Confessions of a Film Freak, 2011

By Roderick Heath

“We’re going to need more holy water!” – Ron Perlman, Season of the Witch (2011)

It’s been a hell of a year. One of rage and anarchy, sloth and pathos, calamity and continuity. Our world reminds us every day now of both how close we are and yet also how far apart.

And our cinema—is our cinema keeping pace and reflecting our interesting times? Not if you’re looking for Godardian agitprop aesthetics, obviously. But perhaps, on another level, a psychological level, a mythopoeic level?

Regular readers of my end-of-year confessions will know I usually finish up feeling disappointed, cheated, frustrated, and generally bewildered by my cinema going, especially once awards season is in full swing. So many Oscar-hungry puff pieces, so many overstuffed fanboy epics, so much faux-auteurist pap clad in the new imperial clothes! Usually my frustration tends to stem from being denied a chance to see important movies, and this year there are, as ever, a few real nagging gaps in my viewing, and also quite a few that I refuse to care about. Amongst the year’s biggest movies are some I’ll probably never see, including Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, desperate franchise-wringers from people who barely know how to make movies, but know all about getting bums on seats.

Film itself, the actual physical medium, is dying, or at least bound to be valued only by niche obsessives, retronauts, and historians. Like many things, this stirs a debate between my practical yin and my romantic yang: for filmmakers it means both a liberation from the cost of the medium, helping level the playing fields a little more in the always-expensive world of movie production, and yet it threatens also a potential loss of craft, of care in shooting and assembling those fragments of arranged reality which we call films. Major, well-proven filmmakers like Spielberg and Scorsese have this year made large-budget films with personal themes that are intended for the broadest audiences possible, yet these have been characterised, and to a certain extent received, as some kind of retrograde, risky perversity. Does such fretting count as evidence of how deeply we have been brainwashed by the carefully niche-marketed, incessantly hip zeitgeist?


Paul

Yet there’s little doubt in my mind that this has been the best year for cinema since at least 2007, and possibly since 1999. Of course, “year” is always a problematic categorisation, given the channels of distribution that many films, particularly indie films and movies from non-English-speaking markets, have to flow though. In any event, any time frame that brings us cinema on the level of The Tree of Life, Uncle Boonmee, and Mysteries of Lisbon on their own would be a memorable window in movie history. Even some of this year’s outright disasters had at least a perverse ambition going for them. Whatever else you can say about the likes of Michel Gondry’s The Green Hornet and David Gordon Green’s Your Highness, both ramshackle attempts to crossbreed geeky genre satire with slacker-stoner humour (with Greg Mottola’s Paul as a third, though far superior, entry), they had an eccentricity and, occasionally, a sheer sense of anarchy that made them far more engaging than such bathwater-flavoured square-deal fare as Captain America: The First Avenger or Contagion, if not, in the end, any better.


Submarine

Yet I’m surprised at how much bitching I’ve encountered about the year’s low quality of movies amongst mainstream moviegoers. Even there I’m at odds: the multiplexes have seen such lively fare as X-Men: First Class, Thor, Fast Five, Scream 4, Hanna, Super 8 (not a sequel!), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two, and Sucker Punch flitter across the screens in sprawls of pixels and pummelling. I’ve certainly had some powerful disappointments, many of which weren’t even bad, and yet which are bundled together in my mind for seeming to offer far more than they really give: the sophomoric insights of Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff, the aggressively, turgidly oddball angst of Richard Ayoade’s Submarine; the overwrought mustiness of Rowan Joffe’s Brighton Rock; the hollow, New Age parent-baiting of Lynne Ramsey’s We Need to Talk About Kevin; the shrill conscience-movies clichés of Robert Redford’s The Conspirator; the clogged and dreary Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; the blundering wastage of Cowboys & Aliens and Captain America: The First Avenger, etc., etc. But even in such disappointments, good moments hold the memory, like the scene in Submarine where the young hero is left alone at the dinner table whilst his girlfriend’s family have a crisis hug, a penetrating and all too tangible moment.

So, I’m really still impressed with the breadth of energy evident in cinema, both mainstream and tributary. I’m left with a patina of sensations and textures, visual and emotional and intellectual: the symphonic natural landscapes and macro- and microcosmic attentiveness of The Tree of Life, the dense jungle populated by id-welling monkey men, black caves, easeful waters, and starlight of Uncle Boonmee, the alien, rectilinear universe perforated by proofs of jagged humanity in Drive. The soaring visions of an alien Asgard where matter and dream hang on the edge of eternity in Thor. Hugo’s Belle Époque neverland. The Moses-as-sociopath vision of X-Men: First Class’s Erik Lensherr hauling a submarine from deep in the sea and hurling a sky full of rockets back at Pharaoh’s army for the sake of liberating his people from bondage. The dreamy thickets of nocturnal suburbia where protean teens venture out and evolve into new beings in The Myth of the American Sleepover and Super 8, the globe-trotting of Hanna, the snowy mountain fringes where the monks of Of Gods and Men are marched to meet their fate, already touched with the otherworldly and the purified.


Rampart

The sombre desert limbo and the nocturnal jazz of Passion Play and the stygian, drug-fuelled nightclub rampage of the anti-hero in Oren Moverman’s Rampart. The bleak forest halls and the eerie, totemic wind farms that guard the edge of the darkly enchanted village in Wake Wood, littered with corpses as nature is thrown fatally out of balance by human arrogance. The wistful chamber music of Mysteries of Lisbon where time and tales’ edges blur and congeal and reverse upon themselves. The wonder of the perfectly formed small baby’s limbs in The Tree of Life and Womb; the foggy, bleary oedipal plains of that second film. The ethereal, noir-soaked frames of Monte Hellman’s Road to Nowhere, where murder and muse coalesce into a fabric of both eroticised yearning and alienation. Rivers of gore spilled by the heroes of 13 Assassins and Drive in their divergent quests to defend the weak. The anticipated nightmarish blood-tide of the future permeating the uptight adventurers of A Dangerous Method. Endless armies of the psychic war in Sucker Punch warded off by its singular warrior amazons in landscapes that suggest a nerd’s busted hard drive in hell. Harry Potter and friends standing before the blazing ruins of their alma mater, releasing quietly relieved breaths of victory and survival.


