Some hits, some misses

Some hits, some misses

When it comes to movies, making the ‘best of the year’ list is a tough proposition, writes Pradeep Sebastian, as he lists out six movies that made the deepest impression in 2011.

As always, it is a tough proposition to talk about all the movies you want to while making a best of the year list. There’s the temptation to remark on the year’s favourites, the disappointments, and the ones you feel mixed about, but there’s just never enough space to get everything in — not even the 10 best. So, I’ll talk about six that made the deepest impression in 2011, and merely list here what else was noteworthy, along with the big disappointments. Super Eight and Beginners were huge disappointments, along with Margin Call, Win Win, Red State, Winnie the Pooh and Contagion. Noteworthy movies that belong in this year’s best: A Dangerous Method, David Cronenberg’s movie about Freud and Jung, Tarsem Singh’s underrated The Immortals, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, and Werner Herzog’s documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams. 

‘Hugo’

Hugo works beautifully, and has the best use of 3-D I have seen to date. At first I had my doubts, even if it was a Martin Scorsese movie, that it would match its source, Brian Selznick’s critically acclaimed graphic book, The Invention of Hugo Cabaret. The trailer looked like a slightly more imaginative Disney-Pixar children’s movie: loud, noisy and utterly predictable. But I should have trusted Scorsese: he does more than wonderful justice to the book, interpreting and extending its visual enchantment in cinematic terms.

It takes place mostly in a Paris train station. Hugo is an orphan boy who winds all the huge clocks that tell time in this station. He lives in a forgotten, condemned apartment hidden in the station, every moment fearing discovery by the hawk-eyed station policeman (Sacha Baron Cohen). Hugo is fascinated by an old man (Ben Kingsley) who owns a toy shop at the station and has a passion for designing, inventing and fixing mechanical things. Hugo himself is mechanically gifted and has been trying to find the key to making an Automaton (a self-operating robot) work. When he apprentices for the old man, Hugo stumbles on a secret that lets him unlock not only the automaton, but takes him closer to the very beginning of how the magic of special effects in cinema was first born.

His first 3-D movie and Scorsese already knows what to do with it: it’s the shrewdest and deepest use of three dimensions you’ll ever see. Take that moment when Sacha Baron Cohen aka Borat as the French cop sticks his head out — and his 3-D-enhanced long nose — almost near your face in the audience, as he breathes the word physiognomy to Hugo. In the audience you move your head back just a little, and seeing Sacha isn’t going to remove his head back, you stare with rapt amusement at his ‘physiognomy’. I was eager to see what Scorsese would do with the scenes from the original Selznick drawings of the bookshop inside the station, and he tops himself here: this old bookshop, owned by Christopher Lee, is right out of our dreams, piled to the roof with books. I loved how much time and focus Scorsese devotes to everything mechanical here, from the close-ups of the clocks whirring, to the details of the very life-like automaton. Nothing in the film is overdone. I feared Sacha would get into Borat mode, but he stays true to character, as do all the denizens of this gigantic, memorable Parisian train station. There’s enough richness in the story, characters (and the superb actors who play them) and its intricate visual design to hold up in a 2-D version. Hugo is an instant classic.

‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’

Masterfully directed and acted, this intricate, complex, long and talky spy story of betrayal, deceit and loyalty by Britain’s quintessential spy novelist John Le Carre had no right to be a movie — it really fits one of those BBC2-HBO TV adaptations — and yet director Tomas Alfredson turns this into a stylish, highly textured piece of cinema. Gary Oldman plays the George Smiley role Alec Guinness once played, while the others in the Circus (nickname for MI6) are John Hurt, Colin Firth, Ciaran Hinds, Mark Strong, and Benedict Cumberbatch. There is a traitor within the British Secret Service, someone passing secrets to the Soviets, and Smiley has to find him before any more damage is done. The film is shot and photographed in a bleak, grey and decrepit fashion (especially Eastern Europe and London in the 70s) that is the mood and setting of most Cold War Le Carre tales. The movie is full of menace, suspense, cleverness, cunning and heartbreak. Most of the movie might just be people talking in an office or looking grumpy, but it deserves to be seen on the big screen for fullest impact — which is devastating and utterly absorbing.    

