I’d have called you a liar if you’d said this six months ago, but 2011 turned out to be a pretty strong year for cinema. Indeed, whereas I’ve had to make up the numbers more than once in recent years, this time around, I’ve actually expanded it to fifteen to include everything I really wanted to talk about. I’m not sure it’ll live with recent banner years like 1999 or 2007 – there was a lot of good, but I wonder how many of these will hold up as true classics. But then, that’s part of the fun; you never know what’ll stick with you, and I suspect this list would look very different in six months, or six years.
It’s also going to look a little different from some of my colleagues’ lists because I’m on a different timeframe. I live in the U.K., where release dates are sometimes day-and-date, but other times are weeks or months later. I also caught probably half of the films I saw in total at either the Venice or London Film Festival, some of which have subsequently been released in the U.K. or the U.S., but not necessarily both, or either. So to keep my sanity, I’ve kept it simple. Anything I saw that qualifies as a new release (i.e. obviously not reissues or re-releases), or that debuted at a film festival, qualifies. Cheating, perhaps, but it seemed like the only way that made sense. Anyway, with no further ado, my fifteen favorites of 2011.
I have a complicated relationship with “Shame,” a film that’s moved up and down this list like a yo-yo. It features my single favorite male performance of the year in Michael Fassbender‘s Brandon, a short-tempered, brittle husk of a man, simultaneously transparent and opaque, desperately searching for the next petit mort in a quest to stave off the deep pain he can’t get away from. It’s arguably the best directed film here, with video-artist-turned-feature-filmmaker Steve McQueen along with DoP Sean Bobbitt never wasting a frame, never shifting the composition of a single frame in the wrong direction. Carey Mulligan is perfect. James Badge Dale is perfect. Nicole Beharie is perfect. The film bravely prods in directions rarely explored by anyone, looking at the hollowness of the sex addict, while laudably refusing to give a simple explanation for his actions. So why isn’t it higher on this list? Well, to expand on a point in my original Venice review, the film is disappointingly conventional in many ways. The script (by McQueen and Abi Morgan) adds a climactic event that seems to take place just because it needs a climactic event. The view of sex and sexuality is moralistic, narrow, and I say this as a lapsed Catholic and with all the love in the world, very Catholic, with the possibility of sex being a positive or healthy thing so far outside of the reality of the film that it might as well involve the Na’vi. Brendon’s moral trough, involving a descent into a red-tinted gay club, further leaves a terribly sour note. It’s testimony to the power of McQueen’s control of the whole enterprise that the film overcomes what, to me, were major stumbling blocks, but there’s a degree to which I wish a less-inhibited filmmaker had examined the same subject.
M.V.P.: Well, it’s got to be Fassbender. In the year in which he finally broke out, the Irish-German actor had a mixed bag: strong in “Jane Eyre,” anonymous in “A Dangerous Method,” and somewhere in between in “X-Men: First Class.” But here he knocked it out of the park, crystalizing his relationship with McQueen, and their third project together, “Twelve Years A Slave,” is high on my anticipated list for the next few years.
14. “Damsels In Distress“
In a decent year for comedy, two femme-centric examples of the genre were battling it out of for this place, and while “Bridesmaids” is certainly the best of the Judd Apatow films to date and as consistently funny a mainstream film as has come along since “Anchorman,” nothing brought me greater joy than Whit Stillman‘s return after 13 long years away – “Damsels in Distress.” Theoretically the most accessible film to date from the long absent Mr. Urbane of American comedy, I saw the film a couple of days after its disastrous reception as the surprise film at the London Film Festival, where more than one person I love and trust walked out on the screening. As such, I was expecting the worst, but ‘Damsels’ turned out to be a pure delight – a hyper-verbose college-set comedy following a quartet of well-meaning, faintly demented undergrads, led by a career-best Greta Gerwig. Like the most erudite version of “Mean Girls” you could possibly imagine, it’s witty (sometimes bleakly so…), sweet-natured, broad in scope, and oddly reminiscent of a Regency-era marriage-plot romance, but without ever tipping over into archness. This isn’t to say that Stillman has hit the ground running immediately; there are storylines that never come to anything, jokes that don’t land, and the picture’s genuinely ugly, lit for the most part like a summertime flashback in a Lifetime movie of the week. But as rough-around-the-edges as it is and as artificial as Stillmanland can be, no script was as consistently funny or performed with such comedic grace across the board as Whit’s comeback, right down to the joyous closing number.
