This year saw 3D stutter, with many of 2011’s best films returning to the early principles of cinemaby Francine Stock / November 16, 2011 / Leave a comment
The best films of 2011 ranged from high profile Hollywood offerings like Black Swan to the Greek indie comedy Attenberg
The film year began with fevered journeys into altered states of consciousness. A young man hallucinated while pinned between boulders in the Utah desert, hacking off his own arm for survival in Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours, while a deluded ballerina in Darren Aronofsky’s histrionic Black Swan shattered into shards.
But one theme that lasted throughout the year was the studios’ search for greater impact. After the global success of Avatar in 2010, they invested heavily in 3D but returns have been disappointing. The quality of production or projection was sometimes dodgy and increasingly, audiences seemed to weary of the novelty. Perhaps the most effective use during the year came not in a big-budget action feature but Wim Wenders’s elegiac and atmospheric documentary Pina, about the Wuppertal Dance Theatre director Pina Bausch.
As they sought to draw in audiences, cinemas began to resemble old palaces of varieties once again, showing over the week a mixed programme of live relays from theatres, opera houses and even sports venues alongside the features.
British cinema had its best year commercially for decades. The well-executed if conventional The King’s Speech was startlingly lucrative (a more than 15-fold return on investment) and a prolific award-winner. Autumn brought the 1970s murk of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; Swedish director Tomas Alfredson lent a welcome outsider’s perspective both for Le Carré devotees and a new generation raised on thrillers—like Inception—where detailed comprehension is less important than a general sense of justice. Senna drew heartpounding drama from archive footage, breaking British box office records for a documentary.
From distinctive auteurs came ambitious accounts of existence and obliteration: the Palme d’Or winner at Cannes was Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life in which the story of a Texan family in the 1950s launched a vertiginous trip through creation and evolution along with portentous musings about love, life and death. Ironically, all these themes had been beautifully delineated in the domestic drama—it was as if Malick did not trust the audience to grasp them. Lars von Trier’s Melancholia was concerned rather with a godless end of days. The opening ten minutes, a romanticised Wagner-drenched poem of apocalypse, was probably the most accomplished filmmaking of the year. What followed was a sometimes droll, sometimes tiresome working out of the inevitable. Life’s a bitch and then you die. Both on and offscreen von Trier tried hard to provoke.
The most intriguing meditation on mortality—literally a dust-to-dust tale—was an Italian film, Le Quattro Volte, which subverted film narrative by making its central character a Calabrian goatherd, then a goat and finally a tree. Director Michelangelo Frammartino was inspired by Pythagorean notions of the elements. Psychology had no place here nor indeed in Greece’s Oscar entry Attenberg, directed by Athina Rachel Tsangari, which observed a father and daughter rather as our most celebrated naturalist Sir David (from whose name, to Greek ears, the title derives) might watch gulls or apes. Actions, rather than explicit motivation, drove some of the most impressive films this year including the Iranian morality puzzle A Separation and the father-son tragedy A Screaming Man from Chad. From Australia came a coolly compelling study of Melbourne gangsters in David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom as witnessed by the youngest, an enigmatic teenager; even more disturbing was the actively passive university student lying comatose for the erotic pleasure of older men in Sleeping Beauty, directed by Julia Leigh.
Vincent Gallo ran silently for his life through European forests in Jerzy Skolimowski’s Essential Killing, while in Nicholas Winding Refn’s stylish Drive, Ryan Gosling’s Mannerist angel looks gave little clue to the getaway driver’s sudden outbreaks of deadly violence. These figures all returned to an early principle of cinema—that a blank space allows the audience to project their own concerns and fantasies.
The most joyously original film of the year, feted at festivals and scheduled to arrive in British cinemas at year end, was almost wordless: The Artist directed by Michel Hazanavicius, is a black-and-white comedy drama set in 1920s Hollywood, set to Ludovic Bource’s sensitive score. Jean Dujardin won Best Actor at Cannes as an ageing silent actor contending with the arrival of speech. More than referential, The Artist delights both eye and heart, restoring to us what the French director René Clair feared back then the talkies would destroy, “that the precision of verbal expression will drive poetry off the screen just as it drives off the atmosphere of a daydream.”