And gods, please don't think for a pico second that I am somehow advocating for all the product that comes out of Hollywood. There is a fair amount of it that is dreck - unimaginative, cash-grabbing, insulting garbage. I just think it's important to acknowledge those big movies that still worked, dammit. To tar all of them with the same brush in a wrap up of the year is lazy and insulting writing.
And I keep saying this, but I'll repeat it again: the reason I watch movies in a cinema is for the experience. And who says you can't have an equally valid experience/response to a well made blockbuster?
Ok, now that I've got all of that hullabaloo off my chest let's move it along to my favourite films from the past year (note: these are not the films I deem to have been the "best". These are merely my own personal favourites and, as such, this list is entirely subjective and doesn't aim to be anything more). All titles link to my original write-ups.
Boil the kettle and make a cup o' tea now. This is gonna be a big 'un.
Young actress Hailee Stienfeld all but up and stole the film right from under The Dude's nose, as she proved to be as fearless as her character, Mattie Ross. This mismatched pair, joined by a comedic Matt Damon as the puffed up Texas Ranger LeBouef, are as infused with oddity and compassion as any Coen pure-bred character.
And wrapping around those characters like a small-pox infected blanket are musings on vengeance, hardship and violence. This is ground familiar to the Coen brothers but it never feels like a retread of previous work or the Coens settling for something easy.
True Grit is a film I have been looking forward to revisiting and revisiting soon.
If God is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise
Spike Lee's HBO documentary focusing on the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, When the Levees Broke, gets something of a sequel in this 4 hour, 2 part examination of New Orleans and Louisiana 5 years on.
In the first half Lee revisits interviewees from the previous film, finding out about where they are now and how they're coping. He has a vast array of people on camera here; from regular folk trying to get their lives back together, to those who lost loved ones, to mayors, journalists, actors and more. It was almost like Lee felt the need to get all of this oral history on film, to have it be a part of recorded history and for these stories to reach out. There is anger, frustration, grief, art, laughter and hope.
The second half shifts its focus to a more recent disaster for the Gulf of Mexico: the BP oil spill. Just when the state was down, BAM, they get kicked in the nards with another horrendous disaster. As New Orleans was devastated by human error and mismanagement during a natural disaster, so too was the wider Gulf area utterly let down by these same factors during a man made disaster.
If God is Willing... played as part of the Documentary Edge Festival and was seen by me and the handful of people in the theatre with me, which is a damned shame. This is a film worthy of your attention and I encourage everyone to seek this out.
X-Men: First Class
|Poster by Phil Noto|
Yes, fair cop, I'm a huge X-Men geek but, again, there was no guarantee this film was going to be any better than what came before. At best, I was cautiously optimistic. And then, after finally watching it, I was utterly energised. First Class is by no means a perfect film; the rush to completion is all too readily apparent in some FX work and the occasional slip back to an Irish brogue from the otherwise top-form Michael Fassbender. So too does the early relationship between McAvoy's cheekily laddish Xavier and Fassbender's embittered and vengeful Erik suffer; being otherwise impeccably played until having to rush players into their known positions come the end.
But what the film gets right, it really gets right. There's a sense of fun and adventure to this film reminiscent of the early comic-books themselves, with Vaughn indulging his Bond appreciation and setting us up for a sequel (I hope).
Captain America: The First Avenger
|Poster by Kevin Howdeshell|
That was a particularly troubling issue given the name and flag wearing costume of one of Marvel's oldest characters. In the time in which Captain America was first created, World War II, he was a character that made sense: an all-American good guy socking Nazis on the jaw. Bam! Take that Hitler! In the decades since, however, the world has moved on from looking to America's might with many instead looking upon the land of the free disdainfully and seeing her inhabitants as shallow, obese and arrogant.
Thankfully Marvel and director Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer) set the film in Cap's original era of Nazi bashing, with added retro-futuristic gadgetry, and really get the fun adventure aspects of Cap, as he faces up against the dastardly Red Skull. In a time when the majority of genre and comic-book releases are unnecessarily "gritted" and darkened up, mistaking po-faced seriousness for depth, Captain America was a blast of unwinking, rock 'em sock 'em fun.
Though come the closing credits Cap wakes up in a world not his own (i.e. ours) in time for next year's team-up, I hope Marvel find more stories within his World War II exploits. The Star Spangled Avenger is a far more interesting character than his costume would suggest, and I hope to enjoy more of his adventures soon.
