Friday, 23 December 2011

2011: End of Year Review!

It’s been a fantastic year for cinema, despite the medium facing much adversity. The dissembling of the UK Film Council looked set to further widen the distance between British cinema and Hollywood but with films such as The King’s Speech, Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre still proving there’s life in British period sensibilities being depicted on the big screen and both Attack the Block and Kill list showing how British cinema has transgressed into genre cinema - the future couldn’t look brighter.In comparison it’s been a remarkably sour year for Hollywood Blockbusters. With the conclusion of the Harry Potter Franchise and the lack of any Pixar releases (other than the lukewarm anticipation for Cars 2), family films failed to light up the box-office in their usual fashion. Twilight: Breaking Dawn pt1 managed to evoke some mainstream excitement even if its incredibly flawed script and poor performances left critics cold. Overall there have been very few credible films to emerge from the mainstream.
Before commencing this rundown of the year’s greatest cinematic achievements it seems only fair to mention those that have somehow passed through the net. Tyrannosaur is another critically acclaimed British film which I’m yet to see, primarily due to its graphic depiction of animal cruelty, however, I’m still fascinated to see Paddy Constandine’s directorial debut. Finally there’s Hugo, Scorsese’s first foray into family film’s and from what I’ve heard a magnificent example of how best to use 3D – although it’ll have a hard time trumping Puss in Boots  for the award of most enjoyable kids film of the year.
This year’s film festivals have once again showcased a wealth of filmmaking talent. The only rule of my end of year list is that all entries must have been released during the calendar year –thus leading to some notable exclusions, many of which will no doubt find themselves battling it out for top spot next year. Steve McQueen’s fantastic expose of sex addiction Shame, not only enhanced Michael Fassbender’s burgeoning reputation as one of the greatest actors currently working but also proved that McQueen’s remarkable debut, Hunger (My best film of the last decade) wasn’t a fluke. The Dardenne brothers continued to display their remarkable ability to capture the beauty which resides in even the most depressing of environments with their note perfect The Kid with a Bike, an exceptional investigation into the effects of paternal rejection. 2011 also saw new work from three of Eastern Europe’s greatest working directors. Nuri Bilge Ceylan continued his trend of capturing the world through the most visually stunning composition with Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (perhaps his most accomplished piece of work so far), whilst Bela Tarr’s directorial swan song, The Turin Horse, perfectly rounded of an incredibly consistent career capturing the darkness which shrouds our life in despair and misery. Alexsandr Sokurov’s Faust divided audiences with its unconventional adaption of Goethe’s famous prose, yet managed to mesmerise many with its dreamlike tale of mortality and power. 
The festivals were also full of plenty of hidden gems, many of which will probably never be blessed with a theatrical release. Amongst the big hitters at this year’s London Film Festival was Lisa Aschan's undeniably astonishing and profoundly beautiful She Monkeys which whilst far from being a classic, certainly earmarked this young Swedish director as a name to watch out for. Yorgos Lanthimos’s follow-up to his critically acclaimed and Oscar nominated Dogtooth, Alps successfully captured the ridiculousness of human nature and whilst understandably not as groundbreaking or shocking as his previous effort, still made for an incredibly unique viewing experience. Another low-key feature which won much praise from both audiences and critics was Mark Jackson’s Without , an incredibly dark yet powerful drama about an psychologically damaged girl left alone to care for a catatonic old man in a remote American town. Without was an immersive, unnerving, darkly comic and deeply chilling meditative study of human behaviour and emotional fragility that stuck with me long after viewing. Two of the year’s most enjoyable films were premiered at this year’s 65th Edinburgh International Film Festival. Rabies is the first slasher film to come out of Israel but shows no signs of immaturity, thrusting out of blocks with a ferocity rarely seen in modern day horror films. Rabies' lack of any discernible plot and absence of a conceivable explanation as to why all those who enter its seemingly pleasant woodland end up committing the most unequivocal acts of utter madness never distracts from the overall enjoyment of what has to be one of the most strangely unapologetic pieces of ultra violence since A Clockwork Orange (1971). This nihilistic, gutsy film’s combination of rich ideas and a cultivated ability to deliver all the scares you desire from a good piece of suspenseful gore is an unconventionally infectious product of a thriving Israeli film industry. Finally The Last Circus by acclaimed surrealist director Alex de la Iglesia is by far the maddest film I’ve seen all year. Revolving around a love triangle which includes two feuding clowns, this off the wall horror/thriller transcends the bizarre to create a unique and unforgettable film which shatters genre conventions whilst creating a visually stunning study of Franco’s Spain - an elaborate yet insanely enjoyable piece of entertainment .
2011 was the year of the documentary. Perhaps down to the lack of funding available to filmmakers or the realization that audiences were growing tired of the escapist, mindless fare of Hollywood, but documentaries were once again in vogue. Senna was clearly the most talked about and rightly so, its fascinating insight into the life and death of Ayton Senna transcended the trappings of its genre to become one of the most necessary cinematic biopics ever made. Errol Morris returned this year with his incredibly off the wall investigation into the life of Joyce McKinney and the ‘manacled Mormon’ story which took fleet street by storm in the seventies. Tabloid was not only a wonderfully jovial expose of the underhand tactics of the tabloid press (very fitting during the recent Levison enquiry) but a thoroughly entertaining ‘who dunnit’. Dreams of a Life had to be the most effecting non-fiction story of the year, with the tragic death of Joyce Vincent proving that even in these days of social networking it’s still easy to slip through the cracks of society. Other notable documentaries included The Interrupters, Calvet and Bobby Fisher against the World helped make it a totally enthralling year for real-life stories.
So on to the Top 20 Films of 2011 there are some notable exclusion which sadly didn’t make the grade, the quality of which is testament to just have great a year it’s been for cinema. In any other year well-made and enjoyable genre films like Attack the Block, Kill List, Farewell and Super 8 could quite easily have propped up a top ten of insightful, snobbish, critical picks of the year. So too would Kelly Reichardt’s slow paced but elegantly imagined Meek’s Cutoff and Woody Allen’s light-hearted return to form Midnight in Paris. Anyway, enough with the commiserations here’s my top twenty picks of 2011.

