The most anticipated film of 2011 was apparently about life. The best was about death (pass the popcorn). It’s a constant lament of film critics that cinema was better in the ’70s (when, perhaps not coincidentally, a large proportion of newspaper critics grew up): modern Hollywood is about sex, violence, and pandering to teenage audiences with possible ADHD. But there are good films out there – funny, thoughtful and true.
Of course, 2011 included its share of the obligatory summer sequels which millions watched so I didn’t have to: Hangover Part II, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Transformers: Dark of the Moon... The boywizard series came to a conclusion with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 – which you may celebrate as a culturally resonant messiah metaphor, damn as an inducement to occult dabbling, or think of as The Famous Five with spells.
The most surprising success of the year was The Inbetweeners Movie, a sitcom adaptation that rivalled the box office of The King’s Speech. That Brit hit, of course, triumphed on Oscar night and proved to everyone that if you are plucky, hard-working and born to unbelievable wealth and privilege then you, too, can achieve anything (ok, it’s actually a really nice film).
Terrence Malick, revered director of Days Of Heaven and The Thin Red Line, finally delivered The Tree of Life at the Cannes Film Festival, where people literally fought to get into the press screening, such was the anticipation. The film duly received critical adulation bordering on worship and won the festival’s top prize, the Palme d’Or, for its epic meditation on the creation and meaning of life within infinity – at least, it certainly felt eternal.
Somewhat more accessible was the return of Marvel’s world-saving mutants in X-Men: First Class, which co-starred the ever-excellent James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender as Professor X and Magneto, the Martin Luther King and Malcolm X of the comic book world. (Fassbender went on to win Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival later in the year, for the decidedly non-comic book Shame, an unsettling, bold film about the power of sexual addiction – due for release 13th January 2012).
Marvel’s other attempts to expand their comic book universe on screen were Captain America: The First Avenger and Thor. The latter was a particularly surprising critical success, with director Kenneth Branagh pulling off a tricky balance between high adventure and high camp, with the god of thunder flitting between Day-Glo Norse heaven and a dusty earth enlivened by questing scientist Natalie Portman (who was contractually obliged to appear in every other film in 2011, it seemed). The battle – and eventual understanding – between the supernatural and the scientific was an interesting one.
Science as a force for both good and evil was apparent in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, where greed overpowers ethics as gene-mutated chimp Cesar (acted, via motion capture, by the excellent Andy Serkis) is abused, and then decides he’s not going to take it any more... Serkis deserves an Oscarnomination, even if he’s unlikely to get it, given the Academy voters’ suspicions over computer enabled performances. Still, he made you care more about an ape than anyone had since Darwin.
There’s more motion-capture and more Serkis in The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, with The Lord of the Rings’ Peter Jackson producing and Steven Spielberg directing the first in a series of adaptations of the iconic Belgian boy journalist’s adventures. Spielberg is looking to repeat the popcorn and prestige double bill he previously pulled off by delivering Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List in the same year, with Tintin to be followed by War Horse – an adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s acclaimed First World War novel. Moving forward to the next global conflict, look out for Resistance (out 25th November) – from Owen Sheers’ alternate history novel, which imagines Britain has been invaded by the Nazis.
The year saw a trio of small, touching films about identity and midlife crisis. The Insatiable Moon is a charming, authentic little film about a man who believes he’s the Son of God; Treacle Jr explores our occasional desires to run away (and the director, Jamie Thraves, deserves respect – he re-mortgaged his house to fund the film); while The Beaver sees Mel Gibson play a depression-hit man who starts to engage with the world through a hand puppet. It’s an odd, sad and funny film directed by Gibson’s friend, Jodie Foster.
It’s been quite a year for established directors, with Spielberg joined by Danny Boyle (127 Hours), David O Russell (The Fighter), the Coen Brothers (True Grit) and Steven Soderbergh (Contagion). Winter also brings the spectacle of Martin Scorsese – the brilliant director of Goodfellas and The Last Temptation of Christ – tackling a family adventure, in Hugo (out 2nd December).
Less likely to appeal to your children is another novel adaptation, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The first of the phenomenally successful Millennium series, penned by the late Stieg Larsson, the book has already been adapted in its native Sweden, but expect that wellreviewed but somewhat pedestrian picture to be eclipsed by the Hollywood version – which has been written by Schindler’s List’s Steven Zaillian and directed by David Fincher, the genius behind Fight Club. With its hacker hero Lisbeth Salander and story of the abuse of institutional and inherited power, within the context of big business, it feels horribly timely.
Films reflect society and also help mould it. They can take the temperature of a culture. Of course, not every film is for everyone and some on my personal top ten may offend you – either through sex, violence or language (please bear in mind the certificates and read the consumer advice for each title at bbfc.co.uk).
But the time when Christians could dismiss cinema has long passed (actually, it never existed). It is a mirror, a projection, a way to see ourselves and others afresh. Its power is not just in allegory, but in theme – how it makes you think and what it makes you think about. And its power is in playing – in fun, in enjoying the moment, something it’s too easy to forget.