Films in 2011: Highlights and Lowlights

By Tom Bangay

5. 13 Assassins

In choosing my films of the year I strained every authorial sinew to include those cinematic experiences I enjoyed the most, rather than those which popular critique had told me were masterpieces before I’d even had chance to groan at the eye-stabbingly annoying Orange/Potiche sequence preceding them. For this reason, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Tree of Life remained absent from the list, and Miike Takashi’s wonderfully enjoyable 13 Assassins made the cut. Thousands of cuts.

Takashi’s tale of a tyrannical warlord facing ambush from the titular samurai in feudal Japan offers little new in its storytelling, most obviously calling to mind the Seven Samurai, amongst legion others. Veteran samurai Shinzaemon assembles a motley crew of swordsmen to kill homicidal despot Naritsugu; his crew includes the requisite Old Guy, Funny Guy, Young Guy, Oddball, and Complete Badass (Hirayama, played with ice-cold katana steel by Tsuyoshi Ihara). But the plot is of little consequence; what matters is whether Takashi’s trademark blend of surreal ultra-violence, depraved humour and relentless action translates to the period setting. The film opens with a gruesome ritualistic suicide, and proceeds to establish Naritsugu’s psychotic credentials through his sickening behaviour; things get pretty grim for a while. (Indeed I have no idea how the heady brew of mutilation, dismemberment, murder, rape and tormented amputees in this film escaped the BBFC with a 15 certificate).

Nonetheless, Takashi’s blood-soaked ordeal is a resounding success, culminating as it does in an astonishing 45-minute battle sequence. Once the trap is sprung, the thirteen make their stand against wave after wave of Naritsugu’s minions, playing out what is ultimately a hack ‘n slash game of chess between Shinzaemon and his former colleague Hanbei, Naritsugu’s chief bodyguard. Takashi gleefully constructs set piece upon set piece; at one point Hanbei and his men stumble into a deserted alley sprinkled liberally with swords, with Hirayama brooding expectantly. “Kill any man who gets past me,” he informs his young apprentice. It mirrors Takeshi’s approach to the film – just throw endless buckets of blood and vengeance at the audience, interspersed with the odd moment of surreal humour. Occasionally a couple of missteps slip through, but this is carefully managed chaos, and on the whole the viewers lap up every slash, stab, cut and thrust.

4. Life in a Day

2011 was awash with sequels, prequels, threequels, remakes and franchise-expanding superhero efforts, many of them ham-fistedly crowbarred into 3D. Amid a sea of derivative commercial tosh, Life in a Day stood alone as a true original. Kevin Macdonald’s ‘crowdsourced documentary’, produced in collaboration with Ridley Scott, was the result of around 80,000 individual film clips gathered largely by contacting people through YouTube, with footage filmed on 24th July, 2010. The producers also sent out 400 cameras to the developing world to try and ensure global coverage. 4,500 hours of footage were received, edited down to produce the 94-minute film.

The herculean task of editing an unprecedented amount of random film footage into a coherent narrative was, somehow, successful. The resulting film is uneven, but it has a pleasant rhythm at times, from shared rituals at breakfast, through an afternoon of toil, a brief nap, and then chaos when darkness descends. The filmmakers were fortunate, in a macabre sense, in that the day they chose coincided with the tragedy at the Love Parade festival in Duisberg, where 21 died and more than 500 were injured in a stampede when revellers tried to escape a crush in a tunnel. But it’s the little moments that linger longest – the morning ritual of an Asian family is a poignant highlight, along with an American girl’s bizarre collection of miniature flags. The editors have fun with their selections, pointedly placing scenes of poverty-stricken families stuggling to survive alongside a clip of what can only be described as A Dickhead with a Lamborghini.

The film is much more technically proficient than it has any right to be, considering its origins; short videos are beautifully constructed, and the film celebrates the sheer diversity of the human experience with some handsome photography. The score is appropriate, with percussive sequences around mealtimes and songs occasionally illuminating what is, essentially, one long montage. Not every sequence works – indeed, from 4,500 hours of footage, it’s hard to imagine that the ending Macdonald selected was the best on offer – but Life In A Day is drastically different from everything else to hit cinemas in 2011, and for that, it should be applauded.

3. Tyrannosaur

Tyrannosaur tells the story of Joseph. Joseph (Peter Mullan) is a violent man. When a film opens with a man kicking his dog to death, you get an inkling that this isn’t going to be a date movie (though I did see this film with a couple, who stayed the course manfully). Joseph struggles to navigate his day-to-day life without the barely-concealed fire of his rage spilling out and consuming those around him. He finds himself pulled in, unwillingly at first, to the life of Christian charity worker Hannah (Olivia Colman), married incredibly unhappily to the monstrous James (the ever-magnificent Eddie Marsan).

After spending so many years working hand in hand with fellow Midlander Shane Meadows, Paddy Considine’s directorial debut was never going to be Happy Feet 3; however it was still shocking quite how bleak the film was. Domestic violence, dangerous dogs and urban degradation vie for attention; but Considine’s script never loses hope entirely, with bittersweet glimpses of humour and light perforating the concrete and grey, and a spare but lovely acoustic soundtrack providing levity. Peter Mullan is fantastic as the gravel-voiced Joseph; but the real surprise is Colman. I raised an eyebrow at her name on the poster, stupidly assuming her to be a fairly one-note sitcom actress. I then realised this was because I had never seen her in anything except Peep Show, and was happy to be proven wrong. Colman sparkles opposite the truly terrifying Marsan, Hannah’s kindness reminding Joseph of his dormant humanity, taking the audience with her into his pitiless world. However it is ultimately her world which stuns and surprises the most.

