Secondly, welcome and thank you for joining me at the new blog! I’m aware many of you read my past year-end posts on my old PULP FRICTION AUSTRALIA page, which I discontinued in favour of this much more *ahem* self-promotional portal. But mainly because it made sense to put everything in one place. Feel free to go back and read my old pieces at PFA, however -- they’re not going anywhere.
Emerging from a cinematic year with optimism for the next, as I did at 2010’s end, is a risky proposition. Dreams and expectations, in this internet-driven age of hyperbole and rock-or-suck impunity, can be shattered in a cold, orphaned instant. Or, the impossible can happen: Your expectations could be exceeded...
Yeah, okay. So that didn’t happen in 2011.
But… my expectations weren’t reduced to rubble, either.
If nothing else, world cinema in 2011 – at least, the relatively infinitesimal speck of it I managed to see – was remarkably well played, for the most part. Sure, the stinkers were out there if you wanted to find them: THE HANGOVER PART II, ABDUCTION, BIG MOMMA’S HOUSE: LIKE FATHER LIKE SON, NEW YEAR’S EVE, GREEN LANTERN, RED RIDING HOOD, THE TWILIGHT SAGA: BREAKING DAWN, ZOOKEEPER, THE ROOMMATE, BUCKY LARSON: BORN TO BE A STAR and, well, anything starring Adam Sandler or Nicolas Cage, had more than their fair share of vocal detractors. But you know what?
I didn’t see any of them. Potential dodged bullets, all.
But I also didn’t see such acclaimed efforts as A SEPARATION, SENNA, MONEYBALL, INCENDIES, CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER, RANGO, HIGHER GROUND, PROJECT NIM, THE FUTURE, THE HELP or BEING ELMO, so, y’know… swings and roundabouts.
Before I count down my (newly expanded!) favourite films of 2011, allow me the indulgence to get personal for a moment…
My nascent filmmaking career has had its own twists and turns this year. In a year where everything seemed to take me three times as long as it should (post-production on past shorts, development on future projects), I managed to make my fourth short film – and first horror film – to compete for a place in an upcoming anthology picture called THE ABCS OF DEATH. Shot in two days and edited over two weeks with a small and fantastic team, T IS FOR TALK RADIO may not have made the competition finals, but proved to be the most artistically fulfilling project I’ve originated thus far, and won our little production company lots of new fans around the world.
Which means I’ll have to make something even better next time. <gulp>
But it has given me the confidence to head into 2012 with a small head of steam, at least.
Now… enough about me – let’s hit the list!
(WARNING: Everything before this paragraph was written a couple of days before New Years Eve, as I was beginning to come down with a savage case of the ‘Flu. Everything after this paragraph was written in a haze of Lemsip, Neurofen, Echinacea/Vitamin C/Garlic/Zinc and Ease-a-Cold tablets. So, while the rankings were decided beforehand, if the reviews make little grammatical/conceptual sense… I blame the drugs.)
In a first, I’ve opened up my usual top 10 films to 25, as I felt at least ten films I saw this year were worthy of more than an “Honourable Mention”. But then there another five which wouldn’t go away, either. Doesn’t usually go down like that, so I thought I’d acknowledge it this year. A gold star to stick on 2011’s yearbook, if you will.
As for which films qualify, any film I saw which was commercially released to the public in cinemas, on DVD or at ticketed film festival screenings during 2011 is eligible. My field this year? 117 feature films and documentaries.
I’ve also done away with my Bottom 10 list this year, as a) I’ve purposely avoided the worst releases of the year and b) I’d prefer not to focus upon the negatives in what was, largely, a pretty strong year for movies. Also, I kind of like to celebrate why we love to go to the pictures in the first place.
Speaking of which:
Let’s do this.
PAUL ANTHONY NELSON’S TOP 25 FILMS OF 2011
The world’s most underrated romantic comedy this year was not a product of the Hollywood studio machine, nor a bout de souffe from the French… but Argentina. This boundlessly charming, internet-age spin on SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE keeps its loveable quirkiness at a perfect level (never fear, no (500) DAYS OF SUMMER here), ever juxtaposing the daily lives of two people (Pilar Lopez de Ayala and Javier Drolas) who are utterly perfect for each other, but keep passing like ships in the night, both in the real and virtual worlds. A lovely modern statement on the difficulty of finding love despite having more access to the outside world than ever before, executed with sweetness and truth by debut feature writer/director Gustavo Taretto (inspired by his 2005 short) and beautifully played by its leads. Now, remember: this is all filtered through my jaded 36 year-old self – If I had seen this at 22, I would have lost my mind over it.
24. THE INNKEEPERS
Ti West is a name often brought up in “Future of Indie Horror” conversations, and one I’ve yet to be convinced about… until now. While I found the much-loved THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL to be all sizzle and no steak, this slacker ghost story delivers big time. The leads are hugely likeable, their motives plausible, the dialogue is sharp and Kelly McGillis’ return to the screen as a washed-up actress strikes just the right balance of self-parody and gravity. West has a yen for measured pacing and here he gets it just right, drawing you into the world of the ingratiatingly sinister Yankee Pedlar Inn and its characters, before bringing the bravura jump-out-of-your-seat final act DEVIL lacked. THE INKEEPERS gives us exactly what modern horror cinema needs: A good old-fashioned ghost yarn with a 2010s point of view.
