2011 In Review

So another year of film has passed us by, bringing with it a lot of highpoints, and more than a few lacklustre efforts as well.  Like probably everyone, except professional critics, I was not able to see as many films as I would have liked this year. That said, I saw a lot and a lot more than last year managing to squeeze in about 65 films released in 2011 either at the cinema or on DVD. Was it a good year or a bad year in movies? That’s a hard question to answer. It seems with every year that passes many critics, especially online, will rush to pan that year’s output. Yeah there was some rubbish released, but some of the films were amazing, transcendent pieces of art and/or wonderful popcorn experiences. I could have easily done a top 20 and wholeheartedly recommended you rush out and see every single one of them. I have to say that cutting it down to a top 5 was particularly brutal this year. I thought it was tough last year, but this was something else. Part of the reason this list is a little later than I had hoped is because there were a few more films that I desperately wanted to give recognition to. But I stuck to my guns and the top 5 you will get. I will say that any of the films that released an honourable mention, but just missed the top 5 are still massive recommendations from me.

Before I begin, a note on terminology. I use the terms ‘favourite’ and ‘least-favourite’ for very good reasons. These thoughts are just my personal reflections, that may (and almost certainly will) differ from yours. I really want to hear your thoughts on my selections this year, especially if you disagree. Just don’t tell me my list is wrong. There are no right and wrong with a list such as this.

Here we go with my favourite and least favourite 2011 releases (to be eligible films had to be released theatrically in Australia in 2011, festival screenings do not count): 

Bottom 5: Every year, when discussing the yearly output the issue of originality is discussed. This is reflected in both these lists. The not very coveted Scott Pilgrim award was actually sealed by that film’s shocking unoriginality, and also making the list are a threequel, a seven and a halfthful (I think) and a body swap comedy (what is this, 1983?). Having said that, lack of originality was not the only determinant for my ire. One film on this list I actually thought very original, and a bunch of the films that just missed out also tried to do something a little different. They just failed for me.  (Dis)honourable mentions for 2011 go to Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Limitless, Attack the Block, The Lincoln Lawyer and Bridesmaids. 

5. Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon – Where do you even start with Bay and his Transformers films? This is better than the second, but that’s a legitimate top 5 contender on my list of least favourite films in history. Actually a good place to start, and one that sums up Bay’s philosophy is to mention that when he needed to replace Megan Fox, one of the shittiest actresses in the world, Bay chose a model instead of an actress. Not one of the thousands of talented young actresses itching for a break. But someone who stupid glossy magazines tell us is pretty. The franchise should ensure the visually spectacular at least. Bay cannot even manage that though, and you can’t even tell what is happening onscreen during the fights. No story to speak of and hijacking of historical footage that borders on the offensive, all contribute to the ‘experience’. Interminably long, borderline unwatchable, the only reason this isn’t higher up the list is because it is just not memorable enough. 

4. The Change-Up – I don’t want to sounds like a snob, cause I like a good lowbrow comedy as much as the next guy. But this film was a puerile piece of garbage. Jason Bateman and Ryan Reynolds should know so much better. For starters it utilises the ‘body swap’ plot device, one that has been done absolutely to death and is very rarely at all enjoyable. And this definitely is not. What’s worse than seeing a close-up of a baby’s arse farting and a man getting a torrent of shit in his mouth, is the film’s depiction of women. Olivia Wilde and Leslie Mann are two sassy, really excellent actresses, the latter an excellent comedic performer. Why either would agree to be in a film that treats them in such a demeaning manner is beyond me. Their characters are treated horribly by the men in the film, either as sex objects, whiny mothers or both. Actually I don’t know what anyone was thinking on this one. Don’t think anyone really was thinking, which is the issue. Crass & unfunny. 

3. Hanna – This was the blandest film of the year. An incredibly original idea that should have lent itself to a high octane, action packed fairytale just felt so tired. It’s hard to know where it went wrong with a solid director at the helm and a cracking cast. Eric Bana has moulded his daughter Saoirse Ronan into a weapon of a superspy since birth. So far so awesome. Great scenery from the snow covered to parched deserts. So far so awesome. But then, nothing. Just nothing. A film that should exhilarate, peters out. A story that should have been rollicking, just confused when it actually bothered to go anywhere. The whole thing feels so false, with none of the characters showing any emotion. None of them seem to even care what happens or whether they live or die. And if the characters onscreen don’t feel it, then you can bet the audience won’t. Possibly most infuriatingly of all, it continues a recent trend in holding twists back to the detriment of plot. As a result, by the time they are delivered, no one really cares. A good globetrotting adventure/action flick always (well almost) goes down smooth. But if that’s what you’re looking for, keep on walking all the way to Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin which was the standout in the genre this year. 

2. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2– I mentioned to someone that I was considering putting this film in my bottom 5, they told me I shouldn’t because I’m “not a Harry Potter person”. And they are right, I’m not. I read the first book and had seen a couple of the films (can’t remember which). My dislike of the film does not stem from that though. I could easily enough understand the film because it is made quite clear, and also cause I got a 5 minute run down from a mate in the pub beforehand. The issue is that this is a film that cost hundreds upon hundreds of million dollars, and this dross is all they came up with. Going into it, I thought I was really in for a treat, some great big budget spectacle. But whilst the budget is there, the spectacle is sorely lacking. How can fights where the participants can use magic be so bland? Actually everything about this could be described as bland or at the very least decidedly average – the acting, the set design, the sense of wonder that should have been there but definitely wasn’t.   

The Second Ever Scott Pilgrim vs the World Award for Least Favourite Film of the Year:

The Hangover Part II – 2011 was a dire year for comedy, especially from the mainstream. Number 4 on this list which I have already chatted about; Bridesmaids which for me was the most overrated film of the year and the miserable Bad Teacher just to name a few. Actually for a while I was considering giving this award to ‘Every comedy in released in 2011’. However The Guard came along and it was one of my absolute favourites of the year and other films such as Horrible Bosses also helped the genre avert that fate. But the reason I selected The Hangover II as my least favourite of the year is, because in addition to being utter unfunny rubbish, it also encompasses much of what is wrong with the mainstream Hollywood system. Namely its sheer, unadulterated, overwhelming lack of originality. This movie uses basically the exact same script as the first film. Almost literally. It is just transplanted from Las Vegas to Bangkok. The plot points were just ticked off: Bucks celebrations before a wedding? Tick. Wake up to a strange animal? Tick. Mike Tyson cameo? Tick. Tick, Tick, Tick. Everyone’s going through the motions. Zack Galifinakis, whose character in the first one was downright annoying, takes up huge swathes of screen time. Not even the every-engaging Bradley Cooper (bad year for him with this & Limitless) can rise above the mire. I am often a defender of mainstream film. The disrespect this film shows to its audience though, by cheaply cashing in on a surprise success with minimal effort, is shameful. 

Top 5: Last year I spoke a lot about how many of my favourite films had the best scripts. Strangely, I don’t think any of this year’s films have one of the standout scripts of the year. If anything the unifying technical achievement is soundtracks. I think #5 and #2 had the best use of sound & music all year, with #4 not too far behind. More than that though, I think these films all share a certain boldness. They all challenge the viewer in some way, they all expand the viewer’s view of the world (or universe) and most importantly of all they are all really enjoyable. Go watch them all. Also go and watch my big, big honourable mentions for 2011: The Adventures of Tintin, Barney’s Version, The Reef, The Beaver, The Guard, Contagion, Midnight in Paris, Super 8, Pom Wonderful Presents the Greatest Movie Ever Sold, Howl and The Tempest 

5. Sucker Punch – I am going to guess that this will be the most controversial conclusion in this top 5 (although many will not agree with my #1 either). I thought this film divided opinion, but looking around over the last week I think I was wrong, and basically everyone hated it except for me. And I seem to love it for a lot of the same reasons people hate it. I love the fact that this plays out as an exhilarating, hyperkinetic combination of feature film, video game and music video.  What story there is, is basically an 80s adventure video game quest for objects interspersed with ‘boss fights’; whilst the music loudly reinforces what is happening onscreen.  I love the fact that Snyder has just gone totally over the top and ballistic with CGI. Something that I would despise in many films. But he is not using it here to mask deficiencies or replace traditional filmmaking, rather he is using it to create an entirely new experience. This is a most incredible, unashamedly style over substance watch. A quick note – some have attacked the film for being misogynist or titillating. This is not the place to deal with that point of view in detail, but I will say that I am bemused by that interpretation (neither do I think it is a feminist film, it is an action film with women as the protagonists). 

