Monday, January 02, 2012

Five Favourite Films From 2011

I watched a good many new films in 2011, probably more than any year in my life. Alas, there was not time enough for everything; I wasn’t able to fit in the charm and sophistication of Human Centipede 2, or the 3D immersigasm of Transformers 3, but I was able to fit in many films that were good.

Here are five of them, in no particular order, because I couldn’t think of one.

Take Shelter
Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Shea Whigam. Dir:Jeff Nichols.

Inspired by dreams of a catastrophic storm, a man decides to repair the old storm shelter in his back yard. The coming storm is, of course, a metaphor for madness; Michael Shannon knows schizophrenia runs in the family, but though he may doubt his visions, he can’t help but pay attention to his instinct to protect his family.

The film’s biggest asset is Shannon, whose tough granite-stone face is able to hide perfectly the feelings and emotions of a man teetering on the edge (see Boardwalk Empire). He’s a figure who shuffles around shyly, but whose imposing size and unpredictability make us really fear for his family.

But we never lose sympathy for our lead, and that’s the film’s great triumph. It makes us understand the fuel of a man’s madness; we like and pity Shannon’s character but at the same time remain ambivalent to how his family and friends should deal with him. Chastain, the less showy, but crucial role, has to decide whether to care for her husband or to run and protect herself and child.

Madness is normally something that appears on screen in a fantastical, exaggerated performances; this film deserves much kudos for showing ii in its devastating human form.

Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moretz, Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Emily Mortimer, and Jude Law. Dir: Martin Scorsese

There was a bit of discussion when Hugo came out as to whether it was a film made for critics rather than children, who would find it cinematic nostalgia boring.
It’s a celebration of cinema’s birth, particularly the work of Georges Melies*, and of course lacks the excitement of flying robots and CGI penguins.

But one wonders slightly if this reaction is based more on enmity between journalist critics and academic critics; there are many children’s classics – Watership Down, Bambi – that are far from bursting with action and volume. And if our children can’t cope with watching something more sedate, I think we should start worrying about them (more).

Hugo casts an air of magic that I found irresistible, and not just as a fan of silent cinema, and Melies in particular. Scorcese’s recreation of the Paris Gare Montparnasse train station is a visual treat, and even manages to use 3D sensibly as a way to give it depth and its crowd’s volume (although you can still do without it). The cast, including the children, are all practically perfect, and it even finds room for a real piece of cinematic history, Sir Christopher Lee, as a kindly bookseller. It really is a heart-warming delight for film fans, and if kids don’t like it, it’s important that you show them why they’re wrong (smack them if you have to).

We Need To Talk About Kevin
Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly, Ezra Miller. Dir: Lynne Ramsey.

A film that will really have you worrying about your children. Harrowing and deeply upsetting, the film is based around a high school shooting, and follows events before and after from the perspective of the perpetrators mother, played by Tilda Swinton. It’s a film about nature versus nurture, was Kevin simply born bad, or did his mother somehow raise him that way? The implication being that Kevin consciously knows that his mother had never wanted children.

The film jumps back and forth through time, stripping away any element that is not relevant, leaving this an extremely meaty piece of viewing. It’s not jolly, but yet somehow the finale still manages to give you a just a grain of hope for the future. Tilda Swinton deserves a full trophy cabinet come awards season. Of the five films I’ve chosen, this is surely the one people will still be talking about in 20 years time.

Oranges & Sunshine
Emily Watson, Hugo Weaving, David Wenham, Richard Dillane. Dir: Jim Loach.

A quieter entry, but the better for it. If you’ve got an incredible story, then why not let it tell itself?

It benefits of course from being a true story; little known, but absolutely shocking. It’s the tale of Margaret Humphries and her discovery that thousands of UK orphans were shipped to Australia in the decades following the war, even though many of them had living relatives. The children in many, many cases did not go onto better lives, and were instead subject to abuse and almost servitude to supposedly charitable organisations.

The movie never engages in hysterics, providing believable stories of tortured souls and damaged personalities. But it’s not a Hollywood award stalking-horse, it’s a movie by Ken Loach’s son, Jim, and is built around small, but totally believable intimate performances. Even as the hero, Margaret Humphreys, Emily Watson, is just a normal good-natured social worker, whose quest to do right exposes her own vulnerabilities and quickly has her out of her depth. A film that proves you don’t have to make a lot of noise to make hearts break.

The Skin I Live In
Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Marisa Paredes, Jan Cornet. Dir: Pedro Almodóvar.

The scariest film of the year has very little blood, but it will mess with your mind like nothing else. Antonio Banderas is a mad doctor who has a girl imprisoned in his home, someone he has operated on to give them a superior resilient form of skin. But as he becomes obsessed with the beauty of his creation, we discover the sinister truth that brought them together, a frightening tale of revenge and psychological and sexual assault.

I don’t want to spoil the twist, but it’s definitely one that will mess with your head. Almodovar plays the scenario completely straight, as the more fantastical elements of the story are almost incidental (the skin experiment is virtually a red-herring).

This is a story about madness and psychological horror, with Banderas cast perfectly as man with a steely, stylish air whose madness and menace he seems almost able to control. Shot on beautiful sets, resplendent in their clinical elegance, this is one that really is going to stay with you and make you shudder.

Honourable mentions go to Melancholia, The Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Kill List, Drive and The Guard.

* If you've never seen any Melies, here and here are some rather nice examples of his work (the music, alas, is not his choice).