I think I watched just over 70 films in 2011. Some of these I watched more than once (usually the ones my kids liked on DVD). Some were ‘re-viewings’ of things I’d first seen years earlier, but most (more than 60) were new to me. Only a handful (Tangled, The King’s Speech, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, Arrietty, The Adventures of Tintin) were on the Big Screen. As such, most of my favourites were not originally released in 2011, and indeed I saw none of the list below in the cinema.
I’ve also revelled in Mark Cousins’ astonishing (if more than occasionally infuriating) The Story of Film: An Odyssey. Shown over almost 4 months on Channel 4, it covers an amazing amount of ground, with often breathtaking side-by-side shots and comparisons between modern films and their influences, captivating interviews from around the globe and a perspective on world cinema like I have never seen before. Sadly, it’s not available for viewing from 4OD, but I recommend it to any budding cinephile if only for its historical perspectives (but beware of Mark Cousins’ very distinctive style of narration…!).
Anyway, my favourite films I saw last year, in rough chronological order.
Red Riding (2009)
Already this is a bit of a cheat, as it’s actually a trilogy of films made for television. Grim, dark, bleak, violent, they are terrific character studies set around a fictionalised version of the 1970s / 80s in Northern England. Everyone smokes, swears, drinks and are corrupt, especially the policemen. Based on novels by David Peace, these are tough stories.
Un Prophète (2009)
Marked by the tremendous performance by Tahar Rahim, and several scenes of heart-pounding tension, this is an epic tale of survival and ambition within a brutal French prison.
I saw another great ‘prison’ film last year; The Escapist stars Brian Cox and is well worth your time…
Bloody Sunday (2002)
Perhaps the most harrowing film I’ve watched since ‘Grave of The Fireflies‘. The opening act is filled with dread, as we already know the brutal outcome, it’s an exercise in claustrophobic film-making. Expert hand-held camerawork and extreme close-ups combine to make the viewer feel intensely close to the action. You can feel the soldiers’ breath, smell their uniforms. You can feel the bleakness on the barricades and in the sparse concrete. As stones rain down upon the troops’ vehicles, the noise is deafening and the tension palpable. When the tension breaks and the shooting starts, it’s terrifying, a massacre made all the more vivid by having the HQ Commanders realise too late what might be happening, the tragedy of unarmed civilians (or at worst stone-throwing kids) being shot in the back. James Nesbitt is terrific as Ivan Cooper. His idealism turns quickly to shock, horror, disbelief and righteous anger as he sees his friends murdered by The State. This was a massively important film before The Savile Enquiry finally verified its storytelling is much closer to the truth than anything The British Army had tried to peddle before. It’s still an extremely important and visceral retelling of a pretty shameful day.
How I got to be a 42 year-old so-called cinephile without seeing this film sooner is a mystery: it should be required viewing. Peter Finch barnstorms his way through the film as a TV newsreader on the verge/in the fullest throes of a breakdown. William Holden is terrific as the old-school boss, and Faye Dunaway is terrifying as ‘television incarnate’. There are so many brilliant scenes and lines it’s hard to single some out, but I laughed out loud at “It’s The Network News Hour – with Sybil The Soothsayer”, and at the contract negotiations between the Network Production Execs and the Revolutionary Communist Terrorist group… Prophetic, chilling, funny, brilliant.
Off the back of this and prompted by various tributes on the death of the director Sidney Lumet, I also watched Dog Day Afternoon, The Verdict and Serpico, all of them brilliant, important films.
This is a terrific achievement of real independent, low-budget creativity. Gareth Edwards developed the concept, directed, operated the cameras, did all the special effects at home, and probably booked the taxis too. It’s an almost-completely improvised drama with a similar feel and tone to District 9. The creation of a world filled with extra-terrestrials is brilliantly done, and the emotional and physical journey of the two lead characters through this landscape is really well told. There’s unease and tension aplenty, as the threats seem to come both from the rarely-seen monsters and the human military. The final scenes are wonderful, and are moving on all sorts of different levels. A tremendous piece of work. I can’t wait to see what Edwards does next.
