My films of the year

Ally Clow on his personal selection of the best of 2011


At the start of the year I had a bit of time on my hands. Leaving a job and deciding on what to do wasn't easy so I made a pact of recording every film I watched over the course of the year. The below is not an exhaustive list but the choice selections of those 12 months.

It's been a good year for new movies (when isn't it?) but there was no single film I reacted to with quite the same verve as 2010's The Social Network. It is a perfect film: well scripted, acted and directed – the Holy Trinity of filmmaking – and cemented David Fincher's position in the top echelon of directors working today. The Social Network did have a part to play in the story of 2011, winning three Oscars (the biggest being Best Adapted Screenplay), but it could play only a supporting role in the Oscars to another film about a socially awkward man overcoming his personal demons. The King’s Speech took hold of the ceremony and won three major prizes, including Best Picture, Best Director, along with Best Actor for Colin Firth.

The King's Speech is the first film in 2011 that features in my Top 10 of the year. I loved the set design: the drab Harley Street offices of Geoffrey Rush's Lionel Logue in contrast to the royal estates of Colin Firth's Bertie. I loved the characters' relationships with each other, especially Logue's with the king, treading then overstepping his mark time and again. Colin Firth is fantastic, as is Rush and Helena Bonham-Carter but the reason the film worked as well as it did is Tom Hooper's direction and his touches of class. This is no play for today, it is a cinematic delight, knowing when to flourish (the scene where Lionel and Bertie are walking and arguing through a park in the morning mist is sublime) and when to hold back (the elegant camera movements mimicking the austerity of its subject).

Its triumph was well deserved, as was Natalie Portman's performance in The Black Swan, which won her the Best Actress gong. The Black Swan is an urban fairy tale of a film that never quite soared high enough to blow me away, although it is a solid piece of work.

The other Oscar film from 2011 to be in my Top 10 of the year is David O. Russell's The Fighter, starring Mark Wahlberg, Melissa Leo, Amy Adams, and Christian Bale, who picked up Best Supporting Actor. This is a boxing movie which, without reinventing the wheel, is a superb example of its genre, a thrilling movie that bobbed and weaved like a champion, had poise and balance that mixed Bale and Leo's wild performances with Wahlberg's understated portrayal of the central character. The last reel is one of the best endings to a film during the whole year.

Throughout the year, I tried to catch up on films I really ought to have seen by now and the year began with four gems: Chaplin's The Great Dictator, Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies, Alexander Korda's Rembrandt (Charles Laughton giving one of cinema's most humane performances ever) and a great genre-mashing music doc, Searching for The Wrong-eyed Jesus, narrated by Jim White. The last really blew me away, mixing road-movie conventions with songs from Deep South musicians, sometimes literally in their own back yards – a cinematic gumbo of styles, characters and songs. Disney began the year well with Tangled in 3D, a nice film that is overpowered neither by sentimentality or stereoscopy.

The year's best animation (and the third film of the year to gain entry into my Top 10) is Gore Verbinski's Rango, the story of a lizard who finds himself being wrongly hailed as the saviour of a desert town in search of water, is a stunningly executed film with the vocal talents of Ned Beatty, Alfred Molina, Ilsa Fisher, and Johnny Depp as the hero. This is an animation with weighty ambitions, abstract dream sequences, film references and the most beautiful set design of any animation I've seen outside Pixar's finest. After this, I watched Pirates of the Caribbean 2 and 3 and wondered how Verbinski sank so low when he had a film as good as Rango in him.

I saw another desert-set film, this time 2010's Restrepo by Sebastian Junger and the late Tim Hetherington. This Afghanistan-set movie is the best war documentary I have seen and was followed in style by Armadillo a year later. The camera work is intoxicating and the real human stories at the heart of the film are both tragic and compelling. I caught up on four more oldies at the end of winter: Becket, Saving Private Ryan, Schindler's List and A Private Function. In my misguided youth, I had largely avoided Spielberg's work (other than Jaws and Indiana Jones), thinking it full of saccharine sentimentality and morals. I was wrong. I don't mean I was wrong about the sentimentality – Saving Private Ryan and Schindler's List rank highly on that scale – but I was wrong to avoid him; these films are passionate and stunning works of cinema that everyone should see.

