Attack The Block (Joe Cornish)
Joe Cornish has directed some of the classic movies of recent times, including Titanic, The English Patient and Trainspotting. Admittedly he directed the toy remakes of them for The Adam And Joe Show, but his are now regarded as the definitive versions of those movies. He returned to directing in 2011, with the excellent Attack The Block.
The story of a gang of surly London teenagers facing off against vicious alien creatures, it is a very British science-fiction movie. The script is fresh and up to date, with references to the FIFA video games, and text messaging playing an important part in the plot (“This is too much madness to explain in one text!”). The young cast all give convincing performances, with some of them making their screen debuts, but it is John Boyega as the gang leader Moses who dominates the movie. He delivers a powerful performance as a reluctant hero, battling vicious aliens to protect his friends. Boyega is set to be the breakout star of the movie, and has already been cast in Da Brick, an HBO show produced by Spike Lee and based on the life of Mike Tyson.
Attack The Block is funny, smart and entertaining, and was undoubtedly one of the highlights in a great year for British cinema.
Paul (Greg Mottola)
The trio of Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright and Nick Frost have enjoyed great success on TV and in film. Having worked together on Spaced, Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz, Wright went off to do his own thing with 2010’s excellent Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, and this year, Pegg and Frost went to America to make Paul.
Teaming up with Superbad director Mottola, Pegg and Frost wrote the tale of two geeks on a road trip to America’s UFO hotspots, who find themselves being chased by shadowy government officials after reluctantly picking up an alien hitch-hiker. The script is littered with references to classic science-fiction movies, but they almost always work and rarely feel forced. It is also an all-star cast, with appearances by some of America’s biggest comedy stars, including Saturday Night Live regulars Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, Jane Lynch (Glee), Jason Bateman and Jeffrey Tambor (Arrested Development), and Hollywood royalty in Blythe Danner and Sigourney Weaver.
The biggest challenge for the movie is Paul himself. An entirely CGI character, the film would have died on its arse if it didn’t work properly. But it does indeed work, and voiced by Seth Rogan, Paul has some of the movie’s best lines. Paul is a hilarious love-letter to classic sci-fi, and Pegg and Frost have created one of the movies of the year.
Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn)
If you went to the cinema on a regular basis this year, there’s a good chance you saw at least one Ryan Gosling movie. He had starring roles in four movies released in 2011, starting with Blue Valentine in January, with Crazy Stupid Love and The Ides Of March later in the year. But there’s little doubt that Drive was his best role.
Drive was originally conceived as a big budget thriller starring Hugh Jackman, but it became a lower budget, more intimate movie after Gosling and director Refn signed on. Set in Los Angeles, it’s the tale of ‘The Driver’ (Gosling), a mechanic and movie stuntman by day, and a getaway driver by night. A man of few words, the driver befriends a neighbour, Irene (Carey Mulligan), who has a young son and a husband in prison. By the time the husband is released from prison, the driver has developed a strong relationship with Irene, and when he discovers that her husband owes money to local gangsters, he decides to help.
Gosling gives one of the performances of the year in the lead role, despite having very little to say. His actions speak louder than words, with his character capable of extreme violence and threatening behaviour when required. Albert Brooks is excellent as Bernie Rose, a local mobster, and Mulligan and Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston give strong performances in supporting roles.
The Tree Of Life (Terrence Malick)
I’ll be honest, I really enjoyed The Tree Of Life, and even I found it difficult going. It is a very slow paced movie, there’s little dialogue, and a large chunk of the film is made up of a collage of images that appear to show the birth and growth of the universe, with extra added dinosaurs.
Terrence Malick’s movie is light on dialogue and possibly even lighter in plot, focussing mainly on a young boy, Jack (played superbly by newcomer Hunter McCracken), growing up in Texas during the 1950s. Malick asks a lot of McCracken, but he delivers with a staggering performance, showing the whole range of emotions a young boy will go through as he becomes a man. Brad Pitt plays his strict father, and also gives a strong performance as a man driven to making sure his young sons become men in the way he thinks is right.
The Tree Of Life is a movie that will divide opinion. It was cheered and booed at Cannes, where it won the Palme D’Or, and several people walked out when I watched it. But it is a beautifully shot movie with stunning images and strong performances from Pitt, McCracken and Jessica Chastain. Give it a chance, and The Tree Of Life will enchant and astonish you.
Source Code (Duncan Jones)
Duncan Jones’ first movie, Moon, was one of the best of 2009. An intelligent science-fiction film with a terrific performance from Sam Rockwell, it was released to critical acclaim. Source Code is his second film, this time featuring Jake Gyllenhaal, who also gives a strong performance. Gyllenhaal plays Colter Stevens, an army helicopter pilot placed into the ‘Source Code’ an advanced piece of technology that allows him to experience the last eight minutes of a person’s life. He is doing this in an attempt to identify a bomber who is threatening to destroy Chicago.
Stevens experiences the last eight minutes of Shaun Fentress’s life, a man who died when a bomb detonated on a train headed into the city. At first he is confused by the process, but as he relives it again and again, his instincts kick in, and he begins to explore this alternate reality, and find the man responsible for the bombings. Stevens also interacts with Captain Colleen Goodwin (Vera Fermiga) and Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright) when he is not on mission, and both characters have key roles in him discovering the truth about where he is and why.
Like Moon, Source Code is another intelligent sci-fi movie. There are no aliens or overblown CGI battles, but it is a cleverly executed thriller that marks Jones out as a director with real talent.
Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky)
With an outstanding performance from Natalie Portman, Black Swan is a dark psychological thriller, based around Portman’s character Nina, driven to madness by her desire to be the lead dancer in a production of Swan Lake. Her rivalry with Lily (an equally impressive Mila Kunis) and her relationship with her overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey) bring out conflicting sides of her personality, and she starts to lose control.
