My Top 20 Movies of 2011 – The List: Part 2
Attack the Block is a welcome antidote to the horrendous Noel “Absolute Fucking Fuckwit” Clarke-style pics about teeth-kissing, hoodie wearing urban teenagers lurking in stairwells that have stunk up the British film industry this past decade. Working with that tabloid reflection of feral youth, surely helped by images of this summer’s London riots, gives Attack the Block the least likely group of heroic protagonists since the movie I just made up starring Robert Mugabe as himself, as he learns how to love by escorting an orphaned circus bear back to the wild.
Using the towerblock setting for an alien invasion puts a nice modern-gang spin on the eighties-style defend-your-home-from-nasties flicks, wit’ dem yoots putting a brrap brrap upside the head of what might be best described as neon-toothed furry silhouettes from space. The score was a perfect, immersive choice of bassy, whirry shit that I literally don’t even know the genre of (Drum and bass? Dubstep? Grime?), because my musical knowledge consists of mid-late 90s SoCal punk and Metallica, but it was all stuff that’d probably be pumping out of the earbuds of one of those little fuckers as they mugged you for your trousers and called you ‘grandad’ even though you’re only thirty. A glimpsed Spider-Man duvet reminded us that, violent thuggabes or not, we’re still just dealing with kids, while Cornish masterfully wrote himself out of the corner of a seemingly irredeemable, despicable lead, by wooing the audience onto his side, while still staying true to the character.
Audiences in the US seemed taken aback by Attack the Block, with an unknown cast, and writer-director they’d never heard of, but long-time fans of Adam and Joe weren’t in the least bit surprised at such a confident, witty, and thrilling debut. British film industry, the quality of and reception to Attack the Block should tell you something important, and you need to listen. We need more Cornishs, and less Clarkes. Get on it, blud.
Nicolas Winding Refn has made my Top 10 three years running, the only director to do so. What’s striking about that is the sheer diversity of films landing him the Millard Seal of Approval. In 2009, there was crazy technicolour con-biopic, Bronson; then last year’s sparse, bleak trudge through the Godless lands of Valhalla Rising, and in 2011, the pulpy power of Drive.
There’s a sleepless quality to Drive, which has the aura of perpetual twilight; the cast at times seem like they’re performing under hypnosis, like those in Heart of Glass, with a lead who’s sedate and monosyllabic, until needs require him to take a hammer to someone’s forehead. And it’s the sudden jerk from heavy-lidded haze that makes the violence all the more jarring. The opening car chase is won by stealth and smarts, but when the shit hits the fan, it’s swift and brutal, and it’s loud; gunshots that lift you out of your seat, and blood that comes in jizzy squirts.
Despite Drive’s noire trappings, we thankfully don’t suffer through a character that needs his gruff walls of defence tediously chipped away, with Gosling’s toothpick-chewing crook slotting into Carey Mulligan’s life pleasingly easily. And on that supporting cast, any time you’ve got the great Bryan Cranston sharing screentime with a wiseguy gangbanger Ron Perlman, spewing angry fucks, mad blood flow is happening to the erectile tissue of my cinepenis. As with Bronson, there’s a skilled melding of song and image, while the pinks, blacks and towering cityscapes make for a gorgeous pallet, and Gosling’s – increasingly blood-stained – scorpion jacket will go on to be one of the iconic cinematic looks. But in all this, I can’t help but imagine a crossover, where Alan Partridge fixes a watch onto the steering wheel, as he waits for Lynn to finish visiting her mother’s grave.
“You’ve got five minutes.”
First, I should let you know that I did a lot of crying over this movie. Generally, I’m a huge cinematic blubber anyway, and it doesn’t take much to get my eyes urinating all down my face. Stick me at a real-world funeral and I’m cyborg-cold, like aliens who fall to Earth and flatly ask “What is this human thing called e-mo-tion?”, but put one onscreen, with lingering close-ups of the coffin and soaring strings, and I’m gushing like a cuckolded white wife squirting on a big black bull. But even by my standards, Rise of the Planet of the Apes produced a lot of tears. The first half was a genuine struggle to get through without drying to a pile of dust, with sad-eyed, lonely animals that reminded me of the family dog. I’m one of those pussies that can’t connect with humans at all, only animals, so Rise… took me on the following emotional journey:
Cute, lonely little chimp watching children play outside – sob. Monkey drawing chalk window on wall of cell – choke. John Lithgow, riddled with Alzheimer’s – pfft, whatever. Maybe he’ll confuse a horny lion for a bicycle and it’ll be hilarious. Of course I’m being glib, but to emote such feeling out of anyone is testament to both the visual effects work, and the astonishing performance of Andy Serkis and co. Big, heroic, sexy man like me, sat there with all my muscles and gorgeous Jesus-like hair, loudly weeping over monkeys that don’t even exist.
