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Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Best Movies of 2011

JJ Abrams's Super 8 – our movie of the year (Paramount)

1. Super 8 (JJ Abrams)

It’s highly unlikely you’ll find Super 8 sitting atop many “best of” lists as we wave goodbye to what’s been a very good year for film. It could be down to snobbery or being averse to sentimental nostalgia, but JJ Abrams’ “ode to Spielberg” was, in terms of what cinema-going has meant to a certain generation of film enthusiasts, one of the most joyous big-screen experiences of the past decade.
Super 8 is an echo from a time when story was important and the spectacle accompanied it rather than substituted for it.
A remarkable cast of youngsters, ably supported by strong turns from a group of unknowns, evoke memories of The Goonies, all anchored by Elle Fanning’s stunningly mature performance. Forget the chaotic orchestration of the train crash, the wonderful end-credits movie-within-a-movie, or the B-monster movie mechanics of the alien showdown, because very few scenes in 2011 were as powerfully moving as her train station audition. Super 8 works because beneath the dazzling but sparse effects beats a big emotional heart and an obvious love for movie-making.
Yes, there are a few too many lens flares and the Spielberg nods are as subtle as a sledgehammer. But they are just references to those with a certain predilection for a time when movies were “fun”. And lest we forget, this wasn’t inspired by a graphic novel or a remake; it was an original piece of work from a director coming into his own but acknowledging those that set him on the path all those years ago.
Of all the films on this list, we can safely say that this will be the one that you’ll re-watch for years to come. It deserves its place as film of the year.

2. The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius)

A remarkable achievement from French director Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist delighted film festival audiences this year. Released in the latter part of the year, the film just scrapes into 2011, but it’s a must-see. It’s the most unlikely proposition: a silent film about silent films, in black and white. Yet its sheer charm, stunning central performances and perfect narrative arc are simply captivating. This lovingly detailed comedy drama is so exuberant in its celebration of classic Hollywood, so intelligent in its direction, that it’s a major contender for an Oscar. Watch it confound your expectations.

3. The Tree of Life (Terence Malick)

“Years in the making” and “eagerly anticipated” must prefix every release for the elusive Terence Malick, and both are applicable here. This was in fact billions of years in the making, charting the birth of the universe right through to a reflective modern day Sean Penn (possibly the weakest section of the movie), via the core story of Brad Pitt’s 1950s family man. Non-linear, overly meditative, and at times a little indulgent, The Tree of Life is an ambitious visual and thematic delight that will strike a profound chord with everyone who is lucky enough to watch it. A rousing piece of art unlike anything you’ve seen before.

4. Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky)

Darren Aronofsky’s gaudy, balletic, intensely melodramatic, psychosomatic horror polarised audiences with its schizophrenic style, but there is no denying that creatively it remains unrivalled. Its manipulative camerawork forces us to share in the nightmarish descent into insanity which Natalie Portman’s titular swan endures, and its box of trick techniques twists faces and conjures up Faustian imagery. It’s a journey that is ultimately satisfying if you’ve stuck with the director’s ambitious bravado, and one made all the more impressive by Portman’s Oscar-winning role.

5. The Skin Live In (Pedro Almodovar)

Pedro Almodovar’s freaky Frankenstein drama is truly unique. The signature performance from Antonio Banderas is more OTT than his Puss in Boots voice duty, but it isn’t the weirdest thing about this perfect tapestry. That’ll be the man in the tiger suit or the endless twisted twists, which in another director’s hand may have spiralled out of control. But the bar is set so early on here that everything that feels wrong still seems narratively right. It also features the performance of the year from Elena Anaya; her vulnerable suffering is a thing of understated beauty in a film of insane horror.

6. Senna (Asif Kapadia)

Further discrediting the value of the Academy Awards, this kinetic documentary about the late and truly great sporting icon Ayrton Senna failed to make even the shortlist for the 2012 nominations. It’s a disgrace considering Asif Kapadia’s film is more evocative, emotional, and expertly assembled than most Hollywood features, and deserves recognition beyond number 6 on this list. Transcending the motorsport context, it chronicles the life of an individual with such powerful results that no prior knowledge of who Senna was is required. It’s much more exhilarating than tuning into 80-odd laps of the modern incarnation’s Sunday afternoon parade.

7. We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsey)

Bleak and uncompromising, Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s acclaimed novel is a piece of work that embeds into your consciousness and refuses to surrender its grip. Detailing the absence of a matriarchal bond between mother and son, the nature vs nurture argument is tossed aside quite early on. Kevin is evil, and an unsettling entity brilliantly manifested in Ezra Miller’s shark-eyed performance. The perennially praiseworthy Tilda Swinton has never been better, playing the tortured soul who earns every ounce of the audience’s sympathy. It’s doubtful you’d ever want to watch it again, such is its indelible impact.

8. Thor (Kenneth Branagh)

Shakespearean in themes, Kenneth Branagh’s take on one of the lesser known Marvel characters was a refreshing origin story at a time when the conveyor belt of superheroes was threatening to become tedious. Imbuing the fish-out-of-water story with a healthy dollop of wit, humour, and well-etched characters, it superbly manages to balance spectacle and story. The gamble of casting unknown Aussie actor Chris Hemsworth for a studio franchise starter also paid off; his welcome chemistry with Natalie Portman and generally charming demeanour anchors Thor and makes the prospect of future adventures a MARVELous one.

9. Arrietty (Hiromasa Yonebayashi, Gary Rydstrom)

Perhaps not as mind bogglingly inventive as some of Studio Ghibli’s back catalogue, Arrietty flourishes largely thanks to its childlike simplicity. With multi-coloured backgrounds for the eyes to drown in and some beautiful hand drawn artistry, it is the perfect canvas for the Borrowers influenced story to unfold against. It is an intimate take on an age-old story, providing a direct antithesis to crass, studio machine 3-D animations that are churned out with alarming regularity, and with none of the effort that goes into making something as delicately enchanting as this. With Cars 2 stalling, this is inarguably the best animated film of the year.

10. Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen)

With every new Woody Allen release it’s a perceived “return to form”, which with hindsight is never really justified. But this fantasy flecked love letter to Paris and the arts is a delightful slice of pitch perfect magical whimsy that will sit more comfortably on the shelf, alongside Annie Hall and Manhattan Murder Mystery. An infectiously likeable cast, led by Owen Wilson at his languid best, and featuring standout turns from Tom Hiddlestone as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Corey Stoll as Ernest Hemingway, all combine to weave an old-fashioned tale that wore its heart firmly on its sleeve. It’s an utterly charming comedy for the existentialist in us all.


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