Ally Clow’s Year in Film, 2011

At the start of the year I had a bit of time on my hands. Leaving a job and deciding on what to do wasn’t easy so I made a pact of recording every film I watched over the course of the year. The below is not an exhaustive list but the choice selections of some of my film highlights in the past 12 months, including my top ten films of the year.

It’s been a good year for new movies (when isn’t it?) but there was no single film I reacted to with quite the same verve as 2010’s The Social Network. It was a perfect film, well scripted, acted and directed – the Holy Trinity of filmmaking and one which cemented David Fincher’s position as being in the top echelon of directors working today.

The Social Network did have a part to play in the story of 2011, winning three Oscars (the biggest being Best Adapted Screenplay), however it played a supporting role in the Oscars to another film about a socially awkward man overcoming his personal demons. The King’s Speech took hold of the ceremony and won three major prizes including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor for Colin Firth.

The King’s Speech is the first film in 2011 that features in my top 10 of the year. I loved the set design, the drab Harley Street offices of Geoffrey Rush’s Lionel Logue set against the palaces and Royal estates of Colin Firth’s Bertie. I loved the characters relationships to each other, especially Logue’s, treading then overstepping his mark, time and again. Colin Firth was fantastic, as was Rush and Helena Bonham-Carter but the reason the film worked as well as it did was Tom Hooper’s direction and his touches of class. This was no ‘Play for Today’, it was a cinematic delight, knowing when to flourish (the scene where Lionel and Bertie are walking and arguing through a park in the morning mist is sublime) and when to hold back (the elegant camera movements mimicking the austerity of its subject).

A deserved triumph then, as was Natalie Portman’s performance in The Black Swan, an urban fairy tale of a film that never quite soared high enough to blow me away, it was nevertheless a solid piece of work. The other Oscar film from 2011 to be in my top 10 of the year was David O. Russell’s The Fighter starring Mark Wahlberg, Melissa Leo, Amy Adams and Christian Bale who picked up Best Supporting Actor. This was a boxing movie which, without reinventing the wheel, was a superb example of its genre: a thrilling movie that bobbed and weaved like a champion, had poise and balance that mixed Bale and Leo’s wild performances with Wahlberg’s understated one. The last reel was one of the best endings to a film all year.

Throughout the year, I tried to catch up on films I really ought to have seen by now and the year began with four gems: Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies, Alexander Korda’s Rembrandt (Charles Laughton giving one of cinema’s most humane performances ever) and a great genre-mashing music doc Searching for The Wrong-eyed Jesus narrated by Jim White. The latter really blew me away, mixing road movie conventions with deep-south musicians playing songs, sometimes literally in their own back yard – a cinematic gumbo of styles, characters and songs.

Disney began the year well with Tangled in 3D, a nice film that was overpowered neither by sentimentality or stereoscopy. The year’s best animation (and the third of the year to gain entry into my top 10) was Gore Verbinski’s Rango, the story of a lizard who finds himself being wrongly hailed as a desert town’s saviour in their quest for water, was a stunningly executed film with the vocal talents of Ned Beatty, Alfred Molina, Ilsa Fisher and of course Johnny Depp as the eponymous hero. This was an animation with weighty ambitions, abstract dream sequences, film references and the most beautiful set design of any animation I’ve seem outside of Pixar’s finest. After this, I watched Pirates of the Caribbean 2 and 3 and wondered how Verbinski sank so low when he had a film as good as Rango in him.

I saw another desert-set film, this time 2010’s Restrepo by Sebastian Junger and the late Tim Hetherington. This Afghanistan-set movie is the best war documentary I have seen and was followed in style by Armadillo a year later. The camera-work is intoxicating and the real human stories at the heart of the film are tragic and compelling. On the subject of war movies, I finally caught up with Saving Private Ryan, one of four more oldies I saw at the end of winter, along with Becket, Schindler’s List and A Private Function. In my misguided youth, I had largely avoided Speilberg’s work (other than Jaws and Indiana Jones) thinking it full of saccharine sentimentality and morals and I was wrong. I don’t mean I was wrong about the sentimentality part, Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List rank highly on that scale but I was wrong to avoid him – these films are passionate and stunning works of cinema that were ‘must sees’.

