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THE TICKET AWARDS 2011: There were some unmitigated turkeys – think Transformersand Cars 2– but quite a few quasi-classics passed through the cinemas this year too. Now it’s your turn to settle the score, writes DONALD CLARKE
ONE OF THE GREAT critical orthodoxies argues that the early 1970s was a golden era for American film. You know the story. In the aftermath of the counter-culture spasms, film school grads such as Scorsese, Coppola and Schrader – fired by the Nouvelle Vague – made the mainstream safe for art.
But here’s the thing. Read the contemporaneous commentary and you get no sense that filmgoers knew how lucky they were. It took nearly 20 years for the postclassical boom to be identified as such.
Where are we going with this? Well, if you were surveying the cinematic year in mid-summer, you could reasonably argue that 2011 was unlikely to offer many classics for the ages. True Gritwas pretty good. Though it had its detractors, Black Swancertainly made you sit up and pay attention. (Yes, those distant Oscar nominees count as 2011 releases in these territories.) But the middle of the year was, as usual, colonised by a stream of dumb, noisy synapse-annihilators.
The Green Lanternstunk like marathon runners’ underpants. Transformers 167was less pleasant than an evening of waterboarding. With Cars 2, Pixar released its first unmitigated turkey. True, Captain Americawas surprisingly zippy. But the only effects-rich movie to break new ground was Rupert Wyatt’s intelligent (if clumsily titled) Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
Oh, no. Is it time for another “death of cinema” piece? It is not. The latter half of the year brought confirmation that, more than a century after the medium’s inception, cinema can still surprise, distract and discombobulate. Pay attention. We might be passing through a tiny golden age.
British cinema delivered three very different quasi-classics. We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lynne Ramsay’s take on Lionel Shriver’s provocative novel, showed that adaptations need not be pedestrian or reverential. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spynutmegged the classic TV version of John le Carré’s book and served up a contender for the best ever espionage movie. Then there was the unexpected claw-hammer to the skull that was Ben Wheatley’s Kill List:few films have ever so satisfactorily combined veritéand horror. Wheatley’s film, despite receiving raves, did not set the box office alight.
But the financial success of Tinker Tailorand Kevin– the former sat at the No 1 spot for much of early autumn – confirmed that, if offered the right sort of material, the public will turn out for grown-up movies.
There’s more to the medium than ersatz pirates and overextended juvenile wizardry.With Melancholia, Lars Von Trier shook off that Nazi controversy at Cannes to deliver his best-received film since Breaking the Waves. Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life, with its lovely images and spiritual hokum, divided audiences in the most invigorating of fashions. Jeff Nichols’s Take Shelterbrought the apocalypse home.
It is, however, difficult to discern any kind of coherent movement in the current sweep of quality cinema. That early 1970s boom resulted from a group of like-minded film-makers coming of age during a period of great social change. The films honoured in these pages take in, by way of contrast, a delightful kaleidoscope of styles, tones and origins.
It is true to say there is a great deal of gloom about the place. But little else links such diverse pictures as Andrea Arnold’s muddy Wuthering Heights, Duncan Jones’s careering Source Codeand Justin Kurzel’s grim Snowtown. Sat upon by economic meltdown, environmental trauma and political instability, the world’s film-makers are finding endlessly disparate ways of expressing their unease.
As a result, it’s difficult to know whether to be optimistic about the future. We’re not tracking any new waves. We’re not dealing with any fresh outbreaks from prominent film schools. Anything could happen. How appropriate that, in these shaky times, even the good things in life emerge from disorder.
If the Non-Movement Movement (let’s call it that) does continue, let us, at least, hope we can see the films as they are meant to be seen. One under-reported development has been the sacking of qualified projectionists and the advance of centrally controlled, digitally driven exhibition systems. If the film is upside down, in the wrong ratio or playing without sound, it has become increasingly difficult to get the problem rectified.
There’s a problem Messrs Scorsese and Coppola didn’t have to cope with.
