Tuesday, 17 January 2012

The Eleven Best Of 2011: 5-1

Instead of doing separate Best Of lists for Movies, Gaming and Television - which would take too long when there are so many other things to be writing about - this week will see me run through my top eleven entertainment highlights of last year and make predictions for what will represent the best of 2012.

Yesterday's article ran through positions 11-6 of my Eleven Best Of 2011. Today, we hit the Top Five. Hit the jump to find out what survived the cut...
5. Xenoblade Chronicles is enormous, magnificent

My original plan was to review this when it received its UK release back in August, although decided that I was nowhere near far enough into it to offer a fair assessment. Particularly as a JRPG novice, I didn't want to give the game short shrift based on only fifteen hours' play into what is, for many players, an experience lasting well over a hundred.

Although that means the game still hasn't been reviewed on this blog, it was the right decision: at the time, my feeling was that the game was fun, but too unwieldy for its own good. The combat system is insanely in-depth in and of itself, let alone all the other mechanics (such as the affinity system or gem crafting) that prove outside influences on the outcome. It is still true that a lot of those things are not sufficiently well explained from the start and difficult to remember in the heat of battle, but the game is elegantly designed enough that the difficulty curve gives you time to work out the kinks and develop your natural rhythms before being thrown against the big guns. Despite its length, its story is startlingly streamlined, with little of the padding that weighed down the much shorter Skyward Sword. Commit your time to Xenoblade and its rewards are vast: Nintendo may have resigned the Wii to an undeservedly slow and undignified death, but this is a game big enough to keep the console alive until the end. A review will definitely be on the way for the game's US release in April.

4. April and Andy throw a Fancy Party

'Fancy Party' aired two weeks before I started blogging and was one of the catalysts for my choosing to run television reviews. It remains my favourite episode of Parks & Recreation to date, summing up everything I love about the series in one sweet and hilarious half-hour. Combining the sharply sarcastic April and the Winnie The Pooh doofus Andy has been the best decision that showrunners Greg Daniels and Michael Shur have made in a series replete with successes. Parks, at its core, is about a group of people who might not fit together all that well on paper (think Ron Swanson, fierce libertarian, being best friends with the passionately pro-government Leslie Knope) but muddle through to support each other achieve their dreams, no matter how ridiculous the obstacles. That's April and Andy all over, and their marriage has provided many of the programme's most memorable moments down the line.

Ignoring the long term benefits of 'Fancy Party's existence, the episode is a joy on its own terms from start (Ron's glorious prank with the pliers) to finish. 'Big occasion' episodes can sometimes result in the characters being reduced to play up the scope of the event, but Parks takes the opposite approach. The wedding itself is handled with almost throwaway casualness, treated more as a platform to show the range and depth of feeling that exists between the characters and the hilarious ways in which they express it. It's a flawless example of character writing giving heart to a story, punctuated with such comedic delights as Chris absolutely bringing it on the dancefloor, Ron's disgust at a veggie loaf depriving him (and the rest of the party) of cake, Andy's XBox pancake, April's even surlier sister and terrifying goth friend, Leslie's panic at the impromptu nature of the whole event, and even the perpetually underused Ann Perkins scoring big laughs (but no love) at a singles dating night. I could go on (Jean-Ralphio's Fred Claus quote!) but the heart of the matter is that 'Fancy Party' is the funniest and most heartwarming episode of one of the funniest and most heartwarming comedy series ever created. It's a party not to be missed.

3. The Skin I Live In drops jaws and more

My relationship with Pedro Almodóvar's films is tumultuous to say the least, but The Skin I Live In funneled his usually out-of-control flourishes and fetishes into an outstandingly taut Grand Guignol thriller, driven by an astonishing sucker-punch of a twist, gently hinted at throughout the two preceding acts, that no-one could ever imagine would go as far as it does. Providing shock in fiction is something increasingly difficult to achieve in an era when exposure to both all forms of storytelling and taboos is so widespread, and Almodóvar hits his mark entirely through psychological impact rather than gratuitous visuals. The writer/director's promise of 'a horror story without screams or frights' could not be more accurate, or any more disarming a way of preparing his audience for what is to come.

