Monday, 12 December 2011

My Top 30 Films of 2011: 30-21

End of year list season is well and truly upon us. 2011 has long felt like a weak year for the movies, with a few notable exceptions. So much so that I was originally thinking of abandoning last year's "top 30" template for a more conventional, not to mention streamline, "top 10". Yet looking back over the last twelve months I was delighted to discover there were at least 30 films I liked, probably about 20 of which are unambiguously terrific. Maybe the year hasn't been so bad after all.

I was going to wait until I'd seen the much talked about 'Margaret', Nanni Moretti's 'We Have a Pope' and Fincher's take on 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo' before compiling this list, but for a range of reasons I'm going to kick off now. For one thing, 'Dragon Tattoo' is based on source material I have a serious problem with - already adapted into three Swedish films that I despised - whilst there is no guarantee I'll get the opportunity to see the other two before the month is out.

It's worth noting before I begin that this list is comprised of films I've seen this year, including festival movies - some of which aren't on general release in the UK until next year. If you're wondering why some of this year's most stunning releases aren't included, such as 'Black Swan' and '13 Assassins' (both seen in Venice last year), that's because they were in 2010's list. So here are my choices, my favourite films of 2011 numbers 30-21:

30) The Green Hornet, dir Michel Gondry, USA

What I said: "Rogen's hero isn't charming and erudite - he is an obnoxious oaf and by and large stays that way right the way through the film. Rogen's delivery - of dialogue he penned with writing partner Evan Goldberg - is superb too, in all its underplayed, mock-macho brainlessness and the relationship between him and Jay Chou, who plays sidekick Kato, is fun to watch."

By no means perfect, it's fair to say that Michel Gondry's 'The Green Hornet' benefited from extremely low expectations when I saw it back in January. A poor trailer, troubled production history and use of much-derided post-converted 3D suggested this would be a creative misstep for all involved - and a potential career-wrecker for writer/star Seth Rogen. Yet - at the box office - the film outperformed the studio's own modest expectations owing to the fact that it's a lot better than we had any right to expect. This comes down to a combination of the brilliant Christoph Waltz as the villain, Rogen's incredulous, hyper-enthusiastic style of delivery which injects humour into every line and, most of all, the director's knack for innovation and imagination.

There are a lot of pretty cool in-camera effects in 'The Green Hornet' and, though Gondry's more personal documentary 'The Thorn in the Heart' (released around the same time) would be the more respectable choice for this list, here is a film very much in the same spirit as 'Be Kind Rewind' and 'The Science of Sleep', if not his superior Charlie Kaufman-penned work. That the action scenes are also quite effective - in what's basically a quirky comedy about a rich douchebag learning to become a marginally smaller rich douchebag - only adds to the pleasantness of the surprise.

29) Winnie the Pooh, dir Stephen J. Anderson & Don Hall, USA

What I said: "As you might expect from a gentle children's tale, this film is very much aimed at youngsters... there are no nods to the adults or in-jokes at all. But it's nice to find a modern animation totally free of any post-modern winking and there is fun to be had here for adults so long as they are prepared to indulge their innermost child. As the credits rolled I found myself identifying with the sentiment of this bittersweet passage from [A.A] Milne's The House at Pooh Corner: "And by and by Christopher Robin came to an end of things, and he was silent, and he sat there, looking out over the world, just wishing it wouldn't stop.""

Let down only by a bafflingly short running length (is 63 minutes technically even a feature film?), Disney's "51st Animated Classic" is as charming as it is beautifully animated. The best of the studio's 90s animating talent returned to work on the picture and a lot of love has gone into the detailed and fluid hand-drawn animation, as well as the faithful voice-acting and delightfully hummable ditties. There isn't much of a story as Pooh, Piglet and company bumble their way through the Hundred Acre Wood, but it hardly matters if you approach it in the intended spirit of open-hearted whimsy. This is potentially only a film for toddlers and animation enthusiasts, but I found it to be one of the year's unqualified pleasures.

