George East’s Top Ten Films of 2011

by George_East on February 26, 2012

You thought I’d forgot.  But no, I’ve decided that unlike my top albums and gigs lists, that this final review of the year should take up its appropriate place in the film awards season.  The Golden Globes, BAFTAs and Cesars have been awarded.  Tomorrow night will see the Oscars; today my definitive list.

2011 may have been a little mediocre for music, but it was a great year for films.  My top two films are, I think, along with Micheal Haneke’s 2009 The White Ribbon, the only masterpieces of the last five years (perhaps of the millennium so far).  In most years either of them would have comfortably have been the film of the year.  Bubbling under these top two there were a whole host of films that were excellent by any  standards and that would have been capable of being the film of the year in lesser years.

It was a particularly good year for British film – not something that can be said very often.  As well as the films at No 3 and No 4 in the list below: there was Andrea Arnold’s original dirty take on Wuthering Heights with startling performances from Solomon Glave as the Young Heathcliffe and, in particular, Shannon Beer as the Young Cathy, even if it unforgivably and unfathomably concluded with a Mumford & Sons’ song.  An honourable mention also goes to Paddy Consadine’s directoral debut Tyrannosaur for its unflinching portrait of domestic violence with a terrific stand out performance by Olivia Colman and a reliably impressive Peter Mullan.

Black Swan and True Grit apart, mainstream Hollywood continued to disappoint but the ubiquitous Ryan Gosling’s increasingly cemented his status as the Robert De Niro of his generation with impressive roles in the (slightly overrated) Drive, the (slightly underrated) Ides of March and one of the acting performances of the year in Blue Valentine.

One final mention before we get to the scores on the doors – the true story of Australia’s worst serial killings, Snowtown was exceptionally violent and  one scene at least almost unwatchable, without ever being gratuitous. It was a film which only just missed my cut, and had for my money the finest male performance of the year in Daniel Henshall’s  scarily charismatic murderer, John Bunting.

1. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi)

When Farhadi’s tale of the two Iranian couples won the Golden Bear in Berlin in 2011, there was just the sneaking suspicion that it was in part as a political statement to protest the house arrest of fellow Iranian director, Jafar Pahani who had been due to be on the Jury that year.  This suspicion is not one that anyone who has seen this morally complex and deeply intelligent film could hold.

Each of the four main characters is perfectly realised and utterly real, as the film explores issues of class, religion and gender without judging any of the characters understandable motives and actions.  The viewer is left in the position of the judge.  Stylistically the film is part social realism, part court room drama and part Hitchcockian thriller.  The atmosphere that builds as the story develops and the choices open to the characters narrow is as uncomfortably claustrophobic as anything I have ever seen.  The film is flawless.

2. The Artist (Michel Hazanvicius)

Ever since the Cannes Film Festival last May this lovingly crafted homage to the golden age of Hollywood silent cinema, this film was eagerly awaited.  Its release just before the New Year exceeded all my expectations.  I feel that I am doing it a disservice in placing it second, as it really is an utterly sublime piece of cinema (if only it had come out 2 days later it could have headed my 2012 list.  I am that confident that nothing will be released this year to match it).

It is cinema at the other end of the spectrum to A Separation, but that is no criticism. It is a joyous viewing experience during which you cannot help smiling at every turn.  It is also, underneath its gliding lightness, a film, which engages with the transitory nature of fame – something ever more true in our celebrity obsessed and reality television saturated culture.

The ending is one of the most uplifting you could ever hope to see.  Jean Dujardin’s silent film star, George Valentin, has the a smile so infectious that you can practically see his eye twinkle.  And yes in Uggie, it has one of the greatest canine performances in the history of cinema.  Just lovely.

3. Archipelago (Joanna Hogg)

An upper middle class family trip to Tresco in the Scilly Islands with posh dinners and a local artist teaching painting does not sound like a great night out at the cinema.  But this film examining the tensions between the family members and the excruciating flirting of the son with the cook deals with truths far more universal.  Family members are often the people we are closest to, but they are also the source of anger, frustration and pain.  It is the family holiday we all dread, a family holiday you would do anything to avoid, a family holiday so many of us have experienced.

