Not all the films below were released in 2011. Some are decades old. But this is the order in which I saw them.
The King's Speech ****
This imagining of a real-life drama of a stammering king contains much to enjoy. Helena Bonham-Carter's performance elevates the film from being a charming tea-time Laura Ashley drama into a fascinating portrayal of a marriage. It's the moments when it touches on universal themes that the film edges towards greatness.
Nixon in China *****
Not strictly a film, but I watched this live telecast of the John Adams opera in a Cardiff cinema and loved it. The Nixon White House was not Aaron Sorkin's West Wing and Mao's China is a harsh place, but the politics and the spectacle are interspersed with glimpses of humanity on the (world) stage.
Ben Stiller and Noah Baumbach pen a love letter to LA in a movie which finds tenderness in the lives of disappointed, often caustic, sometimes selfish souls adrift in the sprawl.
Winter's Bone ***
I watched this portrayal of criminality and deprivation in rural America seen through the eyes of a brave young woman struggling to provide for her siblings while on a train going through rural Wales. The hardship experienced of the communities on the screen mirrored the deprivation glimpsed outside the window. It's a harrowing picture of a neglected world.
Whatever Works **1/2
Woody Allen and Larry David are two of my heroes. This Woody-directed David-starring movie, alas, fails to soar.
The Fighter *****
This is a gold-standard masterpiece by David O Russell. It's a film with an opening sequence shot with such bravura you know this is going to be a joyous cinematic ride. Not since Magnolia have I seen a film which makes the viewer as much a part of the community on screen. You are cheering wildly in the final fight of this boxing epic not because Mark Wahlberg might not win but because you know what a loss will mean in the lives of the people who have come to care about. It also portrays personal redemption with neither cynicism nor romance.
The magic of science-fiction is revived in this extraordinary tale of a man on a mining base who may not be alone. It would be schlockly to describe it as Star Trek imagined by Beckett but if such a concept appeals to you then you will find much to be thrilled by.
The Social Network *****
When word spread that Aaron Sorkin was doing a movie about Facebook there were a few half-groans. Surely the greatest chronicler of democracy of our times was turning to subject matter lacking suitable greatness? How wrong we were. Together with David Fincher he tells a spellbinding story of how computing genius is found in personalities which are still learning to navigate the adult world. Like Sorkin's best work, it takes an exciting story and uses it to explore ancient virtues such as trust, love and friendship.
The story Britain's last hangman captures the sweeping transformation of social attitudes which followed World War II. Timothy Spall and Juliet Stevenson deliver fine performances but this is grim fare.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams ****
Werner Herzog took 3D cameras into a cave that contains paintings that had been hidden for tens of thousands of years. Choral music and philosophising abound, and the closing minutes are delightfully offbeat.
Little White Lies *****
A bunch of thirtysomething friends choose not to postpone their summer holiday when one of their number is knocked off his motorcycle and left in a coma. This is France's answer to the American classic The Big Chill and Kenneth Branagh's Peter's Friends. It's vibrant, often fun, and frank about early ageing and unrequited love. As with Greenberg, it acknowledges an unsettling selfishness but it also celebrates the joy of lasting friendship with unbridled and quite Gallic emotion.
Wim Wenders gives modern ballet the 3D treatment. Some of it is wonderful. All of it is eye-opening.
This exploration of the events surrounding Allen Ginsberg's obscenity trial pulls in several directions but features a brilliant animation to accompany his eponymous poem. Really, there's an HBO box-set to be made dramatising the story of the Beats.
The Tree of Life ****1/2
Terrence Mallick draws wonderful performances out of Brad Pitt and his screen family as he unapologetically drills into the minutiae of family life and juxtaposes this with images of galaxies and explorations of the greatest spiritual themes.
If Eddie Izzard decided to spend a year pretending to be Karl Marx and had an engaging American filmmaker follow him around the world with a camera the end result might look like this.
Will Ferrell and Tina Fey are two of the very best comic actors of their generation and it would be great to see them on screen together. Instead, we get to hear their voices as they say the lines of the computer-generated characters of this superior animated comedy.
This is one of my parents' favourite films and while Walter Mathau is one of the three greatest mammals in the history of human evolution this is not one of his works which has aged especially well. Sorry!
The Big Sleep ****
Raymond Chandler was one of the finest prose stylists the English language has ever known. Who cares if the plots don't make sense when the writing is this good? But would his convoluted whimsy survive the translation to celuloid. Mais oui, if Howard Hawks is directing, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall are starring, and William Faulkner is on screenplay duty.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy *****
I'm not convinced it's possible to understand all the elements of the plot just by watching the film (I had to check Wikipedia when I stumbled out of the Brixton Ritzy). There were moments when I had no idea what was going on. But this suited the themes of this exploration of fidelity and betrayal against the muted colours of 1970s London. So much is unknown and unspoken in the intelligence "community" inhabited by Gary Oldman's portrayal of John le Carré's spy that I didn't begrudge my own confusion. The excursions to Budapest and Istanbul are thrilling and frightening, and the closing sequence reveals that Oldman's stillness contained not just hurt but power and for that you want to cheer.
This would be a very interesting double-bill with Armageddon because both feature large objects about to hit the earth and wipe out all life. In Michael Bay's epic a team of mining experts jetted off to blow up a meteorite. In Lars Von Trier's film a manically depressed ex-bride played by Kirsten Dunst responds by bathing in the blue light of the approaching planet and embracing the moment of annihilation as one of liberation. There's black comedy galore with Kiefer Sutherland as a know-it-all husband who is actually the less heroic character. Von Trier is much more than an enfant terrible oddball. A great writer will portray emotions and thoughts that you thought were unique to your own experience of life; Von Trier actually kindles these into life on the cinema screen. He can jump between dreamlike imagery which rings true in the subconcious to depictions of the agonies and embarrassments of modern life with a brilliance matched by no other living director I know. It might offend his avant-garde status, but at heart he's a cracking good storyteller.
Crazy Heart *****
Jeff Bridges is my favourite actor and his depiction of an alcoholic country-music star is, as you would expect, brilliant. He tosses his own ego aside when he takes on a part and brings out outstanding performances from all those who share the screen. What's special about Crazy Heart is that a wonderful film and the splendid performances adorn a beautifully crafted story. It shows how the pain in the music of the genre is rooted in lived sorrow, but how the values and hopes in the pain-bent lyrics point to a redemption which is as real as it is healing. This is a modern classic in which highly imperfect characters flash with genius, love and honour.
The Guard *****
I wanted to stand up, punch both fists in the air and cheer in delight when this fantastic Irish movie reached its glorious conclusion. The story of a loose women-loving, contraband-sampling politically-incorrect policeman who is paired up with a black FBI agent on the search for a drugs shipment could have been a wearisome (and the trailer is a ghastly butchery of the film) journey down cliche road. Instead, it's Ireland's answer to the Big Lebowski, with a touch of plot-transcending Chandleresque whimsy. At its heart is a character of vast intelligence and epic courage and grand appetite who is utterly ill-suited to the jargon-filled, petty and corrupt world of state bureaucracy. This Irish Falstaff is the last man standing when the world turns to ruin and he plods his way into a blaze of glory.
The Salt of Life ***
Gianni knows he is a chair away from becoming one of the old Italian men who sit on the street all day watching life roll past. He and his brother want one last shot at romance at a time when financially and personally each day seems to offer diminishing returns. This gentle, episodic comedy has touching moments and an extraordinary closing montage to the soundtrack of the Pixies. It is as light as a pastry served in a piazza cafe.
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