Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Very Good Year

1. The best movie of 2011 is, without a doubt, the Spanish masterpiece Biutiful.

In it, Javier Bardem plays a man who lives in Barcelona with its incomplete cathedral, the Sagrada Familia, and that is what he is and has. Like all of us, he isn’t perfect or complete. Professionally he is an agent for illegal labourers, but he is dying, his ex-wife has mental health issues, so how are their two young children going to cope?

Then he still has African clients who are suffering European racism and, just to crown it all, he helps bring a catastrophe upon his Chinese clients. Woven into this is his part-time calling of helping the dead communicate their last wishes with their loved ones.

Biutiful also wins because Africans are not portrayed as victims or perpetrators but as human beings who are as capable of making moral choices as everybody else. Out of this long, complex, working-class struggle rises a film that ends up deeply deserving of its title.

2. More upbeat and equally as uplifting is The Fighter, which should have got much more than its two Oscars for best supporting actors. If Melissa Leo as the hard-as-nails mother and Christian Bale as her drug-taking former boxing champion son deserved their statuettes, then so did David O. Russell for directing, Mark Wahlberg for acting and producing, as did Amy Adams for playing a passionate young barmaid. The Fighter also wins because it is American cinema at its best. It is direct, pacy and very entertaining.

3. Third on the list is the darkest of this year’s movies and, again, it is rooted in reality. A Lebanese-Canadian woman leaves a simple will for her twin children, which leads them from the cold and damp First World to the sunny but depraved Middle East. Incendies is a harrowing film that doesn’t indulge its horror, nor does it pull its punches. Like a Greek tragedy, it has a cleansing, purging effect, and the only reason why it wouldn’t have beaten Biutiful for best foreign film Oscar – if I’d been a judge - is because it isn’t quite as universal. In the end neither of these two brilliant movies won; instead the honours went to some well-meaning nonsense that will be on next week’s Worst Movies of the Year.

4. A South African acquaintance of mine said this has been a bad year for movies, but I beg to differ. There have been such good films that I’ve got 15 good movies and then I'm going to put quite a few of them into one category for fourth place. Documentaries.

There were the excellent biographies on ex-Beatle George Harrison, racing driver Ayrton Senna, and comedians Joan Rivers and the New Zealander Billy T. Anyone who wants a quick and entertaining introduction to this country could do worse than to see the latter and realise that all is not quite cricket (or rugby) here. Then there was the other local doco Brother Number One, which dealt with a Kiwi confronting what one of Pol Pot’s henchmen did to his brother in Cambodia. It is directed with a steady hand about a very painful subject. And lastly, The Insider showed us how a bunch of Wall Street suits screwed the global economy and fully deserved its Oscar. They, of course, are still fully employed.

5. Still working purely from memory, a tiny film called Cairo Time sat staring at me on the DVD shelf for a long time before the delectable Patricia Clarkson persuaded me to have a look. This minute story, set in the titular city before Tahrir Square leapt into the world’s consciousness, is so beautifully simple that I am as much in awe of it as visitors are to the pyramids. Egyptian-Canadian director Ruba Nadda has done a fine job of showing how West and Middle East don’t just clash but, more importantly, end up falling for each other. Big time.

6. Another uncompromising film was Never Let Me Go, the scary story by Anglo-Japanese writer Kazuo Ishiguro in which children are bred for the sole purpose of becoming organ donors. If its dystopian world is not entirely convincing, then its premise (in a world of seven billion people, and counting) is horribly prophetic. Also, I finally believed Keira Knightley can act. And how.

7. The Debt was marketed as a Nazi-hunting movie but turned out to be as much about Jews' persecution in the past as Israel's very troubled present. It is also a taut, sexy thriller that is rightly caustic about such dangerous creatures as patriotism.

8. Comedies were few and far between and Woody Allen’s latest offering might have won if it didn’t have Owen Wilson whining his way through it, but down in distant New Zealand there was a film called My Wedding and Other Secrets. Featuring a beanpole of a white boy falling for a tiny (but infinitely tough and resourceful) Chinese girl, and vice versa, the film deals with the very topical themes of migration and the meeting of cultures, but it does so with something lacking in most movies these days. That is, charm.

9. Another small movie with a beautifully ageing actress in it was Copacabana, which I saw because I missed something else and because Isabelle Huppert was in it. Turns out to be a funny look at just how hard and shitty the real Europe can be, whether towards migrants or – in this case – its own. It’s one of those tiny films that just won’t leave you alone.

10. Nicole Kidman fought long and hard to make Rabbit Hole, about a couple losing their child, probably because her character doesn’t resort to religion to ease her considerable pain. In fact, she takes a rather strong anti-God stance, and the world is still turning. Also, her husband gets stoned and laughs out loud at someone else's grief. Edgy stuff in seemingly perfect suburbia. But it’s how the story is revealed that is as intriguing as anything else.

11. Two men working at a polar weather station doesn’t sound like much fun, but this slow Russian thriller works a treat as the older and younger men play out their real game of chess against a landscape that is wildly beautiful, and dangerous. How I Ended This Summer is about just that – the endgame.

12. This year’s Oscar entry from New Zealand is set in Samoa. Its hero is a dwarf who took in a woman who became pregnant and, instead of aborting her daughter, fled her village and family. Full of sensual imagery, The Orator is not Hollywood’s idea of the South Pacific being peopled by friendly, dancing natives. Life is as hard here as anywhere else but it has its own rules, one of which is that debates (in Samoan) can be waged in the village square, as I’ve seen in films from places as far away as Senegal.

When the kind but surly Saili’s wife’s corpse is effectively abducted to be buried in her home village for purely superstitious reasons, he has to speak his mind and show his true feelings. In this showdown it is not about who can draw their pistols the fastest, it’s who can present the most morally persuasive argument.

13. Robert Duvall is another independent-minded actor/producer who brought us a backwoods tale about an old curmudgeon who sticks to a principle that is way out of date, but we cannot but help admire him for sticking to it. Get Low is a gem.

14. It may be a B-grade movie, but Machete is not just about breast, blood and bullet counts. It’s also dealing with the issue of drug running across the US/Mexico border, and it’s so well put together that any student of film would do well to study it.

15. Finally, the last movie of the year is not a movie but a TV series with at least one big-name movie star in it. If Downton Abbey started out promisingly, then it was starting to resemble Dallas in a Castle half way through the second season. But it’s impossible to believe that if The Borgias has a second season it’ll go that way. Firstly, it’s written and executive produced by master storyteller/filmmaker Neil Jordan; secondly, one suspects the subject matter lends itself to many more real and very bloody intrigues. All of which would be nought if the whole thing wasn’t being commandeered by Jeremy Irons, magnificently depraved as Pope Alexander Vl.

Bad year at the movies (and on the box)? I think not.

Neil Sonnekus

* Next week, the worst movies of the year, three of them by Danes!

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