23. X-MEN: FIRST CLASS
Could the man who unwittingly doomed the X-MEN franchise to mediocrity have finally saved it? Originally signed to direct X-MEN 3, director Matthew Vaughn walked out over studio and budget issues, allowing Fox to replace him with Brett Ratner… After which, came X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE and, well... I wouldn’t blame Fox at all if they went crawling back to Vaughn, cap in hand. Funny thing is: their collective solution – to reboot the series with a Prof X/Magneto/X-Men origin story and set it in the 1960s – seemed equally daft. I have rarely been so glad to be proven wrong. Getting back to the civil rights allegory of the Claremont/Byrne comics and introducing some sexy nostalgic fun in this MAD MEN age, Vaughn and his screenwriting partner Jane Goldman have made the most faithful -- and most cheeky -- adaptation of Marvel’s mutants yet. James McAvoy has never been more charismatic than here as Professor X, and Michael Fassbender is every bit his Byronic opposite number as Magneto. The young team, from Jennifer Lawrence’s va-va-voomish Mystique to Nicholas Hoult’s awkward Beast, are wonderful – not to mention Kevin Bacon rocking villainy in high style. (The less said about January Jones’ vapid Emma Frost – a character who deserves more respect – the better.) Composer Henry Jackman also provided one of my favourite musical refrains of the year, with the irresistible theme that pounds whenever Magneto is wasting Nazis. A blockbuster with genuine playfulness and its head screwed on straight, I rarely had a better cinematic time this year than X-MEN: FIRST CLASS.
22. THE ILLUSIONIST
It’s been eight years since French animator Sylvain Chomet won an Oscar for his feature debut, THE TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE, but it’s clear his delicate, handcrafted films take time and – more noticeably – love to create. This, his second feature, serves as both tribute (given it is an adaptation of an unproduced screenplay by French comedy legend Jacques Tati) and elegy to a lost age of wonder, before television routinely brought everyday wonders and aspirational goals into our living rooms. This tale of a rather Tati-esque magician who finds it harder and harder to get work, the teenage seaside girl who is fascinated with the possibility he represents, and the angry, bitey little rabbit who fast becomes the last relic of his once-exhilarating life, is just about the saddest damn thing you will see all year. There’s a key point late in this film when the girl receives a note; one which defines this film and, more and more, our own world. When you see this note: I dare you not to collapse into tears.
21. TAKE SHELTER
This film is the main reason I extended this list beyond 20: I couldn’t squeeze it in, but leaving it out didn’t feel right. In any other year, this would be the definitive cinematic work on mental illness, but 2011 was chock-full of them, and one or two were even more masterful. But there were few screen performances more heartbreaking or brilliantly attuned than Michael Shannon’s work here. An actor far too often reduced to playing twitchy crazies and increasingly fitted into the Modern Christopher Walken suit, writer/director Jeff Nichols creates a role for Shannon which allows him to play a sweet, loving husband who can barely fathom the mania that slowly infects him, finding he can only submit to it, in spite of any and all resistance. Jessica Chastain is also terrific in this; sensitive, strong and real, giving her best performance yet in a hugely prolific year for her. The film’s enigmatic ending raises some interesting ideas about the nature of mental illness, about the effects it has on those you love the most, and – perhaps – the idea that madness may just be communicable. TAKE SHELTER is a fascinating, powerful film, driven by a world-class lead actor who, in a just universe, would find himself feted by Oscar.
20. THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN
For years, critics have been trying to tack the “Vintage Spielberg” tag on to anything vaguely Spielbergian (for example, the shrill, overblown, bafflingly beloved SUPER 8), such as we’ve missed the filmmaker who defined cinematic wonder from the late 1970s to the early 1990s. So who would have thought, with the very 2011 technologies of motion capture animation and 3D, Spielberg would make his most exhilarating adventure since 1993’s JURASSIC PARK, or his most giddy since 1989’s LAST CRUSADE? TINTIN truly delivers Vintage Spielberg, with the caveats we’ve come to expect over the last 18 years (ie. “It was great until the last five/ten/twenty minutes,” and so on) mercifully absent. TINTIN is rousing, jaunty, knockabout fun, bringing true adventure, stunning (but never overwhelming) visuals and breathless chases, while also unafraid to have a teenage reporter firing a gun. I’ve never been a fan of motion-captured films or 3D, but this film gets it all right like crazy. The dead-eyed “uncanny valley” effect is nowhere to be found – all the characters seem gloriously alive. The 3D effect actually makes the film, adapted from a comic book always considered halfway between literature and a graphic novel, seem perfectly positioned halfway between a film and a graphic novel: the characters seem tangibly real and weighty, yet cartoonish and fantastical at once. It’s probably pertinent for me to confess at this point: I’ve never read Tintin. But the dream-team screenplay has a playful, dead-on approach to high adventure, humour both high and low and imaginative set-pieces that never stack the deck. TINTIN is the family picture of the year, by a master filmmaker returning to the genre he once owned, and exhilaratingly conquering it anew.
