Top Ten Films of 2011

28 December 2011

As 2011 comes to an end, I’ve once more looked back at my personal highlights of the cinematic year. For the first time I did a count of how many films I saw during the year to discover that while I watched over 300 films, only half of those were new films released in Australian cinemas in 2011. I also saw several films more than once, which is unusual for me, but extremely rewarding. The result was a very satisfying year that wasn’t guided by what did or didn’t hit the multiplexes. Nevertheless, in order to create a top ten list that makes any sort of sense, won’t need revising and is the most relevant to the majority of my readers (who are Melbourne based and don’t go to advance media screenings), I’ve once again restricted myself to only including films that were given a theatrical release in Melbourne during 2011, even if only on one screen for a limited season.

Top ten films with a theatrical release in Melbourne, Australia in 2011

1. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011)

The Tree of Life

“A cinematic poem of extraordinary scope and ambition.”

Rarely has picking a favourite film of the year been as straightforward for me as it was this year. I returned to the cinema to see Malick’s The Tree of Life a second time within a week of first seeing it to once more have it engage my mind, stir up my emotions and touch my soul. An all too rare cinematic work of art that dares to be so much more than what most people can even imagine cinema to be.

2. We Need to Talk about Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, 2011)

We Need to Talk about Kevin

“This is sensory and visceral cinema at its most compelling and expertly crafted.”

One of the most confronting films I’ve experienced this year was Lynne Ramsay’s intensely subjective and impressionist film, which like The Tree of Life was also a complex representation of memory.

3. Certified Copy (Copie conforme, Abbas Kiarostami, 2010)

Certified Copy

“Its beauty, nuanced performances and grace give it the emotional and dramatic weight that make it rise far above being simply an intellectual exercise.”

My most unexpected highlight of the year was this cerebral and charming film where every single element in it contributed in some way to exploring its central question of how do we measure authenticity in art and life.

4. Pina (Wim Wenders, 2011)

Pina

“The whole range of human emotion is expressed and experienced during this film, making it a sublime visual accomplishment.”

This tribute/documentary/dance film uses 3D to almost revolutionise cinematic space to convey the power of Pina Bausch’s choreography. As somebody who had previously been sceptical about contemporary dance, Pina made me see the light.

5. Never Let Me Go (Mark Romanek, 2010)

Never Let Me Go

“A beautiful and satisfyingly melancholic story of mortality, destiny, love and loss.”

This strange and sad film overwhelmed me. The melancholic film style stunningly expresses the novel’s themes of fate and inevitability, without explicitly stating them.

6. Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011)

Drive

“A gorgeous fusion of pulp genre cinema with an almost abstract approach to characterisation.”

I admittedly had reservations about Drive the first time that I saw it, but it lingered in my mind enough for me to revisit it. The second viewing removed all doubt and I succumbed to this gloriously stylistic and minimalist neo-noir.

7. Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols, 2011)

Take Shelter

“One of the most captivating and overwhelming portrayals of mental illness in a domestic setting since John Cassavetes’s A Woman Under the Influence.”

A film that stayed with me long after seeing it, Take Shelter is a tense yet compassionate study of how mental illness can manifest and how it affects not just the sufferer, but also the people around them.

8. Another Year (Mike Leigh, 2010)

Another Year

“A tribute to kindness, family and friendship without sentiment, easy answers or judgement.”

This has possibly become my favourite Mike Leigh film. The central couple are two of the most wonderfully likeable characters to ever appear on screen.

9. I Love You Phillip Morris (Glenn Ficarra and John Reque, 2009)

I Love You Phillip Morris

“Manages to walk a line between hilarity and tragedy throughout, with unexpected moments of sadness that are not undermined by the comedy surrounding them.”

After seeing this at the Melbourne International Film Festival in 2010, I was so pleased for it to finally get a brief, albeit small, cinematic run this year. This romantic-comedy with its ultra-dark undertones is the funniest film I’ve seen in years.

10. 127 Hours (Danny Boyle, 2010)

127 Hours

“While 127 Hours celebrates the achievement of an individual under extreme duress, it is also a critique of individualistic behaviour.”

Danny Boyle pulls out every trick in the book to convey the range of emotions and thoughts experienced by Aron Ralston. The resulting film is a thrilling survival story, cautionary tale and character study.

