Top 20 Films of 2011

As 2011 comes to a close is it my obligation as a film blogger to put together my pick of 2011’s releases. I’ve gone for my top twenty as narrowing it down to just ten would be too harrowing a task and my only rule is that they must have been released in UK cinemas during 2011. This takes us from The Next Three Days (absolutely not in the list) to The Lady and The Artist and is only limited to films I have seen. I’ve also chosen not to speak to the wider Mild Concern team, mostly due to laziness, barring watching Waste Land at Kat’s insistence. This was a decision I have come to regret considering the rambling you will find below.

The scene properly set, let’s get onto the list. Looking back 2011 has been a great year for cinema, here are my top 20 releases of 2011:

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Out Now – 30th December 2011

The Lady
“The story of pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi and the academic and writer Michael Aris; a true story of love set against political turmoil.”

The Artist (Vue West End only)
The fact that this French silent film about Hollywood during the demise of the silent era is getting a UK-wide release is a testament to just how joyful it is. I loved it so much I gave it the “Best of the Fest” award at this year’s London Film Festival. You will leave the cinema with a huge grin on your face and won’t shut up about the experience at whatever New Years Eve party you attend. Opens nationwide next week.

Hannah and Her Sisters (BFI only)
The BFI begin their Woody Allen retrospective with this multi-Oscar winning comedy drama about one woman’s husbands and their love for her two sisters.

Zelig (BFI Only)
More Allen in the form of a faux-documentary about a human chameleon who can take on the appearance of anyone who is around him.


The Muppet Christmas Carol – BlogalongaMuppets 4

Considering the fact that I was 4 when I first saw The Muppet Christmas Carol in the cinema, it isn’t hard to see why this particular Muppet film fills me with nostalgic joy every time I see it (and I’ve seen it two and a half times in the past two weeks). Taking a departure from the three preceding films, Christmas Carol does not tell a story about the Muppets themselves, instead retelling Dickens classic tale with Michael Caine as Scrooge and Muppets taking on the majority of other roles. This is the Muppets with a proper plot at last.

Holding the whole film together are The Great Gonzo and Rizzo the Rat as Dickens and his sidekick, acting as narrators and, in a real change for the Muppet franchise, are the only two characters to break the fourth wall and reference the fact that the film is in fact a film. Taking things far too seriously for a moment, separating the story from the endless meta jokes makes the jokes all the funnier and the story more engrossing. It can be hard to care about a character who acknowledges that what is happening to them is not really happening. Rizzo and Gonzo are a great comedic pair and the film wouldn’t work without them.

With celebrity cameos out the window, at last, instead we have an admirable performance from Michael Caine. Possibly not his finest work but he certainly isn’t slacking off in the acting department. From a horrible old man to a truly sad figure, Caine gives it his all. Shame about that dance though…

I may mock the dance, but I will happily perform it whenever anyone asks me too… or if the film happens to be on.

Another thing Christmas Carol has going for it, beyond the humour and the emotion, is that it is pretty scary at times. I’ve had more than one nightmare about Scrooge’s door knocker turning into a screaming face, and the Ghost of Christmas Past is pretty freaky too, something to do with her tiny hands. With most of the other Muppet films everything is so light and fluffy the peril is rarely perilous, here there is plenty to get behind the sofa for.

What really makes Christmas Carol the best of the franchise so far is the songs. For once the songs are fun, catchy and live on beyond the film. “One More Sleep Till Christmas” and “It Feels Like Christmas” will always be accompanied by me warbling along and forgetting most of the words. You may get the sense that watching this film with me is hell as I sing and dance along while chuckling at the childish jokes… You’re probably right but I do it all out of love for the film.

I will finish this ramble with this deleted song, a song which should appear during Scrooge’s trip to Christmas past but which Disney decided wasn’t appealing to young children. “When Love is Gone” is beautiful and its removal makes for a slightly jarring moment in the film. Silly Disney!

The Muppet Christmas Carol is amazing and I can’t imagine Christmas without it.

Light the lamp, not the rat, light the lamp, not the rat! Put me out, put me out, put me out!

Muppet Movie Ranking:
1. The Muppet Christmas Carol
2. The Muppets Take Manhattan
3. The Great Muppet Caper
4. The Muppet Movie

Dreams of a Life – Review

In North London in 2003 Joyce Vincent died alone in her bedsit while watching television and wrapping Christmas presents. It was three years before her body was discovered, with the television still on and Joyce having “melted” into the floor. In those three years no one had raised the alarm over her disappearance, no one had come looking for her and she had seemingly managed to die completely unnoticed. Dreams of a Life tries to piece together who Joyce Vincent was and why her death went unnoticed, using only first person accounts in the form of interview footage alongside re-enactments with Zawe Ashton playing the ill-fated Joyce.

