Review Of The Year 2011 – Films Of The Year

I think it’s been a great year for film and have found it really difficult to come up with a final list of 10.  There are a number of significant films that I haven’t got round to seeing yet that I am sure would also have been big contenders for the 10 (Tree Of Life, Melancholia, We Need To Talk About Kevin, Take Shelter, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy to name but 5!).

I have already compiled a top 10 list for but have revised that slightly having rewatched one of the films and watched a film I hadn’t seen at the time of writing that list.  I have also decided to remove the rankings as I don’t really think putting them in an order really means anything and is likely to change every time I think about it.  Let’s just say they are 10 films I saw and loved this year and if you haven’t seen them yet then maybe you should.

I’m the first to admit it’s not the most cheery of lists but I do tend to veer towards the dark and dismal when it comes to films (it must be my inner Bergman).  Having said that Attack The Block, The Guard and Troll Hunter are good fun and Submarine whilst having distinctly melancholy moments is essentially a comedy.  Snowtown, Kill List and Tyrannosaur on the other hand are among the three bleakest films I have ever seen in my life.  Snowtown in particular, whilst stunning, was a particularly gruelling watch.  Kill List absolutely twisted my head and is still taking up significant head space as I only watched it a few days ago.  The Future was a pleasant surprise and whilst Miranda July’s peculiar brand of whimsical avant garde may not be to everyones taste it works for me.  Small Town Murder Songs was another surprise with an incredible performance from Peter Stormare. Drive was the standout film of the year for me.  Nicolas Winding Refn has been making exceptional films under the radar for several years now.  Bronson and Valhalla Rising in particular are spectacular.  Let’s hope that Drive will see him propelled into the big time and he continues to make films as breathtakingly stylish as this.

So in no particular order here are my ten favourite films of 2011.


Kill List (Ben Wheatley, UK)

Ben Wheatley’s much talked about Kill List is a dark, claustrophobic and disorientating journey into hell.  It follows the descent into madness of Jay, a man haunted by the violence he has seen and committed both as a soldier in Iraq and in his post military career as a hit man for hire.  Whether that descent into madness is internal or external is not clear and I will leave that up to you to decide.  What is not in doubt though is that this is visceral, gut-wrenching, low budget film making at it’s very best.

The film starts relatively normally as a tale of domestic disintegration as Jay is still struggling to come to terms with a botched job 8 months previously.  The largely improvised dialogue and handheld verite style of the film place it firmly in the British social realist genre of Leigh, Loach and Meadows.  Things soon start to take a turn for the weird as Jay and his partner take on a mysterious new job.  It is at this point that the film really comes into it’s own as an exercise in creating a claustrophobic and unsettling atmosphere.  Jay starts to unravel as things get increasingly out of hand and escalate towards a truly horrifying and upsetting denouement.  Whether we are to take the events of the film literally or as some kind of manifestation of Post Traumatic Stress I am not sure and ultimately it does not really matter as for me it works either way.  It is clear though that Wheatley has crafted a highly original and unsettling film that will undoubtedly become a cult classic in years to come.

Some have criticised Kill List as 2 different films clumsily welded together but the move from thriller to horror in the final part of the film is a masterstroke and left me reeling despite expecting this change of focus.  It will not be for all tastes and indeed some of the people I watched it with absolutely hated it.  What cannot be denied though is that love it or hate it Kill List will stay with you long after it has finished.

Tyrannosaur (Paddy Considine, UK)

Paddy Considine’s directorial debut is a bleak and uncompromising film that shows that as well as being arguably the finest British actor of his generation, Mr Considine also has considerable talent behind the camera.

Tyrannosaur is not for the faint of heart but if you have the stomach then it is well worth putting yourself through it.  Peter Mullan plays Joseph, a middle aged alcoholic consumed by rage and impotent anger at the world.  His booze fuelled bitterness brings him into the world of Hannah (Olivia Colman), a do-gooding Christian whose own life is far grimmer than her positive, outwardly smiling persona initially suggests.  It is this central relationship and the incredible, brave performances from the two main actors that create the film’s heart and drag you along when the going gets really tough.  Colman in particular is outstanding and should be a serious contender come award season.  Her performance brings to mind that of Kathy Burke in the very similar Nil By Mouth (clearly a touchstone for Considine) in that an actor known mainly for comic roles proves more than a match for more experienced “heavyweight” actors.

There are a few missteps in Tyrannosaur, a lazy montage sequence for example that borrows too heavily from Considine’s good friend Shane Meadows as well as some clumsy music choices.  Considine does show a definite visual flair in Tyrannosaur though and his use of close ups and focus as well as some interesting drony soundtrack choices (reminiscent of this years Snowtown) give the film a stronger visual style than most British realism.

