2011 in film

2011 in film


It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…


A year of predictable sequels, dire re-makes, the occasonal gem, eccentric ‘indie’ films getting swallowed up by the comglomerates — so what else is new?

It began with a lot of whataboutery as to whether Roman Polanski was going to do time for an old sexual offence perpetrated on a minor in Jack Nicholson’s house. After a while the debate changed from a discussion of the crime in question to a more general one about whether a ‘genius’ should be ‘forgiven’ sooner than other mortals. In the end, Polanski avoided being deported and the issue seemed to go away…sort of.

In February, Jeff Bridges was denied an Oscar for True Grit. I wasn’t disappointed. It would have been a thinly-disguised repeat of the one John Wayne won for the same role way back when, i.e. a Life Achievement Award more than anything else. Instead, Colin Firth took the gong for stuttering his way though The King’s Speech. (There are those who would say he’s spent his whole career stuttering, which is probably why he was so good at it).

Natalie Portman came of age to win the equivalent Best Actress Oscar (I refuse to call women ‘actors’ as seems to be the fashion nowadays — thankfully it hasn’t, yet, infiltrated the Dorothy Chandler emporium) for her dark turn in Black Swan.

Afterwards, in the predictable tradition of Oscar winners, she went on to make a turkey — No Strings Attached with Ashton Kutcher. Kutcher, for his part, ‘dumped’ his long term partner Demi Moore in real life, in the equally predictable tradition of young men in Hollywood who romance older women before trading them in for younger models.

Demi Moore must be the first woman in history to insist on a ‘pre-nup’ before she married, and then chase after her ex for alimony after the marriage collapsed, Kutcher becoming more bankable than she in the interim.

As for Kutcher, his movie success seems most mysterious to me.

The new and improved Colin Farrell, swearing off wild living for the delights of fatherhood, stepped out of character in Horrible Bosses, going all quirky on us as his born-again folksiness threatened to become almost as predictable as his self-destructive ways of yore.

The haircut he sported here would probably have ended the careers of lesser mortals but that’s the thing about ‘our’ Colin, isn’t it? We forgive him everything, even going straight.

Elsewhere, on the Irish scene, we saw Brendan Gleeson copperfasten his perch at the top of the tree with The Guard, an offbeat look at unique methods of law enforcement in our island of saints and scholars (not).

Liam Neeson, meanwhile, continued to go downmarket with Unknown, a fast-moving story in the tradition of last year’s Taken — or, depending on your point of view, yet another rip-off of Sandra Bullock’s The Net.

Whatever way you look at it, he’s now so middle-of-the-road you can almost see the white lines running down his back.

Xavier Beauvois’ Of Gods and Men won many accolades from both critics and the public alike for its sensitive treatment of a community of Cistercian monks riven by a 1996 attack on their monastery by fundamentalist terrorists in Algeria, and its unfussy alliance of Christianity and Islam.

This was an uplifting film but it didn’t play out as any kind of propagandist exercise, Beauvois preferring to tell a simple story that was moving in the extreme.

The film made no special pleading for the beleaguered monks and was the better for that: their heroism was muted and unself-conscious, especially in the highly poignant ‘last supper’ scene accompanied by the soundtrack of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.

The film focussed on their daily lives as part of the local community — praying, giving out food and medicine etc. so when the jihad threat built up it was all the more arresting.

The decision of whether to stay or go from the monastery became the central issue. ”To go is to die” one of them says as they debate the issue, but of course to stay is to die in a much more obvious way.

Lambert Wilson, an actor I can usually take or leave, maintained a quiet authority throughout and gave the film’s tragic ending a piquant sense of profundity.

Wilson also turned up in Public Fears in Private Places, which got a welcome screening in the Irish Film Institute’s Alain Resnais season.

It was a quirky offering, not quite up there with his masterpiece, Last Year in Marienbad, which was also shown, but a refreshing reminder that he could still deliver the goods so many decades later as he related a story of six people looking for love in bittersweet ways.

I found myself attending the Film Institute a number of times during the year, often for unusual reasons.

One wet Sunday, having nothing in particular to do, I wandered into Johnny Guitar, a camp Western with Joan Crawford and Sterling Hayden that I hadn’t seen since my childhood, and was captivated by its raw power. Amazingly, it still held up all these years later.

When I first saw it back in the ’60s, I had no inkling that it was a symbolic indictment of the McCarthy witch-hunt, or indeed anything else but a riproaring cowboy yarn, but I’m glad I didn’t. Symbolism, for me, usually spoils films rather than enhances them.

I should at this point also thank Karen Wall of the IFI for organising a private showing for me of the documentary Dreaming The Quiet Man which shed a lot of light on the magic summer of 1951 when this film was shot in Cong, Co. Mayo, and its environs, and how it has attained mythical status in the industry since — sometimes for the wrong reasons.

I watched the film in a cinema that holds two people maximum and was happy as a trout. I could spend my life in an environment like this.

The life story of Josemaria Escriva, the (subsequently canonised) founder of Opus Dei, was featured in Roland Joffe’s There Be Dragons, a bold and ambitious film that somehow failed to make its mark on the public, or even get a general cinema release.

I asked Austen Ivereigh, who organised a private showing of it for myself and some other journalists, why he thought it flopped.

”It was too complex, too long, too dissonant,” he concluded.

This was true, I thought in retrospect, and I also felt its focus was unsure. The tagline was the old Wildean epithet ”Even saints have a past”, but the past of Josemaria’s childhood nemesis Manolo (played by Dougray Scott) somehow seemed more dramatic to me.

Neither could Joffe seem to be able to make up his mind which story he would high profile. The film, as a result, seemed to fall between two stools.

”It did well on the continent,” Austen told me, ”but America didn’t ‘get’ the film and people stayed away in droves there.”

This effectively guillotined its chances of getting a big backer, which was a pity as it had a lot going for it. Its treatment of the themes of betrayal and forgiveness was never less than heartfelt and it also captured the theme of religious persecution very convincingly against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War but after it was over you felt you didn’t really know anything more about Opus Dei than you did when the film started, the over-insistence on Manolo’s demons knocking the purported biographical element askew.

Another biopic, My Week With Marilyn, featured Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe. From the publicity shots I thought she looked more like Fionnuala Flanagan than Marilyn.

I didn’t go to see it for the same reason her ex-husband Arthur Miller said he wouldn’t go to her funeral: ”Why should I? She won’t be there.”