Wednesday, 14 December 2011

My Top 30 Films of 2011: 20-11

This is the second part of my 2011 top 30 films list/shameless vanity exercise. If you haven't already read through entries 30-21, then do so here.

20) Midnight in Paris, dir Woody Allen, USA

What I said: "It is fair to say my expectations for 'Midnight in Paris' were set extremely low - especially given that Allen's last film ['You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger'] was utterly abysmal. But for the first time in what feels like a decade, I absolutely loved a new Woody Allen film, almost without qualification. For the first time since childhood I laughed at one of his movies: not knowing laughs of polite recognition, but hearty, belly laughs. For the first time in around a decade, here is a Woody Allen film with imagination."

"Return to form" is an overused phrase critics have trotted out to describe almost every Woody Allen film since the early 90s. His fall from talent has been exaggerated in part because, however enjoyable 'Whatever Works' might be, it's never going to measure up alongside the man's most iconic 70s masterpieces, 'Annie Hall' and 'Manhattan'. Allen has gone from being mentioned in the same company as Fellini and Bergman, to being merely considered occasionally brilliant. Had an unknown director given us 'Deconstructing Harry' or 'Sweet and Lowdown', perhaps critics (and audiences) would have been more enthusiastic.

In any case, this year's Woody Allen film, 'Midnight in Paris', not only warrants the phrase "return to form" but also, for the first time in a long time, lives up to its billing as a comedy. Unlike the banal dramas that have followed in the wake of the dreary 'Match Point', here is an Allen movie that has the sort of bizarre premise he used to be known for, with time travel central to the plot as Owen Wilson's Gil Pender travels between modern Paris and its boisterous 1920s past. Allen's shooting of the city itself could be dismissed as the dreaded "tourist's eye view", but he shoots Paris as romantically as he's ever shot his beloved New York. It exists here as Pender imagines it, without cynicism: as a place of unimpeachable beauty and radiant charm.

19) Caves of Forgotten Dreams, dir Werner Herzog, FRA/USA/GER

What I said: "It seems clear to me that the man who once pulled a steamboat over a mountain is again revelling in a self-imposed impossible challenge, perhaps as a reaction against the fact that he is forced to use amateur cameras for the expedition. It is entirely possible that [Herzog] only considered making the film [in 3D] due to the fact that it wouldn’t even have occurred to anyone else that it could be. “One small, inexpensive camera? I bet I can do a 3D film this way” I can imagine him saying to himself, as if for his own sense of pride and amusement. It’s bonkers and brilliant, especially when he attaches a small RC helicopter to his camera in order to pull off a series of sweeping 3D aerial shots of a ravine, all on a micro budget."

For me the release of a new Werner Herzog documentary is a keenly awaited cinematic event that never disappoints. He asks strange and profound questions that wouldn't occur to anybody else, seeking out odd, often dangerous, subject matter armed only with a grim Teutonic stare. Yet for all the bad impressions of his distinctive narration, Herzog manages to seem sincere and unpretentious even when he chooses to end a documentary on pre-historic cave paintings musing on the significance - and possible future proliferation - of "mutant albino crocodiles".

'Cave of Forgotten Dreams', filmed innovatively in lo-fi 3D, takes us into the Chauvet cave in southern France - thought to be home to the earliest examples of human art, hosting elaborate cave paintings over 30,000 years old. It's a revealing documentary which, like the best history, explores how similar our ancestors were to us as opposed to sensationally playing up superficial differences (what I like to call the "how did Henry VIII go to the toilet?" line of enquiry). Here Herzog suggests the paintings provide us a glimpse into the aspirations of the artists who painted them - showing us how they perceived the world around them: a Europe filled with bears, tigers and rhinos, yet familiar in surprising ways. At one point he describes the paintings as a kind of "proto-cinema", projecting dreams onto the walls of a darkened room. Whatever you make of that, it's difficult to watch this existential documentary in anything other than a state of awe.

18) The Tree of Life, dir Terrence Malick, USA

What I said: "'The Tree of Life' offers a simplistic and idealistic version of nature and of our place within it, where spirituality is unchallenged from its dominant Hollywood position where it stands for "depth" and "truth". In this way Malick has made a movie which supports the dominant ideology almost wholeheartedly, however ambitious it might be in scale. It's a seductive tapestry and, in a few instances, it is genuinely heartfelt, yet something is missing. The anti-war sentiment of 'The Thin Red Line' and its critique of capitalism ("the whole thing's about property") or the nihilistic, satirical edge of 'Badlands', seem like they come from a very distant place from 'The Tree of Life', which unambiguously advocates an intelligent design view of life on our planet. Religion has always formed a large part of the sub-text, and even the text, of Malick movies - but never to the same extent as this passionate hymn."