‘Higher Ground’

Some of the most difficult movies to make are movies about faith. Movies about religion are easy, but not something as interiorised and personal and controversial as faith. It can turn out – as it often does – preachy or sardonic, sarcastic or sentimental. Seldom do they feel true and believable. In this tricky genre, some accomplishments stand out: Bergman’s Winter Light, Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, Horton Foote’s Tender Mercies, Robert Duvall’s The Apostle, and the recent French film, Of Gods and Men. In Higher Ground, the talented actress Vera Farmiga  stars and directs this pitch perfect, intimate movie about faith. It’s a rich, uncondescending, unironic (but witty) record of a woman living out her faith in the context of her family, her church, her community, and perhaps closest of all, in her own mind and heart. When you see movie scenes that show a group of people in a prayer meeting, or two people talking about faith, or a pastor preaching, it usually feels self-conscious, contrived, fanatical, insincere, ironic. And usually such scenes parody what is happening. Here, these very same scenes feel lived, authentic, and have a documentary naturalness. Terrific ensemble acting and a beautiful, empathetic and accurate performance by Farmiga whose directing is so sure footed, you marvel that this little masterpiece is a debut. 

‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’

First of all, this is not a movie people expected much from. Too many sequels and prequels had been made of the Planet of the Apes franchise for anything interesting to come out of one more sequel, and second of all, Tim Burton himself had tried to revive the Planet series and failed. What could Rupert Wyatt, a little-known British filmmaker, bring to a failing concept? And then the rave reviews poured in even from those hard to please, highbrow movie critics, plus it was a box-office phenomenon. From being seen as a strictly commercial proposition, Rise has now gone on to become Oscar-nomination-worthy. Even if you didn’t care for animals, it worked as a pure adrenaline thriller. And if you did care very much for animals, it broke new ground: all the animals in the film were computer generated, but more importantly, for the first time in film history, a movie told a story from their emotions, sensibility and eyes. Best of all was how it ended: the animals won and the humans were (in a Hollywood movie) finally, finally put in their place. The radical idea in this exhilarating movie (which its creators wisely did not make a big deal of) is that animals are not human property. 

‘The Trip’

A personal favourite, this little British gem makes us aware of the pleasures, silliness and complexities of acting even as it gleefully and expertly celebrates the craft. Two celebrity character actors, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon playing themselves (and against themselves!) on a road trip, pass the time by trading (and then dueling) impressions of Michael Caine. That’s the kind of juicily self-referential acting-within-acting movie concept director Michael Winterbottom comes up with in this mostly (and wittily) improvised script.  
‘The Ides of March’

I enjoy a good political thriller, and every time I see a decent one, I always wonder why they don’t make more of them. Few genres work up so much excitement in me as the political thriller – that whiff of conspiracy, corruption, absolute power and plain hubris that will finally bring down the hotshot politician villain gives me a nice buzz of pleasure that lingers in me long after the movie is over. The Ides of March, starring George Clooney as a senator and Ryan Gosling as a political fixer may not be up there with the best (the well-known All The President’s Men, and the less known gem, The Contender) but it is very satisfying as political thrillers go. Ryan Gosling plays a precociously brilliant spin doctor who deeply believes in his candidate. He soon discovers that Clooney may not be as untainted as the record shows him to be. The question is what will he do with the dangerous information he has? Expose Clooney and destroy his bright career or bury the evidence and step into the White House with Clooney. Clooney directs knowingly, like an old pro, keeping the movie subtle, low-key, smart, stylish and corrosively cynical – in other words, in the best tradition of political conspiracy thrillers.

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