While it is tricky to fault Carol Morley on her technical capabilities in making a documentary, what she has made with Dreams of a Life is an incredibly speculative and gossipy feature that takes such a voyeuristic stance I felt like running away halfway through. Without a narrator or any other method beyond the interview footage for getting across the facts, Morley has given this film a very limited scope. Only people from Joyce’s distant past seem to be willing to be interviewed; we never meet her family or anyone who knew her around the time of her death, so any concept of what her life was like in the time immediately preceding her death is left to the wild speculation of old work colleagues.

While all of Joyce’s old acquaintances, quite rightly, describe her unnoticed death as a terrible thing and something no one should have to go through, they soon descent into gossiping about what she was like when they knew her, what they think might have gone on in her childhood (cue her Father getting some serious accusations thrown at him with no justification) and what her life may have been like leading up to her death. You can’t help but feel that for many the mystery is far more exciting than Joyce’s death is tragic.

The re-enactments are hardly objective either. While Zawe Ashton plays Joyce brilliantly, she is reduced to mostly portraying Joyce as a nostalgic loner, spending most of her time alone, singing to herself. It’s hardly the worst form of slander but certainly doesn’t seem like the best use of the documentary. What the film should focus on is how a woman came to be so isolated that no one noticed her death, not how she might have spent her time alone in her flat.

With all the speculation, gossip and judgement flying around I found myself learning much less about Joyce Vincent and much more about us as human beings. As I walked out of the cinema I was initially expressing how uncomfortable the film had made me but before long I too was speculating about what might have really happened. The message here should be to keep in touch with your loved ones and don’t let a friend fall through the cracks, not that someone is fair game for gossip if they’re dead.

Only one of the interviewees came out favourably in my opinion and that is Martin Lister (below) who was Carol Vincent’s long term-boyfriend years before her death. This was one man with fond memories of the deceased who seemed to genuinely miss her rather than simply wonder what might have happened. His final words in the film still ring in my ears and brought some much needed humanity to proceedings.

Dreams of a Life is an uncomfortable and arguably irresponsible documentary, but I’d be hard pressed to find another film which has made me feel so strongly this past year.

Out Now – 26th December 2011

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Last year David Fincher directed my second favourite film of 2011, and this epic re-adaptation looks every bit as textured and stylish as The Social Network. Anyone unburdened by children this Boxing Day should go and see what promises to be the penultimate great film of 2011. Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara star in this adult thriller as a journalist teams up with a computer hacker to hunt down a woman who has been missing for forty years.

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol
Ethan Hunt tries to act surprised when he is forced to go rogue after IMF is shut down after being implicated in a terrorist attack. The violence here will be much more family friendly, and it’s worth mentioning that Simon Pegg is involved… job done. Stephen saw it and loved it, so it has our seal of approval.

The Nutcracker – Review

It is Christmas Eve and due to a combination of minor seasonal crises, I am writing this review on my phone while waiting in London (ha! I saw flocks of sheep on my way here) Luton airport. Combined with the likelihood of predictive text making itself known in unpredictable ways, this review stands a good chance of being ducking shiv. It’s all enough to put a dampener on your holiday spirit really but seeing the New York City Ballet’s The Nutcracker, would be more than enough to bring back the festive cheer.

For those who don’t know the story, The Nutcracker follows a young girl, Marie (also known as Clara), whose family are hosting a big Christmas party, the highlight of which is when Herr Drosselmeyer arrives with his amazing clockwork dolls. Marie is given a nutcracker in the shape of a soldier, which her obnoxious little brother Max (or Fritz in the Clara version) breaks. Drosselmeyer bandages it up and puts it in a doll’s bed under the Christmas tree before the guests depart and the children sent to bed. Later, Marie gets up in the night to retrieve her nutcracker and falls asleep with it on the sofa. Then at midnight she wakes up (or possibly has a really mad dream), to find that either she has become tiny or everything else in the room has grown huge; her nutcracker has come to life and is leading Max’s toy soldiers in a battle against mice.

When the nutcracker himself starts a sword fight with the seven-headed mouse king, he looks to be losing when Clara throws her shoe at the monstrosity. The distraction turns the fight in the nutcracker’s favour and he slays the mouse. Victorious, he reveals himself as a prince and whisks Marie off through a snowy forest to the Land of Sweets where the inhabitants, including Candy Cane and Mother Ginger and a bit weirdly, Tea, welcome them and put on a show.