I'm deeply conflicted about where I stand on Terence Malick's 'The Tree of Life'. I don't share its creators reductive, idyllic view of nature - which reaches its nadir during one preposterous sequence in which carnivorousness dinosaur shows a wounded herbivore compassion. Nor do I particularly care about the questions he is asking in relation to the increasingly trite concept of "faith", let alone God and/or heaven (tweely presented as a beach where we can hang out with all our favourite people). It's a sappy, sun-soaked, slightly ponderous film, however technically accomplished, and its place at the apex of so many other "best of 2011" lists will likely always be a thing of mystery to me.

So why is it on my list? Why have I placed it higher up than, say, 'Midnight in Paris', which I adored? Simply because no other film has inspired as much debate this year and because few other films (and I mean in history) have been as ambitious. This is a movie which gives you the beginning of time, the end of time (by far the most impressive sequence emotionally and cinematically), Sean Penn living in the future, Brad Pitt living in the 1950s and CGI dinosaurs. It's a film that exists purely to ask big unanswerable questions like "why are we here?", "what is there next?", "do our finite (mortal) existences have meaning?" and, more to the point, trusts cinema at its most visual as a tool to explore them. I applaud the scope of 'The Tree of Life' and the boldness with which it was made. I like that you can spend hours discussing it when the vast majority of movies are forgotten days after leaving the cinema.

17) Attack the Block, dir Joe Cornish, UK

What I said: "Far from being the sustained, middle class wink that I'd feared, 'Attack the Block' is the smart, funny and slickly produced feature that I'd hoped for. As a first time director, Joe Cornish has displayed a level of assuredness that is encouraging and - if he can resist the inevitable overtures of Hollywood - his brand of eye-catching, socially conscious and unpretentious comedy could be a sizable boon for British cinema for years to come."

Thanks to people like Owen Jones - author of one of 2011's best-selling books: Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class - use of the word "chav" is increasingly unfashionable. For the best part of a decade it has been the acceptable face of bigotry in the UK to make glib jokes at the expense of the urban poor, with the fashion, patois and even leisure choices of the country's most disenfranchised social group providing years of material for middle-class, millionaire comedians like Jimmy Carr.

With social class now returning to political discourse, Joe Cornish's 'Attack the Block' could have been ill-timed: the latest tired re-hash of a joke that peaked with Little Britain almost ten years ago (and even then wasn't very funny). A comedy-horror about an alien invasion of a council estate, I worried it might be little more than a series of jokes about people saying "innit blood". Instead it's one of the most timely and significant British films of the year, taking these urban boogie men (young, hoodie-wearing males) and humanising them without condescension.

In fact Cornish manages a very difficult balancing act which involves presenting the kids both as threatening examples of gang culture, not sanitising their manner or attitude to violence as they begin the film robbing a woman at knife-point, whilst also making us care for them and - hopefully - understand their concerns. It's a cultural minefield navigated with preternatural skill and no lack of cinematic flare. There are jokes about the culture, of course, but they are gentle and affectionate rather than just plain derogatory. For instance, one of the gang responds to the alien invasion by saying, without irony, "I wanna go home, lock my door and play FIFA." That's probably the single funniest line of 2011.

16) Thor, dir Kenneth Branagh, USA

What I said: "'Thor' is good value entertainment with its share of climactic fist-pumping moments. It's also not as shallow as you might expect, with pretty well-rounded characters and a sympathetic villain. Its director is best known for adapting Shakespeare for the screen and, had the Bard penned a treatment of the screenplay, it would be easy to imagine this story from the point of view of Loki (Tom Hiddleston) as a great tragedy."

For me the year's two biggest surprises have been Marvel comic adaptations, with the unsung and potentially ridiculous 'Captain America' and 'Thor' both far exceeding my meagre expectations. Both exist, primarily, to set up next year's 'The Avengers' superhero team-up movie and, as such, could have been little more than glossy, two hour long trailers (just like 'Iron Man 2'). But both were actually incredibly good blockbusters, far better than the average shlock served up to "the kids" and made with a genuine sense of style. Tightly paced, intelligently realised entertainment.

'Thor', directed by Kenneth Branagh, is made with a great deal of care, love and attention to detail, working from a smart script populated by interesting characters. The story arc of the titular god of thunder (Chris Hemsworth) must go on that familiar trajectory of growth and discovery, yet it doesn't feel contrived or hokey in the least. The performances (notably from Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins and Natalie Portman) are terrific, the action is exciting and Branagh even manages to suspend audience disbelief enough that we accept an alien world of Viking gods is connected to our own without sniggering. It's a colourful, fun superhero movie that proves you can stick closely to the source material without being either campy or knowing.

