So 2011 has been and gone. For no apparent reason I thought I’d share with you the list of new films I’ve watched over the last year and some brief comments about each of them. Apart from the films listed here, I’ve also watched an awful lot of Soviet sf thanks to the BFI’s Kosmos season (reviewed here) and some of the films at this year’s Sci Fi London (reviewed here). I also spent part of the year watching a lot of Spanish sf for a piece I planned to write but just as I was about to start putting words on the page I read Nina Allan’s article in Starburst and decided there really wasn’t any point. So, this is mostly a list Hollywood movies.
If you want to cut to the chase, my favourites films of the year were, in no particular order: Black Swan, True Grit, Hanna, Attack the Block, The Tree of Life, The Guard, Tucker and Dale Versus Evil, 100 Mornings (from Sci Fi London)
The Green Hornet
The reviewers tore this film to shreds, especially for the performance of Seth Rogen who was woefully miscast as the heroic lead. There was some justification for the reaction but it wasn’t the worst superhero film of the year with the word “green” in the title. Still, falling between the stools of outright comedy and action movie, The Green Hornet fatally failed to deliver on either count.
Darren Aaronofsky is one of the finest directors working in America and I’ve been a fan since I stumbled into a screening of Pi in the Empire Leicester Square on an afternoon when I was stretching the meaning of the word lunch hour beyond the boundaries of normal physics. This is a magnificent, wrenching and beautifully made film. Black Swan’s only serious flaw is that it doesn’t quite convince when it tries to make its actors into dancers.
As with so many of the Coen Brothers films this drew wonderful performances from a brilliant cast and situated in them in a rich and convincingly realised world. Entirely enjoyable. Totally absorbing. Fantastic.
I Am Number Four
I had forgotten everything about this film five minutes after I left the screening, this is teen cinema at its most relentlessly bland.
I laughed, quite a lot, but this wasn’t a film that found itself a place deep in my heart – unlike its predecessors Shaun of the Dead and the under-loved Hot Fuzz. Pegg and Frost remained engaging but Edgar Wright’s deft touch was missed.
Anthony Hopkins is 74. I don’t want to sound morbid but there’s a chance that every new film he makes could be his last. It would have been terrible if The Rite had claimed that honour and ended a remarkable career on a bum note. Come on, Mr Hopkins, you need to take more care about which jobs you say yes to.
The Adjustment Bureau
Pleasant leads. Okay script. Competent direction. A film without soul or any remarkable feature but it filled two hours without particular offence.
Battle: Los Angeles
A jingoistic film of extraordinary stupidity constructed around characters that were less substantial than the beams of light that formed their images on the screen.
If it all falls apart slightly at the end the superb presentation of a character “buzzing” his way through moments of absolute clarity and apparent invincibility won Limitless a lot of credit in my book. Director Neil Burger did a great job of shackling Bradley Cooper’s often annoying screen persona to the benefit of his film. Limitless is likeable.
Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth was one of my favourite books as young boy. This film fails to translate any of the things I particularly loved about this story to the screen and divorced from any emotional context this is poor sword and sandals stuff.
Zack Snyder directs relentlessy crappy, reactionary movies that I loathe with a deep and abiding passion. Sucker Punch is tedious wank material made by a director with all the emotional depth of a barely functioning sociopath.
Although Saoirse Ronan, Eric Bana and Cate Blanchett all turn in fine performances (Blanchett, in particular, didn’t receive the credit she deserved for a mesmerizingly brittle turn), writers Lochhead and Farr turn in a nicely twisty script and Joe Wright directs crisply, the real star of this excellent film is Alwin Kuchler’s brilliant cinematography that encompasses the globe in rich and precisely defined pallets. The Chemical Brothers’ score is top-notch too.
Tomorrow When The War Began
A film that made me long for the nuanced politics and high-quality performances of Red Dawn.
