Whilst compiling my top ten films of last year, what most struck me was how strong a year 2011 had turned out to be. There is an inevitable bias to the way I view an overall year in film because I will always have undoubtedly restricted myself only to the major releases of the annum: by which I mean the films of particular artistic merit or interest. Nevertheless, in avoiding for the most part the slew of dross churned out by the Hollywood hacks to capture hearts and wallets, I was able to reflect genially on a happy and fulfilling year of film-going. In particular, my top film of the year is normally a cut-and-dried affair, yet it was truly difficult to decide between “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” “The Artist” and “Hugo,” with my patriotism, literary sensibilities and appreciation of character acting ultimately winning through. Whilst the Oscar and BAFTA nominations offer the usual selections, and more tellingly omissions, that range from the disappointing (nothing for Olivia Colman in “Tyrannosaur,” which was the greatest performance of the year) to the downright risible (“Tinker Tailor” misses out on Best Picture but “The Help” squeezes in), the fact that “The Artist” is competing primarily against my other top two films of the year at each respective ceremony does in some small way compensate for the otherwise deluded, conservative list of nominees.
What was particularly gratifying about last year was the extraordinarily strong tidal wave of British pictures that was bookended by Ben Wheatley’s atmospheric cum visceral Pagan horror “Kill List” and Andrea Arnold’s raw, irreverent reimagining of “Wuthering Heights.” This three-month onslaught of home-grown classics numbered amongst its highlights the taut and disturbing expressionistic “We Need To Talk About Kevin,” the clandestine and labyrinthine “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” the blisteringly tough yet grimly transcendent “Tyrannosaur,” the blissfully politically incorrect character comedy “The Guard,” and, much earlier in the year, the absorbing and exhilarating documentary “Senna.” What comes as a surprise at the start of 2012, however, is that the major British pictures released in January are both rather disappointing. This was a deep blow to me in particular, who requires two hands to count the forthcoming films this year about which I am keenly excited, and who expected these awards season contenders to be decidedly meatier.
Meryl Streep is pretty much guaranteed to win the Oscar for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady.” Let me start by saying that, whilst the absence of Colman and Tilda Swinton from the contest is downright inexcusable, I have no problem with this. Streep has remained consistently at the peak of her craft whilst male contemporaries of her generation (notably De Niro, Nicholson, Pacino and Hoffman) have either lost their drive or been relegated to television character acting. Whilst her more recent performances seem to have been in some cases Oscar nominated as a result of a perceived divine right that Streep has to be included in the proceedings, and she has on occasion fallen foul of some grandstanding hyperbole (and let’s not forget or forgive her for “Mamma Mia” just yet), she is still at her best the world’s greatest actress, and “The Iron Lady” is Streep at her best. It’s a performance that fittingly fires on all cylinders and takes no prisoners, yet for all the bravado and forcefulness of it Streep is not merely impersonating Thatcher, but rather truly inhabiting the emotion and psychology of the character through various often antithetical stages of her life, and she is extraordinarily convincing at every turn. Her performance fully deserves recognition, yet it’s a shame her success will ensure that a very weak and trivial, even misguided, film remains in the cultural consciousness long after it deserves to. In Abi Morgan’s writing and Phyllida Lloyd’s direction, Thatcher becomes an apolitical symbol of female empowerment, senile dementia and the old adage that “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This would normally be fine, but to make such a polarizing and ideologically charged figure such as Thatcher a figure divorced from her political context is a woefully stupid decision.
Though it is a substantially superior film to “The Iron Lady,” I was if anything even more disappointed by Steve McQueen’s “Shame” simply because I had expected so much more from it. The success of “Hunger” lies in the way McQueen’s exquisite visual sensibilities combined with a fragmentary view of the figures and perspectives surrounding Bobby Sands’ hunger strike to produce an intensely affecting political and dramatic kaleidoscope to the event. McQueen aims for a comparatively straightforward character study in “Shame,” albeit one broaching a controversial theme, yet he and co-writer Abi Morgan (again) fail to overcome this controversy to produce a piece of real heart or power. Despite the undeniably courageous and intense performances of Fassbender and Mulligan, both unfathomably overlooked by the Academy, their work is hindered by characters who are one-dimensional and easily comprehended: without backstory or effective interaction we are never convinced that they will each end up anywhere other than where they are clearly headed at the outset. The construction of Fassbender’s character, as a wealthy and dashing New Yorker whose psychological flaw is the objectification of women to both fuel his addiction and protect himself from emotional engagement, is such that one never quite believes he is genuinely addicted to sex. Despite some breathtaking bravura sequences, the lack of depth in the film’s characters and narrative means that McQueen’s visuals feel superficial and the film unsubstantial.