The Tree of Life
Terence Malick's Cannes winning meditation on nothing less than life, the universe and everything proved to be a divisive opening night film for the New Zealand International Film Festival. Some audience members, both here and overseas, were obviously put out by Malick's insistence on not crafting a typical dramatic film. Instead, his grand but imperfect film played out more like an epic, lyrical, visual poem or a massive cinematic Led Zep jam.
Taking in small town American life in the 50's, the creation of the universe, meditations on nature and grace and much more besides, there's a heady mix of imagery and narrative wandering. It feels very much like a kaleidoscope of life and experience. Accusations of pretension and needless noodling away are fair enough, but the sheer scope of Malick's ambition cannot be belittled or derided.
The Tree of Life is a film that can really only be fully experienced in a cinema, in the dark, with an audience. You have to allow yourself to be swept up in Malick's vision and be smacked in the gob with wonder and awe. Not getting up and pausing to make a cuppa, or watching on a ridiculously tiny in-flight screen (as it was available on my flight home from the States). Delicate, intimate, flawed and epic, The Tree of Life is the type of film becoming ever rarer nowadays. I was moved and utterly enthralled.
Takashi Miike's epic was not the greatest viewing experience I've had this year (thanks to a thoroughly bored neighbour, obviously keen to leave and light up a ciggie) but the film itself was elegant and epic, allowing us time in this world of honour and duty before unleashing the unrelenting carnage Miike is known for.
Set at a time when the era of the noble samurai is coming to an end, a rare few dare to stand up to a corrupt, sadistic and power hungry young Lord before he consumes Japan. They are but a small band of warriors, voluntarily standing up to an army of hundreds. Death is not only on the cards, death is all the cards. These 13 warriors have a daunting task ahead of them but none of them flinch away from it, preferring to die with their brothers in battle than living a dishonoured life without them.
These are men bound by their task and Miike allows their humour and humanity to come through, before they come to the small village they plan to use as a bottleneck. This village is where the final, bravura, carnage soaked confrontation takes place. It's an exhausting assault but Miike knows how to construct a contained and extended action sequence.
This is Miike's most mature work by far and my hands-down favourite. Another film that really benefits from being seen on the biggest screen possible, 13 Assassins swept me up and was elegant, visceral, bloody and, surprisingly, quite touching.
I Saw the Devil
|Poster by Kevin Tong|
I Saw the Devil is an intense, gripping and profoundly disturbing ride through the sweaty obsession with vengeance. After his pregnant fiancee is murdered by a notorious serial killer, a special forces cop hunts him down and exacts brutal, lengthy punishment. But this is merely the beginning and what develops is a cold, escalating game of cat-and-mouse with the roles constantly shifting between the cop and the killer.
The photography is arresting and the two leads are attention worthy presences. This film about the ugliness inside is often visually beautiful, with some of the most arresting shots of the year. Min-sik Choi gives a fascinating and disturbing portrayal of the serial killer, while Byung-hun Lee is an emotionally restrained machine.
Director Jee-woon Kim daringly provokes the audience into response at every turn, even going so far as to dare the audience to empathise with the hunted serial killer. A violent meditation on violence, the lengths and futility of revenge and the cost of it all, I Saw the Devil is the height of confrontational cinema and demands an intellectual as well as emotional response. It was an experience I am unlikely to forget.
This Belgian coming-of-age film was a NZIFF film that caught me utterly by surprise and that doesn't happen often. The Giants was one of those delightful and all too rare surprises at Film Festival - a previously unknown gem tucked away in the massive programme just waiting to be noticed.
I went into film skeptical, cautious of whether I would be in for a treat or an overly-serious and self-conscious bore-fest. Thankfully, this tale of two abandoned brothers and their new-found friend is unhurried, charming, thrilling and something of an adventure. Much like growing up then.
The three boys are left very much to their own devices for the summer - mum and dad have taken off on a foreign trip, leaving the brothers with their grandfather. Unfortunately, he's dead and because mummy dearest is too busy to return any messages, the lads have to come up with... less than legal (albeit fun) means to get food and money. They get into mischief, laugh and fight and generally act like brothers. Running out of money they get together with their friend and organise the rental of their grandfather's house to a local drug-dealer. Getting into far more trouble than they bargained for, the boys end up living rough.
The Giants is a delicate wee gem of a film. Never hurried or fussy, it weaves its tale of three boys and one summer with a deft touch, never becoming sentimental or melodramatic. And that's why it makes it into my Favourites of 2011.
