I love film. I dislike Hollywood. And being stuck in the middle of this maelstrom of opposing emotions (because a great majority of the best films come from Americans) means that I am constantly at odds with the so-called ‘industry’. At once I am overcome by the sheer lack of originality in the garbage trucks of lame comedies that keep rolling forth like some fearsome army of animate rotting waste (read Horrible Bosses); and at other times in awe of the talent behind some of the great work that Hollywood can produce when it wants to.
Film is the ultimate art form. And of course, undeniable escapism. But what about the integrity and value of the product being sold to the movie-going consumer these days? Is escapism destroying the art form? Is the balance as it has always been?
The top-ten highest grossing movies of any year always tell the story of the state of film at that time. In 2011, the last instalment of the Harry Potter franchise was of course at the top of the list. Following Harold was the third Transformers film, the fourth Pirates Of The Caribbean, the fifth Twilight, the second Kung Fu Panda, the fourth Mission Impossible (admittedly quite good), the fifth Fast And The Furious and the second Hangover…!
Now that is nothing more than a list of the next generation of a product. Like an iPhone. Same shit, slightly different content.
Twenty years ago, in 1991, the highest grossing film was also a sequel – James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Yet it was the only sequel on a top ten list that also included The Silence Of The Lambs, JFK and Cape Fear – films of real worth. (But, to be fair, the list also included Hook, The Addams Family, Hot Shots! and the now seriously dated Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves.)
I can’t seriously sit here and claim that the driving force behind film studios is not money. Of course it is. My real concern is that film audiences are becoming less discerning when it comes to quality. People seem more content to watch more of the same (sequels to an existing franchise) than something different. And if this trend continues, we may see less great films of true originality being made in the years to come.
There were some great films released in 2011. Lars VonTrier, despite his Hitler comments at Cannes, produced another great work in Melancholia. Woody Allen served up his best film in years with Midnight In Paris. Kevin Smith tried something different and almost succeeded with his off-beat horror film Red State. Margin Call and The Ides Of March proved that decent drama is not yet dead. The much-maligned Apollo 18 breathed new life into the slowly fading mockumentary sub-genre, much like last years’ The Troll Hunter. Drive, although overrated (in this author’s opinion), at least brought something fresh to cinema. And in the case of the standard documentary, Martin Scorsese’s film on the life of George Harrison, Living In The Material World, was a stand-out for the year.
Film isn’t dead.
And here are the ten best films I saw in 2011.
Dave Brown is a psychotic, bigoted cop working the streets of LA. When he steps a few feet over the line and the knife begins to fall, he and his past are unmasked to those close to him. Gradually, he finds himself increasingly alone. Whilst Woody Harrelson’s Brown is not so much Harvey Keitel’s The Lieutenant, his caustic performance is Rampart‘s power. A great supporting cast and a script co-penned by the mighty James Ellroy provide the added depth to this nasty, relentlessly grim film.
Raised in the wilderness and trained by her secret agent father, Hanna is a petite bundle of blonde lightning. Once unleashed on the civilised world, her quest for revenge becomes an educational experience. Relishing this excellent escapism requires you to look past Cate Blanchett’s hammy role, but with such a knockout performance by Saoirse Ronan, that’s not too difficult. Tight direction, and an edgy soundtrack by The Chemical Brothers, made Hanna one of the best action films of 2011.
8. The Way Back
During the Second World War, a Polish POW finds himself in a Siberian gulag with little hope of long-term survival. When he and some fellow inmates escape, they find that the wilderness they have fled into may kill them faster than the actual prison. My bias towards director Peter Weir aside, The Way Back is the kind of epic story that was once a staple of the Hollywood canon. It’s flawed and somewhat overlong (and it does sag with the departure of Colin Farrell), but it’s driven by integrity and honest performances from its strong cast.
7. Take Shelter
If ever there was evidence that the Academy Awards are now a bona fide sham, it can be found in the failure this year to nominate Michael Shannon for Best Actor. When he first turned heads in Jesus’s Son back in 1999, Shannon became the man most recognised as ‘that creepy guy’. Films like Tigerland, 8 Mile, Bug and HBO’s Boardwalk Empire have proven he is capable of embodying the sinister. But there is something else to this actor, something that was recognised a few years back when he was nominated for Revolutionary Road. In Take Shelter he truly reveals his stunning capabilities in portraying a man guided by visions of a coming apocalypse, who takes the ‘necessary’ steps to protect his family.