But there was more to Rise… than a dreamy hunk crying. It was the perfect example, in this dreadful Michael Bay infected world of ours, of how to make a smart, absorbing action movie. Eschewing the ‘people narrowly missing stuff’ formula for moments that mattered because you cared about the characters – human or otherwise – Rise had some breathtakingly timed reveals; apes on the roof, armed with pikes; a horse riding out of the fog with Caesar on his back. The conceit that animals could fuck our world up in a heartbeat if they so chose works, because we know it’s true. The ‘morning after’ scene with a smartened up Caesar was incredibly sinister, like catching a dawn meeting of magpies or cats, and feeling like you’ve stumbled on some secret ritual not meant for human eyes.
There’s going to be a lot of talk come Oscar-time of Andy Serkis, but on the back of this performance, he simply must be nominated. We’ve crossed the line where motion capture is any different from acting under prosthetics (not that Brad Pitt’s head-transplanted Benjamin Button nod was much different), with a level of nuance from the simians that legitimately took me out of my regular “cool effects bro” mindset into letting go and believing in them as characters. A particular highlight was Rise’s clever take on the prison movie cliché of wise old prisoner, with the aging circus orangutan, every bit as nuanced as the lead. Rise of the Planet of the Apes was everything that shouldn’t, and usually doesn’t work. A prequel-cum-remake, some 40-odd years after the beloved original, and relying on heavy CGI; yet against all odds, it was the best big budget movie of 2011. In a story about how we all just want to be free to our true nature, hopefully through Rise’s success, Hollywood will learn to let loose the shackles on their committee-led blockbuster movies, just a little, and allow them the same.
“There’s no shame. No one can see.”
It took me a while to get Sleeping Beauty, with its casual, bohemian hedonist world, where the protagonist’s pouring vodka on her cereal, and using coin tosses to determine which stranger’s getting to fuck her. It’s all casual sex, coke and pompous dialogue, but then I realised; it wasn’t the movie that was try-hard pretentious, but the people who inhabited it. And they are; pretentious and cold. Sleeping Beauty is such a cold film, I’ve got nipples like bullets just from remembering it, with everyone walking on eggshells, and desperately trying not to crack any smile-lines onto their haughty faces. In her other life, Emily Browning’s Lucy is Xeroxing documents, wiping down tables, and paying humouring visits to an alcoholic friend, but the crux of the story is her other career, as a (literally) unconscious vessel for broken, impotent old men who’ll never be looked at as anything but ever again, to say and do the things to an exquisite sleeping girl they can’t or daren’t anywhere else.
“Match the lipstick to the colour of your labia” she’s told, in a crass line of dialogue which doesn’t do justice to the tragedy beneath Sleeping Beauty’s snooty exterior. There’s a definite Eyes Wide Shut vibe, with women reduced to faceless, exposed vaginas, spread and squatting as fireside ornaments for creepy diners, but rather than the tiresome hedonism of the upper classes, this is a film about the burden of beauty, fleeting and fragile as it is. Sleeping Beauty is a treatise on beauty as an aspirational commodity, where no matter how hollow or dead inside they may be, a beautiful person is something the normals will always desire. Lucy is a real woman as a Real Doll, and we see what she does not, laying drugged in the arms of naked men whose only rule is ‘no penetration’, where she’s held, or just admired, or in the most disturbing scene, aggressively licked by a flaccid, nubby-cocked man who barks impotent threats about ruining her with his “fucking horse’s prick.” In print, that might read as exploitive, or comically grotesque, but the tragic hopelessness, particularly in one long, to-camera monologue from an elderly man, is incredibly powerful. God help the children who’ll be getting this from confused, Disney-loving grandmothers this Christmas.
