This is, perhaps inevitably, a work in progress. I saw just under 100 films in 2011, of which about 40 were new releases. I managed to see quite a few of the films that have populated the glut of year-end lists that have proliferated over the past month or so, but there are many others that I will only have a chance to see in the weeks, months, and years ahead. So, for what it is worth, here is my top ten of eleven as seen in eleven.
10. Archipelago (Joanna Hogg, UK, 2010)
I should have by all rights found this film insufferable given its focus on the tensions within a bourgeois family on holiday in the Isles of Scilly, but it was evidence that irritating characters can make engaging cinema. My dominant memory of the film is the sound of wind and that feeling of discomfort that comes when things are left unsaid.
9. The Guard (John Michael McDonough, Ireland, 2011)
A tip of the hat here to a film that made me laugh, in most part due to the big man, Brendan Gleeson, whose comic timing is finely tuned and firing on all cylinders here. Don Cheadle is superb as the straight man and the film reinvigorates, even if it does not totally reinvent, the fish out of water tale.
8. The Arbor (Clio Barnard, UK, 2010)
Barnard’s film, funded by Artangel, tells the story of Andrea Dunbar, a working-class playwright from Bradford who died tragically young after a troubled life. The strength of the film resides in its formal invention: actors lip-synch to oral interviews with those who knew Dunbar. This frees the film from the conventions of documentary and allows, perhaps counter-intuitively, for the descriptions of Dunbar, her genius, and her self-destructiveness to assume an even greater power than if the film focused its gaze on the interviewees. Harrowing and tragic, but compelling and deeply moving.
7. Robinson in Ruins (Patrick Keiller, UK, 2010)
Keiller’s film continued the work of London (1994) and Robinson in Space (1997) in its examination of the condition of England through the study of landscape. The most bracing sections of the film were those that embraced the ecological, looking at lichen but seeing the world.
6. Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, USA, 2010)
The western isn’t dead yet. I could have included True Grit (Joel Coen, 2010, USA) here, but Reichardt’s film was more striking in the way that it both embraced and revised the conventions of the Western. Bruce Greenwood is superb as Meek, a man paid by a group of settler’s to lead them through the parched landscapes of the American west on their way to Oregon. They are never sure if Meek is leading them astray, but they have little choice but to continue on the path in the hope that something better is just over the next hill or through the next mountain pass. Michelle Williams, who was so extraordinary in Reichardt’s previous film, Wendy and Lucy (2008), is captivating here, as the woman who does the most to challenge Meek. A triumph of slow cinema.
5. The Black Power Mixtape 1967-75 (Goran Olsson, Sweden/USA, 2010)
Having found a cache of television reports from the 60s and 70s in the basement of the Swedish national broadcaster on the Black Power movement in America, Olsson interviewed a number of African-American musicians as a way to bind past to present, movement to memory. The role of archive is interesting here, but also the way in which these Swedish reporters, outsiders who gained access specifically because of their status as such, were able to capture America better at that specific historical moment than Americans themselves.
Guzman’s film looked to both the sand and the sky and, in so doing, connected the traumas of recent history to the immensity of the universe. Seeing the correspondence between the film camera and the telescope, Guzman’s essay film investigated the ways in which Chile remains a nation shaped by the horrors of the Pinochet era even as it juxtaposed this human history with the almost unimaginable duration of time itself measured in interstellar distances and the speed of light.
3. Slow Action (Ben Rivers, UK, 2010)
I’ll steal directly from the British Council website for a description of Rivers’ film: “Slow Action is a post-apocalyptic science fiction film which exists somewhere between documentary, ethnographic study and fiction.” I saw it in March at Matt’s Gallery in London where the four sections were screened sequentially. Viewers were invited to sink themselves into beanbags scattered throughout the small space and immerse themselves in the imagined worlds that Rivers’ film creates from real landscapes. There’s something of Chris Marker in the way voice-over is used to summon up both dreamworld and catastrophe, but also of Patrick Keiller in the way that the minimal frame of science fiction makes the analysis of the real world all the more acute and incisive. Film still streaming at the Animate Projects site here.
2. Senna (Asif Kapadia, UK, 2011)
Hands down the most moving film of the year was Senna. Investment in, or even knowledge of, Formula One was not a prerequisite for experiencing the sheer emotional force of the film. But the film did not rest on the power of Senna’s tragic story itself. It is a film about a man, about racing, but also about the archive and about media. The distance between the present and Senna’s meteoric rise in F1 circles in the 80s and 90s can be measured through in-car camera technologies and the texture of the video that captured the races. Geopolitics through grain, memory through media.
1. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredsson, UK, 2011)
Riveting because of its restraint, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy consisted mostly of men in rooms talking and of Gary Oldman, as George Smiley, listening and thinking. This may sound static, but was utterly gripping, not simply in the way that it returned the spy film to the parry and thrust of strategic cognitive maneuvers from the chases and crashes to which it is so often reduced, but because it also allowed it to be a film about how the paranoia of the cold war was grounded in exhaustion and world-weariness.
Gallery Film: I am going to reserve a special place for The Clock (Christian Marclay, USA, 2010) here at the end of the list. Marclay’s compilation film, 24 hours in length and made up of clips of clocks and watches in synch with actual screening time, debuted in late 2010 at the White Cube Gallery in London, but I had a chance to watch several hours of it at the Hayward Gallery during a special screening in March. Perfect film/installation piece for the cinematic trainspotter, but also a complex meditation on the idea of cinema as fundamentally about time, its duration, and its passing.
Honorable Mentions: Attack the Block (Joe Cornish, UK, 2011), Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, USA, 2011), Dreams of a Life (Carol Morley, UK, 2011), Separado (Dylan Goch/Gruff Rhys, UK, 2010), Tabloid (Errol Morris, USA, 2011), Win Win (Tom McCarthy, USA, 2011).
Still to see: We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, UK/USA, 2011), Le Havre (Aki Kaurismaki, Finland/France, 2011), Le Quattro Volte (Michelangelo Frammartino, 2011, Italy), Kill List (Ben Wheatley, UK, 2011), Lawrence of Belgravia (Paul Kelly, UK, 2011), Two Years at Sea (Ben Rivers, UK, 2011), Patience (After Sebald) (Grant Gee, UK, 2011), and many others.