Melancholia (Artificial Eye): Lars Von Trier’s latest deals with family tensions at a wedding and the possible collision of another planet with the Earth. Despite the Cannes controversy, this is amongst the director’s very best work and features stellar acting from Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Kiefer Sutherland. [Read our full review] [Buy it on Blu-ray or DVD]
Roger Dodger (StudioCanal): Smart 2002 comedy about a cynical advertising man (Campbell Scott) trying to educate his teenage nephew (Jesse Eisenberg) in the ways of New York’s singles scene. Directed by Dylan Kidd, it didn’t do huge business but is memorable for a dynamite performance from Scott and a breakout role for Eisenberg. [Buy it on Blu-ray or DVD]
Dark Star (Fabulous Films): John Carpenter’s ultra low budget feature debut (made whilst still in film school) is set on board a futuristic spaceship and was co-written by Dan O’Bannon, who would go on to write Alien (1979). [Buy it on Blu-ray or DVD]
30 Minutes Or Less (Sony Pictures Home Ent.) [Blu-ray / Normal] Hostel: Part III (Sony Pictures Home Ent.) [Blu-ray / Normal] Merlin: Complete Series 4 (Fremantle Home Entertainment) [Blu-ray / Normal] Radiohead: Live from the Basement – The King of Limbs (Republic of Music) [Blu-ray / Normal] Red State (Entertainment One) [Blu-ray / Normal] Shark Night (EV) [Blu-ray / 3D Edition with 2D Edition] Sherlock: Series 2 (2 Entertain) [Blu-ray / Normal] The Art of Getting By (20th Century Fox Home Ent.) [Blu-ray / Normal] The Change-up (Universal Pictures) [Blu-ray / Normal] The Debt (Universal Pictures) [Blu-ray / Normal] The Doors: Mr Mojo Risin’ – The Story of L.A. Woman (Eagle Rock Entertainment) [Blu-ray / Normal] Tomie – Unlimited (Bounty Films) [Blu-ray / Normal]
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.
As is often the case, there is a good spread of European auteur royalty amongst the list (Von Trier, Dardennes and Tarr), which makes it read a bit like Thierry Frémaux‘s contacts book, but its good to see Michel Hazanavicius, Tomas Alfredson and Asghar Farhadi join the club with films of real distinction and class.
Despite a Cannes premiere overshadowed by controversy, director Lars Von Trier has returned with arguably his finest film.
It explores the relationship between two sisters at a large country house: Justine (Kirsten Dunst), recently married to Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who along with her husband (Kiefer Sutherland), has organised the wedding and reception.
Split into two parts, the first involves an extravagant wedding reception, filled with misery; whilst the second focuses on the two sisters as they stay in the same location, as a large blue planet called Melancholia threatens to collide with the earth.
Opening with a stunning slow-motion overture, set to Wagner’s Prelude to Tristan and Isolde, it blends intimate drama with grand, apocalyptic disaster and the end result is a stylish and – unusually for Von Trier – heartfelt film.
In the past the director’s sneaky, contrarian could be both a blessing and a curse, making his films boldly inventive, exasperating, or sometimes both.
His last film Antichrist (2009) displayed some of his undoubted gifts as a director before collapsing into a ludicrous orgy of violence and hysteria, which scandalised the audiences at its world premiere in Cannes.
After the climactic scene of the film – which was one of those genuine ‘is Von-Trier-taking-the-piss?’ endings – a bizarre dedication appeared to Andrei Tarkovsky.
Why? I’m not exactly sure, other than the Danish director seems like a big fan.
But strangely, it is his latest that bears the touch of the great Russian director.
Here he seems to be channelling two very different films: Solaris (1972), with its exploration of a ‘living’ planet affecting human emotions, and The Celebration (1998), Thomas Vinterberg’s hellish depiction of a family gathering, which still stands as the highpoint of the Dogme movement Von Trier helped create.
But Melancholia has its own unique charms and manages to capture the Dane at his very best – he never takes the material too seriously, but also isn’t afraid to indulge in big, bold strokes.
The wedding section is filmed with his puckish sense of humour that often drives his detractors crazy: not only do the happy couple struggle to even reach the party in their limousine, but when they get there, discover that no-one is really happy anyway.
Opting for a handheld shooting style, after the slow-motion imagery at the beginning, the director has a lot of fun with the tacky misery of the event: the meaningless counting of beans, unhappy relationships and fruitless driving around in golf carts create a tangible atmosphere.
Rarely has despair been so joyously captured on screen.
But there is something more here than Von Trier just having a cheap dig at the shallow pretensions of the rich: he is making a wider point about human emotions, our capacity for self-delusion and the wisdom of despair. Speaking of emotions, according to Cine Vue some films are able to make us smell scents and feel other sensations apart from the audio-visual experience.
If we are going to die and life is meaningless anyway, surely it is the natural condition?
As the second half of the film progresses, Christine appears to grow stronger as her misery gives way to a higher wisdom about her situation and that of the planet.
This could have been what he was aiming for in Antichrist, in which nature was a chaotic force that ‘reigned’ over the humans.
But here he seems a little more focused as wider cosmic forces in the shape of a rogue planet come to affect the central characters – but instead of shrill hysteria and genital mutilation we get a richer reflection on life and existence.