The Ward

Last year, I waxed excessive about some linking themes I had noticed preoccupying the minds of filmmakers, as they offered a raft of variations on the theme of the maladapted survivor searching desperately for their humanity. This year, many films expanded upon such a motif to ask almost cosmic-scaled questions: What makes us what we are? Do the events that shape us truly make us, or do such things only give us tools and vices that enable our expression? Where are we going and what things we have learnt help us when trials come? Such questions permeate movies as seemingly different as The Tree of Life, X-Men: First Class, Hugo, A Dangerous Method, Womb, Sucker Punch, Hanna, Mysteries of Lisbon, Attenberg, Drive, The Ward, and Jane Eyre. I was fascinated by the powerful images of parents with children, and those of the hazy fringes of civilisation where there is a kind of spirituality even in the act of corporeal extermination, repeating throughout many. Several films evoked the trappings of psychotherapy and depicted adventures in the inner space. One of the more conscious, recurrent themes was that of generational torch passing, messy and fraught as it always is. Sex and violence are eternal presences in movieland, of course, but imbued so often of late with aspects of the genuinely primal, parsed through dream states, myth, and frantic hunger, from the Freudian fever-dreams of Womb, to the masochistic heroines of Leap Year and A Dangerous Method, needing physical shock to suture together sex and spirit. Heroes have come sometimes beaten, commonly bloodied, often falling with feet of shattered clay. Villains have often been hard to discern from heroes, with characters who bundle together what we love most and fear most within their frames. Hell, even the mysterious alien beast of Super 8 is both a terrible monster and a desperate, forlorn prisoner.


Margin Call

Children and adolescents have been peculiarly powerful protagonists throughout the year, fighting off alien invasions, saving cinema history from the rubbish heap, battling off superpowers and secret armies, even committing mass murder with admirable focus. Simultaneously, the older men are older and more tired, beaten about by life and watching hopes fade, from Ben Kingsley’s tragic Georges Méliès in Hugo to Kevin Spacey’s and Stanley Tucci’s bruised company men in Margin Call, Antonio Luz’s swashbuckling but haunted Father Dinis in Mysteries of Lisbon, Vangelis Mourikis’s dying idealist in Attenberg, and even the collapsing dignity of Kristen Wiig’s oddly tragicomic heroines in Paul and Bridesmaids. All perhaps could hope for an ounce of the dignity, even nobility, which the monks of Of Gods and Men and Uncle Boonmee himself can take to their respective graves. By contrast, many heroines have been frantically trying to hold together the shape of their world and give it meaning by sheer will, from the fantasy monster slayings by the girls of Sucker Punch to the atavistic rituals of Attenberg’s Marina, Keira Knightley’s Sabina Spielrein knitting neurosis into theory, and Jane Eyre’s rectitude in the face of degradation.


13 Assassins

Is there a keynote to any of this? Certainly not one that encompasses so many films, with their manifold aims and qualities. And yet, throughout such experiences as those of the adventuring youths of Hugo and Super 8, their more thoughtful kin across town in The Tree of Life, and their (spiritual) older siblings in The Myth of the American Sleepover and the survivalist fantasias of Hanna, Sucker Punch, 13 Assassins and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two, the old men on their final pilgrimages in Of Gods and Men, Attenberg, and Uncle Boonmee, and the Driver giving his lady one life-encompassing kiss just before stamping out another man’s life entirely: all see their protagonists unable to escape their limited selves, and yet all finding a kind of perfection in fellowship and moments of strange serenity remaking an often dull, sometimes cruel world into a place of raptures. Perhaps the figure who could encompass them all is the hapless filmmaker of Monte Hellman’s Road to Nowhere, the end product of evolution up from the magician Méliès is presented as in Hugo, hurrying his naïve dreams past the camera lens, where Hellman’s protagonist is constantly reaching towards the past, the present, to other people, to a story to be told, and always seeing them retreat into amorphous unknowns and unanswerable longings.


Snowtown

PS: I only saw two current Australian films this year. One was Snowtown, which started off well, with a compelling portrait of seedy hate mongers in a poverty-stricken environment, but devolved into “droning psychopath browbeats fearful youngster” shtick well-exhausted by The Boys (1997) and Animal Kingdom (2010). The second was A Heartbeat Away, a film that filled me with incoherent rage and made me turn it off less than 20 minutes in. This may be an unfair sample of the year’s local cinema.

Some Favourite Performances

Whilst I found it wore out its welcome pretty quickly, I will give Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip this: it captures something convincingly, even affectingly insufferable and doleful about actors thanks to Steve Coogan’s and Rob Brydon’s deft performances. They offered, in between Michael Caine impressions, authentic portraiture of the second-tier male celebrity as show-off, restless consumer, feckless egotist, and occasionally, very familiar figures of middle-aged pathos, angry and bewildered at the sometimes tiny quirks and infinitesimal vagaries of luck that can rule a career. Many actors and other creative people can, I suspect, discover of shiver of self-recognition. Similarly, although the film actively pissed me off, it’s hard to ignore how Tilda Swinton sustains We Need to Talk About Kevin purely and literally by the sweat of her brow. Other famous actors lose and gain weight and slap on the prosthetics to gain awards, but Swinton belongs to a small breed who really does seem to use her own strangely textured flesh as a palate for her artistry, even if directors keep casting her in the same part over and over. Indeed for me it’s been mostly a year of actresses. One of my favourite performances, Shannyn Sossamon’s in Road to Nowhere, was a meditation on the idea of the actress, mutable, inaccessible yet exposed, duplicitous yet laid bare, multitudinous and yet tethered to a single constant image. Sossamon, like Megan Fox, whose low-key, well-textured performance as the angel so bruised by the male gaze in Passion Play that she can barely meet anyone’s eyes, also represents the former It-girl as case study, foiled in the attempt to walk the line between teen-boy masturbation fodder and capital-A actress, diffused through a prism of punch-drunk fantasy.