Honorary mentions

Selecting my top ten films was relatively easy this year, however, finding another ten films to list as honorary mentions was extremely difficult given that the standard of cinema that I saw this year was extremely high. Nevertheless, in alphabetical order, here goes:

Autoluminescent: Rowland S. Howard (Lynn-Maree Milburn and Richard Lowenstein, 2011)

Hanna (Joe Wright, 2011)

The Illusionist (L’illusionniste, Sylvain Chomet, 2010)

Incendies (Denis Villeneuve, 2010)

Inside Job (Charles Ferguson, 2010)

Mad Bastards (Brendan Fletcher, 2010)

Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, 2010)

Of Gods and Men (Des hommes et des dieux, Xavier Beauvois, 2010

This Is Not a Film (In film nist, Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, 2011)

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Loong Boonmee raleuk chat, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010)

This Is Not a Film

This Is Not a Film

Top ten unreleased films

Many of my highlights from the year are from films that were either only screened at festivals (in my case mostly during MIFF), during special seasons or went straight to DVD. The follow films are the best films that I saw this year, which weren’t given a full theatrical release and to the best of my knowledge aren’t scheduled to receive a general release in 2012.

How to Die in Oregon (Peter Richardson, 2011)

Inni (Vincent Morisset, 2011)

The Kid with a Bike (Le gamin au vélo, Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, 2011)

Michael (Markus Schleinzer, 2011)

Polisse (Maïwenn Le Besco, 2011)

Restrepo (Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, 2010)

Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure (Matthew Bate, 2011)

Surviving Life (Přežít svůj život, Jan Švankmajer, 2010)

Tomboy (Céline Sciamma, 2011)

The Turin Horse (A torinói ló, Béla Tarr, 2011)

Inni

Inni

Top ten retrospective screenings and re-releases

While these lists are obviously personal, this next list is more so since it is dependant on what screenings I happened to make it to out of the many to choose from. To try and narrow the field down somewhat, I’ve restricted myself to films given full re-releases in their own season, films shown as part of a special event and films shown as part of curated seasons (for example those shown at the Melbourne Cinémathèque in what I think was one of their best years and I wish I attended more). Some of these are films that I was revisiting for the umpteenth time and some were new discoveries, listed alphabetically:

American Graffiti (George Lucas, 1973) at the Astor Theatre

Ball of Fire (Howard Hawks, 1941) – my highlight of the Melbourne Cinémathèque’s Sophisticated Madness: Classics of American Screwball Comedy season

Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick, 1964) at the Astor Theatre

Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954) – my highlight of the Melbourne Cinémathèque’s You Can’t Go Home Again: The Ballard of Nicholas Ray season

King Kong (Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1933) – screened at the Astor Theatre’s 75th Anniversary

Last Year at Marienbad (L’année dernière à Marienbad, Alain Resnais, 1961) – my highlight of the Melbourne Cinémathèque’s The Garden of Forking Paths: The Films of Alain Resnais season

Offside (Jafar Panahi, 2006) – Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne Film Festival charity/protest screening for the imprisonment of Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof

Once Upon a Time in China (Wong Fei Hung, Tsui Hark, 1991) – my highlight of the Melbourne Cinémathèque’s Phantoms & Fireworks: The Incredible Adventures of Tsui Hark season

Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976) at Cinema Nova and the Astor Theatre

Veronika Voss (Die Sehnsucht der Veronika Voss, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1982) – my highlight of the Melbourne Cinémathèque’s Totally, Tenderly, Tragically: The Films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder season

Last Year at Marienbad

Last Year at Marienbad

And there you have it, 40 films – 30 new and 10 old – that most fuelled my passion for cinema during 2011. I was pleased to have been able to write full reviews about nearly all the new films and the three major re-released films I listed, so please click through to those reviews for more details about why I embraced those films to the extent that I did. This year I also particularly enjoyed writing reviews of Sleeping Beauty (Julia Leigh, 2011), A Serbian Film (Srpski film, Srdjan Spasojevic, 2010) and The Lion King (Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, 1994), as well as penning my love letter to Dogs in Space (Richard Lowenstein, 1986).

Thank you to everybody who has read this blog over the year as well as subscribed to it and shared links from it. The readership and number of page views has grown considerably over the year (more than anticipated) so that’s been wonderful. Most pleasing has been the generally high level of discussion that has started to regularly appear in the comments so I’m very grateful for that and I hope in the future I’ll get better at responding to everybody.

I’ll be back in a couple of weeks in mid January 2012 when Hugo gets released in Australia, so see you then!

Thomas

PS Debate and difference of opinion are as always very welcome under my reviews, but for this post I’d like to keep things celebratory and focus on the positive cinema experiences from the year just gone.

