Saturday 17 December 2011

The Great Movie Depression: a review of the year 2011 (ST 18/12/11)

In retrospect, 2011 began in deceptively bright fashion. The King’s Speech, January’s foremost triumph-over-adversity narrative, left optimists delighted: the British were coming again! Elsewhere, though, any triumphs were fleeting, our empires observed crumbling to dust: King Colin went from crowning Oscar glory to being shot down in the grey-grim Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Meanwhile, our finances were ransacked (Inside Job). Domestic disharmony (A Separation) turned into outright abuse (Tyrannosaur). Deadly pandemics (Contagion) followed high-school massacres (We Need to Talk About Kevin). I grew convinced I’d left on my 3D glasses from an earlier screening: was it unusually dark in this cinema, or was it just the films?

The doomy tone had been set at Cannes. Terrence Malick’s Palme d’Or-winning The Tree of Life saw the Fall in the contrast between a God-given 50s childhood and our hollow corporate edifices. Lars von Trier’s Melancholia [above] placed the weight of the world on its depressed heroine’s shoulders, and showed how she might well want it all to end. Finally, the movies were grappling with mental illness as something complex and cinematic: the gripping Take Shelter featured an everyman protagonist whose apocalyptic visions included his own balance sheet. In the current climate, these films proposed, it’s all you can do to gather up loved ones, batten down the hatches, and hope (or pray) for the best.

The populist cinema, understandably, went looking for superheroes, though what an impotent bunch they seemed: Thor, Green Lantern, Captain America. Many filmmakers sought to recall happier times: childhood, for Spielberg’s flimsy Tintin; adolescence, for The Inbetweeners; the Golden Age for Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen’s return to minor form. Scorsese’s lavishly retro Hugo under-performed, but 3D provided some appreciable distractions: Tarsem Singh’s Immortals dazzled, and a number of documentaries – Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Pina, the near-mythic TT: Closer to the Edge – made fine use of the format’s heightened appreciation of space.

Given the prevailing gloominess, British film culture appeared in ironically robust health, with three monster hits in The King’s Speech, The Inbetweeners, and the last Harry Potter. That the industry could accommodate both its broadly traditional Firth-fests and Andrea Arnold’s quietly radical Wuthering Heights was an encouraging sign, as was Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film, which suggested TV was finally taking cinema as a global art form seriously again. Genre successes (the insinuating horror Kill List; deft romance Weekend) were bolstered by several off-radar discoveries, from Jeanie Finlay’s buoyant record shop doc Sound It Out to Carol Morley’s more troubling Dreams of a Life.

The latter, released this bleakest of midwinters, might be our strongest contribution to the Great Movie Depression, with its intimations those systems that once reassured us (whether family and community, or the structures of capitalism) have failed, leaving us helplessly alone – in this case, not so much the British are coming as, well, nobody’s coming. You’ll forgive me if I retreat over Christmas with my DVD of Glee: The Concert Movie – the closest anyone got this year to putting sunshine on celluloid – but to those filmmakers committed to showing us the state we’re in, we should probably raise a glass of something. Bleach, possibly. And half-empty, of course.

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