In the spring, I saw two films a day apart, which both made my top 10 but are on opposite ends of the genre scale. Source Code was Duncan Jones’ follow up to Moon and was a slice of terrific sci-fi, action and Twilight Zone plotting which whizzed along at an incredible pace and left me with the ending I wanted. Bonus points came from a cameo voiced by Scott Bakula (who’s series Quantum Leap Source Code leans on heavily throughout) and convincing performances from Jake Gyllenhaal, Vera Farmiga, Michelle Monaghan and Jeffrey Wright. This film was a move into intelligent mainstream, a genre that includes Inception and Christopher Nolan’s Batman films and needs to grow each year.

Meanwhile, Joanna Hogg’s Archipelago was an entirely more understated affair but underneath the characters middle-class politeness and passive-aggressiveness, lay the lava of the soul, people who were mad as hell and weren’t going to take it any more. This was the first of three great performances from Tom Hiddleston in 2011 (The Deep Blue Sea and Midnight in Paris being the others) that made him my second-placed Man of 2011. Archipelago was gorgeous to look at, using naturalistic lighting and enclosed space to create a sense of claustrophobia and uneasy stillness. The characters play out their doomed fate in a cringe-filled way, the tone of which is perfect. A special film.

Another British film I watched would have been my favourite film of the year had it not been released in 2010. Clio Barnard’s The Arbor was a breathtaking amalgamation of documentary and drama telling the story of playwright Andrea Dunbar and her daughters over a period of over thirty years. The technique of actors mouthing the actual recorded words of Dunbar’s daughters was not new (think Creature Comforts) but was done so well as to be utterly convincing and left the viewer with a great sense of the uncanny. The tragic story is right out of the school of British social realism but the film’s truth and freshness lifted it above its mournful subject.

It was around this time of the year that the sad news of Peter Falk’s death came through. I wrote a short piece about him because he was one of my favourite actors, a man whose humanity shone through in the roles he played but could also turn out a mean streak or two, especially in the films he played with John Cassavetes. I finally watched Cassavetes’ Husbands starring Falk, Cassavetes and Ben Gazzara as three men who go on an international rites of passage, 20 years too late. It’s a beautiful mess of a film (like Margaret later in the year), long, sprawling but finely acted and carrying a mood of melancholy suiting its characters yearning for their youth and a lack of responsibility. I caught up with another of Cassavetes’ films this year, Love Streams. Gena Rowlands and her husband star in this neurotic film about love and relationships (when does Cassavetes’ films not deal with these two subjects?) and is a high point in the director’s work.

The next two films of note were flawed but engrossing nonetheless; Ben Affleck’s The Town and Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine. The Town was a heist film featuring some great performances from an all-star cast. Jeremy Renner (think a milder Joe Pesci in Goodfellas) making sure Ben Affleck never realizes his ambition to leave ‘the town’, Rebecca Hall as a witness to a crime whom Affleck falls in love with and the late Pete Postlethwaite in a chilling role as an Irish mob boss who controls the town’s underworld. A nuts and bolts drama with some impressive twists and turns. Blue Valentine introduced me to Ryan Gosling who I’d heard of but had never seen before and Michelle Williams who was superb as always. This film certainly put the viewer through a range of emotions but successfully portrayed a relationship from beginning to end. Almost like Francois Ozon’s 5 x 2 in non-linear time, it made you sad for these two people who were once clearly in love but couldn’t adapt to change and, for the Gosling character at least, growing up.

The BFI continued to make some stellar DVD and Blu Ray releases (Ozu, Britain on film etc) and The Great White Silence was arguably the finest of the year. A painstaking revival of Herbert Ponting’s 1924 documentary of Scott’s ill-fated journey to the South Pole, the film made me realize that Blu Ray was not just for Pixar films but brought silent to life just as much. Perhaps the single best movie I watched all year (other than my annual trips to Chinatown and Broadway Danny Rose) was Wim Wenders’ 1976 Kings Of The Road. This fantastic road movie mixes the new German cinema’s fascination for American culture (see Herzog’s Stroszek and Wenders’ own The American Friend) and Germany’s relationship to borders, both geographically and between each other as people. The high point in this three-hour movie is a scene where Rüdiger Vogler’s cinema projector repairman sings along to Heinz’s ‘Just like Eddie’ whilst banging the roof of his truck, driving through the open roads. Listening to two German men singing in English to an American influenced Rock ‘n’ Roll song sums up the movie.