Whilst I initially found myself a little disappointed with Tyrannosaur the film’s final 20 minutes absolutely floored me.  This is a film with flawed characters living flawed lives where nothing is black and white and no easy solutions tie up the loose ends.  A triumphant debut and the first step in what is sure to be a vital new voice in British cinema.

Red State (Kevin Smith, USA)

Something strange has happened to Kevin Smith.  His past as a purveyor of foul mouthed slacker comedies does not prepare the audience in any way for what unfolds in this difficult, brutal and uncompromising film.

The film starts simply enough as what seems like another teen horror movie when three horny teenage boys head off to meet a mysterious woman for sex after contacting her through the internet. Things take a turn for the worse when the trio then find themselves at the mercy of a Westboro Baptist Church style right wing fundamentalist Christian group and are imprisoned in their fortified compound.  Michael Parks is terrifying as the hate fuelled bigot and leader of the 5 Points Church, Abin Cooper.  There is something worryingly believable in his conviction and faith that makes us all too aware of the real power that charismatic “men of god” can have over their flock.

After briefly flirting with the promise of some Hostel style torture porn the film changes tack again as the authorities become involved and a Waco-esque siege situation develops.  It is here that the film really comes into it’s own as a bold and daring piece of cinema.  John Goodman (on blistering form) plays grizzled ATF agent, Joseph Keenan, who is forced to deal with some very difficult orders that throw a harsh spotlight on the American government’s approach to homeland security and the controversial Patriot Act.

Visually Smith also shows a hitherto unseen stylistic vision.  His camera is a restless, prowling and invasive presence at times uncomfortably close to it’s subjects.  At times I found myself wondering if this was not directed by some other Kevin Smith such is the stylistic and thematic shift in this impressive work.

Red State poses some very difficult questions about faith, government and modern American society in general and offers no easy answers.  The final third of the film will leave you reeling and wondering who you are supposed to be rooting for.  This is fierce, angry and questioning cinema of the kind that no one expected Kevin Smith capable of making.  It’s not perfect and it’s certainly not fun but it’s an essential piece of cinema that is guaranteed to polarise audiences.

Troll Hunter (Andre Ovredal, Norway)

I don’t know about you but I’ve always wondered why there weren’t more films featuring trolls.  The troll is a woefully under represented creature in cinema history but you can rest easy as Troll Hunter is here to fulfil all your celluloid troll needs.

Andre Ovredal’s film uses the now over familiar trope of recently discovered home video footage to tell it’s tale of mythical creatures, Norwegian folklore and government cover ups but the story unfolds with such verve, wit and originality that the form of the film works perfectly.

Troll Hunter tells the tale of a group of students making a film about mysterious bear killings in rural Norway.  They begin to follow a particularly enigmatic “rogue” bear hunter and discover there is more to the story than meets the eye.  It turns out that the Norwegian government has been covering up the existence of trolls for years and employ a troll hunter to deal with unruly trolls whose activities (eating sheep and generally destructive behaviour) get too close to the general population.

Weirdly the film seems to have been marketed as a horror which it is not.  Yes it has elements of horror in it but it is essentially a comedy that draws upon folklore and mythology so don’t watch this expecting to be scared out of your wits.  What you will get is a very clever (watch out in particular for a brilliant reference to my own favourite chiidhood fairy tale, “The Three Billy Goats Gruff”), very funny and very well made (the trolls look incredible) low budget sleeper hit that is sure to gain a huge cult following.

Small Town Murder Songs (Ed Gass-Donnelly, Canada)

Ed Gass-Donnelly’s Small Town Murder Songs is a quiet storm of a film.  A powerful and subdued modern gothic tale of crime and redemption set in a small Menonite town in Ontario, Canada.  Walter (Peter “We cut off your Johnson, Lebowski” Stormare) is the police chief with an unspecified violent past who just wants to redeem himself in the eyes of his family, the town and god.  When the body of a young woman is found on the outskirts of town Walter grabs this opportunity to prove he is a changed man by solving the case.

Small Town Murder Songs moves at a stately pace and is driven by Stormare’s incredibly subtle but emotionally complex performance.  The quiet intensity he brings to the film is bewitching and he captures the spirit of a man battling his demons in desperation to make amends for his past.  Jill Hennessy is also excellent as Walter’s ex and possible victim of Walter’s past transgressions.