Top 20
20. Kaboom
A totally childish and brainless film, Akari’s homoerotic, testosterone fuelled twin peaks pastiche is still a thoroughly enjoyable film and destined to become a cult classic – plus also the only time  I’ve ever and will ever come out a film and say “that was fun but could have done without the lesbian side story”

19. Drive
Pure exploitation cinema, Nicolas Winding Refn’s exceedingly stylised genre film wooed audiences with its electro inspired soundtrack and over use of Ryan Gosling’s ovary melting smoulder. Sadly it lacked enough substance to make it a necessary piece of cinema but as a piece of escapism it work tremendously.   

A refreshing answer to the special effects laden disaster films of Hollywood, Take Shelter's focus on the devastating ripples of mental illness on a family household may not be perfect but it certainly hasn’t hindered the reputations of both its stellar cast and promising director.

Thoroughly depressing and often disturbing, Snowtown is not one for the weak willed. However, if you can mentally prepare yourself for the harrowing tale at the heart of this emotionally devastatingly drama, you'll discover a beautifully-filmed horror story, far more psychologically affecting that anything else you'll see this year.

16. Weekend
Too much emphasis was placed on Weekend being a homosexual romance film, when it fact it was purely an exceptionally crafted love story that felt as moving as it was fresh and original.

The Guard’s fantastic balancing act between black humor, thrilling action and genuine emotion (all achieved so effortlessly) makes it one of the year’s most enjoyable films – and one you’ll find yourself desperate to submerge yourself in time and again.

 14. Senna
This historical record of possibly the most charismatic sportsmen of modern times manages to not only act as a snapshot documenting the history of Formula One but transcends the sport and creates a highly emotive drama that will speak to a wider audience than those with a vested interest in the sport. It’s an exquisitely enjoyable journey that like Senna’s career, feels all too brief. 