The Nutcracker is the ultimate Christmas ballet and particularly family-friendly as a large proportion of the cast are (terrifyingly talented) children – the dancers playing Marie and the Prince are both 10. It’s a completely innocent fairy tale, no one’s bringing sexy back here (with the possible exception of a rather sultry Coffee). It’s similar to a pantomime in many ways, with men playing women, girls playing boys, and expressions are exaggerated to be seen in the back, which can be a bit weird when you’re treated to close-ups.

This New York City Ballet production of the George Balanchine version is especially beautiful, the set production values are sumptuous and it’s exquisitely staged. The music will also be familiar to most, even without knowing it. I can’t be the only one who thought the mushrooms were one of the best bits of Fantasia.

There are of course drawbacks to watching ballet on film – there has to be a reason why you’d pay the extra money to see it live after all – and during very busy scenes, such as the Christmas party, the camera often directs your focus to different areas to where you want to look. Overall though, my fears were far greater than the actuality and it’s significantly less hassle than flying to New York for the live show.

There are also bonuses to seeing the pre-recorded version. During the interval you would usually be queuing for the toilet or buying expensive mini tubs of ice cream, but this film takes you behind the scenes to see the set and chat to some of the dancers. This genuinely interesting side (at least for DVD extras geeks like us) did have two downsides though. A minor one is that it can take you out of the magic a little, after you’ve just been carried away by an especially dreamy snowflake dance. The major gripe is relentlessly upbeat presenter Kelly Ripa. Not bring well-versed in American soap operas, I initially thought she was someone associated with the ballet company and not used to presenting as she came off a bit hesitant and awkward when she introduced the film. However, it turns out that as well as an actress, Ripa has her own talk show, Live! With Kelly. It wasn’t just the optimism, which I could have excused given how enthusiastic I’ve been feeling about the ballet but how very put-on it was. No one could be so naive as to claim she had always thought that the stage-snow was real.

George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker is absolutely made for Christmas and is screening again nationwide on 27th December and I think you should see it.

The Ultimate Christmas Film(s)

Tomorrow is Christmas Day (don’t look so surprised) and with the TV schedule filled with plenty of holes it’s important to know what film to put on once everyone has surrendered to a turkey induced coma. As we don’t trust you to think for yourselves we’ve each picked our ultimate Christmas film, both of which you are now obliged to watch. (It is important to note that Kat was too busy watching ballet to make her pick).

As Joey of Friends (who also happens to love Die Hard) once said; “if you’re going to do something wrong, do it right.” Die Hard is the embodiment of this statement. Die Hard is an action film released during July – not so unusual – but is possibly the best Christmas film ever.

Die Hard has it all; terrorists, snow, Alan “Professor Snape” Rickman, Bruce “Bruce Willis doesn’t require another name” Willis, a love story, explosions, a very festive soundtrack, product placement and the office jerkoff getting shot. Far better than any Charlie Brown Christmas Special I ever sawed.

On the face of it a balding Joe Everyman running around a building shooting Germans doesn’t seem very Christmassy but let’s look at what the actual story is about. John McClane’s marriage is a little on the rocks but he’s a good guy committed to trying to make it work. He wants to be with his family over the holidays – maybe even patch things up and get back together. Really, Die Hard is about a poor bloke who drew the short straw trying to be nice to his wife when a bunch of lunatics came a running with guns and C4.

Surely though, this only helps the guy? Some women (*insert ‘I’m no anti-feminist’ sentence here*) just bang on about how chivalry is dead – so wouldn’t you say that your estranged husband barefoot running through broken glass, dodging long-haired krauts shooting at him with AK47s and doing his best to get you back home to your children is a bit nicer than, say, a film about bastard parents who forget their child, leaving him to calamitous albeit still psychotic home invaders?

Die Hard is all about family, their importance, their safety and preserving the peace during the festive period. We all have our quarrels, but during Christmas doesn’t everyone’s family do battle just to be nice to each other? Going back to quote in the first paragraph; Die Hard is definitely not your conventional Christmas film, but it has the heart and ruddy determination to be the best, and if you don’t think so I only have one thing to say to you – Yippee ki yay, motherfucker.

When picking the ultimate Christmas film it’s hard not to get swayed too much by sentimentality, childhood memories or the presence of Zooey Deschanel. The best film to watch at this time of year needs to be one that has more to offer than just good cheer, there needs to be moments of terror and a few songs to sing along to too. Obviously The Muppet Christmas Carol fits this bill precisely (for some reason the door knocker becoming a screaming face has always given me the creeps) I’ll be Blogalongamuppeting about that soon, so it’s got to be The Nightmare Before Christmas.