The next four inclusions were new films but two of them blurred what we mean when we say ‘cinema’. Christian Marclay’s The Clock was a 24-hour film consisting of shots from films where timepieces are shown. It’s a single-concept piece and the film is meant to mirror the exact time of day the viewer is living their lives in. I saw it at the Hayward Gallery late in the afternoon just before the gallery was due to close but it was a meditative and mesmerizing piece. I asked Mark Cousins on twitter if he had seen it and he had managed to watch 6 hours in Glasgow (I managed two). He remarked that when he began watching it, he realized he wasn’t breathing. Breathtaking is an adjective overused in criticism but this time Cousins uses its meaning literally. Todd Haynes’ Mildred Pierce was an episodic HBO made-for-TV series with high, cinematic production values. Kate Winslett, Guy Pierce and Evan Rachel Wood starred in this engrossing treat that blurred the boundaries of TV and film more than any other production I’ve seen.

Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life won the Palme D’Or in Cannes earlier in the year and my anticipation was high when it was released only a couple of months or so afterwards. I was slightly disappointed with the film, not because of its beauty or its oblique references to dinosaurs or even Sean Penn’s abstract meanderings but the story of Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain’s family. I felt as if Malick had to include the trimmings because the meat of the film wasn’t good enough.

A film that completely bowled me over however and is another in my final top 10 was Bridesmaids. Although I thought it would be funny, I had relatively low expectations when I watched it; it turned out to be fabulous, a film where all the characters flaws were celebrated and the male characters played second fiddle to the almighty female cast. The year’s funniest film, an inversion of the successful Judd Apatow movies of recent years, and a Launchpad to greater things for its writers Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo.

Not only are their DVD releases top notch at the moment but the BFI Southbank is on great form too. Fantastic retrospectives of early Soviet sci-fi and Dirk Bogarde seasons have been well received and their choice of films shown in the Studio mean us Waterloo residents can wander along and see many of the year’s latest art-house delights. I saw Joseph Losey’s The Servant here starring Dirk Bogarde in a terrifying role of debauched manners that was a great influence on Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell’s Performance seven years later. Set in Chelsea it is a story of an upstairs downstairs role reversal, sex, drugs and money, portraying the swinging sixties in an altogether darker light than most of the London-set films of that period until Performance came along in 1970.

The end of the Summer and early Autumn saw the releases of two more films in my top 10; The Guard and Drive. These two films will surely become cult movies of the future, both unashamed and extreme and both vehicles for their two stars who deserve many awards for their excellent performances.

John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard has Brendon Gleeson’s bobby sarcastically and cynically run rings round Don Cheedle’s excellent FBI cop Wendell Everett in the West of Ireland. The film rivals Bridesmaids in the laugh factor but it is Gleeson who will be remembered in the years to come as the enigmatic man whose actions speak louder than his words. The screenplay is tight and performances from Liam Cunningham, Mark Strong and David Wilmot as the intellectual heavies are spot-on.

Drive was the second film of the year from Ryan Gosling (his third, Crazy, Stupid, Love was good as well) and launched him into the leading pack of Hollywood actors and displaced Pitt and Clooney as the MAN of the moment and my Man of 2011. Nicolas Winding Refn’s existential road/heist movie has elements of Gasper Noe and Film Noir in its depiction of Gosling’s ‘Driver’ who allows himself to be hired as a getaway driver but only under his own set of conditions. His rules are destined to become as well known as Fight Club and sales of toothpicks have surely increased 100% but it is the film’s soundtrack, its cool, visual style and Gosling’s minimal performance of a man walking steadily to his fate to save the girl (excellently played by Carey Mulligan) that will remain as its standout qualities.

Another Scandinavian director’s work featured a minimal, non-showy performance and that was Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. This was Tomas Alfredson’s follow up to Let The Right One In and he is becoming one of cinema’s finest and most patient craftspeople. Gary Oldman’s presence in the film was that of a glowing ember but that’s not to say he isn’t excellent. Too many performances are measured by their voracity or intensity but Oldman’s was one of the finest of the year by being in almost every scene yet managing to weave his control almost in the background. The British cast was outstanding featuring Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Toby Jones and a welcome return to Kathy Burke. A top ten film and one that will hopefully do well in the awards season.