Mars Needs Moms
A film that flopped horribly – one of the biggest failures in Hollywood history – which is odd because it isn’t that bad and I’d certainly rather watch this again than any of the Shrek films.
Sometimes the Hollywood system allows a film to slip through that is so peculiar that you wonder how the hell an industry that often seems unremittingly conservative could have let this one slip through. Rango is a bit like that. How did it ever get past the first pitch? It’s smart, beautiful and sharply satirical with an excellent script by John Logan – and it’s an animated movie for kids. By some distance Gore Verbinski’s best film.
Duncan Jones follow up to Moon isn’t quite the equal of his first film but it remains an excellent piece of science fiction. Gyllenhaal displays the necessary vulnerability the role requires while maintaining a convincing action-hero mien and the plot twists and turns in pleasing ways. Good, if not quite great.
Thor doesn’t work, mostly because Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is far more interesting that Chris Hemsworth’s hero but isn’t given the room to develop. Nevertheless, it has some nice moments and, for me (as a long-term Marvel fan) it was worth every penny to see The Destroyer set loose on a cinema screen in just the way I’d always imagined it. I’m looking forward to seeking Loki again in The Avengers.
Attack the Block
An excellent movie from first time director Joe Cornish. In a year where, on television screens, the young men of Britain’s inner cities were tearing their communities apart in an orgy of violence inspired (probably in equal measures) by rage, desperation, greed and stupidity on the cinema screen they got to save the world. It achieves a successful balance between wit and action and nicely references a host of genre movies, owing a particular debt to John Carpenter, without drowning under it references.
Okay it’s a bit sickly, and Bono is now so frequently and widely reviled that the mere mention of his name was enough to attract opprobrium from many reviewers. But its depiction of the Irish music scene through the 1980s was spot on and there was a distinct sense of “there but for the grace of God…”
X:Men First Class
Vaughan’s reboot of the ailing X-Men franchise works, more or less. I liked the sixties setting, the broader political awareness, the tension between the leads McAvoy and Fassbender and hope that they make more.
Oh dear. This film was fundamentally undermined from the start because of the essential absence of conflict or human interest in the character at its core. The Green Lantern is the kind of superhero who gives other superheroes a bad name, superficial and glossy and concerned only with spectacle and yet the film fails to deliver even at that basic level. The film repeats an error that undermined an earlier superhero movie, the second Fantastic Four film, by making its big villain an enormous, amorphous, uninteresting, blob.
I wanted to like this British historical actioner. There’s an impressive cast (Cox, Jacobi, Giamatti, Dance) and a nice idea but it all falls apart under the pressure of a deeply stupid story decisions and daft dialogue.
Kill the Irishman
This is a minor gangster movie that is enlivened by Ray Stevenson’s lead performance and a supporting role by Christopher Walken, based on a true story.
Kung Fu Panda 2
The first one was fun. This one, not so much.
Likeable, low-budget Argentine horror movie that doesn’t quite deliver on its promise.
Transformers: Dark of the Moon
It’s terminally stupid and maddeningly brash but there’s something admirable about Michael Bay’s bonkers determination to operate at vast scales and at with such high-pitched intensity that he can only be heard by dogs. There’s no doubt that this series is suffering from a significant decline but there are still moments when Bay’s understanding that cinema can be a purely visceral medium delivers extraordinary sensory overload.
Captain America: The First Avenger
An excellent first hour which neatly gives heart and soul to a character that could have been handled in a horribly jingoistic way but it subsides into a disappointing final half hour when poorly choreographed action undermines what has gone before. Nonetheless the director Johnston and writers Markus and McFeely deserve credit for creating film that is both faithful to and successfully updates Marvel’s old warhorse while taking shallow patriotism to task.
Tries too hard to deliver Speilbergian moments of wonder while never quite manages to recreate the heart of his work but it still provides spectacular moments – particularly the train crash.
Good quality martial arts action movie. A diverting two hours.
