Saturday, December 31, 2011

Another Year at the Pictures

Film 2011

The end of the calendar year has always been a time of reflection, looking back at faults of the year past and formulating resolutions to improve the year to come or gathering low-rent celebs to provide sound bites covering any topic that can have a top 100 and involve TV clips. Anal types prefer to catalogue the experiences of the year, and being a shut-in fond of lists I'm providing my very own top films of 2011 to add to the millions of screen inches clogging the Internet.

This year I have seen 49 films at the cinema. This sounds a lot but based on previous years it's a bit low, less than one a week after all. Despite having a Cineworld pass my cinema visiting is in the decline - these days most cinema tickets in London are £10+ so if you want to see films at least once a week and not spend over £500 a year then Cineworld is your only option at just over £215 a year for a West End pass.
Even taking into account the Trocadero and Haymarket cinemas with about 10 screens between them, there are often a number of decent releases that aren't on in the chain, but that's not the reason I finally cancelled the subscription. In one recent screening a mouse or rat was fighting it's way into and/or out of a plastic bag, and then two films later they forgot to turn the lights down for the first five minutes of the film. Not something mentioned when they wheeled out Ray Winstone to growl on about how he loves going to the cinema for the experience. Still, shoddy cinema going experiences can't stop good films being good. Let's celebrate!

Cedar Rapids

Director Miguel Arteta had somewhat of a cult hit with 2000's Chuck and Buck, Jennifer Aniston vehicle The Good Girl is reportedly decent but his last, Youth in Revolt, wasn't an out and out success. Cedar Rapids however is an excellent entry into the comedy ranks, managing to be a warm and funny high school comedy that happens to be about middle aged insurance salesman at a hotel conference. The action is fairly predictable in a good way, recognised character types and situations are turned on their heads in this setting and renewed with the help of a snappy script and some great turns by the extended cast, John C. Reilly unsurprisingly brilliant as an obnoxious lout on the insurance scene, and Anne Heche shining with a great nose for comedy. Cedar Rapids, like Mamet's State and Main, brings about the feeling of a middle America that isn't all small town hicks suspiciously threatening rich yuppie kids but still has bite behind its warmth.

The Fighter

I've liked David O. Russell since his debut Spanking the Monkey, and Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees showed that he had a wider range than skewed family indie dramas, but I didn't expect something as fully formed as the Fighter to emerge.
Whilst a large part of it's success is down to Whalberg and Bale fully inhabiting their characters in this true-life tale of a boxer held back by his junky brother, Russell vividly recreates the world of Lowell, Massachusetts in the 1980s as Dicky Ecklund is followed around by an HBO TV crew while he trains his brother Micky Ward and flakes out on crack.
Boxing films are generally hard to ruin, naturally focusing tightly on a few characters with close knit ties and incorporating cinematic action sequences. The Fighter is no different, instead managing to spend more time on the familial problems of its leads without getting that movie of the week feeling. The whole cast, from Bale and Whalberg in their physically demanding roles, through Amy Adams and the cast playing Micky and Dicky's extended family, feel like real people and make this film more like the documentary within it rather than a dramatisation of the events years later. A career high for all involved.

Black Swan

Aranofsky has always been great, whether financially successful or not, and Black Swan continues an unbroken run of hits that make self destruction compelling viewing.
Natalie Portman plays Nina Sayers in a role that reminded me of Haneke's Piano Teacher - a professional artist still living with and stifled by her mother in adulthood. Nina (ballerina) is terrified at her abilities potentially lacking and her chance at the starring role in Swan Lake being ruined. Star director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) thinks her perfect as the swan princess but not passionate enough to play the Black Swan, and trains her hard to break through.
New York in winter is a large part of the film in much the same way as it was in Pi, the bleak hues in the urban settings emphasising the claustrophobia felt by Nina in a city bursting with so many millions as she starts to lose her grip on reality.
Aranofksy seems to be the master of psychological breakdown and at times Black Swan strays into the body horror of early Cronenberg. Urban alienation at its best.

13 Assassins

I've often written of Takashi Miike as one of my favourite directors, but he's rarely been what you could call mainstream. Miike's (latest) addition to latter day Japanese period action/drama films is still very much a niche but a much wider niche than some of his well over 70 films fall into.
A dodgy lord threatens the future of 1840s Japan itself with his psychotic, dishonourable behaviour, and his subjects conspire against him, building a squad of 13 samurai to work together and assassinate the insane warlord. There are a number of scenes of skewed Miike humour involving death and disfigurement, and po-faced discussions between the stoic samurai, but his assassins are purely heroic, cutting swathes through the sadist's henchmen.
The ending sequence is a massive set-piece involving a booby trapped village that impresses due to its scale, and despite the actors struggling to stand out in such a large primary cast Yusuke Iseya manages to impress as the hunter Kiga who professes immense strength and endurance despite a childish, monkey-ish demeanour, smashing the bad guys with blunt instruments.

The Guard

John Michael McDonagh's (brother of In Bruge's Martin McDonagh) debut is a big surprise, hugely enjoyable and darkly comic with a brilliant script brought to life by Brendan Gleeson.
The plot: A dodgy Irish Garda in the West of Ireland gets involved in an FBI investigation into drug smuggling.
Whilst this setting has endless potential to get bogged down in the swamp of stereotype, the sensibility of biting wit and cheeky knowingness keeps the film fresh at every turn.
The supporting cast is excellent, with Liam Cunningham and Mark Strong providing some memorable scenes, along with Don Cheadle as Gleeson's unlikely buddy in a loose buddy cop scenario. Oh, and there are beautiful, bleak landscapes for the breaks in between actors firing off witticisms at each other.

