Reprinted from Critic’s Notebook, the 2011 state of things.
I have written rude things about Kenneth Branagh, but I never wished him a term in the Marvel salt mines. His name attached to Thor wasn’t the year’s biggest directorial surprise — that was Michel Gondry’s credit on The Green Horne, which really did seem like crossed wires — but it proved that hiring a left-field director for the current wave of fantasy films is a bit pointless, since the chances of getting a left-field film out of it are about zero. The differences between the year’s comic-book movies were well worth arguing about, as long as you didn’t miss that it was their similarities which were actually the point, and that the same diminishing returns as any other drug hit was part of the equation. Since 2012 brings to the screen a comic for which my 12-year-old self would have mugged my own grandmother, the next whimper you hear may be mine.
Elsewhere, 2011 was much more wired and perverse than 2010, and prepared for next year’s singularity by coughing up roughly one apocalypse per month — so a much better year all-round. Fine documentaries stacked up in piles; although the greatest one, Life in Movement, about dancer Tanja Liedtke, remains unreleased — a shame, since it’s a miraculous analysis of how talented people tick. And since the best reason to sit in the dark in the first place is to watch talented people talk, the hormonal Eric-Rohmer-on-Viagra fancies that Sebastián Gutiérrez and Carla Gugino are knocking out with their friends over a spare weekend might be here too, if they were getting distributed anywhere near me.
My Top Movies of 2011 in alphabetical order
Black Swan: Not a classic, but a thick-cut slice of honking B-movie hysteria; and there’s always room for that. Darren Aronofsky fitfully caught something new in Natalie Portman’s face when she had her hair pulled up, and milked it for all it’s worth.
The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec: Luc Besson sprinkled sugar over Jacques Tardi’s comic serial, throwing out the subtleties and reducing the body count, but leaving a Belle Époque filled with mad science and hints of oncoming horrors. In the process he changed Blanc-Sec from a buttoned-down frump with dubious headwear into the well-caffeinated form of Louise Bourgoin, whose buttons might fly off at any moment.
Kaboom: In which beautiful bodies flirt, frown, fornicate and flake out, among them Thomas Dekker making the very most of what god gave him. After 80 minutes careering jovially down the middle of the highway, Kaboom landed as a droll blue-balls comedy about a world so determined to stop a guy getting his rocks off that it actually blew up just to spite him.
Melancholia: Fear of a blue planet: Lars von Trier likes to jump up and down on life’s subtleties, but Melancholia has tenderness at its heart in a way that many of his films do not. The central plank of two sisters reacting differently to the strange vibes beaming down from the heavens might be a bit programmatic, but the complementary images are chilly and potent. Its opening collage is a wild and wonderful thing on its own, filled with the same dreamy unease as a tarot deck.
Miss Bala: The most atmospheric crime story of the year was also one of its best battered-youth dramas, thanks to Gerardo Naranjo finding a way to fold one genre into the other. *Miss Bala” was all about the details, a film where one look at Stephanie Sigman’s ratty slip-on shoes scrabbling in the dust told you plenty about her and the state of her streets. In the process it squeezed the average Anglo-Saxon battered-youth drama into a very small ball and punted it a very long way.
Mysteries of Lisbon: Lots of directors employed long takes this year and thought they were getting somewhere. And then the late Raúl Ruiz delivered Mysteries of Lisbon and made everyone else seem like a piker, by using the mammoth single shot as a medium in its own right for extrovert storytelling, inventive camerawork and shifting textures. Four-and-a-half hours of cinematic wonders ensued, among them the divine Clotilde Hesme in full 19th-century bustle pursuing an obsessive sexual vendetta against some unfeasibly lucky swine. But it’s really a story about stories and the telling of tales.
Perfect Sense: The world ends again in David Mackenzie’s parable of sensory deprivation. Compare and contrast the response from Sundance and Edinburgh for a glimpse into the wacky world of film-festival reportage.
Sleeping Beauty: None of the calamitous ways in which the sight of old men queuing up to fondle a comatose Emily Browning could have gone off the rails actually befell Sleeping Beauty, partly since Julia Leigh was a clinician with a draughtsman’s eye for perspectives and tones, but mainly since it turned out she was absolutely not mucking about. In fact, she scored a bull’s-eye on every one of the age- and gender-related worries she drew a bead on, in ways which made the age and gender of the watching reviewer a real factor. Ms. Browning was a tricky performer to warm to, but earned full bravery points for taking this on, and was rewarded by her director with painterly shots of her naked alabaster body in amongst a bunch of Amazonian olive-skinned brunettes. It’s all exactly as erotic as intended — i.e. as sexy as eye surgery.
Tomboy: An adult film about childhood identity without an exploitative bone in its body, thanks to Céline Sciamma’s delicacy and her lucky encounter with the gods of casting.
Unknown: Since Liam Neeson is the greatest actor ever, I refuse to object if he now wants to be Hollywood’s foremost exponent of punching foreigners in the throat. And anyway, Unknown was a blast. You got Mr. Neeson, of all actors, playing a man who forgets what he used to do for a living. You got Diane Kruger, whose balancing act between the European art-house and these trans-Atlantic pancakes gets more intriguing by the movie, embodying the new Germany by playing a Bosnian illegal. You got that rarest of birds: an actual B-plot, with Bruno Ganz as a wheezing ex-Stasi torpedo waiting for death and Frank Langella as the avenging angel from Langley. Their scene together would be a treat all on its own, even without remembering that one of them made a fine Jonathan Harker and the other was once the best Dracula ever.