Perhaps a claim for future It-girl status was Claire Sloma’s magical performance in The Myth of the American Sleepover, the pixie-haired, nose-studded individualist feeling her way through a night of epic debauchery, coming into focus for a jazz ballet routine which, like the film itself, manages to capture something glorious yet painfully transient about the changeling age. Elle Fanning, following up her performance in last year’s Somewhere, made a marvellous contribution to Super 8, standing out amongst a strong cast of youngsters as she shocks her young male friends with real acting talent, and in the scene of the young hero falling in love with her as she’s slathered in zombie make-up, a moment alive with layers of adolescent Eros and transformational strangeness. A couple of years older but no less protean, Saoirse Ronan’s star turn in Hanna possessed a singular grace in playing a character who’s both a casual killer and an utterly bewildered innocent. Polar opposite in temperament, if not homicidal capacity, was Emma Roberts’ delicious psychopathic teen narcissist in Scream 4, avatar of everything suspect about Gen Y, managing to be both hilarious and alarming as she shreds her own body to convincingly inhabit the role of media hero, and later walloping David Arquette to jelly with a bedpan. I’m not sure if I enjoyed a moment in 2011 cinema more. Similarly, memorably ballsy and occasionally unhinged, Amber Heard strode through her two-for-one trashterpiece year of Drive Angry and The Ward with the feral pride of a lioness who considers the cinema screen her private patch of veldt.

Words of praise for some Aussie girls who seem to move from strength to strength: Mia Wasikowska, who inhabits her role in Jane Eyre as if no one else has ever played the part before. Emily Browning, whose supple emotional register gave Sucker Punch both its grit and its emotional intensity. Rose Byrne, who made trying to spy in her underwear seem just another day on the job in X-Men: First Class and managed to make her bitch role in Bridesmaids convincing in her chichi pathos. Speaking of which, Kristen Wiig’s excellence in her self-penned vehicle was most apparent when the film kept to its true brief—portraying a woman in a flailing midlife crisis, riddled with class rage and emotional resentment—rather than the limp attempts to match the frat boy hijinks of Judd Apatow. Wiig was also a gas playing the lazy-eyed, foul-mouthed, new-minted atheist in Paul. Eva Green’s reptilian cool was beautifully exploited in Womb, as was Matt Smith’s rubbery intensity and Lesley Manville’s wizened brilliance. Brighton Rock at least had Andrea Riseborough’s engaging portrait of dim but dogged rebellion against the fetid drear of post-austerity England. Jodie Whittaker left Venus well behind with her similarly sleek impersonation of a put-upon yet heroic nurse in Attack the Block. Kathy Burke was almost my lone salvaging grace for the train wreck of a film version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in playing her aged, exhausted she-geek with a still-bubbling edge of randy gaucheness. Robin Wright’s retention of dignity buoyed The Conspirator. Keira Knightley and Monica del Carmen shared, if little else, a taste for masochistic extremes in A Dangerous Method and Leap Year, and both lived up to playing difficult, intransigent, inchoate personalities whose very pain and fragmentation made them more powerful than anyone close to them. The year’s most genuine breakout star, insofar as a year ago no one had even heard of her, was Jessica Chastain, in her ethereal impersonation of Terrence Malick’s idea of earthbound grace, and her gutsy, emotionally well-shaded semi-lead role in The Debt.

Amongst the male of the species, Christoph Waltz might have been disappointed with his first follow-up to Inglourious Basterds, but, considering that he provided most of the few actual laughs in The Green Hornet (“I am ungassable!”), we can’t be disappointed in him. Attack the Block was similarly given some saving zest by the flip wigger cynicism of Alex Esmail, the drolly stoned college boy filled out by Luke Treadaway, and the posturing yet actually befuddled masculinity of Joe Boyega. Ryan Gosling’s thousand-yard-stare-of-the-sensitive-hunk acting has generated a wealth of amusing internet memes, but it’s a great part of the power of Drive, enticing and yet puzzling in his silent, seemingly open demeanour that hides a soul filled with great and terrible wrath. Similarly cunning was Albert Brooks’ justly acclaimed casting as the unlikely force of evil Gosling is fated to meet. Oscar Isaac contributed to the film’s peculiar textures with his evasive performance as Gosling’s foil, but his major part of the year was his alluring, villainous ham in Sucker Punch, shooting hapless ladies in the head and crooning Roxy Music with equal aplomb.

James McAvoy had an excellent year after a spell of eddying post-Atonement, playing conscientious, whip-smart young heroes in The Conspirator and X-Men: First Class: anyone who can make the line “I can’t feel my legs” sound halfway convincing deserves some sort of award. That film was also given some genuinely relishable villainy by unexpectedly dashing, sublimely sadistic Kevin Bacon, and, of course, the man who was everywhere this year, Michael Fassbender, slinked through his role as the proto-Magneto with dark wit and charm. Fassbender might get awards props for the one major role of his I haven’t caught yet, but considering that Fassbender also gave fine physical form to Rochester in Jane Eyre and inhabited Carl Jung with a smouldering brilliance in A Dangerous Method, he certainly has earned his pay. Viggo Mortensen was similarly stellar in Cronenberg’s film, wielding a crafty, authoritative intelligence in portraying Sigmund Freud that far transcended the usual look-at-me celebrity impersonations. Woody Harrelson’s excellence in Rampart sustains a meandering but occasionally ferocious journey into the dark heart of American manhood. Amongst the undoubtedly awe-endowing cast of the final Harry Potter chapter, Alan Rickman’s hyped grace note as the hapless Snape was fine indeed, but oddly enough, I came out having enjoyed Ralph Fiennes’ invocation of something pathetic in the monstrous Voldemort; in a year in which we’ve seen genuine fawned-over-but-actually-detested tyrants depart the earth, he summarised something about them, in his cringeworthy attempt to play the loving despot, not easily appended to news stories.

