Friday, 23 December 2011

2011 - Best films seen and general notes

Here is a list of the best films that I saw over 2011:

- more below

– glorious oddness. This is how magic-realism should be.

DRIVE (2011)

-        Nasty and compelling serial killer/revenge flick that quite takes to task the vengeance motivation of most action narratives. Both gimmicky and deeply troubling.

DEEP END (1970)
-        Fantastic 60s coming-of-age story with a wonderful swimming pool backdrop. Made me think of how few films there are about the experience of getting your first job.
-        Visually stunning and sumptuous, stuffed full of detail and fancies and even a fantastic animated sequence. The sequence where pictures in a food book come to life is one of the most dazzling and sumptuous visuals I have seen in ages.

– stunning plot and made as if for adults! Tomas Alfredson is definitely a name I shall get excited about whenever it turns up.

– instantaneously one of my favourite domestic dramas crackling with unresolved tensions and the things that make families tender and shocking all at the same time.

– icy French revenge domestic drama. Cruel and wonderfully performed.

And honourable mentions...

THE BURNING (1981) – a consummate 80s slasher. The lingers in the memory as a far better film that it probably is, but then again: the raft scene.

BLACK DEATH (2010) – an unsual horror which end up being a pitch-black character and social study.

MONSTERS (2010) – don’t let the title misguide your expectations. As a low-budget invented-from-nothing exercise, and as a portrayal of how people might live at the edges of a world taken over by a science-fiction premise, this was quietly stunning and original. Also perhaps the best romance I've seen in a film for a long, long time.

GORGO (1951) – the final act with Gorgo stomping all over London is fantastic and the match for any albeit more realistic contemporary effects sequences.
Yes, I know what I just said about the effects, but the destruction caused by Gorgo is very, very impressive, I assure. It's just that his model head isn't quite as great.

INTERPLANETARY (2008) – winning and funny low-budget sci-fi filler in the style of “Dark Star”

THE KILL LIST (2011) – oh, it definitely gets under your skin. Stay with it. Probably an instant classic.

SALVAGE  (2009)
– because I like films that are about realistic people dealing realistically with impossible horror situations.
THE SAILOR WHO FELL FROM THE SEA (1976) – which is just very odd in and particularly English way. Probably misguided as a Mishima adaptation, but something about this kind of ‘60s British cinema remains quite uncanny and bizarre. They just don't make beguiling bafflements like this anymore.

The two films that I saw at the cinema that truly surprised me and blew me away this year were “Attack the Block” and “13 Assassins”.

Oh yes, I know that “TREE OF LIFE” (2011) is meant to be THE one, but it was broadcasting its own greatness so loudly that I just nodded and went on to others that genuinely surprised. I did not feel that the entirety of cinema had been reinvented just because Terence Malick had created a gorgeous stream-of-consciousness cinematic family album with some science-fiction pages thrown in for good measure. I thought the birth of the universe sequence was ravishing. I thought the family drama that takes up the centre of film was far more linear than I was given to expect, that it was pretty and as stirring as a fine piece of prose. I felt, as I was always bound to, that the religious symbolism was daft and stunted. Like all great art that gestures wildly at that very greatness, threatening narcissism, it seemed to think religious iconography was incisive and enlightening instead of obvious and narratively trite. This was not really an investigation into the faith of its characters for it was far too obtuse and, shall we say, airy-fairy for that. It is exactly the kind of film that critics can love because it allows them to wallow in the sound of their own voice (yes, yes, me too). It’s characters, aside from its Brad Pitt dad and the Malickesque son, were woefully two dimensional. People seem to go on about the mother’s “grace” as if that is all she needed: gestures and reductive symbolism over genuine characterisation. The third act also had the sound of collapsing in upon itself and leaving the audience behind as it turned deeper into naval-picking. On the other hand, as a cinematic evocation of memory in action, “Tree of Life” was a wonderful indulgence. 

I was equally impressed with Gasper Noe’s “Enter The Void” (2009), which I was fortunate enough to see in the same week as Malick’s film and which I felt to be the evil twin of “Tree of Life”. That is, it was a film that relied upon a slender narrative to explore, with highly stylised and stunning visual conceit, its mostly abstract characters. Both films were extremely dreamy, indulgent, pleasurably overlong and frequently breathtaking. “Enter the Void” also offered a knock-out opening credits and first act. “How did they do that?” frequently came to mind.

Lars Von Trier’s “Melancholia” (2011) also offered a flip side to “Tree of Life”, as well as a stunning opening sequence that matched Malick for beauty and stylisation. Trier is a deeply compelling and divisive director and can really excel and transcend as few others can. His “Europa” remains one of my favourite and one of the most visually daring films I have ever seen. Around the time of “Breaking the Waves” and “Dancer in the Dark” – the latter which I really like, not least for Bjork’s overall contribution – he decided to use female emotional and mental instability to convey his own depression and, yes, melancholia. I am adverse to the somewhat misogynist conflation of female emotional and mental instability and especially that they are also transcendent in some manner. Von Trier is ordinarily saved by some excellent performances, and “Melancholia” hosts a number of great character turns, no matter how silly some of it may be. Its sense of narrative timing is timing – try to put the melancholic Kirsten Dunst’s disintegration on her wedding day on some kind of clock and see whether it seems possible – and if you do not take to the film, you can shove a planet through its weaknesses. But its weaknesses feel more like punk, just as Malick’s feel like classical. However, the cosmic symbolism and frequent beauty and the sheer audaciousness of the ending (not to mention ambiguity: futility or final understanding) makes this a fascinating watch.