In the spring, I saw two films on consecutive days, both of which made my Top 10 although they are on opposite ends of the genre scale. Source Code is Duncan Jones' follow up to Moon. It is a slice of terrific sci-fi, with action and Twilight Zone plotting which whizzed along at an incredible pace and left me with the ending I wanted. Bonus points came from a cameo voiced by Scott Bakula (whose earlier series Quantum Leap the film leans on heavily throughout) and convincing performances from Jake Gyllenhaal, Vera Farmiga, Michelle Monaghan and Jeffrey Wright. This film is a move into intelligent mainstream, a genre that includes Inception and Christopher Nolan's Batman films, and which needs to grow each year.

The next film, Joanna Hogg's Archipelago, is an entirely more understated affair, but underneath the characters' middle-class politeness and passive-aggressiveness lays the lava of the soul: people who are mad as hell and aren't going to take it any more. This was the first of three great performances from Tom Hiddlestone in 2011 (The Deep Blue Sea and Midnight In Paris being the others) that made him my second-placed Man of 2011. Archipelago is gorgeous to look at, using naturalistic lighting and enclosed space to create a sense of claustrophobia and an uneasy stillness. The characters play out their doomed fate in a cringe-inducing way, the tone of which is perfect: it’s a special film.

Another British film I watched would have been my favourite film of the year had it not been released in 2010. Clio Barnard's The Arbor is a breathtaking amalgamation of documentary and drama telling the story of playwright Andrea Dunbar and her daughters over a period of over thirty years. The technique of actors mouthing the actual recorded words of Dunbar's daughters is not new (think Creature Comforts) but is done so well as to be utterly convincing, and it left me with a strong sense of the uncanny. The tragic story is right out of the school of British social realism, but the film's truth and freshness lifts it above its mournful subject.

It was around this time of the year that the sad news of Peter Falk’s death came through. I wrote a piece about him because he was one of my favourite actors, a man whose humanity shone through in the roles he played; but he could also turn out a mean streak or two, especially in the films he played with John Cassavetes. I finally watched Cassavetes' Husbands, starring Falk, Cassavetes and Ben Gazzara as three men who go on an international rites of passage twenty years too late. It’s a beautiful mess of a film (like Margaret later in the year): long, sprawling but finely acted and carrying a mood of melancholy suiting its characters' yearning for their youth and a lack of responsibility. I caught up with another of Cassavetes' films this year: Love Streams. Gena Rowlands and her husband star in this neurotic film about love and relationships (when does Cassavetes not deal with these two subjects?), which is a high point in the director’s work.

The next two films of note were flawed but engrossing nonetheless: Ben Affleck’s The Town and Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine. The Town is a heist film featuring some great performances from an all-star cast: Jeremy Renner (think a milder version of Joe Pesci from Goodfellas) makes sure Ben Affleck never realizes his ambition to leave ‘the town’; Rebecca Hall is a witness to a crime with whom Affleck falls in love; and the late Pete Postlethwaite appears in a chilling role as an Irish mob boss who controls the town’s underworld. This is a nuts-and-bolts drama with some impressive twists and turns. Blue Valentine introduced me to Ryan Gosling, whom I’d heard of but had never seen before; and Michelle Williams, who is superb as always. This film certainly puts the viewer through a range of emotions while successfully portraying a relationship from beginning to end. It’s almost like Francois Ozon’s 5 x 2 in its use of non-linear time: it makes you sad for these two people who were once clearly in love but couldn’t adapt to change and, for the Gosling character at least, growing up.

The BFI continued its releases of stellar films on DVD and Blu-ray (Ozu, Britain on film etc) and The Great White Silence is arguably the finest of the year. A painstaking revival of Herbert Ponting’s 1924 documentary of Scott’s ill-fated journey to the South Pole, the film made me realize that Blu-ray is not just for Pixar films: it can bring ancient silent film to life just as well.

Perhaps the single best film I watched all year, other than my annual visits to Chinatown and Broadway Danny Rose, is Wim Wenders’ Kings Of The Road from 1976. This fantastic road movie mixes the new German cinema’s fascination for American culture (see Herzog’s Stroszek and Wenders’ own The American Friend) with Germany’s relationship to borders, both geographically and between each other as people. The high point in this three-hour movie is a scene in which Rüdiger Vogler’s cinema projector repairman sings along to Heinz’s ‘Just like Eddie’ whilst banging the roof of his truck, driving through the open roads. Listening to two German men singing in English to an American-influenced rock-n-roll song sums up the movie.