Martha Marcy May Marlene
This examination of a young girl escaping from a cult and recuperating with her older sister is one I was glad not to have heard much about.
Of course, if you've heard anything about it now, it's likely the breakout turn from Elizabeth Olsen as the titular escapee. She is an incredibly strong and assured central presence holding the delicate balance of the character's psychology (and by extension, the film) on her young shoulders. She is a profoundly damaged character, held in the thrall of John Hawkes' quietly menacing cult leader for gods know how long. Early one morning she escapes and is picked up by her older sister, who takes her in and tries to help heal her.
Writer/director Sean Durkin should be earning equal amounts of positive attention for crafting an intricate, stunning debut feature film. Martha Marcy May Marlene is at times challenging, tense and frightening, guided by a sure hand that never feels forced. I was just as impressed with this debut as I was with David Michod's Animal Kingdom last year - to show such intelligence, restraint and inherent knowledge of how to really wind up an audience in a debut film is nothing short of staggering.
I'm hopeful for some sort of release for the film here in NZ next year. Get out and see it if you can.
A found footage film that, after a deluge of them, really works. Beginning with three students making a documentary about a number of suspicious bear killings, things quickly take a dramatically bizarre turn when they decide to follow a suspected poacher.
Troll Hunter is, no doubt, one of the best genre films of the year. Effortlessly blending the fantastical with believable characters, humour, horror and excitement the whole film is a ride you don't want to get off of. You know how some films are often called roller-coaster rides? It's generally used in fairly lazy terms to describe a film with moments of excitement or loud explosions. But Troll Hunter is a film that really lives up to the label - it knows when to slow things down and let you catch your breath... before BOOM! More troll action!
Troll Hunter is smart and fun. It works by making you actually give a damn about the naive students caught up in the fantastic action. It is an increasing rarity in these types of films, usually populated with arrogant and stupid teenagers. It also helps to have everything centered around a grizzled and embittered Hunter named Hans (Otto Jespersen), one of the great fun characters of 2011. There's talk of a Hollywood remake (of course) but absolutely don't bother. Troll Hunter is where it's at and after 2010's Rare Exports (and the yet to be seen by me Valhalla Rising) offers further proof of a thriving genre presence in the old countries of the Vikings.
Paddy Considine is an actor I appreciate seeing in pretty much anything he appears in. From his nervy journalist in The Bourne Supremacy to the surprisingly hilarious tough-guy farce of Detective Andy Wainwright in Hot Fuzz, Considine is an actor who has no troubles owning the screen. He comes across as an actor of deep intelligence, with a wicked sense of humour. I was anticipating his directorial debut Tyrannosaur not for anything I had heard about it, but simply for coming from Considine.
I was not disappointed. Tyrannosaur is an impressively powerful film relying on none of the camera tricks prevalent in young indie filmmakers’ works. There are some who may look at it as “poverty porn” or as just yet another lower English class kitchen-sink drama, but those people would be missing something altogether more than that. Yes it is a brutal, depressing watch at times but there is something more beneath that calloused surface.
Peter Mullan (a fellow actor-turned-director) is a frightening presence as Joseph, a volatile man consumed by rage and grief who constantly drinks himself into trouble. Olivia Colman is something of a surprise as a Christian charity store worker who's life is far from the suburban perfection Mullan assumes. Her is a performance that pretty much devastated me.
Tyrannosaur is a hard film to really recommend, as it's as far from a pleasant Saturday-night film as you can get. But it is the first film from a very assured director, who I cannot wait to see more from.
Whatever you may think of Lars von Trier as a person or provocateur, you cannot argue that he is a filmmaker with his own unique voice. While the ballyhoo surrounding his appearance at Cannes (and subsequent banishment) is a load of old nonsense, his latest exploration of depression is anything but.
Completing some sort of strange thematic throughline at the Festival (art-house science fiction from a noted director; The Tree of Life and with an approaching planetary body promising death or redemption; see Another Earth) Melancholia is a beautiful, depressing, confounding, daring and frustrating work of art.
Separated into two halves with each half focusing on a different sister as a strange new planet inexorably approaches the Earth. Up-front is the wedding day of Kirsten Dunst's Justine and it quickly devolves into a depressing mess, with the bride going MIA and the family constantly bickering. Her marriage is over before it begins. Charlotte Gainsbourg's Claire, and her family, are the focus of part two. Justine, still suffering from crushing depression, comes to stay with Claire, her son and her husband (Kiefer Sutherland). Oh, and then the world ends.
