Film reviews are in their nature subjective and reviewers in turn opinionated and in some people’s minds arrogant, as if to assume their opinion about anything is valid or required reading. ‘Top five’ lists proudly continue this tradition and multiply it by ten. However, regardless of your personal taste in movies the following five films should be on everyone’s must see list for this year. Each is unique, compelling and most importantly highly enjoyable in their own ways and represent my personal favourite films of 2011.
Midnight In Paris, Super 8, Take Shelter, Project Nim
We Need to Talk About Kevin
Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s best selling novel is a haunting look into parenting and motherhood. Particularly the emotions some parents feel that are not discussed openly or presented as apart of having a child. Resentment, disconnection, isolation and anxiety to name a few are all expressed by a gripping performance from Tilda Swintonwho seamlessly tows the line between cold and authoritarian, vulnerable and helpless and outright horror. Ramsay tackles the films unpleasant subject matter with a brutal and unsettling honesty that is both gripping and gut wrenching. The film openly questions nature versus nurture and what makes people bad and will make some question parenthood as the credits roll. Read our full review.
Tree of Life
It’s been an interesting year for Terrance Malick’s Tree of Life. One filled with both critical praise and condemnation of the film’s vision. A vision that as I described in my original review ‘almost dares its audience to leave the cinema. There is no conventional story and there are long stretches without any dialogue or any characters for that matter’. Not to mention Sean Penn, who is billed as the film’s second biggest star, is hardly in the movie. The ambitious film’s scope is extraordinary but at its heart is a story exploring how our families shape our lives, as children and as adults. To try to describe it further is an intimidating task but would not do the film justice. There is no doubt Tree of Life is challenging and asks a lot of modern audiences and their short attention spans. Some people may fall asleep while others will connect to this film in a profound way. I wasn’t as deeply affected as some but this film continues to haunt me in a way not unlike We Need to Talk About Kevin. Read our full review.
In a year that included the ambitious Tree of Life, Hanna remains the most refreshing and unique film of the year. With distinctly breathtaking and original direction from director Joe Wright, Hanna is a stylistic thrill ride we haven’t really seen before, at least not in the multiplexes. Set to a perfectly fitting Chemical Brothers soundtrack Wright’s film is an exhilarating and tense experience anchored by a mesmerising Saorise Ronan as the titular character. Ronan plays the perfect amount of innocence and menace which compliments Wright’s blend of breathtaking art-house with enough Bourne, Bond and Nikita to please the masses. Read our full review.
Richard Ayoade’s debut coming of age film has met its fair share of criticisms and comparisons to other well-known quirky coming of age movies of years gone by. However while similarities exist and a love for those film makers is evident throughout the film, Submarine is an intelligent, sweet and very funny introduction to Ayoade as an up and coming director, not to mention its two compelling and charismatic leads in Craig Roberts and Yasmin Paige. There is so much to like about Submarine and Robert’s character Oliver Tate, who like the film is a perfect mix of awkward and endearing. A lot of the laughs from the film come from its uncomfortable awkwardness but its enjoyment comes from its dark yet charming story and its great engaging cast.
Although one of the most over hyped and trendy films in recent memory, Drive is still my favourite movie of 2011 and it is also the coolest. Nicolas Winding Refn’s stylish neo noir fllm is certainly not the masterpiece of modern cinema Facebook and Twitter would have you believe, it includes a barely there and underdeveloped Carey Mulligan, an incredibly overhyped wooden performance by Ryan Gosling (pretty, though he is) and a plot that struggles to balance realism and outright fairytale. However, even with its noticeable flaws Drive remains a compelling, beautifully shot and well cast film. From its opening minutes, Gosling’s star making vehicle is a gripping and tense ride which threatens to burst at any moment. When the film hits its second act, Gosling’s no name hero and Winding Refn’s stylistic direction become an unstoppable force that captures the audience’s imagination and challenges even the most critical viewer to dislike it.
Drive may not deserve the amount of hype it has received but in a year of great movies this ultra stylised, 80’s saturated not so subtle mix of retro action and art-house visuals is for me the most enjoyable film of 2011. Read our full review.
Election still wins by a landslide
Twenty years later, the black comedy Election is still a hysterical look at power grabs and the meaning of integrity. But while the film hasn’t changed, the story is completely different —and better than ever.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the incisive satire Election. Based on a Tom Perotta novel, Election tells the story of a high-school civics teacher, Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick), who plans to take down know-it-all student Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) as she vies for school council.
