The Films of 2011 So Far

by Indy Datta, Philip Concannon, Uncle Frank, Ron Swanson and Matthew Turner

Mostly Film contributors discuss their picks for the best and worst UK new release films of the year so far, after the jump…

Indy Datta

The first thing to say is that my viewing in 2011 hasn’t been exhaustive, but with that caveat, my top ten UK releases of the year so far looks like this:

1. Super
2. True Grit
3. Meek’s Cutoff
4. Heartbeats
5. The Tree of Life
6. Archipelago
7. The Fighter
8. How I Ended This Summer
9. Bridesmaids
10. Your Highness

And I absolutely loved Super, it’s not just that I think it’s the best of a mediocre bunch. I did like James Gunn’s previous film, Slither, but this is in a different league. The driving conceit – ordinary people adopting the guise of superheroes – is not a new or original one (the hack fanboy panderers who made Kick-Ass were only continuing the tradition of My Hero and Blankman), but Gunn and his crack cast bring brilliant comic invention and real emotional commitment to the film. If I was to compare it to anything else, it wouldn’t be to Kick-Ass, but to Bobcat Goldthwait’s Sleeping Dogs or World’s Greatest Dad – films that have as little time for the self-help nostrums of mainstream Hollywood as they do for proper lighting or editing (Super is, it should be said, somewhat less crudely put together, although Gunn’s visuals are still more Troma than Terrence Malick).

Heartbeats blew me away. I saw it not long after I’d seen Richard Ayoade’s Submarine, which similarly refracted its protagonist’s character through the lens of all the French new wave movies they fondly imagine themselves to be starring in, but Xavier Dolan owns and inhabits that idea wholeheartedly and recklessly (although not without painful self-awareness), where Ayoade took a drier, more distanced approach. In this instance, I’ll take the rapture over the detached amusement.

I enjoyed the insanely hostile critical reaction to Your Highness almost as much as I enjoyed the film. Andrew O’Hehir wrote in Salon that, for a while, he seriously entertained the thought that it might be the worst film of all time. I don’t know what to say to the haters, really, except that if laughing at Rasmus Hardiker fending off the amorous intentions of a minotaur is wrong, I just don’t want to be right. (This has so far been a year of preposterously exaggerated critical vituperation for comedies, a subject we’ll probably get on to if any of you have The Hangover Part 2 in your worst lists.)

Speaking of worsts, the worst film I’ve seen this year is Blitz, but it’s not bad in any interesting way, it’s just boring, cloddish and badly made. The first mistake was casting Jason Statham in a role where he’s required to say lines, the second mistake was every other decision the film makers made. The second worst was Blue Valentine, which might show up on some of your best lists, but which I found witless and interminable: it’s a placebo movie.

I also want to put in a word for the best unreleased film I’ve seen so far this year, the Irish post-apocalypse drama One Hundred Mornings, if for no other reason than that it managed to evoke the end of the world without resorting to colouring everything teal in digital post-processing.

Over to you guys.

Philip Concannon

It’s hard to believe that we’re halfway through the year already. It seems only yesterday that the world was going nuts for The King’s Speech and propelling Tom Hooper from journeyman TV director to Academy Award-winning filmmaker. All that aside,  I would argue that 2011 has been a pretty a pretty good year so far. Looking at your list, I haven’t seen Super yet (though the Bobcat comparison intrigues), but there’s plenty on there that I liked and a couple that came close to making my own selection. Putting together a rough top 10 tonight, it looks like this:

1. The Tree of Life
2. Meek’s Cutoff
3. Essential Killing
4. Melancholia
5. True Grit
6. Senna
7. Rabbit Hole
8. 13 Assassins
9. Waste Land
10. Ballast

Basically, my list is The Tree of Life + nine others. I’ve seen Malick’s film three times now and it stands head and shoulders above anything else I’ve seen in a cinema for some time. I can see why certain aspects of it won’t work for all viewers – with the climactic Sean Penn sequence appearing to be the most contentious – but I recognised so much truth in the central relationships and it has got under my skin like few other films. In its sheer ambition and scope it has the unfortunate effect of making other pictures seem so puny in comparison, but it amuses me to see Lars von Trier making his own statement about life, the universe and everything at the same time. As you’d expect, his vision of the end of days is rather less optimistic than Malick’s, but Melancholia is also one of von Trier’s most clear-eyed, contemplative and affecting films. As a bonus, it offers Udo Kier as a prissy wedding planner; the petition for a comedy spin-off starts here.

