Movies of the Year 2011

After a couple (or three) mixed years of cinema releases I was rather pleased with the movies on offer in 2011 and had some difficulty narrowing the final list to eleven.

As ever there were a number of films I missed – The Skin I Live In, Incendies, Take Shelter, Kill List, Submarine, Melancholia – that may have been contenders and for the sake of full disclosure I have to admit I was in line to see critics’ favourite The Tree of Life before realising I just did not have the energy or stamina to sit through it. Can’t imagine I’ll ever get around to seeing it now. Enjoy the list:

Drive
Drive
L.A. at night? check. Lots of neon? check. 80s synth soundtrack? check. Taciturn loner protagonist? check. You’d be forgiven for thinking Drive was the latest Michael Mann film and like a lot of films by the Mann this suffers from trying a little too hard to be the coolest kid on the block. That doesn’t mean it ain’t cool though: the androgene Ryan Gosling commands every scene he’s in with the most minimal of facial expressions while Albert Brooks knocks one out of the park as a seedy Hollywood producer turned hoodlum. Oh, and the car chases are pretty tremendous as well.

Senna
Senna
Speaking of car chases…
Exclusively put together using archive footage (along with some newly recorded audio interviews – though crucially no talking heads) director Asif Kapadia expertly traces the life and career of the titular Brazilian great, revelaing him to be not just someone with an innate feel for a fast car, rather a divinely touched & mystical figure in the sport for the pure love of racing. Not the glory, not the money and not the…well maybe sometimes to rub Alain Prost’s nose in it.

I didn’t think revisiting such familiar crash footage 17 years on would affect me at all but boy, I was choking back the tears at the end.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Cannot remember a movie that so exceeded my expectations. Sure, it’s unashamedly a B picture but one whose plotting is taut and lean, with virtually no fat at all in the two hour running time. Every scene and most every piece of dialogue advances the plot toward the conclusion rather than just being filler between fight sequences. A real contender for Sequels that Bettered the Original too. Loved the multiple homages to the original movies, was enraptured by the SFX and was shocked into silence when… well, you’ll know what moment I’m talking about when you see it.

The Guard
The Guard
Another movie that totally exceeded my expectations. If you were to judge this from the poster and trailer you might imagine it just another goofy fish-out-of-water buddy cop film. Ooo, tough black cop Don Cheadle is dropped into rural west Ireland with doofus Brendan Gleeson and hilarity ensues? As it turns out the script is transcendent. The dialogue is the best thing I heard all year and the characterisation is deeply & tenderly thought out. Typical criminal / lawman cliches are largely avoided and it’s rather incredible to hear a tale of criminal intrigue where every character (bar the bent cops) is totally honest with everyone else around them.

Source Code
Source Code
In the tradition of Groundhog Day, super soldier Jake Gyllenhall is condemned to relive the same eight minutes until he can twist events to save the day and get the girl…or something. Much like David Jones’ previous film Moon, this was an outlandish, silly but just about believable idea that could have been forgettable (or indeed contemptible) in other hands but here, it just works.

A Separation
A Separation
A touching and distressing look at divorce in modern day Tehran. Simin and Nader cannot resolve the differences they have regarding his live-in, ailing father and her job prospects abroad so agree to seperate. Into this void steps the very pious, very unreconstructed and very un-bourgeois Razieh, a maid who, within days creates havoc. Lives spiral out of control, friendships are tested to the limit, and the final scene will leave you glued to your seat.

Project Nim
Project Nim
For all of us who loved James Marsh’s previous film Man on Wire this was another trawl through some sensational archive footage to shine a light on a ground-breaking experiment of the ’70s that made waves at the time but has faded to obscurity over the decades.

The film also acted as an extrordinary analogue to Rise of the Planet of the Apes: both films being about a chimp taken into captivity; taught sign langauge; discovered to be of high intellect; sent to live with a human family; then to a primate compound against his will and finally abandoned by all the humans he had come to trust. Very weird – as if the original script was being worked on by two writers who, 3/4 of the way through the process split apart, one finishing it was a doco and the other as a sci fi picture.

Bridesmaids
Bridesmaids
Breaking News: Girls can be funny too, whodathoughtit? Scripted by the main star Kristen Wiig this was in equal parts acerbic and tender, as we witness preparations for a wedding from the point of view of an increasingly desperate and jaded best friend. Excellent support from a large ensemble cast and a gross out scene mid way through that has to be seen to be believed.

Moneyball
Moneyball
Fabulous adaptation of Michale Lewis’ history of the turnaround of the Oakland A’s baseball team under General Manager Billy Beane. This production got into some trouble a few years back when the director and main star pulled out. Thankfully Aaron Sorkin stepped up to the plate and (along with Steve Zaillian) hit a home run.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Another superb adaptation of a well loved book, and this does suffer slightly in the shadow of the six part BBC series of the early ’80s, though despite the faster pace and the inexplicable move of the opening scene from Czechoslovakia to Budapest this is still a triumph. It may have been billed as Oldman’s pictures but I thought near everyone in the tremendous ensemble cast put in great performances. Special mention too should go to Cumberbatch for best hairpiece of the year.

The Artist
The Artist
And another special hair mention: best moustache in a motion picture goes pretty convincingly to Jean Dujardin. This was a beautifully playful homage to the silent era through the eyes of a fading star and a one time extra on the way up. The two stars are such a joy to be around throughout the picture it’s a real shame when the end credits finally roll.

Just missed out

Animal Kingdom
Another Earth
Armadillo
Hanna
Life in a Day
Midnight in Paris
Miss Bala
True Grit
Win-Win
X-Men: First Class


Not nearly as good as they should have been

Donor Unknown
The Interrupters
Norwegian Wood


Recently Discovered in the Archives

The Chase
Easy Living
Shane
Unstoppable (one of those very good bad movies)
The Damned
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Arden Oplev, 2009)
Restrepo