Making a big-budget movie version of 'Thor' was a risk on Marvel's part, with the blockbuster success of niche superhero franchises never a sure-fire thing. History is littered with the corpses of 'Daredevil', 'The Fantastic Four', 'The Punisher', 'Hulk', 'Ghost Rider' and, lest we forget, this year's universally panned 'The Green Lantern'. So to make a movie about an alien in a red cape, who comes riding on a rainbow from a world of Viking gods in order to "find himself" with a group of plucky tornado chasers in the New Mexico desert - and to play that concept almost totally straight - was a ballsy move. A move that could have even jeopardised other now co-dependant franchises, such as 'Iron Man'. To greenlight that movie and assign it to a director primarily famous for Shakespeare adaptations? Sometimes the studios get it right.

15) Blue Valentine, dir Derek Cianfrance, USA

What I said: "'Blue Valentine' isn't that sad little emo poem of a movie you might think it is from the poster. It's a riveting film that says as much about love and romantic relationships as any other film I've seen as it bravely and skilfully jumps between emotional extremes with great economy and even subtlety. If it doesn't resonate with you on some level then I can only surmise that you haven't ever left the house. It's one of those movies that makes two hours feel like twenty minutes and leaves you feeling satisfied by the art form you love so much, despite the fact it so often breaks your fragile little heart."

Kicking off "the year of the Gosling", which has since seen the internet meme/indie heartthrob star in 'Drive', 'The Ides of March' and 'Crazy, Stupid, Love', 'Blue Valentine' is the story of a tempestuous relationship between a blue-collar high school dropout (Gosling) and a troubled medical student (Michelle Williams). Williams - as the reining queen of American independent film - is Gosling's female equivalent and the duo brood, pout and sigh through their ups and downs, pausing only to look moodily handsome.

As I contemplated in my original review, 'Blue Valentine' is easy to poke fun at in these terms, especially if you haven't seen it. The thing is it transcends this stereotype and becomes something much more emotionally affecting and much less preening. It was hyped at the time of its American release for supposedly being sexually explicit, though what's striking about the film is actually the rawness of both actors emotional commitment to each new argument or moment of exquisite joy. Unlike the relationships depicted in a lot of lesser movies, the married couple here convince as best friends in the early stages, with genuine chemistry, and do just as good a job portraying the later bitterness as strangers sharing a bed, tied together by a sense of obligation.

14) The Forgiveness of Blood, dir Joshua Marston, USA/ALB

What I said: "It’s old testament justice in the age of Facebook, mobile phone videos and PlayStation games, and the film shows this problem of a country straddling two eras by highlighting the divide between young and old people. Mark [Refet Abazi] is an agricultural worker and yet his eldest son, Nik (Tristan Halilaj), dreams of opening an internet cafe. However, Nik’s dreams – along with those of his siblings – are put on hold after [Mark commits] murder, as custom dictates that they stay in their homes on the understanding that any male who leaves is open to a revenge attack. The children are therefore no longer allowed outside and can not attend school. And though women are generally considered immune from the threat of violence, Nik’s little sister Rudina (Sindi Lacej) is also forced to abandon her dream of going to college as she has to take on the workload of the imprisoned males, which forces her to grow up prematurely."

A difficult film to adequately describe, 'The Forgiveness of Blood' may be set in contemporary Europe but it's so culturally specific to its northern Albanian setting - dealing with barbaric medieval blood feuds that are a widespread occurrence in the region - that it might as well be set on the moon. Director Joshua Marston is an American, but an Albanian co-writer (Andamion Murataj) and a cast primarily made up of local non-actors give this bleak family drama an air of rare authenticity. It's with no small amount of indignation and disbelief that I watched the film, as I never thought a system of institutionalised revenge could exist in a country only a short ferry ride from Italy.

Rather than have me explain the practice in a drawn-out fashion here, I'd recommend you Google "Albanian blood feuds" and have a quick look for yourself. What I will say is that the sense of social isolation and frustration felt by the children in the film is palpable, whilst it's beautiful to look at as it takes you to a place few tourists venture and few movies are set. 'The Forgiveness of Blood' is certainly eye-opening, which would be enough in of itself, yet this is also a brilliantly made film by any standard - as you might expect from the man behind 'Maria Full of Grace'.

13) The Guard, dir John Michael McDonagh, IRE

What I said: "Like the characters of 'In Bruges', Boyle [Brendan Gleeson] has a subversive sense of humour, which rubs [Don] Cheadle’s more disciplined law man up the wrong way. “I thought only black boys were drug dealers” Boyle says incredulously – and it’s never clear whether he is knowingly confrontational or just ignorant. When [Cheadle] is offended by his racism Boyle replies, “I’m Irish. Racism is part of me culture.” To say The Guard is ‘black comedy’ is to put it lightly. In addition to being a heavy drinker, Boyle beds prostitutes and makes extra money from selling firearms to the IRA. The film opens on his observing a car crash only to walk over to the dead body of a teenage victim and frisk it for drugs, which he finds and then uses on the spot."