Also appears here on Senses of Cinema.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Cinema Autopsy on the 83rd Academy Awards Nominees (including predictions)

25 February 2011
Inception

Inception

The 83rd Academy Awards are only a few nights away so once again I’ve allowed myself my yearly indulgence of commenting on the nominations and attempting to second guess how everything will pan out. If you don’t want to read all this then you can jump to my ranked list of nominated films or my predictions list. Also, rather than being yet another source to list all the nominations I’ll simply point you towards the nominations page on the official Academy Awards website so you can get that information first hand.

I forget where I first heard this theory but apparently while a broad spectrum of films can gain nominations, as they have done this year, the films that win tend to be the more middle-of-the-road films rather than the truly memorable films. This is because films that are genuinely interesting, bold and ahead of their time usually divide opinion. Meanwhile the safe, crowd-pleasing films usually don’t ruffle any feathers so while they may not be the absolute best films on offer, they tend to be the films that everybody agrees are pretty good and therefore are able to secure the votes they need to win. So with that theory in mind let’s take a look at the various categories:

Best Motion Picture and Best Director

The two widely embraced and safe-bet contenders for both of these awards are The Social Network and The King’s Speech. Don’t get me wrong; these are both intelligent and immaculately crafted films that I rate extremely highly but they are also inoffensive crowd-pleasers. I’m predicting a win for The Social Network in both categories simply because it’s got an American focus rather than a British/Australian one. And who would begrudge David Fincher getting some award glory?

Black Swan

Black Swan

However, the two films that I think would be far more interesting to focus on are Black Swan and Inception. Both have been widely and enthusiastically embraced but both have also attracted strong criticism from their detractors. There doesn’t seem to be any middle ground with these films.  I’m not a fan of Black Swan although I have been fascinated (and admittedly frustrated) by how well it has been received by so many people I respect, trust and usually agree with. On the other hand I loved Inception and believe it is the film that deserves to win in both categories, which is impossible of course considering Christopher Nolan rather astonishingly didn’t even get a director nomination.

For me the differences are that Inception contains the abstraction and complexity of a traditionally art house film while presenting itself as an easy-to-follow heist/action genre film. On the other hand, Black Swan is a shallow and simplistic melodrama/exploitation film with a false veneer of sophistication and depth. Inception allows for the possibility of a variety of critical readings while Black Swan is painfully literal and obvious. Nevertheless, I predict that both films will continue to resonate after the other nominated films (except The Social Network and possibly Toy Story 3) are largely forgotten.

Acting awards

Michelle Williams in Blue Valentine

Blue Valentine

I know Natalie Portman is widely tipped to win the best female actor award for Black Swan and she probably will. I really like Portman and she was one of the elements of the film that sustained my interest. However, from where I was sitting she did very little except appear to be constantly on the verge of tears (with the exception of the scenes where she cried). I think Michelle Williams is far more deserving for her outstanding work in Blue Valentine, but really, any of the other female actors are a more deserving recipient.

Aside from feeling that both Julianne Moore and Ryan Gosling unfairly missed out on acting nominations, for The Kids Are All Right and Blue Valentine respectively, I have no strong feelings about the other acting awards. I’d probably prefer to see James Franco honoured for his very fine work in 127 Hours but I suspect Jesse Eisenberg will win the best male actor award for The Social Network and that would hardly be undeserved. At the risk of sounding all patriotic I think it would be marvellous if Jacki Weaver won the female supporting actor award for Animal Kingdom but I suspect newcomer Hailee Steinfeld will get it for True Grit. Male supporting actor will likely come down to Geoffrey Rush for The King’s Speech and Christian Bale for The Fighter; advantage Bale.

Writing Awards

The Social Network

The Social Network

While I think the writing on display in Toy Story 3 is some of the tightest and cleverest writing seen in years (especially in mainstream cinema) it is very hard to not be seduced by the rhythmic dialogue that propels The Social Network, so I suspect that will win the adapted screenplay award to the delight of writer Aaron Sorkin’s very loyal fan base. Christopher Nolan should and is likely to win the original screenplay award for his Inception script, if nothing else as a sort of compensation for not getting a direction nomination.

Technical awards

All of the films nominated are great looking films and while I may lean more towards Inception and True Grit for the cinematography award I think it will go to Black Swan. As well as Franco’s performance, a big part of what made 127 Hours work as well as it does is the editing so I’m hopeful it will win the editing award that it deserves. As for the sound awards, I’m tipping Inception for sound editing and True Grit for sound mixing based on a gut reaction with no intelligible justification. Inception should win for visual effects.

