Tuesday 3 January 2012

The Best Films of 2011, 20-11

I've written elsewhere of the grim themes and depressed characters haunting cinemas in 2011, but a closer study of the year's release schedule suggests the cinema itself, like so much else in the world, was also undergoing a crisis of sorts. On the surface, at least, where the box-office figures are shuttled every Tuesday lunchtime, buoyed up with 3D surcharges, everything appeared healthy. According to the Film Distributors Association, 536 films were released in the UK over the past twelve months - a record number, up from 510 the year before, and pushing the weekly average beyond ten titles, making it nearly impossible for even the most committed of full-time critics to see everything. (Of that 536, I reckon I saw 345, a relatively modest 64% of the total. Yes, I got an abacus for Christmas, if not quite the life I was hoping for.)

Generally, of those ten releases, two or three (whether Bollywood blockbusters or straight-to-DVD titles in all but medium) won't be press screened; increasingly, a few will be one-night-only events, beamed directly into cinemas, like the recent The Phantom of the Opera: 25th Anniversary, which entered the UK box-office chart back in October. The primacy of the cinema as a place that shows films, and - in doing so - fosters a healthy, discerning film culture, is coming under threat: a trailer at my local multiplex promises that, in our bright and brave new digital world, patrons will soon be able to turn up and see rock concerts, Champions League football, even (somebody else playing?) video games on the big screen. (Just two weeks ago, they had the chance to watch the Strictly Come Dancing final in 3D, on a screen that could have been showing Margaret or Dreams of a Life instead.) In a world strapped for cash, revenue streams have become everything: the problem is not one of quantity - if anything, we're labouring under an excess of choice, too much product - but quality.

Which brings me to my annual Best Of lists, which this year strike me as a more random selection than perhaps ever before: the kind of venture where a Glee spin-off can rub shoulders with a title like Post Mortem. In 2011, you had to take your pleasures wherever you could. Eight out of ten of my Worst Films would have played at/stunk up a multiplex near you, suggesting the mainstream wasn't in the healthiest of states. Yet in retrospect, it didn't seem like the most illustrious of years for foreign-language cinema either: the Oscar went to Susanne Bier's decidedly middle-of-the-road In a Better World (the controversy about Lars von Trier's Cannes press conference obscured a very funny Bier-related barb), and I went on to be unmoved by the much-admired Poetry, and frankly bored by large stretches of Raul Ruiz's Mysteries of Lisbon. The praise offered up for Almodovar's insincere body horror The Skin I Live In began to seem desperate. We at least have Nuri Bilge Ceylan's masterly Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (which screened in Cannes and London) to look forward to in March 2012, and I remain hopeful someone will get round to distributing Ulrich Köhler's remarkable Sleeping Sickness.

Elsewhere, the bubble of creative, inventive animation finally burst: Pixar provided us with Cars 2, Aardman with Arthur Christmas, and that's just about all you need to know about the form in 2011. Still, let's try and be positive. It was a tremendous year for documentaries, easily cinema's most flourishing area right now, with such titles as Genius Within (on Glenn Gould), Inside Job, Bobby Fischer vs. The World, Tabloid, After the Apocalypse, The Interrupters, We Were Here, George Harrison: Living in the Material World (Scorsese's best picture this year, however much the Academy may disagree), Sound It Out and Page One: Inside the New York Times all vying for a place on this Best Of list. You could perceive the Academy's failure to include Senna on their Best Documentary shortlist as typical of that august institution's diminishing eyesight, or - rather - as a sign of the form's strength: that the, ahem, experts who compile these shortlists saw ten films they honestly considered better than Asif Kapadia's stirring, moving elegy for a champion.

Anyhow, without further ado, here are the 20 best theatrically released films I saw in 2011 - feel free to agree/disagree in the comments boxes below:

20. Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Give enough monkeys enough typewriters, and eventually one of them will turn out a workable script for a summer blockbuster reboot. The trailer, when it emerged earlier in the year, looked less than promising, but the finished result was a perfect example of the Keep It Simple, Stupid school: essentially a brisk B-movie given heft and spectacle by the budget available to a tentpole studio release, yet which in all other areas proved fiercely protective of its themes and sources. One of the year's biggest and most pleasant surprises.

19. The Artist
I wonder whether the general decline in Hollywood standards since the silent era has been so great that we're in danger of overrating a well-made, skilful entertainment such as this - yes, it's one like they used to make, back in the days when the movies weren't quite so cynical, gloomy and neurotic - but if it does triumph at the Oscars come February 26th, it'll be my favourite Best Picture winner for well over a decade.

18. Immortals
For its bold, dazzling deployment of 3D: as a tool, aiding its visionary director to carve out some supremely imaginative Grecian frescos. (Retro-fitted 3D, in every sense.) The otherwise good Dr. Kermode misread the film, and its intentions, terribly: why wouldn't you want a film about ancient legend to be R-rated and red in tooth and claw, to set out to do everything the bland Hash of the Titans reboot didn't? Even those who couldn't get on board with the celestial narrative, or indeed Mickey Rourke's flagrant scene-chewing, couldn't fail to acknowledge the film's visual achievement: Roger Ebert described it as "the best-looking awful movie you will ever see". Which is still some kind of recommendation, no?

17. Winnie the Pooh
Passing quietly under the radar - especially in the States, where Disney tossed it into the marketplace with a horrible lack of care - the best franchise reboot of the year: a calming and lovely return to Hundred Acre Wood, inventively animated in gorgeous 2D. When you see what's on my Worst Films list for the year, its clean, uncluttered lines and openly educative remit will look even better.

16. Animal Kingdom
A powerhouse crime movie, superbly controlled by writer-director
David Michôd, with at least four outstanding performances. Listen to the cast and crew non-commentary on the UK release DVD, and you realise the incendiary ingredients Michôd was handling on set here - to his eternal credit, he only lets the film explode when it should do, at its least anticipated moments.

