Fans of tedious list-making unite! The world renowned Ultra Culture end-of-year list is back. Join me as I count down the year’s empirically least awful movies, five of which are — somewhat amazingly — British. And don’t worry, in the interest of brevity I’ve kept it down to ten choices this year, which is good news for you and bad news for Tintin.
N.B. All movies released in the UK between January 1st and December 31st 2011.
Andrew Haigh / 97 minutes / Aspect ratio — 1.85:1
UK release: 4 November 2011 / Peccadillo Pictures / Rated 18
As with any gay-interest movie that isn’t I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, Andrew Haigh’s Nottingham-set relationship drama Weekend was not expected to do wonders at the box office. So when it opened to stupid-good numbers both here and (more incredibly) in the States, its position as 2011’s bona fide indie success story was pretty much guaranteed. Plus: it’s ace.
For all its indie cred and arty marketing, it’s basically a really solid romantic comedy — something most British filmmakers seems unable to produce at the moment — and I’m a sucker for really solid romantic comedies. Then there’s all the stuff about sexual identity, gender theory and what it says about homosexuality in 21st Century Britain, but I’ll save that for my dissertation.
Anyone who remains dry-eyed as Glen (Chris New) and Russell (Tom Cullen) say their final goodbyes at Nottingham train station isn’t welcome in my life any more.
Kevin Macdonald / 95 minutes / Aspect ratio — various
UK release: 17 June 2011 / Scott Free / Rated 12A
Assembled from over 80,000 crowdsourced YouTube clips — all shot on July 24th 2010 — Life in a Day is, by a healthy margin, the most ‘Web 2.0’ film of the year. True to his word, director Kevin Macdonald even made the film free to stream shortly after its theatrical release. But for all its myriad aspect ratios, self-reflexive touches and inventive audio design, the film works best when it sits back and takes a good, long look into HUMANITY’S VERY SOUL.
Less technological pet project and more existential thesis, Life in a Day ping-pong-balls its audiences between all manner of emotional extremes in the time it would take most films to establish their principal characters. And given the sheer number of clips involved, it’s a fucking miracle that only one or two of them could really be called duds.
The ‘what do you fear?’ montage is so upsetting that, ironically, it’s now what I fear.
Xavier Dolan / 95 minutes / Aspect ratio — 1.85:1
UK release: 27 May 2011 / Network Releasing / Rated 15
The second film from ludicrously young French-Canadian wunkerkind Xavier Dolan is a supremely stylish look at the burgeoning ménage à trois between three young sophisticates in suburban Montreal. Dolan supplied nearly half the film’s budget himself (probably using the money he magics out of thin air when he’s not effortlessly tossing off award-winning indie movies) and serves as writer, director, producer, costume designer, art director, editor and star on this powerfully personal tale of unrequited love.
Whatever the critics might have thought, no one was more attuned to Heartbeats‘s affectations than Heartbeats itself. Stroking with one hand and slapping with the other, the film both indulged and exposed its trio of solipsistic, self-dramatising hipsters — gradually illuminating their vulnerabilities rather than satirising them to death.
Narrowly beating off (in a manner of speaking) Black Swan for the title of 2011’s Best Masturbation Scene, the moment when Dolan pulls a T-shirt over his head and then quickly bangs one out is a brilliantly inelegant and surprisingly comic addition to cinema’s onanistic canon.
Nicolas Winding Refn / 100 minutes / Aspect ratio — 2.35:1
UK release: 23 September 2011 / Icon / Rated 18
The film that established Ryan Gosling as Hollywood’s de facto Sexy Man also saw him kicking a skull in and repeatedly slapping Christina Hendricks in the face — such is the power of Drive and its über-understated performance by the man who can never again be referred to as ‘him out of The Notebook‘. It’s also one of the few films this year to go down equally well with critics (opening to near-universal acclaim and a Best Director win at Cannes) and audiences (showing far outside the arthouse circuit and making nearly $70 million worldwide on a $15 million budget).
Sometimes modest ambitions are a good thing. Drive wants little more than to be a bold, energetic and ultimately functional neo-noir, and in those respects it’s an overwhelming success. After all, who needs social commentary when you’ve got THAT soundtrack?
Rarely has the theme song from Goodbye Uncle Tom been used to such spectacularly haunting effect as it is in the scene where Gosling stalks Ron Perlman’s mobster through the quiet beachside streets of Los Angeles.
Lars von Trier / 136 minutes / Aspect ratio — 2.35:1
UK release: 30 September 2011 / Artificial Eye / Rated 15
The self-styled ‘best film director in the world’ returns with an elegant, semi-autobiographical tale of love and loss. One of a spate of recent films in which colossal planetary movements inform our understanding of intimate interpersonal stories (see also: The Tree of Life, Another Earth), Melancholia has all the bleakness of Antichrist with none of the genital mutilations.
It’s the film I’ve written about more than any other this year, and not just because of The Continuing Antics of Lars von Trier. At once his most accessible and most devastating film to date, Melancholia spends half its time reassuring us that we’re safe in the company of an ensemble cast of familiar A-list faces, and the other half in a nihilistic spiral of depression, dragging each and every audience member down into the darkest depths of von Trier’s imagination. “After a few more films of mine, [the audience] will not want to get out of bed,” he told Nightwaves in October. One more should do it, Lars.