28) Contagion, dir Steven Soderbergh, USA

What I said: "It feels slightly too long and, in terms of narrative focus, it's every bit as scattershot as its director's filmography - with some characters unceremoniously forgotten, whilst others reappear just as you've forgotten they were in the film to begin with. Yet it's gripping, frightening, filled with haunting images and, I suspect, it will come to be seen as the definitive film about worldwide medical crisis... It certainly left me wanting to stockpile supplies and seal the exits, too frightened to touch my own face. And that's the sign of a good film."

I love a good doomsday scenario movie and they don't come more frighteningly credible than Soderbergh's 'Contagion', which shows how a new virus could significantly reduce the global population within months of killing Gwyneth Paltrow. After Mrs. Coldplay bites it in the opening moments, we know that nobody in the film's stellar ensemble (Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Matt Damon, Marion Cotillard and more) is safe, increasing the sense of dread. It's a bit jargon-heavy, filled with clumsy exposition and a little unfocussed, but it's also one of the most memorable and visceral movie-going experiences of the year.

27) Limitless, dir Neil Burger, USA

What I said: "Limitless is a well executed and intelligent thriller which suggests, when the cinema going public finally succumb to that long-overdue Zach Galifianakis overdose, Bradley Cooper will be the Hangover actor left standing. It’s also evident that Burger is a capable hand for exciting, character-based movies. It’s patient, cerebral and unpretentious pulp science fiction fare on a sensible scale."

In 'Limitless' Bradley Cooper's serial underachiever - a deadbeat wannabe writer - gets a taste of the high-life after taking an experimental drug (NZT) that unlocks the full potential of the human brain. Within days he's wealthy, sexy and extremely arrogant, taking on organised criminals and Robert De Niro's morally dubious business tycoon. Released around the same time as Duncan Jones' dispiritingly conventional 'Moon' follow-up 'Source Code', the unsung 'Limitless' quietly went about being the superior film - both in terms of the interesting sci-fi morality questions it posed and the style in which it was made.

For the most part a male-empowerment wish-fulfilment fantasy gone wrong, 'Limitless' goes to some incredibly dark places, with it even suggested via news reports that Cooper has murdered a woman whilst on NZT (a fact which is chillingly never resolved). This is made all the more sinister by an ending which reminded me of Hal Ashby's 'Being There', as Cooper's protagonist contemplates his potential future as President of the United States, implying that hubris and over-confidence - as well as smarts - are key to success in capitalism.

26) Tales of the Night, dir Michel Ocelot, FRA

What I said: "There is a deep-rooted love of basic human kindness here which reminds me of Miyazaki, and yet Ocelot’s films are never cute or sentimental and you get the impression he is resolutely sincere. And though his art style looks simple and even a bit cheap, the fluidity of his animation – particularly when it involves running and dancing – is at the peak of the art form. Added to that, in terms of imagination 'Tales of the Night' is filled to the brim with ideas."

In a year which saw Pixar release a 'Cars' sequel and Studio Ghibli give us the nice but forgettable 'Arrietty', Michel Ocelot's 3D 'Tales of the Night' is indisputably the best animated film I've seen. Ocelot's embrace of multiculturalism and earnest humanism, as seen previously in 'Kirikou and the Sorceress' and 'Azur & Asmar', is heartening, as is his ability to tell simple children's tales with incredibly sophisticated morality. Animated in silhouette, the use of 3D gives this the look of a pop-up book and complements nicely the film's conceit: that the series of short stories we are told are being performed by a secret, nocturnal theatre company with a surplus of imagination.

25) Coriolanus, dir Ralph Fiennes, UK

What I said: "Making the story relatable and relevant isn’t something [director Ralph Fiennes] does merely by enforcing [a] change of setting... This is also made possible by the actor’s Paul Greengrass-style direction: handheld cameras stripping the film of the formalised, sanitised sheen prevalent in many more traditional adaptations. In fact the scenes of urban warfare in 'Coriolanus' are bloody and visceral like those in a straight-up war movie. The other major contributing factor to the film’s success – and probably the most important – is that the dialogue is delivered incredibly naturalistically which makes it immediately understandable."

