Are you ready for
There were some unmitigated turkeys – think and – but quite a few quasi-classics passed through the cinemas this year too. Now it’s your turn to settle the score, writes Donald Clarke
ONE OF THE GREAT critical orthodoxies argues that the early 1970s was a golden era for American film. You know the story. In the aftermath of the counter-culture spasms, film school grads such as Scorsese, Coppola and Schrader – fired by the Nouvelle Vague – made the mainstream safe for art.
But here’s the thing. Read the contemporaneous commentary and you get no sense that filmgoers knew how lucky they were. It took nearly 20 years for the postclassical boom to be identified as such.
Where are we going with this? Well, if you were surveying the cinematic year in mid-summer, you could reasonably argue that 2011 was unlikely to offer many classics for the ages. True Grit was pretty good. Though it had its detractors, Black Swan certainly made you sit up and pay attention. (Yes, those distant Oscar nominees count as 2011 releases in these territories.) But the middle of the year was, as usual, colonised by a stream of dumb, noisy synapseannihilators.
The Green Lantern stunk like marathon runners’ underpants. Transformers 167 was less pleasant than an evening of waterboarding. With Cars 2, Pixar released its first unmitigated turkey. True, Captain America was surprisingly zippy. But the only effects-rich movie to break new ground was Rupert Wyatt’s intelligent (if clumsily titled) Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
Oh, no. Is it time for another “death of cinema” piece? It is not. The latter half of the year brought confirmation that, more than a century after the medium’s inception, cinema can still surprise, distract and discombobulate. Pay attention. We might be passing through a tiny golden age.
British cinema delivered three very different quasi-classics. We Need to Talk
About Kevin, Lynne Ramsay’s take on Lionel Shriver’s provocative novel, showed that adaptations need not be pedestrian or reverential. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy nutmegged the classic TV version of John le Carré’s book and served up a contender for the best ever espionage movie. Then there was the unexpected claw-hammer to the skull that was Ben Wheatley’s Kill List: few films have ever so satisfactorily combined verité and horror. Wheatley’s film, despite receiving raves, did not set the box office alight.
But the financial success of Tinker Tailor and Kevin – the former sat at the No 1 spot for much of early autumn – confirmed that, if offered the right sort of material, the public will turn out for grown-up movies.
There’s more to the medium than ersatz pirates and overextended juvenile wizardry. With Melancholia, Lars Von Trier shook off that Nazi controversy at Cannes to deliver his best-received film since Breaking the Waves. Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life, with its lovely images and spiritual hokum, divided audiences in the most invigorating of fashions. Jeff Nichols’s Take Shelter brought the apocalypse home. It is, however, difficult to discern
any kind of coherent movement in the current sweep of quality cinema. That early 1970s boom resulted from a group of like-minded filmmakers coming of age during a period of great social change. The films honoured in these pages take in, by way of contrast, a delightful kaleidoscope of styles, tones and origins.
It is true to say there is a great deal of gloom about the place. But little else links such diverse pictures as Andrea Arnold’s muddy Wuthering Heights, Duncan Jones’s careering Source Code and Justin Kurzel’s grim Snowtown. Sat upon by economic meltdown, environmental trauma and political instability, the world’s film-makers are finding endlessly disparate ways of expressing their unease.
As a result, it’s difficult to know whether to be optimistic about the future. We’re not tracking any new waves. We’re not dealing with any fresh outbreaks from prominent film schools. Anything could happen. How appropriate that, in these shaky times, even the good things in life emerge from disorder.
If the Non-movement Movement (let’s call it that) does continue, let us, at least, hope we can see the films as they are meant to be seen. One under-reported development has been the sacking of qualified projectionists and the advance of centrally controlled, digitally driven exhibition systems. If the film is upside down, in the wrong ratio or playing without sound, it has become increasingly difficult to get the problem rectified.
There’s a problem Messrs Scorsese and Coppola didn’t have to cope with. Everything is turned up way past 11 in Darren Aronofsky’s study of a ballet dancer disintegrating while preparing for her role in a production of Swan Lake. Some have criticised Black Swan for its heightened tone, but, like We Need to Talk About Kevin (see below), the film is clearly being played within the brain of a disordered protagonist. Top-notch unhinged turns from Natalie Portman and Barbara Hershey. More news about the end of the world. Michael Shannon is extraordinary as a man who appears to see visions in a remote part of the American midwest. Clouds curl. Oily rain drips from the sky. As he sets out to build a storm shelter, a strange realisation hits the audience. Jeff Nichols’s film could be seen as an attempt to investigate what Field of Dreams would feel like if enacted in the real world.