Again, “Black Swan” (2010) was problematic for me for seemingly presenting psychological ill health with transcendence. Of course, it was a slummy giallo horror in a tutu and since people tend to prefer their horror in fancy garb and their female performances in meltdown, not to mention some obvious symbolism, it generally went down well and crossed over into the mainstream. I shall probably enjoy more it a second time around when its pretentions and craziness can be laughed at and enjoyed just like any other b-film.

Similarly, I always want to enjoy Pedro Almodovar films more than I evidently do. Something about the way he makes rape and murder as casual as his excellent female leads put on another dress or make lunch feels too divorced from reality to work for me. A kind of camp regard for all things taboo, but not quite with the same revelatory or satirical rewards as in the work of John Waters. Nevertheless, “The Skin I Live In” (2011) was a far more successful body-horror and ‘mad doctor/scientist’ film that Tom Six’s flat joke “The Human Centipede”. “The Skin I Live In” was a kind of camp Cronenberg-lite, but that is not a bad thing. The consequences of mental and emotional suffering were all over Almodovar’s tale of gender and trauma. It still did not possess the same stunning narrative pyrotechnics and rigorous plotting as “Bad Education”, but it was a fine b-movie horror that, despite its crass elements, was likely to provoke at least cursory thoughts about sexuality and how it defines us.

Tyrannosaur” (2011) was quite the horror film in its British miserablism. Although well acted and filmed, it seemed to wallow without insight. It did possess a stunning performance by Olivia Colman, though.

I suppose “Hugo” (2011) appeared on a number of end of year top 10s because, well, film fans seem to enjoy films that trumpet how great film it. Or magical. I don’t really trust that Disneyesque or Speilbergian co-opting of that term “magical” because its feels like propaganda and earnt by cheap sentimentalism. It nearly capsized “Super 8” and nearly smothered “Hugo”, but not quite in either case. “Hugo” is too long: once it stops blaring about itself with big budget production and smothering the audience with visual pyrotechnics that serve no use to the small story at the centre, once it stops this and gives us a truly beautiful montage of George Georges Méliès going about the business of making and directing his silent films, the film has already past the point of being riveting and is very much a lot of pulling bunnies out of hats because the story has become inert. Nice, but that’s it. Also perverse: paying homage to the silent film era using crass and distracting 3-D.

Super 8” (2011) was also a bit too in love with its own movie-ness. Fun, well made and mostly brought down to earth by its engaging young cast rather than the script. Also, a missed opportunity, surely: a CGI effects bonanza when actually the best moments of the film are when the kids are making their own zombie film on Super 8. The end credits Super 8 movie kinds puts all the giant monster and sentimentality to shame.

Troll Hunter” (2010) was probably the best monster flick of the year. It also had the best scenery.

However, for amusement and nasty fun, Dick Maas's "Saint" (2010) had a lot going for it, not least of which was one of my favourite spectacles of the year: a demonic Santa Claus riding across the rooftops of Amsterdam on a horse.

Drive” (2011) equally was less than the eye saw, but nevertheless a great piece of hokum and the kind of film that seems to have slipped from view.

Thor” (2011) and “The Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (2011: clumsy, desperate title) were entertaining and diverting but disappeared into thin air upon reflection. The cinematic equivalent of a bag of crisps, I guess.

The Thing” (2011) was good fun and did well to pretend it was more than just a cash-in. Mostly it did this by not having totally risible dialogue and characters who actually seemed to be thinking. And no, the CGI effects did not transcend those of the Carpenter film.

Insidious” (2011) was appalling, despite a first half containing an excellent sequence of scares and great creep-outs.

Much, much better was “The Awakening” (2011) with its haunted school backdrop, elegant performances and direction, even if it ended up biting off more than it could chew.

Even better was Ti West’s “The Innkeepers” (2011), because its two central characters were some of the best ever put in a potential haunted building and for its patient development of eeriness and, yes, sadness and ambiguity.

So, for me it was “13 Assassins” and “Attack the Block” that truly rocked my world.

13Assassins” (2010) reminded me of why Takashi Miike is one of my favourite directors.

Attack the Block” came months before the London 2011 riots and it seemed to me to be the only British film that was tapped into the current social discontent and pending violent outbursts. Where was the other realist films truly and imaginatively conveying the alienation and barely repressed malcontent and, yes, conversational fun of kids on council estates (ghettos?). Beneath a daft alien invasion monster film (great, scary aliens!) Joe Cornish’s film turned a council estate into a visually arresting box of traps and spoke up on behalf of the generation of youths disparaged and hated by tabloid mentalities as well as holding them to account for their own wrong-doing. The more our protagonist Moses gains a conscience, the greater the number of aliens to battle. You didn’t have to think the film had any deeper level because it was also funny, nicely constructed and frequently genuinely gorgeous to look at.  As a kind of kitchen-sink-drama-meets-Joe Dante experiment, “Attack the Block” reminded me of just how powerful genre symbolism and playfulness can be. I am aware that there are many that think it's just a silly monster movie. However, my love for this film is quite boundless.