Films of 2011

30 12 2011

Now I’ll be the first to admit that my film ‘blogging has become a little bit… well, shall we say ‘sluggish’ this past year. Travelling, film-making and working in an office have all played their part in slowing the once Amazon-like flow of words from my keyboard to a trickle as has, it must be admitted, a streak of laziness running through my bones like words through a stick of rock.

On the other hand, my film-going habit has continued apace and at various points this year I’ve found myself spellbound, surprised, shocked and staggered in the cinema. Below then is my selection of the finest films released in the UK in 2011. 

As for 2012, well I can only promise to redouble (or perhaps even re-quadruple) my efforts in the new year, and to endeavour to share some thoughts on cinema with you much more often.

My Top Six

Le Quattro Volte / The Four Times (Michelangelo Frammartino)

A story of goats, goatherds, charcoal-makers and burly men who cut down trees. Set deep in the Calabrian countryside, Michelangelo Frammartino’s film straddles a fine line between fiction and documentary. Its four stories are based around observations of Italian peasant life and loosely correspond to Pythagoras’ ideas about the different states that the soul passes through during transmigration (or reincarnation): mineral, vegetable, animal, man.

There’s hardly any dialogue yet the film contains some of the most dramatic and involving scenes that I’ve witnessed in the cinema all year. A baby goat becomes lost from the flock and wanders bleating over the winter hillsides; a sick old man gathers dust swept up from a church floor and mixes it with water to drink as a medicine; a towering fir tree is chopped down in the forest, hauled into a medieval hilltop town and re-erected in the market square for a local festival.

Particularly staggering is a 10-minute scene featuring a Passion play, a sheepdog, a pick-up truck and some escapee goats, miraculously choreographed in one unbroken shot. An antidote to Terrence Malick’s overblown Tree of Life, this is a piece of work that should be sought out by film-makers, students of film and anyone else interested in the poetic power of cinema.

Jodaeiye Nader

A Separation / Jodaeiye Nader az Simin (Asghar Farhadi)

Take one part Kiarostami, two parts Renoir, shake gently with a slug of Hitchcock and what do you have? This top-notch and twisty Iranian drama is the answer; a deceptively simple tale of middle-class divorce, Iranian style, and the fallout from an ill-advised shove.

Nader and Simin are a married couple aged around 40. Simin wants to move abroad so that their daughter can have a better education. Nader feels that he cannot move away and leave his elderly father, who is afflicted with Alzheimer’s, alone. A divorce is on the cards. Then Nader has an altercation with his father’s carer that results in a court case that will affect all of their lives.

Those are the plot points, and simple enough they are. The real genius of Farhadi’s film, though, lies in the way in which it causes us constantly to re-evaluate our sympathies and our understanding of the main characters and their motivations. A good comparison is the Australian TV drama The Slap, which was also on UK screens this year. There are no certainties here and nothing is spelled out for the audience. The lives of the characters in A Separation are like our own: messy, chaotic, full of hope and happiness and despair, and we feel that they will continue long after the credits have rolled.

Anna Paquin, Kenneth Lonergan, Margaret

Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan)

Kenneth Lonergan’s much-delayed follow-up to You Can Count on Me is almost an American version of the film above, dealing, as it does, with an accidental moment of violence and its impact on a variety of contemporary characters.

This time the story is told from the point-of-view of a New York teenager (Anna Paquin) who inadvertently becomes involved in the run-up to a fatal bus crash and finds herself nursing the dying victim during her final moments. This experience sends ripples through the lives of the teenager, her actress mother (J. Smith-Cameron), the man driving the bus (Mark Ruffalo) and a whole host of other people in their lives. As in A Separation, the main characters are complex and unpredictable; at times sympathetic, at others petulant, wrong-headed and confused, often within the same scene. A great messy slice of life.

Lars von Trier, Kirsten Dunst

Melancholia (Lars von Trier)

Lars von Trier’s films have provoked and divided audiences for more than decade now. Personally I’ve always had mixed feelings. His last film Antichrist, for example,was trite, ridiculous, unpleasant, beautiful and strangely compelling at the same time but ultimately a film that existed to shock its audience and then go home happy with having done so.

With Melancholia, though, the director seems to have struck out in a subtly different direction. While still based on von Trier’s own insecurities and personal problems (his depression) and while still conceived on a gigantic, some would say an overblown scale – it’s a film about the end of the world after all – there’s something more mature and universal at work here than in anything he’s made since maybe Breaking The Waves back in ’96.

In brief it tells the story of two sisters, played by Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg, one of whom’s crushing depression wreaks havoc at the wedding banquet planned for her and paid for by the other sister’s husband (Kiefer Sutherland). As the fallout from the wedding settles, the characters start to realise that an ever bigger disaster threatens: the collision of a planet named Melancholia with the Earth.

This is at once a magical fable about the end of the world as we know it and an intensely personal psychodrama about the relationship between two sisters, and it works perfectly on both levels. (Also was I the only one mentally humming “The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one, he said” whenever Sutherland’s sensible amateur scientist character appeared on screen?)

Eugene Green, Leonor Baldaque

The Portuguese Nun / A Religiosa Portuguesa (Eugène Green)

A bit of an acquired taste this one, and probably the kind of film that most people will either love or hate. Personally, I liked it a lot and found that the all-pervasive and deeply odd mood of the piece left the cinema with me afterwards, following me back down the street and all the way home, and lingering somewhere still in the corners of my mind.

A French actress of Portuguese descent (Leonor Baldaque) arrives in Lisbon to shoot a few scenes for a film. In between shooting days she wanders the hilly streets befriending young boys and suicidal aristocrats, pondering the nature of love, having an affair with her co-star and becoming fascinated by the figure of a nun kneeling in a church.

Director Eugène Green tells his story with lots of lingering, loving shots of the city and fado music interludes. The style of acting is strictly neo-Bressonian, with stilted, somnambulant delivery from the leading players, who every so often turn and gawp into the camera like sleepwalkers who’ve just been woken up. Green himself makes a funny cameo as the director of the film-within-the-film, a man clearly suffering from a midlife crisis.

I wouldn’t recommend The Portuguese Nun to anyone who’s not into films that experiment quite boldly with narrative and mood, but for me it was perhaps the gentlest and certainly the oddest highlight of the year.

Andrea Arnold, Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff, Bronte

Wuthering Heights (Andrea Arnold)

The adaptation! The costume drama! Two huge man-traps lurking ready to swallow up the unwary film-maker. Happily Andrea Arnold manages here to resist any kind of novelistic treatment or teatime TV politeness in her approach to this most adapted of texts. Her vision is a stark one: people shaped and scarred by their environment; a howling wind cutting across the moors; mud, animals, people and animals living side-by-side, indistinct. Against this backdrop, Heathcliff and Cathy’s love for one another spreads and blooms like a bruise or an infected wound. Probably not a good date movie.

Also very good:

A Screaming Man / Un Homme Qui Cri (Mahamat-Saleh Haroun)

Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt)

The Deep Blue Sea (Terence Davies)

Post Mortem (Pablo Larrain)

Poetry / Shi (Lee Chang-dong)

True Grit (Ethan & Joel Coen)

Mysteries of Lisbon / Mistérios de Lisboa (Raoul Ruiz)

The Salt of Life / Gianni e le donne (Gianni di Gregorio)

Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky)

We Need To Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay)

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