While set in the town of Halloween, Nightmare is ultimately the story of one man’s discovery of Christmas and what it really means. Clearly Jack doesn’t always go about Christmas in the right way, kidnapping “Sandy Claws” was a questionable move, but he gets there in the end and his heart, if he even has one, is definitely in the right place.

If there’s one moment in Nightmare that will give you the Christmas spirit it will be Jack Skellington arriving in Christmas Town and singing “What’s This?” dazzled as he is by all the sights that Christmas brings. It’s enough to warm the cockles of the most Scrooge-like individual. And to ensure that it doesn’t get too schmaltzy we have Oogie Boogie, a humanoid sack of bugs with murder in mind, terrifying.

All of this, combined with Tim Burton’s unique style and the inherent charm of stop-motion animation, makes for the perfect Christmas film. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and ultimately you’ll spend Christmas Day singing “This is Halloween” which is a novel way to celebrate the birth of baby Jesus. If you’re not convinced here’s a song to convince you:

The 2011 Guide to Christmas TV

Below is a quick list of the highlights of UK TV this Christmas, taking you from Christmas Eve to Boxing Day. If you can learn anything from the below it is that I am a sucker for a Christmas special and that there’s plenty of gaps for popping on a Christmas DVD or, God forbid, talk to your family.

Christmas Eve

The Muppet Christmas Carol – Channel 4 – Midday
One of the greatest Muppet films stars Michael Caine recreating a Christmas classic with some great songs and awkward dancing.

The Santa Clause 2 – BBC1 – 1:30pm
Sequel to the fantastic Tim Allen comedy which I’m not entirely sure I’ve seen. Still, not much else on.

Morecambe and Wise – BBC2 – 8:00pm
An hour’s worth of classic Morecambe and Wise Christmas moments. They don’t make them like this any more.

Outnumbered – BBC1 – 9:20pm
In this Christmas special the Brockmans try to escape to the sun for the festive season but naturally nothing goes to plan.

Lapland – BBC1 – 10:00pm
Sue Johnston stars in a comedy drama about a family spending Christmas in Lapland.


Christmas Day

Aladdin – ITV1 – 1:15pm
Far from fitting the Christmas theme this remains my favourite of the Disney films.

Big – Channel 4 – 5:20pm
Classic Tom Hanks coming of age comedy drama. Not exactly Christmassy either.

The Queen – BBC2 – 5:50pm
Not Helen Mirren but the actual Queen giving her annual speech, something I’ve never actually watched.

Doctor Who – BBC1 – 7:00pm
In WWII, the Doctor helps a woman and her two children have the best Christmas ever. Sadly the Ponds are left to cameos again.

Coronation Street – ITV1 – 8:00pm
It’s this or Strictly and I come from a Corrie family.

Downton Abbey – ITV1 – 9:00pm
It’s Christmas at Downton so a big party is being thrown. Expect panic downstairs and tension upstairs. Bring your own bonnet.

Absolutely Fabulous – BBC1 – 10:00pm
It will be interesting to see if the jokes hold up after six years as Jennifer Saunders returns to her hit sitcom.

Christmas Crackers – Sky1 – 11:00pm
Sky1 has made more of the hit and miss short films telling stories from a variety of stars’ youths. Guaranteed to include a few gems.


Boxing day

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers – five – 3:10pm
Not to everyone’s taste but this classic MGM musical was my Grandma’s favourite.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets – ITV1 – 3:30pm
As an alternative I offer one of the worse Potter films. SPOILER ALERT: It was bloody Ginny’s fault.

The Borrowers – BBC1 – 7:30pm
Yet another adaptation of the classic story of tiny people living in your house. Stephen Fry, Victoria Wood, Robert Sheehan and Christopher Eccleston are amongst the cast.

Bear’s Wild Weekend with Miranda – Channel 4 – 9:00pm
I love Bear Grylls and (much to my flatmates’ disgust) I love Miranda Hart so seeing the two of them pal around on the Swiss Alps is something not to be missed.

The Royal Bodyguard – BBC1 – 9:30pm
David Jason returns to comedy as a bumbling soldier somehow put in charge of all royal security.

Another Earth – Review

Another Earth may be a high concept Sci-Fi in its synopsis, a film exploring the idea of there being a second identical Earth within our solar system, but the execution is on a much more low-key, character driven level. And all the better for it.