M.V.P.: The cast is strong across the board (even if the likes of Aubrey Plaza and Alia Shawkat are entirely wasted), but it’s newcomer Carrie MacLemore, as endlessly entertaining dim bulb Heather, who walks away with the honors, even if Megalyn Echikunwoke runs her a close second as Rose.
13. “Attack the Block“
From the age of about 10, I was a little obsessed with “The Adam & Joe Show,” a super-low-budget comedy series on Channel 4 from two overgrown schoolboys, Adam Buxton and Joe Cornish, that melded pranks, sketches and parodies of popular films starring stuffed animals, into late-night brilliance. As alumni of my school, the pair came to give a talk when I was about 14, and Cornish struck me as the more thoughtful, ambitious one even then, but nothing prepared me for his feature film debut. An action-horror with a script as tight as a snare drum, it melded Amblin with John Carpenter, following a group of council estate kids as they fight off an alien invasion that they’re responsible for. Cornish directs like he’s been doing it every day of his life, weaning a brace of menacing, then charming performances out of his young leads, moving through from memorable set piece to memorable set piece like lightning, and producing something thrilling, funny, scary and even a little moving. Indeed, it’s rare to find a genre film with this kind of social conscience, something driven home by the two days at the height of summer when London lost its mind (here’s the piece I wrote at the time). Everyone swiftly regained their shit, but the things Cornish really wanted to talk about – community, responsibility, the vicious circle of demonization – linger on, and that’s not something you can say about most monster movies.
M.V.P.: John Boyega was unbelievably charismatic as lead Moses, but not enough’s been said about the work of DoP Thomas Townend. Best known previously for Paddy Considine‘s short “Dog Altogether” (the basis for “Tyrannosaur“) and Samantha Morton‘s ‘The Unloved,” he shoots the film with the perfect mix of urban grit and sci-fi sheen, with some of the most striking lighting of the year.
“Moneyball” turned out to be an exercise in having my expectations overturned. I have no interest in, and even less knowledge of, baseball. As far as I can tell, it’s a slightly more complicated version of cricket, a sport I barely understand in the first place. And yet, while I was occasionally left a little adrift by the rules and regulations, “Moneyball” turned out to be my favorite studio movie of the year. I’d sometimes been guilty of thinking of Bennett Miller‘s debut “Capote” as a performance showcase. And yet a recent rewatch showed Philip Seymour Hoffman‘s star turn to be only the icing on the cake of an immaculately crafted film, and Miller again manages to barely put a foot wrong on his too-belated sophomore feature (bar a couple of slightly cringe-y father-daughter moments). I sometimes find Brad Pitt to act principally with his lower-jaw (see: “Inglourious Basterds,” “The Tree of Life“). And yet Billy Beane provided his definitive role here, fulfilling his destiny by blending all of Robert Redford‘s best turns into one. I’d occasionally been concerned for Jonah Hill‘s career longevity. And yet here, for the second year in a row (after his much undervalued role in last year’s “Cyrus“), he proves his range and chops with a spry, sweet performance. So it shows what I know, in the end. Fearsomely smart and deeply stirring, I dream of a world where every mainstream release is as good as this.
M.V.P.: “Parks and Recreation” star Chris Pratt gives a severely underrated performance, which I’ve already written about, so I’d rather spotlight Bennett Miller. The helmer’s not had that much praise, considering how well-received the film is, in part because he’s an old-fashioned kind of director who gets out of the way and tries to serve the script and his story. But the way he modulates the tone and moves you without manipulating, confirms that he’s a hugely unsung talent. I’d like one film from him a year, please.