Tyrannosaur isn’t for everyone. Its raw and uncompromising portayal of anger was condemned as ‘misery porn’ on Radio 4’s Today programme – a spectacularly unfair charge to lay against a first-time director and writer. While the film asks its audience to endure some painful moments, it rewards them with an unflinching exploration of violence, friendship, hope and despair, anchored by two astonishing central performances. And while Considine is a rare pleasure in front of the camera, his film shows that his future behind it is just as bright. Many of the year’s films corralled hundreds of extras and digital artists toward the pursuit of derivative tentpole tripe; made for just £750,000, with three leads and a first-time director, Tyrannosaur is a remarkable achievement.

2. We Need To Talk About Kevin

What little information I’d gleaned from this film’s understandably cryptic trailer, and more obviously the book’s widespread acclaim, led me to approach Lynne Ramsay’s cinematic adaptation with anxiety. If I’d remembered Ramsay’s sublime Morvern Callar, I would at least have taken comfort in the prospect of lyrical cinematographic artistry, providing colourful relief to the otherwise profoundly disturbing story. The guilt, responsibility and recriminations which plague the parent of an abhorrent child are not easy fare around which to construct a compelling film; however, Ramsay’s adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s paedophobic prize-winner is an extraordinary piece of work.

Kevin’s story is revealed to us in flashback, alongside the daily struggles of mother Eva (Tilda Swinton) to understand and ultimately live with his choices. We see her permissive, bohemian life before children; her unwilling transplant from an artsy loft to a desolate surburban mansion; and the grim exile in which she imprisons herself after Kevin fulfils his menacing promise. Each episode in her escalating duel with Kevin ramps up the discomfort, creating a relentlessly oppressive atmosphere (rivalled this year only by Brit horror Kill List) and buoyed by Jonny Greenwood’s atmospheric score. The claustrophobia engendered by the ever-increasing tension between Eva, Kevin and his hapless father (John C Reilly) is expertly managed, and Swinton is absolutely mesmerising throughout. Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography places her at the centre of a striking canvas of colours, but it’s hard to take your eyes off Swinton’s face, etched with fear and incomprehension.

Ezra Miller is marvellous as Kevin, all cheekbones and sharp-tongued manipulation, at one point declaring, “I am the context.” It’s hard to argue, but this is Swinton’s film – awards will surely follow – and it’s her ability to lend Eva an unsympathetic quality that asks uncomfortable questions of the viewer. Her complexity forces us to share her doubts – did nature or Eva’s nurture make Kevin a monster – and Ramsay holds her nerve, never giving us an easy answer. The film’s conclusion still shocks and devastates, even though its events loom large throughout; but I challenge anyone to leave the cinema without feeling at least a twinge of doubt about any ambitions to start a family.

1. La piel que habito (The Skin I Live In)

This captivating thriller is difficult to discuss without breaching unforgivable plot spoiler covenants. To be brief: in the confines of a stunning mansion-cum-medical facility outside Toledo, renowned plastic surgeon Robert (Antonio Banderas) and his maid Marilia (Marisa Paredes) live out a confusing domestic situation with young beauty Vera (Elena Anaya), while Robert continues his pioneering experiments into a fire-proof artificial skin. The nature of Vera and Robert’s relationship is unclear, but as the drama unfolds we learn the trio’s incredible secrets.

La piel que habito brings together a director and actor who were once virtually synonymous, but joined together in this film after a 21-year hiatus. I confess to not being a fan of Almodóvar’s films before this masterpiece came along. They tended toward the hysterical and the melodramatic, all bright colours and histrionics (though films 5 and 3 on this list probably indicate my bias toward the visceral). But what allows this story to function, in spite of its extraordinary central premise, is precisely the cold, clinical, removed quality with which Almodóvar approaches each scene. Banderas, greying around the edges, lends Robert a calculating, dispassionate air; he compulsively watches Vera on a huge, bright flatscreen, studying her constantly to enhance his understanding of a situation he can’t hope to control. Similarly my eyes were glued to the screen, transfixed by the improbably beautiful Vera; in fact so bewitched was I by the sheer handsomeness of this sumptuous film that the incredible lurch its plot takes – in hindsight, I suppose, reasonably obvious – took me completely by surprise.

La piel is a small, tightly managed film, but its central drama is so huge that Almodovar’s greatest achievement here is to keep it contained behind the Gates of Robert’s mansion. Almodovar was reportedly attracted to the story (the film is based on Theirry Jonquet’s novel, Tarantula) by “the magnitude of Dr. Ledgard’s vendetta”, and in that respect the film reminded me of the 2009 Oscar winner, The Secret in Their Eyes, but its reveal is even more striking, and more elegantly exposed. Ultimately this film stayed with me for weeks afterwards; it’s the kind of film that your mind drifts to in an idle moment, the same way it does to a dream remembered only days later. If it was bettered in 2011, it was by a film I’ve yet to see.

Honorouble mentions:

Take ShelterMelancholiaStakelandDriveTinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

… and five to avoid on DVD:

Immortals – Poor Henry Cavill. The Superman-to-be presumably adopted a Spartan exercise regime to attain the remarkable physique on display in this film, but was met with a monumentally stupid script and plunged into a perma-tanned world of bronze CGI and scene after scene of fantastically boring violence. With Mickey Rourke.

Never Let Me Go – A much-loved book makes the transition into an absolutely interminable film. The four hapless leads make the best of it but it’s a dreary experience.

The Hangover pt. 2 – Homophobic jokes battle racist jokes for supremacy in Thailand. Whoever wins, we lose (to borrow a tagline).

Horrible Bosses – Laughless comedy in which a selection of actors who should know better embarrass themselves in bondage to a plot that never really could have worked.

Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon – Possibly unfair to include this as a film to avoid, as it’s not really a film; more of a music video crossed with a video game, but without the artistry or fun. 154 minutes too long.

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