Thursday, 22 December 2011

A Good Year: Film in 2011

Read on as Spectrum's two resident cinephiles, Nick Pierce and Tom Dunn, review the past year and offer their personal opinions on the best of 2011. A pretty classy year that could easily support a 'top twenty', 2011 has led to some critical differences between Nick and Tom - whose side are you on? If you work for a major studio, probably neither!


2011 proved to be a strong year in cinematic terms, with the shores of Albion distinguished by particularly noteworthy work.The King’s Speech obviously garnered most of the attention towards the start, reaping a frankly ridiculous number of awards, but on purely artistic merit it has been vastly overshadowed by a series of art-house corkers.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy took the lion’s share of critical adulation, embraced by every film supplement contributor and his pet gerbil, and with good reason: it was this year’s classiest film, sparkling with world-class performances from a veritable who’s who of British acting royalty, a murky and engrossing screenplay and impeccable direction from Swedish wunderkind Tomas Alfredson.

However, Scottish filmmaker Lynne Ramsay’s We Need To Talk About Kevin was the real standout. Its striking compositions and elliptical narrative were intensely cinematic and married brilliantly with the troubling, universal subject matter of maternal responsibility and the nature of evil. Tilda Swinton’s central performance was also one of the year’s best, scrupulously avoiding clich├ęd, hair-pulling renditions of the distressed mother in order to delve deeper into the agony and quiet heroism of a woman thrust into extraordinary and terrible circumstances.

Another of my favourites and perhaps the most radical film to be released was Le Quattro Volte. Michelangelo Frammartino’s near-silent exploration of animist philosophy and physical comedy is finely attuned to our ever expanding sense of affinity and equality with the rest of the animal kingdom, fostered by advances in our scientific understanding of the natural world. In this remarkable picture, the conventional hierarchy of narrative importance between man and the other creatures is demolished: an ant upstages the actor whose face it crawls across and a dog barks amusingly at a man dressed as Jesus, signalling nature’s indifference to the anthropomorphic theologies humanity constructs for itself. If this all sounds heavygoing it’s not: it’s more like David Attenborough meets Jacques Tati, and a wholly original beast.

Elsewhere in world cinema, A Separation was a more traditional drama involving, y’know, people. But its dramatization of the tensions in Iranian society between man and woman, religion and secularism, rich and poor was complex and thrilling, employing the tropes of a minimalist thriller to bring urgency to its domestic material.

The only American entry in my top five is Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter, an accomplished drama that dares to take a typically large-scale apocalyptic conceit and interiorise it, telling a story about the impact of potential real-world disaster on the everyman imploding in his living room. Along with Kevin, it was the most unsettling cinemagoing experience to be had in 2011, and Michael Shannon’s star-making performance ought to see him at least nominated for an Academy Award.

The other worthy American indie was Blue Valentine, an unflinching look at the blossoming and subsequent breakdown of a relationship between Ryan Gosling’s carefree boy and Michelle William’s careworn girl. Possibly a little too unvarnished for its own good, and supremely depressing in its portrayal of love turned sour, it remains surely one of the most incisive and balanced depictions of marital breakdown in celluloid history.

For sheer entertainment value, you couldn’t go far wrong with Drive, arguably the jewel in the crown of Ryan Gosling’s triumphant rise to the Hollywood A-list. Gorgeously moody and blissfully cool, this B-movie homage was a well-buffed reflection of its own protagonist, the nameless Driver, who dispensed his own violent brand of justice and had hipster kids from here to Manhattan cheering him on. In the form of Kavinsky’s endlessly replayable, sex-in-sonic-waves ‘Nightcall’ it also undoubtedly had the year’s greatest theme song.

We saw another lacklustre summer of blockbusters, but Super 8 just about saved the day with its emphasis on developing a genuinely likeable and compelling group of characters, even if its science-fiction conceit, heartfelt as it clearly was, relied a little too heavily on Spielbergian touchstones. Scorsese’s Hugo was the real star of the big-budget league however, the master filmmaker ensuring that his first family adventure was miles away from the Christmas turkey many had feared. Instead, it was a genuinely moving and – for all its 3D gimmickry - refreshingly old-fashioned evocation of the cultural value of motion pictures.

In a genre as over-saturated as that of the crime story, Australian flick Animal Kingdom still managed to make a lasting impression. This owed mainly to its novel approach of bypassing an account of the central crime family’s exploits in favour of focusing upon the Shakespearian power games that erupt once they begin fighting for their lives against a brutal police counterattack. Ben Mendelsohn deserves special mention for his feral, queasy turn as the psychopathic loose cannon of the Cody clan, ‘Pope’.

And Meek’s Cutoff tapped fresh blood in the Western, a genre that often looks to be on its deathbed only to repeatedly receive these last-minute reprieves. It is the haunting recreation of an ill-fated expedition of settlers led into and hopelessly lost in the American wilderness by their guide, Stephen Meek, a frontiersman so full of blustering bullshit it’s a wonder he can even perch atop his horse. Of course, it’s actually a nifty allegory of post-Bush uncertainty in the States, with Meek as the ex-President and the inscrutable Native American they capture a stand-in for that modern demonised outsider, the Muslim.
My Top Ten:
10. Meek’s Cutoff
9. Animal Kingdom
8. Hugo
7. Drive
6. Blue Valentine
5. Take Shelter
4. A Separation
3. Le Quattro Volte
2. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
1. We Need To Talk About Kevin 


As Nick rightly states, this past year has proven to be a rather exceptional one for cinema, offering many treats that haven’t even been accounted for in our respective top ten lists of the year. From around the globe, features such as 13 Assassins, The Tree of Life, True Grit and Essential Killing have graced our screens and thoughts (some with more universal adoration than others), but as the year comes to a close, the true stand outs have become obvious, overlapping as they do in both mine and Nick’s lists. That said, there’s a few features not yet mentioned that I feel also deserve a look in.