11. “Cold Weather“
Mumblecore is dead. Not that I ever liked the term much anyway; from the moment it was coined, it became an insult, a sweeping term for an incestuous group of filmmakers playing with the resources they had. But for the most part, those who made their name in the scene (bar Joe Swanberg, slowly disappearing up himself) have moved on, with Adam Wingard to the much-praised horror “You’re Next” and the Duplass Brothers to starry comedies built on emotional truth. And Aaron Katz (who was always somewhat on the periphery of the movement) made one of the smartest, freshest films of the year with “Cold Weather.” An ultra lo-fi take on the detective genre, following a forensic science drop-out who returns to Portland, only to end up in a real-life mystery when his ex-girlfriend mysteriously disappears, the film takes a genuinely intriguing, tightly scripted mystery (albeit one that doesn’t get started until 40 minutes in), and populates it with characters etched from life. Eschewing the artificiality of, say, “Brick” (as brilliant as that is), for the quietly observed authenticity that was the earmark of Katz’s earlier films, Katz and DoP Andrew Reed lens the industrial bohemia of Portland with a digital clarity that would make David Fincher‘s heart swell, but it’s always at the service of the characters and their multi-faceted relationships. It’s a film so understated and beautifully performed (and funny, too; it’s really funny, without ever going near anything that could be described as a joke) that it could easily be ridden roughshod over by brassier competitors, (particularly as its release came so early in the year), but that it stayed in the memory for so long can only be a tribute to Katz and his cast.
M.V.P.: For all the genre bells and whistles, it’s the carved-from-life sibling relationship between Doug (Cris Lankenau) and Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn) that’s the heart of “Cold Weather,” and it’s the latter in particular who impresses; very much the elder sister, she’s both weary of her younger sibling and willing to do anything for him. A lovely performance from someone I’m sure we’ll see much more from down the line. Honorable mention: a terrific, percussive score from Keegan DeWitt.
10. “Oslo August 31st“
A European drama following a recovering heroin addict in the titular Norwegian city that starts off with a man unsuccessfully trying to drown himself? Yeah, that’ll be fun. But while “Oslo August 31st” is undeniably bleak in spots, in the hands of Joachim Trier, whose debut “Reprise” was something of a Playlist favorite, it becomes something undeniably beautiful and, well, alive. It follows Anders (Anders Danielsen Lee), a thirtysomething from a wealthy background who’s just been released from a rehab center, as he reconnects with various friends and family members. It’s a raw depiction of the mundanities of addiction, but also a celebration of life, of friendship, of a city that’s never looked so appealing on screen. Trier’s that rare director who depicts characters under the age of 40 that are recognizable to, well, people under the age of 40. The details here are all firmly authentic and every relationship in the film is complex, rounded and could be one of your own. And it’s full of truly beautiful images, some of which – a night-time bike ride, letting off a fire extinguisher, to name but one – linger long after the film’s conclusion. Without giving too much away, we can see how that ending might turn some against the film, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s the only possible option Trier had. And even if it is something of a downer, it doesn’t negate the vibrancy and sheer feeling of what’s gone before. If anything, it only emphasizes the melancholy beauty of the rest of the film.
M.V.P.: Anders Danielsen Lee was impressive in “Reprise,” but he’s in virtually every frame of “Oslo August 31st,” and he’s astonishingly good; head shaved and skinny as a rake, he’s a man who’s had every privilege given to him and yet feels a need to self destruct that even he can’t explain. Incredibly charismatic and wrenchingly emotional when needed, surely he can’t stay undiscovered outside Norway for long?
