The Best Films of 2011

Although it was a year with a record number of sequels, there was much to feast on if you really looked for something different.

The year will be remembered for momentous events which overshadowed anything Hollywood could come up with: the Arab Spring, the Japanese Earthquake, Hackgate, the death of Osama Bin Laden and the continuing meltdown of the global economy.

But cinema itself underwent some seismic changes: in April the thorny issue of the theatrical window raised its head, whilst James Cameron suggested films should be projected at 48 frames per second instead of the usual 24.

But by far the biggest story was the news that Panavision, Arri and Aaton were to stop making film cameras: although the celluloid projection will effectively be over by 2013, it seems the death of 35mm capture is only a few years away.

So the medium of film, will soon no longer involve celluloid. That’s a pretty big deal.

As for the releases this year, it seemed a lot worse than it actually was.

Look beyond the unimaginative sequels and you might be surprised to find that there are interesting films across a variety of genres.

Instead of artifically squeezing the standout films into a top ten, below are the films that really impressed me in alphabetical order, followed by honourable mentions that narrowly missed the cut but are worth seeking out.

THE BEST FILMS OF 2011

A Separation (Dir. Asghar Farhadi): This Iranian family drama explored emotional depths and layers that few Western films even began to reach this year.

Drive (Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn): Nicolas Winding Refn brought a European eye to this ultra-stylish LA noir with a killer soundtrack and performances.

George Harrison: Living in the Material World (Dir. Martin Scorsese): Scorsese’s in-depth examination of the late Beatle was a passionate and moving tribute to a kindred soul.

Hugo (Dir. Martin Scorsese): The high-priest of celluloid channelled his inner child to create a stunning digital tribute to one of the early pioneers of cinema.

Jane Eyre (Dir. Cary Fukunaga): An exquisite literary adaptation with genuine depth, feeling and two accomplished lead performers that fitted their roles like a glove.

Margin Call (Dir. J.C. Chandor): The best drama yet to come out the financial crisis is this slow-burn acting masterclass which manages to clarify the empty heart of Wall Street.

Melancholia (Dir. Lars von Trier): Despite the Cannes controversy, his stylish vision of an apocalyptic wedding was arguably his best film, filled with memorable images and music.

Moneyball (Dir. Bennett Miller): The philosophy that changed a sport was rendered into an impeccably crafted human drama by director Bennett Miller with the help of Brad Pitt.

Project Nim (Dir. James Marsh): A chimpanzee raised as a human was the extraordinary and haunting subject of this documentary from James Marsh.

Rango (Dir. Gore Verbinski): The best animated film of 2011 came from ILMs first foray into the medium as they cleverly riffed on classic westerns and Hollywood movies.

Senna (Dir. Asif Kapadia): A documentary about the F1 driver composed entirely from existing footage made for riveting viewing and a truly emotional ride.

Shame (Dir. Steve McQueen): The follow up to Hunger was a powerful depiction of sexual compulsion in New York, featuring powerhouse acting and pin-sharp cinematography.

Snowtown (Dir. Justin Kerzel): Gruelling but brilliant depiction of an Australian murder case, which exposed modern horror for the empty gorefest it has become.

Take Shelter (Dir. Jeff Nichols): Wonderfully atmospheric blend of family drama and Noah’s Ark which brilliantly played on very modern anxieties of looming apocalypse.

The Artist (Dir. Michel Hazanavicius): An ingenious love letter to the silent era of Hollywood is executed with an almost effortless brilliance.

The Descendants (Dir. Alexander Payne): Pitch-perfect comedy-drama which saw Alexander Payne return to give George Clooney his best ever role.

The Guard (Dir. John Michael McDonagh): Riotously funny Irish black comedy with Brendan Gleeson given the role of his career.

The Interrupters (Dir. Steve James): The documentary of the year was this powerful depiction of urban violence and those on the frontline trying to prevent it.

The Skin I Live In (Dir. Pedro Almodovar): The Spanish maestro returned with his best in years, as he skilfully channeled Hitchcock and Cronenberg.

The Tree of Life (Dir. Terrence Malick): Moving and mindblowing examination of childhood, death and the beginnings of life on earth.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Dir Tomas Alfredson): Wonderfully crafted John le Carre adaptation which resonates all too well in the current era of economic and social crisis.

Tyrannosaur (Dir. Paddy Considine): Searingly emotional drama with two dynamite lead performances and an unexpected Spielberg reference.

We Need To Talk About Kevin (Dir. Lynne Ramsey): Audio-visual masterclass from Ramsay with a now predictably great performance from Tilda Swinton.