Hugo, Scorcese’s heart-felt panegyric to film, just falls short of a place in the top ten due to its at times essay-like approach to its subject matter, a whole being hinted at that isn’t quite reached in the marriage of fact and fiction. Instead, slipping in at the number ten spot is Tran Anh Hung’s angst-ridden Norwegian Wood, a movie that revels in its own luxurious melancholia as much as its protagonists, students Toru and Naoko, do, with a haunting score by Jonny Greenwood to boot. Moody and stylish, it’s what every sixteen year old boy hopelessly imagines their life to play out as.

Meanwhile, Super 8 offered a glimpse of what every thirteen year old boy instead wishes their life might play out as – specifically a strongly directed re-run of a Spielbergian fantasy. However, there’s probably something to be said about the fact that the 21st century equivalent of E.T. is both a killing machine and an oddly characterless space traveller – the weakest link in this well-scripted story of friendship dressed over with a sci-fi adventure. The film was ultimately carried by the heart-warming dynamic between Joel Courtney, Riley Griffiths and Elle Fanning, whose representation of pubescent affection felt more real than that offered by Moretz and Butterfield in Hugo, capable as they were.

Falling a little lower on my personal list of favourites for the year is the Iranian family drama A Separation. Its complex play with social prejudices was cleverly extended into the audience, with a script that weaved its way through a zig-zag of quietly devastating twists and revelations. Aided by a continual sense of oppression and repression (exemplified in the ever-lurking voyeurs whenever a confrontation between family members occurred), everyone was under the lens here.

Sharing seventh place across both lists, Refn’s violent ode to the ‘80s, Drive was both one of the coolest and one of the most overrated movies of the year, its pouty ways sometimes coming off as more than a little try-hard, with Gosling’s triumph being marred somewhat by a few weak moments from Mulligan and Brooks. Perlman’s final scene, however, remains a cracker.

Let’s not forget this year’s other great hipster baby however, the wonderfully awkward directorial debut from Richard Ayoade, Submarine. Ruthlessly manipulative of its bric-a-brac approach to British teen nostalgia, the film at once celebrates and condemns the showy pretentiousness that its deluded protagonist, Oliver Tate (played with aplomb by Craig Roberts) shoves in the face of his hard-nose girlfriend Jordana (Yasmin Paige) as he attempts to glue together the fractures in his parents’ marriage. The film seems to have been forgotten somewhat in the self-congratulatory retrospectives on British cinema that is year, a damn shame when it is clearly so much more inventive than our darling export, The King’s Speech.

Not to be underestimated, however, is Alfredson’s English debut, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the anti-Bourne of spy films that carries over Alfredson’s exquisite approach to decay previously evident in Let the Right One In. Little else needs to be said that Nick didn’t already cover. A wonderful showcase of today’s British acting talent, it shouldn’t be missed.

To my mind, the roughness around the edges of Blue Valentine only further aided in displaying the battered heart it wore on its sleeve. A reminder of the shift in direction relationships can take, Cianfrance’s dissection of the torn bond between Gosling and Williams is at once claustrophobic and bittersweet, looking to the past for succour rather than the uncertain, raw future.

In the same way that critical reception burned bright and died fast for Coppola’s Lost in Translation, I can’t help but feel that Aronofsky’s Black Swan has become the new film that it’s cool to hate. Whilst claims that the film is a show of style over substance and more than a little mainstream are probably correct, I fail to see how these detract from what is an enjoyably bombastic rollercoaster ride through one girl’s personal hell. Melodramatic and theatrical, Black Swan is a breath of fresh air in a time when such subject matter is normally dealt with in either overly weighty or anaemic, “thematic”, ways. With strong cinematography, and a great reworking of the original ballet’s conceit, Black Swan may not be The Red Shoes, but I’m not sure it was trying to be in the first place.

Similarly, David Michod’s Animal Kingdom seems to have been somewhat forgotten after its triumphant arrival at the start of the year. Laden with doom, this story of one family’s systematic self-destruction in the face of an enemy presence amplified by paranoia was easily the best crime film of the year. Playing out as the final act to a crime legacy may earn it comparisons to Reservoir Dogs, but there’s far more going on here than such a pairing suggests, with Jacki Weaver channelling her inner bitch as the unhealthy dynamics of her family grow putrid and explode.

Ultimately however, there’s no arguing that this year’s best came to us in the form of We Need to Talk About Kevin. Whilst some of the visual metaphors hit you across the head like a sledgehammer, scenes such as Swinton’s nightmare drive, through a street full of leering kids in Halloween dress, offered devastating moments of punctuation to a slow-burning tale of domestic horror and gamesmanship, as our view of the relationship between Kevin and his mother shifts beyond a conventional framework into something belonging wholly to them. Swinton’s role as Eva was a career highlight, whilst Ezra Miller’s Kevin shows promise for someone great in years to come. Fantastically bleak and incisive, it’s films like this that cinema was conceived for.

My Top Ten:

10. Norwegian Wood
9. Super 8
8. A Separation
7. Drive
6. Submarine
5. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
4. Blue Valentine
3. Black Swan
2. Animal Kingdom
1. We Need to Talk About Kevin

A stellar year all round then, setting a high benchmark for 2012. That said, with Prometheus, The Dark Knight Rises, and The Artist right around the corner, perhaps we don't have all that much to worry about...