I’ll spare a kind word for two good actors in movies I hated, Tom Hardy, whose sullen aggression blended with irreducible pain in Warrior was genuinely rousing, and Matt Damon’s frazzled everyman mucking through disaster in Contagion. Along with costar Emily Blunt, Damon’s class also gave some solidity to the stupefyingly silly The Adjustment Bureau. Kevin Spacey, after a long spell of strange and hammy roles, finally snapped back into A-game mode in the generally well-acted Margin Call, and gave his best performance in a decade. Seasoned Hollywood leading men Sean Penn and Brad Pitt were similarly, uncannily immersed in the texture of The Tree of Life, though the film’s real star was young Hunter McCracken, voluble in his incarnation of nascent pubescent emotion and receptivity. Christopher Plummer’s lauded role as the dying gay father in Beginners is obviously an emeritus Oscar in the making, but he was also very good, giving one of his most intimate and convincing film performances in many years. But perhaps the real gem of that film was Goran Visnijc’s role as his peculiar, emotionally bewildered lover. Paul Giamatti, everyone’s pet thespian, sustained the schmaltzy duo of Win/Win and Barney’s Version, imbuing them with life their screenplays probably didn’t deserve, and meanwhile his despicable King John in the rowdy Ironclad was a nice change of pace: nobody has or ever will catapult Brian Cox into a brick wall with as much bravura. Eric Bana was incredibly good and rather underused in Hanna, which is pretty well the story of his career. Young Asa Butterfield in Hugo offered a peculiarly restrained and subtle adolescent performance, keeping pace with the ever-luminous Chloe Moretz playing perhaps her most normal character ever; standing over them literally, if not figuratively, were Ben Kingsley in a characteristically electric turn as the haunted Georges Méliès, Helen McCrory as his sadly ebullient wife, and Sacha Baron-Cohen lobbying hard to be the heir to Peter Sellers as Hugo’s tragicomic foil.

Jean Dujardin has snagged himself an almost certain Oscar nomination this year with his part in The Artist, a role that neatly sidesteps any language difficulties for a French actor in a French movie, an interesting corollary to a year filled with excellent performances in non-English-language films that will, by and large, be entirely ignored. These ranked from the entire cast of Of Gods and Men, including familiar old hands Michael Lonsdale and Lambert Wilson, to the daring of Monica del Carmen in Leap Year, and the hypnotic work of Adriano Luz, Maria João Bastos, and Clotilde Hesme in Mysteries of Lisbon, and Kseniya Rappoport as the antiheroine with a splintered psyche in the uneven The Double Hour. Sergey Puskepolis’ hulking, abusive, scary, yet strangely fatherly characterisation in How I Ended the Summer did a lot to give the film its sense of latent threat and grizzled, vodka-scented heartbreak. Ariane Labed in Attenberg provided a deliciously deadpan portrait of millennial angst and perversity and, finally, almost subliminal grief. Luis Tosar, in Even the Rain, gave a solid core to a thumpingly unsubtle piece of proselytising with his intelligent portrait of a professional jerk obeying humanitarian impulses within himself he wishes he could wish away. Kôji Yakusho gave 13 Assassins its unshakeable moral and physical core, opposite the most memorable villain of the year, the dead-eyed psychopathic princeling embodied by Gorô Inagaki.

Favourites Movies of 2011

A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg)

Cronenberg’s cool, intelligent dissection of not merely the human foibles of the great and brilliant, but of an era and different ways of conceiving the world is his best film in 20 years, and a refreshingly sober study of the trial and error demanded by both scientific method and rebelling against the world that cocoons and frustrates us.

Attenberg (Athina Rachel Tsangari)

Far deeper and more genuinely affecting than its English-language equivalents, The Descendants and Beginners, and a worthy follow-up for the Dogtooth team, Attenberg was a notably astringent, yet penetrating study of an inchoate, quietly grief-stricken era where certainties slip away along with loved ones, and humans become strangers to themselves.

Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn)

Refn’s second appearance on my best-of list in two years was a superficial departure from 2010’s Valhalla Rising, and yet maintained deep ties with the earlier film, as a portrait of the human capacity for psychotic rage and benevolent care cohabiting uneasily in one body, and repainting the world according to a mysterious and sometimes frightening moral and aesthetic force. A triumph for cinema craft and directorial vision.

Hanna (Joe Wright)

Joe Wright’s succinctly shaped, yet reflexively epic fairytale-cum-action flick skipped nimbly through genres and continents, evoking everyone from Orson Welles to Terry Southern to the Brothers Grimm on the way. Plus, love that Chemical Brothers score.

Hugo (Martin Scorsese)

A touch distended and ungainly, there is nonetheless a genuine sense of cinematic wonder and emotional iridescence in Martin Scorsese’s first tilt at making a film for all ages, as he finds a way to pull everyone closer to his life obsession and entertain at the same time. Hugo both celebrates the communal dream of cinema and embodies it, and evokes the painful joy of leaving behind childhood even in the midst of a neo-Technicolor fantasia.

Jane Eyre (Cary Fukunaga)

Brusquely handsome and flushed with real feeling, this surprising little gem manages to quietly ransack the settled conventions of the costumed literary adaptation and find a bleary realism in an old and settled template, without stooping to Lit Theory class gimmicks or chocolate box romanticism.

Leap Year (Michael Rowe)

A searing nugget of excellence revolving around cryptic suggestions of familial trauma and Latin American dislocation, vast realms of history and discourse channelled into the body of Laura (Monica del Carmen), trying to exculpate loneliness and crisis through inviting abuse to her body from the one guy who likes her enough to do it. Falls down right at the end, but a vital trumpet blast all the same.

Mysteries of Lisbon (Raúl Ruiz)

The lamented Ruiz’s swan song had all the qualities one expects of both great cinema and also great literature, narratives and images flowing with perfervid beauty and rich melancholia in currents and cross-currents of cause and effect, personality, and sexuality, finally adding up to prove that history is a joke played on all of us.

The Myth of the American Sleepover (David Robert Mitchell)

So restrained and limpid in its rewriting of American Graffiti as a Prozac-infused odyssey through the mating rituals of contemporary teenagers that it begins to feel like a fever dream, this film turns its quietly poetic realism into one of the most unobtrusively authentic, yet also artistic and beguiling, portraits of being at that cusp of final adulthood I’ve ever seen.

Road to Nowhere (Monte Hellman)

Hellman’s first film in 22 years has its share of longeurs, as if negotiating the strange new textures of modern digital indie cinema, and yet it carefully compounds into a deceptively skillful contemplation of the directorial craft itself and a genuinely clever deconstruction of the noir film and the femme fatale/muse figure. Fittingly for one of the true fathers of independent cinema, Road to Nowhere, like Hellman’s works did 40 or more years ago, impresses with the sense of sovereign artistry wrung from a low budget.

