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PPH in 2011 Part 1: Top Ten films of the year

10. WIN WIN

A dark-edged family comedy anchored by a fantastic lead turn from the ever reliable Paul Giamatti, Tom McCarthy’s Win Win is a movie for our recession-hit modern times; a character-driven and ultimately cheering melange of Only Fools and Horses-style pathos, Arthur Miller’s socio-political incision, and the rambling charm of peak-era Robert Altman. Its thunder will doubtless be stolen by Alexander Payne’s tangentially similar but immeasurably glossier The Descendants come awards time in 2012, but don’t be fooled; Win Win is the real deal. [full review]

9. BALLAST

Stunningly shot by British cinematographer Lol Crawley, this unorthodox, extraordinarily powerful drama about depression and the frailty of family relationships finally saw the light of day in the UK three years after its creation and subsequent success at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, where it picked up awards for Directing and Cinematography. With nods to Charles Burnett’s Killer Of Sheep and Lodge Kerrigan’s desperately underseen Clean, Shaven, Ballast is one of the great lost films of our time. Make it a priority to check it out. [full review]

8. SENNA

Asif Kapadia’s doc about the life and death of charismatic Brazilian Formula One star Ayrton Senna is gripping from the first minute to the last, and achieved the unthinkable: people coming to the cinema in their droves to watch a film about the most boring sport there is! A haunting portrait of a driven, near-messianic presence, Senna is full to bursting with unforgettable scenes of tension and conflict culled from hours of archive footage (it was edited down to 100 minutes from 5 hours). It’s technically brilliant, illuminating about the politics of the sport, a nerd’s dream – just how many different film stocks were used? – and deeply moving. Senna is not just one of 2011’s best sports-themed films, but one of the best full stop.

7. THE ARTIST

The audience favourite of the London Film Festival was – by a mile – Michel Hazanavicius’ wondrously uplifting homage to the silent era, starring Jean Dujardin as a devilishly charismatic silent star left behind by the advent of the talkies. Although it flags slightly in the second act, it gets itself together with style for the big finale. The Artist is technically exceptional, incredibly funny (can dogs be nominated for Oscars?) and emanates the rosy glow of the pure cinematic joy of days of yore. It might be a bit of a novelty hit, but as they go, it’s more ‘Your Woman‘ by White Town than ‘Shaddup You Face‘ by Joe Dolce.

6. THE SKIN I LIVE IN

Taking nipping and tucking to unprecedented levels, Pedro Almodovar’s warped tale of a broodingly insane plastic surgeon (Antonio Banderas on fine, smouldering form) provoked the most entertaining audience reaction I’ve been party to this year; a veritable cacophony of gasps, howls of nervous, shrill laughter and the rattle of spilled popcorn. It would be wrong to go into too much plot detail, but let’s just say that this brutally funny satire of male vanity and controlling impulses goes where few films woud dare. Oh, it looks absolutely fantastic, too, with gleaming cinematography and astonishingly detailed production design which drops subtle clues everywhere you look. Fans of Franju’s Les Yeux Sans Visage and Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers will find much to admire here.

5. WEEKEND

To paraphrase – or indeed completely misquote – the former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith: “do not underestimate the power of the quiet film”. In a year full of bluster at the box office, Andrew Haigh’s low-key, intimate gem tells of a whirlwind Nottingham romance between Glen (Chris New) and Russell (Tom Cullen). It’s fresh, beautifully shot and full of sparkling, honest dialogue which never crosses the line into verbosity or pretentiousness. Like a British Before Sunrise, Weekend is simply one of the most enjoyable, evocative and sensuous films of the year. Superbly acted, too.