Production awards

True Grit

True Grit

During last year’s awards Best Costume Design award winner Sandy Powell expressed my frustrations that big films about “dead monarchs or glittery musicals” always  tend to win production and design awards over films that do things like use setting, costume and makeup to convey important character information. Having said that, I think the two period films The Kings Speech and True Grit will be the main contenders for the art design award with the votes leaning towards True Grit, which I have no problem with. However, I’d really like to think that the outstanding use of fashion in I Am Love will earn it the costume award but that may be wishful thinking rather than a rational prediction. The Way Back should and probably will get the makeup award.

Other

The best music score will be a close tie between Inception and The Social Network but with the later most likely to win, while “If I Rise” from 127 Hours will win the best song. The folks from Pixar will go home once again with the best feature animation award and although I loved both How to Train Your Dragon and The Illusionist, I really adore Toy Story 3 so that’s fine by me. I believe that Inside Job is the best nominated feature documentary, however, I strongly suspect that Restrepo will win in that category, which would be more than appropriate considering its subject matter and bold approach. Finally, considering the high profile director and lead actor behind Biutiful, it’s almost certain to win the best foreign language film award although of the three nominated films I’ve seen I prefer In a Better World.

I haven’t seen any of the live or documentary short films so I can’t comment on those. I’ve also only seen two of the short animation films, The Lost Thing and Day & Night. I am extremely fond of The Lost Thing, especially as I was part of the jury that gave it one of its first awards, but I thought Day & Night was sublime and I’d be very surprised if it didn’t win.

Read my follow-up post on the award winners


Ranked list of all nominated films

I’ve listed all the nominated films below in the order that I would rank them, although you should probably take my rankings with a rather large grain of salt.

Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010) 8 nominations
Animal Kingdom (David Michôd, 2010) 1 nomination
Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich, 2010) 4 nominations
Blue Valentine (Derek Cianfrance, 2010) 1 nomination
Another Year (Mike Leigh, 2010) 1 nomination
127 Hours (Danny Boyle, 2010) 6 nominations
Inside Job (Charles Ferguson, 2010) 1 nomination
The Illusionist (L’illusionniste, Sylvain Chomet, 2010) 1 nomination
The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010) 9 nominations
Restrepo (Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, 2010) 1 nomination
The Kids Are All Right (Lisa Cholodenko, 2010) 4 nominations
The King’s Speech (Tom Hooper, 2010) 11 nominations
True Grit (Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, 2010) 11 nominations
In a Better World (Hævnen, Susanne Bier, 2010) 1 nomination
How to Train Your Dragon (Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, 2010) 2 nominations
Rabbit Hole (John Cameron Mitchell, 2010) 1 nomination
Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, 2010) 4 nominations
Exit Through the Gift Shop (Banksy, 2010) 1 nomination
I Am Love (Io sono l’amore, Luca Guadagnino, 2009) 1 nomination
Biutiful (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2010) 2 nomination
Tangled (Nathan Greno and Byron Howard, 2010) 1 nomination
GasLand (Josh Fox, 2010) 1 nomination
The Fighter (David O. Russell, 2010) 7 nominations
Iron Man 2 (Jon Favreau, 2010) 1 nomination
The Town (Ben Affleck, 2010) 1 nomination
The Way Back (Peter Weir, 2010) 1 nomination
Alice in Wonderland (Tim Burton, 2010) 3 nominations
Hereafter (Clint Eastwood, 2010) 1 nomination
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (David Yates, 2010) 2 nominations
Unstoppable (Tony Scott, 2010) 1 nomination
Dogtooth (Giorgos Lanthimos, 2009) 1 nomination
Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010) 6 nominations
TRON: Legacy (Joseph Kosinski, 2010), 1 nomination
Salt (Phillip Noyce, 2010) 1 nomination
The Wolfman (Joe Johnston, 2010) 1 nomination

Not seen yet
Barney’s Version (Richard J. Lewis, 2010) 1 nomination
Country Song (Shana Feste, 2010) 1 nomination
Incendies (Denis Villeneuve, 2010) 1 nomination
Outside the Law (Hors-la-loi, Rachid Bouchareb, 2010) 1 nomination
The Tempest (Julie Taymor, 2010) 1 nomination
Waste Land (Lucy Walker, 2010) 1 nomination


My predications list

Best Motion Picture: The Social Network (Scott Rudin, Dana Brunetti, Michael De Luca and Ceán Chaffin)