19. FIRE IN BABYLON
It’s only by looking back that I find that any interest I’ve ever had in Cricket over my lifetime has been directly tied into the powerful, hugely charismatic West Indies team of the mid-1970s-to-early-1990s. When that team dissipated, so did much of my interest in the game, which I only follow from a measured distance nowadays. Individuals like the gum-chewing, devil-may-care master batsman Viv Richards, devastating opening pair Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes, and fire-and-brimstone bowlers Malcolm Marshall and Curtly Ambrose captured my imagination as a teen. But what I didn’t know – and what Stevan Riley’s excellent documentary reveals – is how politically motivated this team were. Because FIRE IN BABYLON is less a story about cricket, and more a story about a colonised group of islands banding together to prove to the Empire that took them over that they weren’t anybody’s slaves, nor anybody’s subjects. There’s fascinating detail about the friendship and shared political ideals between Richards and Bob Marley, the friction within the team itself – which, being drawn from a number of islands of distinct cultures, wasn’t always an easy dynamic – and how every test, every boundary, every run, every ball, became a political act. The film gives full vent to the fascinating characters involved, is full of entertaining archive footage and builds this underdog story of sporting emancipation beautifully, utilizing reggae music from the region and the players’ own charisma, to a rousing climax (I’ve never enjoyed seeing Australia portrayed as a villain more). I unreservedly recommend this film to anyone who doesn’t like cricket, because it’s such a colourful, empowering, human story... but Cricket Fans: prepare to have your minds blown, recalling an age when the game meant more than betting scandals, commercial imperatives and myopic administration.
18. THE HOLLYWOOD COMPLEX
As we meet various motivated child actors staying in a Los Angeles hotel catering for them and their families during Los Angeles’ “pilot season”, hear their philosophies and see the “preparation” classes they’re put through by casting consultants, Dylan Nelson and Dan Sturman’s intimate documentary evolves from a gentle freak show of sorts to something more terrifying: a perfect microcosm of the kind of indoctrination into hideous capitalist ideas of success, assimilation and adaptation that are hammered through heads young and old all over the USA, every day. It’s corporate culture-speak, pumped into children’s minds, before they’re molded into an apparent handful of “types”, often all too revealing of how America still sees them: a precocious blond girl is submitted for young cheerleaders, a sweet Afro-American boy winds up playing a kid in juvie, and so on. The film starts with kids vowing to remain individuals, to never change their hair colour or their names... and ends with them doing the exact opposite in the face of desperation. The “Land of Opportunity” has become so obsessed with this idea of itself that, even as it sinks into economic crisis, the same Darwinian ideals are being taught and executed with ghoulish fervour. The film lays out, with little inflection, the sadness many of these kids go through, the quiet damage it does to families, the still-bitter lives of aspiring child stars now grown up and, in a masterstroke you couldn’t make up, the troubled Corey Feldman receiving a Lifetime Achievement prize from the Young Artist Awards. A searing indictment of modern America’s capitalist ideals and doctrines, anchored by a group of sweet kids and families who have been sold a lie, this is one of the saddest, funniest, most truly horrifying documentaries I’ve seen in years.
One thing up front: I’m no fan of Mixed Martial Arts cage fights or UFC or any of this brutal nonsense. So I was extremely reluctant to see WARRIOR, and its frankly inadequate marketing did nothing to persuade me. So when I eventually caught it, and found it to be a genuinely soulful, truthful character study of a damaged family, dressed up in genre film clothing, few were more surprised than I. What’s more, its heartbreaking tale confirmed everything I hate about MMA; A world often populated with economically depressed people using an overdose of steroids, too much fight training and barely mitigated brutality to prove to the world they mean something, MMA is often a garishly violent gladiatorial spectacle more sad than stirring, which is something the film seems to acknowledge. This tale of two estranged brothers (played exquisitely by a hulking, broken, positively Brando-like Tom Hardy and a lovely, sad-eyed Joel Edgerton), still scarred by the psychological torment and spousal abuse inflicted by their alcoholic father (Nick Nolte, underplaying to devastating effect), who enter a winner-takes-all, big money MMA tournament as the prize affords them both a second chance at personal redemption. The brothers’ fight scenes beautifully reflect their characters: Hardy won’t let his opponents touch him, while Edgerton takes more punishment than most martyrs. Sure, director Gavin O’Connor wields a heavy hand at times, but I never felt it crassly manipulative: as smart as the writing is and crisp as the direction is, the reason why we care so deeply is because of these actors, completely embodying their tragic, lost child characters. The very best “male weepie” in years; it’s a credit to this film that it treats its characters with such sensitivity and a genuine pain that cuts deep.
