Here’s my top ten list for 2011. As with all lists it is a matter of personal taste.
Director Michel Hazanavicius proved himself to be a dab hand at pastiche with his OSS 117 movies. This charming tale of a silent era movie star (Jean Dujardin) having to deal with the advent of sound and repressing his feelings for Hollywood’s new It Girl (Berenice Bejo) captures the style of those early movies perfectly. Both actors seem like they belong in the 1920’s. Dujardin channels Douglas Fairbanks and his permanently amused screen presence. Bejo’s comic timing is exceptional. Oddly enough for a film made in black and white The Artist
reminded me a lot of Stanley Donen’s Technicolor masterpiece Singin’ in the Rain
(1952). It too is about a silent star trying to deal with the advent of sound. The approach the two directors make to their stories may be different but their final coda is the same; “Gotta Dance!”
8) DETECTIVE DEE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME
“Everything is transient. Follow Heaven’s Mandate”
Lush epic murder-mystery from genre specialist Tsui Hark. Andy Lau’s world-weary detective is freed from prison to investigate a series of murders linked to the construction of a giant Buddha statue. Featuring spontaneous combustion, talking fawns, and kung fu fights with puppets on a string, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame has everything you could want from a wuxia. Sammo Hung choreographed the fight sequences. There’s great support from Carina Lau as China’s only female Empress, Li Bingbing as her right hand woman, and Chao Deng as an enigmatic albino warrior.
“Life is only on Earth, and not for long.”
A welcome return to the stylised form of film-making Lars von Trier rejected for the strictures of Dogme, Melancholia is the director’s best work since the TV series The Kingdom (1994). As social satire and as sci-fi the film flounders, but as an insight into a depressive state of mind Melancholia is outstanding. Justine (Kirsten Dunst) destroys her own wedding without really meaning to as a happy event turns into a precursor for the end of the world. In the second part of the film Justine is a near catatonic wreck until a planet hurtles towards Earth on a collision course. Then she comes alive. ecstatic even, bathing nude in the moonlight and coming to terms with oblivion far more capably than her well adjusted sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg). It’s a comforting thought for those who view life through a glass darkly. Especially as von Trier suggests those of a cheerier disposition are fucked.
“Then he sighed and his body relaxed and that was the moment…”
Asif Kapadia’s sensitively handled documentary about the great Brazilian driver Ayrton Senna had me in tears. The bitter rivalry between Senna and his nemesis Alain Prost is fascinating. A clash between two opposing forces, Senna the romantic who always raced to win, and Prost the pragmatist who planned out his races beforehand. Kapadia compiled Senna using archive footage never cutting away from events to look back on them meaning we stay in the moment watching Senna as he goes on with his career. It makes the final part of the film focusing on the ill-fated San Marino Grand Prix which also cost the life of Roland Ratzenberger even more powerful.
5) THE SKIN I LIVE IN
“Are you in therapy too?”
Almodovar’s last three films are lifeless and showed a worrying tendency towards good taste. The critics still fawned over them which made me hate the films even more, but The Skin I Live In is an outrageous return to form. Though essentially a horror film Almodovar still directs in his lush melodramatic style. The narrative unfolds through flashbacks as we begin to find out just why a troubled surgeon (Antonio Banderas) has a beautiful woman locked in his house. I’ll say no more because The Skin I Live In is best seen without knowing too much about it. And with Hollywood having nothing to offer Banderas but voicing cats and cameos in Spy Kids movies it is so good to see him back with his mentor for the first time since Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990).
4) NOBODY ELSE BUT YOU
“This is the story of my life. Now that I’m dead I finally meet a nice guy.”
An offbeat murder mystery with the quirky tragicomic tone of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (1989-91) Gérald Hustache-Mathieu’s film functions as an unofficial biopic of Marilyn Monroe. Fragile beauty Candice (Sophie Quinton) is the much loved celebrity whose death shocks a small town. World-weary crime novelist Rousseau (Jean-Paul Rouve) is not convinced by the verdict of suicide and starts his own investigation. A facsimile for all the film buffs who obsess over Marilyn’s Rousseau’s initial journalistic impulses give way to romantic longing. Hustache-Mathieu finds inventive ways to incorporate events from Marilyn’s life into his narrative and Nobody Else But You is a far more fitting tribute than the film adapted from the dubious memoirs of Colin Clark My Week with Marilyn (Simon Curtis 2011).
Copyright Focus Features
“Tell her the darkness is about to drown us”
This is 2011. This is what movies look like. Mike Mills beautifully observed drama flits between the past and the present as Oliver (Ewan McGregor) recalls his complex relationship with his father Hal (Christopher Plummer) and grieves for him after his death. Hal came out as a gay man in his 70’s leading Oliver to reflect on his parents marriage and his own romantic failures as he begins a tentative relationship with a French actress (Melanie Laurent). Mills deals with big themes; mortality, loss, homosexuality from the 50’s onwards, but does so with a lightness of touch and Beginners never feels pretentious or heavy going.
2) SLEEPING BEAUTY
“All of my bones are broken”
Novelist Julia Leigh makes her directorial debut with this baffling, haunting, perverse, oddity which plays like a deadpan version of a 70’s softcore flick. Emily Browning is Lucy, a student sleepwalking through her life submitting herself to the desires of others. Only a tender friendship with a socially withdrawn drunken literary type suggests Lucy can feel anything at all. She gets a job working as a lingerie-wearing waitress at elaborate dinner parties organised by an attractive older woman (Rachael Blake) then allows herself to be drugged and put to sleep for melancholy old men to peruse. The acting is stylised rather than realistic, the dialogue artfully constructed especially when Leigh decides to break the fourth wall during a conversation by switching from a reverse shot to having one of the characters directly address the camera and deliver a lengthy monologue on how weary he is with life. What’s the film all about? Is it a parable about the objectification of female beauty? Maybe it’s a mad parody about the exploitation of those working in the food service industry.Or maybe Lucy is dreaming for at one point we see her going to sleep and the screen goes dark. I’m not sure Leigh wants us to know and Sleeping Beauty is all the better for this ambiguity.
Credit – Richard Foreman
“There’s something about you boy”
There has been a fair old backlash against Nicolas Winding Refn’s sleek and stylish existential crime thriller. The arthouse crowd resent an exploitative B-movie getting critical acclaim while curiously enough the artier aspects of Refn’s direction alienated those who like their action films to be a bit more fast and furious. Drive is derivative but genre films always are. Its influences are many; Melville, Michael Mann, Shane (George Stevens 1950), Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising (1964), and pretty much the whole of the 1980’s. However Refn brings his own sensibility to the film. Refn’s devotion to violent protagonists has been in evidence since his debut film Pusher (1997) and once again he takes a morally non-committed approach to his storytelling. It is entirely up to the audience whether they see the Ryan Gosling’s Driver as a hero or a head-stomping psycho. The early scenes with Driver growing close to Carey Mulligan’s single mom have a tenderness rarely present in Refn’s work. Only the awkward courtship between social misfits Lenny and Lea in the otherwise macho Bleeder (1999) hinted Refn has a romantic side. One day Refn might actually get around to making a great drama about real human beings rather than films about movie archetypes but till then I’m happy to watch him move from genre to genre. Next up a martial arts film with Ryan Gosling. Looking forward to it already.