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My Best of 2011: Drive & Neon Noir…

It’s that time of the year. To celebrate 2011, and the countdown to 2012, I’m going to count down my own twelve favourite films of the year, one a day until New Year’s Eve. I’m also going to talk a bit about how or why I chose them, and perhaps what makes this list “my” best of 2011, rather than any list claiming to be objective.

Drive is number one. Check out my original review here.

If I drive for you, you give me a time and a place. I give you a five-minute window, anything happens in that five minutes and I’m yours no matter what. I don’t sit in while you’re running it down; I don’t carry a gun… I drive.

Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive isn’t a revolutionary film. It isn’t bold or original or highly inventive. Instead, it’s just a wonderfully effective neo-noir with its vibrant colours and synth soundtrack calling back to crime films of the eighties, featuring a confident performance from Ryan Gosling as the archetypical male crime lead. Gosling is strong, stoic, silent, yet strangely sensitive as the eponymous stunt driver, who moonlights with various illegal extra curricular activities. Here, Refn manages to out-Mann Michael Mann, producing a film that seems more like the spiritual successor to Miami Vice than Mann’s own film of the same name. It’s a brutal, brilliant and stunning film. And, while it faced stiff competition from the second and third films on this list, it’s with some confidence that I recommend it as my favourite film of the past year.

It seems that 2011 was a divisive year for cinema. It seems that any given film was as likely to find advocates as detractors – it was difficult to find a film that pleased everybody. Was Tree of Life a bold film making experiment, or an exercise in pretentious cinema? Was Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy a stoic and nuanced exploration of British life, or a lifeless slab of celluloid? Was The Help an uplifting piece of family film-making, or a movie with questionable racial politics? Was War Horse Spielberg getting in touch with his emotional core, or an emotionally exploitive attempt to court awards?

While this fragmented cinematic opinion means that it’s hard to point to one true cinematic classic, I welcome it – because it fosters and encourages debate and discussion. Consensus is boring, and staid. Life is more fascinating when there are differences in opinion to consider and discuss, and I think that this year’s cinema has really done that. There’s no real unanimous decision about the films of the year, with a lot of people falling into “love” or “hate” on many of the contenders. I think this is a good thing, because I think the year had something for everyone, and I think that’s cause for celebration. No matter your outlook in life or your taste in films, there was something for you this year, just as there was almost certainly something not for you. And, of course, Drive is an example of this sort of division in action.

I had the honour of seeing it at Movie Fest, the wonderful festival organised by movies.ie. Hopefully they’ll organise it again this year, because it was one of the highlights of the year. Anyway, Drive was shown as the surprise film on the first day, and I could feel the audience split in half. There were those who thought it was overlong and poorly-paced, and there were those who thought it was actually a rather wonderful successor to the crime films of the eighties, just transposed to the modern day. I fell in love with it.

As I’ve been discussing my favourite films of the year, I’ve been focusing on a particular attribute that explains how or why they fascinate me so. As I came to Drive, it was a bit more difficult to zero in on the one single attribute that towered above the rest. I almost felt that to pick one might do the rest of the film a disservice. Of course, I’ve glossed over certain facets in these end-of-year retrospectives, because they aren’t reviews. After all, everyone already knows how superb the supporting cast of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy were, or can read about my opinion of the gender commentary in Black Swan by browsing my original review. Those facets, while important, weren’t the facets of the films that made them stand out from the crowd – from the best of a very strong crop of the year.

On the other hand, Drive is a movie that has a phenomenally strong whole. There’s Ryan Gosling as the lead, who gives a superbly subtle performance, one that manages to distill all the machismo of any leading performance from a Sergio Leone film and give it a sensitive heart. There’s Albert Brooks, who gives one of the finest performances of his career and probably the best supporting performance of the year, as a Jewish gangster. There’s the rest of the cast, including Carey Mulligan and Bryan Cranston, who are both generally awesome.

There’s the soundtrack, which is probably the most catch soundtrack of the year. If I didn’t know any better, I’d assume that Refn had simply found a buried trunk full of eighties music nobody had ever heard before, so skilfully does he capture the mood. It’s great to hear an old-fashioned synthesiser used without a hint of irony or self-deprication. Refn’s score is pure awesomeness distilled with a slick confidence and endearing earnestness. It’s the kind of movie music you could drive around to at night, with sunroof down and your aviator sunglasses on. In particular, A Real Hero by College and Electric Youth is perhaps one of my favourite musical discoveries of the year.

However, I think that why Drive struck such a chord with me is because it perfectly picks the “neon noir” vibe that Michael Mann so smoothly created with Miami Vice the eighties. It’s that beautiful contrast between the bright lights and primary colours, and what people are capable of doing to one another in the right (or wrong) circumstances. Of course, I don’t want to get drawn into the classical “is noir a style or a genre” discussion, but I think that Mann’s Miami Vice and Refn’s Drive are both logical successors to that style of film, that exploration of darkness.