Speaking of comedies, my top ten is very light on laughs and for one reason or another I’ve skipped most of the year’s mainstream comedy offerings. I simply don’t have the time or patience to sit through the laziness that characterises most of these films. As much as I laughed at The Hangover, do I really want to see essentially the same film in a different country? And is there any value in watching a film whose sole joke is Cameron Diaz being a bitch? So I’m afraid I can neither take issue with the inclusion of Your Highness in your list or support your contrarian stance, as I never did make time to see that much-maligned movie. However, I can agree that Bridesmaids is a fine comedy that overcomes some crass writing and direction (and an unnecessarily extended running time) with a terrific cast and some sharp insights on the nature of female friendships. It has plenty to entertain all audiences, despite a marketing campaign that seems hell-bent on positioning it as a ladies-only affair.

The rest of mainstream cinema has had little to tempt me this year. Thor was fun, but I’m already feeling fatigued by the number of Marvel superheroes queuing up for their moment in the spotlight. All of these films have started to look and feel the same, and blockbuster cinema just doesn’t excite me in the way it used to. There has certainly been nothing at the multiplex to match the thrillingly blood-soaked climax to Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins or the drama of seeing Vincent Gallo run for his life through the wilderness in Essential Killing with a look of animalistic desperation in his eyes. Essential Killing also gave us the sight of Gallo forcing a women to breastfeed him at gunpoint before nicking her bike – and if that’s not entertainment, I don’t know what is.

As for my worst list, I decided a while ago to try and avoid films that I already feel I’ll hate beforehand, so my list is more a collection of mediocre failures rather than examples of complete incompetence. The misguided remake of Brighton Rock makes an appearance, as does Philip Seymour Hoffman’s stupendously tedious directorial debut Jack Goes Boating, but I haven’t loathed anything with quite enough venom yet to place it in the number one slot.

Before I pass the mic to our next participant, a quick word on the presence of two documentaries in my top 10 list. I named Senna and Waste Land, but I could easily have picked a couple more, with films as varied as Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Armadillo, Tabloid, TT3D, Pina, Countdown to Zero and Sweetgrass all making a strong case for inclusion.

Do the rest of you share my disillusionment with current mainstream cinema, or are you all bouncing with excitement over Transformers 3?

Uncle Frank

There are a few things in the top ten so far that I very much hope will have been edged out by Christmas.  That’s partly because I’ve missed a few things, like Senna, that are apparently great, and partly because I have to wait for some of the stuff you London types have seen already.  I’m very much looking forward to both Super and Tree of Life, but as I won’t get to them for a week or so, I shall unashamedly place Insidious as my tenth favourite film of 2011 so far.  The latest from the Saw auteurs may not be strikingly original – or, if I’m honest, any good at all – but it succeeds brilliantly at doing the one thing it sets out to do, which is make you jump repeatedly.   And when so many films fall short of even that simple goal, that’s something I don’t mind celebrating.

1.  Arietty
2.  Black Swan
3.  Animal Kingdom
4.  True Grit
5.  The King’s Speech
6.  Bobby Fischer Against the World
7.  Mammuth
8.  Life in a Day
9.  Thor/X-Men: First Class
10.  Insidious

The annual top ten list usually includes one really good blockbuster.  Fingers crossed we’ll get one at some point this year (Super 8?), but I’ve given a joint position to the most recent Marvel releases.  Neither are up there with Spider-Man 2 or X2, but the company’s production line is continuing to deliver solid, well cast and directed popcorn entertainment.