6. We Need To Talk About Kevin
As fellow reviewer Adam Fay said to me recently, this film may not have had the same power if Tilda Swinton was not involved. While it is certainly artistic and on occasions surreal, it is Swinton’s performance that drives this difficult movie. In fully embodying the pitiful character of Eva Katchadourian, Swinton elicits more pain and sadness than Horrible Bosses did for this writer. Jokes aside (for Kevin is no laughing matter), this psychological horror film is a dissection of genes versus environment. After seeing it, you may find yourself debating not only its merit but its subject matter for quite some time.
5. Thirteen Assassins
A bunch of disparate Samurai band together to take bloody revenge on a serious A-hole who slew their respected leader. Overly talky in the first half (the Japanese tend to love to explain everything in detail) but redeemed in the last half by a crazy forty-five minute sword fight, leading up to a wholly satisfying showdown. Not nearly as violent as some of Takashi Miike’s work, but he still manages to fill a few barrels of fake blood in what could be his most accomplished film to date. A Japanese Dirty (bakers) Dozen.
4. The Descendants
So what makes this film so good? On one hand we have a subtle performance from George Clooney and on the other a superbly adapted script from Alexander Payne and friends. This tale of a Hawaiian landowners’ attempts to connect with his children as his wife lies comatose in hospital, is the perfect example of a simple story well told, with real characters and equal doses of pathos, drama and humour. And let’s not forget the outstanding cinematography of the Hawaiian archipelago by Phedon Papamichael. It’s a damn shame that films such as The Descendants are so few and far between these days.
3. The Guard
It’s another damn shame that this little film slipped by almost unnoticed by most audiences in 2011. For The Guard is a genuine sleeper – one of those films that will garner a cult following and be recognised broadly in the years to come. At least that’s what I’d like to think. Brendan Gleeson truly delivers one of the great comic performances of the last decade or so, playing the eccentric cop of a small Irish seaside town, thrown together with an uptight FBI agent (the equally cool Don Cheadle) to solve a murder involving some philosophical drug runners. It may not sound like much (for it’s all about character and dialogue), but at every turn The Guard offers something fresh – and isn’t that what all films should aspire to in the increasingly dull arena that is cinema? (The answer is ‘yes’, if you’re unsure.)
Gorgeous film about a young boy who lives inside the clock tower of the Paris metro. Eventually, he manages to help invigorate the spirit of an old man buried beneath the weight of the past. This metaphorically rich film has been hailed as director Martin Scorsese’s finest work; his masterpiece, no less. If it weren’t for GoodFellas, I’d probably have to agree. Yet this is a much different Scorsese to the man who made wiseguys look so tragically hip. Here is a director with an intimate knowledge of film, creating an ode to films and their magic through a magical film. Simply stunning on all fronts, Hugo is a joy to behold with amazing cinematography and a magnificent cast, led by Ben Kingsley and the stellar young Asa Butterfield as the title character.
1. The Tree Of Life
In a career spanning forty years, writer/director Terrence Malick has completed only five feature films. All are rooted in a sensibility that transcends the typical linear function of most cinema. Malick’s films exist in both the conscious and subconscious. He can articulate the inner voice of his characters like no other filmmaker. The Tree Of Life could be his masterwork, much like 2001: A Space Odyssey was the true masterwork of Stanley Kubrick (hell, of the 20th Century too). This is no film for fans of Fast Five. This is a deliberate exploration of the origin and meaning of life, told in Malick’s trademark meditative style. This is art, not escapism, utilising the very foundations of film as art (including the amazing old-school effects work of Douglas Trumbull). Nearly every shot could be a framed picture, such is the detail and artistic merit of this awesome work (and I don’t use the word ‘awesome’ in its true sense very often). If any “Artist” should have won an Oscar this year, it was Malick.
by Wadrick Jones