It’s Bitsy’s Best in Show! Another year, another 300-odd films infused into our brains. Some were forgettable and some were joyous, some were painful to watch and others gave us great pleasure spiked with pain. Yet the world loves a list, and lest the void not be filled with our own opinions on the stuff we liked in the last 12 months, we present our Best 10 Films for 2011.
Every list has rules, and ours is no exception. Unlike the list we provided for Matt Ravier’s Sydney Film Critics: Best of 2011 list, which is simply those films that had an Australian release date in 2011, we are responding to the fact that this Internet thing is a global phenomenon, and we often get early peeks of the 2011 films that will not come out in our native Australian until early 2012. This makes it a little different to our Top 10 in 2010. So by this token, this list will not include otherwise essential entries of True Grit, 13 Assassins, Tangled, Meek’s Cutoff and Black Swan, all released early-to-mid 2011 here. By the same token, we are yet to see films like The Artist and Hugo, which will be covered here accordingly. Basically, our list is based on films released somewhere in the world in 2011 that we managed to see in the calendar year. We could have just said that.
So without any further ado, here’s our Top 10 and a few honourable mentions:
1. The Tree of Life (US, Terrence Malick)
Few filmmakers can make claim to the word ‘enigmatic’ as much as Terrence Malick. Malick’s most challenging work to date may defy conventional description. The narrative elements of The Tree of Life come from the 1950s O’Brien family sequences, with a powerful and often frightening turn from Pitt and the opposite emotive qualities coming from rising star Jessica Chastain. Yet to think of The Tree of Life as a period drama would be tantamount to calling Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, to which there are some parallels, “just a science-fiction film”. Stunning and provoking, it is sure to divide audiences in its unabashedly pretentious examination of the meaning of existence. Beautiful and haunting, The Tree of Life is what cinema was created for.
2. Melancholia (Denmark, Lars Von Trier)
Lars Von Trier is a like him or hate him prospect for audiences and critics alike. After pushing the boundaries of tolerance with Antichrist, this film offers an interesting mirror image to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life which also debuted around the same time as Melancholia. If Malick was recreating the origins of everything, Von Trier’s visually arresting opening sequence and final moments are the end of all things. “Melancholia is just going to pass right in front of us,” predicts Sutherland’s character. “And it is going to be the most beautiful sight”. This could just as easily be a capsule review for the film. A film like no other, with Von Trier realising the potential he has exhibited throughout his career to date. Visually arresting and emotionally engaging, Melancholia is undoubtedly one of the best films of the year.
3. The Muppets (US, James Bobbin)
Absent from our cinemas screens for over 12 years, we didn’t know how much we were missing the Muppets until this film came along. Sensational, inspirational, celebrational and most definitely Muppetational. This is how you make a Muppet show. Jason Segel and Nick Stoller’s screenplay is a tribute to all things Muppets and is well versed in Muppet lore. The songs, mostly written by Flight of the Conchords‘ Brett McKenzie, are one of the strongest elements of the film, and are the best example of this balance between new and old. Throwbacks to the golden era of musicals but also thoroughly Conchords in sensibility at other times, the tunes swing from joyous, to heartbreaking and just plain rob-tickling. Certainly the best comedy of the year, but also a warming film that the whole family can enjoy for years to come.
4. Super 8 (US, J.J. Abrams)
We were quoted in one of the TV spots for this film as saying it was “easily the best of the year”, so we should put our money where our mouth is. In fact, the three films that beat this film out in our list all came out after Super 8, so we were technically right at the time. Equal parts Steven Spielberg, who served as producer on the film, it is a film that doesn’t hit you over the head with its cinematic references and extensive film knowledge, but rather weaves them into the whole to create something nostalgic yet completely original as well. J.J. Abrams’ unique brand of storytelling, Super 8 is the kind of rollicking adventure we’ve not seen in years. With its winning combination of high-adventure, a pitch-perfect period perspective and likeable cast of characters, Abrams and Spielberg return some magic to the cinema. A genre conquering Goliath that is easily…the best of its kind this year.
5. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (UK, Tomas Alfredson)
For a film that is based on a novel that has already been made into a successful British mini-series with none other than Sir Alec Guinness in the lead, Let the Right One In helmer Alfredson had some pretty big shoes to fill. Thankfully, for a film that the director felt should be the “colour of an old man’s foreskin”, this is a flawless example of how to make a thriller thrilling. The fact that this is a film that treats the audience as adults has been bandied around quite a bit, but perhaps it is because it is so refreshing to finally see a film that doesn’t over-explain every twist and turn. In fact, if you aren’t paying attention in this complex spy thriller, it will be very easy to get lost in the obfuscations that make up this very smart script from the late Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan (The Debt).
6. Drive (US, Nicolas Winding Refn)
Like many a pimped out ride that has come before it, Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive pulled up alongside the curb as if towed by vehicle fueled purely by hype. Yet it delivered on all of its promises, and solidified the reputation of the ubiquitous Ryan Gosling as the stand-out actor of the year as well. The film is brutally violent in places, and Drive wants to shock you. Yet there is a retro coolness to the film that even the most bloody of face-stompings can’t deny, drawing as much from Bullit and its kin as the artier pieces the lengthy close-ups often indicate. A cracking soundtrack, largely by Cliff Martinez (The Lincoln Lawyer, Contagion) and peppered with pop pieces such as Kavinsky’s distinctive “Nightcall” and Desire’s “Under Your Spell”, helps shape Refn’s distinctive vision into the singular experience that it is. An amazing cast and a distinctive aesthetic elevates the pulp fiction of Drive to one of the undeniable classics of 2011, and sure to be a favourite for years to come.
