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]
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]
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.
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]
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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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 Separation, Poetry, Le Quattro Volte, Mysteries of Lisbon, Attenberg 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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