Scream 4 (Wes Craven)

Call it the year of the horror comeback: John Carpenter and John Landis both returned to movie screens after a decade’s absence with erratic films, the resurgence of Hammer Studios continued with the interesting, almost really good Wake Wood and the terrible The Resident, and Wes Craven returned to his famous postmodern slasher series. With original cast members obviously feeling their age and a slew of newbies of variable charm, nonetheless this, when it found its groove, became one of the most purely entertaining and refreshingly nasty mainstream films of the year, with Emma Roberts’ narcissistic psycho proving a far wittier, equally relevant rejoinder to the dolorous art-house exploitation of We Need to Talk About Kevin.

Sucker Punch (Zack Snyder)

The year’s most mistreated mainstream film (amongst several) that revealed a general cluelessness and neopuritanical streak underlying much critical mentality about the possible fusion of cinema with internet and gaming culture, as well as attempts to expand the lexicon of American blockbuster cinema, Sucker Punch is a wild, crazy, irresponsible ride through the id, and a celebration and deconstruction of the 20th century’s fantasy canon, a bleak satire on institutionalised, outsider-crushing “care”, and the relationship of both with the slow but irreversible liberation from many forms of psychic tyranny. There’s hot chicks with machine guns killing dragons, too.

Super 8 (J.J. Abrams)

J.J. Abrams’ nimble-bodied attempt to recreate the early Steven Spielberg and Amblin Entertainment aesthetic also inspired a lot of surprising hostility, to the extent of crowding any serious contemplation of not only how well he recreates that aesthetic, but also how he offers a self-reflexive meditation on nostalgia, childhood awakenings, and the techniques of cinema. He considers again his recurring fascination with not only themes of familial longing and damage, but also with the act of mediating life through visual recording, and makes it work as its own piece of filmmaking to an extent very few such pieces of retro-cinema tribute ever manage. It also takes its young protagonists far more seriously and on their level than the patronising hipster snark of Attack the Block. Plus, that train wreck was the set-piece of the year.

The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)

Whilst, on balance, I didn’t think it quite lived up to the more integral, if also more prosaic, greatness of Malick’s The New World, The Tree of Life earned all its gobsmacked plaudits through sheer nerve and vision: physically ravishing, spiritually probing, and genuinely complex and observationally acute beneath the potentially dizzying pretences, it’s the sort of film that gives ambitious art movies a good name.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul) and Of Gods and Men (Xavier Beauvois)

I’ll count these two together because they are, in a way, “last year,” and they each represent fascinating, moody meditations on how we approach a sense of the infinite in both human terms and through the natural world’s benign, embracing indifference: the explicit religious-cultural war in Of Gods and Men and the cryptic militarist repression in Uncle Boonmee each lend a background of human cruelty and irrationalism, whilst the foreground drama concentrates on the values, experiences, and binding ties of family and comrades that leaven the journey into the undiscovered country.

Womb (Benedek Fleigauf)

A caustic little Euro-sleeper with a powerhouse cast and a thorny plot, Womb is a Kubrickian scifi chamber piece with a streak of Polanski-esque psychological gamesmanship, that actually manages to investigate its singular basic idea through with nerveless logic and emotional depth, thus succeeding where many similar films pretend to try and still fail.

X-Men: First Class (Matthew Vaughn) and Thor (Kenneth Branagh)

There were too many comic book superhero movies released this year, or at least so I’m told. But these two movies manage to take that dreary job description and do joyously different things with their respective material, pushed into different realms of Hollywood genre lore by two perpetually energetic British directors. In the case of Vaughn’s film, that meant offering a sleek, swashbuckling reinvention of the well-worn franchise that paid honourable tribute to ’60s Bond flicks and the broad neo-pulp pantheon, whereas Branagh turned the Umpteenth Avenger into the protagonist of a rousing Shakespearean power ballad, with a smart lead performance as a fairly thick hero by Chris Hemsworth and some genuinely soaring fantasy imagery. If you wanted colour and light this year—and god knows I did—then these were the ticket.

Would Have Been On This List If I Had Seen Them In Time:

A Separation (Asghar Farhadi)
The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodovar)
War Horse (Steven Spielberg)

Honourable Mention

13 Assassins (Takashi Miike)
The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (Steven Spielberg)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two (David Yates)
How I Ended This Summer (Aleksey Popogrebskiy)
Rampart (Oren Moverman)
Wake Wood (David Keating)
X (Jon Hewitt)

I Liked, With Reservations

Another Earth (Mike Cahill)
Coriolanus (Ralph Fiennes)
The Double Hour (Giuseppe Capotondi)
Fast Five (Justin Lin)
The Hunter (Daniel Nettheim)
Margin Call (J.C. Chandor)
Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin)
Paul (Greg Mottola)
Source Code (Duncan Jones)
Super (James Gunn)
Passion Play (Mitch Glazer)
Point Blank (Fred Cavayé)
Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols)
The Ward (John Carpenter)

Significantly Disappointing

Attack the Block (Joe Cornish)
Burke and Hare (John Landis)
Captain America: The First Avenger (Joe Johnston)
Eye of the Storm (Fred Schepisi)
The Conspirator (Robert Redford)
The Green Hornet (Michel Gondry)
Submarine (Richard Ayoade)
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson)
Your Highness (David Gordon Green)

Crap

Brighton Rock (Rowan Joffe)
Conan the Barbarian (Marcus Nispel)
Contagion (Steven Soderbergh)
The First Grader (Justin Chadwick)
A Heartbeat Away (Gale Edwards)
The Help (Tate Taylor)
Immortals (Tarsem Singh)
The Iron Lady (Phyllida Lloyd)
Red Riding Hood (Catherine Hardwicke)
The Resident (Antti Jokinen)
Warrior (Gavin O’Connor)
We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay)

As Yet Unseen

50/50, Amigo, Bellflower, Margaret, My Week With Marilyn, Red Dog, Shame, The Sleeping Beauty, Weekend