I loved this gem of a film. It’s funny and occasionally moving. It’s surreal and sometimes jarring. The writing and direction from Richard Ayoade is remarkably assured for a first feature, with stylish flourishes that (IMHO) never intrude on the film, but enhance it. The unreliable narrator, Oliver Tate, is a fabulous creation, full of teenage angst, self-centred to a fault (the scenes where he imagines his own funeral are breathtakingly honest and hilarious), but also painfully self-conscious. The coming-of-age elements are handled sensitively, and indeed by the end we’re not sure if he really has come of age or just learned a couple of lessons about dealing with stuff. The supporting cast are terrific, with Paddy Considine stealing scenes and Sally Hawkins looking like a shop mannequin. Noah Taylor is heartbreaking / infuriating as Oliver’s father, Yasmin Paige is great as the capricious Jordana, and Darren Evans makes the most of his comic lines… Sort of like Juno but better, like Son of Rambow but with more panache, this is a treat.
Panique au Village / A Town Called Panic (2009)
This was a complete surprise and all the more joyous for that. Old-school children’s toy figurines are animated, creating a world unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The nearest I can get is something like Terry Gilliam’s most bizarre work.
The main protagonists / housemates are Horse, Cowboy & Indian. When the latter pair unwittingly destroy the house after trying to buy a last-minute birthday present for their friend, all sorts of panic ensues. Meanwhile, Horse is pursuing a fledgling relationship with the local music teacher (also a horse). There are also thieving creatures from the local pond, a journey to the centre of the earth, a mechanical penguin that hurls giant snowballs and a fight at a disco. Surreal, hilarious, and often magical.
“I told you we should have got him a hat”.
Attack The Block (2011)
I came to this as a massive fan of Joe Cornish, and hoped against hope it wouldn’t disappoint. It’s inspired by and builds on genres from sci-fi to horror, comedy to social satire, and is wonderfully constructed, shot and performed.
The gang of teens are beautifully portrayed, and we’re given just enough clues about their backgrounds to understand where they come from, where the good is within them, and why they’re trying to break out for themselves. Scene follows scene with dynamic shots, gripping action, and a lot of genuine threat. Cornish does terrifically to make us dislike the kids for their initial crimes but also to root for them throughout. And he doesn’t get sentimental about killing people off – there’s plenty of bloodshed.
This is a fabulous directorial debut, proper cinema. Why can’t all films be this good and this much fun?
True Grit (2011)
I haven’t seen the John Wayne original, but this is The Coen Brothers at the top of their game: a very simple story told with such depth, richness and a wonderful cast of characters that it connects and resonates way beyond the basic plotline. Hailee Steinfeld is fantastic as Mattie Ross; tough yet vulnerable, wise-cracking but deadly serious, more than a match for virtually every adult she comes across. Jeff Bridges chews up scenery beautifully, while Matt Damon is great as Texas Ranger “LeBeef”. As with every Coens’ film, the supporting cast are universally watchable, in even the smallest roles. The cinematography and writing are also exemplary, with evocative 19th century dialogue and speech patterns alongside suitably gritty and dirty frontier towns. Every shot contributes to the mood and development of the story. Perhaps my favourite Coen Brothers film after Fargo.
Dancer In The Dark (2000)
Perhaps my favourite Lars von Trier film, a mix of his usual hand-held camerawork and grim storytelling with Hollywood Musical interludes that are bizarre to say the least. Björk is the director’s lead female ‘victim’ (taking a similar role to Nicole Kidman in Dogville and Emily Watson in Breaking The Waves), and her performance is astonishing, perhaps the best of all three of those.
Other notable mentions could include two (more) revenge films: the stark Romanian/Hungarian Katalin Varga and Paddy Considine’s tour-de-force in Shane Meadows’ excellent Dead Man’s Shoes. Jennifer Lawrence was outstanding in the beautifully bleak Winter’s Bone, and Mike Leigh was on fabulously understated form with Another Year, and I really enjoyed George Clooney in Up In The Air.
2012 is already shaping up well, as I was given a wonderful Michael Powell/Emrich Pressburger DVD Box Set for Christmas, so expect some gushing reviews of timeless classics in the coming months on these pages…!
I would love to receive recommendations for things I’ve missed, or things I certainly should not miss: I’m really going to try and see Hugo with Hannah… Given I only make it to the cinema a few times each year, what should I book a babysitter for now?