Win Win (Dir. Thomas McCarthy): Quietly brilliant comedy-drama with Paul Giamatti seemingly born to act in this material.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

A Dangerous Method (Dir. David Cronenberg)
Anonymous (Dir. Roland Emmerich)
Another Earth (Dir. Mike Cahill)
Attack the Block (Dir. Joe Cornish)
Bobby Fischer Against The World (Dir. Liz Garbus)
Confessions (Dir. Tetsuya Nakashima)
Contagion (Dir. Steven Soderbergh)
Four Days Inside Guantanamo (Dir. Luc Cote, Patricio Henriquez)
I Saw the Devil (Dir. Kim Ji-woon)
Into the Abyss (Dir. Werner Herzog)
Life in a Day (Dir. Kevin MacDonald)
Martha Marcy May Marlene (Dir. Sean Durkin)
Midnight in Paris (Dir. Woody Allen)
Page One: Inside The New York Times (Dir. Andrew Rossi)
Super 8 (Dir. JJ Abrams)
The Adventures of Tintin (Dir. Steven Spielberg)
The Beaver (Dir. Jodie Foster)
The Deep Blue Sea (Dir. Terence Davies)
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Dir. David Fincher)
The Ides of March (Dir. George Clooney)

2010 FILMS THAT CAME OUT IN 2011

Armadillo (Dir. Janus Metz)
Beginners (Dir. Mike Mills)
Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Dir. Werner Herzog)
Submarine (Dir. Richard Ayoade)
Cold Weather (Dir. Aaron Katz)
Tabloid (Dir. Errol Morris)

Find out more about the films of 2011 at Wikipedia
End of year lists at Metacritic
> The Best Film Music of 2011
The Best DVD and Blu-ray Releases of 2011

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

David Fincher brings his full digital armoury to Stieg Larsson‘s bestseller and the result is a masterful adaptation hampered only by the limitations of the source material.

When journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is hired by the patriarch of a rich Swedish family (Christopher Plummer) to investigate the disappearance of a family member in the 1960s, he eventually crosses paths with computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) as they gradually uncover a web of intrigue in a society with many dark secrets.

Major Hollywood studios have shied away from making adult dramas in recent years, so Sony giving a director free reign on dark tale of conspiracy, rape and murder represented something of a risk.

But the original novel triggered one of publishing phenomenons of last decade, which spawned a Swedish produced trilogy of films and now the inevitable Hollywood remake.

Inevitable is perhaps a misleading word, because although it was highly likely they would produce a version, one might have expected that they would tone down the darker elements of the book to appeal to a wider audience.

But given that the mix of graphic sexual violence and conspiracy plays such a large part in their appeal, Sony and MGM faced a quandary.

Do they dilute them down to a PG-13 and risk a fan backlash?

Or create that rare thing in the modern era, a wide release for adult audience?

They opted for the latter and recruited none other than director David Fincher, who had just made The Social Network for the studio and has a track record of police procedural thrillers.

It just so happens that the end result contains elements of Seven (a serial killer movie with gothic elements), Zodiac (a slow burn drama that looks into the mystery of the past) and the aforementioned The Social Network (the story of an outsider who uses technology to outwit people).

From the startling opening credits, it is clear that we are in Fincher-land: the impeccable compositions, polished design, razor-sharp visuals and haunted protagonists all feel a natural part of his filmmaking landscape.

Ever since Zodiac, Fincher has been on the forefront of digital cinematography and Jeff Cronenweth’s visuals here are stunning, with the wintry terrain of Sweden providing a frequently beautiful counterpoint to the darker interior scenes.

The screenplay by Steven Zaillian does a highly effective job at compressing the sprawling strands of the novel into a coherent whole.

Those familiar with the book might know that Salander and Mikael are kept apart for a large part of the story and the resulting investigation involves a raft of supporting characters as the elusive history of the Vanger family slowly emerges.

Zaillian has largely stayed faithful to the book, but also added some welcome improvements – especially in the latter stages – whilst the editing by Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter is remarkably precise and efficient in keeping the story moving.

The wonderfully atmospheric score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross somehow manages to evoke the chilly physical and psychological terrains of the story, whilst also blending in with Ren Klyce’s immersive sound design.

Before filming began much attention was focused on who would get the coveted role of Lisbeth Salander and Rooney Mara delivers a powerful performance in what is a challenging role, both mentally and physically.

Daniel Craig conveys a certain rugged charm as Blomkvist and when they finally get together their unlikely chemistry clicks into place nicely, bridging the gender and generational divide which have been a large part of the book’s global appeal.

The illustrious supporting cast also do solid work: Plummer is wholly believable as the head of the Vanger clan; Stellan Skarsgard is sly and charming as his son; whilst actors like Steven Berkoff, Robin Wright, Joely Richardson and Geraldine James expertly fill out key smaller roles.

All of these elements are marshalled with military precision by Fincher, who has delivered a technically brilliant adaptation of the source material, which should satisfy the global fanbase.

There is a noble tradition of pulpy best sellers becoming classic movies (Psycho, The Godfather and Jaws) and this version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo represents an interesting example of transferring words to screen.