The film is still hilarious — a well-liked but sad-sack teacher tries to thwart an overachiever’s bid for school president by throwing a popular football hero into the race (and, accidentally, his disaffected sister). Thematically, it’s as relevant as ever. Integrity. Meritocracy. Nihilism. Hypocrisy. Ethics versus morals.
Watching Jim and Tracy’s battle of the wits many years ago, I recall Election posing the question not just of who would win, but who should win. The audience grappled with who to root for because Tracy and Jim’s misdeeds were presented on relatively equal footing. On paper, Jim’s deeds are far more dastardly than Tracy’s, but at the time, their personalities mattered more. Reviewers painted Jim as imperfect but well intentioned, while Tracy was obnoxious. Seductive. Even an “aggressive vixen” (cough cough Roger Ebert).
But a rewatch in 2019 reveals Tracy as more of a heroine than ever — and Jim McAllister a more pathetic and mean-spirited hypocrite than he seemed 20 years ago.
Part of what fuels Jim’s disdain for Tracy is a complicated plot point—his best friend and fellow teacher, Dave Novotny, was fired because he began sleeping with her. The film (and book) mostly portray Tracy as an equal, willing participant in this relationship, even a manipulative one at that. Tracy narrates her full consent, a point likely meant to assuage viewers and readers of the 90s, but today’s (hopefully) better understanding of power dynamics have us questioning not just the claims of Tracy’s manipulation, but her ability to consent.
A clearer understanding of a troublesome sexual relationship aside, it’s also easier to champion Tracy Flick thanks to shows like Parks and Recreation, a rare mainstream hit that humanizes ambitious women. The strong parallels between Election and Parks and Recreation are obvious. In true Leslie Knope fashion, Tracy’s mother writes letters to successful women like Connie Chung, soliciting advice for her daughter. And the race between Tracy Flick and Paul Metzler—played hysterically by forgotten teen dope of the 90s Chris Klein—closely mirrors Leslie Knope’s city council race against Bobby Newport. In every one of Paul Metzler’s ditzy and excited proclamations, it’s hard not to hear Paul Rudd’s portrayal of Pawnee’s fortunate son turned political candidate. (It’s also hard not to wonder if April Ludgate was partly based off Paul’s nihilistic sister, Tammy.)
More than anything, though, what changes how we see Tracy Flick in 2019 is how we see Jim McAllister in 2019.
Twenty years ago, Jim was far more convincing as a passionate educator. Sure, he was smug and made stupid decisions and treated people poorly. But his steadfast belief in morality (skewed as his version of it was) made him more sympathetic than he deserved to be.
Jim is truly despicable, though. His obsession with thwarting Tracy’s achievements reveals precisely who he is. He is every man who had a chance to achieve and fell short. He is every man who wasted his privilege and settled for something less than great. And he is every man who has ever resented a woman for rising to where he didn’t, despite his head start.
What Jim hates more than anything is feeling bested, particularly by women. After Linda Novotny, Dave’s ex-wife, comes clean about their affair to Jim’s wife Diane, his smothering declarations of love instantly turn dark.
“Why did you do that?” he screams into Linda’s answering machine. “You ruined my life, is that what you wanted?” Later, when Linda explains their tryst was a mistake and that he took advantage of her vulnerability, his anger turns into gaslighting.
“You hugged me! You kissed me!” he whines, as though Linda didn’t promptly reject his first hamfisted advance right after her marriage fell apart. (She did.)
Much as he lectures about it, Jim has a piss-poor understanding of morality. His treatment of Tracy shows how little he cares about a grown man taking advantage of a high-school student; his scolding judgments of Dave’s relationship with her seem performative and self-important. For all the lukewarm proclamations of affection for his wife, when his infidelity is revealed, he expresses nothing more beyond an expectation to be forgiven after a waiting period. And while he wields it often, he shows no understanding of the unfair power dynamic he briefly has with Linda, a vulnerable and confused woman who relied on him for support during a difficult time.
That’s why, when Jim describes seeing Tracy silently celebrating her victory in the hallway outside his classroom, he projects his anger and clings to his version of morality.
Defending his plan to throw the vote count in Paul’s favor, he says: “The sight of Tracy at that moment affected me in a way I can’t explain.”
But we can explain it, no problem. He is filled with pitiful male rage.
