Wednesday, December 21, 2011


The Best Films I Saw in 2011

I'm not much of a film buff; I don't know why. I'm a book reader instead. I prefer the cinema inside my head to an outer screen. But I do watch films on a fairly regular basis: averaging one a week (which for some people is doubtless an absurdly frugal amount). Two of my friends have a private cinema at home, but although I appreciate the excellence of such a set-up I'm not sure I would ever want or need one of those myself. Anyway, the point of this blog post is to select the six best films I saw this year. Bear in mind that this isn't my list of the six best films that were released in 2011; I'm far too behind the times for that. No, it's a list merely of the six best films I saw in 2011, and some of them are a few years old already.

So now: in reverse order, they are as follows:

(6) Moon... I watched this in the private cinema mentioned above. A deeply disturbing and yet ultimately uplifting film about the manipulative ethics (or unethics) of a major corporation that supplies power to Earth's teeming billions by harvesting moon rocks and converting them into energy via fusion reactions. The character played by Sam Rockwell (who provides a masterclass in acting technique, carrying the entire film on his multiple sets of shoulders) learns the hard way that his employers don't value human life very much for its own sake; they care only that he does his job as a cog in the machine efficiently. And when his time is up they are happy to destroy him and replace him with... himself. Saying more than this would spoil the plot. It's an amazing story, expressed with conviction, delicacy and strong vision.

(5) The Way... A collaboration between Martin Sheen and his real life son Emilio Estevez, both of whom were seminal cinema figures for me in the 1980s. It was good to see them back and working together. This film is the story of a man who embarks on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage on a sudden whim (but not a superficial whim; it's actually a profound decision). In a sense he is completing the journey that his son dies attempting to do. To say that the pilgrimage is a catharsis would be a little too glib; it's both more and less than that. The end message isn't maudlin, there is no attempt to display a 'cure for grief'; rather the climax demonstrates simply that our reserves of strength to face the ongoing tribulations of life can be recharged.

(4) The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec... A Luc Besson film. A French travel writer at the beginning of the 20th Century embarks on an expedition to Egypt to resurrect the mummy of an ancient doctor who might be able to cure her sister (who fell on a hatpin while playing tennis). But while she is away from Paris, the egg of a pterodactyl hatches in a museum thanks to the telepathic experiments of an eccentric professor and only Adèle has the resources to deal with it... These two farfetched plots are interwoven in a thoroughly contrived but clever and engaging manner. Louise Bourgoin, who plays Adèle, is exceptional and surely one of the best-looking actresses in the world. This film is flawed in many ways, but it's original, inventive, unpredictable and different, and that counts for a lot.

(3) Tears for Sale... A Serbian fantasy film that is rich, lush, frantic, clever, sinister and bizarre. In post war Serbia there is a shortage of men; some villages are populated entirely by women. Two sisters, one feisty, the other demure, (played by Sonja Kolačarić and Katarina Radivojević) set off on a quest to find some men. The tone and style of this film often reminds me of the novels of Milorad Pavić, one of my favourite writers, in the sense that the magical realist elements are pushed to an extreme, so far in fact that the absurd and bizarre becomes the normal background and the ordinary life elements become the intrusion. The film looks wonderful and the main conceit works beautifully. Some tedious critics accused it of being self-indulgent. It's not, but even if it is, so what? It's great cinema.

(2) Rise of the Planet of the Apes... We went to see this at the earliest showing on a normal weekday and had the cinema entirely to ourselves. Vastly superior to the 2001 remake of the 1968 classic, the excellence of the acting, credibility of the plot, importance of the concept (and the skill with which it is developed) have evolved to the point where the story even surpasses Pierre Boulle's original satire. The message of this film is a crucial one at this stage in the history of the human race: we must be more compassionate to animals; if we don't start respecting every lifeform properly, our doom will not only be assured but utterly justified. The film is emotionally engaging, intellectually stimulating and philosophically valid. An astounding piece of work.

(1)The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus... The dirctor Terry Gilliam is one of my heroes. In my more deluded moments I sometimes daydream that he might adapt one of my own books to the big screen. Parnassus is his best film yet; and considering that this is the director who gave us Brazil, Time Bandits and Baron Munchausen, I don't say that lightly! Christopher Plummer as Doctor Parnassus is perfectly cast (has there ever been a harder working actor than Plummer?) and the ingenious tactic by which Gilliam sidesteps the real-life death of Heath Ledger (by using three other actors, Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell to fill in for him) enhances the theme of transformation and growth. Tom Waits is also perfect as the Devil, so bored with his own power that he prefers to lose in wagers with mortals. There is a huge amount of ideas bouncing around in this film, colliding with each other, merging, breaking apart. It's a masterpiece; one of the great visual experiences of my film-watching life.

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