Worst films of 2011
Cinema is this bizarre, magical thing: images are projected onto a wall in a dark room and they take over our lives; sometimes for a few hours, occasionally a few days, and, if we're lucky, forever. This was not a standout year for great films being released (a quick comparison suggests that 2010 fared better), but what was welcome was the breadth. You couldn't get a cohesive program out of these five selections, but each of them meant something when the lights went down and the eternal sense of anticipation spiked yet again.
Biutiful did not receive the acclaim of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's previous movies, 21 Grams and Babel, but in moving from elliptical, multi-strand narratives to a fierce single focus it displayed a new depth of artistry and resolve. As Uxbal, a Barcelona street fixer with terminal cancer, Javier Bardem lets his bull-like frame and forcefulness waste away as we watch, revealing a flawed, genuine humanity.
The premise suggested a female remake of Bachelor Party, but Paul Feig's hilarious film – co-written, starring and generally quarterbacked by comic Kristen Wiig – had a barbed, genuine sense of humour that made for sustained laughter even as it explored the uneasy status quo of 30something friends riven by a looming marriage. The standard romantic comedy schematic was acknowledged but then trashed, and two dramatic actors – Rose Byrne and Jon Hamm – were unearthed as deft comic performers.
If this epic distillation of one man's central role in the gestation of modern terrorism in the 1970s and 1980s is a French television production, then pass the Parisian television guide. With a soundtrack of edgy post-punk rhythms, Olivier Assayas turned the life of Carlos the Jackal (Edgar Ramirez, in a career making performance) into a compelling five hour meditation on radical politics and flawed masculinity, with historic set-pieces that reveal a revolutionary's transformation into a corporate contractor.
Right now it's an appreciable pleasure to watch Steven Soderbergh at work. Like the first part of the masterful Che double bill, Contagion is about the spread of a change agent, but this time it's a virus that consumes the world. Soderbergh switches up gender roles – the front-line soldiers are played by Kate Winslet and Marion Cotillard, Matt Damon is the increasingly paranoid stay at home parent – and shows the collapse of a modern society with taut, fearful insight.
This is Not a Film
What begins as an act of domestic defiance, with director Jafar Panahi defying the Iranian government's ban on him being involved with filmmaking, becomes a transcendent experience in this home movie that increasingly engages with the creative process. Panahi reads from an unproduced screenplay, blocks out scenes in his living room and talks about his casting philosophy, and by a sublime ending the limitations have disappeared.
A year of rich and intriguing films; besides those listed here I would have to single out for special mention Terrence Malick's daring Tree of Life and two films from Martin Scorsese, the elegiac and moving A Letter to Elia, his documentary on Elia Kazan (co-directed by Kent Jones), and George Harrison: Living in the Material World, perhaps the first music pic about celebrity and God; and Jonathan Teplitzsky's excellent Burning Man, which daringly experiments with storytelling conventions.
Sadly, local audiences never got to experience the true, epic splendor of Olivier Assayas' five-and-half-hour film about notorious terrorist, killer and assassin Carlos the Jackal in a theatre. Still, the short version is something to behold; savage, rich, and deep, it's a superb crime film, and a compelling and rigorous study of the cult of celebrity and a brilliant re-think of the bio-pic. Seen complete, its one of the great cinematic achievements of the last 10 years.
The Coen Brothers continue their dream run of excellent post-No Country pictures with this sublime version of Charles Portis' frontier western novel about moral relativism; performed by a perfect cast, it's funnier, tougher, and crueller than Henry Hathaway's rather anodyne John Wayne vehicle, and is arguably the most complex and charming of the Coen's entire catalogue, offering a tone that's a haunting mix of the sweet, the sad and the tragic.
Takeshi Miike's ferociously violent and very funny costume piece is nothing less than a sustained tribute to samurai flicks, Akira Kurosawa, and eccentric heroes. Unlike so many recent action movies, it's a film that has a queasy and ambiguous relationship with violence and morality. Exquisitely crafted its 45-minute battle climax is already, justly, a legend.