4. THE INTERRUPTERS

Steve James’ documentary, which follows three hardy souls in Chicago who intervene in conflicts to stop violence, is the kind of engrossing, deeply-felt human story which makes us wonder why we even bother with fiction in the first place. Full of suspense, humour and unexpectedly galling moments, The Interrupters is marked by its bracing immediacy, memorable characters and the tangible bravery of the filmmaking team. It burrows deep under the surface of media hyperbole and music video posturing to remind us – tragically – that devastating violence is so frequently borne of insecurity, minor conflict and a fundamental lack of education. Utterly heartbreaking and totally essential, it’s a film for our troubled times. Furthermore, it’s no coincidence that a recent transmission of the film on the BBC was subtitled: How To Stop A Riot. [feature and interview]

3. NEDS

The powerful Scottish actor Peter Mullan starred in one great film this year. Nope, it wasn’t the much vaunted Tyrannosaur, but rather his own directorial effect NEDS. While Paddy Considine’s beautifully acted debut often betrayed the signs of a novice (namely frequent recourse to crashing symbolism, and never quite knowing when to put the misery ladle back in the pain bowl), Mullan’s third film after Orphans and The Magdalene Sisters signals the development of a singular talent; brave, compassionate, and ear-to-the-ground earthy. Rather oddly titled and marketed, NEDS (Non Educated Delinquents) unspools the tale of an intelligent young man’s descent into psychological hell in the bleak environs of 1970s Glasgow. If you were expecting a tearaway lads-on-the-town romp, you’d be sorely mistaken. Unusual and disturbing with a few nods toward magical realism (and in some cases full-on hallucinogenic mental-ness – a punch up with Jesus, anyone?), NEDS is further distinguished by an excellent central performance from Conor McCarron.

2. ANIMAL KINGDOM

Although no thriller blew me quite as far away this year as Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet did last, this Australian crime family saga was the one that ran it closest. It stars Francis Jeffers lookalike James Frecheville as the deliberately blank canvas 17-year old J, who is swiftly drafted into a down-and-dirty family of robbers after his mother’s death from a heroin overdose. Following a measured start, it soon transforms into a gripping, unbearably tense monster. Despite the plaudits and Oscar nom for Jackie Weaver’s brilliant portrayal of the family’s evil, manipulative granny*, Animal Kingdom is stolen by Ben Mendelsohn as the initially unassuming, but soon terrifying uncle Pope. Blood is supposed to be thicker than water, but this film tests that theory to the limit, and sheds lots of the claret stuff along the way.

*Sometimes I wish they wouldn’t give films like this one token nom, because when they do it just draws attention to the fact that they should have nominated it for many, many more.

1. DREAMS OF A LIFE

Carol Morley’s haunting, unclassifiable (OK well, it’s kind of a Rashomonumentstruction if I must) and frankly rather weird film is that rare beast: a true original. Ostensibly an attempt by the director to discover more about Londoner Joyce Vincent (who died in her Wood Green flat in 2003 at 38, and was found an incredible three years later), what emerges is a chilling, poetic and determinedly personal parable about how we as humans (fail to) connect with each other in our supposedly hyper-connected world. Featuring amazing use of music and a radiant performance from Zawe Ashton as a near-ghostly iteration of Vincent, it’s disturbing, ultra-contemporary stuff, which I suspect will be studied in film schools for years to come. It also boasts the most powerful final shot I can remember for ages. [interview]

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HONOURABLE MENTIONS

There was lots of great stuff that didn’t quite make the final cut, including Kelly Reichardt’s compellingly glacial Western Meek’s Cutoff [full review], the barnstorming cricket doc Fire In Babylon [full review], Errol Morris’ hilarious, confounding Tabloid [full review], the raw yet beautiful Blue Valentine and – however uncool it might be to say so – The King’s Speech, which I found to be a rousing, expertly crafted piece of filmmaking. Had Terrence Malick ditched the ludicrous NGO advert-style stuff and aimless shots of Bono Sean Penn wandering around, The Tree of Life would have been in there too, because the middle portion of the film, with its hypnotic, unique take on childhood and superb performance from Brad Pitt, was easily some of the best cinema of the year. Ben Wheatley’s Kill List had perhaps the best first half of any film this year, but sadly devolved into an enervating, overcranked and ill-disciplined mash-up of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, which would have been fine for a comedy, but less so for a hitman-themed horror/thriller.