16. INSIDE JOB
From its arresting opening credit sequence with amusing/scary juxtapositions between various people in high profile financial roles and their often ridiculous sound bytes, Charles Ferguson’s densely layered examination of the Global Financial Crisis and the Wall Street minds who shaped it -- and continue to profit from it -- is gripping, frightening stuff. Tracking the unprecedented prosperity of post-depression, post-war America, when big banks and financial services operated in mutual respect, to the beginning of the decline as President Reagan unregulated the financial services industry in the early ‘80s, to where the USA finds itself now, where families have to take on multiple jobs to avoid foreclosure because they’ve been lent far more money than they can possibly afford, which still profits those at the big end of town while bankrupting millions. The revelation that many of the key figures responsible for the profligate boom-and-bust blunders of the 1980s are now ensconced within President Obama’s financial advisory and Cabinet teams is sickening all by itself. Ferguson keeps himself and his point of view completely out of the way at first, merely recounting events, but gradually becomes an active voice, as we hear (but don’t see) him asking increasingly impassioned and exasperated questions of his interviewees. It’s a rage that many Americans, and indeed many the world over, share, as this year’s Occupy movement proves. There’s a lot of financial detail in this film to wrap your head around, but Ferguson (through Matt Damon’s excellent narration) does his level best to make it clear and concise... and mostly succeeds. A nightmare cautionary tale for our times, made more terrifying as it’s one without an end in sight. Best watched in a triple feature between Oliver Stone’s WALL STREET films… or back-to-back with THE HOLLYWOOD COMPLEX.
15. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE: GHOST PROTOCOL
Here’s the thing: If you get everything I’m looking for in a MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE film right – great team dynamic, international locations, exhilarating set-pieces, ridiculous plot twists, thrilling spy derring-do and double-crosses – you’re going to be one of my favourite films of the year. Just are. So, thank you, GHOST PROTOCOL, for being the first M:I film since the first to bring the noise on all fronts. What’s more, it proves to be a massively confident live-action directing debut for Brad Bird, whose career in feature animation has been near flawless to date. A refreshingly old-school blockbuster spy caper, reminiscent of the very best Bond films, it’s amusingly self-effacing with some terrific subversions of formula. Sure, the plot’s ridiculous (these films are called MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE for a reason) but, within this world, it mostly hangs together tightly. There are a couple of genuinely jaw-dropping action sequences here – on an endless skyscraper and amongst a towering, whirling cascade of cars – and Bird handles the action superbly, with a grasp of choreography and continuity that eludes many of his more experienced contemporaries. But what I really loved most about this film were its characters and the fact it, more than any M:I flick to date, establishes a solid team to go on with: Cruise’s Hunt is front, centre and energetic, yet funnier than before, Paula Patton brings steel and sexiness by the truckload, Simon Pegg is the perfect comic foil/tech genius/underdog for this series and Jeremy Renner makes a terrific, often amusing counterpoint to Cruise. What’s more, Michael Nyquist makes for a suavely menacing villain and a certain actor from a recent sci-fi-ish TV show rocks a charismatic cameo as an IMF team leader. If the missions continue to be as fun as this one, I’ll accept sequels every time.
Gregg Araki is a filmmaker I had little interest in a decade ago – Well, to be more frank: I had kind of a violent reaction to THE DOOM GENERATION when I saw it at 21 and wrote him off completely – but who intrigues me more and more as I get older. MYSTERIOUS SKIN was dangerously close to a masterpiece, and his latest film, KABOOM, is as purely fun and blackly comic a celebration of hedonism as anything I’ve seen in years. College student Smith (Thomas Dekker, as you’d never see him on that TERMINATOR show) is discovering his sexuality just as he discovers a plot to bring about an apocalypse, and spends the rest of the film trying to convince other students to help him prevent it… oh, that is, when they’re not having craploads of sex. The film’s candy-coloured palette, eccentric characters, rave party exuberance and punky ultra-low-budget brio just add to its comic-book feel, as it lovingly satirises campus comedies, horror films, celebrity cults and Generation Y. Like DONNIE DARKO without the NASA-level physics or (dare I say it) pretension, KABOOM is as hilarious, campy and enjoyable as its title suggests; the most sexily joyous flick about the end of the world you’ll ever see.