Like Phil, I’ve gone with two documentaries. Life in a Day, the YouTube movie from Ridley Scott and Kevin MacDonald, looked like a mobile phone advert in places but in casting its net so wide could hardly fail to gather up some affecting material.  The only frustration was that some intriguing segments didn’t go on longer.  Bobby Fischer Against the World is a fascinating telling of the rise, exploitation and subsequent fall of the chess genius.

Much of the rest is predictable solid Oscar chasing fare.  The King’s Speech may have won more Oscars than it deserved but it’s a fine piece of heritage cinema that struck enough of a chord with the public to become a major word of mouth hit.

Mammuth is perhaps my favourite arthouse release of the year so far, and certainly my favourite comedy; I share Phil’s weariness with most mainstream American comedies.

My top film so far is Arietty, Studio Ghibli’s new adaptation of Mary Norton’s The Borrowers.  It’s not a book I liked as a child, though the idea of little people living under the floorboards certainly appealed.  The film is a delight, really effective in making the normal world seem like a perilous place for the Borrowers, and in portraying the friendship between Arietty, the young Borrower girl, and the ‘human bean’ boy she befriends.  I really hope that there will be space in the multiplexes for this to find an audience, and that it won’t be flattened by Cars 2.

Ron Swanson

I can’t wait to see Arietty, but I can’t imagine it would beat my favourite animated film of the year so far, the sublime Tangled. Funny, charming, romantic and thrilling, its Disney’s best for a decade or more, and also one of only two mainstream films so far this year to really do 3D properly; the other, Transformers: Dark of the Moon is a film I couldn’t support for any other reason, but is the best 3D I’ve seen so far.

Including only films released up to the end of July, my ten is:.

1. Inside Job
2. Archipelago
3. The Tree of Life
4. Beginners
5. 13 Assassins
6. Meek’s Cutoff
7. Little White Lies
8. Waste Land
9. Tangled
10. Poetry

Only five of my films haven’t been mentioned by any of you yet, although I expected to see at least one of them in Indy’s ‘worst’ round-up: gallic box office sensation Little White Lies, which I loved – being a sucker for attractive, pretentious and rich French people sitting around talking about their insignificant problems, I was always going to enjoy this, and I would happily watch it again – it’s a much better film than Guillaume Canet’s overpraised Tell No-One.

As for Lee Chang-Dong’s Poetry, it’s a drama about a Korean grandmother coming to terms with a crime committed by her grandson, of whom she takes care. It echoes the terrific Mother, which would have ranked very highly in a Mostly Film poll for 2010 releases. It’s beautifully acted, and Lee’s direction constantly stops the film from following the path you expect.

I wouldn’t describe Beginners, directed by Mike Mills, as being unpredictable, yet it’s still a moving and affecting piece of filmmaking, with a career-best turn from Ewan McGregor. I’ve spoken a bit about Tangled, which leaves Inside Job – my favourite film so far. An incredibly cogent and lucid documentary about the global financial crisis, and the purported criminal negligence of the banks and bankers that caused it, this is an outstanding example of how the genre can educate without cutting corners, or dumbing its subject down. Charles Ferguson’s handling of the complexities of global finance show Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story up as the shambolic, juvenile mess that it is. The only political movie in the last ten years that is as good as Inside Job is Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.

A word, as well, on Lucy Walker’s Waste Land, which is one of those inspiring, humbling festival films that never finds an audience. As a lionisation of art, human dignity and courage, it’s peerless.

As for some of the discussion points above, I would agree that the critical reaction to mainstream comedy has seemed harsher than usual this year. The Hangover Part 2 may be the most unfairly maligned blockbuster sequel ever, providing more than its fair share of laughs. I was less enamoured of Your Highness, but it had considerable comic gusto, and is Natalie Portman’s best film so far this year (No Strings Attached is Natalie Portman’s worst film of the year).

My least favourite film of 2011, though? Joe Wright’s Hanna.

