Saturday, 31 December 2011

The Top 10 Films Of 2011

As Rob Gordon would tell you, "The making of a great compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do and takes ages longer than it might seem." Add to that list the compiling of 10 great movies from any given year, especially this one, the much bemoaned 2011. Multiplexes have undoubtedly been dominated by remakes, sequels and 3D this year, but films such as The Artist (Hazanavicius), released on December 30th, remind us of cinema's universal power, and how vital a storytelling medium it has become. This masterwork, along with Scorsese's lesser Hugo, have reintroduced audiences to the wonders of early cinema, and pioneers like the great Georges Méliès (1861 - 1938), whose Le voyage dans la lune (1902) has been touring festivals throughout the year. Indeed, picking just ten titles from 2011 has been a difficult task, and I've imposed on myself a new rule: no festival films, except for those without a confirmed release date. Shame (McQueen), for example, is the second best film I've seen this year, but its release on January 13th qualifies it for 2012's list. My No.1 this year might never see the light of day on these shores, and so it will be awarded a place here. After all, what sense does it make to wait uncertainly when I can celebrate its brilliance now? Films from 2010's LFF that I missed during festival time are also present here, as I caught them on theatrical release during the year. Meek's Cutoff (Reichardt, 2010) and Poetry (Changdong, 2010) can be found on last year's list, but both are exceptional films which deserve mention. So, without further ado, in reverse chronological order, here are my Top 10 films of 2011...

#10. Le Quattro Volte (Michelangelo Frammartino)

Summer 2011 will be remembered for uprising apes, warring wizards and scanty ninja babes, but for me its most exciting prospect was the tale of an old Calabrian shepherd, his herd and a pile of charcoal. Largely silent, Le Quattro Volte's dreamlike beauty made my hairs stand on end, and its questions of life, death and rebirth test me even now. It's a very hard film to describe, and at the very least impossible to sell to an audience without it sounding like a philosophical goat-herding story, but believe me, it's so much more than that. Patiently, it challenges our most deeply rooted beliefs, sensitively evoking emotions which very few films would even dare tap into. Sadly,, where my review was originally published, no longer exists, so there is no link to my extended write-up on this title.

#9. Wuthering Heights (Andrea Arnold)

Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights has, for as long as I can remember, been the tired horse of so-called 'classic' literature - a schoolbook text over-adapted by screens big and small, it's a story I'd never have imagined wanting to hear again, especially after 1994's awful Fiennes/Binoche effort. Enter British auteur Andrea Arnold, who shoots her rough n' ready adaptation in 1.33 on stock which feels like it was recovered from the Yorkshire moors, and the turbulent relationship of Cathy and Heathcliff feels fresher than ever. Shot by master DP Robbie Ryan, Wuthering Heights 2011 - as loyal as it is modernist - is totally at one with nature, employing the pelting rain and roaring winds to help inform the animalistic rituals of young love. In one scene Cathy licks the blood from Heathcliff's wounds; a moment of sensuality hidden in the stark English abyss. (Original review can be found here)

#8. The Tree Of Life (Terrence Malick)

Terrence Malick doesn't do anything by half. In The Thin Red Line (1998) he envisioned nature's resilience against man's inherent savagery, looking to the trees, reaching toward God, from the point-of-view of the ravaged earth. With The Tree Of Life this reclusive auteur has framed an intimate family drama against the backdrop of the cosmos, colliding planets before our awe-struck eyes. It's rare that a filmmaker will so unabashedly open himself up to an audience, and Malick's spirituality - while not sitting right with me on an initial viewing - is to be celebrated. The dinosaurs are a little corny, sure, but effects genius Doug Trumbull whipped up one of the most visually memorable sequences in years for this ambitious, uncompromised and towering work of art. Indeed, The Tree Of Life is Malick's finest film to date. (Original review can be found here)

#7. Tinker Tailor Solider Spy (Tomas Alfredson)

Mark Kermode claims that Tinker Tailor Solider Spy is a "spy film not about spying", and to some degree he's right. Set in 1970's London, this somber adaptation of John le Carré's Cold War novel is a masterpiece of unsettled intrigue, observing the rituals of male obsession within the labyrinthe world of MI6. The film is about the slowly unraveling thread of secrets and lies, but it involves the viewer on a human level; although these men appear more as clandestine shadows, denying themselves normality for a life spent in damp, greying rooms. DP Hoyte Van Hoytema lenses London beautifully, employing macro photography to absorb every bead of sweat, and capture every rouge glance. It's the best thriller I've seen in years, and should earn Gary Oldman his first Oscar nomination. (Original review can be found here)

#6. The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius)

Like the collected 1.33 dreams of film buffs across the world, Michel Hazanavicius' The Artist is cinema's love letter to itself - a silent spectacle which references everything from Les Vampires (Feuillade, 1915) to Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941). Much more than a simple homage to the films of the 'Golden Age', The Artist is a deeply moving portrait of love and stardom in 1927 Hollywoodland, punctuated by breathless imagination and note-perfect sight gags. Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo are both magnetic in their roles, especially in an all-dancing finale which would make Astaire and Rogers blush (as they tapped along, of course). It's a beautiful, rapturous film which wholly deserves the reputation it has been building since Cannes, and here's hoping that audiences embrace it in 2012. (Original review can be found here)