4. 127 Hours – I’m not a big fan of Danny Boyle. I loathed Slumdog Millionaire (2008) and have never been completely wowed by his other films that I have seen. But what he has done here is nothing short of genius, crafting a film that will engross the mainstream and also wow film nerds such as myself. He achieves this through his innovative use of snappy editing and music, an approach that could have been tacky but instead allows a window into a man’s mental state. You have to remember this is a 93 minute film about a man stuck under a rock, and also a story where everyone knows the ending and the two earlier dramatic highpoints. The way that Boyle builds the tension to these moments is great, continual close-ups of an arm you know will soon be  gone, and drawing the moments out before shocking you with the punchline. It is also great to see a real life ‘hero’ who is not whitewashed and perfectly likeable. He is a real smug, arrogant dude and it is this arrogance that ultimately leads to his ordeal. From the very first brilliant shot of a teeming crowd of people, to contrast with what follows, this excellent film is perhaps the year’s sheerest expression of creativity. 

3. Pina – This is a film I would not have suspected would be on here at the start of the year. I was intrigued to see it, even excited – Wim Wenders working in 3D of course. But what I was confronted with was a downright assault on the senses, a film that like Sucker Punch, was like nothing I had ever seen (but in very different ways). This is essentially an ode by Wenders to his old friend, dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch. Much of the film is Braun’s work being performed by the dancers she worked with. I’m no fan of dancing, but these performances were like nothing I had ever seen. Each sequence was in a different, stunning locale, which was incorporated into the work fantastically. Dirt, chairs, a boulder, pools of water on the ground, were all utilised by these amazing performers to enhance the wonderful movement of their bodies. These performances are interspersed with the dancers recounting their memories of their teacher and guide. This is achieved by a voiceover over the top of a close-up of the person’s face not saying anything. This is a daring approach by Wenders and it somehow makes what is being said have more depth. What Wenders’ has crafted here is, for me, the first truly essential experience of this 3D age. Not one where 3D just makes it look slightly cooler, but one where the medium is integral to the spectacle. 

2. Drive – This starts with lurid, fluoro pink opening credits and features a protagonist who rocks a denim jacket and a toothpick in his mouth. So yeah, in part it’s a wonderful 80s genre throwback. As the story progresses it evolves into a crime film, far better than any you have seen this year with gangsters, shady dealings, getaway cars and a couple of bursts of ultra-violence. In yet another way, the film is meditative with Gosling’s unnamed protagonist moving through this world barely uttering a word. When he needs to make a point, he lets his actions do it. Yet despite this he builds up relationships, almost by osmosis with a young single mother (Carey Mulligan in one of the performances of the year), her son, her husband who is released from prison and the underworld figures who populate his everyday life. What I’m trying to get at is that this is a film of untold depth. It works on many levels and engages on all of them at the same time seamlessly. It is all delivered in a style that is intriguing, elliptical and original. The soundtrack is the best this year, and one of the best I can remember, with the music perfectly lifting the film up a notch whenever the director feels it needs to. This is the kind of audacious filmmaking that Hollywood should be looking to nurture and develop. 

The Second Ever Kick-Ass Award for Favourite Film of the Year:

The Tree of Life – Terrence Malick is a visual poet, and this may well be his finest hour. For me, it is my favourite of his films. It is a challenging work, I cannot remember a mainstream release that was so ambitious. But aside from all that it is also bloody enjoyable. It was my most anticipated film of the year, and it managed to both confound and exceed those expectations monumentally. The film transports you to not one but many places, daring to attempt to encompass the relationship between the personal and the universal that we all have to come to terms with. Sometimes joyful, sometimes heart wrenching, sometimes searing with passion is both this film and the life it reflects. The film has its detractors, and I can understand why. If I didn’t like the film I would label it pretentious. But I love it so it is ambitious. One of Malick’s great gifts is that he makes incredibly deep films, but they don’t seem to be straining to beat you over the head with just how deep they are. It sounds dramatic, but this film seeped deep into my very being and has stayed there. It is also great to see a filmmaker like Malick using special effects to pad out his vision, and he does so in a long sequence that essentially tells the story of the universe. Never have you seen dinosaurs onscreen like this. I could go on and write many thousands of words lauding this film and exploring its thematic depth, wondrous performances and the philosophy that underscores it. But instead I will simply close with this: not only is this my film of the year, it is one of my favourites ever and I genuinely believe that this is a film that will still be discussed, examined and enjoyed for decades to come.


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