Matthew Lee's 2011 In Film: Fashionably Late
It was a strange year for film, to be honest, at least from my point of view. I don't think I saw a single mainstream release in the cinema, and most of the recent films I saw were when I was playing catchup for everything I missed in 2010. Still, it was an eventful twelve months - I might not have rated this top ten quite as highly as previous years, but whether through festival screenings or import DVDs it still featured some unforgettable movies.
Matthew Lee's Top Ten of 2011
10: The Mill and the Cross (Lech Majewski, Poland, 2011)
It's all too easy for filmmakers to get carried away with exploring the possibilities for artistic expression offered by new advances in visual technology. But Lech Majewski's The Mill and the Cross is about that exploration - examining the genesis of one of Pieter Bruegel's most famous paintings (The Way to Calvary), the film brings the great painter's work almost literally to life, meshing the stark realities of life in Renaissance Europe with the sprawling, stylised tapestry on which he brought it all together. The world transforms into a work of art and back while Rutger Hauer, as Bruegel, explains the deeper meaning behind even the smallest details. Glacially slow, heavy on portentous monologues, The Mill and the Cross is definitely not for everyone, but if you've got the patience to sit through the whole thing it's as profoundly rewarding as any art gallery.
9: Some Guy Who Kills People (Jake Perez, US, 2011)
Forget the title. And the bargain basement production values. And the deceptively obvious plot. Seriously, Jack Perez and writer Ryan Levin's Some Guy Who Kills People is much more than the daft horror-comedy it first appears. The story of a disaffected loner taking murderous revenge on the jocks who terrorised his adolescence, Some Guy is less about the splatter and much, much more about the (anti)hero's attempt to build a normal life; to reconcile with his long-suffering mother, win the quiet British expat girl who's taken an interest in him and bond with the daughter he never knew he had. While the visuals are something of a letdown, the cast are uniformly terrific, making the most of Levin's sparkling script - this is a warm-hearted, clever, moving and hugely funny film that just happens to feature some guy who kills people.
8: Marianne (Filip Tegstedt, Sweden, 2011)
Filip Tegstedt's Marianne is one of the few films that deserves to be hauled out of the sea of direct-to-video horror flicks destined to swim through your grey matter on a drunken Friday night without leaving the slightest impression. There's no ancient evil, no drooling mutant, no scheming lunatic, no pretty, screaming teenagers lining up to be sliced and diced. Tegstedt's film is the story of one man who did a terrible thing, and who's struggling to put his life and his family back together in the aftermath - yet he's being haunted by an implacable spectre driving him to the point of insanity, night after night. Is he imagining this, what did he do to deserve it, and is he going to be able to make amends? While technically the film struggles to impress, Tegstedt's fantastic, deeply believable script and some outstanding performances from his cast make Marianne essential watching for anyone after dark, melancholy cinema for the thinking horror buff.
7: Juan of the Dead
A zombie comedy from Cuba (yes, they make films), named after a fairly successful movie that arguably did more than anyone in recent years to popularise the idea we could laugh at the undead. Sounds great, doesn't it? Drop the cynicism, though; yes, Alejandro Brugués's Juan of the Dead is a very obvious riff on Edgar Wright's film (2004's Shaun of the Dead) but it's also a fantastic piece of entertainment in its own right. Brugués takes the same starting point of a lovable slacker caught up in the chaos that ensues when the dead start returning to life and rampaging through Havana, but he works it into an elegant commentary on the state of Cuba today that's wistful, knowing and hysterically, blackly funny. The copious gore, in-jokes and wildly over-the-top set pieces are a little too obviously aimed at fans, but this is still slick, professional stuff that deserves to win audiences over around the world.
6: The Theatre Bizarre
Let's be honest - this compilation of anarchic horror shorts only wins a place here for the one film out of the six included that dares to be different. The rest are worth a look; even the misfires like Tom Savini's Wet Dreams or Karim Hussain's Vision Stains are at least inventively demented. But Douglas Buck's The Accident stands out a mile, a simple, lo-fi piece about a little girl who witnesses a tragic road accident, and the mother who tries to explain to her why people have to die. Almost devoid of FX, with only one explicit shot of gore, The Accident is still hugely powerful. Few other films in 2011 managed anything as emotive as seeing a parent admit to their child that sometimes they simply don't have any answers. Someone like Gerry Marshall would have slaughtered the final message in The Accident, but Douglas Buck makes it one of the most quietly uplifting moments of the year.
5: The Divide
Xavier Gens doesn't think much for humanity's chances. The Divide, the story of a group of survivors trapped underground after a nuclear holocaust, is a long, punishing run through every ugly emotional response of which people are capable - fear and mistrust turning to enmity, betrayal and hideous, sickening violence. This isn't misery porn or nastiness for its own sake, though. Despite a weak script and characterisation that's just a little too on the nose, as the cast go through their individual arcs the things they each find themselves capable of when their survival is at stake suddenly take on a lot more significance. What they do, the reasons they do it and the way the actors change as they internalise this culminates in one of the most thematically perfect, genuinely disturbing endings in years. It's undeniably heavy going, but few films this year had The Divide's staying power.