13. A SERBIAN FILM
A clarion call of pure, unfiltered rage disguised as an exploitation film, Srdjan Spasojevic’s audacious debut is a vital, anguished, searingly political work that screams volumes about the psychic toll decades of civil war and fascist rule has wreaked upon his nation. While the film’s metaphors are rarely subtle (eg. being raped from birth) and the film gets a bit nutty at times – anger is rarely articulate, and one or two moments seem clumsily intended as jet-black humour to give the audience a shot at weird relief – the way the enigmatic mystery unfolds, shadows and stark spotlights of the stylish Red One camerawork and the grinding techno score all combine to create a palpable sense of unease, but no element contributes to this more than the increasingly amoral characters our lead meets on his gradual descent into a very Serbian Dante’s Inferno. The extremity of the film’s imagery is aggressive at times (honestly, the sound effects are more disconcerting than the visuals), but feels somehow appropriate to the level of psychological and emotional turmoil this nation has suffered – which is why I believe many Western democracies can’t help but view it as pornographic or exploitative: the film is borne of an anger from an environment we can scarcely comprehend. This is a land where mass murder and genocide were, until recently, very real occurrences for many, many years: Seems to me that an extreme horror film is the only natural artistic response. If this is the first step to letting people know just how deeply the Serbian people’s scars still linger, or starts a dialogue about how one reconciles extreme events through art, then isn’t that important? Either way, the significance of A SERBIAN FILM can’t be ignored.
The fusion of dance and physical theatre is a concept my partner has been subtly trying to introduce me to – and one I’ve been battling to get my head around – for the best part of the four-and-a-half years we’ve been together. I can’t help thinking, if Wim Wenders’ gorgeous tribute to Pina Bausch, one of the masters of the form, had been released four years ago, would I have caught on sooner? (Or have four years’ “training” made me more open to it? Hmm.) By creating his own fusion of documentary and performance piece, Wenders has duly honoured his subject in form as well as function. Recruiting former students of Bausch’s to not only share almost stream-of-consciousness thoughts on their mentor, but recreate her classic pieces both on stage and out in the world is such an apt choice as Bausch’s routines were so inspired by and intrinsically connected to our everyday existence. The difficulty of connection, isolation of loneliness, exhilaration of love: all are gloriously present in Bausch’s most iconic works, which is what makes her pieces so accessible even to those who find dance theatre tedious or obscure. But Wenders’ masterstroke, what really makes it sing, was to shoot it in 3D. The normally off-putting format is bewitching here, thanks to the beautiful composition of the images and the staging of the pieces, which only serve to make the 3D so much more effective, bringing the performers to life; using the 3D process to highlight the physicality of performers in a film celebrating an art form built around physicality seems like a no-brainer, but don’t truly genius ideas often seem simple after the fact? PINA is breathtaking stuff, a keen insight into the mind and process of a true artist, from the heart of another.
11. THE YELLOW SEA
With YouTube and so many film festivals for shorts and features, it’s increasingly rare for a filmmaker to just appear out of thin air these days, but that’s exactly what South Korean writer/director Na Hong-Jin seemed to do with his cracking 2008 debut THE CHASER. I’m sure he made shorts with his mates, or at film school, but nothing publicly screened outside of South Korea, to my knowledge: he arrived fully formed, to a scary extent. His second feature, the ferocious action thriller THE YELLOW SEA, only proves his assurance behind the camera to be even scarier. One of the most visceral action pictures since, well, THE CHASER, filled with social commentary about refugees and illegal immigration policies without even trying and armed with the novel concept of staging an entire action film without guns – meaning this is one very stabby flick. Because, unlike his Hollywood studio contemporaries, Na understands what really makes action tick, and it’s not the firepower: his skill at building characters, establishing stakes, then turning up the tension and making his action physical, visceral and personal, an extension of character. Utterly unpredictable, filled to the brim with colourful supporting characters – including a hatchet-happy gangster – and a lead character with a survival instinct to make Bear Grylls flinch, THE YELLOW SEA marks Na Hong-Jin’s first two features as arguably the most purely confident one-two punch since Quentin Tarantino’s RESERVOIR DOGS and PULP FICTION -- or, at the very least, Paul Thomas Anderson or Guy Ritchie.
10. ANOTHER YEAR
Many great veteran filmmakers returned to form in 2011: Woody Allen, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese (so I’ve heard) and so on, but Mike Leigh’s effort may be at the forefront of the lot. His films are infrequent, but always present wonderfully truthful, dramatically rich portraits of characters who seem as real and knowable as you and I, and this, a powerfully incisive look at an older couple whose quiet contentedness contrasts against the emotional struggles of their friends and relatives, who rail every day against the lives they lead, is no exception. As is customary with Leigh’s films, the acting is superb: Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen are beautiful as the lead couple, Tom and Jeri, Peter Wight is both amusing and tragic as their shambolic friend Ken, but no-one makes a bigger impression than Lesley Manville as Mary, Geri’s constantly needy, emotionally untethered friend whose inability to reconcile middle age could seriously hurt any chance she has at happiness. While the film is gentle and intelligent, it also highlights Leigh’s skill at orchestrating the most socially awkward confluences imaginable, as tense as any horror movie and hilariously discomforting as anything in CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM. ANOTHER YEAR makes a strong argument for simple contentment, to accept who we are, what we’ve been through and to embrace the future with courage and calm. In these tumultuous times, with so much aspiration-fueled marketing imposed upon us, that seems to me to be a important thing to be reminded of.