Tinker Tailor Solider Spy
A chilly film, its emotional detachment is perhaps overdone as it weakens the sense of betrayal that should burn rawly through the final moments. It looks beautiful, however, and the cast deliver impressive performances.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
I doubt there was any film this year that I approached with lower expectations so the fact that this turned out to be quite good was a delight. Perhaps the apes are a touch too mawkishly handled but at the same time the story zips along effectively, the special effects work brilliantly and, while the film doesn’t let anything like a philosophy take up screen time, it nonetheless delivers some thought-provoking images. As a fan of the originals I liked that it paid just enough homage to its precursors without becoming bogged down by their continuity.
Cowboys and Aliens
It turns out this film really was as stupid as its title.
Sam Shepard is rather good as the aging Butch Cassidy struggling against the odds to survive in Bolivia. A welcome modern Western from Abre Los Ojos director Gil, Blackthorn doesn’t quite make the most of the material that it has to hand but remains an enjoyable film for those of us with a soft-spot for Oaters.
Everyone has told you this is an extraordinary documentary, so if you haven’t seen it, you should.
Spy Kids 4
I like the first three films. This is okay but hardly essential.
The “found footage” stuff doesn’t work. The story doesn’t work. The monsters are stupid. But I didn’t hate Apollo 18 – I rather liked its take on The Right Stuff heroes at the core of the film.
Sometimes someone else gets to pick a movie. I didn’t think this was as funny as The Hangover, from which it obviously draws inspiration but good comedy films are hard to make and this isn’t terrible.
This Norwegian monster movie is another “found footage” movie but it works better than most of the other entrants in this genre. I enjoyed it, the monsters are well designed and nicely integrated into Norse mythology – the scene with the goats on the bridge is particularly funny. A good film.
Cool enough to cause frostbite, Ryan Gosling’s restrained performance dominates this 80s-inspired story of a small-time criminal whose attempt to help Carey Mulligan’s hapless Irene causes disaster. I found it perhaps more mannered than was strictly necessary and didn’t go as mad for it as some of the reviewers. One I will watch again.
Brilliant Irish gangster movie built around Brendan Gleeson’s wonderful performance as the hard-living, irascible cop who finds himself caught up in the action when big-time drug smugglers some to his part of Ireland’s west coast. In terms of straightforward pleasure, I don’t think I enjoyed a film more this year.
Lars Von Trier’s take on the end of the world is beautiful to look at, intelligent and challenging. Von Trier is a remarkable filmmaker who extracts marvellous performances from a first rate cast – Dunst, Gainsbourg and Rampling all excel. There is emotional and philosophical depth here as well as moments of stunning visual power. And yet I hated this movie. I hated its cynicism. I hated the fact that the director plainly loathes every character he puts on screen. I hated the nihilism behind its claim that all life is shit. I hated the way it abandons reason and surrenders to, revels in, irrationality. Melancholia is a beautiful thing wrapped around a series of hateful ideas.
The Tree of Life
If there was a film that I loved as much as I hated Melancholia it is Malick’s The Tree of Life. Malick’s direction is, as usual, lush and complex and the images are painterly and precise and meticulously formed. Brad Pitt and Sean Penn abandon, almost entirely, the stylistic ticks of their Hollywood personas to deliver wonderful performances and Jessica Chastain is a revelation. But it is the sense of hope, of wonder, of faith in humanity (without any hint of mawkishness or sweetness) that underpins Malick’s film that makes it a joy to watch and rewatch. The Tree of Life is vast in scale – encompassing all of creation – and yet though it places human concerns within that pitiless context it never dismisses their importance. A remarkable, wonderful, film.
Contagion is Steven Soderbergh’s attempt to do for contagious disease what he did with the drug trade in Traffic, telling a global story through the disparate but linked lives of a cast of characters. Contagion has a lovely pallet and Soderbergh’s familiar cool directing style. It is let down, I think, by its failure to connect with its characters (Matt Damon’s character, in particular, is poorly developed) and by a lot of hokum and hand-waving in the science and sociology. That said, I thought Contagion was an admirable attempt to do something interesting with an overfamiliar plot.