My Year of Retro Wonders: The Best Older Films I First Encountered in 2011

Arashi Ga Oka (Kiju Yoshida)
The Ascent (Larisa Shepitko)
Back Door to Hell / Ride the Whirlwind / Cockfighter (Monte Hellman)
The Big Trail (Raoul Walsh)
The Bitter Tea of General Yen (Frank Capra)
Blast of Silence (Alan Baron)
The Bride with White Hair (Ronnie Yu) / The Bride with White Hair II (David Wu)
Castle Keep (Sydney Pollack)
Chungking Express (Wong Kar-Wai)
Contraband / A Matter of Life and Death / Gone to Earth (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)
Dark of the Sun (Jack Cardiff)
El Topo (Alejandro Jodorowsky)
The Embryo Hunts in Secret (Koji Wakamatsu)
Flash Gordon (Mike Hodges)
Freud (John Huston)
A Generation (Andrzej Wajda)
The Hitch-Hiker (Ida Lupino)
It’s a Gift (Norman Z. McLeod)
Ivan the Terrible, Parts I & II (Sergei Eisenstein)
Land of the Pharaohs / El Dorado (Howard Hawks)
Letter from an Unknown Woman / Lola Montes (Max Ophüls)
The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman)
Mahler (Ken Russell)
Murder by Contract (Irving Lerner)
The Nanny (Seth Holt)
Night Train (Jerzy Kawalerowicz)
Paprika (Satoshi Kon)
The Quatermass Xperiment / Quatermass II / The Day The Earth Caught Fire (Val Guest)
Sebastiane (Derek Jarman and Paul Humfress)
Shivers (David Cronenberg)
The Sniper (Edward Dmytryk)
Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky)
Tess (Roman Polanski)
Voyage to Italy (Roberto Rossellini)
The Wedding Party / Sisters (Brian de Palma)
Went the Day Well? (Alberto Cavalcanti)

  • Christianne Benedict spoke:
    31st/12/2011 to 2:20 pm

    I’m obliged to make a best of list this year myself. It will be very different from yours, in part because I’ve seen a few movies you haven’t and vice versa. I don’t know what kind of value end of the year lists actually have when they all agree with each other, in any event, and I’m kind of delighted at the pop cinema on yours. I’m not even going to bother with pointing out where I disagree, because lists like this should be entirely personal and, well, I’m not you.

    I’m dying to see the new Cronenberg, and I’m looking forward to a few others. I hope you and Marilyn have a fabulous new year and keep up the good work on the blog. It’s one of my favorite movie-o-sphere destinations.

    Happy New Year

  • Joe Valdez spoke:
    31st/12/2011 to 2:24 pm

    Excellent piece, Rod.

    Instead of debating you movie by movie, my lone grievance is giving directors a possessory credit after each film title. Did these movies write themselves? Oh my God!

    You’ve sold me on a bunch of films here — TREE OF LIFE, MYTH OF THE AMERICAN SLEEPOVER, JANE EYRE, SCREAM 4 — and was happy that you singled out Oscar Isaac and Elle Fanning, who are going to get a lot of work based on their 2011.

  • Colin spoke:
    31st/12/2011 to 5:47 pm

    Exhaustive and exhausting, as usual. I disagree with you far more than other writers, but you usually back your (misguided? haha!) thoughts up eloquently, and I’ll always read them.

  • Rod spoke:
    31st/12/2011 to 8:05 pm

    Don’t worry, everyone: I take it for granted that there’s something in here to annoy just about all of my film freak friends – but also, hopefully, something to make all them say, “Right on!” or at least think twice.

    Christianne, Happy New Year right back at you and all of yours. Indeed, I do try to shake up my own aesthetics and those of others with my list, and give credit to pop cinema, although I’m surprised, taking another glance, just how much of it there is here – I’m always trying to define what I think is the most like cinema, be it art or pop. Also, the health of pop cinema is a vital barometer for the health of cinema in general.

    Joe, wow, you’re really calling ME out on not mentioning writers? Call me a malingering auteurist, I suppose. Really, the only real reason I have for not listing writers as well is space, when some movies can have five or six of them. Also, there’s quite a few writer-director works on this list. I’ve been following Isaac since his terrific work in the Aussie film Balibo, and he’s a serious star to watch, as long as he doesn’t get stuck being the next John Leguizamo. And Elle Fanning is ‘ella talented (sorry).

    Colin…thanks…I think. (Actually, finding someone readable whilst disagreeing with them is a very high compliment).

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    1st/01/2012 to 4:15 pm

    I will return to this presentation tomorrow with bells on. I am leaving my home shortly to be regaled by Margaret Thatcher a la Meryl Streep, but wanted to get this link for my diary column.

    I really like what I see here Rod (no I have not quite seen all of the films) but I guess it goes both ways on that count. I will delight in being specific upon my return.

  • Pat spoke:
    1st/01/2012 to 4:20 pm

    Rod – Your year-end confessions are, as always, a fascinating and provocative read.

    I find myself thinking “Right on!” at several points, particularly with regard to your take on BRIDESMAIDS, which I just finished watching for the third time. The class issues and the details of competitive rivalry between femaile friends are dead on, while the Apatow-inspired hijinks are just plain annoying. I liked SUPER 8 and HANNA a lot, too.

    I was curious to see what you thought of MELANCHOLA, which I didn’t find mentioned anywhere, since the critical opinion seems to be pretty divided on that one. Did I miss it here, or is it still on your viewing agenda?

    Happy New Year, Rod!

  • Roderick spoke:
    1st/01/2012 to 7:18 pm

    Happy New Year, Pat, Sam! Please bring back the word on The Iron Lady, a movie I’m quietly dreading.

    Yes, Pat, I found myself much more engaged by Bridesmaids much more than I expected to be, and therefore also more disappointed in trying to make it add up in my head. The film works well when keeping on target, and yet gets so pointless during that food-poisoning bit, the plane trip and whenever Melissa McCarthy was the focus (god love her, she is good, but she’s basically just playing Zach Galifianakis in drag) – scenes which are of course the film’s humour meal tickets. Trouble is, they’re not that funny, whereas the real body of the story, that competitiveness you mention, and Wiig’s characterisation, have a more real and desperate kind of funny to them, reminiscent of a lot of ’70s adult comedies. I wish it had had the guts to stick with that, although it wouldn’t have then been the comedy hit of the year.