After all, underachieving Jim channels his need for validation through his relationship with women — an affair with Linda, “winning” against Tracy. But Tracy only channels hers into achievements. Extracurriculars. College applications. And winning the student council election she knows she deserves. She’s never concerned with “beating” Jim McAllister because she knows just how insignificant he will be in her life. And that infuriates and enrages him, like it does with countless other men when they’re outwitted by a woman.
While the film itself obviously hasn’t changed in 20 years, this dichotomy between Tracy and Jim used to be murkier. Tracy Flick is ambitious, cutthroat, smarter than her classmates and teachers, and shrill. That used to be all you had to say to get an audience to view a female character as at least partially unsympathetic, if not an automatic antagonist.
Back in 1999, Election relied on this assumption to paint Jim’s and Tracy’s wrongdoings in a similar light.The film’s trailer pieced together snippets of Tracy’s most stick-in-the-mud soundbites and pitched the movie as the story of an “ego the size of the Grand Canyon.” And it still is, but now we’re finally asking the right question.
Whose ego is that?
Election was originally released in April of 1999.
Film Review: It Chapter Two
The sweet spot between Stephen King fans, horror fans and (believe it or not) comedy fans
The final installment in the It saga is a clever, scary, probably-too-long allegory about the power of friendship — complete with a 20-foot clown spider. Sure, it’s probably a half-hour longer than it really needs to be — but It Chapter Two is still a fantastic film that hits the sweet spot between Stephen King fans, horror fans and (believe it or not) comedy fans.
It’s a story about friendship, and just like the first film, it’s those relationships that make this story so compelling and keep it woven together in a way that you really care about what’s happening to all the folks Pennywise has been menacing across these two films. Sure, Bill Skarsgård’s absolutely terrifying performance as Pennywise is what puts butts in the seats, but at its heart, this is a story about the power of friendship to win out over pretty much anything. If we work together, we can overcome fear, loneliness, doubt, depression — and yeah — even a supernaturally godlike killer clown. Thankfully, all the blood keeps that message from getting too sappy along the way.
The first It in 2017 was a surprise, monster hit — but for good reason. The Stephen King adaptation by director Andy Muschietti is pretty much a horror masterpiece wrapped in a compelling coming of age story. Think Goonies meets a face-eating monster flick with jump scares galore to keep the blood pumping. But, despite a decently-closed ending to the first chapter, the story was always conceived as a two-part film run, which is pretty much the only way one could hope to possibly wrap up King’s massive tome (the studio actually briefly considered splitting Chapter Two into two films, because there’s just so much material).
It Chapter Two makes a wise decision to keep the stellar younger cast from the first film involved via ample flashbacks, while still providing space for the adult Losers to live and breathe (and, ahem, die) while bridging the gap between who they were and who they all grew up to be. It also embraces the inherent silliness and insanity of its premise to laugh, now seen through the lens of middle-aged adults as opposed to middle school minds. It’s a hard tone to hit, and it arguably might come off with more laughs than scares, but it’s true to the inherent madness of Pennywise.
The adult cast is also a home run by and large. James McAvoy makes for a capable adult Bill; Jessica Chastain is the embodiment of adult Bev; James Ransome nails grown-up Eddie; and Isaiah Mustafa does a capable job providing the necessary info-dumps as adult Mike. But the real breakout is Saturday Night Live alum Bill Hader as grown-up Richie. There’s scattered buzz that Hader could be worthy of an Oscar nomination for his performance, and he deserves every bit of it. We knew Hader had comedy chops, and he uses them plenty to keep this dark tale from getting too dark, but he really taps into the emotion of what it’d be like to go through something so traumatizing. And the moments that break Richie will almost certainly break you, too.
As for the changes to King’s original novel, sure, they’ll certainly be noticeable for fans. That said, the book itself — especially the ending — is absolutely wild and arguably impossible to adapt in a way that could work on the screen. The ending on-screen largely stays true to King’s themes built into the novel, and for the story that’s been told across these two films, it really does work. Hell, even King himself shows up in a cameo to make a joke about just how hard it can be to get an ending right.
Thankfully, despite a few bumps, It Chapter Two pretty much nails the landing. In a world filled more and more with King adaptations, this two-film run will stand as one of the best.
It Chapter Two is in cinemas now
IT CHAPTER TWO
Directed by: Andy Muschietti
Written by: Gary Dauberman
Cast: James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, Bill Skarsgård
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures
Run time: 169 minutes