Favourite films: 2011

We’re two-and-a-bit months into 2012 and I have already seen ten films at the cinema. I’m really looking forward to the viewing that lies ahead and with films like Hugo, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Weekend, Carnage and Shame the year’s already off to a superb start, I think.

My inaugural post on Shame was, let’s be honest, heavy, probing stuff, so I thought I’d change direction a bit here and take a moment for lighter (and overdue) reflection on my five favourite films of 2011.

Drive (directed by Nicolas Winding Refn)

Slick, smart, mysterious and intense with a soundtrack to die for, when I look back on 2011, this film is the leader of the pack. Drive is the best of the 80s shaken and strained through the best of now – a wholly original, compact narrative with a dynamic visual style to burn. You think it’s going to be one kind of film and then it becomes another one entirely.

Of course, Ryan Gosling’s Driver – by night he drives getaway cars for criminals, by day he stunt drives for action films – is the major attraction here. But he’s more than a beautiful face. It’s how much he does with that face, with so few words that is his real gift. Just watch how he looks at Carey Mulligan’s Irene. And the clash of emotions he exposes when events take a sudden turn in the middle of a well-planned heist.

Drive is unexpectedly and shockingly violent, but also romantic and tender when it needs to be, so there really is something for everyone. Add to the mix the irresistible Bryan Cranston and a quietly menacing performance from the criminally underused Albert Brooks and you have a winner on every level. But when Gosling’s Driver is on screen, driving fast or standing still, time slows down and he’s all you see. And that scorpion jacket. Oh, and those driving gloves … Need I go on.

Never Let Me Go (directed by Mark Romanek)

I hadn’t read Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel (still haven’t) but took myself off to see this film because of the cast and a few things I had read online that aroused my interest. I’m glad I did. I was immediately drawn into the gentle grey dystopia of this imagined future world where children are genetically engineered as organ donors – literally born to die.

The film has a melancholy and poignant tone from the start and as you meet the three protagonists – Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Ruth (Keira Knightley) and Tommy (Andrew Garfield) – you forget you are watching a science fiction and connect with them as completely real. I challenge you not to be moved by the knowledge contained in the warm chocolaty pools of Mulligan’s eyes. Or the climactic scene in which Garfield’s Tommy realises the reality of his fate and his pain breaks through the silent screen with a desperate scream – this shook me and reduced me to tears.

Never Let Me Go is graceful, moving filmmaking filled with performances of quiet sadness and beauty that reminded me that when viewing film it’s our encounters with characters (actors), their faces and fates that have the most powerful and lasting impact.

A Separation (directed by Asghar Farhadi)

It opened in Melbourne last week, but I saw it at MIFF last year and it was the best film I saw at the festival by a mile. Accomplished and moving, provocative and challenging, A Separation opens with an extraordinary scene that positions the audience where the camera is – observing and absorbing two diverging sides of the same story. What follows is part family drama, part thriller, part social drama that is always a psychologically complex window into modern Iranian society. It stayed with me long after the credits had finished rolling.

The thriller angle is interesting – what I mean here is that the narrative unfolds as an investigation into the nature of truth itself, in a society (like all societies) where truth ultimately has many versions based on many experiences. It is true what Roger Ebert says in response to comments that A Separation is too Iranian in its view, that ‘the more specific a film is about human experience, the more universal it is.’ Universal in its humanity, the relationships between men and women, children and parents, justice and religion are deftly combined. Characters make mistakes, like we all do, but at the end, we have connected to each of them as basically decent human beings. And as in that opening scene, we can identify something of ourselves in all of them.

This is a film for everyone to see, so please just do that. I’m heading out to see it again this weekend.

127 Hours (directed by Danny Boyle)

I want to see James Franco make more films like 127 Hours and fewer films like Eat Pray Love. Not because I don’t think he has a gorgeous face – he does – but because I know he can carry a film and he should carry more. I rushed to see this and had a knot in the pit of my stomach as I sat anticipating the famous arm removal with pocketknife scene. I kept my eyes wide open all the way through – and I am happy to report no one fainted or lost their lunch or walked out during my session. I can’t speak for the rest of them, but I felt the same exhilarating relief Aron Ralston did when he finally removed the limb and escaped the cave that could have been his grave. Boyle’s frenetic style in the opening sequence slows right down once Aron becomes trapped, effectively trapping us, the viewers right along with him. It’s clever filmmaking from a constantly surprising director.

Submarine (directed by Richard Ayoade)

I also caught this film at MIFF last year where I knew nothing about it and had no expectations. I’m perpetually absorbed by stories of teenage angst and unrequited love (I’m writing a novel about first love, the 1980s, The Smiths, a caravan and the inevitability of heartbreak) and fifteen-year-old Oliver Tate’s (Craig Roberts) own 1980s story struck a chord. This is a special film, not only for its quirkiness and vivid characters (deftly played by Sally Hawkins, Noah Taylor and Paddy Considine among others), but because under its singular humour is a heart that pulses strong and true, all to the beat of Arctic Monkey’s frontman Alex Turner’s magical soundtrack.

Extra special mention: Jane Eyre (directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga)

This film should also be on my list since I loved it so much I paid to see it twice, but I don’t want to seem utterly obsessed with Michael Fassbender this soon into my blog’s life. I have a pretty soft spot for period drama and quality literary adaptations (and MF) and this is an exquisite film with impeccable performances from everyone involved. You know what, I could watch it again right now and find even more to love about it.

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