Matthew Turner

I’ve restricted my list to films that have already been released, partly because I don’t want to have to think about which Edinburgh films might or might not get releases this year (Tomboy would be in there though and very possibly Arrietty as well) and partly because I want to see The Tree of Life again before I make a final decision on it, top ten-wise. I love both Super and Tabloid too (the latter was my favourite film at the LFF last year) and they both may well make my final 10 by the end of the year. I haven’t seen Melancholia yet but I suspect I’ll like it as much as Phil does. Oh and I second Indy’s recommendation of One Hundred Mornings, which I’m still really hoping will get a theatrical release. I make no apologies for my inclusion of The King’s Speech or Blue Valentine, both of which I thought were excellent (and in The King’s Speech’s case, a worthy Best Picture Oscar winner).

1. True Grit
2. The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec
3. Cold Weather
4. Meek’s Cutoff
5. Blue Valentine
6. Bridesmaids
7. Archipelago
8. Senna
9. The King’s Speech
10. X-Men: First Class / Thor

As for the worst films of the year, I really hated The Hangover 2 so that’s definitely in there for me, alongside other more obvious contenders like Sucker Punch, Beastly, Country Strong, Anuvahood and Big Momma’s House 3: More Big Momma’s House. However, hands-down the worst film I’ve seen this year is Got To Run, which really does have to be seen to be believed. Second-worst is Huge, which is out next Friday so escapes official inclusion on the same grounds as Super and Tree of Life above.

Indy Datta

The thing about comedies for me is that I always try to see them with a paying audience on the opening weekend, because I want to know how they play to an audience. That does mean that I tend to overrate basically successful comedies immediately after I’ve seen them, and am likely to downgrade them in retrospect a few months later. The case of Hangover 2 is interesting though, because it demonstrates that what general audiences positively actually want from comedy sequels (the same jokes, please, but more so (but only once – we’ll be over it by Part 3)) is the opposite of what critics want.

I agree, Matthew, that The Tree of Life needs more than one viewing, really, but I’ve put it in almost by default because its ambition and technique are undeniable.

I think our wordcount is getting too high for me to really get into the emptiness of Blue Valentine (that Brooklyn Bridge scene, though, is the worst thing I’ve seen all year – on what level do those characterisations make any sense at all?), and yes, I hated Little White Lies, the extended duration of which I spent waiting in vain for anything less than crushingly banal to happen. I kind of want to see Got to Run, but it probably shouldn’t even be up for consideration: it’s clearly a vanity publishing effort, and not of commercial quality.

Philip Concannon

There certainly has been a lot of critical venom spewed over a couple of particular mainstream pictures this year, but as Indy says, these films do appear to be delivering what the audience wants. The Hangover 2 adhered to the same formula that made the first film a hit, while Transformers 3 serves up giant robots beating the shit out of each other and a plot that makes no sense (I mean, I presume that’s the case. I won’t be seeing it to find out). They’re lazy pictures, for sure, but what did the critics expect? The bile-filled reviews might be fun to write and occasionally entertaining to read, but it’s Todd Phillips and Michael Bay who’ll have the last laugh when the box-office figures come in.

Finally, the mention of a few favourite animated films from this year, such as Arrietty and Tangled, reminds me of a film that stands as probably the most distinctive studio picture of the year’s first half. Rango didn’t entirely work for me, but it is a gorgeous visual achievement and I love the film’s dedication to following its own path. It has a weird, singular sense of humour and a story that has been put together with genuine care; and while it was never likely to match movies like Kung Fu Panda 2 or Cars 2 in terms of tickets sold, it may well develop the kind of passionate following that those sequels never will. In fact, given the feebleness of Pixar’s 2011 effort and the paucity of genuine contenders on the horizon, Rango might end up winning Gore Verbinski an Oscar for Best Animated Feature. Perhaps that’s proof that originality and a sense of adventure can still reap rewards, even in Hollywood.

