Some movies in 2011

20th January 2012

At the end of each year our friend and colleague Michael Jackson – formerly Chief Executive of Channel 4 and now living and working in the United States – compiles a list of films he’s discovered and appreciated in the previous twelve months. He sends it to friends and kindly lets us post it here. We’re a little late with this one, but as before we have added some links and clips. 

Follow this link for the 2010 list, this one for 2009’s and this one for 2008’s.

As a kind of alternative holiday card this is my annual list of the best films that I saw for the first time this year. Mainly not new films, or awards contenders, but films from the alternative universe of repertory cinemas, TCM, dvd, and Netflix Instant. Like a parent who loves their misfit child more than their straight A offspring I know it’s possible to get carried away with enthusiasm for a new discovery, but I’ll let you be the judge of that. At any rate I hope you find a couple of titles here that you are happy to see for the first time or to re-discover. (Included are links to where most of them can be found in the UK.)

1. The Arbor (Clio Barnard, 2010)

You might have seen the movie of Andrea Dunbar’s play Rita, Sue and Bob Too. Dunbar came from virtual poverty and zero education on a Bradford, England council estate to have three plays staged at London’s Royal Court theater. But this film is interested in her family – she had three children by three different fathers and died an alcoholic at twenty-nine. Her talent didn’t save her or her family, and her demons were passed to the next generation. What makes the film is that the director interviewed those who knew Dunbar in audio only and then had actors lip synch their dialog. The director got amazingly frank interviews,  likely helped by the intimacy of audio,  and the theatrical nature of the acted synch reminds you of the selective memory for the past we all have. Fascinating and moving. (Available on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon.)

2. Grave of the Fireflies (Isao Takahata, 1988)

Japanese anime in which two orphan children try to survive after the American firebombing of Japan towards the end of World War 2. The horrors of industrial warfare and the unintended beauty and surprise that it creates, such as extraordinary night skies and the fireflies of the title, are expressed in a way that only animation can capture. Tough, touching and not at all fey. (Released on DVD and available from Amazon.)

3. Last Holiday (Henry Cass, 1950)

Oddly this very British film from a O. Henry-ish story by J.B. Priestley was remade as a Queen Latifah film not so long ago,  but don’t let that put you off. This is a terrific tale of the English class system in which Alec Guinness plays a humble shop assistant who is told he has a few months to live, sells up and decides to live like a toff in a posh hotel. Suddenly exciting and remunerative possibilities open up to him, but will he live long enough to enjoy them? Measured, but perfect in a modest British 1950s way. (Available from LoveFilm.)

4. Last Train Home (Lixin Fan, 2009)

Each year 130 million Chinese go home to their ancestral villages from their urban sweat shop employment. This documentary follows a couple from a tiny village who have sacrificed everything  working in the big city to give their children opportunities they never had. Their children are brought up by relatives and they only see then for the annual New Year celebration. Tragically their children don’t appreciate their sacrifice. Heart rending Chinese Hoop Dreams – a perfect example of the value of longitudinal documentary film-making. (Available online from 4oD, free but with ads.)

5. The Liberation of L. B. Jones (William Wyler, 1969)

Very rare last film from the director of The Little Foxes, The Best Years of Our Lives – and Ben Hur. A black woman divorcing her husband in a small Tennessee town cites a white cop and conflict ensues. Unlike almost all Hollywood racial melodramas (e.g. In the Heat of the Night) this film shows the basic irreconcilability of white and black in the deep South rather than collapsing into sentimental liberal pieties. It’s directed with all the craft that you might expect from Wyler’s forty-plus year directing career.  A pertinent watch on the eve of Barack Obama’s re-election campaign. (The title link takes you to a Neil Sinyard article from Sight & Sound; here’s a substantial extract from YouTube…)

6. Mother (Bong Joon-ho, 2009)

A mother defends her son unjustly accused of murder against the power structure of her town. An amazing central performance by the South Korean actress Kim Hye-ja, previously known as a local version of Donna Reed. (A Region 2 DVD with English subtitles can be purchased online from YesAsia; the US trailer can found via