 Incendies deep down is simply an old fashioned family drama, cloaked behind a shroud of mystery and set against a backdrop of conflict. Yet, the level of artistic panache involved in creating this highly evocative film results in so much more, culminating in a sumptuously presented movie which manages to entertain the sense whilst simultaneously stimulating the brain – a triumph in modern storytelling.

Whilst for some Another Earth may fail in reaching the elevated stratosphere of ideas its high concept script is reaching for, considering its meagre budget and cast of relative unknown actors, Cahill's film is an exceptional piece of independent science fiction which richly deserves the high praise it's already been receiving.

 Sadly the controversy which surrounds the film’s debut at this year’s Cannes film festival has diluted the praise deserved of Von Trier’s best film since Dance in the Dark. A beautifully crafted allegory for depression, Melancholia’s strikingly bleak story is utterly mesmerizing.

10. Tomboy
This sub­tly nat­ural obser­va­tion of the dif­fi­cul­ties which envelop the seem­ingly all impor­tant search for accep­tance amongst pre-teens is a lov­ingly crafted, con­fi­dent and refresh­ingly unique film, which per­fectly encap­su­lates its sub­ject mat­ter in what can only be described as a joy­fully pure and lov­ingly sweet tale which deserves to be seen by a much larger audi­ence.

 Winner of this year’s BBC4 World Cinema Award, A Separation has everything you could wish for from a film – wonderful performances, remarkable direction and a thoroughly gripping narrative which drags you through a range of emotions

 Full of loving nods to the French New Wave, Richard Ayoade’s remarkable debut is a wonderfully unique film that shines a fresh light onto the difficulties of adolescence. Perhaps one of the most enjoyable teen dramas’s to ever have been produced on these shores.

 certainly this year’s most accomplished thriller, only let down by the constraints of its run time which, in itself is a compliment to the film’s range of thoroughly interesting characters . Many won’t be surprised by the unmasking of the ‘mole’, guessing his identity long before Oldman’s Smiley has even begun putting the pieces together, however the joy gained whilst viewing Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is more about the journey than the final destination.

 It’s remarkable to think that we almost never got to see Kenneth Lonergan’s follow-up to his remarkable debut You Can Count on Me – although those living outside the media sanctuary of London may still be suffering with the disbelief that this fantastic film has yet to receive anything other than an incredibly limited release. This powerful drama throws you through a range of emotions and effectively shines a light onto America’s dubious foreign policy.
 We Need to Talk About Kevin is a bold, inventive and intensely unnerving psychological drama which feels part domestic tragedy, part horror story. An intimate character study of one woman’s struggle with maternal responsibilities, this is one of the most shocking, yet beautifully crafted film’s to ever grace the big screen.

 A wonderfully tense and exhilarating exploration of solitude and isolation. The desolate Arctic landscape almost steals the spotlight from two of the most remarkable performances of the year.
 Le Quattro Volte is a remarkable, existential portrait of life and death, a film which pushes the boundaries of what a movie can be. You’ll be hard pressed to find a more enlightening or rewarding experience than this.
 Rating Malick’s film against others seems almost unfair to the rest of the competition, so vast and epic is the scale of his work. In The Tree of Life he seamlessly turns the mundane activities of a working class family into a painterly presented piece of high-art – whilst his depiction of creation through to death is perhaps the most poetic portrayal of mortality ever laid onto celluloid
 More than just an enjoyable pastiche of silent cinema and the glitz and glam of 1920’s Hollywood, The Artist is a lovingly created present to anyone who loves cinema – a resounding triumph in filmmaking and one of the most gratifying cinema experiences ever