9. TRUE GRIT
After coming off the most ambitious film of their career in A SERIOUS MAN, one may be forgiven for thinking a reasonably straight-forward adaptation of a Western tome – already famously adapted for the big screen – may see the Coen Brothers in cruise control. We should know by now: the Coens doen’t play it like that. TRUE GRIT is as soulful, bracing and lyrical as anything they’ve ever made. Highly evocative of the Old West and featuring a trio of brilliant lead performances – an awesomely irascible Jeff Bridges, rickety and dangerous in equal measure, a hilariously pompous Matt Damon and the mesmerising Hailee Steinfeld, who holds the film together. Despite being largely (if not completely) free of their trademark eccentricities, it shares a tangible sense of time and place, of culture and language, of custom and savagery, with the rest of the Coens’ worlds. As an incredibly entertaining, ultimately poignant examination of an Old West you can’t tame without it taking something away from you, TRUE GRIT stands shoulder to shoulder with the Coen Brothers’ best.
8. THE SKIN I LIVE IN
I’ve only recently discovered the charms of Pedro Almodovar, but this may just be my favourite of his films I’ve seen so far. A twisted tale of identity, sexuality, revenge and consequence worthy of Park Chan-Wook, its gothic horror movie trappings (walled castle, mad plastic surgeon, experimentation, unsolicited surgery) may be unusual to the filmmaker, but its execution, with its masterful pace, elegant design, outré costuming and psychosexual complexity, is classically Almodovar – but now at the peak of his powers. Antonio Banderas reunites with the director 21 years after their international success TIE ME UP, TIE ME DOWN, and I’m happy to say they haven’t missed a beat. Banderas is wonderfully understated as a genius surgeon who is tortured by loss, resentful of what he can’t have and perfectly okay with subverting nature’s laws to amend this. The film’s finest performance, though, belongs to Elena Anaya, who is stunning in her evocation of a character who has begun to… no, that would be telling. Suffice it to say, she’s brilliant (and almost channeling another frequent muse of Almodovar’s, Victoria Abril). There’s a lot going on beneath the surface of this film, much of which I’m still thinking through – such as its take on sexual politics and obsession – but that’s the beauty of this haunting, deviously clever film: it’ll linger under your skin for days afterward.
7. ON TOUR (TOURNEE)
Mathieu Amalric’s wry, impish charm and unexpected intensity as an actor has enlivened such films as MUNICH, THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY and QUANTUM OF SOLACE. But few outside France – myself included – know of his work as a filmmaker. He has written and directed two features and a telemovie, all barely released outside France, but it is this, his frequently funny, quietly poignant, bewitchingly impressionistic third feature, which stamps him as a filmmaker to watch (winning Best Director at Cannes doesn’t hurt, either). Loosely inspired by Colette’s 1913 music hall memoirs, Amalric sets his backstage tale in the world of modern neo-burlesque, starring himself as Joachim, a former French TV producer who, having left his homeland for bigger things, triumphantly returns years later with the troupe he’s surrounded himself with in the USA… only to find nobody in Paris wants him back. Amalric has rarely been more magnetic, but the heart of the movie are the (real life) burlesque performers – egotistical, loving, needy, nurturing and crazy all at once – who form the closest thing Joachim has to a family. Their routines are one of the movie’s unquestionable highlights, showing us real burlesque isn’t just about tits and tassels: It’s a place for satire, social commentary and a celebration of the feminine form. The film’s elliptical structure, bouncing from shows to hotels to failed reunions and back, felt scattered to me at first, but it soon enraptures, establishing an intoxicating fly-on-the-wall intimacy which, by the end, you’ll scarcely want to leave. As a valentine to neo-burlesque, the stage and the troubled, tireless impresarios who pull it all together, they don’t come much more honest, sexier or better than this.
I’m getting a little tired of hearing how “cool” DRIVE is, like good looks and smooth moves are all it has going for it. Nicholas Winding Refn’s LA neo-noir is not only one of 2011‘s most visually stylish films, but also one of its most deceptively complex. Sure, it takes cues and even lifts moments from such past classics like THE DRIVER, TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. and THIEF (among others), but Refn and screenwriter Hossein Amini have scattered enough clues throughout for those who seek to join the dots. The old “style over substance” argument has been thrown at this film plenty, to which its fans rightly counter, “the style IS the substance”. Because DRIVE, beneath its slick vision of a Los Angeles devoid of Angels, achingly tense storytelling and unexpected gut punches, is a story about surfaces and perception control. About the surfaces we all present to other people, as opposed to who we really are. The Driver is a baby-faced hero… who brutally kills anyone who stands in his way. Shannon (the excellent Brian Cranston, surely training to be Robert Duvall) is Driver’s father figure… but is skimming money off him left and right. Bernie Rose (a glorious Albert Brooks, in career form) is a film producer and deep-pockets businessman… who makes most of his cash from running crime. Nino (a terrific Ron Perlman) works for the Italian mob from a pizza shop front… and is actually as Jewish as they come. It’s about presenting who we want to be while denying who we are, and how such denial can hold us back. It’s about self-control, keeping true feelings and baser instincts contained, because – as the Driver knows – if even a sliver of those break through, it’ll all come pouring out: love, violence, hate, sex, death. There’s a reason The Driver keeps his jacket zipped up tight, even when bloodied. In making a neo-noir for our times, Refn may have also crafted a compelling statement on our image-obsessed, social-media-cultivating times. (But it could have used much more Christina Hendricks.)