Small Town Murder Songs has been somewhat lazily compared to the Coen Brothers but I think this film carries far more emotional weight than any of their films.  It has far more in common with the recent wave of rural dramas such as; Winter’s Bone, Shotgun Stories and That Evening Sun.  Films that attempt to show a more honest and realistic depiction of small town life without resorting to cheap and lazy stereotypes.  It is films like this that have produced some of the best work coming out of America in the last few years and whilst this film is resolutely Canadian it fits perfectly into this milieu and is among the finest films I have seen this year.

For Your Consideration: Revenge Films

For Your Consideration is a list based series that looks at genres, directors, actors or anything that takes my fancy really.  I’m not trying to make definitive best of lists just some films that I think are interesting with regards to a particular theme.

Revenge films are a classic staple of cinema and indeed of storytelling.  There are few things that capture the imagination better than a tale of people driven to extremes in order to avenge a wrong.  The 5 revenge films I’ve listed here are for me particularly potent examples of this type of film and if they are linked in any way it is that they, with the exception of one, are about normal people driven to extraordinarily transgressive behaviour by tragedy.  All 5 films are excellent and several of them have not received the attention they really deserve.

5. 44 Inch Chest (2009, UK)

This cracking masterclass in ensemble acting received a bit of a critical kicking on release in 2009.  Due to being marketed, somewhat misleadingly, as a cockney gangster thriller this film never really found the right audience.  It is in fact a superb meditation on revenge, masculinity and guilt that is performed with gusto by all the cast.  One reading of the film, which I think gives the film a significant depth, is that the characters are all manifestations of Colin’s (Ray Winstone) personality and the debates and dialogue that take place occur in Colin’s mind as he is trying to work out what to do with his wife’s boyfriend and how to come to terms with his own reaction to it.

4. The King (2005, USA)

An astonishing film that absolutely pulled the rug out from under me on first viewing.  Another film that seems to have disappeared with very little fanfare or press on it’s initial release.  Gael Garcia Bernal is incredibly unsettling in this harrowing tale of a young man’s mission to connect with the father he never met (William Hurt also superb).  Without giving too much away the final act of this film is devastating.

3. Confessions (2010, Japan)

A wonderful new addition to the recent glut of new Asian revenge films and one that truly takes the genre to another level.  A complex moral maze that will surprise and challenge you at every turn.  Thankfully Confessions eschews the trend for sadistic, extended torture scenes and goes for a much more cerebral level of engagement with it’s audience.  Beautifully shot, the film plays like a dream and it’s leisurely paced soft focus world view disconnects us from reality whilst the challenging subject matter drags us screaming to Earth.  It is this dichotomy between form and content that give this film it’s real power and allow us to enjoy the ethical questions and challenges it presents us with.

2. Sympathy For Mr Vengeance (2002, South Korea)

The first (and for me the best) of Chan-wook Park’s vengeance trilogy.  Old Boy was the show stopper that grabbed everyone’s attention but for me it was, whilst excellent, a cartoon lacking subtlety and depth.  Sympathy For Mr Vengeance, on the other hand, is an incredibly complex, subtle and challenging piece of work.  The moral ambiguity of the film is what really makes it.  No one is bad in the film and everything is really just the result of bad luck and events getting out of control.  Good or at least ‘normal’ people are driven to these events out of bad luck and tragic events.  The violence is horrific but it doesn’t feel gratuitous or sadistic in the same way it can in some Asian revenge films (Old Boy, I Saw The Devil) it merely acts as a signifier of the depth of feeling that these characters have about the tragic events around them.  One of this films many masterstrokes is the use of colour and the way the film gradually desaturates throughout so that by the end we are left with a palette that is made up of shades of grey much like the moral mindfield we have just negotiated.  An incredibly well crafted and challenging masterpiece.

1. Dead Man’s Shoes

Shane Meadows sublime Dead Man’s Shoes is unique in it’s portrayal of revenge.  Firstly we spend the majority of our time with the ‘victims’ rather than the revenge seeker and you know what? They are on the whole nice guys.  Yes their leader is a bully and they are petty small time thugs but the more time we spend with them larking about the more we come to sympathise with them.  Paddy Considine is a powerhouse as Richard the ex-squaddie returned home to avenge the mistreatment of his mentally challenged younger brother.  It is his unrelenting, seemingly excessive pursuit of his brothers tormentors that makes this film so unsettling and adds to the unique nature of Dead Man’s Shoes.  It is not until the revelation of the final act that we realise the full reasons for the depth of Richard’s drive for revenge and what has turned him into this avenging demon.  Outstanding.