Some critics have remonstrated director Nicholas Winding Refn for engaging in yet another exercise of post-Tarantino post-modernist 'cool'. I don't think so at all. Where Tarantino asks us to rejoice in his playful practice, Refn wants to disappear in a story; where Tarantino loves to mock clichés, Refn respectfully adopts and adapts genre tropes to give his plot heat and power. Brilliantly made on every level, Drive is austere, lean, and very serious; its quiet style is grounded in character. It's a movie that counts the cost of emotional involvement on personalities that cannot afford to risk their feelings in a world of moral compromise; which is to say that its attitude to crime and criminals is classic, perhaps even old-fashioned and a long way from Tarantino and his imitators.
Errol Morris' hilarious and sad documentary about self-delusion and media malice was criminally under-regarded almost everywhere it was shown but I would argue it is perhaps equal to The Thin Blue Line, Fog of War and Standard Operating Procedure. In it Morris returns to his favourite theme: we seek only to find evidence that upholds a version of life that we already hold as true. A film about image and image making, it is cerebral, emotional and very human all at once.
After watching 100 films in cinemas and dozens more on DVD, I'd class 2011 as a significant improvement over a lacklustre, largely uninspiring 2010. There was a lot to admire and like from a mix of emerging and established filmmakers and flashes of originality and innovation.
Midnight in Paris
A richly entertaining and highly inventive comedy/fantasy, it's Woody Allen's most beguiling movie in years as well as the director's highest earner in global box office. Who else could so seductively create a time-travelling tale where an American writer encounters Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, Pablo Picasso and Gertrude Stein?
The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn
Steven Spielberg's rollicking adventure is huge fun, evoking the spirit of a young Indiana Jones, and the most stunning example yet of the 3D motion capture technique. It's a globe-trotting treasure hunt packed with dazzling action and engaging characters, laced with wit.
In his directing debut, screenwriter John Michael McDonagh fashioned an Irish gangster movie that cleverly pulls off a delicate balance of wicked humour and sometimes shocking violence, with superb performances from Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle. An exciting talent to watch…
A finely observed character study and meditation on growing old, coping with bereavement, family relationships and lives that are unfulfilled from the estimable Mike Leigh. Leslie Manville's knock-out performance deserved but didn't get an Oscar nomination.
This epic account of the heroic defence of a Russian fortress against Nazi invaders in 1941 ranks as one of the most gripping and powerful war movies of all time. Even more harrowing, the often shocking, brutal events are viewed primarily through the eyes of a child.
Is there anything more mystifying than other people's taste? It's the critic's role to make a passionate argument for the unheralded film, or to lead the chorus on excellence or genius, but like Louis Armstrong said when asked what was special about jazz: “If you don't know, then I can't explain it to you.” Love it or loathe it, here is what floated my boat this year.
Energised by Daniel Henshall's chilling turn as charismatic killer John Bunting, Justin Kurzel's debut feature is a frightening portrait of evil that reflects the political and social debates held around many an Australian kitchen table. Everyone is accepted… until you disagree with the majority or the group's powerful figurehead. A savage portrait of Australia that manages to tarnish the sacrosanct image of ANZAC Day and violently abuse kangaroos, the ugliness of this fearless film is made more disturbing and more worthy of celebration because of its basis in truth.
Any women's picture that manages to sneak in a wry reference to Sergio Leone has got to be special. Ably combining the coming-of-age movie with a mid-life crisis, Kang Hyoung-chul's Sunny is as perfect as a summer's day. Set in the present with a parallel flashback narrative set during the turbulent politics of Korea's 1980s, this ensemble film had an impressive cast of new and underused Korean actresses as it told the story of a teen gang and the women they became. It had me laughing until my sides hurt and then in classic melodramatic fashion, had me revelling in my tears.
Judd Apatow's production of Paul Feig's hilarious film is perfectly paced and splendidly cast. The mystery – and the pleasure of – films from the Apatow stable is how does he manage to ensure that there is always plenty of heart amongst all those jokes about bodily fluids?