Furthermore, there remains a handful of 2011 films I’ve yet to see which, according to a number of critics whose opinions I respect, would have almost certainly been in with a shout. These include A SeparationPoetryLe Quattro VolteMysteries of LisbonAttenberg and Project Nim. They’re on my list.

EDIT 8/1/12: I’ve now seen A Separation, and it would certainly have been in competition for the Top Ten. On account of having seen them well over a year ago at time of writing, I also forgot to mention 13 Assassins which would have garnered an honourable mention, if not fought it out for a position in the lower reaches of the Ten.

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AND THE WORST?

The worst film I saw this year – bar none – was Whit Stillman’s airless, devastatingly awful Damsels In Distress (as the Surprise Film at the London Film Festival); a so-called comedy which instead played like a bitter pseudo-intellectual old man raping the corpse of Heathers, while Mean Girls looked on in horror, bound and gagged with its brains bashed in. However, as it’s not released over here until ’12, it doesn’t qualify. Luckily, there’s another film all too ready to step into its diseased breach…

Less a turkey, more a strutting peacock with Jeremy Clarkson’s Malteser-sized brain jangling around inside its tiny head, The Hangover Part II went beyond unfunny laziness into the territory of indefensible offensiveness. I saw more boring and less technically competent films than The Hangover Part II this year, but none as vile or singularly hateful. A disgrace to the artform, and an insult to audiences – who still went in their droves – the world over. [full review]

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“It’s a warzone here” – a look at The Interrupters, and interview with Ameena Matthews

The Interrupters: (l-r) Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams, Eddie Bocanegra

“It’s a warzone here,” is a phrase you keep hearing again and again in The Interrupters, a powerful and somewhat distressing documentary about the senseless violence in America’s inner cities and about CeaseFire, an organisation attempting to cure this sickness, one individual at a time.

The film was produced by Steve James, director of 1994 college basketball video-diary Hoop Dreams, in collaboration with author Alex Kotlowitz, whose New York Times article put James on the scent of CeaseFire and its brave ‘violence interrupters’ operating on the front lines.

There were 453 murders in the city of Chicago in 2009. The city is drawn along imaginary colour lines, and on the South Side, where The Interrupters was filmed, it’s not uncommon for 12 and 13 year olds to walk around with bullet-proof vests under their clothes. Many students here are afraid to go to school where playground confrontations often threaten to degenerate into deadly battles.

It was in one such after-school fight that Derrion Albert, a student at Fenger Academy High School, lost his life. Clumped around the head with a piece of railroad track when he was caught in the middle of a fight between rival gangs, the honours student died on the spot.

The incident was caught on a mobile phone, and the video of Derrion’s death spread like wildfire across the national TV networks in 2009, prompting a bout of national soul searching. President Barack Obama sent Attorney General Eric Holder and Education Secretary Arne Duncan to Chicago to attempt to formulate some response.

The troubled Caprysha Anderson

But on the ground in Chicago, it’s CeaseFire that mobilises its troops and dispatches Ameena Matthews to console Derrion Albert’s mother. Over the course of a year, The Interrupters follows Ameena and two other interrupters, Eddie Bocanegra and Cobe Williams, as they operate in the trenches of Englewood, Chicago.

When situations in the community threaten to blow over into violence, for instance immediately after a murder when there is a high risk of retaliation, the violence interrupters will step in and defuse the situation, encouraging the aggrieved parties to resolve the issue through dialogue, not violence. The philosophy behind CeaseFire is that patterns of violence can be disrupted by approaching them as you would an epidemic – going after the most infected, and stopping the infection at its source.

So you find the violence interrupters, often with little regard for their own safety, intervening in gang disagreements, hectoring the teenage mourners at the funeral of another dead friend, helping offenders reintegrate once they’re released from jail or just performing acts of kindness for the most fragile teens, like Caprysha Anderson who is in and out of Juvenile Detention.