The Tree Of Life

I often find myself thinking that Terrence Malick is an overly ponderous director, feted by those who are afraid of not 'getting' something that's supposedly great and heaping unwarranted praise on overblown fluff. Then I remember watching Badlands for the first time, and being slowly and quietly blown away.
Tree of Life is almost purposely obtuse, a non-linear narrative mainly featuring segments of a 1950s American family's life, including Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt as mother and father of two young boys. There is heavy use of voice-over and numerous shots of the boys in nature, playing in the yard or in woods and streams. There is also a sequence which sees the creation of he universe, of the earth and of dinosaurs on our young planet.
I can't pretend to have fully understood the whole film, its meditations on existence as a choice between grace and nature embodied in the parents, but as dense as it is Tree of Life will reward repeat viewing.

Kill List

This film was another of 2011's crop that seemingly came out of nowhere. In part a study of a family strained by the livelihoods of the parents - father Jay (Nail Maskell) is an ex-soldier turned hitman and still haunted by a previous job gone wrong, mother Shel (MyAnna Buring) is also ex-forces and the pair now try and live a normal family life with their son in the suburbs. To make some more cash Jay's partner Gal (Michael Smiley) comes calling with a job offer. The film then turns into a dark thriller as Jay finds himself losing control when taking out the men on their list, Gal trying in vain to keep their jobs clean as Jay takes it personally with some sickening violence.
For the third act the film goes haywire, descending into pagan horror and madness.
It's unlikely you'll have seen anything quite like it.

Animal Kingdom

Writer-director Ben Michod's directorial debut is startling in its power and authenticity.
The story of a 17 year old boy having to deal with his criminal family after his mum dies of an overdose and he moves in with his gran and uncles, Animal Kingdom manages to be quiet and poetic in its slow build of tension as the return of one particular sociopathic uncle starts to unravel the family.
James Frecheville impresses as 17 year old J, presenting a tall, non-communicative teen, blank faced and further introverted when faced with his family troubles, but it's Ben Mendelsohn who stands out as eldest uncle Pope, quietly scary despite his age and size compared to the other men.
One of the things that stays with me is the lighting, cinematographer Adam Arkapaw doing for Melbourne what Brick did for Los Angeles and providing an underlying mood for the film as J's life crumbles. Guy Pearce and his moustache show up in a key role as the policeman trying to take down the family using J, but the film doesn't need star cameos to shine.
In a word: sublime.


Director James Wan kicked off the Saw quagmire, admittedly with a fairly decent serial killer B movie which probably wasn't aiming to churn out the first production line of gorenography.
Insidious happily takes a different tack, concentrating on fear and chills rather than violence and blood as well as a fair bit of gonzo oddness.
It's a classic haunted house tale with possession, astral projection, ghost hunters and classic empty corners and open doors to heighten tension and is one of the scariest films I've seen in a long time, benefiting from a certain unpredictability aided by one of the children put into a coma early on.
Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne also help to elevate the film from its roots, playing completely straight, distraught at the bumping in the night that follows them from house to house, even the veteran Lin Shaye dials down the gurning that she usually reels out for her many comedy parts.
In terms of recent horror Insidious is up there with Drag Me To Hell, not the classic of the Orphanage but a firm second tier.


Paddy Considine's directorial debut is a blistering examination of anger and pain.
Peter Mullan manages to top an already brilliant career with a performance of honed frustration and rage aimed at himself but directed at anyone in the vicinity, often with tragic results.
An unwanted chance at redemption comes when Peter's Joseph meets Olivia Colman's Hannah, a Christian charity shop worker with serious problems of her own. If Eddie Marsan turns up you've got a high chance of bad times.
Joseph's Midlands council estate setting is pretty bleak, but his character isn't as one note as kitchen-sink drama wannabes might portray, aware of his problems and failings and simply accepting that he's not a nice person, a stark way of dealing with issues that few stories tell without using simplistic binary morals.

Special mentions

Films that didn't quite make my top ten but nevertheless stood out include Melancholia, Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark, Take Shelter, Blue Valentine, Submarine, State Of Emergency and Drive.

Worst film of 2011

David Gordon Green made a startling debut with George Washington in 2000, a visually poetic coming of age tale in run down North Carolina. Whilst his subsequent output hasn't matched that film's grace, his second-to-last, Pineapple Express, was a brilliant homage to 70s stoner comedies and 80s buddy action movies, filtering the present day through the feel of those decades to create something familiar and yet fresh, despite borrowing heavily from the Apatow mould.

My first impressions of his latest film, Your Highness, were good, the trailer making the film seem like an irreverent take on sword and sorcery fables with a bit of modern swearing and stoner and dick jokes thrown in, reuniting James Franco and Danny McBride along with other Apatow regulars in order to swash buckles with knowing winks and foul mouths.
And yet after sitting down to the film proper, I find myself wondering when the comedy would begin. Joke after joke was rolled out to no effect, I could see the workings and what they were trying to do, but it just wasn't funny, not once. I waited in vain for things to pick up, hoping maybe it was just a false start, but it just carried on in the same vein. Maybe halfway through, up to the point when Natalie Portman's character appears, I couldn't take it any more and had to walk, the first and only time I have left a cinema before the film has ended.
Maybe it did turn a corner once Portman appeared, but I can't see it happening. A shame.

1 comment:

  1. Thats 9 films for me to catch next year. I only saw black swan ..Happy New year