    I haven’t seen Melancholia, and in spite of many promising it’s something like Von Trier’s first real film in a long time, I probably never will: I just don’t like his work. I find him more a walking collection of carefully prepared critic-bait rather than a film artist.

  • James Russell spoke:
    2nd/01/2012 to 10:59 pm

    Given that I don’t get out to new films any more, I’m most interested in your last section. Of the films on that list which I’ve seen, I’d probably agree with most of them; I was massively disappointed by Lola Montes and the appeal of El Topo continues to elude me. Did you watch the widescreen version of Big Trail? And where did you find the two Quatermass films?

    I share your mistrust of Lars von Troll, as I insist on calling him. As for The Iron Lady, I’m refusing to see that one on principle.

  • Rod spoke:
    2nd/01/2012 to 11:30 pm

    Hi, JR. Whilst I lapped up Lola Montes, the story’s a bit inert and the emotions more muted than in Ophuls’ best works. But it’s mostly an example of Ophuls’ sense of style-as-substance, in his lush, flowing mise-en-scene that explores real history through media artifice, and the fascinating blend of romanticism with a curiously contradictory sarcasm about passion that runs through it – there’s an irony to the whole thing that, if you can tap into it, gives it a peculiar force. El Topo was a total rapture for me, and that is surprising, as I couldn’t hack The Holy Mountain; it just overflows with perverse ingenuity. No, it wasn’t the widescreen version of The Big Trail, but I didn’t feel the absence of anything, because the depth of field in the framing and the film’s relentless physicality were still stunning: I kept thinking whilst watching Meek’s Cutoff, “You know, this doesn’t make a wagon train seem half as punishing and frightening as The Big Trail.” As for the Quatermass films, a friend in the US sent them to me. The first one is quite good; Quatermass II is the real cracker though.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    3rd/01/2012 to 10:56 am

    James – While I respect you enormously, I believe you are being unfair to von Trier – as I once was. I read the script for Breaking the Waves and took an instant dislike to his treatment of women. However, once the hubby kind of forced me to look at some of his work, I realized I was wrong. Here was a man who really felt attached to women and was trying, picture after picture, to come to terms with his relationship with them. Melancholia is the film where he finally succeeded.

    I love Rod’s film year round-up because he finds gold in the critical discard heap. I happen to agree with him that much of the pop/fantasy of this year had more great ideas, originality, and life in them than the human dramas that are actually sometimes laughingly superficial.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    3rd/01/2012 to 12:15 pm

    I am with Marilyn on MELANCHOLIA and Von Trier (the film is solidly in my yet-to-be-published Ten Best list) but Rod is certainly not the only one alienated by the director’s films.

    Rod, IRON LADY was a bit better than you be led to believe. Meryl Streep lives up to the hype with a wholly extraordinary turn, and the film doesn’t paint the exasperating conservative sympathetically. Too much time was spent, however, on her onset Alzheimer’s stage with the dramatic device of Dennis’s ghost rather cumbersone. Still some buffo individual sequences, though the entire Faulklands Island bit could have been expanded. And no Ronald Reagan at all in this picture. Ha!

    Of your yet-to-see Rod, I would say there are eight crucial titles there though most people who say MARCY MARLENE (mediocre to me) is also essential. They are:

    A Separation
    Shame
    War Horse
    The Artist
    Coriolanus
    Margaret
    Weekend
    Take Shelter

    Of these two are absolutely in my Top 10 (A SEPARATION and MARGARET) while THE ARTIST, SHAME, WEEKEND and CORIOLANUS are at least strong runners-up.

    Loved your stupendous lineup of classic viewings, which was diverse in every sense, but of course it’s your list of favorite films for the year that always immerses me the most.

    Four of your choices – MYSTERIES OF LISBON, JANE EYRE, THE TREE OF LIFE and HUGO will also make my own Top 10, and in all four instances your prose in framing them was exceedingly beautiful. I have soured a bit on UNCLE BOONME after two repeat viewings, though I still love the director, and I like THE TREE OF LIFE more than any other Malick. It’s my own top choice for the year. I applaud you for having the commendable audacity to include the likes of SUCKER PUNCH and SCREAM 4 on this kind of list, especially since you defended these in spectacular reviews this this site that make those who trash them look foolish. I mean that.

    ATTENBERG is a most interesting choice too. I liked that one, even while bypassing it for the list, and again with THOR and X MEN you have offered superlative validation in past reviews. I do like both films, even if balking at inclusion.

    I haven’t seen WOMB nor MYTH OF THE AMERICAN SLEEPOVER, but most intriguing picks. I was no fan of TINKER TAILOR, and pleased to see it where it belongs here. I liked KEVIN more than you but not nearly as much as others, so I will shed no tears. Only Robert Redford’s THE CONSPIRATOR worked for me and not for you.

    But what a celebration here as befits this great site and your remarkable work here for twelve months.

    Here’s to an even better 2012!

  • Roderick spoke:
    3rd/01/2012 to 8:50 pm

    Mare: “…I happen to agree with him that much of the pop/fantasy of this year had more great ideas, originality, and life in them than the human dramas that are actually sometimes laughingly superficial.”

    I think that actually sums up my essential point better than I was able to. Many thanks.

    I appreciate your Von Trier boosting, but I also don’t think you’ve sat through Antichrist, possibly the most boring, absurd, and intellectually obtuse castration fantasy ever committed to film. Watching it after Dancer in the Dark and Dogville, I was left with the complete opposite conclusion to you – that he uses a kind of shallow evoked empathy and victimology for his female characters to work out his own, basically sadistic fantasies and adolescent emotional provocations. He’s a “great” filmmaker in a technical sense, but what’s actually going on in his films just seems another (perhaps the) example of our adoration these days for artists who pound a keynote and a couple of ideas over and over. I can understand your prizing Melancholia as you do for effectively capturing an emotional miasma, but I find that same commitment to working out a single feeling to me gets tedious very quickly. We Need To Talk About Kevin operated in a similar fashion to Antichrist – a relentless dedication to manipulating the audience on an emotional level, every bit as unrestrained and dishonest as any schlocky sentimental weepie, only differentiated by trying to wring out negative rather than positive feelings, whilst disconnected from both effective anti-realist stylisation (for it’s the con-job pseudo-realism in these that is their selling point: the theatrical environs of Dogville was an embrace of artifice so total it simply highlighted the conceit) or intelligible, responsible realism. If, as some have stated directly, Melancholia is a step of evolution for Von Trier, then I might be interested, but if we’re disagreeing about where he’s evolved from, that becomes treacherous ground.