The Tree of Life
Who cares if Sean Penn's performance mostly ended up on the cutting room floor? This spiritual trip of a film sees Terence Malick takes us from the dinosaur era to the outer edges of the universe and still has time for a frightened boy and a frustrated father in Smalltown USA. The result is awe-inspiring and truly profound. The older Brad Pitt gets, the more astounding an actor he turns out to be (and one gets the impression that he knew it all the time).
The Tall Man
Tony Krawitz took what could have been a standard TV documentary expose on an Aboriginal's death in police custody and used an Errol Morris-like shooting technique to amplify the already substantial drama and tragedy of Australia's colonial and racist underpinnings. Intimate talking head interviews with the dead man's friends and family were compelling and even beautiful as the camera played tantalisingly with focus. In contrast, the rough video footage of the Queensland Police Union meeting looked like something out of Leni Riefenstahl.
Ryu Seung-wan's The Unjust (Like James Ellroy in Korea, this was on offer at the Korean Film Festival in Australia), Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (played at the Gold Coast Film Festival), Koki Mitani's A Ghost of a Chance (Japan Film Festival, Sydney and Melbourne), and one more local film: Mrs Carey's Concert.
World cinema in 2011 was at its best when it infuriated, dazzled and confused. The Tree of Life, Melancholia, Life in a Day, The Turin Horse, Red State, Michael and Finisterrae won't turn up on my Best of... list – despite their grand ambitions, they are all flawed works. But they were the films that drove passionate debate with fellow cine-philes and demanded audiences form an opinion. I still crave the conventions I first fell in love with as a young moviegoer (see Captain America, below), but I draw fresh pleasures from cinema that aims high, even if it misses the bullseye.
The American indie regained some serious credibility with festival entrants Martha Marcy May Marlene, Letters From The Big Man, We Need to Talk About Kevin and Take Shelter. At the wheel of this resurgence was Nicholas Windig Refn's Drive, a perfectly-pitched time capsule of '70s strong-but-silent-type heroism, genre tropes, fashion stylings and ultra-violence. The year's best soundtrack, too.
4. Waste Land
Inherently infuriating, the enviro-doco boiled a lot of blood in 2011. Into Eternity, If a Tree Falls and Windfall were message movies that presented crucial facts pertinent to the planet's survival through the prism of its inhabitant's lives. Lucy Walker's Waste Land best exemplified this form of fact-based storytelling, showing the creation of art from refuse as a means to give hope to the hopeless...geez, I'm tearing up again...
3. Captain America: The First Avenger
I won't be shouted down over my love for Sucker Punch (it's time will come...) and reckon Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol may emerge as the year's best blockbuster. But for now, Joe Johnston's Captain America stands as the most exciting (and beautifully made) example of old-school Hollywood entertainment. X-Men: First Class was smarter and the final instalment of Harry Potter more emotional, but Captain America was by far the most fun.
2. “Movies After Midnight...”
Regular visitors know that the horror film is my preferred genre and I just can't nail down a single one from 2011 that stands above such diverse and visceral works as The Woman, Absentia, Crawl, Rabies, Tucker & Dale vs Evil or Troll Hunter. Congrats to MIFF this year for its series of late sessions that included the joyfully twisted Super, the quite insane Hobo with a Shotgun (in a perfect world, Rutger Hauer would get the Oscar nomination that he's been denied all these years) and the wonderfully scary The Innkeepers.
1. Midnight in Paris
I thought I Love You Phillip Morris had a lock on the romance-of-the-year until Woody Allen's love letter to creativity in the City of Lights wooed and won me over. Some found it superficially pretty and a little rarefied (like Paris itself, for some), but beneath its lovely sense of melancholy is an intellectual's reflections on dreams, romance and how they balance with our reality.
The Guard; Happy Happy; Dhobi Ghat; Black Swan; four superb documentaries – Senna, First Love, Project Nim and Exporting Raymond.