Melancholia is a film of big ideas and explorations but never loses sight of the micro; the muck and mire of humanity that these ideas spring from. Off-putting for a lot of people, Melancholia and von Trier have no interest in making things easy or offering answers. It's a film you just have to give yourself over to and allow yourself to be gobsmacked.
Joe Wright is some sort of chameleon. His first film was the Jane Austen adaption Pride & Prejudice, which he then followed up with the celebrated World War II period film Atonement and then set off to the States for the contemporary but unsteady The Soloist. And then, as if to blast all the cobwebs away, he shoots out Hanna; a sort of art-house pre-teen spy thriller in the Bourne mold.
I'm fairly surprised to, a few months after seeing it, be looking back at Hanna as one of my favourite movies of the year. Especially over films like Drive and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. But for some reason or another, it is a film that sticks out to me and has captured some strange part of my imagination. Wright took a slew of disparate elements and blended them into some sort of intoxicating cocktail of cinema. Hanna is a cracking coming-of-age fairytale paranoid spy-thriller music video of dizzying skill.
Working once again with Saoirse Ronan (a chameleon equal to Wright) as the eponymous young girl assassin on the run, Wright also drafts in Eric Bana (who is sorely underused in most other films) and the frightening but bewitching Cate Blanchett. That is a trio of scarily excellent talent, in addition to the Chemical Brothers on score.
Hanna deserved more than the brief, almost perfunctory release it received in New Zealand. A film of stylish intelligence and it is a singular film in a world of franchises.
Milocrorze: A Love Story
Unfortunately, I have no idea as to whether anyone is going to get a chance to see this wonderfully oddball Japanese film because as much as I loved it, I just don’t see it having an incredibly wide audience. But then, this is exactly why I took the utterly mad step of going to Fantastic Fest this year – to see films like this that I otherwise wouldn’t get the chance to.
Milocrorze is not a perfect film but it so very much its own thing I really don’t mind that much. Telling three stories all about love in some way or another that carry only the loosest connective tissue, they are all told in their own style. The tale of Ovreneli Vreneligare and his love of the Great Milocrorze is a live-action cartoon with colours that sear your eyeballs; the story of “relationship expert” Besson Kumagai is a tongue-in-cheek 60’s influenced musical while the epic tale of Tamon and his quest for his kidnapped love takes the largest stylistic detour and becomes some sort of neo-futuristic samurai romance capped off by a stunning one-take slash-fest. Unfortunately, it is this quest that proves the films biggest weak point coming as it does after two energetic and wild segments. But it's an important part of the overall picture
It's a stunning triumph of style, with an overflow of ideas, pastiches and fizzing fun. For being a perfect summation of why I quit my job and traveled thousands of miles to the capital of Texas, Milocrorze makes it to my Favourites of 2011.
Clown: The Movie
As sure as I am that Milocrorze won’t get any sort of showing over here, I have to wonder at the possibility of even this film getting any sort of release without a couple of significant cuts. Clown is a comedy that has absolutely zero problems in taking a giant flying leap over the boundaries of acceptability. There is an unfortunate censorship aspect that may rear its head with respect to a couple of the choicest gags in the film and cuts would severely affect the humour.
Which is an absolute damn shame, as this is easily one of the funniest films I have ever seen. And I’m sure a large part of that is due to my complete and utter surprise – I wasn’t even planning to see this at Fantastic Fest! I’m no fan of clowns, the brief synopsis I had read did nothing for me and there were so many other films vying for attention at the time. It was only due to a lucky conversation where it was enthusiastically endorsed that I caught it. Thankfully, there are no clowns and the story is an excuse to hang a whole bunch of awkward and rude humour. I guess the quickest explanation of Clown can be: it's like a sex-comedy influenced by the awkward documentary style of The Office but with no sense of restraint.
And really, in the lucky happenstance you do get to see Clown I should shut-up about it; nothing hurts a comedy like built up over-anticipation. And if you really want to see what I’m gushing about, there are six seasons of Clown on DVD available (in Dutch though). This is the film something like The Hangover doesn't dare to be.
And that's it; my 2011 wrapped up. I'd love to hear about your favourite films of 2011 in the comments. Did you go for a Drive with Ryan Gosling? Did you feel like you were worthy enough to possess the power of Thor? Or were you one of the Bridesmaids? (a film I missed at the cinema unfortunately but one that would likely find itself on this list). Or was there a film you discovered this year that was a delightful surprise you can't wait to tell everyone about?
Thanks for reading.