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Films of 2011

Gareth Higgins

The 2011 UK cinematic year is notable as a year of death and resurrection. It began with two magnificent films about the end of life, Hereafter and Never Let Me Go, and hit a transcendent peak in the summer when The Tree of Life was released; Woody Allen pronounced himself an optimist with Midnight in Paris, which implies something like a belief in the afterlife; Bridesmaids resurrected a friendship and my belief in the potential for romantic comedy to be emotionally profound and politically resonant; Contagion brilliantly imagines what life would be like if death was in charge; 50/50 is thoughtful, funny, and moving about cancer; and Hugo transports us to the place that cannot die - the urge to create.  

There were missteps and disasters along the way, as usual. After Sucker Punch, The Green Hornet, and Cowboys and Aliens, my nominee for most dehumanizing film of the year is Transformers 3, which makes Transformers 2 look like Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It does have astonishing visual imagination, and there's a great opening set on the moon, but this quickly gives way to rape jokes, homophobic bathroom scenes, and summary execution of Middle Eastern-looking stereotypes. For Transformers 3, violence isn't just a way of telling the story, it is the story; we're hamsters on a treadmill running around and around over a racist, sexist, militarist, imperialist, and techno-fetishist subtext that may not be the worst example of its kind, but is certainly up there. A ­better film with similar themes was Battle: LA, which thinks more seriously about wars in Afghanistan and Iraq than its critical reception would suggest.

But this is all a prologue to the ten best films of  2011:­­

10: Clint Eastwood's Hereafter
A thoughtful and moving tale about the mystery of how life will end.  He doesn't get London right, but the emotional truth far outweighs the cultural inaccuracies.

9: The Messenger
There was more grieving in this extraordinarily moving war at home drama, in which Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster play soldiers tasked with informing families of the deaths of their loved ones.  No rehearsal between these two and the actors playing the bereaved parents and spouses took place, making the scenes of revelation among the most powerfully, painfully moving ever committed to film.  This film is a lamentation against violence.

8: Howl
Lamentation is, of course, the point of this film - a magical, moving, and artful docudrama about the poet Allen Ginsberg, the struggle for sexual rights, and the gift of queerness.

7: Never Let Me Go
is close to perfect as a film about the commodification of life, the awful power of fear in crowds, and the desperate need to fight for the freedom to be human.

6: Super 8­
is a blockbuster that has something to say about our world. There is child-like wonder, for sure, in this tribute to Spielberg's suburban choose-your-own-adventures, but there's something deeper at work here.  Super 8's alien-meets-military-meets-kids-with-imagination narrative represents nothing less than the inversion of the myth of redemptive violence, and a proposal that the best response to the real-world violence of the post-9/11 era might be a gentle recognition that no one has a monopoly on suffering.  Super 8's hero speaks a universal truth, and offers deep hope for the future when he says, 'Bad things happen, but you can still live'. 

5: Beginners
In this film, Christopher Plummer gives the most subtle performance of his career, Ewan McGregor is adorable as a bereaved son, and a little dog makes us laugh. Much more than that sounds, Beginners is an emotionally honest film about how to integrate suffering with hope, and to love again after loss.

4: Take Shelter
offers perhaps the most realistic depiction of anxiety, and the most hopeful imagining of how experiencing some fear may be the best preparation for dealing with a lot of it.

3: Hugo
Scorsese's elegant and magical love letter to how the movies can make us feel, Hugo is redolent with eschatological visions of the reconciliation of all things.

2: The Tree of Life
With images so achingly beautiful they evoke longing for transcendent experience, or maybe even inspire or accompany the experience itself,  The Tree of Life is a film about the search for meaning in a God-breathed universe. A man reflects on his childhood, his harsh father and innocent mother, how he learned violence and discovered love, meditates on the nature of Being and Becoming, discovers himself in the face of his loved ones, and ends in an embrace with the divine - love itself.  It's an astonishing work of art that repays multiple viewings, and serves as nothing less than an icon for worship.  The Tree of Life is only the fifth film in 40 years from Terrence Malick, an apparently Christian humanist artist; it also makes the best cinematic use of Brad Pitt and Sean Penn as avatars of contemporary masculinity; it's the most moving film I've seen this year. 


1: The Guard
The film of the year, because it is a perfect fusion of humour and pathos, prepared to look closer at the life of its otherwise easily caricatured protagonist - a West-of-Ireland cop with a grumpy attitude - humanizing him, and telling the story we find ourselves in: of globalization's gifts and challenges, the failure of institutional religion, the power of art and music, discrimination and the distance between people, the corrosiveness of capitalism, the necessity of friendship, and the unavoidability of love. 




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