Yesterday I posted up my 2011 Disappointments and today we have The 2011 Surprises of the Year. With this list (here's last year's for extra perusal) I mostly wanted to highlight several titles (15 in total) that I caught throughout the year and that I didn't know much about or were oddly taken with – and as a result surprised me. I thought they deserved a touch more praise than what they may well have got (to my knowledge anyhow) and . This is by no means a list of alternative or secondary best films – I have a top 30 to come – but it can often be good practice to single out the nearly-couldas or the bypassed contenders and give them a helpful shove under the spotlight. These ten films are in no order, they're merely listed randomly:
Mr. Nobody (Jaco van Dormael)
What I enjoyed about Mr. Nobody was what unfortunately, in the end, relegated it to this list instead of seeing it sit pretty on another (30-11): its gleefully harebrained slipperiness. It wants to be a romance, a drama, a sci-fi and everything in between. And it partially succeeds. But after it breaches its second hour (with 30mins still left to play out and nowhere left to go but back in on itself for a third, then fourth, time), it loses much momentum. But still, it’s a thoughtfully individual film; one which looked – and was edited – like little else last year. It engaged in arousing universal themes that some films indulgently fudged (I’m looking at you, The Fountain). If it knew when to call it a day Mr. Nobody could’ve been near sublime. Instead, it was The Truman Show starring Jared Leto in old man makeup, remade by Richard Kelly on laughing gas. Director van Dormael does have some serious style under his belt and I’d willingly submit to more sci-fis from him. However, the biggest drawback outside of the unwieldy running time, I'm sad to say, is a grade-A awful performance from Sarah Polley.
The Reef (Andrew Traucki)
The Reef is essentially just another spin on the stranded-desperate-at-sea (not really a) sub-genre. (See: Open Water etc.) But it works minor wonders by making it feel justly exciting and more than adequately perilous – especially for any selachophobia sufferers out there. A party of however many future shark-attack victims, deserted at sea after their boat snags its underside on a rock, make a slap dash for dry land; risking becoming Great White fodder along the way. It’s all par for the course, but the performances, shark wrangling (real, specially-shot shark footage was used) and nicely maintained tone set it apart. Director Andrew Traucki does a fine job – as good as the one he did for 2007 giant crocodile movie Black Water, showing he’s crucially adept at Dangerous Animal Cinema.
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (Tsui Hark)
Ridiculously vertiginous towers. Boat rides through mystical caves. Gravity-pooh-poohing fights and swordplay. Deer that morph into human form... only to indulge in gravity-pooh-poohing fights and swordplay. Costumes that would shock and dropkick Lady Gaga’s jaw wide open. Direction with plenty of speed, swoop and gusto. Detective Dee had oodles going for it. It didn’t always successfully play the content off the stunning visuals, but when it worked it was giddily gobsmacking entertainment. Some of the script felt oddly fudged in places and the tone was – sometimes awkwardly, other times charmingly – off kilter, but there aren’t too many barmy adventures like this during most film years. I was mainly enthralled by its sheer devil-may-care inventiveness. It was a CGI world far more evocative than that of Tintin and the like, too.
Puncture (Mark Kassen/Adam Kassen)
Puncture, like Conviction, The Fighter and The Resident, is ostensibly a TV movie dressed in its best theatrical suit. However, unlike those films, it didn’t receive a theatrical release. (Also, see Stone below.) It was bypassed and arrived straight to TV in the UK. This was a huge shame as, although it has an admittedly telly-friendly veneer, let’s say, and a rather tried and tested plot, it was a better film than all three above titles. Chris Evans gave a boldly committed performance as a real-life lawyer, it was handsomely shot and it very rarely squandered a moment of its running time; it was slick and never wasteful. Its essential decency, its social and politically astute mindset, (it’s about a drug-addicted lawyer sticking his neck on the line to save the lives of needle users whoever they might be) stands out as admirable. Come the end, it was all rather moving, too. Really, it’s a man Silkwood. And having one of those in the world doesn't hurt.
Quarantine 2: Terminal (John Pogue)
The things I liked about this very likely fast-tracked and certainly ramshackle follow-on from [Rec] remake Quarantine were almost periphery to everything that occurred directly as a result of its narrative. The incidental exchanges, events and geographical isolation - what might occur in the background - all made an unusually vivid impression. This time a gaggle of disparate characters are isolated within a hastily-landed plane and the adjoining airport terminal baggage area. That’s pretty much the sole setting for 90 minutes. But the filmmakers manage to make an involving enough horror-drama out of a very messy situation (and out of the straggled plot ends of the US remake). It’s pure relegated-to-the-late-spot Horror Channel fare, but not as easily dismissible as may be first apparent. It has a modicum more tension and invention than many cheap horror sequels - and there are numerous titles to choose from. It’s bags of fun and maintains its pace well. And it has some genuinely interesting scare tactics, along with some bizarrely harsh character deaths, to revel in over its snappy running time. It shows that inexpensive, workaday horror can sometimes surprise us if a few ideas or scenario changes are considered from time to time.