When your route to the big screen (in this case, a six-year journey full of legal battles and bitter re-edits) has more drama than 95% of what sees the inside of a cinema in a given year, a film really has to shine in front of the camera. And in fits and starts, by god how “Margaret” shone. The long-awaited sophomore film from playwright Kenneth Lonergan (“You Can Count On Me“) was like a big-screen adaptation of an imagined Great American Novel, sprawling and literate and humane and brilliant. Almost every scene could have served as the basis for a short film, at the very least, almost every character leapt off the screen, and could have been followed for a film of their own, not least Anna Paquin‘s maddening (but entirely sympathetic) self-centered drama queen Lisa Cohen. It’s a picture that, while perhaps less topical than it might have been had it made it to theaters on schedule, arguably had more to say about human nature and the way we bounce off against each other in this ridiculous existence than anything else in years. But it’s also a frustrating, infuriating picture; one whose world view rarely reaches beyond the theatrical classes of the Upper East Side, one where entire strands are botched or barely even started, and one where bold tonal lurches and odd editing choices glare out, like someone did a shit in the middle of that tapestry you’d been working on for a while. In “Margaret,” the flaws are somehow endearing. There are moments here that were among the very finest of the year. And almost nothing else has been worth endlessly discussing; it’s late revival in fortunes among critics has been one of the happier moments of 2011. But it’s hard to place this version any higher than this, knowing that a less compromised, longer take probably exists in a vault somewhere.
M.V.P.: Among a wondrous cast, including J. Smith Cameron as Lisa’s mother, John Gallagher Jr. as her hapless prospective beau, Kieran Culkin as a manipulative, callous rival, Rosemarie De Witt as the prickly, paranoid wife of Mark Ruffalo’s character, Stephen Adly Guirgis as a long-suffering cop, Michael Ealy as a smart-as-a-whip attorney and Lonergan himself as Lisa’s hen-pecked absentee father, it’s the great Allison Janney (also the best thing in “The Help“) who lingers in a one-scene cameo as the victim of the bus accident which sets the plot in motion.
The “Before Sunrise“/”Vendredi Soir“-style romance is one of the popular destinations on the Random Wheel O’ Independent Film Plots™. And a gay spin on that now-familiar template? Well, that sounds like the kind of worthy, well-meaning, excruciatingly unwatchable flick that makes up 85% of the bottom 85% of international film festivals. But “Weekend” outgrew any such preconceptions or precursors to become one of the most honest, charmingly performed and intelligent relationship movies in quite some time. It follows Russell (Tom Cullen) and Glen (Chris New), two twentysomethings who hook up on a drunken Friday night in an unnamed British city and spend the next 48 hours or so together. For the most part, it’s a love story both incisively specific – it has a brace of genuinely profound, provocative things to say about homosexuality in a mostly accepting, but overwhelmingly straight, world – and swooningly identifiable; anyone, regardless of their orientation, who’s had a fleeting night or two with someone that could have turned into more, will feel a firm twang on their heartstrings here. Andrew Haigh‘s direction toes the line carefully, never alienating wider crowds while never patronizing its niche, with an authentically woozy beauty present across the whole running time, and his writing is detailed, witty and never dull in the slightest. If only every love story, gay or straight, might be as well-acted, engaged and passionate as this one.
M.V.P.: The leads feel inseparable to some degree (indeed, we only really understood the greatness of Cullen’s performance when we saw him as a dickish ladykiller in “Black Mirror” recently), but I’d have to give New the edge; more political, more flighty, dicing closer to camp, he’s the driving force of the central pairing.
7. “Martha Marcy May Marlene“
The single thing that cinema does better than any other artform is the shifting of time: can paintings, or architecture, or music, show the immediate contrast between past and present and future in only a few seconds? No. And in his feature film debut, Sean Durkin takes full advantage of his chosen medium’s advantages, making “Martha Marcy May Marlene” one of the most immaculately edited new films we can remember. As the titular Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) recuperates in the lake house belonging to her sister (Sarah Paulson) and brother-in-law (Hugh Dancy), the present blends with every cut into her past, when, even as an independent, smart young woman, she became entranced by cult leader Patrick (John Hawkes, somehow topping his astonishing supporting turn in last year’s “Winter’s Bone“), and ended up as a member of his commune. Durkin almost makes his film into a game. It’s never clear, when he immediately cuts into a scene, whether Martha is in the past or present, and it leaves the viewer deliriously uneasy as the film develops, to the extent where I found myself watching the final 30 minutes playing out seemingly without drawing a single breath; it’s a tense, horrifying picture without ever needing to descend into genre tropes. There are films with grander ambitions than this one, to be sure, but not many that met their aims as neatly as Durkin’s.