Old ideas about theatricality in cinema, and the pitfalls a film faces in overcoming the adaptation of a text from theatre to the screen, have already been broached in relation to Ralph Fiennes’ partially successful film of “Coriolanus,” which is in any event an enjoyably performed rendition of a fascinating and underperformed text. Yet even a more assured hand such as Roman Polanski has managed to get lost in translation with his film “Carnage.” A lean, concise adaptation of Yazmina Reza’s play “God of Carnage,” the director’s previous success in generating a suffocating sense of screen claustrophobia serves him well here, filming in a way which overcomes, to some extent, the overt theatricality of the material. The camera is at first still and holds for long takes, yet as the characters give in to drink the takes are shorter and the camera comes off the tripod. Dean Tavoularis’ production design is wonderfully meticulous, and one gets the impression that every detail of the upper-middle class apartment set has been carefully considered. The actors are uniformly very good but not quite great, but this is because Polanski’s direction just misses the tonal mark. The piece ultimately reaches the same point as Reza’s play in exposing the pretentiousness of the bourgeoisie and the inherent pack mentality of the sexes, yet the film isn’t riotous in arriving at the denouement. The actors shun grandstanding for naturalism in a way that is at times unfulfilling, whilst Polanski misfires in having the tone of each character arc fluctuate wildly in relation to the others, whilst not adhering to an overall sense of dramatic rhythm. The film therefore lacks the crispness it ought to have.
Two films I liked a lot more than I expected to were “War Horse” and “The Descendants.” Those familiar to this column will be well aware of my thoughts about post-“Schindler’s List” Spielberg, and whilst his latest isn’t a return to form it at does herald the return to his work of some of the uncomplicated narrative power of his storytelling. The central conceit of the film by turns risks ridicule and saccharine schmaltziness, and the episodic narrative the material brings with it creates unavoidable peaks and troughs regarding the audience’s attention. However, Janus Kaminski’s photography is wonderful and leads to some undeniably gorgeous image-making, from the red dusk of Devon to the cavalry charge in a wheat field; John Williams’ music is his best in years, sacrificing cathartic leit motifs for a subtle score that simply but movingly heightens the drama of a scene; and Spielberg’s direction is very fine indeed, with numerous sequences positively oozing the entertainer’s old magic. Alexander Payne has strengthened his claim as America’s finest screen dramatist with “The Descendants,” a film which sacrifices the acerbic bitterness of his previous work in favour of a refreshing sense of warmth and heart. In this way the film is more awards friendly, but Payne’s achievement is in taking a cliché-ridden narrative, which could easily be that of a TV Movie of the Week, and through the impressive subtlety of his writing and direction crafts an immensely moving yet un-manipulative drama that dispenses of melodrama to find a much richer vein of tragicomedy that, one sense, would be the actual tone of the events portrayed if one really experienced them. It isn’t groundbreaking but it is simple and passionate dramatic storytelling, boasting a career best turn from Clooney, even if it isn’t the equal of certain performances he is nominated against…
Tellingly, the best film I saw this month is not nominated for Best Picture anywhere. “Margin Call” is a troubling, complex and provocative fictionalization of how the current financial crisis might have been triggered. The direction is deft, accomplished and makes a profoundly good job of generating suspense around a central storyline that, for a financial novice, is very difficult to understand. The screenplay is intelligent and joyfully un-patronizing, yet it is also dramatically textured and boasts layered and intriguing characters. The acting is marvelous from all members of a dynamic ensemble. Kevin Spacey excels as a man who at first appears to be a typically ruthless salesman, but whose conscientious side is ultimately laid bare, making his ultimate charismatic professionalism in the face of worldwide financial oblivion highly powerful. Jeremy Irons has been unbelievably ignored in a sub-standard Best Supporting Actor race at the Oscars for a role which is vampiric, charming, sleazy and mesmerizing. As the chairman of the company who mid-way through the film literally descends from the darkness to pronounce global doom in a callously self-serving manner, he epitomizes how exacting, entertaining and prevalent this film is.
Next month, the American Indie hit “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method,” the resurgence of “The Muppets,” and is “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” really as bad as the Oscar backlash would have us believe?