For months now, critics and cinephiles all over the world have invested an extraordinary amount of time and effort preparing their end of year film lists. Blogs, magazines, podcasts and tweets have been filled with an assortment of best of/worst of 2011 lists. It’s a big deal, especially for pro-am film reviewers. So big, in fact, that Leftfield Cinema recently extended the deadline for submissions to their annual forum top 10 just so that Michael Hazanavicius’ critically acclaimed homage to the silent era (The Artist) had a chance for inclusion on the 2011 list – the only official one it seemed to be eligible for at the time. This kind of joyous madness is inevitable really. Once you’ve committed to the idea of publishing a year end list, it consumes you. You tend to watch only the films you think might make it onto your list. You want to know what others are watching and how they’ve ranked it. You revisit your list over and over again, like an ant sorting aphids. My filmmaking partner and I shared our provisional rankings of films back in the summer, and have been debating the position of films on our list ever since. Let me tell you, the pleasures are endless.
I suppose the main reason it’s taken on such ridiculous significance is that we’re geeks. There’s also some definite social positioning going on – a way to connect with people with shared passions and communicate something about yourself to them. For me, the list is my way of paying tribute to the things I value in film: originality, insightfulness and authenticity. These are the 10 best films released in UK cinemas or festivals in 2011 – the ones I thought were important, the ones I enjoyed the most and wanted others to experience for themselves. Another way of putting all of this would be to say that the list is my way of taking a stand against the bullshit and distraction that unfortunately passes for mass entertainment.
I watched 35 new releases in 2011 – a lot less than most cinephiles, but not bad considering all my other priorities. As always, coming to a decision about my favourites has been a lot harder than picking out the ones I disliked. This year was particularly hard, and to be fair, each of one of the top 6 could easily be my film of the year. But I avoided the temptation of tying them all in the same position, and instead opted to go for more lists so I can give them each their due. Over the next few days, I’ll be posting my top 5 scenes, shots, edits, and performance, as well as my favourite script, director, and cinematography. I’d love to hear your comments, so please do drop me a line.
World cinema and documentary have featured strongly on this year’s list, and although no particular national cinema has dominated, this may have different had I seen any one of the British films that received such tremendous critical acclaim this year. Among them: We Need to Talk about Kevin, Wuthering Heights, Tyrannosaur, Neds, Treacle Jr., Archipelago, Dreams of a Life, Kill List, Attack the Block and Weekend. I could go on (there are at least a handful of other must-see titles I could mention), but let’s just hope that the British industry continues to produce films and filmmakers of such quality and vitality in the years to come, despite the cuts and looming recession.
As was the case in 2010, a number of the films in my top 10 are directorial debuts. It’s always exciting to see new talent emerging, but based on the quality of what they’ve produced, these films are as assured and as masterful as some of the best works from cinema’s most celebrated directors (many of whom released major films I was unable to see this year: including Lars von Trier, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, Pedro Almodovar and Bela Tarr). I’m really looking forward to following their careers. Their work, as with all the films on this list, deserve to be seen by much larger audiences. It’s no surprise though – given that many of the films deal with old age and the end of relationships – that most got a very limited release and achieved small returns at the box office. I suppose this is inevitable in a global culture that values fluff over thoughtfulness, convenience over examination, and spectacle over story. But even so, it’s a shame since all of these films successfully manage to avoid the miserabilism that so often turns people away from “arthouse” cinema. I hope that this list and my brief commentary inspires you to seek them out and spread the word. Like most worthwhile things in life, they require a little bit of patience but offer so much more in return.
My top 10 films of 2011 are –
10. Submarine (Written and Directed by Richard Ayoade): The most commercially successful film on the list, this smart and effortlessly charming coming-of-age tale announces Ayoade as an exciting new writing and directing talent. Drawing terrific deadpan performances from Craig Roberts, Noah Tyler and Paddy Considine (here at his odd-ball best), Ayoade totally immerses us in the world of his teenage protagonist, who’s sex life takes a turn for the better as his parent’s own takes strain. Fun and serious; fantastical, and yet true to life, this film is a cinematic pleasure ride from start to (Nouvelle-Vague) inspired finish.