M.V.P.: Another perfect cast, but there’s a reason that Olsen has the film named three times in her honor; she gives Martha/Marcy May/Marlene a depth that isn’t necessarily there on the page. Chronologically speaking, she’s an honors student searching for something more, to besotted convert, to young woman desperate to break away from her life, to brainwash-ee that no longer knows a world away from the one she’s lived in the last couple of years.
Is “Drive” purely an exercise in style? Yeah, maybe. But so too were “Kiss Me Deadly,” and “Gun Crazy,” and “Point Blank,” and “Le Samourai,” and “Body Heat,” and “Blood Simple” and “Pulp Fiction,” no? Nicolas Winding Refn‘s Michael Mann visuals, Italodisco beats and “Vice City” trimmings made this one of the most distinct pictures in recent years, but there can be no mistake that it’s a noir through-and-through, albeit one that Refn has melded with the fairy tale, the horror and the superhero movie to make something more than the sum of its parts. And indeed, “more than the sum of its parts” is the film’s watchwords; it could have been some stripped-down, minimalist genre flick and been one of the year’s best films. But that gives a disservice to Hossein Amini‘s taut, Elmore Leonard-ish script, that gives texture to parts that needed none, to the simultaneously minimalist and multi-faceted central performance from Ryan Gosling, to the sweetness of that central love story (the film is as much rom-com, or at least rom, as it is a thriller). It’s as stylish a film as I’ve seen in recent years, sure, but the style is always in service of something greater.
M.V.P.: Again, the supporting cast gave “Drive” a richness and depth that belied its surface sheen, and as tremendous as Albert Brooks, Carey Mulligan, Ron Perlman and Oscar Isaac are, it’s Bryan Cranston that took the honors for me. The increasingly omnipresent actor is some way from “Breaking Bad,” a broken, grizzled failure of a man, always aware of the price he pays for running with the dicier members of society, and grudgingly, heartbreakingly accepting of the inevitable conclusion to his lifestyle when it comes.
Honestly? I didn’t really want to like “Beginners.” Having missed it in theaters, it was the last film on this list I caught up with, at a point where my list was already looking over-stuffed. Plus, it did look awfully twee, with the subtitled dog and the twinkly soundtrack and the rollerskating indoors. But I’m terribly glad I did catch up to it, because Mike Mills‘ sophomore feature, based on the director’s own experiences of his father coming out in his 60s and dying not long after, is an absolute gem, a melancholy and joyous film that’s both deeply, specifically personal and strangely universal. Making his surrogate Oliver (Ewan McGregor) an artist and illustrator helps to earn the more offbeat touches, which never feel precious. But crucially, he favors observation over artifice, and it never overshadows the film’s heart, which is the size of a camper van. Nothing that Mills is dealing with here – the unlived life, commitmentphobia, never knowing our parents – is virgin territory, but there’s a simple honesty to the approach here that makes it profound but never po-faced. It makes an interesting kind of double-bill partner with “The Tree of Life” – like Terrence Malick, Mills’ dual timelines in part examine the way in which our present is formed by our childhood. But the gentle humor, heart-swelling romance and lump-in-throat sadness of “Beginners,” for me at least, does a better job of reflecting human existence than Sean Penn wandering around the seashore in a $1,500 suit.
