The BAFTAs: The Artist brushes off the competition

The Artist swept the BAFTAs on Sunday night, taking seven awards including best film, actor and director. The Iron Lady, Hugo, Senna and Tinker, Tailor also took two awards each while Martin Scorsese was awarded a BAFTA fellowship, the British Academy’s highest honour. Nonetheless, the evening belonged undeniably to Michael Hazanavicius’ silent movie, adding another set of statuettes to his burgeoning trophy cabinet.

The Artist has swept both the critics and the awards this year. Backed by the influential Weinstein brothers the film had already won big at the Golden Globes, SGA and DGA awards before this latest haul. Aside from the best film, best director and best actor prizes, the movie also bagged prizes for its screenplay, make-up, cinematography and music.

Yet while it is undoubtedly an excellent and deserving winner, the predictability of victory has rather dulled this year’s awards season and caused a number of other strong productions to be overlooked. Thank heavens, then, for the only real shock of the evening, a win for Senna in the best editing category. Asif Kapadia’s real footage based account of Ayrton Senna’s life and times was acclaimed on release but has been largely forgotten in the last few months. A dual win today (it was also named best documentary) was not only a pleasant surprise but might just reignite some interest.

The Iron Lady, Tinker, Tailor and Hugo will arguably be more disappointed with their showings, although both The Descendants and Drive failed to win anything despite high billing. George Clooney will certainly be cursing his luck that a silent, independent French film should overshadow his starring turn as a Hawaiian property developer.

Despite this, the most predictable win of the entire night was probably Christopher Plummer’s for best supporting actor in Beginners. Plummer has virtually swept the board in his category, and Sunday was no exception. He plays a 75 year-old who finally comes out as gay and starts a new life before falling prey to cancer. The role has been widely acclaimed and, aged 82 but with few major awards, he appears to be making up for lost time.

The Skin I Live In also surprisingly edged A Separation in the contest to be named best foreign language film. Pedro Almodovar is one of the most decorated, and eccentric, living directors but the beaten Iranian piece is seen by many as one of the year’s outstanding productions.

The Best Films of 2011

127 Hours – Alexander Lynchehaun

127 Hours was the best film of 2011; others may have had smarter plots, faster action or better scripts, but none provided such a sheer, visceral thrill. Let me explain briefly: Aron Ralston was a climber who, having gone climbing unaccompanied and without telling anyone, found himself stuck with his arm under a boulder. 5 days later he cut himself free; it’s a gruelling premise, but then again, it’s a demanding film.

127 Hours is not for the squeamish; it is undeniably harrowing. From a relaxed beginning, the film crescendos. We follow Ralston from his home through an encounter with a couple of girls and onto the decisive fall, trapping him and crushing his forearm. Then, for 5 days, there ensues an increasingly desperate struggle for life, a testament to the human survival instinct. The film’s intensity is overwhelming despite a lack of gore, indeed it is not a sight but a sound which proves the film’s definitive gruesome moment. Aided by James Franco’s bravura performance, it is this frantic battle in such a claustrophobic environment which ultimately proves so compelling.

Unique and brilliant, 127 Hours is the standout film of the year.

The Fighter – Prithu Banerjee

Heard the one about a down-and-out-boxer barely surviving life suddenly finding inspiration and the form of his career to come out of nowhere, beat the odds and win the hearts of America? OK, it’s The Fighter, but The Fighter is not Rocky.

It’s the differences that make it the movie that it is. Micky doesn’t punch steaks in a refrigerator; he fights his dysfunctional, parasitic, emotionally vampiric hellhole of a family; the sisters with dead eyes and the mother who is slowly throttling the life out of him. He doesn’t have to worry about the press and how it portrays him; he has to worry about the press and how it affects his brother; the sad, infuriatingly naïve older brother with decayed memories of glory and a drug problem. The brother who keeps clawing him down with his stubbornness even as he offers Micky the boost into the limelight. It’s dark and gritty and dirty; and everyone plays it to perfection. Wahlberg is underrated as the wearily stoic Ward, Amy Adams is hellfire, whilst Christian Bale and Melissa Leo absolutely tear the screen apart as the brother Dicky and the mother Alice.

It’s depressing. It’s frustrating. It’s unbelievable. And it’s all true. And when Wahlberg leaps into the air at the end, when he punches the sky and cries into the camera, it’s hard not to grin maniacally and wipe away a tear of your own.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes – Hugo Gordon

Hopes were not high for Rise of the Planet of the Apes before it’s release – the seventh film in the series, a prequel to a remake no one liked. So imagine my delight when Rise turned out to contain not only the prerequisite incredible special effects and explosive action scenes, but also good acting, a lot of heart, and a great deal of intelligence.

While the entire plot – doctors create super-intelligent chimp, chimp leads primate revolution – could be guessed from a glance at the trailer, Wyatt was still able to insert some surprises – the moment Andy Serkis’ ultra-intelligent chimp Caesar let out his first word, a defiant ‘No!’, had the entire cinema on the edge of their seats.

Even more unexpected were the genuinely moving scenes between James Franco’s scientist, and his Alzheimers-suffering father, played by John Lithgow. Wyatt understands what the likes of Bay don’t seem to – it’s possible to make a great blockbuster without treating the audience like idiots.

Senna – Jonathan Looms

For a film to truly be great, it must have moments that stick in your mind months later. I don’t think I will ever forget riding in the cockpit with Senna during his last few turns at Imola, knowing what was about to happen. All sound seemed to be sucked from the cinema, nobody could take their eyes from the screen. And then, when the impact finally happens, waves of sadness pour over the audience. Senna is a film that sucks you into the life of an icon and makes it incredibly easy to empathise with them. But it also serves as a comprehensive character study of its subject.