Directing: The Social Network (David Fincher)

Actor in a Leading Role: The Social Network (Jesse Eisenberg)

Actress in a Leading Role: Black Swan (Natalie Portman)

Actor in a Supporting Role: The Fighter (Christian Bale)

Actress in a Supporting Role: True Grit (Hailee Steinfeld)

Writing (Adapted Screenplay): The Social Network (Aaron Sorkin)

Writing (Original Screenplay): Inception (Christopher Nolan)

Cinematography: Black Swan (Matthew Libatique)

Film Editing: 127 Hours (Jon Harris)

Sound Editing: Inception (Richard King)

Sound Mixing: True Grit (Skip Lievsay, Craig Berkey, Greg Orloff and Peter F Kurland)

Visual Effects: Inception (Paul Franklin, Chris Corbould, Andrew Lockley and Peter Bebb)

Art direction: True Grit (Jess Gonchor for Production Design and Nancy Haigh for Set Decoration)

Costume design: I Am Love (Antonella Cannarozzi)

Makeup: The Way Back (Edouard F. Henriques, Gregory Funk and Yolanda Toussieng)

Music (Original Score): The Social Network (Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross)

Music (Original Song): 127 Hours (“If I Rise”, music by AR Rahman, lyrics by Dido and Rollo Armstrong)

Animated Feature Film: Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich)

Documentary Feature: Restrepo (Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger)

Foreign Language Film: Biutiful (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2010)

© Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – 127 Hours (2010)

10 February 2011
127 Hours: Aron Ralston (James Franco)

Aron Ralston (James Franco)

In 2003 Aron Ralston went mountain biking and then hiking by himself in Canyonlands National Park in Utah. A freak accident resulted in a boulder falling onto his right arm, pinning him to a canyon wall. The story of Ralston’s ordeal and the extraordinary measures he took to escape have been adapted into film with stunning results. The single location and single character scenario presents an enormous challenge to filmmaker Danny Boyle who uses what seems like every cinematic technique imaginable to make the film dynamic. Time-lapse photography, strobe effects, hand held camera, forced perspective, flashbacks, montages, slow motion, point-of-view shots, split screen and sound are just some of the stylistic devices used to make the audience share Ralston’s experiences in a truly visceral way. We experience Ralston’s fantasies, hallucinations and memories. Shots from inside his water bottle constantly reinforce the drama of his dwindling water supply, shards of sound express pain and bursts of light convey the brief moments of serenity each day when the sun touches him.

Not only does Boyle’s command of film style make 127 Hours an engaging experience, but it is also impressively used throughout the film to build and develop Ralston as a character. The lengthy opening sequence leading up to the accident is shot like the sort of extreme sports film that somebody like Warren Miller could have made. As Ralston packs, drives to the park, mountain bikes and then sets out hiking, the film is an adrenaline pumping combination of rapid edits, energetic music and dramatic camera angels. We get a great sense of Ralston’s spirit and bravado. We also get a sense that he is a little self-absorbed and enjoys playing the adventurous lone hero, and this is certainly reflected in the reactions of a pair of lost female hikers that he helps out early in the film prior to the incident. The female hikers respond to his charisma and admire his enthusiasm, but they are also a little amused by his posturing.

127 Hours

The degree in which Ralston is selfish and self-absorbed creates most of the emotional drama for the film as he questions how he ended up in the situation that he finds himself in. Boyle begins 127 Hours with a variety of split screens showing crowds and groups of people from all over the world to emphasise the loneliness of Ralston’s future predicament. However, it also emphasises Ralston’s background of pushing other people away, including his family, friends and ex-girlfriend, and how such emotional isolationism led to the circumstances where he would go off for a weekend of adventuring without telling anybody where he was going. So while 127 Hours celebrates the achievement of an individual under extreme duress, it is also a critique of individualistic behaviour that manifests as a brutal lesson.

127 Hours reveals the natural environment to be beautiful and awe-inspiring but it can very quickly turn into a cruel and indifferent oppressor when not treated with respect. Boyle needed to cast an actor to play Ralston who had the physique of somebody who could believably survive such an ordeal as well as articulate both his charisma and his hubris. Boyle has done exactly that with the casting of James Franco who delivers an extraordinary performance. Franco captures the range of emotions that Ralston experiences from despair and depression through to triumph and euphoria. Franco keeps us cheering for Ralston and making us want to stay with him. It’s the final ingredient to want makes 127 Hours such compelling, vicarious and satisfying cinema.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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