M.V.P.: The film’s three principals (or four, if you count li’l Arthur the Jack Russell) are all outstanding; Melanie Laurent turning what could have been a pixie dream girl type into a fully-rounded person, while Christopher Plummer will, deservedly, win an Oscar in February for what’s close to career-best work. But Ewan McGregor‘s the real revelation. I’m not sure anything since “Trainspotting” has provided such a strong, soulful showcase for the actor, and it’s a long-overdue reminder of just how good he can be.
4. “Wuthering Heights“
I was convinced, on walking out of the Venice press screening of Andrea Arnold‘s adaptation of the classic, much-filmed “Wuthering Heights,” that I was looking at film that while it had little chance of catching on with the general public, it was sure to be a critical favorite. In fact, it didn’t even manage that; sharply dividing reviewers on the Lido, in Toronto, and on its U.K. release in November, it came and went with only a few, like myself, shouting from the rooftops about it. But in a way, that just makes me cherish it more. Making this year’s other Brontë adaptation, “Jane Eyre,” look like a conservative Masterpiece Theater adaptation, Arnold rips her source material apart and starts again, creating a savage, brutal landscape (shot in glorious Academy ratio), that neatly mirrors the characters’ cruelties against one another. Unlike the bulk of period dramas, there’s little room for repression and subtext. Heathcliff, Cathy & co are as blunt towards each other as characters of their fledgling age probably would be (this is a world where virtually no one makes it past the age of 25, seemingly), and Arnold’s approach of casting relative newcomers pays, for the most part, great dividends, even if it makes the film a little rough around the edges in places. Those who prefer the picturesque when it comes to their costume dramas are likely to be horrified, but “Wuthering Heights” was never a pristine period piece, and even if Emily Brontë never wrote a scene in which Cathy licks blood from the back of a badly beaten Heathcliff (it’s sexier than it sounds, trust me), I have no doubt that she’d approve of Arnold’s invention, and all those like it.
M.V.P.: Mr. Robbie Ryan. The DoP has continually impressed across his previous work with Arnold, as well as in the likes of “The Scouting Book For Boys” and “Brick Lane,” but he outdoes himself here, with glorious compositions both sweeping and intimate. One can only assume he spent six months wandering the Yorkshire Moors on his own in order to get the kind of footage he achieves here.
As extraordinary a film as Georgos Lanthimos‘ debut “Dogtooth” was, there was something about its Fritzl-ish premise that seemed like it was riding the zeitgeist (even if it marched firmly to the beat of its own drum), and I wondered how the director would fare with something that felt less ripped from the headlines. “Alps” has no such problem, by virtue of being quite unlike anything you’ve seen before; “Dogtooth” is perhaps the closest comparison point, but the follow-up is darker, stranger, funnier, and somehow more moving. A nightmarish puzzle that will be too oblique for many, it starts with a string of exceptional scenes – a gymnast menaced by her coach, a girl dying in the back of an ambulance, questioned on her favorite movie star by the paramedic – and very gradually, Lanthimos reveals how they fit into the grander puzzle, how each one plays out their role in his ingenious, heartbreaking conceit (which we won’t spoil here). It’s a film about grief, and in part about acting, a shifting meta game that never, ever lets you feel comfortable or settled in what you’re watching, or knowing what to expect in the next scene. In a world of endless sequels and undemanding comfort viewing, I realize this is not going to be for everyone, but for me? “Alps” was a thrill.
M.V.P.: There’s not a weak link among the cast, but Ariane Labed (who was the lead in fellow New Greek Cinema pic “Attenberg“) is the stand-out as the youngest member of the titular group, provocative and maddening, a perfectionist starved of attention, and one of the more original character creations in a film full of them.