Best Director: Thomas Alfredson (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) - Boasting an ensemble cast of the crème-de-le-crème of British acting talent, Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy successfully allowed them all to shine equally whilst also recreating a much loved British classic with a mesmerizing degree of style and panache.
Best Actor: Anna Paquin (Margaret) Kenneth Lonegran’s much delayed Margaret hung entirely on the performance of its young female lead. Paquin excels in this difficult role, simultaneously detestable and intriguing. Considering Margaret was originally completed in 2006, it makes you wonder where Paquin’s career might have gone had this wonderful film been seen earlier
Worst Film - Soul Surfer: Soul Surfer's disturbingly simplistic and sanctimonious direction dilutes its stories genuinely interesting, real-life events into little more than Christian propaganda
Star of 2011: Jessica Chastain (Tree of Life, Take Shelter, The Debt, The Help) Seemingly arriving out of the blue, Jessica Chastain appeared to be ever present in the theatrical release schedule this year – each time radiating with an intoxicating aura which demanded your attention
Top 5 DVD Releases:
5. Alice: Jan Svankmajer’s grim re-telling of Alice in Wonderland was finally given the re-release it deserved. Thanks to the BFI this incredibly dark fairy tale is once again available to view in the UK in glorious Blu-Ray high definition.
4. Deep End: Skolimowski may have dived head first into the deepest part of the male psyche, but by no means does he sink under the pressure. Instead, Deep End is a film which manages to propel past its self imposed obstacles, which could otherwise have left it stranded in a sea of teenage confusion.
3. Silent Running: Often overlooked in favor of Stanley Kubrick’s phenomenal 2001: A Space Odyssey Douglas Trumball’s cult classic sci-fi, Silent Running was this year re-issued by Eureka; Masters of Cinema. Almost any of Eureka’s releases this year could have been included in this list, so impressive is the thought and hard work they put into all their releases, however, Silent Running is a film that’s been lying dormant waiting for the opportunity to be shown in HD and with the sudden resurgence of old-school science fiction its release couldn’t have been better timed.
2. Tarkovsky Collection: Artificial Eye had already released the Russian master’s films on DVD before, however this lovingly created set contains all his films in one beautifully presented collection, a must for any art-house fanatic.
1. Great White Silence: This painstaking restoration blew audiences away at 2010’s London Film Festival. Using actual footage from Captain Scott’s doomed attempts to reach the South Pole, this beautiful documentary is absolutely mind-blowing. Acting as a vivid window in which to view the past, this truly remarkable film is a fabulous insight into the perils which faced Scott and a lovingly crafted ode to the pioneers of early cinema
Notable Mentions:  The BFI’s restoration of Renoir’s French Cancan, Artificial Eye’s re-release of the only Soviet film to win the Palme D’or, The Cranes are Flying and Sergei Parajanov’s exquisitely orchestrated and haunting piece of abstract cinema The Colour of Pomegranates

Most Anticipated films of 2012
1. Prometheus: Ridley Scott and a much delayed return to science fiction, what could go wrong? Very little from the look of the cast list (Michael Fassbender, Guy Pearce, Noomi Rapace) and the first few images we’ve been privy to – looking very Alien-esque which in itself is certainly worth getting very excited over.
2. Dark Knight Rises: Anticipation has been high for Christopher Nolan’s final Batman instalment ever since The Dark Knight wowed audience across the globe, yet the slow trickle of images and footage over the last few weeks has only increased this excitement and seems to confirm that Nolan looks set to end his caped crusader trilogy in style.
3. Seven Psychopaths: In Bruges director Martin McDonagh once again reunites with Colin Farrell in what is intended to be a much darker comedy than his previous effort. Based on a screenwriter who gets embroiled in a dog kidnapping ring, this looks set to be one of 2012’s diamonds in the rough.
4. Looper: Director Rian Johnson’s last effort,  Brothers Bloom, whilst genuinely entertaining, felt like a bit of a disappointment after his remarkable debut Brick. His next venture is a hitman/sci-fi/thriller which re-unites Johnson with Brick leading man, Joseph Gordon Levitt and also stars Bruce Willis!
5. Martha Marcy May Marlene: Already gaining critical praise from its Cannes and London Film Festival screenings, this dark domestic drama about occult brainwashing is already a must see for 2012

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