Emily Browning’s fragile porcelain beauty, pale and ghostlike, is the flame to which the film is drawn, as are we, having just about as much chance of sharing a moment with someone like that, beyond slipping her a Mickey, as they. Browning listlessly wears it like a curse, with a lifetime of no real connection that cuts beneath the surface, even with a friend who requests she take her top off as he lays dying; a craving moment that mirrors what she does while she’s ‘asleep’. Like the old man tells us, the biggest truths are unsurprising. Lucy’s flat thank-you to her office-life boss for firing her is the most human interaction she has in the entire film, and when she finally lets it all out, it comes in screams; awake at last.
Thankfully, gargoyle-men who resemble Corey Feldman after a near-fatal car accident, naming no names*, will never know such troubles.
*me. It’s me. God, I wish I was beautiful.
Another Earth’s second Earth is a maguffin for a film that explores guilt and grief, and hope. It’s a film about those what ifs. Little moments that become the ripples in the pond that alter the course of our own lives, and those of others. The premise of this film kinda happened for real this month, with the discovery of an Earth-like planet, although our one is 600 light years away, and not bearing down on us, and unlike the movie, it’s not a complete mirror of our own, inhabitants included. The appearance of the other Earth of the title is the event which sets in motion the events of the film, knocking a pair of lives completely out of orbit.
William Mapother, aka Lost’s Ethan Rom, who, until Another Earth, I truly thought would never be anything to me but creepy, Claire-stealing Other, is another of this list’s characters who’ve abandoned themselves to the junkyard of depression (with more to go!), while unknown Brit Marling crashes into your cine-geek world like a firey meteor, as a hugely exciting talent to watch for. Both star and co-writer, she gives a tight, stripped-down performance, weighted down by the exhaustion of reliving a single moment of her life, over and over. The chemistry of the two leads sells a plot point that would seem wildly implausible on paper, and is in keeping with Another Earth’s habit of making you ask a lot of questions about yourself.
Like the next film on the list, I’m not going go into much more detail, as this is a film that needs to be discovered in the moment, but watch out for an electrifying telecast scene that redefines talking to yourself, and the utterly stunning final frame. It’s that ending which left me breathless and sat in a stupor as the credits rolled by, before laying awake and going over it all in my head. I don’t know if I’d want to go to our Other Earth, because 600 years is a long time to be sat playing Travel Scrabble and smelling astronaut farts, but if they had this movie there too, it’d at least give me one thing to look forwards to when I got to the other side.
Rubber is not the movie I expected. In fact, there’s no real way to watch a film like this without being completely thrown by what you’ve just seen. The trailers, the poster, and the pitch of “Killer sentient tyre with telekinesis” suggest the kind of movie that probably ruined (or saved) a lot of frat parties, where they expected B-Movie schlock they could have a drinking game over, with tits and exploding heads, but got an existential meta-movie about the reality of cinema, and, well… also some tits and exploding heads. The weirdness makes more sense when you realise the director is a) French, b) The weirdo DJ behind Flat Eric.
Rubber lets you know where you stand from the get-go, which is “Nowhere you’ve been before,” with a lengthy, slightly aggressive to-camera monologue about how film operates under the system of No Reason, yanking you from your expectations like a rotten tooth from a mouth. And that’s about all I’m going to say, because I went in totally blind, and it blew me away. Rubber was the first great, or even half-decent movie, that I saw in 2011, and I was virtually dancing on the ceiling with how inspiring it was. It’s a testament to that that so many movies later, it made enough of an impression to be so high in the final Top 10.
Hesher preys on that nightmare childhood fear of your home, the one sanctuary from school and the outside world, being invaded. When I was a kid, there was a bully in the year above me. A whole year. Terrifying as a child, when there’s nothing more frightening than bigger boys. His name was Roger, and he’d follow me home – me walking, him on his bike – belittling, threatening and hitting me all the way from the school gate to my house, and spitting inside my gate (and once, all over me, head to toe) as he cycled off with a sneering “See you tomorrow.” Hesher, the character, unlocks the Rogers lurking in all our psyches, violently latching on to troubled kid TJ, while the boy’s sad-sack father, Rainn Wilson, broken by the death of his wife, impotently does nothing to evict his new house guest.