Resolutely avoiding the pitfalls of stagy, mannered Shakespeare adaptations, Ralph Fiennes directorial debut delivers one of the Bard's lesser known works with a visceral punch in the jaw. Fiennes himself stars, creating a menacing, towering presence as the titular military general whose abilities as a public speaker do not match his aptitude for conflict. Transported from ancient Rome to what looks like a modern day urban war zone, Fiennes uses riots, camera phones and 24 hour news coverage (brilliantly deploying real Channel 4 news reader Jon Snow as a herald) to explore the play's still-relevant themes. He retains all the original dialogue - much like the 1996 'Romeo & Juliet' - having his actors (including Gerard Butler, Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Cox and Jessica Chastain) deliver their lines in such a way that they are always understood in spite of the arcane verse.

24) Innocent Saturday, dir Aleksandr Mindadze, RUS/UKR

What I said: "Alexander Mindadze’s oppressive style of direction puts the viewer in the same uncomfortable position as his protagonist. You feel unable to escape and paranoid at the threat you can not see. There are very few occasions where the camerawork affords you an establishing shot or even a medium shot, and even fewer times when it is held still. This isn’t a conventional disaster movie and we don’t ever get to glimpse the full horror of the disaster or the eventual mass exodus from the town. This is rather the intimate story of one person struggling with his fears and desires as he grapples with the knowledge that the cheery oblivious, innocents around him – who are busy getting married, playing football and taking walks – are all likely doomed."

This extremely queasy and claustrophobic drama follows one man's doomed bid to escape the Soviet town of Prypiat, modern day Ukraine, in the hours following the 1986 meltdown at the neighbouring Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Valerij (Anton Shagin) works at the plant and, by chance, learns of the disaster before it is belatedly revealed to the public. And yet he can't bring himself to flee town: whether it's morality or fate something compels him to stay and drink the night away with his friends. The almost constant use of close-ups brilliantly gives the sense that something dangerous is in the air they breath, whilst also serving to frustrate the viewer by withholding information. This last action is perhaps the most overt critique of the Moscow government's handling of the disaster in a film which otherwise avoids polemics.

23) True Grit, dir Joel & Ethan Coen, USA

What I said: "I've oft heard it said that the Coens are heartless storytellers: that they don't like their characters and that they are cynical about people. I don't buy into that view at all and if I did I wouldn't be a fan. The Coen brothers, for me anyway, are defined by their willingness to look at all the cruelty of the human experience through the lens of absurdity and stupidity. People aren't evil or good in Coen brothers movies, they usually just don't know any better. Bad things are done by people in a state of panic (most murders in Coen brothers movies occur this way) and pre-planned acts of inhumanity always find their way back to the often hapless perpetrator (think of Jerry Lundegaard in 'Fargo'). Even if, in this case, [Mattie Ross] is a little girl avenging her father's murder - a goal many filmmakers would find unproblematic."

Perhaps this one would factor higher up my list if it was fresher in the memory. But, released last year in the US and a contender at February's Academy Awards, it feels like a 2010 movie. In any case 'True Grit' is a superb western and - by all accounts - a more faithful adaptation of the Charles Portis novel than the fondly remembered John Wayne film of 1969. One reason it stands apart as the stronger film is that Jeff Bridges' cantankerous drunken Marshal Rooster Cogburn is a more effective anti-hero under directors comfortable with moral ambiguity.

The Coens don't imagine that the audience has to like their characters, which isn't the same thing as making them unlikable. They just don't feel the need to flag Cogburn up as any species of hero. Any warmth you feel for him comes because of his flawed, grizzled humanity, and Bridges portrayal, rather than because of his effectiveness with a firearm and penchant for frontier justice. Likewise Oscar-nominated newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, who plays young, revenge-obsessed protagonist Mattie Ross, is scrutinised and ultimately scarred by her adventures - something which wouldn't have been palatable in '69 but is actually essential to the telling of this story. The cold, elegiac tone of the piece - so common to Coen brothers movies from 'Blood Simple' onwards - also fits the western myth so perfectly it's a wonder they haven't done this sooner.