5. THE TREE OF LIFE
I’ll level with you: For the first ten minutes, I was worried. I’m a huge lover of Terrence Malick’s lush, dreamlike, elliptical style, but the whispering over flames and scenes of the city swirling around Sean Penn seemed to me like Malick-parody… and then he starts recreating the birth of the universe. But I needn’t have faltered. Because, weirdly enough, the Big Bang sequence is where this bold, ridiculously ambitious, mesmerising magnum opus really kicked in for me. For all its intellectual scope, this is one of the most sensitive, deeply felt film experiences in years. And the fact it’s set in 1950s Waco, Texas – the time and place Malick himself grew up – just underlines how personal this statement is to the enigmatic filmmaker. From the birth and cause and effect of our larger universe, Malick introduces a smaller, more familiar one: the O’Brien family (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain), who greet the birth of a baby boy. From here, the film elegantly lays out its various themes: nature versus nurture (Pitt’s Darwinian parenting philosophies contrasted with Chastain’s sense of love and play), grace versus nature (Chastain and Pitt, respectively), as well as – phenomenally – straddling the theological divide by confirming the worldview of believers (God’s fruitful omnipresence and frustrating silence) and atheists (God’s non-existence in spite of our belief, and that ultimately we shape our own universe). However, what cut deepest for me was Pitt’s portrayal of a man who did everything he was told, who held hopes for him and his family, but now finds himself wracked with self-loathing over what hasn’t come his way and does not lack the will, but rather the ability, to express his love for his family – Pitt is stoically, heartbreakingly great and moved me more to tears than once. The film’s final sequence may feel a little forced, but the enriching totality of this experience is so much more than the sum of its parts. A textbook case of engaging an audience on macro and micro levels, Malick may just have made his masterpiece.
Paddy Considine is a gifted actor of considerable instincts, equally deft with poignancy, menace and hilarity, and always unafraid of honesty. So it’s a relief to see he brings the same qualities (okay, maybe not the hilarity) to his feature filmmaking debut. British social realism at its most stark and arresting, Considine breaks your heart in the opening scene by having his immensely troubled protagonist, Joe (Peter Mullan), do something truly horrible to a loved one, then immediately feel sick with remorse for doing so. It’s a move which forces a judgment before instantly eliciting crushing empathy, in one seamless whiplash, and it’s kind of genius. As he weaves his carefully, sensitively orchestrated portrait of the three main characters – drunk and boundlessly angry Joe, tolerant Christian charity shop worker Hannah (Olivia Colman) and Sam (Samuel Bottomley), the lonely boy across the street terrorized by his stepfather – these kind of virtuoso tonal changes and variations keep coming, but always from a bedrock place of truth and unbearable hurt. The performances are top-drawer, with Mullan embodying the ultimate version of all the violent alcoholics he’s ever played, with a savage immediacy and bruised sensitivity… but the trump card is the slow-burn performance opposite. Colman, mostly known for her comedic roles, is nothing shy of a weapons-grade revelation here. It hurts to watch her layers slowly peel away as the film advances; as the realisation of what her life really is takes hold, it feels so shatteringly tangible in her performance. However, like any film which takes its cue from life experience, it’s not all despair: there are moments where the characters find pockets of momentary salvation in each other, not through forced movie tropes but rather a shared joke, a song, a memory. Considine’s control over these moments, the narrative as a whole and his work with actors are sublime, stamping him has a major artistic force behind the camera, from film one.