2. “A Separation“
The most gripping thriller of 2011 was one without gunplay, or a car chase (well, bar a very low-octane, brief one), or a MacGuffin. Instead, it revolved around what happens when good people make bad choices, a complex, heartbreaking morality play that proved once again, despite everything, Iranian cinema might be the most exciting in the world right now. Following the disastrous knock-on effects when a middle-class couple, who still love each other deeply, but are cripplingly divided on the future (Simin sees no future in the restrictive nation, Nader has to stay to care for his Alzheimers afflicted father), seek a divorce, it displays Asghar Farhadi as one of the great humanist filmmakers working today; he has empathy for everyone the camera points its lens at, from the couple’s daughter to the brutish husband of their new employee, even as they do terrible things. And Farhadi is careful never to get in the way, simply letting tremendous actors play out a very identifiable human drama, one that remains truly cinematic while barely even venturing outside. And why would it, when it has such an immaculate screenplay, proof that great writing is more than simply a string of zingers. The film on this list it has most in common with is “Margaret,” with both films unfurling directly from a single tragic event, and even more than that film, no character is ever given short-shrift; even those who appear in a single scene are given multiple facets to play with. And whereas Kenneth Lonergan‘s picture couldn’t live up to its ambitions, Farhadi never puts a foot wrong.
M.V.P: The cast is flawless, but it’s New York-born Peyman Maadi who has the heaviest lifting to do as Nader, and he does that carrying like Atlas; never putting us in doubt that he’s a good man, but one loyal to his family to a fault, and just shrouding his motivations away from view enough that the film’s central question remains in question.
1. “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy“
Yes, I did just say that “A Separation” was the thriller of the year. But three viewings of Tomas Alfredson‘s “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” have confirmed that it’s a spy thriller that’s barely interested in being a thriller; it’s clear from the way in which he reveals the mole that the Swedish director couldn’t care less whodunnit. For him, theyalldunit, with every character being responsible for some act of betrayal, either of others, or themselves. Just as I’ve never understood those who accused ‘Tinker Tailor’ of being hard to follow (admittedly, no film this year refused to spoon feed you to quite the same degree, but the storytelling is never muddled), I’ve never gotten those who find the film absent in emotion. Everything from Gary Oldman‘s face to the exquisite production design is permeated with a deep, wrenching sadness; crumbling, middle-aged men shouting at the tide, who somehow haven’t noticed that they’re no longer part of a superpower (the dismissiveness with which the CIA treats Toby Jones‘ prized source is one of many, many beautifully understated moments). The director retains the same sense of world-building that made “Let the Right One In” so special, but it’s a more mature film; he shows off less, happy to create something so absorbing and meditatively paced that you expect Alberto Iglesias‘ excellent score to follow you out of the theater onto rain-soaked streets once the credits roll. When your biggest problem is that the cast is so uniformly terrific that the greatest complaint you have is some don’t get enough screen time, you know you have something quite special, and, having sat with the film for several months now, it feels like nothing less than “The Godfather” of espionage movies.
M.V.P.: Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy and Benedict Cumberbatch have all rightfully shared plenty of plaudits, but it’s Mark Strong that was most memorable for me. The actor, a frequent bad guy, gets to play with arguably the most sympathetic role, and he’s heartbreaking, a man used up and discarded by the country he loves and the men he served with. Watching his eyes light up at the Christmas party that haunts so much of the film as he sees the man who may be his best friend, or may be something more, is shattering.
Honorable Mentions: I’m not actually sure how “The Skin I Live In” missed out on the list; it’s one of my favorite Almodóvar pictures of recent years, a nasty little genre thriller that seems to sum up so many of the director’s obsessions. “Kill List” was even nastier, showing Ben Wheatley to be one of the most exciting young British filmmakers, even if it couldn’t stick the ending. Joe Wright took a severe left-turn and made a glorious piece of pop-art with “Hanna” – it might have been as shallow as the day is long, but I’m not sure any other filmmaker seemed to be having quite as much fun. And, while I found it fairly slight and transient, “The Artist” was pretty joyous while it lasted.
Of the late 2010 releases that only saw U.K. shores in early 2011, easily the best was “Animal Kingdom,” the Australian gangster thriller. The teenaged main character was perhaps a little too authentically sullen and sulky to see him rank among Henry Hill & co, and for the film to make this list, but it was an early highlight, as were “The Fighter” or “True Grit,” although, again, it’s a testament to the strength of this year’s line-up that neither made my final fifteen.
