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


Film review – Take Shelter (2011)

13 October 2011
Take Shelter: Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon)

Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon)

Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) has a good life and is told so by his best friend and co-worker Dewart (Shea Whigham), who admires Curtis’s family and the home in Ohio that he has built around him. Curtis is a good husband to Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and a good father to their hearing-impaired daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart). His construction job not only brings in a decent salary but it also provides an excellent insurance plan that will help cover the costs of upcoming surgery for Hannah. And yet despite all of this, Curtis is having vivid nightmares and waking visions of an approaching apocalyptic storm and mysterious figures who threaten his family. While terrified by what he is seeing, Curtis is also grimly aware that there is a history of schizophrenia in his family. As his paranoia and visions intensify, Curtis becomes obsessed with building an elaborate tornado shelter while trying to understand what is happening to him psychologically.

Films about mental illness often present a character loosing their grasp on reality as a melodramatic tragedy or even occasionally as something that is quaintly liberating, as if that character now has a privileged view of the world. Attempts to depict how a mentally ill character views the world tend to be hysterical and romantically tormented rather than insightful. Conditions such as schizophrenia are frequently confused with various personality disorders, resulting in a common misbelief that people with schizophrenia are likely to be criminally violent. Therefore it is incredibly refreshing to see such an intelligent and sensitive portrayal of a man experiencing the early signs of schizophrenia in Take Shelter.

Take Shelter: Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and Hannah LaForche (Tova Stewart)

Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and Hannah LaForche (Tova Stewart)

Writer/director Jeff Nichols establishes early that Curtis is aware that something is not right, rather than making him a passive character who succumbs to his condition. Curtis seeks help and tries to understand what is happening to him. What makes the film so dramatically interesting is that while he is able to realise he is seeing and hearing things that are not there, he doesn’t have the same self-recognition in regards to his growing paranoia. So while seemingly aware that his premonitions about the coming storm are imagined, he still compulsively pours time, money and resources into building the shelter despite the effect it has on his work and his family. The shelter becomes symbolic of his subconscious; something for him to retreat into while the storm hopefully passes above him. Curtis also begins to increasingly distrust those around him, most tragically those he has the most intense feelings for, beginning with the family dog who gets cast out of the house after he dreams it attacked him.

Michael Shannon has portrayed mentally unstable characters several times in the past, in films such as Bug, Revolutionary Road and My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done. His unconventional brooding looks give him a commanding and mysterious presence on screen that makes him so suitable for such roles. In Take Shelter he eclipses everything he has done previously with what will more than likely be a career-defining performance. As Curtis’s wife Samantha, Jessica Chastain plays a role similar to the supportive and strong mother and wife role she had in The Tree of Life. However, she gets a lot more to do in Take Shelter and like Shannon, delivers a beautiful performance. Despite the fears, confusion and anger she feels for what Curtis is going through, and putting her through, she remains by his side. The most powerful moments in the film involve either Samantha’s devastating responses to Curtis’s suffering or her determined confrontations with him. Take Shelter paints an extraordinary picture of what it means to unconditionally love somebody, making the representation of Curtis and Samantha’s marriage something profoundly moving.

Take Shelter: Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon)The final scene in Take Shelter is a little perplexing and if the rest of the film hadn’t been so well crafted and clearly considered, it would be tempting to dismiss the final moments as literal and therefore undermining a lot of what the film had previously done to present the nature of Curtis’s visions. However, upon reflection it feels far more like a deliberate attempt to create ambiguity and confusion in order to present the world that Curtis, and by extension his family, now must live in. It’s one of many aspects about the film that will leave audiences lost deep in their thoughts throughout the rest of the day after seeing it.

There is so much empathy and understanding in the way Take Shelter creates an engaging story out of a widely misunderstood condition. It is one of the most captivating and overwhelming portrayals of mental illness in a domestic setting since John Cassavetes’s A Woman Under the Influence in 1974. It certainly makes films like The Beaver feel incredible superficial by comparison. The cinematic effects used to evoke Curtis’s visions create a vivid impression of his condition without ever feeling exploitive. The slow burning nature of the drama means that a number of incredibly tense moments creep up without warning to make so much of Take Shelter heartbreakingly suspenseful.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

Bookmark and Share