    Sam, thanks as always for your engaged response. I like that this year I finally persuaded myself just to make my list as long as other years I might have made it short and to hell with the basic “top ten” arbitrariness.

    One reason I really liked Attenberg was because it evoked the chilly dissoluteness of Haneke and others of the modern Euro-school, it retained the black humour and satiric conceit of Dogtooth, but then wasn’t afraid to finally articulate then a powerful sense of loss and sublime feeling; it effectively conveyed a sense of a journey through its perverse behaviour, instead of moving around in ever diminishing circles. I was mildly surprised by just how much I liked Uncle Boonmee, the success of the sustenance of a dreamy tone, and the finale’s somewhat haunting depiction of our lurching on through a bipolar age, severed from the past and from nature: in some ways it’s structured in a reverse to Attenberg whilst telling the same basic story. I wasn’t going to include X-Men: First Class on the last until I re-viewed it a couple of weeks ago, and the film’s grooviness really struck me a second time. Whereas at first I was frustrated, with a second viewing came fresh appreciation of the film’s successful recreation of the pure pulp ethic.

    As for my unseens, I hold all anticipations in abeyance. I think out of the list of perhaps a dozen from last year’s unseen list, I saw exactly one – Another Year – that I would have put in my best-of list had I seen it.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    3rd/01/2012 to 10:02 pm

    Rod – You’re quite right that I did not see Antichrist, nor have I seen Dogville. I think Von Trier really does (or did) have a love/hate relationship with women, idealizing mothers and their sacrifices while detesting their harmful emotionalism. That’s why I found Melancholia such a step forward. As I am intimately acquainted with depression, I found his depiction of it so accurate and imaginative, that I marveled at his ability to corporealize an emotion. I didn’t find it tedious. As for We Need to Talk About Kevin, I felt the mother in it had no dignity at all, which has not been the case for von Trier’s mothers.

  • Rod spoke:
    3rd/01/2012 to 10:41 pm

    “As for We Need to Talk About Kevin, I felt the mother in it had no dignity at all, which has not been the case for von Trier’s mothers.”

    I do hear that. I also immediately link your comment, “detesting their harmful emotionalism”, with Antichrist, which is basically driven by that detestation, whilst attempting in the end, and failing, to turn the critique around on Dafoe’s therapist as some kind of male chauvinist paragon. I think he needs to find ways to make it clear he’s really staging arguments between pieces of his psyche rather than dealing with life as human beings lead it. A lot of critics try and take his political and social commentaries seriously, which strikes me as both what he wants but also absurd; he’s an entirely id-driven filmmaker.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    3rd/01/2012 to 11:08 pm

    Rod, if the critics think von Trier is trying to be literal, they haven’t really seen or appreciated the fantastical aspects of his works. I think they make him want to be taken seriously by putting him on the spot with their questions. As you say, he’s really id-driven, and to make him respond as though this is all so theoretically constructed leads him into trouble, like his HItler comment.

  • Robert spoke:
    4th/01/2012 to 10:50 am

    Coming away from your essays, I can never at first tell if I’m compelled to see the movies you’re discussing, or if I’m compelled to just read another Rod Heath essay. They are always so well written that even a berating comes off as “you should see this.”

    And I DO feel berated as I read your paragraph on Super 8, a movie I saw a second time just to make sure my hate for it wasn’t unfounded or created by a bad mood. (It wasn’t.) I understand your points, but my memory feels so violated by the use of Spielberg’s SHEEN, as opposed to his actual animating spirit, that I can only come away from it feeling angry. Maybe if I hadn’t been so close to Spielberg’s movies as a kid, the co-optation of his style would not feel like such a personal affront. And the fact that Spielberg himself gave his stamp of approval over the entire project makes it sting all the more. These are silly reasons to hate a basically fun adventure, but I do.

    Also, Take Shelter is the movie my mind goes to when I think “best of the year”. Many gaps in my viewing. But of the many I’ve seen, this one stands out as the purest connection to my own feelings of where I am in my own life and how I feel we are holding up as a society.

  • Roderick spoke:
    4th/01/2012 to 7:21 pm

    Hey I don’t berate, I…abuse in an instructive fashion. Err…

    Thanks for the compliments anyway.

    I don’t know, Robert, I was probably as close as you to the Spielberg films of the era, and for me, especially coming as it did after a few viewings of over-rated, under-cooked recent movies, I thought, “Good lord – plot, characters, atmosphere, care in the set-up and in the follow-through – could it be…yes! A real movie!” And of course that’s not getting into how the whole thing is self-aware about the layers of nostalgia/film-making/film watching. Also, whilst it might not be better than, say, Close Encounters, it’s certainly better than some of the Amblin by-product, like The Goonies.

    Yeah, I seriously wanna see Take Shelter, and your comment on it intensifies the interest greatly.

  • James Russell spoke:
    5th/01/2012 to 12:06 am

    Marilyn: I should probably clarify that I was once an admirer of uncle Lars back in the 90s, when I was a big fan of Zentropa, The Kingdom (first one, never saw the second) and Breaking the Waves. Since then I think he’s been a case of rapidly diminishing returns and, especially in the case of Antichrist, rather vacuous attempts at controversy-baiting. And personally I think those who treat his much-vaunted depression as some sort of reason for things like the “Nazi” press conference at Cannes, because it makes him unable to behave “normally”, don’t give him enough credit for knowing exactly what he’s doing. I maybe am being harsh on him, but I’ve managed to come through that sort of depression before without inflicting things like Antichrist on other people…

  • MattL spoke:
    8th/01/2012 to 7:45 pm

    Great list of films and write-ups. You folks have about the best blog out there. Regarding von Trier; Melancholia is the best he has made since The Idiots. But I didn’t see Antichrist so maybe that was better….although I doubt it. The big screen is the best place to see it, naturally.

    Of your ‘not yet seen’ films I am curious what you think of A Separation. It stands with the best of 2011 in my book.

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