9. Rubber (Written and Directed by Quentin Dupieux): You might be alarmed to hear a die-hard rationalist like me say that sometimes it is necessary to stop making sense, so let me qualify and say that sometimes one needs to break ranks with generally accepted wisdom and bring in a radical new perspective. In its own minor way, this is what musician-turned-filmmaker Quentin Dupieux has achieved with his dada-esque wonder, Rubber. Setting his target straight between Hollywood’s glazed eyeballs, Dupieux slowly wittles away all traces of disbelief as he seduces the audience into accepting the utterly ludicrous premise of this tale, which follows the bloody trail left by Robert: a murderous radial tire who uses his psycho-kinetic powers to blow the heads off everything that stands in his way. Confused? Intrigued? Go see it. It’ll pop your cranium.
8. A Screaming Man (Written and Directed by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun): Except for one or two shortcuts in the third act, this film is perfectly scripted and its depiction of life during wartime is one of the finest I’ve seen. The story focuses on Adam, an elderly pool attendant (wonderfully portrayed by the stoical Youssef Djaro) who has worked the last 30 years of his life at a hotel in Chad’s capital city. He is the kind of man who one might easily overlook: quiet, gentle, unassuming. But as the new hotel ownership and impending civil war threaten the stability of his life, the story begins to tighten its grip over us and opens our eyes to his character and the nature of the world he lives in. Tragic and beautiful, with scattered hints of dry humour, the film fully deserves it’s Jury Prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and, in my view, singles Haroun out as the finest African filmmaker at work today.
7. Blue Valentine (Written by Derek Cianfrance, Joey Curtis, Cami Delavigne; Directed by Derek Cianfrance): As played with in the poster for his latest film, the Ides of March, Ryan Gosling is well on his way to becoming the new George Clooney. A movie superstar he may be, but Gosling’s immense talent and committment as an actor will be clear to anyone who sees this film. Developed over a 10 year period by writer-director Derek Cianfrance, in close collaboration with Michelle Williams, Gosling and his co-writers, Blue Valentine is personal storytelling at its finest. Williams and Gosling give incredibly authentic performances, which owe a lot to the demanding preparation they underwent for their roles and Cianfrance’s documentary-style approach to the shoot. The film charts the heart-warming beginning and bitter end of a young couple’s relationship, refusing to take either one’s side or to leave the audience with any easy answers. If anything, it will get you talking and certainly make you less complacent about the love in your life.
6. Sweetgrass (Recorded by Lucien Casting-Taylor, Edited by Ilsa Barbash). Following in the wake of recent documentary classics such as Modern Life and Sleep Furiously, this magnificent film (by the Harvard-based ‘visual anthropologists’ Lucien Casting-Taylor and Ilsa Barbash) documents the end of a century’s long tradition carried out by a family of Norwegian-American cowboys. Each year, these menfolk herd a flock of sheep across the Absarocka-Beartooth Mountains in Montana. The filmmakers spent many year’s editing together the achingly beautiful footage they’d amassed during their many visits to the area, but the results of all that effort speaks for itself. It’s a fully immersive experience, with some of the best cinematography and sound-design of any film I’ve seen this year. The bleating of sheep and clanking of bells will stay with you long after the credits have rolled.
5. Volcano (Written and Directed by Runar Runarsson): Runarsson, who hails from Iceland, first came to my attention with his Oscar-nominated short, The Last Farm, about an old man who prepares to leave his farm after the death of his life-long partner. That film – so full of pathos, wisdom and beauty – did not get the Academy’s nod, which went instead to the god-awful Six Shooter, a painfully misjudged mess by Martin McDonagh. Thankfully, the Last Farm won numerous other awards, and Runarsson (after completing film school in Denmark) went on to make other short films, mostly focusing on children on the verge of adulthood. For his first feature, he once more delivers a dignified and brutally truthful portrait of old age, telling the story of Hannes, a recently retired curmudgeon who must care for his seriously ill wife. It is, to borrow a phrase from a fellow screenwriter, “a coming-of-age tale late in life.” The experience is absolutely unforgettable, though for large parts almost unbearable to watch. It evokes Bergman’s masterpiece ‘Cries and Whispers’ on many levels and perhaps in time will come to be regarded alongside it.