The next four inclusions were new films, although two of them blurred what we mean when we say ‘cinema’. Christian Marclay’s The Clock is a 24-hour film consisting of shots from films in which timepieces are shown. It’s a single-concept piece, and the film is meant to mirror the exact time of day in which the viewer is living their lives. I saw it at the Hayward Gallery late in the afternoon, just before the gallery was due to close, and found it a meditative and mesmerizing piece. I asked Mark Cousins on Twitter if he had seen it: he replied that he had managed to watch 6 hours of it, in Glasgow (I managed two). When he began watching, he remarked, he realized he wasn’t breathing. Breathtaking is an adjective overused in criticism, but he meant it literally. Todd Haynes’s Mildred Pierce is a TV series made by HBO with high cinematic production values. Kate Winslett, Guy Pierce and Evan Rachel Wood starred in this engrossing treat which blurred the boundaries of TV and film more than any other production I’ve seen.

Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life won the Palme D’Or in Cannes earlier in the year, and my anticipation was high when it was released only a couple of months afterwards. I was slightly disappointed with the film, not because of its addiction to beauty, or because of its oblique references to dinosaurs, or even Sean Penn’s abstract meanderings, but because of the central story. I felt as if Malick had to include the trimmings because the meat of the film – a story of Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain’s family – wasn’t good enough.

A film that completely bowled me over, however, and which makes it into my final Top 10, is Bridesmaids. I had relatively low expectations when I watched it, even though I expected it to be funny at least. It turned out to be fabulous: a in which all the characters' flaws were celebrated, and unusually for Hollywood, one in which the male characters played second fiddle to the almighty female cast. Bridesmaids was the year’s funniest film, an inversion of the successful Judd Apatow movies of recent years and a launchpad to greater things for its writers, Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo.

Not only are their DVD releases top notch at the moment, the BFI Southbank is on great form too. Their retrospectives of early Soviet sci-fi and Dirk Bogarde have been well received and their choice of films shown in the studio mean we residents of Waterloo were able to wander along and see many classic art-house delights. I saw Joseph Losey’s The Servant, starring Dirk Bogarde in a terrifying role of debauched manners, which would be a great influence on Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell’s Performance seven years later. Set in Chelsea, it is a story of an upstairs-downstairs role reversal of sex, drugs and money, portraying the Swinging Sixties in an altogether darker light than most of the London-set films of that period until Performance came along in 1970.

The end of the summer and early autumn saw the release of two more films in my Top 10: The Guard and Drive. These two films will surely become cult movies of the future: both unashamed and extreme; and both vehicles for their stars, who deserve many awards for their excellent performances. John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard has Brendon Gleeson’s sarcastical and cynical bobby run rings round Don Cheedle’s excellent FBI cop Wendell Everett in the west of Ireland. The film rivals Bridesmaids in the laugh factor, but it is Gleeson who will be remembered, as the enigmatic man whose actions speak louder than his words. The screenplay is tight, and the performances from Liam Cunningham, Mark Strong and David Wilmot as the intellectual heavies are spot-on. Drive was the second film of the year from Ryan Gosling (his third, Crazy, Stupid, Love, is also good), and it was this film which launched him into the leading pack of Hollywood actors, and which placed him as my Man of 2011. Nicolas Winding Refn’s existential road/heist movie has elements of Gasper Noé and film noir in its depiction of Gosling’s 'driver', who allows himself to be hired as a getaway driver but only under his own set of conditions. His rules are destined to become as well known as those of ‘Fight Club’, and surely increased sales of toothpicks by 100%, but it is the film’s soundtrack, its cool visual style and Gosling’s minimal performance of a man walking steadily to his fate to save the girl (excellently played by Carey Mulligan) that will remain as its standout qualities.

Another Scandinavian director’s work which features a minimal, non-showy performance is Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: Tomas Alfredson’s follow up to Let The Right One In. He is becoming one of cinema’s finest and most patient craftspeople. Gary Oldman’s presence in the film is like a glowing ember, but that’s not to say he isn’t excellent. Many of Oldman’s performances have been measured by their voracity or intensity, but in this case he manages to turn in one of the finest performances of the year by being in almost every scene yet being almost in the background. The British cast is outstanding, featuring Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Toby Jones and a welcome return to the cinema from Kathy Burke. Definitely a Top 10 film, and one which will hopefully do well in the awards season.

