since even before it had a localised English title and I was still calling it 'Nader and Simin: A Separation' - following its triumph in Berlin. It was, without doubt, the best film I saw at that festival, though that's taking nothing away from the competition because 'A Separation' is a film of singular greatness. It tells a morally complex story populated by well-rounded, fully-formed characters. It would be possible to pick any character and side with them fully in this feud between two families (divided by class and religion) who go to a "family court" in Tehran to solve a highly complex dispute.

Director Asghar Farhadi reserves judgement on proceedings almost entirely, allowing his camera to act as an impartial observer and in doing so gives us a very humane, apolitical account of life in his country. It isn't as stylishly shot as many of the other films on this list, though it's certainly handsomely made, but in this case the content more than justifies the form (making it pretty much the opposite of 'Drive').

1) Melancholia, dir Lars Von Trier, DEN

What I said: "Von Trier has long been able to dazzle critics with his technique and 'Melancholia' is an immensely beautiful film, comprised of haunting and truly spectacular images from start to finish. Taken at face value the impending apocalypse plot is also dramatic and terrifying. But more significantly, what we have here is his most candid and revealing film. It's thought-provoking, personal, earnest and far less oblique than some of his previous work."

A highly personal choice, as I hope you'll appreciate from my review (and my evangelical, hyper-passionate podcast on the subject), 'Melancholia' has divided critics this year but I was among those deeply moved and inspired by it. Having struggled with depression myself over the years I find Kirtsen Dunst's star turn here as deeply affecting as Von Trier's stunningly realised story, which works in its own right as intriguing doomsday sci-fi. Here the imminent destruction of the planet by another heavenly body is a potent metaphor for the suffocating, world-ending effects of the illness.

But forgetting my personal attachment to the themes, 'Melancholia' is also a beautiful experience full of droll satire and deftly-observed social observations. The art design and special effects are jaw-droppingly gorgeous, whilst there isn't a bad performance among the terrific cast. I can't think of a more perfect film this year. It beats out long-time frontrunner 'A Separation' by virtue of Von Trier's virtuosity and because of the deep, personal connection I feel to every minute I spent locked in this world.

'Melancholia', for me anyway, perfectly captures what it feels like to be depressed and, as a result, I can't imagine a film less depressing or more life-affirming. Often knowing that someone else is going through a similar thing can be helpful and there is no greater thrill than seeing my own scattered thoughts and feelings distilled in this way, far more competently conveyed than I could hope to do in words. He might have pissed a lot of people off with his daft comments at Cannes earlier this year, but Lars Von Trier has helped me a great deal and I will be forever thankful.

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