It’s A Room for Romeo Brass as directed by Werner Herzog, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s mononymous Hesher a shirtless, headbanging creation that doesn’t really compare to anything that’s gone before. He’s the inverse Manic Pixie Dream Boy, inserting himself in the moribund lives of a boy and his family, pulling them out of their world and into his. But this is no quirky Zooey Deschanel elf-girl waking you up by throwing jellybeans at your window; he’s unpredictable and dangerous, a psycho that turns on a dime like those slightly scary friends of older brothers when you were growing up. Both saviour and villain for TJ, as an audience we’re as wrong-footed by him as the boy. The whole “Garden State through a spit-smeared funhouse mirror” feel is helped by the casting of Natalie Portman, who’s dowdy and downtrodden in a pair of $5 glasses. Well, as dowdy Natalie Portman can be.
I had a feeling of dread that it’d all go down the path of movies that similarly centre on an anarchic protagonist, fearing that ending where they’ve accepted that The World’s way is the right way, and they grow and learn, and throw away childish things. Hesher, the film, has the balls to see it through to the end. There’s no big character flip, where Hesher learns to love and cuts his hair; everyone stays wonderfully true to their characters, resulting in an ending that’s as uplifting as it is ballsy, and would be flat-out ridiculous in any other movie, but is thoroughly earned by the preceding 95 minutes.
Snowtown is an astonishing film. It’s the third best of the year. But I don’t know that I’ll ever watch it again. I see a lot of movies, but there’s only ever been one to give me nightmares as an adult, and Snowtown was it. It’s a brutal watch, kitchen-sink and mostly-handheld, with all the silences and unfiltered moments of real life, immersively pulling you into the horrible reality of Snowtown; an experience made all the worse by knowing that everything actually happened, based as it was on the true life ‘Bodies in Barrels’ murders.
It took a while for me to shake that feeling of dread, with the sheer intensity leading me to feel complicit to the crimes I’d seen unravelling onscreen, just like the killer’s young accomplice. In the days that followed, Bunting was constantly skulking over the shoulder of my mind’s eye, both the real killer from the articles I’d felt compelled to devour once the film was over, and the ever-present spectre of Daniel Henshall’s chilling portrayal. Speaking as the kind of 21st century internet-desensitized digital boy who wouldn’t bat an eyelid to see a real life Lemonparty writhing on the living room rug, the sense of dirt with Snowtown, where you could almost feel the weight of rotting bodies in your arms, was a real shocker. I was shook to even be shook.
Henshall’s Bunting may be the purest, most frightening portrayal of evil in the history of film. He’s simultaneously a complete fucking monster, and the normal guy who worms his way into your life; into your home and family. An early scene where the neighbourhood yammer-mouths gather in the kitchen to compile a list of local nonces who need their genitals mashed with a brick rings familiar with witch-hunts you only have to venture onto the statuses on your Facebook newsfeed to see for real. As the film goes on, Bunting’s flat, emotionless manner is the drone that signals horrible events; a silent, atonal sense of impending doom, like a dog pacing circles before an earthquake. If they’d thrown in a glance directly down the lens, I think I’d have blacked out with fear.
When it slips, briefly, out of kitchen-sink vérité, into slow-mo, rain-soaked tableaux, it’s beautifully shot, even if we are listening to the final words of victims who are having them tortured right out of their mouths. Of all the scenes in Snowtown, one in particular is the most harrowing death scene I’ve ever sat through. For all the try-hard kills of the grotesque, in b-horror, or self-styled torture porn, the sheer reality made the bayonet kill from Saving Private Ryan look like a clown sliding on some custard into a swimming pool filled with whoopee cushions. Just like the boy, there’s no escape; Bunting’s not letting him, or us, step out of the room. Instinctively, as Snowtown draws to a close, you’re waiting to be saved by the Hollywood payoff, waiting on Bunting’s slow realisation there’s a cluster of red dots on his chest, for the SWAT Team come bursting through to save the day. But they don’t. The realest feeling movie about murder and evil that’s ever been made also had the realest ending, and it’ll stay with you for a long, long time.