Everything is turned up way past 11 in Darren Aronofsky’s study of a ballet dancer disintegrating while preparing for her role in a production of Swan Lake. Some have criticised Black Swanfor its heightened tone, but, like We Need to Talk About Kevin(see below), the film is clearly being played within the brain of a disordered protagonist. Top-notch unhinged turns from Natalie Portman and Barbara Hershey.
Lars Von Trier tells us about the end of the world. The great Dane caused a fuss at Cannes with those Nazi remarks, but the film is, ironically, among his calmest and least controversial. As ever with this director, the occasional jarring moments – an annihilating planet named Melancholia? – were all part of the film’s insidious attractions. The photography was limpidly beautiful.
A quiet classic.
THE TREE OF LIFE
The year’s most divisive film. Terrence Malick returned with a strange, ethereal drama concerning domestic disharmony in a leafy Texas suburb. In fact it was really about evolution, the cruelty of nature and the sparse consolations of nature. Too much for any film? Perhaps. But the scenes depicting the birth of the universe were as bewitching as anything in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
HOW I ENDED THIS SUMMER
Alexei Popogrebski’s sly Russian thriller went among two very different men stranded at a remote weather centre. Despite the simplicity of the story, How I Ended This Summeroffered many resonant undercurrents. The relationship between the stoic, dedicated veteran and the dissolute, videogame-addicted tyro said much about the social changes that have struck Russia over the past 20 years.
WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN
It’s been nearly a decade since Lynne Ramsay released a picture. What a way to return. Her adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s hugely provocative novel clanked and fizzed with huge degrees of sinister energy. Partly a horror picture, partly a meditation on post-natal trauma, the film featured an unsettling performance from a washed-out Tilda Swinton. You’ll never want to give birth again.
A few films have, in the past, sought to meld greasy naturalism with gut- busting horror, but Ben Wheatley’s extraordinary drama managed the exercise with hitherto unimaginable aplomb. Beginning in Mike Leigh territory – two men mutter around a suburban garden – the picture rapidly descended into a morass of brain- shuddering violence and quasi-occult intrigue.
The year’s most unfairly overlooked and underappreciated film. Eyad Zahra’s funky drama follows a Pakistani engineering student as he moves in with a group of Muslim punk rockers in Buffalo, New York. Based on a novel by Michael Muhammad Knight, The Taqwacoresis one of those rare beasts that reveals a fresh subculture to its lucky audience. Sure to achieve cult status.
The streets of Los Angeles play host to an existential thriller (for once the term is appropriate) concerning a getaway driver who falls for the girl next door and forgets all his cherished notions of remaining emotionally unattached. There’s not that much driving; there’s even less talking. But the film combines faux-1980s style and twisty plotting to quite brilliant effect, and features a fine Ryan Gosling performance.
More news about the end of the world. Michael Shannon is extraordinary as a man who appears to see visions in a remote part of the American midwest. Clouds curl. Oily rain drips from the sky. As he sets out to build a storm shelter, a strange realisation hits the audience. Jeff Nichols’s film could be seen as an attempt to investigate what Field of Dreamswould feel like if enacted in the real world.
TINKER TAILOR SOILDER SPY
Fans of John le Carré’s great novel and the classic television adaptation were understandably nervous. They need not have been. Tomas Alfredson, director of Let the Right One In, brought an entirely new – if not exactly fresh – atmosphere to the story of espionage and petty office politics. The 1970s have never looked so sodden, oppressive and doom-laden. Gary Oldman made George Smiley more poignantly sat-upon than ever.
ANDY SERKIS Rise of the Planet of the Apes
GARY OLDMAN Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
MICHAEL SHANNON Take Shelter
RYAN GOSLING Drive
VINCENT GALLO Essential Killing
HAILEE STEINFELD True Grit
JESSICA CHASTAIN The Tree of Life
NATALIE PORTMAN Black Swan
VIOLA DAVIS The Help
YUN JUNG-HIE Poetry
SWINGING WITH THE FINKELS
TAKESHI MIIKE 13 Assassins
LARS VON TRIER Melancholia
DUNCAN JONES Source Code
JOEL AND ETHAN COEN True Grit
ANDREA ARNOLD Wuthering Heights
MIDNIGHT IN PARIS