#5. Love Like Poison (Katell Quillévéré)

There are so many qualities to admire in Katell Quillévéré's coming-of-age debut (inspired by a Serge Gainsbourg song) that writing a 130-word summation may prove an impossible task. Clara Augarde (reminiscent of a young Sandrine Bonnaire in Pialat's À nos amours, 1983) plays Anna, a 14-year-old Catholic girl whose sexual awakening is juxtaposed with the collapse of her parent's marriage, all set over the summer of her confirmation. But the ambitious Quillévéré - perhaps the most promising French filmmaker of her generation - also finds time to focus on the crisis of faith of Father François (Stefano Cassetti), the town's priest. In a Bergman-esque sub-plot we see him fall apart under the pressure of his position, and in the film's best scene he lies on his bed in prayer, bursting into tears. A startling calling card for both director and star, this one just gets better on every viewing. (Original review can be found here)

#4. Incendies (Denis Villeneuve)

Featuring the best twist ending of the year, Denis Villeneuve's astonishing drama-cum mystery revolves around the journey undertaken by twins Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulain) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette) after their mother's death reveals long-kept family secrets: they have a brother, and their father is still alive. As the siblings slowly reveal details of their mother's life, Villeneuve flashes back to the 1970's to illustrate their findings, and tell the harrowing story of Nawal (Lubna Azabal). The present-tense mystery shape-shifts before our eyes as the narrative flits back and forth in time, but the effect is seamless. Set in an otherworldly Lebanon (the director smartly keeps his politics neutral), the film is beautifully shot by André Turpin, whose sense of space makes it hard to believe that Incendies originates on the stage. A challenging and emotionally shattering epic, Incendies also ensures that you'll never listen to Radiohead's 'You And Whose Army?' in the same way again. (Original review can be found here)

#3. The Interrupters (Steve James)

Shot between the Summer of 2008 and Spring of 2009, Steve James' The Interrupters chronicles 14 months in the life of three CeaseFire workers; Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams and Eddie Bocanegra, whose job it is to interrupt potentially violent conflicts, before they can claim another life. With unflinching dedication and patience, James immersed himself into the urban community of Chicago, capturing 340-hours of on-the-hoof footage, which was carefully cut down to this 127-minute epic (the expert editing builds narrative threads without ever feeling forced or contrived). Ignoring politics in favor of street-level interaction, it's remarkable how much power the film packs into its condensed running time, but the result is captivating. The Interrupters may hold up a mirror to our times, but the reflected image contains hope. Kids like Lil' Mikey prove that many offenders have a good heart, and were simply set on the wrong path. It is CeaseFire's ambition to correct those paths, and they are to be admired for their courage and motivation. (Original review can be found here)

#2. Cold Weather (Aaron Katz)

The best theatrical release of 2011, Cold Weather is a low-key mumblecore mystery from writer/director Aaron Katz, but don't let that put you off. Imbued with the spirit of Conan Doyle, this US indie revolves around twentysomething college dropout Doug (Chris Lankenau) and the search for his missing ex, Rachel (Robyn Rikoon). Well, at least that's what it appears to be about, when the film develops a plot at around the 40-minute mark. Really the film's focus is on the relationship between Doug and his sister Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn) as they learn how to become comfortable in each other's space, and address each other as adults. Beautifully played by the unknown cast, the sibling bond in Cold Weather is gently etched and affecting, perfectly complemented by the tinkling tones of Keegan DeWitt's score (which employs xylophones and trays of water). Never hitting a false note, Katz's multi-layered masterpiece took me by surprise on my first watch, and four viewings later it remains a complete revelation. (Original review can be found here, and a companion piece here)

#1. Sleeping Sickness (Ulrich Köhler) (Unreleased)

Owing as much to the mythic jungles of J.G. Ballard's The Crystal World (1966) as it does to Joseph Conrad's colonization tale Heart Of Darkness (1903), this medical drama looks to the ravaged African landscape as a dark, dream-like sandpit which swallows its people whole; cinematically the meeting point between Claire Denis and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Writer/director Köhler is, like his protagonist Dr. Velten (Pierre Bokma), of German descent, and so our eyes on this land are decidedly foreign, viewing it as something close to science-fiction. The elliptical narrative is silky rather than distracting, drawing the viewer deeper and deeper into the dual stories of Velten and French doctor Alex (Jean-Christophe Folly), whose descent together into the darkest recesses of the African jungle is breathtakingly original, challenging and exciting. I really pray that it finds a UK distributor: Sleeping Sickness is a genuine modern classic. (Original review can be found here)

Other Honorable Mentions (Alphabetically)...
Cave Of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog)
Kill List (Ben Wheatley)
Mourning (Morteza Farshbaf) (Unreleased)
Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes (Rupert Wyatt)
Romantics Anonymous (Jean-Pierre Améris)
Super (James Gunn)
Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols)
Way Of The Morris (Rob Curry, Tim Plester)
Weekend (Andrew Haigh)

1 comment:

  1. Would agree with no.6 and 7. Really want to see no.3. Liked Harry Potter 7B and Take Shelter and (up to a point ) Tree of Life. Many of the others I haven't seen. Would seriously disagree with you on Kill List though. Thought after a good start it descended into nonsense... But that's just my opinion!