A mention must also be given at this point to Mark Cousins’ magnum opus The Story of Film, a 15-hour TV documentary about cinema which began in September on More 4. This is by far the most exhaustive treatment of the history of cinema to be shown on TV, and an absolute treat, beautifully shot in its own right. Watching this series introduced me to Youssef Chahine’s brutal Cairo Station, Jean Vigo’s dreamlike Zéro de conduite and Satyajit Ray’s spellbinding Devi (The Goddess) among many others. The series opened another door of discovery my own personal story of film.

The 2011 London Film Festival was Sandra Hebron’s last as artistic director. The festival has flourished during her tenure. The films I saw during the festival this year were of mixed quality, but three stood out from the pack. Hirokazu Koreeda’s I Wish is an intimate story of a group of children playing together and going on a great adventure: part Ozu, part Goonies. The Dardennes brothers’ The Kid With A Bike is a small slice of suburban life, focusing on a child desperately seeking a father figure and ending up with a surrogate mother, proudly played by Cecile De France. Every frame is used in a way that displays the optimum amount of meaning, and it is this economy of style which makes the Dardennes a continued presence in world cinema. The highlight of the festival for me was Matthieu Kassovitz’s Rebellion, a film about a French colonial uprising in the late eighties. This is one of the best war movies I have ever seen and certainly the most affecting since Saving Private Ryan. Kassovitz does an amazing job in front of the camera as Captain Legorjuis, an entrenched army man specialising in hostage negotiations, caught in the middle of an election in France whose protagonists will use the situation he is in to get votes. The performances are incredible, as are the cinematography and the sheer epic production. This film needs to be seen, but sadly there is no UK release date yet.

After the furore at Cannes and his persona non grata status caused by his remarks sympathetic to the Nazis, I wondered if Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia would be worth watching at all. I left it late and caught one of the last shows in its initial UK run, but I was pleasantly surprised and it made a late entry into my Top 10. There are some truly memorable scenes, especially the ones in which the central characters define their relationship to the planet Melancholia itself. The sound is terrifying in parts and the CGI is fantastic. Von Trier is a true auteur, making films for the viewer to ‘feel a little pain’ by watching, as he said in interview in The Story Of Film.

Another film I was happy to see exceed my expectations is Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris. This ensemble film is Woody cruising with themes and tropes that have been familiar in his films for decades (philosophising on art, culture and creativity) but is less concerned with cramming the script with meaningless musings and instead uses a beautiful Paris backdrop on which to allow his cast of characters to paint their personalities and his actors to run wild. Owen Wilson plays the Allen surrogate to perfection, more John Cusack in Bullets Over Broadway than Larry David in Whatever Works.

Bennett Miller’s Moneyball, starring Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill, is another Top 10 highlight and provided an excellent vehicle for Pitt to assimilate himself into the role of Billy Beane, a baseball team manager who ran the team on the principles of ‘moneyball’ theory – using analysis of statistical data rather than intuitive knowledge. The script, co-written by Aaron Sorkin, skips along apace and the central performances are fantastic: Pitt’s performance is one of his best and Moneyball is second only to The Fighter as the best sports movie of the year.

The final inclusion in my Top 10 (top 12, top 13; are you keeping count?) is a wonderful Italian film called Le quattro volte by Michelangelo Frammartino. The film is a near wordless elegy on nature and the passing of life into death and what happens after that. The characters are: a shepherd, a goat, a burning charcoal pile and a tree, and the film is as beguiling as it sounds boring. A final mention for Tilda Swinton who gave the year’s best performance in We Need To Talk About Kevin. I actually found the film slightly patronising and its mise-en-scene rather heavy-handed throughout: the tinned tomatoes relate to Swinton’s loss of freedom and her choice of baby locks on the cupboards can now be seen as a big mistake. Lynne, I wanted to work harder for it.

2011 has been a pretty good year, then, and 2012 looks to be off to a good start with Shame, The Artist, The Iron Lady and A Dangerous Method all vying for a place round the Oscar table. I have a feeling, however, that it will be the surprises and the indies that continue to arouse my interest.