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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Film review – Drive (2011)

26 October 2011
Drive - Driver (Ryan Gosling)

Driver (Ryan Gosling)

In this unofficial prequel to Blade Runner Ryan Gosling plays an early replicant model who yearns to be human. He’s a machine programmed as part stunt man, part mechanic and part getaway driver – a being who is at one with the cars he is almost indistinguishable from. When he wears a prosthetic mask he may as well be exchanging one blank face for another. Known simply as Driver, his programming is threatened when he begins to develop empathy after meeting Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son. After years of observing humanity, the feelings of love that have been awakened within Driver have lead him to compute that he can join the human race by becoming part of a family as a husband and father. Despite receiving support from his friend and manager Shannon (Bryan Cranston), who is Geppetto to his Pinocchio, Driver soon gets in the way of far more powerful forces who prefer their machines to remain subservient. While not yet a fully formed person, Driver responds violently, the only way his programming allows him to.

That’s one way to read Drive. The far more conventional way is to see it as a slick neo noir film about a loner who gets on the wrong side of local mobsters Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman) while trying to help a woman he has fallen in love with. He’s a combination of one of Paul Schrader’s lonely men and the Man With No Name, with a few tendencies borrowed from the pixelated protagonists of the Grand Theft Auto gaming franchise. After Bronson (2008) and Valhalla Rising (2009), Drive is the third film in a row by director Nicolas Winding Refn that explores violent lone men. While the previous two films featured lead characters who embraced their capacity for violence, Driver wants something more.

Drive - Irene (Carey Mulligan)

Irene (Carey Mulligan)

While the title Drive obviously reflects Driver’s extraordinary prowess behind the wheel, it also indicates that the film is about what drives him. Prior to meeting Irene he merely exists, but afterwards his life has purpose leading him to put everything at risk. So in classic film noir style Irene is the cause of his undoing, but only in the sense that she awakens the humanity within him that for whatever reason was long dormant. He becomes driven by the need to see that Irene is protected and provided for. She doesn’t seduce him nor is he driven by sexual desire. The film explicitly depicts the attraction between them as being played out through him adopting the domestic role of father and husband, often with the lyrics ‘And you have proved to be a real human being and a real hero’ playing on the soundtrack.

Stylistically Drive is a triumph of minimalist cool, reflecting the focus and precision Driver brings to everything he does. The major ‘fault’ with the film is that the opening sequence, depicting Driver at work as a getaway driver, is such a brilliant piece of intense and visceral cinema that there is no way for the rest of the film to live up to it. However, it comes pretty close with the first part of the film evoking 1980s crimes thrillers by Michael Mann and William Friedkin, before the graphic and almost dreamlike violence in the second half of the film brings to mind some of Sam Peckinpah’s later films. The result is a gorgeous fusion of pulp genre cinema with an almost abstract approach to characterisation. The 1980s inspired synthesiser heavy dream-pop soundtrack is just an added bonus.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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MIFF 2011 Blog-a-thon: Part 15

7 August 2011
Drive

Drive

How do you transform a B-grade action/thriller into an ultra stylish neo noir? Give it to director Nicolas Winding Refn to direct apparently. This year’s Closing Night film Drive was an inspired choice, which I’d love to describe as a homage to 1980s action cinema with a distinctively European edge, but I can’t since there is a self-referential joke in the film about a critic who wrote exactly that. Ryan Gosling plays a stuntman who moonlights as a getaway driver, and his steely and cool performance sets the tone for the film. For at least the first half of Drive it feels like something Paul Schrader may have made. The second half of the film revels more in its generic characteristics with the very graphic and pulpy violence recalling Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. I did find Drive ultimately a little anti-climatic and was a bit disappointed that more wasn’t made of the Driver’s skills behind the wheel. But don’t get me wrong, this is still a finely crafted piece of cinema and a highlight of the festival.

[EDIT 26/10/2011: Read a full review of Drive]

The Mill and the Cross functions as a living painting and an imagining of how that painting was created. Fusing art, cinema and history, filmmaker Lech Majewski dramatically brings Pieter Brueghel’s 1564 The Procession to Calvary to life with a degree of ambition the rivals the more esoteric work of Peter Greenaway. Most interesting is the web-like structure of the painting that is initially replicated in the film with a web-like narrative structure, with Rutger Hauer as Breughel in the centre and differenet strands of interlocking stories stretching out from him. This is unfortunately somewhat lost when the film ends up focusing on the religious iconography in The Procession to Calvary, with a lengthy re-enactment of Christ’s crucifixion. As The Mill and the Cross was originally designed to be exhibited in a gallery context, I couldn’t help but think it may have worked better as a multi-screen installation to further liberate the concept from the lineal restrictions of cinema.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Leave it to the innovative maverick Werner Herzog to be one of the few directors to use 3D in a way that not only enhances the film, but is also essential for that film. Herzog hasn’t created a new world in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, but he does take us into one that very few humans will ever get to experience. It is the world of the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave, which contains both a delicate natural beauty and fragile cave paintings that are now considered the oldest known examples of primitive art. Part nature documentary and part art documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams is an astonishing privilege to experience. Various scientific experts help to bring the artwork to life and create a vivid picture of how the caves where used by early humans and animals such as the extinct cave bear. Herzog’s narration contains no self censorship as he muses about the profound nature of what these caves hold.

[EDIT 7/10/2011: Read a full review of Cave of Forgotten Dreams]

MIFFhaps

I attempted to meet David Stratton last night and completely bollocksed it up. Standing by himself before the Closing Night film, I approached him for a chat, suddenly got a bit overwhelmed and said something like, ‘Hello Mr Stratton, I’m a film critic and hi and you’re a big inspiration and hi and so are you here for the ACMI event that’s coming up?’

His reply was, ‘ No, I’m coming back to Melbourne a bit later for the ACMI event. I’m here tonight for MIFF.’

I then just stood there nodding like an idiot, went completely blank, muttered ‘thank you’ and then literally ran off. One of the people I know from Triple R walked past me and whispered, ‘Next time just pee on him.’

Show us your MIFF

Having previously worked for MIFF,  Beatrix Coles is enjoying this year’s festival as a punter, with Another Earth and Life in Movement to look forward to today. Although they are both very different films her anticipation levels for both are equally high. She loved seeing Autoluminescent: Rowland S. Howard with an audience largely composed of people who knew Howard, which was a really special experience. Over the years she’s also enjoyed seeing the Forum in full swing: ‘It’s my ultimate Friday night after work spot, and I wish it was open all year round.’ Beatrix is currently working on Authentic In All Caps,  a playful web-driven comedy-drama about a gambling philosopher. Beatrix’s all-time favourite film is A Hard Day’s Night, a film she can always watch.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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