Ah, Lars von Trier. Not a lot of apathy where he’s concerned. Either he’s producing flat-out works of genius like Dancer in the Dark, or trolling up a storm in Cannes by empathising with that rascal Mr. Hitler and calling himself a Nazi. Of all his output and related antics, one thing that won’t happen, is that you’ll come out of a LVT film thinking “Eh, whatever.” There’s love or there’s hate, or even not knowing where exactly you stand between the two, but never indifference. With Melancholia, my mind was made up right away; it’s one of the greatest movies of the 21st century, and Lars von Trier’s masterpiece.
Von Trier proved he could step beyond the flat aesthetic of Dogme 95 or the stagey, lines-on-a-floor presentation of Dogville into the visually beautiful with Antichrist, which managed to make the slow-mo swings of a thrusting ballbag something that wouldn’t look out of place in a gallery. Similarly, Melancholia opens with a series of stunning, super-slow motion shots, that grace the screen like (barely) moving paintings; Kirsten Dunst entranced by static lightning from her fingertips; a terrified mother cradling her child, leaving deep, sunken footprints across an ethereally lit night-time golf green; even robbed of any context, these opening scenes set the stall out early, telling us what we already know. They’re all going to die. We’re all going to die. The world’s going to end. What follows is an infinitely more mature, artful take on depression than hilarious misfire, The Beaver.
Reminiscent of the Dogme’s movement’s tour de force, Festen, in the first half, Dunst’s manic depressive tries to stay afloat during her wedding day, but falls beneath, with increasingly desperate glugs, until she just lets it take her. The second half deals with a family member trying to cope with a loved one who’s locked in a depressive episode, and the buckling weight of helplessness that can’t help but drag anyone who cares enough to stand nearby get dragged down into the same black hole. But then there’s the end of the world, and the planet of Melancholia, on a collision course for Earth, is literally looming in the sky, pulling closer with a distant, ever-louder rumble. Everything’s affected by this; tides, nature, horses who pace the stables like the strange portents of anxiety, the stomping horses of the mind, ready to buck and kick with panic attack that will strike whenever it may. Birds chirp a midnight morning song as the planet rises brightly in the night sky, illuminating the world; like those 3am barefoot strolls around the kitchen, when depression takes hold, and you lose any sense of being tethered to time. Night, day, who cares? Sleep comes when it comes, and the curtains are always closed anyway.
As Dunst’s mental state is externalised into the wider world, Act I’s stable of the two sisters, Charlotte Gainsbourg, becomes paralysed by fear, while Dunst’s broken figure, is pacified by Melancholia’s destructive arrival. “The Earth is evil,” she says calmly, “We don’t need to grieve for it,” mimicking the freedom of the suicidal, once they’ve taken that decision to let it all go. More than just a massive allegory for the misery of misery, Melancholia features incredible performances all round, and a career best from Dunst, depicting the duality of depression; the weight of hopelessness, and the flat elation of “Oh right, things can be okay. I guess I just forgot.” In any correctly balanced world, Dunst would stride away with the Oscar while throwing up her arms like a Maury guest in a “Whut? Whut? Ya’ll know I’m all that…” but Streep did Thatcher, so that’s probably not happening.
The part of this movie that will cut the deepest with anyone – like Lars von Trier – who’s suffered with depression, is Melancholia’s mocking and harmless first pass. Just when you think it’s gone, and that you’re safe to breathe and be free, and live – it’s there again, bearing down on you. And there’s no escape.
Even as a gigantic man-nerd whose wardrobe consists of 90% Superman shirts, at this point the prospect of another superhero movie sends me into a 17th century-style fit of the vapours that require me be fanned out of catatonia by a passing gentleman. Adaptations of existing comics that I love, sure, but original properties? Especially going down that ‘but what if vigilantes were really, really real?’ route – again? Ugh. But Super had a lot of things I already loved, to reel me in like Wonder Woman’s stupid little lasso. There’s Ellen Page, Rainn Wilson, and the directorial stylings of James Gunn, with a tagline of “Shut up, Crime!”, so what was I gonna do, say no? You do that, and Matthew Vaughn has already won.