A mention must be made at this point of Mark Cousins’ The Story Of Film, a 15 part, 15 hour documentary about cinema that began in September on More 4. This was by far the most exhaustive treatment of cinema’s innovators shown on TV and an absolute treat that was beautifully shot in its own right. From this, I discovered Youssef Chahine’s brutal Cairo Station, Jean Vigo’s dreamlike Zero De Conduit and Satyajit Ray’s spellbinding Devi (The Goddess) among many others. Another door of discovery opens in my own personal story of film.

The London Film Festival was Sandra Hebron’s last as artistic director and she has overseen a great event over her tenure. The films I saw in 2011 were mixed in quality but three stood out from the pack. Hirokazu Koreeda’s I Wish was an intimate story of a group of children playing together and going on a great adventure, part Ozu, part Goonies. The Dardennes brothers’ The Kid With A Bike, was a small slice of suburbanity, focusing on a child desperately seeking a father-figure and ending up with a surrogate mother proudly played by Cecile De France. Every frame is used to garner the optimum amount of meaning and it is this economy of style that make the Dardennes a continued presence in world cinema.

The highlight of the festival for me was Matthieu Kassovitz’s Rebellion, a film about a French colonial uprising in the late eighties. This is one of the best war movies I have ever seen and certainly the most affecting since Saving Private Ryan. Kassovitz does an amazing job in front of the camera as Captain Legorjuis, an entrenched army man specializing in hostage negotiations caught in the middle of an election in France whose protagonists will use the situation he is in to get votes. The performances are incredible as is the cinematography and the sheer epic production. This film needs to be seen but there is no UK release date yet.

After the furore at Cannes and his persona non grata status, I wondered if Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia would be worth watching at all. I left it late and caught one of the last shows to be shown in its initial UK run but I was pleasantly surprised and it made a late entry into my top ten. There were some truly memorable scenes, especially the ones whereby the central characters defined their relationship to the planet Melancholia itself. The sound was terrifying in parts and the CGI was fantastic. Von Trier is a true auteur, making films for the viewer to ‘feel a little pain’ by watching as he said in The Story Of Film.

Another film I was happy to see exceed my expectations was Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris. This ensemble film was Woody cruising with themes and tropes that have been familiar to his films for decades (philosophizing on art, culture and creativity) but was less concerned with cramming the script with meaningless musings and instead used a beautiful Paris backdrop on which to allow his cast of characters to paint their personalities and let his actors run wild. Owen Wilson played the Allen surrogate to perfection, more John Cusack in Bullets Over Broadway than Larry David in Whatever Works.

Bennett Miller’s Moneyball starring Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill was another top 10 highlight and provided an excellent vehicle for Pitt to assuage himself into the role of Billy Bean, the founding father of the moneyball theory whereby sports teams (especially baseball) should be founded on statistical data rather than intuitive knowledge. The Aaron Sorkin co-written script skips along apace and the central performances are fantastic – Pitt’s performance was one of his best and Moneyball only takes second place behind The Fighter for the best sports movie of the year.

The final inclusion in my top 10 (top 12, top 13 are you keeping count?) was a wonderful Italian film called Le Quattro Volte by Michelangelo Frammartino. The film is a near wordless elegy on nature and the passing of life into death and what happens after that. The characters consist of a shepherd, a goat, a burning charcoal pile and a tree and the film is as beguiling as it sounds boring. A final mention for Tilda Swinton who gave the year’s best performance in We Need To Talk About Kevin. I actually found the film slightly patronizing and its mise-en-scene was rather heavy-handed throughout – the tinned tomatoes relate to Swinton’s loss of freedom and her choice of baby locks on the cupboards can now be seen as a big mistake. Lynne, I wanted to work harder for it.

A pretty good year then and 2012 looks to be off to a good start with Shame, The Artist, The Iron Lady and A Dangerous Method all vying for a place round the Oscar table. But I have a feeling it will be the surprises and the indies that continue to fascinate.

Ally Clow