Understated But Elegant: 2011 In Film

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I spent a lot of 2011 reading and watching Scandinavian and Nordic thrillers, but I still managed to find time to catch a few new films on DVD and at the cinema throughout the year. I made it to the pictures about twice a month over the last year, though a few of those visits were in the company of my nephews and none of those films made my final list. On the face of it, 2011 didn’t appear to be a great year for movies, but I still managed to come up with a shortlist of twenty that I’ve narrowed down to a final dozen. Here are the eight films I enjoyed that just missed out on my top twelve: Source Code (Duncan Jones); Captain America (Joe Johnston); Hanna (Joe Wright); The Inbetweeners (Ben Palmer); The King’s Speech (Tom Hooper); Lou (Belinda Chayko); The Guard (John Michael McDonagh); Blue Valentine (Derek Cianfrance). The latter was one of two films on my list to feature Ryan Gosling and I’ll start looking at my favourite films of 2011 with the other one he was in

Nine of the twelve films I’ve picked were adapted from other sources and Drive was one of three adapted from novels to make it onto the screen for the first time. Ryan Gosling is impressive as the unnamed character with a one-track mind and a reluctance to say any more than he has to. He is both a stuntman who earns his living behind the wheel for the movies and also puts his skills to less legitimate use as a getaway driver. Despite the film’s literary origins, Drive’s cinematography and retro-soundtrack marked it as one of the most cinematic films of recent years. I wasn’t completely blown away by its plot, but the film’s hypnotic mood more than made up for any deficiencies in the script. The film won the Best Director Award for the Dane Nicolas Winding Refn at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival

First-time director Richard Ayoade also did a great job with his own adaptation of Joe Dunthorne’s novel, Submarine. It’s a coming-of-age drama set in Wales in the 1980s. Craig Roberts plays 15-year-old Oliver Tate with Jordana Bevan (Tasmin Paige) as the object of his affections. These two newcomers fit in nicely with an impressive cast in a movie that reminded me of Hal Ashby’s Harold & Maude. The film is nicely shot and edited and Alex Turner’s soundtrack complements it well. Pedro Almodóvar is more experienced than most of the directors on this list and he also contributes to the writing of his films. The Skin I Live In is based on the novel Tarantula by Thierry Jonquet. It is quite an imaginative tale of revenge and plastic surgery that features standout performances from Antonio Banderas and Elena Anaya

The next three films are also adapted from novels and could also be considered as remakes, as each has been filmed previously. Swedish director Tomas Alfredson followed up Let the Right One In with his adaptation of John le Carré’s 1974 espionage novel, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. This convoluted plot had been filmed for television and screened over seven parts on the BBC in 1979. Both that version and Alfredson’s 2011 film have omitted the commas to give it the new title of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The newer version also reduces the running time of the BBC version from six hours down to two. Having watched the 1979 version a few months previously, I felt that the updated film went by far too quickly. Funnily enough, punters who hadn’t seen the BBC version thought that the film was too slow! I was also able to fill in lot of gaps in the story thanks to my prior knowledge of the TV series and I felt that I might have been a bit lost otherwise. The newer version has a strong cast and Gary Oldman echoes Alec Guinness’ role of George Smiley, while also bringing something new to the part

The Coen brothers returned to the form of No Country For Old Men in their updated version of True Grit. Joel & Ethan Coen adapted the novel by Charles Portis and their version is more faithful to his book than Henry Hathaway’s 1969 film. The Dude (Jeff Bridges) replaces The Duke (John Wayne) in the lead role of Rooster Cogburn. He’s not bad, though I found his voice quite annoying. However, 14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld steals the show as Mattie Ross. The original Swedish version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo made it into my top ten films of 2010. I must admit I wasn’t exactly overwhelmed when I heard it was being remade for Hollywood, though my interest picked up when I heard that David Fincher was involved. Steven Zallian adapted Steig Larsson’s novel, though the film is not all that different to Niels Arden Oplev’s 2009 film. In fact, I felt that this version has a superior ending and that Daniel Craig was much more charismatic than Michael Nyqvist from the earlier film. Rooney Mara is also good as Lisbeth Salander, though not as good as Noomi Rapace in the original