So here’s how it goes; Super is the greatest motherfucking film of the year. From the superb animated title sequence, this is a movie crammed with moments; vivid emotions, zingers, subtle looks and lines; there’s not an ounce of flab, or a single word of dialogue that’s wasted. It’ll take more than a couple of watches to pick out the layers and layers of beautifully crafted detail. Rainn Wilson, having already cracked the Top 5 as a sad-sack depressive in Hesher, is a man who’s had but two perfect moments in his wretched life, both of which he’s hand-drawn and pinned to the wall just to get him through the rest of it. Called to action by Bibleman inspired religious visions, on the surface Frank may be going vigilante to save his damsel in distress, but really, his transformation into the Crimson Bolt is all about saving himself. Meanwhile, though for plot purposes she may be the sidekick, Ellen Page is no second-fiddle.
It’s no secret that I have a
massive obsessive fixation with completely normal appreciation of Ellen Page, and Super is Page at her absolute best. Adorably batshit, Libby/Boltie, the excitable, abrasive, and foul-mouthed ADD fangirl of Wilson’s Crimson Bolt, will clearly shriek her way into the friendzone-splintered hearts of nerds everywhere. If Hesher was the inverse Manic Pixie Dream Boy, Libby is simultaneously the inverse MPDG, and the ultimate, and her proud display of clumsy gymnastics as an audition to be his Robin, before breathlessly reading from a list of prospective names had me sewing up a costume of my own out of TapouT shorts and egg boxes, before thinking better of it. Libby’s psychotic hipster enthusiasm and Frank’s browbeaten-by-life-but-no-more ‘tude make perfect bedfellows; him cracking skulls with a wrench, and her running over dudes in just her bra.
It’s that gore and mucky humour that clue you in on Gunn’s Troma beginnings, and really allow for that often-pondered but never properly done, until now, angle of “But isn’t Bruce Wayne just a complete mental?” to bed itself in. Real superheroes wouldn’t swing into action at the sound of a distant mugging, they’d sit behind dumpsters waiting for crime and getting bored; and when when you beat someone for real, they’ll bleed all over the pavement. Once things escalate, queue-jumpers are getting wrenched upside the noggin, and we remember that we’re basically watching a guy in the throes of a long-time-coming mental breakdown. On his knees to God, Frank bemoans “this disgusting me…” and it’s in that choice to make crime shut up, that finally, “I found my skin.”
As with a lot of movies that made this list, Super has a series of extraordinarily well-chosen soundtrack moments, and visually it’s luridly inventive – Frank’s imagination visible through a comic-style cut-out look at his brain; a vision of Liv Tyler in a pile of vomit. Every line of dialogue is a joy, and by rights, this should be the most quoted movie of the last few years. Also, in what’s sure to be a highly competitive field, Super has the sexiest rape scene ever (female to male, it’s cool bro), which’ll get me some creepy search traffic over the upcoming months; and a bravura finale, drenched in blood and severed limbs, where hoods might be getting gibbed by pipe-bombs, but it’s the big emotional moments that’ll put you on the floor.
It’s that heart that puts Super above everything else this year, while also being the outright funniest movie of 2011, and it’s a movie that deserves much, much larger recognition than it got. We’ve established in the Rise of the Planet of the Apes review that I cry over pretty much any film you’ll put in front of me, but Super, with all its insane gore and sweary humour, pulled out an ending that left me a complete fucking shambles. It may even be my favourite ending of all time, and without question, the one that’s left me the most destroyed. You should have seen me. I was like some horrible, spluttering jellyfish. It’s beautifully done, but if you’ve not seen the movie, completely unexplainable, so just go and find out for yourself. It’s the saddest happy ending you’ll ever see.
We can all take something from Super. Frank’s lesson was that you can’t always be the hero in your own story, but maybe you can in someone else’s. As for me, I learned that, incredibly, one day something could come along that’d usurp Princess Leia in the gold bikini in the pervy nerd fantasy costume stakes. Now I just need to find the Boltie to my… well, whatever I am. The kind of guy who churns out 12,500 words about the movies he liked best. We’re the real heroes. Same time next year?
To finish, here are a couple of Youtube compilations of 2011 in cinema to remind us why we love movies so much. Film ❤