The epic 10-minute prologue, featuring a flawless CGI rendering of a planetary collision and a variety of awe-inspiring ‘tableaux’ (if you’ll allow me to be so wanky), was as close as 2011 came to arthouse bliss.
Ben Wheatley / 95 minutes / Aspect ratio — 1.85:1
UK release: 2 September 2011 / Optimum Releasing / Rated 18
If Kill List looks ‘a bit straight-to-video’ it’s only because you’re letting every other British horror movie of the last ten years affect your judgement. Down Terrace director Ben Wheatley made an international name for himself with this endlessly atmospheric hitman thriller, which premiered to universal acclaim (and queasiness) at Austin comma Texas’s trendy SXSW festival.
Exhilarating while you’re watching it and fascinating in hindsight, Kill List is a multi-layered masterpiece from Arial-tinged beginning to soul-destroying end. It’s also a film that’s effectiveness could easily be undermined by over-explanation, so I’ll leave this here and urge those of you who haven’t seen it yet to do so ASA-fucking-P.
The brutal hammer-based demise of ‘The Librarian’ makes for perhaps the most un-seeable cinematic moment of the year.
Joe Cornish / 88 minutes / Aspect ratio — 2.35:1
UK release: 13 May 2011 / Optimum Releasing / Rated 15
A cast of unknown teens (one of whom now hangs out with Spike Lee at baseball games) form the instantly iconic London gang who spend their nights assaulting nurses and — later — extraterrestrials. Attack the Block is both a taut action movie and an astute piece of socially commentary, garnering admiration from even the Daily Mail’s Chris Tookey, who praised director Joe Cornish for ‘neither demonising nor glorifying’ the teens.
Free from a single scene or character that isn’t utterly integral to the narrative, Attack the Block beat Hollywood at its own game in 2011, offering an action-adventure roughly half the length and twice the fun of a Transformers 3 or a Pirates of the Caribbean 4. Thankfully, it also steers well clear of any obvious ‘Zoinks! An alien invasion on a council estate!’ humour and instead makes you wonder how on Earth nobody thought of the scenario sooner.
It seems perfectly reasonable to suggest that the sequence in which Moses (John Boyega) runs the length of a corridor pursued by galloping aliens contains more energy, tension and drama than the British film industry’s entire 2009-10 output.
Richard Ayoade / 136 minutes / Aspect ratio — 1.85:1
UK release: 18 March 2011 / Optimum Releasing / Rated 15
One of the few films that can claim to be equally indebted to the French New Wave and the timeless comedy sub-genre of wanking jokes, Submarine sees teenage fantasist Oliver Tate dreaming up a world of tragic romance and noir-inspired mystery as an antidote to the monotony of suburban school life. Richard Ayoade directs, Alex Turner scores, hipsters applaud en masse.
As stylish as it is sincere, as touching as it is hilarious, and as gloriously inventive as the hype would have you believe, Submarine takes an inherently unlikeable character and fashions from him an anti-hero of gloriously small proportions.
It goes without saying: the wonderful evening of lovemaking.
Kenneth Lonergan / 150 minutes / Aspect ratio — 1.85:1
UK release: 2 December 2011 / 20th Century Fox / Rated 15
Around the time she was making dolla with X-Men: The Last Stand, Anna Paquin somehow found time to bang out the performance of her career in Kenneth Lonergan’s delicate family drama Margaret. Flash forward five years and following a seemingly insurmountable feud between Lonergan and distributor Fox Searchlight, the film finally saw the light of day — ambling into UK cinemas on a single West End screen. Luckily, hell hath no fury like a critical fraternity scorned, and after a surplus of support from reviewers the film expanded to cinemas across the country (well, Edinburgh).
Like a frail, ageing exhibitionist, Margaret reveals itself slowly over the course of 150 minutes, only allowing us fully into the mind of its ruthless, self-obssessed protagonist after we’ve had adequate time to meet those around her. Lonergan originally wanted the film to be four hours long, and given what remains unsaid in two and a half, he might just have been onto something.
What seems like a middling teen drama quickly turns into something much more interesting after Lisa (Anna Paquin) inadvertently causes a traffic accident.
Michel Hazanavicius / 100 minutes / Aspect ratio — 1.37:1
UK release: 30 December 2011 / Entertainment Film Distributors / Rated PG
Perhaps the least cynical film ever to be tipped for Oscar glory, The Artist takes an extraordinarily high concept (it’s a silent movie about silent movies) and turns it into a wholly satisfying, utterly accessible love story. Featuring John Goodman.
If you have to ask, you clearly haven’t seen The Artist. (Fair enough: it’s not actually out until December 30th). Michel Hazanavicius’s English-language debut is a singularly joyous film, completely out of step with the abuse-heavy titles it opened alongside at Cannes this year. Imagine systemically removing every element of your being with the capacity for sadness until you exist purely on a diet of unadulterated glee, and you’re halfway there.
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