However, there remains a sense that this whole exercise is a bit like fitting a Ferrari engine into a Volvo: isn’t the army of A-list talent assembled here vastly superior to Larsson’s potboiler?

Although it deals with interesting issues which Hollywood rarely touches – violence towards women, the insidious nature of right-wing politics in supposedly liberal countries – it nevertheless follows the crime fiction template right down to the letter.

This is not to say that mainstream fiction cannot raise interesting issues as the book certainly tapped into the zeitgeist of corruption has pervaded the West in the last few years, whilst Larsson’s untimely death in 2004 helped fuel the mystique even further.

Recent events involving journalism scandals (Hackgate), computer hackers (recent Wikileaks revelations) and even far-right murder in Scandinavia (Norway attacks) seem only to have enhanced the potent brew of crime, violence and institutionalised corruption that lies at the heart of the Millennium trilogy.

But the material upon which this film is based feels like a series of plot points squeezed into a tight-fitting story, with hardly any breathing space left after the multiple revelations and plot twists.

Readers have been presumably drawn precisely because of this mix of page-turning intrigue but I suspect what really took it to another level of popularity was the central combination of regular male hero and strikingly unusual female anti-hero.

But after the books and Swedish produced film trilogy, how much appetite is there for this?

I suspect that a major global release like this will make significant money, although whether enough to justify further films remains to be seen.

For a filmmaker like Fincher, who has crafted two ground-breaking police thrillers in Seven and Zodiac, the fundamental material inevitably feels something of a step down for him, like asking a renaissance master to draw in crayon.

It is to his credit that the end result is an invigorating entertainment and a curiously timely blockbuster for Christmas 2011, as we reflect on what a dark and corrupt place the world has become.

> Official site and Mouth Taped Shut
> Reviews at Metacritic
> More on Stieg Larsson and the original Millenium series
> Interesting article on the 4K production pipeline used on the film

The Hollywood Reporter’s Actor’s Roundtable 2011

The Hollywood Reporter have posted the full video of their awards season round table with various actors in this year’s Oscar race.

It includes George Clooney (The Descendants and The Ides of March), Christopher Plummer (Beginners), Gary Oldman (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), Christoph Waltz (Carnage), Albert Brooks (Drive) and Nick Nolte (Warrior).

As you can imagine this kind of gathering makes for a pretty fascinating discussion, especially as it lasts just over an hour:

It zig and zags across various issues but here’s a mini-breakdown of the highlights:

  • Oldman on being asked to play Charles Manson, the influence of his mother and the Bryan Forbes film that inspired a
  • Plummer on playing King Lear on stage, the most challenging role he’s played, being 80 and what makes actors great.
  • Clooney on becoming an actor, the career of his aunt Rosemary Clooney and making challenging films.
  • Nolte on getting old, 48 Hours, not finding work, repertory theatre companies and a great story about Barry Lyndon.
  • Brooks on the psychology of stardom, why Jack Benny was his idol and the overall social value of acting.
  • Waltz on finding success relatively late in his career, his roles after Inglourious Basterds and the nature of acting.

The Hollywood Reporter
> Latest on the awards season at Awardsdaily and In Contention

Billy Bob Thornton on Bad Santa

Back in 2004 I spoke with Billy Bob Thornton about his role in Terry Zwigoff’s comedy Bad Santa (2003).

The film was produced by the Coen brothers and Thornton played the title character with Tony Cox playing his partner in crime.

It was a year after the US release and the film has since gone on to become something of a cult favourite as an alternative to traditional Christmas movies like It’s a Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street.

For some reason, this interview never aired on radio back in 2004 but you can now listen to it here:

[audio:http://filmdetail.receptionmedia.com/Billy_Bob_Bob_Thornton_on_Bad_Santa.mp3]

You can also download this interview as a podcast via iTunes by clicking here.

> Download this interview as an MP3 file
> Buy Bad Santa on DVD or Blu-ray from Amazon UK

Films on TV over Christmas 2011

Here are my TV film picks for the festive period if you want to plan ahead and set the DVR or catchup on BBC iPlayer.

A few quick observations:

If you want to discuss any of the films below on Twitter my username is @filmdetail

Thursday 22nd December

Friday 23rd December

  • LOCAL HERO (1983) is on Film4 at 3.20pm
  • EYES WIDE SHUT (1999) is on ITV1 at 10.50pm
  • FIGHT CLUB (1999) is on Film4 at 11pm

Saturday 24th December

Sunday 25th December

  • BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969) is on Film4 at 1.10pm
  • SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952) is on More4 at 3.05pm
  • MIRACLE ON 34th STREET (1947) is on Film4 at 3.20pm
  • RATATOUILLE (2007) is on BBC1 at 4.50pm
  • EL CID (1961) is BBC4 at 7pm
  • Monday 26th September

    Tuesday 27th December

    Wednesday 28th December

    Thursday 29th December

    Friday 30th December