The Best Films I saw in 2011
The Reader (2008)
A young German boy has a brief affair with an older woman and years later finds out that she’s on trial for Nazi war crimes. I didn’t have high expectations for The Reader because it was so critically lauded that I thought it would be bound to disappoint on viewing. The beginning was not at all promising, being the standard, male-centric, “fond memories of vagina” narrative that we never seem to get tired of regurgitating, but then, about a third of the way through, the film opened up and turned into a nuanced meditation on guilt and responsibility with a tremendously powerful performance from Kate Winslet.
I Am Love (2009)
Another incredible performance from a great actress, this time Tilda Swinton as the upper middle-class wife and mother who finds herself experiencing a sexual awakening in middle-age through her affair with a much younger man. I found the tragic ending a bit much and felt ambivalent about the revelation of her daughter’s lesbianism being used as inspiration for the heterosexual woman’s sexual explorations, but still it’s an interesting female-centred film that’s worth a look for Swinton’s performance.
Source Code (2011)
Pure science fiction entertainment. Source Code has a clever plot and casts Jake Gyllenhaal in the kind of everyman role that suits him best. It also has two decent female characters, especially Vera Farmiga as Captain Colleen Goodwin. Just don’t think about it too hard.
Die Hard (1988)
It really has taken me this long to get around to watching Die Hard and I was not disappointed. This testosterone-fuelled fun ride sees Bruce Willis, as apparently indestructable New York cop John McClane, well on his way to his position as an actor whose masculinity is so overdetermined that it cannot be questioned. Alan Rickman chews the scenery chamingly as the terrorist who’s unreasonably decided to take everybody hostage just before Christmas.
Toy Story 3 (2010)
Still holding up well on it’s third outing, still funny and moving at the same time. In this film our heroes must face death and learn to let go. Did I cry? Oh yes, I’m almost crying right now just thinking about the scene in which the toys hold hands as they slip slowly toward their doom in a trash incinerator. On a lighter note, the scenes in the kindergarten are hysterical, especially if you have toddlers in your life.
Everyone I speak to about this film says it wasn’t what they expected, but I’m not sure what any of us were expecting. Following a NASA accident, Mexico has been “infected” by alien life forms. A cynical journalist offers to escort a tourist through the infected zone to the US border. Slow moving, beautifully filmed, with rather unsympathetic but human characters, and although the allegory about immigration and borders is a little heavy-handed and you can see the ending coming, it’s a very atmospheric film which conveys a real sense of dread.
The Red Shoes (1948)
A ballet dancer finds herself torn between art and love. I have a longer post about The Red Shoes in the pipeline, but it really is one of the most stunning pieces of film I’ve ever seen. If you want to see a really hystrionic ballet movie with proper dancing forget Black Swan, this is the real thing. Moira Shearer was an excellent dancer and Powell and Presberger made the brave decision to create an actual ballet especially for the film. It’s sort of homophobic in its representation of the parasitic relationship between the diva and the gay impressario, but it’s also grappling with the homophobia and misogyny that renders the impressario unable to create, except through the diva, and the diva unable to fully self-actualise as an artist without sacrificing her personal life.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)
Popular but arrogant teenager, Ferris Bueller, decides to take an unauthorized day off school, dragging along his girlfriend and neurotic best friend, Cameron, but Ferris has some enemies who’d like to bring him down, namely his school principle and jealous sister. After being forced to sit through Pretty in Pink a couple of times in my youth, I went off John Hughes, but my partner persuaded me to give this a go and I really enjoyed it. It’s not feminist, but in terms of gender is possibly the least annoying of Hughes’s films (probably because it’s not about girls!) and while Ferris’s girlfriend is a non-entity, Jennifer Grey puts in a performance that reminds you what a great comedien she once was. Very funny, but with an underlying sadness.
What the hell? I think Solaris amounts to one of the strangest film experiences I’ve ever had. Three hours of bizarreness spread over two discs, with the surreal effect increased by a mistake on our discs which caused the English dubbing to intermittently shift back into Russian with English subtitles. A psychologist, Kris Kelvin, is sent to investigate the situation on a space station above the planet Solaris where an alien intelligence seems to be causing problems. Aboard the grotty, run-down station he finds the scientists dealing with the manifestation of people from their pasts. I found Solaris painfully slow and often rather boring (people stand at windows and quote Dostoevsky) but it kept us watching, mainly because of Natalya Bondarchuck’s mesmerising performance as the manifestation of Kris’s long-dead wife, Hari, and also because you can see it influencing so many other SF films (i.e., Moon). Solaris is about science, conscience, memory, and probably a bunch of other things that I didn’t get.
Jane Eyre (2011)
Chilly, Gothic, stripped back adaptation of the Charlotte Bronte favourite, which pulls off the very difficult task of making Rochester sympathetic on screen.
Another film about which I have a longer post brewing, but in brief I loved this Hitchcock directed thriller about a female psychiatrist who falls in love with the new director of the institution where she works, only to find that he’s actually an amnesiac who may be guilty of murder. She decides to go on the run with him and try to treat his amnesia in the hope of revealing his innocence. A great role for Bergman, brilliantly directed, as you would expect, with added Salvidor Dali dream sequences and hilarious use of a pair of glasses to try and make Ingrid Bergman look ‘a bit plain’. There’s a lot of anxiety on show in this film about women entering the professions, but our heroine wins out in the end.
Entertaining, but …
I found Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (2010) enjoyable despite being overlong, and the animation of the story of the three brothers was stunning. The comedy thriller Red (2010) was more style than substance but a lot of fun with Bruce Willis playing around with the macho mythology he established in films like Die Hard and decent roles for Helen Mirren and Mary Louise Parker. Shutter Island (2010) was an enjoyably over-the-top gothic thriller and I’m definitely warming to Leonardo DiCaprio as he gets older. The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981) was fun (not least for Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep behaving like a couple of total horndogs throughout), although I don’t think the double narrative entirely worked. Salt (2010), a preposterous thriller with Angelina Jolie in a role originally intended for a male actor inadvertently raised interesting questions about gender and the action hero. Calamity Jane (1953) – longer post coming for this one – was cheerfully sexist, racist and lesbaphobic and yet massively enjoyable in its extreme campiness. True Grit (1969) was OK after a slow start, but is very dated now. How to Train Your Dragon (2010) had a bog standard boy’s story with the usual ‘tough-girl-diminishes-into-love interest’ cliche that goes with that narrative, but it had great animation and the dragons were so well realised they charmed my socks off.
A Single Man (2009) looked good, but the story mainly reminded me how little I owe to the respectable, privileged gay men and lesbians who hid out in surburbia and how much I do owe to the disreputable gay men, dykes and and trans folk who rioted and marched for the rights we have today. I found Black Swan (2010) to be a weirdly old-fashioned cross between The Red Shoes (without the good dancing), Polanski’s Repulsion and an American remake of a Japanese horror film. In The Portrait of a Lady (1996) Jane ‘all women are masochists’ Campion launched an assault on Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady, representing Isabelle Archer as (surprise!) a masochist – Nicole Kidman crying for two hours does not a good film make. Neil Gaimen’s Mirrormask (2005) looked gorgeous but managed to be deeply unfeminist despite having a female protagonist.
300 (2006), a film so racist, homophobic, misogynist and disablist it’s almost funny in its appallingness, but it takes itself too seriously to achieve even ‘so bad it’s good’ status. Knowing (2009) had some potential, but the execution was so heavy-handed and the story was overwelmed by too much nasty computer generated imagery. And I’m not sure what they did to Nicholas Cage’s face – cosmetic surgery or CGI? – but whatever it was, it was highly offputting.