Steven Zallian got some help from Aaron Sorkin in turning Michael Lewis’ Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game into the more catchy-titled film, Moneyball. Wisely, the writers focus on just one year in the life of the Major League Baseball team, the Oakland Athletics (beginning with the 2001 postseason). Brad Pitt is surprisingly good as Oakland’s larger-than-life general manager, Billy Bean, while Jonah Hill is believable as the more intellectual Peter Brand. None of the rest of the characters have much depth and Philip Seymour Hoffman is particularly underused as the team manager. Bennett Miller’s direction is also ineffective and the film is not particularly cinematic. Nevertheless, I felt it was a good adaptation of the book and proved to be a nice alternative to the majority of Hollywood sports movies

A nice surprise was a film based on an actual story from the 1930s. Aaron Schneider’s Get Low features Robert Duvall as Felix Bush, a hermit who decides to throw a funeral party before his death in order to discover what people really think of him! Bill Murray is as funny as ever as the local undertaker who tries to put the whole thing together despite the complications that turn up throughout. It’s a simple tale that is told well. The Canadian film Incendies was adapted from Wajda Mouawad’s play Scorched by its director, Denis Villeneuve. Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin and Maxim Gaudette are twins who embark on a moving journey of self-discovery as they attempt to discover the truth about their deceased mother’s past. Incendies was the Canadian nominee for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2011, but lost out to the Danish entry

Marc Evans’ Patagonia was the unsuccessful Welsh entry for Best Foreign Film. It is set in Wales and Patagonia in Argentina and follows the journey of a Welsh couple visiting Patagonia and a Patagonian grandmother and her young neighbour on trip to Wales. There is hardly any English spoken in the film as the Welsh couple mainly speak in their native tongue throughout. It has a strong cast that includes a nice turn by the Welsh singer Duffy in a film that is beautifully paced and nicely shot

Featuring footage shot in Ireland and the UK, Knuckle is a brutal documentary by Ian Palmer that follows the bare-knuckle contests between certain members of a number of Traveller families over a dozen years. The main contests are between the Quinn McDonaghs and the Joyces, with the mighty James Quinn McDonagh coming across as the most charismatic figure on screen. Palmer started filming fights between Travellers after shooting a Traveller wedding previously. The prize fights are highly anticipated, sometimes one-sided and completely illegal. A neutral referee will ensure that rules are adhered to, but will not stop a fight even if one is being beaten to a bloody pulp. It is up to the person being beaten to stop the fight, but this is not always easy in a culture where masculine pride is more important than appearing to be weak. As the film progresses, both James Quinn McDonagh and Palmer seem to be as jaded about the “sport” as some of the vanquished fighters

The final film on my list is Woody Allen’s finest release in decades. For me, there are three main reasons why Midnight in Paris is a return to form for one of cinema’s most prolific directors. Firstly, Allen’s script is very good and harkens back to the quality and themes of films like The Purple Rose of Cairo. Secondly, Owen Wilson is brilliant as the main character. He comes across as very natural in the role and, even though he is effectively Allen’s surrogate in the film, he brings a lot of his own personality to the part. The third reason for its success comes from its setting. Just as he did with New York in his film Manhattan, here Allen photographs the French capital in beautiful colour and captures its atmosphere brilliantly

As usual, Allen also uses music well and Sidney Bechet’s Si Tu Vois Ma Mere is particularly memorable. You can check that out below along with a few more songs from or associated with the films above. Alex Turner’s It’s Hard to Get Around the Wind is more pensive than his stuff with the Arctic Monkeys, but it’s perfect for the Submarine soundtrack. Glen Campbell appeared in the 1969 version of True Grit and also sang its title track. Campbell is known as a country singer and the next three songs also have a country flavour to them. Lonnie Donegan adds some country to his skiffle sound on a song about a fancy talking tinker. That song doesn’t appear in either Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or Knuckle, but the latter film uses a number of versions of a Hank Williams classic throughout. Jason and the Scorchers version of Lost Highway isn’t one of them. Finally, Emmett & the Black Mountain Scorpion Bluegrass Experience Gang’s romp through a rap song that only shares its title with Get Low the film. Musically, it wouldn’t be out of place in that movie, but its lyrics are a little bit too contemporary for it to fit in. Let me know in the comments if you’ve seen any of the above movies or if you think there are any I’ve left out

Si Tu Vois Ma Mere – Sidney Bechet

It’s Hard To Get Around The Wind – Alex Turner

True Grit – Glen Campbell

Fancy Talking Tinker – Lonnie Donegan

Lost Highway (Hank Williams cover) – Jason & the Scorchers

Get Low (Lil Jon cover) – Emmett & the Black Mountain Scorpion Bluegrass Experience Gang