The Best & Worst of 2011

The approaching change in the calendar brings with it the irresistible urge to look back over the year and compile a list of the best, and worst, films of 2011. I have listed my favourites in no particular order but if I must pick one above all the others, it would be Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, as entrancing as it was baffling. As has become the barometer of these things, over the years, it is the only film I watched again in a cinema after seeing it at a press screening.

The Best Films of 2011

The Tree of Life
Terrence Malick tackles life, the universe and everything with his semi-autobiographical, epoch-spanning film about a boy growing up in 1950s Texas, by way of the Big Bang. Poetic, spectacular and only occasionally overblown, there was enough food for thought to serve whole banquets of leftovers in the weeks that followed. At least there was for me.
David Michôd’s Australian crime drama was a masterful examination of a gangster family collapsing under the weight of their own corruption, with a superb performance from Jacki Weaver as the Machiavellian grandmother.

Take Shelter
Better than von Trier’s overblown Melancholia, writer-director Jeff Nichols and his intense star Michael Shannon tell a low-key, anxious story of a man plagued by visions of an impending apocalypse. It captures the unsettled global zeitgeist better than any other film this year.

Top notch performances from Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis anchored Darren Aronofsky’s wildly melodramatic study of a ballet dancer disintegrating while preparing for her role in a production of Swan Lake.

On the surface, Pedro Almodóvar’s latest was a lurid melodrama about the extremes of body modification, but beneath the shocks and twists lies a masterfully told story about guilt, identity, obsession and redemption.

The Coen Brothers’ fascination with the tropes of the American Western comes to a natural conclusion with this vastly entertaining horse opera, featuring a breakout performance from newcomer Hailee Steinfeld.

The Guard
John Michael McDonagh’s hilarious black comedy was the most invigorating Irish film of the year, with an indelible performance from Brendan Gleeson as a devil-may-care rural Guard.
Tomas Alfredson, director of 2009s best film Let the Right One In, brought a new atmosphere of damp and decay to his adaptation of John Le Carre’s classic spy novel aided by a stellar cast, especially Gary Oldman as the meticulous George Smiley.

More than a decade after Audition prolific Japanese director Takashi Miike finds the same masterful touch with the chanbara genre as he did with horror, and almost did with all the westerns, romantic comedies, noir thrillers and cannibal musicals he's filled the time with since. His remake of Kudo's 1963 film is an instant samurai classic; boldly told and beautifully visualised without the use of computer effects.

Asif Kapadia told the story of Brazilian Formula 1 driver Ayrton Senna through a masterfully assembled flow of television footage and home movies. In a fine year for documentary (which included Project Nim, Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Knuckle) Senna was the stand-out. 

Very Nearly Great: Drive, Kill List, The Fighter, Poetry, Bridesmaids, Knuckle, Cold Fish, We Need To Talk About Kevin, I Saw The Devil.

The Worst Films of 2011

Matthew McConaughey had three films released in 2011 but none of them made it over here. So this year's Worst list was short three places, for about ten seconds. "We make a lot of shitty movies", a guy called Ron Meyer said in November. He's the president of Universal Studios. 7 of the 10 top-grossing films at the US box office in 2011 were sequels. The other three were remakes, of one stripe or another. Five of those seven sequels were actually three-quels, or more.

The Green Lantern
The mucoid green colour palette was the most appealing element of this disastrous superhero film.

Once more unto the breech for Johnny Depp and his accountants in Disney’s hyperextended franchise installment which was as loud and obnoxious as it was boring.

Larry Crowne
Say it ain't so, Tom Hanks. This is one of those movies Ron Meyer was talking about.

Jim Sheridan’s hopelessly muddled, haphazard and half-hearted haunted house horror wasted the talents of Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz, and the time of anyone unlucky enough to watch it. Another one of Ron's.

Greg Araki’s sexual soap opera gets top marks for daring and no marks for everything else.

Cars 2
An unrequested sequel to their weakest film and Pixar’s first real turkey, Cars 2 was little more than a cynical exercise in merchandising.

Zach Snyder’s lingerie-scattered CGI fantasy was dumb, derivative and fatally creepy.
Empty vessels make the most noise and there are few in Hollywood quite as resoundingly hollow as Michael Bay. A deafening digital dirge, the extra dimension here isn’t depth of field but brain-melting stupidity. And Shia LaBeouf is fast becoming the new Matthew McConaughey.

The Three Musketeers 3D
More 3D slops with this foolish fantasy that gives Dumas’ classic swashbucker an unnecessary contemporary spit-and-polish.

Your Highness
David Gordon Green’s comic slacker fantasia had a decent cast and a promising idea but floundered on a limp screenplay which didn’t include any funny jokes. A little Danny McBride goes a long way.

I spent most of the year reading Patrick O'Brian's outstanding 20-volume Master & Commander series, which didn't leave a lot of time for movie books - but the most entertaining cinema read of the year was Brian Kellow's biography of film critic Pauline Kael, A Life In The Dark; which spurred me into re-reading some of Kael's collected criticism, among them Going Steady, I Lost It At The Movies and Raising Kane and other essays. All superb (Raising Kane in particular contains a thrilling idea on almost every page) but more than 20 years after I first picked up one of her collections, I find I still don't agree with her half the time.


Growing up in New York’s Queens district in the late 1940s, Martin Scorsese was a sickly child, often bedridden by asthma. He couldn’t play in the streets, so his parents began to bring him to the local cinemas, where he immersed himself in the fantastical worlds created by Howard Hawks and Michael Powell; brightly-lit places where nobody wheezed.