Ron Swanson

I thought a nice comparison and  a good point to wrap up on might be the ten biggest films at the UK Box Office, released so far, in 2011…

1. The King’s Speech (£45.35m)
2. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (£32.15m)
3. The Hangover Part II (£31.50m)
4. Tangled (£20.44m)
5. Fast & Furious 5 (£18.52m)
6. Black Swan (£16.19m)
7. Gnomeo and Juliet (£15.72m)
8. Paul (£14.26m)
9. X-Men: First Class (£14.03m)
10. Thor (£14.02m)

Indy Datta

Nice to see that X-Men and Thor are sort of tied, just like in Matthew and Frank’s lists. Thanks everyone – looking forward to carrying on the conversation/argument in the comments…

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12 thoughts on “The Films of 2011 So Far

  1. (the hack fanboy panderers who made Kick-Ass were only continuing the tradition of My Hero and Blankman)

    Don’t forget “Defendor” (2009) and “Special” (2006).

    It’s quite a genre, the ordinary-bloke-as-superhero thing. Might be worth a blog post someday? I didn’t like “Defendor” but Michael Rappaport is really good in “Special”.

    1. There was also a little known comic series in the 80s – The Watch Men, I think? They made that into a film recently, apparently!

      Yes, I know – but only one of them!

  2. There was a short film in the 1980s on the same theme – schlubby New York bloke tries to be superhero, saving girl from criminal, the last shot is her saying “leave it to the professionals” and flying off. I think I saw it before something like Tron or BeastMaster. Lots here to add to my list for when any of it comes to the sticks. Of the stuff I have seen I’m baffled that The Fighter is on your list, Indy – it struck me as an utterly mediocre movie.

    1. The Fighter is a story about who has the right to tell *your* story. The stuff with the HBO documentary at the beginning is key. The romantic myth of boxing – the noble art – is, and this is why it’s a perennial staple of the movies, a way of gathering maximum agency to oneself – a man can become one with his will, which is a particularly attractive narrative to some men stuck in disempowered roles in what they see as dead-end working class subcultures. The brilliance of The Fighter is in showing the reality behind that myth: that once you’re a story, everyone wants a piece of your story – and that this assault on the fighter’s romantic ideal of self comes not just from capital, but also from family, lovers, and so on.

      1. That comment is about 4 times as interesting and enjoyable as The Fighter. And given that – even at your hourly rate – the comment didn’t cost $11m to make, I’d say that means the film had its weaknesses!

  3. “The bile-filled reviews might be fun to write and occasionally entertaining to read, but it’s Todd Phillips and Michael Bay who’ll have the last laugh when the box-office figures come in.”

    Although I can always do without the reviews from people who have clearly thought, “Oh yes, I am gonna skewer this so good people are going to laugh and say I’m great,” surely reviewers have to keep on pointing out that films are crap if they think they’re crap, no matter how many people ignore them and go and see it. Although, that does raise the question of what is a reviewer is for, I suppose. Should they instead think, well, this is what people want so I should tell them to go and see it?

    Anyway, interesting lists. Good to see Black Swan in there. A film that heroically committed to sustained, operatic badness should be recognised. Also, it helps keep Natalie Portman’s numbers up. I believe at the last count she was in 94% of all films released this year.

    1. I think it just feels a bit tedious when these big movies come around every year and all critics jump on them (in a practice that always appears futile when they go on to dominate the box-office) and it sometimes seems that critics are going to town on a film in a bigger way than it merits in order to make their voice heard amid the noise. People who want to see Transformers 3 will go and see Transformers 3 regardless of what the reviews say, and I always enjoy reading a review that is passionately promoting a film the writer loves than one that’s tearing apart a movie made purely for commercial rather than artistic reasons.

  4. Black Swan only made the Box-Office list, which is still kind of crazy. Was surprised it wasn’t on Matthew’s list – I thought he’d loved it.

  5. I did think about putting Black Swan in, to be honest – in the end I went with Archipelago instead. Black Swan is definitely in the also-rans though and may even make the final list by the end of the year.

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