Portman gives the performance of her life in a challenging role, and the supporting cast including Vincent Cassel and Winona Ryder all give strong performances too. Darren Aronofsky’s reputation for directing challenging, dark but visually stunning movies continues to grow following the success of The Wrestler, and he earned an Oscar nomination for his directing. Portman went one better, deservedly winning an Oscar for her performance.
Black Swan is of course infamous for that seduction scene between Portman and Kunis. But Black Swan offers so much more than titillation, and it would be a mistake to highlight that scene ahead of the rest of the movie. It is a movie that explores sexuality and the dark sides of personality, with every character having positive and negative tendencies. There are horror and fantasy elements to the movie, with Portman’s transformation into a literal black swan beautifully shown towards the end of the movie, and Aronofsky continues to deliver quality movies.
Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes (Rupert Wyatt)
Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes is one of those rare things, an intelligent big budget Hollywood blockbuster. A prequel to the classic Planet Of The Apes (not the Tim Burton one, and let’s never mention that again), Rise is the tale of how the apes rose to power.
One of the best decisions made by the makers of the movie was to go to Weta for special effects work, the team whose outstanding work on the Lord Of The Rings trilogy made them one of the go-to companies for state of the art effects work. The highlight of their work on Rise is undoubtedly Caesar. Caesar’s evolution, based on Andy Serkis’ performance is wonderfully convincing and makes the film great.
Like many prequels, sequels and remakes of recent times, Rise features knowing winks to the movie that inspired it. The space mission that resulted in Chuck Heston and co crash landing in the original takes place during the movie, and how the apes rose to power is referenced in a clever final scene and credits sequence.
James Franco gives a good performance as the scientist who accidentally triggers the rise of the apes, and John Lithgow is similarly strong as his father, battling Alzheimer’s. With some stunning set pieces (including a gorilla killing a helicopter), Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes stood out amongst the big studio productions of the year.
Submarine (Richard Ayoade)
Richard Ayoade has become a well known face in British comedy. With roles in Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, The Mighty Boosh and The IT Crowd, he’s proven himself in front of the camera. But he’s also a director, working on music videos for bands like Arctic Monkeys, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Kasabian. His first movie is Submarine, is a coming-of-age comedy set in Wales, based on Joe Dunthorpe’s 2008 novel.
Submarine has a terrific cast, with Craig Roberts (Oliver Tate) and Yasmin Paige (Jordana) giving great performances in the lead roles, ably supported by Paddy Considine and Sally Hawkins and Noah Taylor as Oliver’s parents. It also has a very funny, very clever script, with several knowing nods to movie clichés. Paddy Considine sends himself up as a moronic lifestyle guru, and Taylor and Hawkins give quietly brilliant performances as two people apparently falling out of love.
Aoyade’s debut has drawn comparisons to the work of Wes Anderson, and it does have the same mix of comedy and drama as movies like The Royal Tenenbaums and Bottle Rocket. But this is a uniquely British version of that style, and is funny, touching and genuine. It’s an accomplished start to Aoyade’s career in movie directing, and as he also wrote the script, he’s marked himself out as a genuine new talent in British cinema.
The Guard (John Michael McDonagh)
After watching The Guard, you’ll find yourself wondering what Don Cheadle thought when he first read the script. As FBI agent Wendell Everett, chasing an international drug smuggling ring in Ireland, he suffers all kinds of abuse, as the local police and population have a less than friendly reaction to a black American cop asking questions. But what must have made him say yes to the script was the simple fact that it is hilarious.
But Cheadle is not the star of The Guard. That honour goes to Brendan Gleeson, who is brilliant as Sergeant Gerry Boyle, a policeman with an unorthodox attitude toward policing. Gerry enjoys the company of ladies of the night, looks after his mother (suffering through cancer) and likes going for a morning swim in the sea (and he claims to competed in the Olympics). His relationship with Everett is a hostile one, despite both having the same goal. The main men in the smuggling ring are played by Liam Cunningham, David Wilmot and Mark Strong, who argue about philosophy when they aren’t importing drugs.
The Guard is hilarious, but the plot is also strong and plays out as a drama. Director McDonagh is the brother of Martin McDonagh, writer and director of In Bruges. He wrote The Guard and it has similar humour to his brother’s movie, but is possibly even better.
Movie Of The Year: Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols)
Michael Shannon is starting to establish himself as one of the best actors in America. A brilliant performance in a minor role in Revolutionary Road earned him an Oscar nomination, and his role as Curtis LaForche in Take Shelter could (and should) earn him another nomination. His performance is extraordinary, as a man who may or may not be losing his mind as he experiences violently vivid dreams about a huge storm coming.
His dreams start to affect his life, as he tries to hide them from his wife (Jessica Chastain) and gets distracted at work. Visions of the storm drive him to rebuild an old storm shelter in his back yard. This confuses and angers his wife, and causes him problems at work, as his colleagues and boss start to question his behaviour.
Take Shelter is a slow burning movie. For most of the running time, Shannon’s performance is subtle and understated. His character takes a methodical approach to rebuilding the storm shelter, while at the same time exploring what may be causing his dreams, fearing the same mental illness that his mother suffered when he was a child. Things come to a head when his friend confronts him at a community dinner, and in one of the movie’s most powerful scenes, Shannon explodes into life.
Curtis’ dreams become more violent and disturbing, and his obsession with the shelter and protecting his family continues to grow, before the movie reaches a stunning climax.
Shannon’s performance towers above the rest in 2011, and Jeff Nichols has written and directed a truly brilliant movie. Take Shelter is the best movie of 2011, and I urge you all to watch it.