Much of what I have to say on the film can be read in my review from a few months ago, which is spoiler-free because this is a film that absolutely requires you go in blind. It's an extraordinary showcase for what the director can do when he exerts a little self-control, resulting in what was an easy choice for my film of 2011.

2. Walter White breaks down in the Crawl Space

Alfred Hitchcock once suggested that great films are made by a few standout scenes. Breaking Bad takes that idea to its extreme, often seeming to dedicate entire seasons, or sometimes more, to building up to a single knockout moment. It was a technique that paid off the end of the programme's second season in such a gut-wrenching way, then did it again all throughout the stunning latter half of its third season (starting with that incredible conclusion to the episode 'One Minute'). Not even that, or the agonising cliffhanger in season finale 'Full Measures', can hold a candle to the final scene in season four's eleventh episode, 'Crawl Space', though.

Although hardly short of the series' trademark brilliance, the ten preceding episodes saw Walter White engaging (often from the sidelines) in a slow-burning chess game for survival with narcotics kingpin - and all-time great villain - Gustavo Fring. Where Fring made his moves quietly and with considerable thought, the self-destructively prideful Walt snatched at every hare-brained scheme that passed under his nose, desperately trying to claw his way to any kind of advantage while systematically digging himself into an ever-deeper grave. 'Crawl Space' represents the moment when the consequences of every terrible decision, every misplaced boast, every lie and moral compromise, come crashing down on top of him. No longer able to call on Jesse and with Gus having out manoeuvered him at every turn, he realises that his only option is to run. Returning home to gather up the cash needed to go into hiding, he discovers that, as a result of a long chain of events started by his refusal to believe he could ever get caught, every safety net he had put in place to protect himself has been pulled away. He rolls over and as the camera pans up through the hole to the crawl space where he is lying, framing him in a devastatingly literal image of a shallow grave while an ominous pounding booms across the soundtrack, all he can do is laugh manically at the inevitability of death coming to claim him and everyone he cares about.

1. English cinema has a very good year

English cinema has been a trainwreck for some time, no doubt a consequence of the country taking an increasingly zero tolerance attitude to rewarding ambition and talent over the past decade. While The King's Speech put an ill-deserved gloss on the otherwise unflattering 2010, last year saw a sudden and unexpected burgeoning of talent from all corners of the British film industry, with the result being many of the year's most memorable or influential movies and breakout stars coming from the tea-drinking side of the Atlantic. The Skin I Live In may top my list of last year's best films, but Ben Wheatley's outstanding Kill List (pictured) was close behind, a thriller which uses its low budget to supremely confident and unsettling effect and marked the emergence (with only one very small budget release on his filmography to date) of a major directorial talent with a voice all his own.

Joe Cornish was another director to make a huge impact on arrival with Attack The Block, a fabulous alien invasion movie that was pulpy as hell while echoing concerns about social division and immigration. Completely English in its setting and attitude (and accents, to the confusion of some American producers), it showed how much can be done in genre filmmaking with a low budget and without compromising for 'international appeal'. The same can be said for Richard Ayoade's excellent Submarine, a playful coming of age comedy with superb performances from its young leads, Noah Taylor and Yasmin Paige. On a more serious note, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy delivered a remarkable cinematic adaptation of John Le Carré's thriller, anchored by a performance from Gary Oldman demonstrating his rarely seen talent for evocative stillness.

Other talented performers to come to the fore were Felicity Jones, earning a long-deserved ascendance to stardom through her performance in the otherwise dreary Like Crazy, Andrea Riseborough in the better-than-expected remake of Brighton Rock (another British film to show some cinematic flair, whatever its other deficiencies), Asa Butterfield headlining Martin Scorsese's acclaimed Hugo and Paddy Considine showcasing his talent both in front (along with co-star Olivia Colman) and behind the camera in directorial debut Tyrannosaur. Although the film didn't particularly excite me, We Need To Talk About Kevin got critics discussing the awards possibilities for star Tilda Swinton and Scottish director Lynne Ramsay. Those successes may have been punctuated with a fair share of the usual dross (take the walk of shame, Swinging With The Finkels), but 2011 was a year that, for once, the cinematic talent of these shores can be very proud of.

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