A terrifically funny film (in fact the highest ranking comedy on this year's list), 'The Guard' is - like Edgar Wright's 'Hot Fuzz' - a routed in the juxtaposition of Hollywood movie police archetypes with rural law enforcement across the pond, in this case the Irish Garda. Don Cheadle's FBI Agent is a dispassionate professional and a less dangerous character than Brendan Gleeson's hedonistic local Gerry Boyle, with whom he is paired in order to track down a group of homicidal drug dealers in the Irish countryside.

Almost every aspect of the film operates on some slightly bizarre comic plane, from the incongruous use of Latin American music in an overcast Northern European setting to Boyle's wholesale lack of anything resembling duty, respect or good taste (always an interesting combination for a hero). There's humour in incidental details too, such as the Daniel O'Donnell poster that hangs on the Irish policeman's bedroom wall. Directed by the brother of 'In Bruges' writer-director Martin McDonagh, 'The Guard' does compare to that film with its pitch black comedy and cleverly written characters, who in both instances have an unexpected innocence which prevents the film from being nasty.

12) We Need to Talk About Kevin, dir Lynne Ramsay, UK

What I said: "Ramsay tastefully avoids depicting the horrific event itself (or indeed many of the preceding horrific events), but even so she manages to make even the most banal instances (a drive through suburbia, a trip to the supermarket) intense and frightening throughout. This has a lot to do with punchy editing, jarring musical choices and a stand out performance from relative unknown [Ezra] Miller."

As with 'The Tree of Life', this is a film I have developed a complicated relationship with. Framed around the questions of nurture vs. nature, we contemplate the "evil" actions of the titular schoolboy (Ezra Miller) and ponder the culpability of his mother (Tilda Swinton). The problem for me is that I don't have any time for the suggestion that evil exists, let alone the idea that it could possibly be an innate property. Therefore one reading of the film leaves me totally unsatisfied, as we are shown a small toddler who seems to maliciously undermine his mother at every turn. The other idea, that the boy's upbringing/environment is to blame for his crimes, is equally lacking, with trite finger-pointing at "the media" and violent video games which fails to treat the issue with appropriate levels of engagement.

It works slightly better if you switch focus from vainly asking "why?" and look at it as a study of Swinton's despairing mother, living in the aftermath of her son's actions. We see her slapped, spat at, harassed at work and out at the supermarket. Her house and car are repeatedly vandalised and her family has been destroyed. What must it be like to live in the shadow of a relative who's committed a famous violent crime? That seems, to me, a more interesting and unorthodox question. And whilst the film doesn't delve too deeply into Kevin's psychology (however brilliantly he's played by Miller), Swinton's performance is full of nuance and depth.

But if the film doesn't totally work for me - at least on its own terms - then why is it so high up this list? The simple answer is because Lynne Ramsay has made one of the scariest, most uncomfortable, most tense films I have ever sat through in a cinema. The permanent sense of unease created by the film owes a lot to the editing, the claustrophobic shooting style and some inspired musical choices. Especially as the climactic acts of violence are never shown. As a sensory experience - and as an acting showcase for Tilda Swinton - 'We Need to Talk About Kevin' is almost unbeatable.

11) Weekend, dir Andrew Haigh, UK

What I said: "Director Andrew Haigh's naturalistic screenplay, along with the fine performances of both leads, brings to life a film of emotional substance and nuance, in which neither character is judged by the filmmaker even as they judge and contradict each other. Glen's cynical take on marriage, as a sort of fay middle class obligation, is every bit as persuasive as Russell's suggestion that the ritual represents a bold public declaration of love. In this way the lengthy, often drug-fuelled, exchanges between them - as they discuss art, sex and gay rights of passage - are always interesting, funny and heartfelt - never sentimental or contrived."

Films are very expensive to produce. That might seem obvious but it's worth pointing out here anyway. This, I would argue, is the reason we don't see many films about homosexuality at the multiplex. Producers will make anything (and I mean anything) as long as they think it stands a chance of making money, which is why we see so many obnoxious movies ostensibly aimed at young, white males. There is a reason 'Fast Five' has that "five" in the title: because films about muscle-bound douchebags blowing stuff up and driving really fast cars consistently reap commercial rewards.

At the risk of seeming naive, I think prejudice and bigotry are less the cause of this kind of thing than cold market forces. Simply put: prove that there's a huge audience for mature movies about homosexuality that aren't tacky or condescending and you might just see three more pop up in its place. 'Weekend' is that pioneering movie: a huge independent sleeper hit that forced cinema after cinema to take it on long after its release date due to fervent popular demand.

'Weekend' is on this list in part because it's a refreshingly frank and, as far as I can tell, honest depiction of a minority group that's under-represented in the mainstream media. It's so high on this list because it's a superbly made film by any standard: sweet, thoughtful and funny, with two terrific lead actors and an intelligent screenplay.

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