15. Cold Weather [above]
I came late to this, but its characters and particular climate have stayed with me: Aaron Katz's semi-jokey deconstruction of the conventional murder-mystery, in which a slacker in latter-day Portland reinvents himself in the image of his literary idol Sherlock Holmes to investigate the sudden disappearance of a passing acquaintance. Whatever their strengths or weaknesses elsewhere, these mumblecore movies are good on drift - drifting lives, unresolved relationships, unfinished business - which makes them particularly attuned to the personal and economic insecurities of their times. Katz's approach is both quizzically funny - lacking the databases of the CSI staff, the hero and his chums are forced to rely on wildly erratic hunches to proceed; one of them buys a Holmes-like pipe, but forgets to buy the tobacco to put in it - and unusually critical: he goes further than a Bujalski or Swanberg, in that his characters sometimes seem to be sleeping even when they're not, are generally clueless, and are prone to the same guarded emotional coolness we've seen in countless fictional detectives over the years. (They struggle to get close to the people they're tailing, because they have trouble getting close to anybody.) A mystery becomes a metaphor for the mystery of human relationships: gorgeously shot by Andrew Reed in muted, hesitant colours, it may be too modest to accept the title of this generation's The Conversation, but - in its vision of erstwhile friends drifting apart, as we too often allow ourselves to do - it makes a more than useful footnote (and alternative) to the slick, studio-backed Sorkinese of The Social Network.

14. Wuthering Heights
Regrettably overshadowed, both in Cannes over the summer, and on its eventual UK release in the autumn, by the critical hoo-ha surrounding Lynne Ramsay's comeback We Need to Talk About Kevin, whose hysterical horrorshow/propagandist reds
(all right, Lionel-Lynne, so you don't want to go through the bloody trauma of having kids: well, nobody's forcing you to), while overwhelming upon a first encounter, have faded surprisingly rapidly from the memory. One purist-scattering verbal outburst aside, Arnold goes for a quietly radical approach to heritage drama, working from the ground up rather than from the costume department out. And she likes her young characters: enough to liberate them from the page, and allow them to live, work and love anew. A film consumed by nature, human and otherwise: in a year dominated by animals of one sort of another - from Rango to the all-new Kung Fu Panda, the rising Apes to the dutiful dog in The Artist; We Bought a Zoo, indeed - this also, not coincidentally, boasts the year's finest menagerie.

13. The Princess of Montpensier/La Princesse de Montpensier
Working in a similar vein to Arnold, Tavernier always comes at his historical dramas from different angles: this French Wars of Religion drama doesn't have the blood 'n' boobs of Patrice Chereau's La Reine Margot, granted, but I'm very happy to accept Montpensier's handsome greens and golds in their place. Again, Tavernier's sympathies lie with the young folks struggling against the world their elders have decreed for them: you could read it as as much a Gulf War film, or a summer riots film, or another '68 remembrance, as a 16th century-set swashbuckler. It's passionate, detailed and most of all wise, and I love the way Tavernier directs his juvenile leads: to act like kids in a schoolyard, shuffling nervously around one another until they realise (tragically too late) that they have more in common than their masters have allowed them to believe. In lead actress
Mélanie Thierry, it also offers a ravishing new entry in that ever-growing list of French Actresses I Intend to Court Someday, When I Have a Moment.

12. Warrior
The foremost sign all is not well with the multiplex, or indeed the world: how on earth did this knock-'em-down, pick-'em-up melodrama, being the most barnstorming entertainment to have emerged from America this year, not take a squillion dollars at the box office, turn the West's economic frowns upside down, and engender frenzied awards buzz for superlative leads Tom Hardy, Joel Edgerton and Nick Nolte? *shakes head ruefully*

11. The Tree of Life
A film that moves in mysterious ways, driving some to bemusement, others to sleep, others still to scramble for such phrases as "transcendental" and "tone poem". All of these responses might have alienated the wavering viewer from taking a chance on it, and - now that Terrence Malick's latest return is readily available on DVD - it seems in some way to trivialise its visual excellence to venture the opinion that this is a film made for widescreen televisions, a little like flicking between an Attenborough documentary, The Wonder Years and an episode of Grand Designs. Everything about The Tree of Life seems confounding, which may explain why I like it:
its Big Bang imagery is largely rational, yet its directionality - all that awestruck gazing towards the heavens - is overtly Christian, such that Malick can even treat dinosaurs as characters in a quasi-Biblical parable on the subject of mercy. On a second viewing, you spot the remarkable work achieved by Brad Pitt (as the stern 50s patriarch) and Hunter McCracken (as his rebellious teenage offspring) in suggesting - without the sequentiality (or, indeed the dialogue) that aids most performances - a gradual hardening of heart in the first instance, and in the second, how that hardening begat another: for all its grace, the film is acutely attuned to the wilful destructiveness that lurks within men. The (admittedly weaker) latter-day scenes with a moping Sean Penn do at least follow on from this: the very architecture of this architect's home suggests an individual who's emprisoned himself in a series of boxes, and is deeply unhappy because of it, which is why his arrival at the beach in the film's closing moments feels like such a rapture, in whatever sense you wish to take it - it's God's own backyard. Elsewhere, your guess really is as good as mine. Why does the chair pull itself away from the table (a shot that could have been lifted from Paranormal Activity)? Why does the mother float so (likewise)? The Tree of Life isn't a flawless work - its airiness is deliberate, and there to be sneezed or sniggered at - but it's unfailingly cinematic in its depiction of man's ongoing struggle against the myriad mysteries of his world.

My Top 10 of 2011 will run here tomorrow.

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