The success of the CeaseFire programme, which registers a 50% drop in murders in some areas, can be attributed to the fact that its violence interrupters all come from the community, and often have first-hand experience of the activities they’re trying to put a halt to.  Ameena, who breezes through tight situations like some Mother Theresa of the South Side, is in fact the daughter of Jeff Fort, one of the city’s most infamous gang leaders and was once herself caught up in the same tricking she now helps to put a stop to.

Critics of the CeaseFire organisation argue that it’s just a Band Aid, treating the symptom without treating with the cause  – those intractable problems like unemployment, poor education, and drug trafficking – but its defendants argue that by stopping the violence you open the pathway for a neighbourhood to heal, for the schools to get better, for the kids to improve their outlooks and for businesses to want to open in the community.

In his book Dreams for My Father, Obama remembered his own time as a community organiser on the South Side of Chicago, in the Altgeld Gardens public housing project where he helped provide summer jobs, instigated building repairs and removed asbestos from apartments. “Change won’t come from the top,” he notes. “Change will come from a mobilized grass roots.”

The Interrupters shows that change is taking effect unquestionably in small but steady steps.

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Interrupter Ameena Matthews

We spoke to Ameena Matthews, one of the stars of the film, over the phone from Chicago.

Watching you in action, the way you intervene in situations, the way you provide support to really fragile subjects, is awe-inspiring.

I’m very honoured to have that gift. Some people wish they could sing, some people wish they could dance, I just want to be able to be effective and help people change their lives. That’s my goal, that’s my purpose.

Can you tell us the latest on Caprysha who is going through a very difficult time in the film?

Caprysha is a hot mess still. She’s locked up still and she’s in the process of waiting to get paroled and look for housing, because she’ll be 21 soon and it’s no more Juvenile Detention Center for her – she’ll go into Illinois Department of Corrections women facility. But she’s doing good. I spoke to her last week and before the weather gets bad I’ll ride up there to where she is.

How do know where to draw the line with how far you get involved with these young people’s lives?

In dealing with people’s lives, and being responsible for their lives, it’s not like the shut-off 9-5 type of thing. So really they allow me to know what my boundaries are. Like with Caprysha, she wasn’t ready to make a decision to change her life. She had another run in her. She wanted to do it her way and see if it would work. So she let me know that.  There’s no  handbook on how to be a productive member of society. It’s just doing the right things for the right reasons, and if you’re still not doing that after our engagement, that’s cut off for me. I’m not going to harbour a fugitive. I’m not going to aid and abet illegal behaviour. So they let me know what they need – whether it’s just a kind word, or to get something to eat. Just taking baby steps. And then they might go ‘Now I’m ready to get my GED,’ or ‘Now I’m ready to visit my mom’ or ‘I’m ready to go make amends to people that I harmed in the midst of the drama that I caused’.

How do you deal with all the pain?

It’s hard to deal with all the pain, but I come from that background so I can i.d. with it. We, as a people, can write our own ending to the book. It’s going to take a miracle and blessings upon our people to get them to understand to change their mindset that violence is not a good thing. So you take it one day at a time, one youth at a time, or sometimes in my case I have five or six I’m juggling at one time.  If I can get somebody to put their guns down, and don’t shoot anybody, we can deal with the underlying issues, we really can. But if you shoot somebody and catch a murder, I can’t really help you.

Is the government doing enough?

I’m not a political person. I’ve just got to do my part and hopefully the government will do the right thing to get people education, food, housing. I don’t like to do the political type conversation about what the government is and is not doing. As a whole country, we can always do more. But people know from their hearts what the right thing is. To have kids not able to go to school, and not have proper health care, guns being dropped in our communities… people know the difference between right and wrong, whether that’s the government, the school board, or my neighbour.

With CeaseFire, is it the case that it’s the community that’s best equipped to solve its own problems?

We as a black people have been so abused all the way back from slavery and there are issues we haven’t dealt with, unresolved emotions, and it’s always a consistent burden put on our community.  And yes, we do have to fix our own problems, however some of our problems are not problems that we created.

Contributor Jez Smadja is the editor of arts and culture webzine Shook, which can be followed on Twitter @SHOOKmag. The Interrupters is out now on DVD and iTunes via Dogwoof.

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