It would have been easy to cut together a film featuring his most famous clips that would have pleased fans. But they tried to do so much more, serving his life story that offers something to both fans and outsiders. Beginning with his karting beginnings the film tracks through his Formula 1 career and examines his personal life, providing context for his wins against his Brazilian background. It’s an extraordinary documentary because it never has to tell you what he was thinking or feeling, you instinctively know. And you feel it to.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy  – Ross Jones-Morris

So here we go. By far and away the most predictable ‘film of the year’ you’ll see on this page. Looking back of a whole year of film one usually expects to find oneself caught between two or three classics. A weird little horror you saw, a surprisingly intellectual blockbuster, that feel good film that came along just at the right time and hugely overinflated your view of it but you loved it anyway. Well there was no deliberation for me this year.

I write about films and looking back at the cacophony of  bed-wetting excitement that accompanied Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’s release from film critics everywhere back in September it’s only appropriate that come November I (and I’m sure ever other end of year retrospective) gush some more.

Some called it boring (it isn’t) and many apparently think that the secret service set film is about spying (it isn’t). Far from it, in reality it’s a film about middle aged men with fag ash on their badly tailored suits and suspicion in their hearts. It’s an exquisitely observed and old-fashioned meditation on the minutiae of suspicion and the numbed pain of betrayal amongst a group of unfulfilled and emotionally stifled men. Now I know that sounds pretentious but that’s because it probably is. God pretention can be wonderful.

The Tree of Life – Euan Lawson

The Tree of Life polarized the opinion of cinemagoers as soon as it came out; some hailed it as visionary and another tour de force from mysterious Director Terence Malick, others walked out, calling it pretentious ad boring. I am firmly of the former opinion.

At its simplest level, it tells the story of a father (Brad Pitt) struggling to understand how best to raise his children in 50s Texas; he is abusive yet gentle to them, and Malick manages to make every family scene both tense and poignant. On the other hand, the film simultaneously deals with the questions concerning the nature of existence. Around 20 minutes in, Malick unexpectedly takes the viewer back to the beginning of time, and presents wonderfully beautiful shots of planets, volcanoes and geysers- all without the help of 3D. The viewer cannot help but get swept up in the images which are both cosmic in scale but emotive, and one can only applaud the ambition of this incredible sequence.

The film is, admittedly, very slow moving, and requires patience to watch it, but the cinematography and story telling are skilled and artistic enough to keep you captivated. The acting too is first rate, from Pitt and from the now ubiquitous Jessica Chastain, and it fully deserved to win the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

X-Men: First Class – Vicky Fryer

X-Men: First Class not only broke the franchise’s curse, it delivered a glorious movie in its own right. It has everything X-Men should: superhuman powers, philosophical debates, heroes, villains, humour, action, and much more besides. Furthermore, it’s the X-Men in the 1960s: The Man from U.N.C.L.E. meets Bond meets superheroes. How is that not fantastic?

But, most importantly, it brought the franchise’s focus back to where it belonged: the characters. The relationship between the future Professor X and Magneto was always going to make or break this movie, and James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender as a young Patrick Stewart and Ian MacKellan are so perfect you cannot imagine it otherwise. Their chemistry (not like that – although plenty of eyebrows were raised) is the film’s main strength: you genuinely believe in both their friendship and the tragedy of the film’s inevitable outcome. And isn’t it wonderful to have a superhero movie built on such a friendship?

Franchise-wise, it revived one of my favourites; action-wise, it provided all the fights and political schemes you could ask for; and character-wise, it was one of the strongest this year. No, it isn’t perfect. However, it has something else, slightly clichéd but accurate: `soul`.


Muhammad Ali. Michael Jordan. David Beckham. Throughout history there are men whose fame exceeds their sport, and who go on to become icons in their own right. If there is one thing this documentary does, it confirms Ayrton Senna’s iconic status. Why should you spend two and a half hours watching a tribute to a racing driver? Two reasons. The story is so gripping and exciting that it would take a very talented scriptwriter to match it, and the film is a study of the man as much as it his profession. You watch him grow and change in front of your eyes, and that is something special.

The film is crafted in such a way that offers up something for everyone. You can come into this knowing nothing about Senna and be educated, or you can enter as a lifelong fan and get a sense of context and nostalgia. The film is paced to perfection; it never feels rushed and no section overstays its welcome. You are guided through his beginnings in karting, and his various phases at Toleman, Lotus, McLaren and finally Williams. You meet his arch-rival, Alain Prost, a man so cleverly evil you are sure he should be British and played by Alan Rickman, and this relationship forms the basis of many confrontations. As you watch the man’s life unfold in front of you, you can clearly see changes taking place – an early excitement crushed, wonderment being replaced by determination, and finally a deep unhappiness. This is brought about by an exceptional choice of the clips shown. Formula 1 has always been well documented, and the filmmakers had available to them over 5000 hours of footage. They could have easily cut together a film from the famous clips that would have been acceptable for fans. That they didn’t just do this and instead combed through to find the perfect accompaniments for his narrative is what elevates this film to greatness.

While the runtime may seem lengthy, it goes by quickly in a blur of emotion. It is an easy film to invest in, and you experience a wide range of feelings, from elation to crushing disappointment. Being in the cockpit on the last few turns at Imola, knowing what is about to happen, is truly harrowing. As a driver, he ranks amongst the greatest ever. As an icon, he carried the dreams of Brazil. As a film, Senna is sensational.

5 Stars