Both films could be seen as a therapy double-bill for the director – who has talked about his battles with depression over the last few years – but with Melancholia he seems to be taking his foot off the accelerator and his work feels all the better for it.
Coming across as a darker, more subversive version of Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married (2008), it is a perfectly pitched antidote to the traditional ‘movie wedding’ (frequently a virus-like staple of US romantic comedies) and sprinkled with a pleasingly arch mood.
This is matched by some great locations and production design: the use of Tjolöholm Castle in Sweden is inspired, providing a visually interesting backdrop, with its immaculately tendered golf course, claustrophobic interiors and frequently stunning exteriors, which revolve around atmospheric night scenes of the ever encroaching blue planet.
Dunst gives a career-best performance, convincingly showing her character’s descent into depression and subsequent stoic acceptance of impending global doom, whilst Gainsbourg is equally strong as a more naïvely empathetic character.
Their chemistry as sisters is physically unlikely, but emotionally believable and as the film progresses they provide some of the best acting in a Von Trier film since Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves (1995).
Although he often gets criticised for torturing his female characters, he frequently manages to draw emotionally brave performances from them, unlike many directors working in the mainstream.
In the supporting cast, John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling have small but juicy roles as bickering parents whilst Kiefer Sutherland brings considerable depth to his delusional rich, husband who struggles to keep up the veneer that everything will be OK.
The film could be seen as an extended metaphor for the depressed artist (namely Von Trier himself), in that no-one really believes Justine when she is ill and her advertiser bosses are always asking what her next project might be.
That is one valid interpretation, but its hard not see the film as Von Trier pointing out the craziness of polite society (ironically the people who go to see his films) and how it is the seemingly unhinged who cope the best when truly bad things happen.
Given that there is no evolutionary reason for depression, an ailment which often leads to self-destruction, perhaps it is a painfully valuable reminder of our mortality?
Such heady ideas are expressed with considerable skill as Von Trier interchanges a rough and ready visual style, with some stunningly beautiful sequences, which include helicopter shots and slow-motion tableau.
It almost provides a snapshot of his own career, as the rough Dogme aesthetic of his earlier work blends with a lush beauty that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.
Cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro assists with some stunning digital images throughout – this was one of the first films to shoot on Arri’s Alexa camera – whilst the visual effects of the encroaching planet supervised by Peter Hjorth evoke an appropriate sense of wonder and awe.
All this marks a highpoint in Von Trier’s career, which is all the more shame that he undid a lot of that hard work by making some foolishly ill-placed jokes at the launch of the film in Cannes.
He clearly wasn’t being serious when he jokingly called himself a Nazi, said he understood Hitler and made some inappropriate remarks about Susanne Bier, as well as ‘planning a hardcore porn movie’ with Dunst and Gainsbourg.
But given the particular sensitivities still felt in France about the Holocaust and the instantaneous nature of modern news, it was an ugly episode in which Von Trier’s bad-boy act came back to haunt him as he was banned from the festival.
Typically, Von Trier has since played up his persona non grata status, but forget the off-screen nonsense and enjoy what is an unexpectedly beautiful vision of the apocalypse.
Abduction (Lionsgate UK): A thriller about a young man (Taylor Lautner) who sets out to uncover the truth about his life after finding his baby photo on a missing persons website. Directed by John Singleton, it co-stars Lily Collins, Alfred Molina, and Jason Isaacs. [Nationwide / 12A]
The Debt (Universal): In 1965, a group of Mossad agents (Sam Worthington, Jessica Chastain) on a mission to kill a Nazi war criminal. Thirty years later, one of the agents (Helen Mirren) learns that the Nazi may have resurfaced in the Ukraine. Directed by John Madden, it co-stars Ciaran Hinds and Tom Wilkinson. [Nationwide / 15]
What’s Your Number? (20th Century Fox): Comedy about a woman (Anna Faris) who looks back at the past twenty men she’s had relationships with and wonders if one of them might be her one true love. Directed by Mark Mylod and co-starring Chris Evans, Matthew Bomer and Zachary Quinto. [Nationwide / 15]
Shark Night 3D (Entertainment Films): Horror about people on holiday in the Louisiana Gulf who are terrorised by fresh-water shark attacks. Directed by Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin, it stars Sara Paxton, Alyssa Diaz, David R. Ellis and Chris Carmack [Nationwide / 15]
Melancholia (Artificial Eye): Two sisters (Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg) find their relationship challenged as a nearby planet threatens to collide into the Earth. Directed by Lars Von Trier, it co-stars Kiefer Sutherland and John Hurt. [Selected cinemas / 15]
Red State (E1 Films): Director Kevin Smith’s latest film, which is a dark departure for him. Set in Middle America, a group of teens receive an online invitation for sex, though they soon encounter some sinister fundamentalists. Stars Melissa Leo, John Goodman and Matthew-Lee Erlbach. [Selected cinemas / 18]
The Green Wave (Dogwoof): Documentary by Ali Samadi Ahadi that follows the Iranian green movement during the disputed re-election of Mahmud Ahmadinejad in June 2009. [Selected cinemas]
Red White and Blue (Trinity Filmed Entertainment): Revenge thriller about a woman in Austin, who comes across two mysterious people. Directed by Simon Rumley, it stars Amanda Fuller, Noah Taylor and Marc Senter. [Selected cinemas / 18]