NOTE: The full 24FPS' review of 2011 will be in the form of four special episodes of The Picture Show, running down mine and my guests favourite DVD and Blu Ray releases of the year, our personal awards for 2011, and our Best and Worst films of the year, including films shown at festivals during the year. This list is slightly different, covering only my favourite theatrical releases of the year, but I thought it would be worth sharing with you. Enjoy, and I hope you'll check out the full review of the year in January.
I usually spend the last third of the year saying to people that there's no such thing as a bad year for film, that if you think the year has been bad you simply haven't been seeing the right films. Now, I've seen something in excess of 200 films again this year and... it's been a bad year. Yes, the ten films below are excellent, and represent a varied spread of cinema in terms of genre, budget and country of origin, but I still have to look back to 2009's awe inspiring one two punch of Martyrs and Dogtooth to find a film that makes me sit up and say "THAT is what it's all about. THAT is why I go to the cinema".
But the films listed below aren't the problem, nor, in all honesty, are the films that number among the year's worst - it would be naive not to expect the usual round of shit sandwiches from the likes of Bay, Snyder and Hardwicke - the problem lies in between. This year the films in the middle, bar a few honourable exceptions I'll be writing about after Christmas, have been a depressing lot, not because they are awful, but because they exhibit a depressing willingness to settle for simple adequacy. It's something that seems especially pervasive in the mainstream; a 'that'll do, so why try harder?' mentality that results in the astonishingly unremarkable likes of Thor, Texas Killing Fields, Tomorrow When the War Began, and other films whose titles don't begin with a T being thrust at us with the same care and excitement that goes into prison food.
The films listed here are steak, but make no mistake, this year, at the movies, we've largely been fed gruel. Roll on 2012.
10: POTICHE (Francois Ozon)
Francois Ozon's latest is, by his standards, a minor work, but it remains a highly engaging and surprisingly spiky comedy, with much to say about sexual politics and aging. Catherine Deneuve is wonderful as the trophy wife discovering she can do more, and Gerard Depardieu hasn't seemed this engaged in a long time. An enjoyable confection.
9: THE TREE OF LIFE (Terrence Malick)
A work of vaulting ambition and astounding beauty, likely to enchant and infuriate in equal measure. Malick explores the significance of individual lives at a cosmic level. The largely whispered performances are contrasting and brilliant; Brad Pitt as a stern Father, and Jessica Chastain, ethereal as a saintly Mother. The film can be bitty, but draws together for a moving final sequence.
8: TANGLED (Nathan Greno, Byron Howard)
Disney's best film - Pixar productions notwithstanding - in the twenty years since Beauty and the Beast. This irreverent version of Rapunzel has a spunky heroine, a scary villain, an involving romance, some great songs, a tremendous hit rate with jokes verbal and visual and some beautiful visuals (the lanterns). For me it's as close as a film has come to recapturing the very special, very particular, magic of The Princess Bride.
7: HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS: PART 2 (David Yates)
Epic yet intimate, and easily the best film of the series. The young actors have grown to fill their characters shoes instinctively, and each gives their best performance to date. The set pieces are astounding, but the film is at its best dealing in details; Helena Bonham Carter's hilariously uncomfortable turn playing Hermione, transformed to look like Bellatrix Lestrange; the battle of eyes between Harry and Voldemort during their wand battle and, most telling, Emma Watson's tiny look in the aftermath of the film's climax, which sums up 8 films of story between Hermione and Ron. Blockbusters aren't usually meant to be this smart, this deep, this involving, and that's why this one is a joy.
6: ATTENBERG (Athina Rachael Tsangarai)
A deeply unusual coming of age story from the producer of Dogtooth. Ariane Labed - in her first film role - gives a brilliant performance as Marina; a young woman who has barely experienced the world, and is in many ways very childlike, who begins to explore more adult things as her Father is dying. The film is packed with striking images (the opening shot for instance; one of cinema's least sexy lesbian kisses) and boasts some of the most memorable sequences of 2011 - the best being a beautiful moment set to a Francoise Hardy song. A strange and fascinating character study that promises much of Tsangarai.
5: LOVE LIKE POISON (Katell Quillevere)
Another coming of age film. Katell Quillevere's remarkable début is about a 14 year old girl (the brilliant Clara Augarde), whose sexual awakening coincides with several other upheavals in her life; her Grandfather is dying, her parents are formalising their separation and, though she's preparing for confirmation, her faith seems to be slipping. Quillevere balances the various characters and stories beautifully, making a film that feels specific and intimate, but which will also have resonance for many viewers.
4: MELANCHOLIA (Lars Von Trier)
The fatalist's flipside to the optimistic Tree of Life. In his consideration of the cosmic worth of individual lives, Lars Von Trier's happy ending is the destruction of Earth, which, you could argue, at least ends his characters pain. Kirsten Dunst justly won the Best Actress award at Cannes for her raw and fearless turn as Justine, whose depression turns almost to relief as the end draws near, and Charlotte Gainsbourg is equally brilliant as her Sister, who collapses into naked panic. If Antichrist was about screaming pain, Melancholia is about acceptance, and it's just as stark and just as beautiful.
3: THE ARTIST (Michel Hazanavicius)
In this age of slam bang editing and headache inducing teal and orange movies with soundtracks consisting entirely of things going boom (I hate you Michael Bay), it's both a surprise and a treat to see a throwback like The Artist. Director Hazanavicius both pays homage to and recreates the silent era, with this wonderfully comedically inflected drama about a silent star sidelined by the talkies. The performances are in keeping with the style, but still full of beautiful subtleties from stars Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo, and the film's blend of comedy and drama is just about perfect. Some of the most memorable moments are about how the film deals with the idea of sound, while sticking with the style of a silent. It's clever without being smug, thanks largely to being relentlessly entertaining. Honestly, if you're not charmed by this, get someone to check you for a soul.
2: TOMBOY (Celine Sciamma)
Celine Sciamma's second coming of age movie (following her début Water Lilies) confirms her as a director with a singular talent for exposing the anxieties of growing up. Tomboy is about Laure; a 10 year old girl (the exceptional Zoe Heran) who, when her family moves to a new place, begins introducing herself to her new friends as a boy named Mikael. Sciamma digs into issues of identity, but without ever quite answering whether Laure is really trans, or simply going through a phase. Tomboy really wins out through a naturalistic approach, both from Sciamma as director and from her talented young cast. Sharply intelligent, often funny, and extremely moving, this is both insightful and entertaining.
1: CONFESSIONS (Tetsuya Nakashima)
This unconventional vengeance film from Japan comes from a director whose previous film echoed Amelie more than it did Lady Vengeance. Nakashima's film is as cold, sharp and hard edged as steel. All the elements; story; cinematography; soundtrack; editing; acting (the charismatic young actress Ai Hashimoto should be one to watch in the future), fall into place, but it is the cumulative impact that all the little pieces have as they fall together, they way they make the film a 104 minute gut punch, that makes this the best theatrical release of 2011. I won't say more, I don't want to spoil it.