In those days, the darkness kept to the shadows, so it was appropriate to film these sorts of films with stark contrasts between light and dark. In a black and white world, the contrast was so high that even grey could be easily distinguished from white. The use of mirrors and strange camera angles served to create a sense of heightened confusion and instability – a sense that all these morally ambiguous actions were taking place in world quite distant and far from our own, in the dark corners where no decent soul would dare to tread. At the risk of throwing in a cliché, those were simpler times – well, at least cinema seemed to believe that they were simpler times.

Then, in the seventies, things changed. The darkness was no longer confined to the shadows and separated from our world by stark black-and-white. The President could be, despite his protestations, a crook. America could lose a war against a rag-tag bunch of communist militants half the world away. Scandal and controversy seemed to be everywhere – as if they had been festering in the darkness, but could now walk in the light. In the old days, light could protect you from the monsters. They used to be afraid to follow the decent people into the light. Vampires, after all, recoiled from sunlight. These days, it seems like the monsters live in the light too, as if flaunting their existence. No matter how much neon we may use to fend back the darkness, it won’t repel the monsters.

And so the lines begin to blur. Our protagonist is a movie stunt driver, who applies his skills to do some stunt driving in the movie we are watching. Our hero wears a white jacket, the colour of purity, but with a scorpion on the back – a warning, or a curse? The brightest lit places in the film – the back of the strip club, Nino’s takeaway, the Chinese restaurant – are the seediest locations. The only characters in the film who have to hide their identities are the “heroes” – with the eponymous driver even borrowing a latex mask from work. This is truly an upside down world, all the more shocking for the bright colours used to bring it to life.

There’s something elegant in the simplicity of Drive’s plot, enriched by the complexity of everything else around it. Guy meets girl. Guy falls in love with girl. Things go wrong. Guy finds himself dealing with very bad people to protect girl and child. It’s almost a Western with cars instead of horses. After all, one could almost see the evolution of this sort of crime film as the spiritual successor to the Western, borrowing many of the same archetypes, the same cynical outlook and even many of the same plot devices. Los Angeles is arguably the modern version of an old frontier town. Our lead is a character without a name (referred to primarily as “the kid”). Hell, Gosling even makes sure his character is seldom seen without a toothpick in his mouth.

Whether you see Drive as the spiritual successor of the Western, or merely Michael Mann’s neon-saturated crime sagas, it is something very special. And, for me at least, it’s the film of the year. It’s brutal and beautiful, tough and tender. One imagines even the lead character might admire the skill Refn applies in bringing the machine to life.

I’m counting down my top twelve films of 2011, one a day. Here’s the list so far:

12.) Rango

11.) The Guard

10.) Super 8

09.) The Adjustment Bureau

08.) True Grit

07.) Rise of the Planet of the Apes

06.) The Black Swan

05.) Thor

04.) Midnight in Paris

03.) The Artist

02.) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

01.) Drive

You might also like our other end/start-of-year pieces:

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8 Responses

  1. The Artist does not count as a 2011 release in Ireland. It will not open here until January 6th.

    • No worries, Mortimer. The information I had at print, and still have, is that the The Artist has a UK and Irish release date of 30th December. That’s how the distributor describes it, and that’s how I’m counting it. Counting it as a 2011 release (albeit by the skimpiest of margins).

  2. Awesome list, Darren. Only 2 of them on your list I haven’t seen but The Artist is definitely gonna be in my top 5!

  3. Thor … better than Black Swan? Blasphemy!!!

    But hooray for Midnight in Paris charting highly.

    • We all go a little mad sometimes! I stand by my judgment, but I should confess something about the list. It’s clustered, if it makes you feel better. I easily had a number one. Then I had three films that I saw to be on the second tier, so the difference between #2, #3 and #4 is relatively tiny – it was a tough call. The same is true of the next two, so Black Swan and Thor were neck-in-neck for that fifth place. In the end I gave it to Thor because I think it was the most shameless silly fun I had all year, and it’s probably one of the films on the list I’ll return to most often. Incidentally, the rest of the list ranked easily, but the twelfth spot was tight. I found myself with six or seven contenders for that spot from We Need to Talk About Kevin to Source Code to Tree of Life to Tangled. I think 2011 was a great year, if only because of the sheer variety of high-quality high-concept projects. I think there was somethign for everybody, even if it was hard to find one thing everybody loved.

  4. My #1 as well. And a great pick it is. For me, it’s easily Refn’s best, though I think he still hasn’t yet hit his ceiling.

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