As hinted above, “Bridesmaids” only just missed the list; it’s easily the best and tightest (that being a relative term) of the Apatow stable, with a relative emotional maturity that justifies the shitting-in-a-sink gags. Of the big studio tentpoles, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” was easily the best, showing Rupert Wyatt to be a rare talent, and Andy Serkis an even rarer one, even if the film flatlines whenever an ape isn’t on screen. J.J. Abrams‘ “Super 8” had the opposite problem: a charming coming-of-age tale that got less and less convincing the closer the monster got to the screen. Few summer movies were as much fun, however. “The Adventures of Tintin” was Spielberg back on form, for the most part, while Scorsese overcame a weak script to make “Hugo” something pretty magical, and the best argument for 3D to date.
Speaking of veteran filmmakers, William Friedkin came rollicking back with the hugely enjoyable “Killer Joe,” with a brace of great performances, including a surprisingly ace one from Matthew McConaughey. Steven Soderbergh gripped with “Contagion,” Gavin O’Connor made me sob despite myself with “Warrior,” and Cary Fukunaga set himself up to be one of the most versatile directors around with “Jane Eyre.” If all of “Submarine” had been as good as the first half-hour, it would be high up on this list; as it is, it’s still a charming, beautifully made little film. “Without” is the best film I’ve seen without any distribution – a haunting, intense little puzzle box with a great central performance. And finally, while I didn’t see much in the way of documentaries for one reason or another, “Page One: Inside The New York Times” was the best of the few I did.
Disappointments: I’ve already written of how little I liked “The Descendants,” but there were two more that broke my heart a little by how close they came to greatness. I was with “Take Shelter” for 95% of the way; it’s a timely picture anchored by a titanic performance by Michael Shannon. But then comes the ending, and without giving it away, it’s cheap, and callous towards both its characters and its audience, undermining so much of what it’s worked so hard to set up. “We Need to Talk About Kevin” had the opposite problem; it becomes more and more absorbing and interesting as it goes on, but Lynne Ramsay (whose return, my ambivalence about her film aside, was some of the best news of the year) bashes you over the head with crashingly obvious symbolism so heavily in the opening that I could never get back into it.
Worst: I seem to have gotten less tolerant in my old age; if I suspect I won’t like a film, I tend to avoid it, and those I did eventually catch up with – “Pirates 4,” “Green Lantern” – I gave up on within half an hour. Madonna‘s “W.E” I had no such option: I was seeing the first screening and had an obligation to review it. That review can be found here.
But actually, there was something I disliked more. Madonna is, after all, a pop star first and foremost, whereas Zack Snyder is a full-time film director, and yet turned out something as ill-conceived, brainless, hateful and juvenile as “Sucker Punch.” A two-hour feast of hey-wouldn’t-it-be-cool over anything like substance, so artificial and transparent in its construction, so spectacularly misjudged in its understanding of the term “empowerment,” so poorly acted and scored, that it put me in a bad mood for about 48 hours afterwards. I only clung in case Snyder turned out to be playing a long game; turning the film’s premise and style in on itself by the end. No such fucking luck.
Television: Aside from the regular series (“Homeland,” “Game of Thrones” and “The Fades” were the best newcomers, “Parks and Recreation,” “Louie” and “Community” the ones that still have me hooked), there were a couple of film-related small-screen shows that deserve a mention. Todd Haynes‘ five-hour HBO take on “Mildred Pierce” was certainly the very best film of the first half of the year, and one of the best altogether. Never once acknowledging it was television, steering clear of artifice where “Far From Heaven” wallowed in it, it was something of a marvel, and perhaps the best thing the director’s made to date. Across the pond, Mark Cousins‘ “Story Of Film: An Odyssey” was a 15-hour documentary about, well, the medium itself, from its earliest origins to recent FX-filled blockbusters. You can’t ask for a better, more idiosyncratic host, and it’s essentially a must for anyone who calls themselves a film fan.