4: Wu Xia
Donnie Yen seemed uncomfortably slow in recent years to accept the days were long gone when he could party like it was 1993, with one too many films (Dragon Tiger Gate, Flash Point et al) that felt as if they were trying to make us forget the intervening years. Then the superstar abruptly decided if he was going to be an elder statesman he might as well be good at it. His role in Peter Chan's brilliant Wu Xia is arguably his best performance to date; as a family man living a quiet life in a secluded village in feudal China, when bandits attempt to rob the settlement our hero manages to kill them, but a quirky detective (Takeshi Kaneshiro) sent to investigate the incident thinks there was more to the fight than meets the eye. Part sumptuous, classically minded martial arts flick, part police procedural, part moving, fantastically acted character drama, Wu Xia is stellar entertainment that's as quietly affecting as it is thrilling.
3: 60 Seconds of Solitude in Year Zero
Giving a film that most people will apparently never get to see a spot on this list might feel like a cheat, but this astonishing collection of shorts deserves the praise. Sixty directors were given sixty seconds of film to do almost anything they wanted with as part of the celebrations marking the end of the Estonian city of Tallinn's stint as European Capital of Culture 2011, and the complete collection (if not each short) was burnt after the performance. There were one or two duds, but the overall quality was staggeringly high, from Edmund Yeo's short cutting between gorgeous, painterly snowfall and wordless nightscape, to Adam Wingard's glittering urban sleaze, to Brian Yuzna's slyly funny pantomime theatrics and countless more. 60 Seconds of Solitude in Year Zero is (was) far more than film school, arthouse posturing - it showed that even in a world of blockbuster Hollywood sequels choking the industry to death, you can still make something truly, genuinely magical and spontaneous if you try.
Breathing tells the story of a teenager in a young offenders' institute trying, grudgingly, to put his life back together by finding a steady job so he can convince a court hearing he wants to make amends for his crime. When he applies for work at an undertaker's, at first it seems as if it won't last any longer than all the other positions he's tried but slowly, his experiences begin to change the young man for the better. Yes, it shares a good many plot beats with Yôjirô Takita's Departures (someone learns valuable life lessons through caring for the recently deceased) but where the Japanese film wallows in treacly, unearned sentiment, veteran character actor Karl Markovics' astonishing debut feature is a deeply compassionate yet brutally honest look at a troubled young person finally growing up that never descends into schmaltz, yet still packs enough emotional punch to bring on floods of tears. This was Austria's candidate for the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2012, and it's a worthy challenger - win or lose, hopefully this should get it some deserved recognition.
1: Eternal Moment
Eternal Moment doesn't sound like much - the continuation of a beloved mainland Chinese soap opera that launched the careers of its director and stars back in the 1980s. But this is Zhang Yibai; few filmmakers working today have proven so adept at melding commercial, even outright tacky pathos and elegant, thought-provoking arthouse visuals into something truly special. Eternal Moment could have been crowd-pleasing fanservice, but under its opulent cinematography and big, melodramatic gestures it's a hugely sad, almost shockingly melancholy film. There's humour, playfulness and wit but over three different takes, Zhang takes the central couple and shows them dissatisfied, frustrated, even outright miserable - two of the three stories have them coming to terms with the fact they still love each other, but they didn't end up together and likely never will. This is love everlasting as a wound that will never heal as much as carrying a torch - bold and sentimental but also quietly, brilliantly subversive and utterly, profoundly heartbreaking.
Biggest Disappoinment: Drive
Oh, why not? Even now, the praise heaped on Nicolas Winding Refn's languid thriller comes across as absolutely baffling. The story of the anonymous getaway driver (Ryan Reynolds) who breaks his policy of laissez-faire to help a young mother (Carey Mulligan) only to have his carefully ordered life begin to fall apart, Drive shows obvious technical skill and the two stars turn in undeniably terrific performances... but tonally this is a disaster, a mess, coming across like the work of a man who can't decide whether or not he wants to take the material seriously right up to the final credits. The visuals lurch from pop video gloss to juvenile gore, the script turns borderline incoherent when the plot gets going, Albert Brooks's malevolent mob boss is a cartoon it's impossible to take seriously, Bryan Cranston is wasted, and there's barely any driving (oh, I went there). People have shot action films with rock star cool far more effectively already, and will do again soon enough.
Worst film of 2011: Poongsan
It's quite an achievement for a film to have you feeling offended on behalf of North and South Koreans, but Jun Jaihong's pathetic Poongsan manages both with flying colours. Kye Sang-Yoon plays a nameless courier who's making a steady living travelling through the DMZ to carry messages, video recordings and contraband between North and South, only when the authorities hire him to retrieve the daughter of a prominent defector, things suddenly get a good deal more complicated. Kim Ki-Duk's script leaves no cliché untouched, marrying the kind of witless, howling machismo seen in nonsense like Yôichi Sai's Soo to breathtakingly crass, tear-stained depictions of North Koreans cowering in their threadbare shacks clutching at word from across the border as if it was manna from heaven. Presumably both men meant well, especially given Kim's body of work, but there's no depth or subtlety here, just a complex, difficult subject reduced to window-dressing for a terrible, terrible movie.
And that's a wrap - 2011 done and dusted. Feel free to tell me I have no idea what I'm talking about, whether in the comments here or on my Twitter account @eightrooks - it's been a great 2011, and I look forward to the next twelve months,