Garth Franklin’s Best Films of 2011

With the Oscars upon us this weekend, it’s time for the return of another tradition – one I used to do regularly but have opted out of the past few years as the ‘Notable Films’ guide took up my concentration around this time of year. That tradition? A top films list.

As always with these lists I’ve painted myself into a corner somewhat by laying down the tricky rule of considering all films released within the United States and parts of Europe over the past calendar year. Being in Australia however with our staggered release schedule means that it takes me well into February to get around to seeing all the films under consideration – indeed I saw the final two titles I really needed to see just this past Friday.

There’s also the debate over whether you list what you think are the best made films of the year, and the films you found the most enjoyable. While there’s often crossover of the two, there are always some titles you admire or respect the filmmaking craft on offer more than actually enjoying the film itself. There are also films you adore and find thoroughly engaging, even though you are well aware it has a range of issues and faults that objectively are hard to ignore.

I tend to employ a mix of the two approaches, with a bigger emphasis on my personal taste – as a result this list differs from quite a few. Only one Oscar Best Picture nominee made my top ten and none made my top five. Everyone will no doubt have issues with the ordering, I myself often find it changing slightly from day-to-day. Yet overall there’s fifty films – twenty-five numbered and twenty-five on the ‘other recommendations’ list – and honestly pretty much all of them are films I would suggest checking out if you haven’t already.

25. Attack the Block
Joe Cornish’s inventively comedic spin on the alien invasion genre sets the action in a British council estate with the heroes being a gang of not terribly bright but tough young thugs who take on the ET’s – brilliantly conceived quadrupedal creatures made up of glowing teeth and pitch black fur.

What works here is the way Cornish spins this story into an energetic, thrilling and often quite funny yarn that keeps itself grounded in spite of the craziness that unfolds. Indeed it stays bluntly honest about the characters, portraying our heroes as unapologetic young council flat kiddies who mug people for kicks. This makes an interesting bit of social commentary, as does a few of the great bits of dialogue.

The various performances are strong across the board be it Jodie Whittaker, John Boyega and my personal favourite Luke Treadaway. The comedy and action are blended well, giving us thrilling chase scenes or surprisingly effective suspense-horror set pieces one moment, and pointed British working class humour the next.

Though the thick accents, heavy use of slang and pounding Basement Jaxx score make some of the great dialogue a little hard to catch on the first viewing, it’s worth persevering. The online press has overpraised it to some extent, but it is a fun ride that’s far better than a lot more expensive films in this genre (I’m looking at you “Battle: Los Angeles” and “Super 8”).

While “Captain America: The First Avenger” was a more polished and a commendable retro adventure in itself (let down by a cruddy forced ending), it didn’t have either the rewatch value or fun for me that Kenneth Branagh’s grand space opera meets campy action/comedy “Thor” had. It’s a film that could’ve gone so wrong and surprisingly works in its own way – helped heavily by both Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston’s brotherly performances and its embracing of ridiculous fantasy with both arms.

Speaking of Branagh, the utterly lightweight “My Week with Marilyn” boasts memorable turns from him and Michelle Williams doing spot on impressions of Laurence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe respectively. Both are helped by able support from Eddie Redmayne and Judi Dench and various British supporting actors whose work stands out amidst fairly pedestrian direction and a script that really doesn’t give its characters much more than a quick brush over.

A B-movie dressed in art house clothes, Lynne Ramsey’s “We Need to Talk About Kevin” is anchored by a sterling performance by Tilda Swinton (arguably the best of the year). Imaginatively directed, Ramsey overplays her editing and red-themed self-aware symbolism so much it makes the overall work feel more amateur and show-offish than it should be. Dial it down next time dear.

On the other side of the coin, David Cronenberg’s almost too restrained “A Dangerous Method” still slips a little bondage into its fairly sober tale of the two fathers of modern psychology and the mad woman between them. A strong film but not up there with his last two pieces of brilliance.