22) Beginners, dir Mike Mills, USA

What I said: "'Beginners' is a tearjerker without feeling manipulative and it's life-affirming without being sickly. A large part of its success rests with Christopher Plummer, whose performance as Hal is especially heartbreaking, with the old man facing death when he is at his most vital. His insatiable appetite for new experiences is particularly bittersweet and Mills' reflection on his own father's life as a closet homosexual in the 1950s shows great insight and empathy. All of the characters are well drawn and sympathetic - with each of them coming to terms with misfortune and tragedy without self-pity. As romantic leads, McGregor and Laurent enjoy great chemistry and their scenes together are a charming."

Until this year, with one possible exception, Ewen McGregor hadn't been in a good film since 1996 - the year of 'Brassed Off' and 'Trainspotting'. My perverse love of 'The Phantom Menace' aside, the closest he'd come to being in a halfway decent movie over the last fifteen years had been in Tim Burton's 'Big Fish'. But in 2011 McGregor starred in Mike Mills' 'Beginners', which is much more than a halfway decent movie. In fact it's a beautiful and incredibly moving portrayal of loss in which McGregor is the emotional centre.

Like the aforementioned 'Big Fish', 'Beginners' is about a son coming to terms with the loss of his father. But whereas Albert Finney's Edward Bloom was a dominating figure with a life of extraordinary (if exaggerated) adventures behind him, the father here - played by Christopher Plummer - succumbs to cancer months after beginning to live anything like a fulfilled life, having only recently embraced his long-repressed homosexuality. McGregor and co-star Melanie Laurent have a good chemistry together and the film is life-affirming without being saccharine.

21) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two, dir David Yates, UK/USA

What I said: "Everything seems to fit so well together now that I am even beginning to credit Warner Brothers with some sort of unlikely overall plan behind the series' game of directorial musical chairs. Unlike 'Star Wars' or 'Indiana Jones', the films have grown with their audience and, for those the same approximate age as the heroes, it seems entirely appropriate in retrospect that the brightly coloured, John Williams-scored whimsy of the opening Christopher Columbus episodes has developed into this more macabre and downbeat conclusion. As the stakes have been raised, and the supporting characters have started dying at an exponential rate, so the films have become more complex and interesting."

With the possible exception of Alfonso Cuaron's early entry, the Harry Potter series has never interested me until the last few episodes as directed by David Yates - a UK TV director. In fairness, he's been helped immeasurably by a number of factors outside of his control - the child actors have become better in their decade in front of the camera, whilst the later books seem to be darker and richer - but he still deserves a lot of credit for the way he has handled the end of JK Rowling's ubiquitous child wizard saga. In Yates' Potter films there is a clearer sense of threat, with some quite nasty goings on in this entry in particular (as when a major character has his throat slit before being savagely attacked by a snake whilst lying helpless). And once pantomime characters, like Alan Rickman's Professor Snape, are fleshed out in ways both pleasing and surprising.

But my favourite thing about Yates' take on the series has been the increased banality in the presentation of the non-magical (or "muggle") world in which Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his friends must live. Yates seems to understand what Christopher Columbus, Mike Newell and even Cuaron missed: the magic is only wondrous and exciting if it takes place in a recognisable world to our own. The Roald Dahl inspired evil step-family of the earlier installments were larger than life caricatures, meaning that Harry's life was already out of the ordinary and bizarre before he went to Hogwarts school and got all wizardy on their asses. But here magic seems to have a visceral impact on a recognisable world.

In the concluding chapters another pleasing fact has become clear, which I had previously dismissed and for which Rowling presumably deserves credit (I've never read a Harry Potter book). In the past I've bemoaned Harry as this pathetic, passive protagonist - always helped by some deus ex machina or by his more capable friends/members of faculty. But it's now obvious that Harry's special talent is that he is extraordinarily nice to people. All people. He is, however bland it might sound, good. It is this which allows him to succeed because this is why people help him when he's in trouble. It's the same logic that sees the previously bullied, but-of-all-jokes Neville Longbottom (Matt Lewis, above) steal the film's most bombast instances of heroism. Harry Potter isn't about being the smartest or the strongest and an understanding of this allows this megabucks franchise to attain a sort of innocent nobility.

Come back later in the week for numbers 20-11.

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