It’s taken me longer than usual to compile my list of best films from last year – mainly because I’ve been finding it so hard to decide what to include. I don’t think there were any stand-out films for me in 2011, but on the other hand there were lots of high standard films that I’d recommend – possibly with some qualifications. My list today might be different from my list tomorrow, but if I leave it any longer there’ll be no point at all to the exercise.
The usual background to my film-viewing applies. I still don’t watch films on DVD. Apart from a few films seen in museums or on planes my movie-watching has been in the cinema. Maybe my list will seem a bit out of date as some of the 2011 films being talked about as possible award winners are still to be released in Australia, so maybe I’ve not yet seen the best for the year.
I watched 59 movies in 2011; an increase on the 52 in 2010. I’m quite surprised by this total as I was away from Sydney for half of last year’s Sydney Film Festival that is always a time of compressed film viewing for me. The distribution of the countries of origin of the films I saw is roughly consistent with past years’ viewing – 28 or just under half were from the USA, 7 were Australian movies, 9 were from the UK and the remainder were from other countries.
Even though I saw relatively few documentaries, some of them were remarkable, even though they didn’t make my top five. If ever anybody wondered why researchers need transparent, publicly justifiable codes of ethics they should watch Project Nim about the deluded 1970s project to raise a chimpanzee within a human context. The Australian film The Tall Man is a factually and emotionally accurate adaptation of Chloe Hooper’s book of the same title that outlines the tragedy of the death of Cameron Doomadgee in custody on Palm Island in 2004. Catfish is a film for our times. It’s a playful, maybe truthful, story of an attempt to unravel a false online identity – or is it? Page One is a dense, intelligent depiction of a year in the life of the 'New York Times'. I really had to concentrate to follow the wealth of information and ideas about the making of news that were contained within it. All these documentaries were innovative in the way they told their tales, as well as telling tales that needed to be told.
I’m pleased I was able to see more Australian films last year than the year before and that so many of these were good. Snowtown, with its depiction of how evil can so easily become ‘normalised’ in a marginal community, just missed out on making my top 5, and The Hunter, with a charismatic performance by Willem Dafoe, tells a suitably allegorical story for the grandeur of the Tasmanian landscape in which it is set.
There were also other brilliant performances that I could note, but that fell outside my top 5. Two such performances portrayed parenthood in its awful complexity - Tilda Swinton was heart-breaking in her portrayal of the reserved, tormented, unrelenting mother at the heart of We Need to Talk About Kevin, and Brad Pitt’s creation of the domineering, loving and unsuccessful father in The Tree of Life meant that, for me, the parts of that film in which he appeared were probably the most brilliant film moments of the year.
So finally to my top 5 films for 2011:
My first choice is endorsed by any number of prestigious international awards including the International Competition Award at the Sydney Film Festival. It’s an Iranian film, A Separation. It's deeply interesting because of its depiction of everyday life in Iran, but more particularly by showing Iran's dispute settling and justice system. A couple acrimoniously decide to separate because she wants to leave Iran and he wishes to stay to care for his father who has Alzheimer's disease. Their daughter is torn between the two. The separation leads to stresses in their daily life and unfortunate and damaging choices are made. The film probes with great subtlety issues of truth, ethical choice, and responsibility, while revealing differences of viewpoint and experience - by class, by gender and by religion. This film investigates universal moral dilemmas while providing insights into a very different world. I imagine it’s the kind of film that irascible Sydney journalist Bob Ellis had in mind when he argued that all politicians should be compelled to go to film festivals to learn about other realities and appreciate different viewpoints.
I found second and third difficult to separate so somewhat arbitrarily I’ll place the Australian film, The Eye of the Storm, second. This is a tour de force of Australian cultural production. The film is an adaptation of Nobel prize-winner Patrick White’s 1973 novel of the same name by director Fred Schepisi and features many great Australian actors in major and minor roles. White’s novels are complex in their chronology and often very interior and have proven resistant to film-making; so much so that this is the first of his novels to be filmed. I loved this film. Elizabeth Hunter, played by the inimitable Charlotte Rampling, is dying. She has dominated, manipulated and emotionally alienated her children, Basil, a once-successful actor reliving his glory (Geoffrey Rush) and Dorothy (Judy Davis), the Princess de Lascabanes, whose title is the only remnant of an ambitious ‘European’ marriage. The film is melodramatic, beautiful, touching, scathingly hurtful, and occasionally slyly funny. Judy Davis’s portrayal of the betrayed, wanting to be loved daughter is raw and affecting. There’s so much in this movie. As well as being essentially a tale of family relationships it’s also a wicked depiction of class and naked aspiration in 1970s Australia.