READ SIMON FOSTER'S WORST FILMS FOR 2011 HERE
READ REVIEWS BY SIMON FOSTER HERE
A year that saw heaps of hype about Bridesmaids being a supposed "chick's grossout movie" – I found it rather sweet – and Tree of Life being hailed as the Second Coming. More surprisingly Captain America – which should have been tripe – turned out to be quite good and more film literate than anyone might have suspected. (Anyone spot the references to F.W. Murnau and Howard Hawks?). It was also a year that saw the release of the highly enjoyable Black Swan and True Grit. Yes, this year. How quickly we forget, mainly because our collective media unconscious has been colonised by the US and those fine movies figured in the last Academy Awards, not the one the studios are frantically building towards now. Just thought I'd mention it.
As an homage to existential crime movies, from Don Siegel's The Killers to Walter Hill's The Driver and Michael Mann's Thief, Drive didn't try for originality. But Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn did give us the year's equal-best wordless opening scene and, in Ryan Gosling, its coolest – and ultimately most demented – anti-hero.
Talking of 2012's equal-best wordless opening sequences… This was one of the year's two cosmic films, but unlike Terrence Malick's partly bewitching/ partly maddening Tree of Life, Lars von Trier's didn't over-reach. Here was a film about depression that neither pussyfooted around the subject nor risked depressing the audience, expressing its thoughts and feelings via a mixture of fine acting, dramatic juice and breathtaking imagery.
Approaching 3D as a chance to rethink cinema's possibilities, Wim Wenders brilliantly captured the pure physicality of dance, that most visceral of art forms. The result is a glorious aesthetic breakthrough.
Difficult to watch in so many ways, but utterly compelling and hard to eject from the mind, its achievement was to make the hard-to-credit Snowtown murder-tortures all too believable by uncovering the human processes at work. This was a remarkably promising first-time feature for Justin Kurzel, with an uncannily persuasive performance by Daniel Henshall as sadistic ringleader John Bunting.
Midnight in Paris
Proving that, for all his misfires, Woody Allen is still capable of firing all cylinders. A divinely witty script based around an inspired theme (golden ages are never golden for those living through them) and a beaut cast made this one to file next to Vicky Cristina Barcelona under the heading of Unadulterated Pleasures.
Agora, The Eye of the Storm, and Of Gods and Men.
Director Nicholas Winding Refn and producer/star Ryan Gosling crafted a near-perfect take on a classic American genre film with this edgy, violent and understatedly romantic film, which earned Refn a well-deserved director nod at Cannes. That it subsequently sparked a lawsuit from an infuriated fan of the Fast and Furious franchise who mistook the film's title for its synopsis, just makes me love it all the more.
We Need To Talk About Kevin
Tilda Swinton contorts her wiry frame and its pasty androgyny every which way in Lynne Ramsay's elegant study of maternal hand-wringing. The combative relationship between a reluctant mother and her spiteful son is treated to 'chicken or egg'-like interrogation as Swinton's character cherry picks episodes from her unreliable memory for indicators of things she shoulda/woulda/coulda done to intercept the boy's psychopathic tendencies. Kudos to the brave cinema owners who programmed this one for 'Mums and Bubs' sessions…
(@Melbourne international Film Festival): This quiet study of a German paedophile's daily routine (go to work; come home; close the shutters; unlock the sealed basement so that your pre-pubescent captive can join you for dinner…) was shocking for its sheer ordinariness and its Hitchcock and Haneke-like ability to toy with audience allegiance. One of the most uncomfortable viewing experiences for me this year, outside of those itemised on my worst list, which were uncomfortable for entirely different reasons.
Le Quattro Volte / Finisterrae
Equal nods to two films best described as 'festival fare' in the best possible sense of the word. Both films straddle the divide of existential yearning: Michelangelo Frammartino's Le Quattro Volte was a quiet chronicle of the transmigration of a life force from human to heavenly form, whereas the latter, Sergio Caballero's Finisterrae was a more light-hearted (but no less affecting) effort to reverse pretty much the same process, as two ghosts grew weary of eternal nothingness.
The best documentary release of the year was also one of the best edited films, which cut a clear path through hours of sporting file footage to craft a Greek tragedy that in this instance, happened to be Brazillian. This hero's journey came replete with a villain, a lamenting chorus and a protagonist whose unique throttling technique has become a metaphor for his brief life.
Burning Man, True Grit, Another Year, Biutiful, and Black Swan.