It is also brilliantly directed – natural light, no soundtrack and carefully framed (the restaurant scene in itself is a work of genius).  Hogg is a talent to watch.

4. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Tomas Alfredson)

Many of us had forgotten that Gary Oldman was a good actor.  In fact many of us had forgotten that Gary Oldman was even a bearable actor.  Ever since he went to Hollywood and his pantomime turn in the title role of Francis Ford Coppola’s godawful, Bram Stoker’s Dracula he seems to have made his living by over-acting and shouting.  To re-establish himself in a role which requires silence as much as dialogue, in which the acting is about not doing things as much as doing things and in which in Alec Guinness there is already a definitive portrayal of the character, was extremely brave.  But Oldman’s Smiley is extraordinary.  In a great cast, it is his film.

The film oozes 70s cynicism and pessimism and has art design to die for.  It is perfectly English, yet directed by a Swede.

5. A Screaming Man (Mahamet Saleh-Haroun)

You don’t hear much about Chad in the UK.  It is one of those countries which other than its name and its status as a former French colony, I know virtually nothing about.  Saleh-Haroun’s brilliant study of a pool attendant (played brilliantly by Youssouf Djaoro) in an upmarket hotel in the capital (who is the former Central African swimming champion) and his son, against the backdrop of a re-igniting civil war, was one of the most moving films of the year.

It is a wonderful study of the declining powers of the Champion (as every knows him) and his inability to protect and save his son from fighting in the war, as well as the changing nature of African colonialism (as the Chinese buy up everything including the hotel).

6. Blue Valentine (Derek Cianfrance)

Of the glossy Oscar Contenders last year this was the smallest and lowest budget film.  It was also the best. Possibly the two finest young American actors around at the moment, Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams are superb in a film which marks the breakdown of a relationship, while showing its beginning in flash back.  Household finances, a child and differences about what each of Dean and Cindy want out of life pull them apart, just as a shared sense of fun brought them together.  An original and uncliched anti-date movie with the worst marriage saving dirty night away in a hotel you could imagine.

7. Poetry (Lee Chang-Dong)

South Korea has one of the best national cinemas in the world at the moment.  This is an extraordinary story of a gentle elderly woman (played by Joeng Yi-Hun in the female performance of the year) and grandmother who has just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.  She lives with and looks after her teenage grandson, who she discovers is part of a gang who serially gang raped a girl at his school who commits suicide.  The film contrasts her attempt to deal with this discovery and what her grandson is, and her enrolment in a local poetry class. Understated, moving, powerful. The hidden gem of the year.

8. Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky)

This was the very opposite of understated.  Black Swan was a film of obsession delivered in a style which was as totally overtop and baroquely crazy as a 1970s Italian Horror Film.  I mean that as a complement.  This was not at all the kind of film making you expect to come out of Hollywood or to win Oscars. As Natalie Portman, in a career making performance, sought to find her dirty inner black swan to match her white swan perfection, the film’s depiction of the requirements of artistic perfection and the consequences of artistic obsession came in shouting distance of matching its inspiration, Powell and Pressburger’s masterly, The Red Shoes.

9. Le Quattro Volte (Michelangelo Frammartino)

A plotless, wordless film set in Calabria following a year in the life of a poor goat herding village, was one of the sheer delights of the year, as well as one of the most original films.

The film structured around the four seasons and also the ancient division of the universe into man, animal, plant and mineral has both comic and tragic moments.   The scene in which a shepherd’s dog knock away a wooden block keeping a car parked on a hill, which then rolls down the hill freeing a pen of goats was perhaps the funniest of the year.

10. Mammuth (Gustave de Kerveren/Benoit Delephine)

This road movie about a retired abattoir worker (played by Gerard Depardieu having the time of his life) revisiting all of the places he has worked in order to try to get the paper work for his pension was laugh out loud funny. It is warm depiction of a working class man (and his formidable wife played in a brilliant world weary way by Yolande Moreau) trying to deal with a bureaucratic system he doesn’t understand and cannot possibly comply with.  It is the kind of role you rarely see in British working class films, either social realism or two dimensional ‘chav’ sterotyping seems to be depressingly the norm.

The mutual masturbation scene between Depardieu’s Serge Pilardose and his cousin is completely unforgettable in a ‘is it over yet’ kind of way.

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