7. Rango (US, Gore Verbinski)
It wasn’t a terrific year for animation, despite the groundbreaking work in The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn and the unexpectedly good franchise films Puss in Boots and Kung Fu Panda 2. Then there’s Rango, a newcomer that completely took us by surprise. Inspired by the filmed history of the Old West, and in particular Sergio Leone’s so-called spaghetti westerns of the 1960s, Rango may just mark a turning point in the marketing of animation to adult audiences. Rango is an instant classic, not just as a piece of animation, but as one of the best westerns in years. Drawing on the traditions of over a century of westerns, coupled with the outstanding voice talents (including Johnny Depp and Isla Fisher) and gorgeous cinematic animation.
8. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (US, Rupert Wyatt)
The biggest pleasant surprise of the year, and one that managed to erase any visions of Tim Burton from our heads. Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver’s screenplay is not only suggested by Boulle’s novel, but as one can probably tell from the plot summary, the Bible and the story of Moses. It clearly had bigger ambitions than any of us expected, and lives up to most of those self-set goals. The special effects and motion capture work, from Joe Letteri’s team at the incomparable WETA Digital (The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Avatar, King Kong) are groundbreaking. If Andy Serkis doesn’t get recognition for this role, then there is no justice in the awards world. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is not only an amazing special effects achievement, but a gripping and emotionally engaging blockbuster to boot.
9. Midnight in Paris (US/France, Woody Allen)
Nobody wanted Woody Allen’s latest film to succeed more than us, although his last few films hadn’t given us much cause for joy. You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger is still yet to emerge on any format in Australia. With this love letter to Paris, Allen reaches back to his ‘golden era’ of Manhattan, in a musically-driven opening sequence that recalls that Oscar-winning film. Indeed, Midnight in Paris is the kind of high-concept comedy that Allen would have made in the 1970s, and here he does so with all the cocksure confidence and audacity that the younger filmmaker consistently brought to the table. When we reviewed this back in October, we said that it was “Not simply the best Woody Allen film of the year, but a contender for one of the best films of the year”. So sure enough, it wound up in our picks for one of the best 10 films of the year. A romantic comedy that lives up to both words in the moniker, Midnight in Paris is a trip worth taking.
10. Red Dog (Australia, Kriv Stenders)
Australian films have a reputation for being a bit of a downer, and Kriv Stenders’ Red Dog is noticeably absent of suburban angst, gangland shootings and incestuous narratives. In its place is a heartwarming tale that completely captures the Australian spirit that was still well and truly alive during the 1970s period in which the film is set. Like the best Australian films before it, from Crocodile Dundee to Dirty Deeds, Red Dog is filled with the kind of eccentric retro-charm and inevitable sadness all rolled into one singular cultural ball that is sure to please audiences of all ages. Designed to be enjoyed by anyone with a pulse.
Honourable mentions (aka The Best of the Rest):
It was actually an amazing year for cinema, despite lamentations that the quality and quantity was in decline this year. So much so that our shortlist was double the final number represented in the list above. So in order to ensure that all bases are covered, here’s a few that didn’t make the cut. After all, we really wanted to include The Lion King 3D, but it was tough to justify a remastered film that is 17 years old.
Action films improved steadily this year, as indicated by the two in our Top 10, but Captain America: The First Avenger deserves a special mention. Not only is it a rousing adventure story, but a timely reminder of why we love comic book heroes and the perfect penultimate piece to the Marvel cinematic universe. The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn gave us back the Steven Spileberg of old, outdoing most live action films with its phenomenal set-pieces and beautiful scenery. Speaking of surprises, did anyone see Roland Emmerich making a film as good as Anonymous?
International cinema made a real impact at the festivals and, we are happy to say, the cinemas of Australia with more foreign language films getting a release than previous years. In particular, Asian and Indian cinema had dedicated programs at both Hoyts and Event Cinemas, which pleased us no end. From this, Takashi Miike’s phenomenal (and technically 2010) 13 Assassins finally made its way to Australia, and Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In narrowly missed out on a place in our Top 10. Yet we still relied upon festivals to give us such wonderful gems as Iran’s A Separation, Hungary’s The Turin Horse, South Korea’s End of Animal, and Japan’s Guilty of Romance.
Drama is where all of the kudos is at awards-wise, and there was plenty to choose from this year. Paddy Considine’s Tyrannosaur, is a forceful and confronting drama signals the arrival of Considine as a filmmaker, commanding weighty performances and difficult subject matter with the skill of a seasoned pro. Speaking of Considine, Richard Ayode’s debut feature Submarine was a rare gem of a comedy-drama that is equal parts hilarious and touching, with phenomenal performances from the young cast. Take Shelter signalled Michael Shannon as a powerful leading man, while Vera Farmiga made her directorial debut and starred in Higher Ground, a beautifully drawn and emotional musing on faith. As character studies, Moneyball and The Descendants are wonderfully crafted showcases for Brad Pitt and George Clooney respectively.
Last, but definitely not least, comedy is always a subjective issue, and while The Hangover – Part II disappointed on just about every level, Bridesmaids proved that the girls do it better anyway.
Bring on 2012!