Last year, I moaned to anyone who would listen that KICK-ASS squandered its potential to be the TAXI DRIVER of superhero films, crushed beneath the weight of its own ridiculous, smart-alecky, CG-puffed panache. Little did I know, offbeat indie filmmaker/studio screenwriter James Gunn was cooking up the actual TAXI DRIVER of superhero movies. A punky, bumpy, compact monster of a film, SUPER is many things – not least, the definitive screen statement to date on the fragility of the psyche of the self-made superhero. It was also, certainly, the most unhinged movie I saw this year. It’s thrilling, muscular and weird, but also incredibly poignant because the thing KICK-ASS kept forgetting, Gunn never lets us forget: These people are insane. Genuinely, messily, batshit insane. In telling the story of frustrated fry cook Frank D’Abo (Rainn Wilson, never better), who, after seeing his ex-junkie wife (a pretty good Liv Tyler) fall off the wagon and flee with her scuzzy dealer Jacques (Kevin Bacon, gloriously reptilian) becomes a pipe wrench wielding vigilante called the Crimson Bolt (wait ‘til you see what inspires him), Gunn has crafted not only a subversive post-superhero work that out WATCHMENs the WATCHMEN movie, but a sort of twisted, funhouse mirror BATMAN BEGINS for the Wal-Mart generation. And I haven’t even mentioned the turbocharged Ellen Page, who steals the film blind as D’Abo’s psychotic sidekick. Above and beyond all this, what stuns most about SUPER is its fervent, naked audacity. In an era of poseurs claiming to be “grindhouse”, SUPER may be the real deal, with a handful of gasp-inducing moments that take you places modern movies with stars like this just wouldn’t dream of. Constantly surprising, certifiably crazed and emotionally dextrous, SUPER is the power. (Oh, and for fun: Watch it back to back with TAXI DRIVER one day. What you notice may tickle you…)
2. MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE
WOW. Would it be hyperbole -- or mere statement of fact? -- to call writer/director Sean Durkin’s debut feature one of the very best of all time? Whether one chooses to qualify such matters or not, what is undeniable is Durkin’s confidence as a filmmaker right out of the gate. One thing I’ve kept coming back to in this countdown is directorial control, of tone, pitch and variation, and this, too, is an area in which MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE excels. Not to mention a startling breakthrough performance from Elizabeth Olsen as Martha, a girl who flees the cult she joined two years earlier to return to her estranged sister and brother-in-law, only to find the emotional and psychological scars of her two year indoctrination increasingly difficult to smooth over. The film eloquently poses disquieting questions about the residue of damaging experiences: Can one truly escape the past? Can our experiences be poisonous, infecting all who come into contact with us? And how far can one tumble down the rabbit hole before returning is no longer an option? The genius of the film lies in Durkin’s fragmented mode of storytelling, intertwining the past, present and dreams elegantly and seamlessly, highlighting how someone as strong-willed as Martha ends up in a cult, how one life impacts upon the other and reveals information with surgical precision, all leading to a devastating final act, as breathlessly terrifying as any horror film you’ve seen in recent years. The performances are uniformly excellent, few more so than John Hawkes, all sinewy steel and boxed intensity in the Charles Manson-esque role he was born to play. Jody Lee Lipes’ darkly stunning cinematography brings an idyllic patina to the film, reminding us that punishing cyclical abuse doesn’t just thrive in gritty, grimy places. At once a study of lost, vulnerable lives, the insidiousness of forced indoctrination upon such vulnerability, the fragility of family ties and the psychology of fear, Martha Marcy May Marlene is a chillingly assured work that will haunt you for days.
Behind all the noise caused by the dark stand-up routines that are his Cannes press conferences, or the (often self-generated) lightning rod controversies of his films, Lars von Trier is quietly building a career as one of the 21st century’s most audacious, gifted and articulate cinematic artists and, with MELANCHOLIA, may just have transcended it all to make his masterpiece. A stunning film in every department, redolent with powerful metaphor, remarkable control and unfathomable grace, this tale of the great scourge of our generation – Depression – serves as a damn near definitive treatise on the subject. Broken into two parts, the first focusing on Justine (Kirsten Dunst, finally fulfilling that long-ago INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE promise in spades – and then some), suffering a gradual bout of depression as her ridiculously elaborate wedding reception sinks into oblivion; the second focusing on her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg, quietly devastating) dealing with Justine’s condition while living in fear of a huge planet (called ‘Melancholia’) on a collision course with Earth. The first half, while also wittily exploring a family dynamic as cringe-worthy as any episode of CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM, is – to me anyway – a literal look at how the condition slowly, insidiously wreaks havoc upon someone and those close to them, while the second half uses its science-fiction trappings to explore depression metaphorically, through a perfect synonym of a dark, raging, unknowable planetary force, irresistibly elemental in its gravitational pull. What’s more, the two sisters and Claire’s husband John (a brilliant Kiefer Sutherland), seem to represent the three main approaches people take to the condition: resigned surrender, fearful resistance and medical rationalisation. Written by von Trier after emerging from depression’s grip, he and Dunst (also a sufferer) bring a startling reality to the piece, and not a second of Justine’s journey seems forced or artificial. As honest a depiction of the Black Dog as I’ve seen, von Trier has never shown a surer hand, from the film’s mesmerizing opening sequence (with the year’s best opening shot) till the heart-stopping, soul-crushing finale (also the year’s best closing shot), it will absorb, enthral and crush you.
THE WOMAN, KNUCKLE (documentary), MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES, BRIDESMAIDS.
BEST AUSTRALIAN FILM:
SLEEPING BEAUTY, by a nose over MAD BASTARDS.
One more thing: Loosely connected to MELANCHOLIA and watching movies, I so wanted to put this picture at the beginning of the post -- Yes, it’s Udo Kier at Austin, Texas’ Alamo Drafthouse cinema... salivating.
Please leave any thoughts you may want to share on this list, of 2011 film in general, on Twitter at @mrpaulnelson or @cinemaviscera, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Before I sign off, I would like to extend a massive THANK YOU to everyone who made it through to the end of this epic tome, and to those who have followed me on Twitter, or Liked our Facebook page, visited this site, or just lent their support to Cinema Viscera this year!
Paul Anthony Nelson