Third is the much-acclaimed Coen brothers’ film True Grit. I’ve not seen the original John Wayne version of this film, or if I have, I’ve forgotten it. (I grew up in the 1950s on a movie diet of Saturday afternoon matinees in which westerns figured largely. When I became more sophisticated in my tastes, I spurned westerns. When I became more accepting in my tastes I realized that I liked a good western). The star turn of this movie, as with so many Coen brothers’ movies, is its tone. It’s wry, sarcastic, aware, kind and very funny. The centre of the movie is 14 year old Mattie Ross – brave, honourable and truthful. This is such a resolved and believable performance from Hailee Steinfeld. But all the acting is excellent. Even though I needed sub-titles (not available) for most of his utterances, Jeff Bridges as strutting, drunken, wily, but truly gritty Rooster Cockburn brought me to laughter and compassion; Matt Damon’s LaBoeuf was masterfully underplayed and had me chortling whenever he was onscreen; and finally Josh Brolin could play anybody and I’d willingly watch, but here his bumbling, heartless villain was perfect. Where do the Coens go from here?
My fourth choice is the documentary Bill Cunningham: New York. I liked this film so much I went to see it twice on consecutive days. Bill Cunningham works for the New York Times where he has two weekly columns - one of which documents New York high society at charity events and parties, and the other of which features street style. Bill Cunningham turns 80 while the documentary is being made and he still spends his days walking the streets of New York, lingering on street corners, photographing street fashion, and his nights bicycling from grand event to even grander event photographing the rich and well dressed. He refuses to photograph celebrities only because of their celebrity - they must also have style. As Anna Wintour says at one stage - to have Bill ignore you is death. Bill Cunningham gains admittance to the most exclusive of Paris fashion shows because 'he's the most important man in the world', but he dresses in a blue workman's jacket, only eats the simplest of foods in down-market cafes, and has lived for many years in a tiny studio in Carnegie Hall, crammed with metal filing cabinets of his photos, sharing a bathroom down the hall and with no kitchen. He's lived his life among the rich and famous but has a very strict code of owing nothing to anybody. He works all the time and is passionate about clothes and style. He lives a busy, honourable life devoted to the observation of clothes. There is nothing innovative or extraordinary about this documentary; it’s just that the subject is fascinating.
Fifth is a Spanish film called Amador, directed by Fernando Leon de Aranoa. I feel a bit reluctant to include this film as it hasn’t had a commercial release in Australia, however I hope and imagine it was widely distributed in the Spanish-speaking world. The film is set in a large Spanish city among marginalised migrant workers who gather discarded flowers from the markets and spruce them up for reselling. But Marcela and Nelson need money for a new fridge to store the flowers. Marcela, who is pregnant but reluctant to tell her philandering husband, takes a job caring for an old man whose relatives are building a house outside the city. He dies within a week of her employment, but she's already committed the money she will earn caring for him. What to do? This is a very gentle social critique that is nonetheless effective for its gentleness and moments of quiet black humour. It's much more in the tradition of a British film-maker such as Ken Loach than it is in the tradition of the exuberant and elaborate work of a film-maker such as Almodovar. This is a very plain film – simple, unadorned and spare. I loved this film with its completely unanticipated resolution.
So, there’s my five from 2011. I hope you don’t mind but I’ve repeated myself from previous posts in writing about some of these films – at least I’m being consistent. It’s a bit of an eccentric list as it’s inevitably shaped from those movies that have come my way in 2011. It’s a much less grim list than previous years. True Grit might be described as a comedy; Amador has its gently humorous moments and a Shakespearian happy ending; Bill Cunningham is very cheerful; even The Eye of the Storm is nastily funny occasionally. This year only my first choice is grim by the standards of past years. I wonder if I’ve changed or the movies have?
I’d love any thoughts or comments on this overly long post – or any suggestions of other good (or bad) films you’ve seen.