Driving home from a party, Rhoda (Brit Marling) hears on the radio that a planet identical to our own has been discovered. Squinting into the sky to have a look for herself Rhoda drives at full speed into another car, killing the mother and child inside and leaving the husband in a coma. After four years in prison she returns to civilization as Earth 2 looms ever closer. While trying to apologise to John (William Mapother) whose family she killed, Rhoda instead begins working for him as a cleaner before growing closer to John over time. Meanwhile contact between the two Earths is established and so it is discovered that everyone on our planet also exists up on the alternative planet. Did the alternative version of Rhoda also kill John’s family?

With its low-budget and a focus on the effects of a Sci-Fi worthy event on the characters, rather than on the event itself, makes Another Earth a perfect fit for my Heavy Knitwear Science Fiction* genre so expertly defined by Never Let Me Go. There is no time wasted exploring why Earth has a twin or on the inevitable first exploratory shuttle trip. We only learn about the fantastical event through coverage on the news and gossip between family members. This human touch makes the film all the more believable, debut director Mike Cahill wisely knows that the less you explain something, the less explanations the audience wants.

Speaking of Cahill, he has a beautiful eye. So much of Another Earth could be framed and put up on the wall, its textured look is pleasing to the eye and not bogged down in too much dialogue and what dialogue there is has a natural sound. The film may not feature as much heavy knitwear as Never Let Me Go but it certainly embodies that aesthetic; rough to the touch but comforting all the same.

Brit Marling plays Rhoda with a real complexity, a woman trying to atone for her sins, yet somehow by doing so is committing a selfless act. One act in particular which could be seen as one of love is in fact the cruellest she could have committed… after killing someone’s family of course. Holding up the other end of the film is William Mapother as the man who has lost everything. When we first see Mapother he is a man with nothing left to live for, a man who has given up, and through his relationship with Rhoda we see him rebuilt as a human being. The transition is sweet to watch, but the looming discovery of Rhoda’s true identity leaves the audience fearing for his sanity.

Barring a few pretentious moments courtesy of a self-harming janitor, Another Earth is a flawless film that is tender, tense and beautiful. The film essentially washes over the audience and all you need do is simply sit back and let it in. Arguably the Sci-Fi element could have been explored a little more but for me the human story at the centre was more than enough to fill a film.

Another Earth is a treat for any fan of independent cinema and has more emotional weight than most tent-pole blockbusters (and plenty of Oscar contenders too).

*Heavy Knitwear Science Fiction = Any film with a science fiction plot which focuses more on character than plot, and has characters wearing thick jumpers rather than jumpsuits.

Final Destination 5 – DVD Review

When I first saw this film it brought me nothing but joy, the deaths were sublime and the 3D cheesy enough to please. On second viewing, the film only lost a little of its sheen. The deaths were still amazing but less surprising, for obvious reasons, and without the 3D moments where objects are thrown at the screen have much less impact (pun intended). Watching with a group of friends it was easy to recreate the cinema experience of mass gasps and grimaces, and THAT final scene again served to be the moment that brought the film up a notch.

For a fun horror to watch on a night in with a group of friends you can’t go wrong with Final Destination 5, though it may be worth watching the predecessors it pays tribute to first.

The extras here are a little hit miss, but I suppose it depends on exactly what you are looking for in your bonus features, if you’re looking for anything at all. On the disappointing side are two alternative death scenes for the acupuncture and laser eye surgery related deaths. In the former the actual method of death is changed, but you are forced to sit through a repeat of ten minutes of the film first, and with the latter the death remains almost unchanged, but she suffers a lot more in the eye-popping build up. Alternatives deaths are (arguably) fun, but sitting through ten minutes of seemingly identical build up is not.

The Circle of Death featurette is your typical five-minute making-of documentary made up of talking head and behind the scenes footage that you can’t help but feel would have made a great extended version. Rather than race through all the stunts in a few minutes they could have taken the times to show us film nerds how it was all done. Though a lot of that is taken up in the final two extras…

The enormous bridge collapse scene at the film’s opening and the other accident which closes it are both treated to a side by side comparison of the raw footage alongside the finished film. These are a very nerd-friendly addition to the DVD allowing you to see precisely what was done with a practical effect, exactly how much of that bridge really existed, and how much jumping the cast had to actually do. These are the two extras you’re looking for so when you’re done with the film itself, and your non-nerd friends have left, jump right to these two features, an example of which is below:

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Final Destination 5 is released on DVD, Blu-ray Triple Play and 3D Blu-ray on December 26th and for a 3D horror film you could do much, much worse.