7. Reign of Terror aka The Black Book (Anthony Mann, 1949)

A Hollywood ‘B’ picture film noir, about the French Revolution, from one of the greatest ever directors of westerns, starring Richard Basehart from TV’s Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Oh, and I didn’t mention that John Alton’s camerawork is extraordinary. I loved this film. (There is no obvious UK source for Reign of Terror, but here is a clip from YouTube…)

8. The Romantic Englishwoman (Joseph Losey, 1975)

Co-written by Tom Stoppard this was pretty much excoriated on its original release but now seems to fit like a glove with Losey’s other masterworks like The Servant and Accident. Glenda Jackson (now a British politician!) strays from her marriage with pulp novelist Michael Caine and has an affair with Helmut Berger. Angry, chilly and elegant it’s either pleasingly enigmatic or unbearable, depending on your mood. (Amazon has a host of places where the Region 2 DVD can be purchased.)

9. The Set-Up (Robert Wise, 1948)

The best ever boxing film, and a huge influence on Scorsese’s Raging Bull, this is fascinating because it takes place in real time in a perfectly achieved 72 minutes of back-lot artistry. Starring the always magnificent Robert Ryan. Robert Wise went on to direct The Sound of Music. (Released in the UK on DVD as part of ‘The Hollywood Studios Collection”.)

10. La Signora Senza Camelie aka The Lady Without Camelias (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1953)

My favorite discovery this year is this stunning and operatic story of a shop girl elevated by an infatuated producer to movie stardom, in the pre-Dolca Vita world of Roman film-making.  Simultaneously romantic and sour, but with an underlying love of the film-making tribe. (Released in the UK on DVD and Blu-ray as part of the Masters of Cinema series.)

11. The Trip (Michael Winterbottom, 2010)

A contradiction in terms, a British road movie, but a totally hilarious one. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play two tv comedians reviewing a series of up-market British restaurants for a newspaper. Their endlessly competitive, narcissistic, fame obsessed conversations  are not only very funny but feel uncomfortably real. A cut down of a six part BBC2 comedy series. (The television series is released on UK DVD.)

12. Under Capricorn (Alfred Hitchcock, 1949)

Little-seen Hitchcock that has some of the most astonishing tracking shots in beautiful three strip technicolor (courtesy Jack Cardiff of The Red Shoes fame).. More of a romance than a thriller – starring Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotten – it has a great feel for the constipated conventions of an isolated Australian outpost of the British empire. (Seemingly available in the UK only via an unauthorised YouTube stream with Italian subtitles.)

Happy New Year.


  1. Tim says:

    Fun list – I’ve seen *none* of them, but I don’t think I can cope with describing In the Heat of the Night as “collapsing into sentimental liberal pieties”

  2. Paul Tickell says:

    An intriguing list given that it draws from the ‘archive’ as well as recent releases…

    THE ARBOR would certainly be on my list – a rare example of a British film living up to its hype.

    Also great is the South Korean film MOTHER: its denouement could not have been done in any other medium – pure cinema.

    I haven’t seen several of Michael’s selection of older films but want to now – especially Anthony Mann’s THE BLACK BOOK.

    Re THE SET-UP (1948): I’d also recommend another Robert Wise film starring Robert Ryan – ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW (1959). it’s a brilliant heist movie scripted by Abraham Polonsky and exploring the theme of racism. Harry Belafonte plays a night-club singer… I refer you to my Sight and Sound article of Dec 2011 about the film.

    As I’ve started to blow my own trumpet, my list of 2011 releases would include THE TREE OF LIFE, THE PORTUGUESE NUN, IL QUATRO VOLTE and PROJECT NIMH.

    Re the ‘archive’: I’ve enjoyed re-visiting early Polanski, Borowcyzk’s STORY OF SIN, Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA and Bunuel’s THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY (its scene depicting a chance encounter in a hotel between a couple of S&M swingers and a party of monks, is the funniest I have ever seen),

    It was also great to discover that on the net you can watch the film work of the Lettrist and Situationist precursor Isidore Isou.

  3. Paul Kerr says:

    I’d add Carol Morley’s Dreams of a Life to Clio Barnard’s the Arbor – two of the best (British) documentaries of the the last couple of years, both making previously invisible lives visible, both directed by women. Both utterly extraordinary.

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