4. A Separation (Written and Directed by Asghar Farhadi) I was thoroughly surprised by this film. Despite the initial buzz surrounding it, the news of its multiple awards at the Berlin Film Festival came soon after I’d been enthralled by Kim Longinotto’s masterpiece, Divorce Iranian Style. I wondered whether it would find its way out of the shadow of that great work. But after the tense opening sequence, I was left in no doubt that Farhadi’s drama was standing on its own feet, and with each turn of its exquisitely crafted plot, I felt my enthusiasm for it grow and grow. It works on every level, delivering an intense (almost forensic) examination of human motivation, and the fuzzy borders between truth and memory. It subtly dissects the impact of class, gender and religion in modern Iran, but stops understandly short of outright criticism. What you’re left with is the thrill of a great drama, a tingle in your brain and plenty, plenty to talk about afterwards.
3. Las Acacias (Written by Pablo Giorgelli and Salvadore Rosselli; Directed by Pablo Giorgelli). In the spirit of simplicity so brilliantly brought to screen in this slow-burning Argentinian road movie, I’ll simply repeat the tweet I posted after I first saw it a few weeks ago. In a way, it says everything I need to about this gem: “Las Acacias: the magic of reality – of real human connection – on screen. Simple, wonderous, pure cinema.”
2. Armadillo (Directed by Janus Metz Pederson): As I said before, any one of the top six could be my number one film of the year. For a long time, this was it. And I wasn’t sure how anything could top Janus Metz Pederson’s breathtaking documentary following a group of young Danish soldiers as they head off to Camp Armadillo in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Beautifully filmed and edited with virtuoso narrative and technical skill, this film is one of the best war movies you can see and shows that journalistic integrity doesn’t need to be sacrificed in exchange for embed status. It caused enormous controversy on its initial release for its inclusion of a scene in which Danish soldiers seemingly commit a war crime following a tense gun battle against Taliban combatants. But the real power of this film, like the Hurt Locker with which it bears obvious comparison, is that it takes away the urge to judge the soldiers (without denying individual responsibility), and replaces it with a desire to understand why it has happened. Repeat viewings will, I’m sure, bring great rewards, and I’m definitely adding this to my collection. Classic status beckons.
1. La Quattro Volte (Written and Directed by Michael Frammartino): Talking about the inspiration for his non-narrative film, Koyannisqatsi, the great documentarian Godfrey Reggio said that he wanted to bring the foreground what was normally in the background of films (elements such as images and music), and vice versa. I’m convinced that all truly groundbreaking films contain a version of this type of paradigm shift. In the case of La Quattro Volte, Michael Frammartino’s unclassifiable cinematic milestone, it’s animals, trees and minerals that steal the show and take centre stage from humans. Although Frammartino was inspired by Pythagorus’ (now) bizarre philosophy of the transmigration of the soul from human to animal to vegetable to mineral, you can forget about all that mumbo jumbo and just let the majesty of this wordless film reveal itself to you. It’s comic and highly original celebration of our connection to nature clearly distinguishes it from the post-modernist preoccupations of that other bastion of innovation in 2011, Rubber. The wonderful set-pieces, cinematography, sound-design had me spell-bound, part awe-struck and part-envious of the gall and intelligence it took to creative such a distinctive work. But the main reason La Quattro Volte comes tops is that it is answers the only question that really counts with end of year lists: namely, of all the films released in 2011, which one do you most want people to see? So now you know: go out and get it.
PS: While you’re at it, add these to your watchlist as well: 11) Rio Breaks, 12) Hugo, 13) Senna, 14) Ballast, 15) Poetry, 16) Hard Labour, 17) Cold Weather,18) A Day in the Life, 19) Ides of March, and 20) Fire in Babylon.