The strongest work from the Apatow camp to date, “Bridesmaids” still has all the usual problems (collegiate-level scatological humour, bloated runtime, slightly ridiculous setup, preachy morality) but they’re less obvious and more digestible thanks to a strong cast and a sweetness that’s more earnest and honest than forced.

One of the few bright lights in the first half of the year was the Matthew McConaughey-led adaptation of Michael Connelly’s “The Lincoln Lawyer”, a legal/detective thriller as good as the better John Grisham film adaptations.

Roman Polanski’s “Carnage” and the Ed Helms-led “Cedar Rapids” are both fun if ultimately inconsequential little films with “Carnage” making me regret I hadn’t seen the play first. Many will dismiss both but I got a kick out of them.

The fighting and performances are excellent (I even like Joel Edgerton’s work here, a rarity) and it has one of the year’s most satisfying endings, but the forthright “Warrior” struggles in its bloated first two acts and could’ve easily chopped a good thirty minutes out of its first hour.

It’ll likely take the Oscar, and to be fair “The Artist” is a sweet film with a big heart at its center and a slick polish to its surface. It’s also, even at 90 minutes, something of a struggle to sit through and saved mostly by the charisma and chemistry of its two French leads who are goofily magnetic both apart and together.

“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two” climaxes the epic series with a solid entry that doesn’t stand on its own as well as the first part. Watched back-to-back the whole thing works much better and is a rousing send off for one of modern cinema’s biggest cornerstones.

A remake of a similar sort to ‘Dragon Tattoo’ – as in neither particularly better or worse than the previous version and quite strong in its own right – was John Madden’s tale of young Mossad agents bungling an operation in “The Debt”. The performances are weaker than the original, but still gives us solid turns by both Jessica Chastain and Sam Worthington.

James Wan’s unofficial ‘Poltergeist’ remake “Insidious” may lack the original concept of “Saw” but is definitely his best work to date and certainly the best straight-up horror film of the year, all the more astonishing by the fact it was made for essentially pennies.

The big surprise of the Summer was the sheer ridiculous fun of “Fast Five”, a series that finally ditched the tedious ‘Point Break’ plot lines and street racing in favour of a goofy Rio-set heist film with elaborate set pieces. One is almost ashamed to admit that the result is actually quite entertaining.

The best and worst talents of Steven Spielberg are on offer in “War Horse”. Beautifully shot and scored with a solid cast (full kudos to the pouty Jeremy Irvine), it can’t overcome the ultra thick coating of forced sentiment and script contrivances that rob it of any genuinely earned emotion. You will shed a tear but you’ll also be fully aware said tear is being milked out of you which robs the experience of weight – something that feels wrong considering the seriousness of the subject matter.

While the ‘doors are teleporters’ sci-fi shenanigans of “The Adjustment Bureau” are fun trivial distractions, it’s the small scenes of chemistry between the leads (Matt Damon, Emily Blunt) that really linger in the memory, along with some nice supporting turns from John Slattery and Anthony Mackie.

In comparison, “Source Code” is far stronger in its sci-fi setup and a good movie overall only let down by a silly mid-point twist and a ridiculous ‘second ending’ that destroys some of the good will it had earned. If you haven’t seen it, turn it off at the fiery kiss – you’ll thank me later.

One of the blockbusters I enjoyed but didn’t fall head over heels for like others did was Rupert Wyatt’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”. A clever reboot of the property, it was a film that worked superbly when the apes were on screen. In fact WETA’s masterful digital creations were so good they demonstrated just how weak the human performances and paper thin plotting were.

Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion”, George Clooney’s “The Ides of March”, Joe Wright’s “Hanna”, Jason Reitman’s “Young Adult”, J.C. Chandor’s “Margin Call” and Craig Gillespie’s “Fright Night” are solid but notably flawed entertainments, all featuring good actors with underwritten parts in stories that ultimately don’t add up to much. Yet each is so well done and slickly made it’s hard not to enjoy the qualities that do work and each is worth a viewing.