Now, decades later, Scorsese makes his first children’s film with Hugo, an adaptation of Brian Selznick’s best-selling illustrated book The Invention Of Hugo Cabret; the story of a lonely child saved from abandonment by the magic of movies. It is a film that the young Scorsese would have loved, one that captures the enduring draw of cinema, old and new, in a fantasy about dreams, adventures, family and inventions.

Using the latest 3D technology for the first time, Scorsese’s Hugo opens with a panoramic sweep of a glittering Paris that tracks all the way into the tiny crevices in the walls of a train station where Hugo (Asa Butterfield) lives among the steaming pipes. An orphan since the death of his clockmaker father (Jude Law in cameo), Hugo lives in the spaces between the walls of the station, surviving alone on whatever he can scavenge as he keeps all the station clocks wound and in good order while dodging the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), a martinet in knee-high boots and a kepi

Hugo’s only remaining connection to his father is a mysterious metal automaton, a moving sculpture of a man with a pen, that he is trying to repair using the scattered cogs and wheels he finds among the machinery. That obsessive quest for gears leads Hugo to a confrontation with the bitter old man (Ben Kingsley) who runs a toy shop in a quiet corner of the station, who confiscates the boy’s treasured notebook and makes him work in order to return it. The old man also has a granddaughter of about Hugo’s age named Isabelle (Chloe Moretz) whose free-spirited quest for adventure has been encouraged by the books she borrows from the crammed bookshop run by M. Labisse (Christopher Lee at his most crepuscular). When Isabelle’s derring-do leads Hugo to discover an important component for his automaton, the two adventurers join forces to uncover a long-forgotten secret that throws new light on who her grandfather really is, or once was, following a course that takes them back to George Méliés and the birth of cinema itself.

Scorsese’s 3D experiment is visually flawless but the new technology brings with it a requirement to expand the frame with a series of overly frantic chases as Baron Cohen and his massive dog pursue Hugo through the train station, tripping over an entire company of underutilised British actors including Richard Griffiths, Frances De La Tour and Emily Mortimer. As adapted by John Logan (who scripted Scorsese’s The Aviator) Hugo’s story elements fit together like the well-oiled machinery that so commands the boy’s imagination. The performances, however, are as broad and inconsistent as those of the silent cinema that Scorsese adores, with the young duo appearing, at times, to be over-directed to the point where their natural liveliness is quelled to allow the camera sweep around them.

Dream House

Director Jim Sheridan finds himself deep in arrears with Dream House, a daft and derivative haunted house horror that falls some way short of its top-of-the-market valuation.

As the story opens, literary editor Will Atenton (Daniel Craig) has resigned from his job at a New York publishing house to spend more time with his family; wife Libby (Rachel Weisz) and their two young daughters, Trish and Deedee (sisters Taylor and Claire Astin Geare). Will has moved the family to a big house with a big lawn somewhere deep in the suburbs, where he is hoping the change of air and newfound quiet will help him complete his first novel, now just a tangle of scribbled false starts. With Libby giving the house a lick of paint and the two children busy exploring, everything is going well until Will has a run in with their scowling next-door neighbour Jack (Marton Csokas), divorced from Ann (Naomi Watts) and fighting for custody for their daughter Chloe (Rachel Fox).

Unsettled, Will returns to the house only to find his daughters have started seeing a sinister hooded figure in the snowbound woods and Libby has discovered eerie echoes of the house’s former inhabitants; pencil marks on a door jamb recording the children’s heights and an abandoned playroom, filled with tattered toys. The first sign of real trouble comes when Will, woken from sleep, has to chase a gang of ludicrously over-enunciated punk teenagers from his basement where they were holding a candlelit vigil for the previous inhabitants, a slaughtered family whose ghosts are said to haunt his home. This is news to Will, of course, but not to anyone who has seen The Shining, or any of the dozens of films that followed in Kubrick’s wake.

To say any more would spoil the remaining hour of Dream House, although if you have seen the two-minute trailer, the studio’s marketing people have already done that for you. The second half of the film focuses tightly on Craig’s increasingly craggy face as he starts the not-so difficult process of putting together the puzzle that the house presents, while coming to terms with a severe case of buyer’s remorse. The local police are no help but Will finds a local doctor with a scratchy surveillance tape who, between pauses and rewinds, carefully spells out Will’s part in the mystery and with it, the rest of the story.

From that mid-way point, Dream House implodes into a long parade of misjudged scenes, over-emphatic exposition, clumsy set-pieces and tacked-on special-effects sequences as the players grind out a denouement that we have already been told. The film is a mess but the real mystery is not what secrets the house might hold but why a pedigree cast and a supremely talented director saw any merit in David Loucka’s limply convoluted, unambitious screenplay. Craig does what he can to make his collection of tics and trembles into a convincing character but is continuously wrong-footed by the tissue-thin supporting characters. Weisz’s role as the dutiful wife is anaemically underwritten while Watts and Csokas struggle with momentary parts that require them to fix an expression – baffled blankness or stink-eyed menace, respectively – and stick to it.

Sheridan, a gifted storyteller once he has a story worth telling, proves a poor match for this sort of tepid genre material. Reportedly unhappy with the results and not having control over the final cut of the finished film, the director threatened to take his name off the project unless he was allowed extensive reshoots. The extra effort wasn’t worth it, with Sheridan unable to find any traction with the script’s mishmash of hackneyed inspirations and crucially, never generating anything resembling a moment of genuine dread or suspense. The film aimlessly switches between timelines and tones as the story collapses into splinters. In film, as in architecture, a lasting construction requires deep foundations.