Andrew Niccol wrote and directed Gattaca, a feat that earns him significant credit in my book. In Time isn’t remotely in that league being highly derivative and a significantly underpowered in terms of story, performance and direction. It isn’t a remotely great film, but it isn’t terrible either – I didn’t curse the loss of the time spent watching it but I’m glad there are better films out there.
Tucker and Dale Versus Evil
A film that cleverly deconstructs the clichés of slasher movies without allowing the film’s knowing asides to ever becoming irritating or distracting from the increasingly improbable, madcap story at its heart. Tudyk and Labine are superb as the hapless rednecks caught up in a spiral of lunacy as a group of dim-witted teens begin to die around them in increasingly spectacular fashion. Well made, fun and frequently very funny. Highly recommended.
No one really needed this prequel to Carpenter’s The Thing and the film fails to make a convincing argument for its place alongside its superior predecessor.
Another piece of arthouse sf, the appearance of a mirror image of the Earth disrupts the life of a composer and a young scientist. Written by and starring the striking and talented Brit Marling, Another Earth is low budget, high-concept and intelligent and it demonstrates, if that proof were needed, that science fictional ideas can be tied to emotionally powerful stories. The striking image of the alternative Earth hanging above the characters dominates the film visually but it does not undermine the playing out of the emotional and philosophical questions that the film deftly raises.
Studio Ghibli’s take on The Borrowers is someway short of their very finest work but, and it’s a very big but, that still makes it superior to 99% of films you will ever watch. Striking and detailed animation, effective voice casting in the English release, a powerful score and a touching story are all delivered, as expected of this studio’s consistently wonderful work. Indeed it is hard to pin down precisely why this doesn’t quite reach the heights of films like Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. Perhaps it is because it is a retelling of a Western story – neither Howl’s Moving Castle nor Ponyo stand alongside the studio’s very best output either – and lacks something essentially Japanese that sets its very best work apart. Nevertheless, despite minor reservations, this is an excellent film.
This is an excellent Finnish reworking of the Santa Claus mythology that, despite its limited budget, tells an epic tale. Rare Exports has humour and horror in a nice balance, the young hero Pietari (Onni Tommali) is excellent and the direction nicely references films like Close Encounter and The Thing while maintaining a very particular Finnish ambience. There’s plainly intelligence at work here that makes the horrific elements all the more satisfying. Santa’s little helpers are marvellous creations.
The Inbetweeners Movie
The Inbetweeners perfectly captures the desperate awkwardness of teenage life and the film version neatly transfers everything is that is good about the original sitcom while scaling the story up to something that feels satisfying at feature length. The usual cast play to their strengths and only the most curmudgeonly won’t laugh out loud at key moments – the terrible dancing in particular. The cast are, perhaps, getting a bit long in the tooth to continue playing 18 year olds but that’s a minor criticism of a film that bursts with good jokes.
The Skin I Live In
My reservations about Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In stem not from any weakness in the filmmaking – it’s a beautifully made and beautifully acted movie – but from a personal squeamishness about the subject matter. At its heart this is an old-fashioned mad-scientist movie – though that’s not to say it is in any way a pastiche or unoriginal – but when it is so beautifully made, so carefully restrained, so emotionally complex, the story becomes all the more effective. The truth, though, is that I spent most of the film squinting through my fingers and with my head half-turned from the screen. I admired this film (what I saw of it) but I can’t honestly say that I enjoyed it.
Films of 2011 that I haven’t seen yet but that I want to: Adventures of Tintin, Kill List, Red State, Hugo, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Artist, Midnight in Paris, Moneyball, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, The Muppets, Anonymous, Corialanus, The Lady, Tatsumi, Love and Real Steel.
Films of 2011 that I haven’t seen and probably won’t watch: The Human Centipede 2 and The Iron Lady – I have no interest in films about shit eaters.