Everything Must Go (Dan Rush)
I went into Everything Must Go with some scepticism, as I did a previous Raymond Carver adaptation, Jindabyne. I don’t think either film quite captures the tone of his writing in the same way that Robert Altman managed with benchmark carver adaptation Short Cuts, but both manage joint-second best well enough. (Although whereas Altman adapted multiple short stories and interwove them seamlessly, director Rush takes the essence of one short – ‘Why Don’t You Dance?’ from his 1981 collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love – and stretches it out to involve more characters and situations.) Rush, with Will Ferrell as the alcohol-dependent and recently fired husband who makes a sad yet celebratory party out of a lawn full of personal belongings, manages to retain some of the listless, melancholic timbre of Carver’s story whilst also opening it out somewhat. Good work from Ferrell, Rebecca Hall, Christopher Jordan Wallace, Michael Peña and, in a brief and beautifully judged cameo, Laura Dern make this unassuming film really rather affecting; it’s often very moving in a plainly sincere fashion. It made similarly-plotted (man loses everything, learns to claw it back with the help of female companionship and close friends) yet infinitely feeble Tom Hanks effort Larry Crowne look like the insipid mess that it was. Oh, if release tactics could be swapped...
Stone (John Curran)
Apart from it being the best thing that Robert DeNiro has appeared in for at least fifteen years, Stone was a moody, pressurised and emotionally hefty four hander, made with some class and plenty of skill. It was largely overlooked and went direct to DVD/Blu-ray here in the UK. The four actors entwined in the plot – which broadly concerns the social and religious aspects of trust and duplicity surrounding an about-to-be-released murderer – play incredibly confidently off one another: DeNiro shows, indeed intently proves, why some still regard him so highly; Edward Norton has never been better; Milla Jovovich gives a career-best turn; and Frances Conroy broke my heart just a little bit. It’s about people and how they can be truly revealed through their words; it places deliberation and the crucial impact of conversation as paramount to the understanding of other people's lives. It’s vigorously intense stuff, sure, but never high-toned or stuffy. The music (a brilliant aural soundscape put together piecemeal by Jon Brion and Johnny Greenwood), cinematography (by the excellent Maryse Alberti) and editing (Alexandre de Franceschi, who did the photography for Bright Star) are all top dollar. The film is composed of across-the-board classy craftsmanship. It’s a shame that it never got the chance to reach a wider audience. Its director John Curran is currently one of the most interesting directors who hasn’t yet snagged a decent break. He makes adult-orientated dramas that are neither old-fashioned nor overly convoluted in the face of an increasingly infantilised Hollywood arena. Maybe he’s just behind or, perhaps, hopefully, just ahead of the curve. But you tell me why Little Fockers got a full release and Stone didn’t.
Henry's Crime (Malcolm Venville)
As with Stone, Henry’s Crime didn’t win much acclaim and was mostly sidelined in favour of bigger, more obvious thrills. But at least it had a theatrical shot in the UK. It’s not a unique concept for a film by any stretch, but it was amiable and perfectly leisurely paced (for a crime/heist film), and not without an element of eccentric charm to it. Keanu Reeves quietly slums it as a blue collar worker all too accepting of his unwitting part in a bank job; in prison he meets real crook James Caan and, when he’s out, figures he should rob the bank for real. Vera Farmiga is excellent in support as a local actress (flagging, with a few small diva-like flourishes, through a local, smallscale production of The Cherry Orchard) that Reeves romances. It’s very slight (its rather unsatisfactory ending knocks it down a peg or two), but was an agreeable watch. It perhaps might give the Coens a run for their money on an off day, if you know what I mean.
Agnosia (Eugeno Mira)
I enjoyed the time I spent watching Agnosia, even when, halfway through, it didn’t entirely manage to recapture or maintain the intriguing and mysterious promise of its early scenes and began seriously dragging somewhat. There were myriad convolutions snaked throughout the plot, and an inconsistent tone overall, but it was a constant visual joy to watch. The inky imagery, as sour and pummelled by time as a month-old aubergine, was the crowning achievement in Eugenio Mira’s box of filmic tricks, and it deserves the highest praise. Some partially superficial similarities to a couple of other 2011 horror releases – Amer and Julia’s Eyes – unfortunately come to mind, but it manages to be acres better than the former, whilst being nowhere near as good as the latter. A tonal tweak here and a plot shift there, and Agnosia could’ve been an absolute gem.
How Do You Know (James L. Brooks)
How do I know that How Do You Know is one of the year’s most casually pleasant surprises? I don’t, really. But neither do many others either, I gather. Hardly anyone saw, or at least commented on in any wide capacity, James L. Brooks’ latest comedy-drama. Those that did speak up didn’t mention how strangely becoming it was, how familiarly, weirdly nice its awkward embrace. Sure, much of the structure and some of the character interaction are skewed to the point of oddball abstraction (it’s hard to get any purchase on the way it shunts itself between people and situations at times), but it works well enough by positioning itself just to the side of the rom-com norm. It’s ever-so-slightly (and charmingly?) outmoded in its approach to matters of the daft heart and bizarre business. Paul Rudd was great (especially when he gets frustrated with a barbequed steak in a moment of inspired comical despair) and Reese Witherspoon and Owen Wilson were better here than they have been in anything else in the last few years. It’s maybe my favourite Brooks film. Maybe.
Five more half-decent surprises: Red Hill, Elektra Luxx, Drive Angry, The Next Three Days, The Awakening.
Next: some selected technical/crew bests, and it's him 'n' her time with the male and female acting. Then: worst films and films 30-11 followed by the Top Ten.