The Best of the Decade series looks back over the most popular and beloved films of the past ten years. Each author chooses a film they believe to be the definitive film of the year, along with a wildcard favourite film of their own. For 2011, Cait Murphy has chosen Drive as the definitive film of the year, and Shame as her personal favourite.
Best of 2011: Drive
Written by Cait Murphy
Few films this decade have garnered the distinction of being a constant source of cinematic comparisons, sometimes accurately and oftentimes flippantly. Drive wasn’t the first of its kind and definitely not the last. Neo-noir existed before 2010, but arguably flourished in this decade as it did in the ‘70s. Oscillating between art house and the Netflix landscape, to international interpretations of what loosely appropriates noir. Drive follows an unnamed ‘Driver’ (Ryan Gosling) living a dual life of stunt-driving for Hollywood by day and getaway-driving by night. He becomes involved with neighbours Irene (Carey Mulligan) and the recently imprisoned Standard Gabriel (Oscar Isaac). Drive‘s plot moves poetically between a slowed-down sensitivity and rapid aestheticized violence.
Based on the James Sallis novel, Nicolas Winding Refn’s film is neo-noir because it so unashamedly is, self-consciously evoking Jean-Pierre Melville and the canon of Los Angeles-set odysseys of crime and deceit. Drive has become that film that reviewers and filmgoers have used to define others like Nightcrawler (2014) and Inherent Vice (2014) with varying degrees of accuracy. Even Refn himself can’t seem to escape words of acute observation: Only God Forgives (2013) was mercilessly derided at Cannes in the red-tinted shadow of its looming, much-loved predecessor (which received a 15-minute standing ovation). Popular upon release, Refn received the Cannes’ Best Director award but was shunned at the 84th Academy Awards.
However, Drive remains relevant to cinephiles. The film’s lasting success is measured by its stitching of the fissure between art house and mainstream tastes. Some filmgoers can’t stomach the violence, others find it to have more style than substance and even lack nuance in its representation of women and the Latino as criminal. For those who don’t know me, I can watch Gaspar Noé’s films exhaustively and yet wince at the sight of a musical. Lucky for me and my tastes, blood-spilling has marked Refn’s oeuvre, from Gosling’s elevator head-stomp to eyeball-gobbling in The Neon Demon (2016). Refn is, undoubtedly, a significant director to emerge in this century, his works alluding to gialli, American grindhouse, ‘cinéma du look’ and European Extremism. It’s fair to say that Drive is his most ‘accessible’ film, alongside Bronson (2008) and his earlier Pusher trilogy (1996-2005). Since 2011, Refn has become notorious in the film world for his Alejandro Jodorowsky-esque ambitiousness.
I first saw Drive when I was fifteen and immediately adored it, although teenage boys were surprised when I expressed such. It’s become a quasi-cult film which bears an ‘aura’ beyond the actual text, translating to bedroom posters, special screenings, and fandom merchandising, like Gosling’s iconographic silk jacket or pink soundtrack vinyl (which I’ve gradually worn down). Its representation of machismo is misinterpreted by those who see Drive as ‘for men’. While you could say Drive privileges a male point-of-view (precisely an Anglo-Saxon saviour’s), the soundtrack privileges the female voice as a form of narration. From Katyna Ranieri to Desire’s ‘Under Your Spell’ and College and Electric Youth’s ‘A Real Hero’, music comments on the identity of a protagonist who utters very little. Drive’s selective soundtrack was key to Refn’s directorial vision, and coincided with the rebirth of synth pop and its derivatives – making college parties that bit more memorable. Gosling’s Driver falls seductively into the ‘melancholy masculinity’ heap of cinema’s lonely men who’ve come before, but his egoism and Travis Bickle-esque saviourhood are made gloriously camp by the sheer excess of ballet-like violence and shiny surfaces.
Drive’s selective soundtrack was key to Refn’s directorial vision, and coincided with the rebirth of synth pop and its derivatives – making college parties that bit more memorable.
While Refn can at times be eccentric, or even narcissistic for his self-awareness that what he makes is consistently ‘art’, there is admittedly something satisfying in cinema that loves cinema. The scorpion on Gosling’s jackets refers partly to Kenneth Anger’s queer short, Scorpio Rising (1963). The premise of ‘driving’ echoes those B-movie-like films, The Driver (Walter Hill, 1978) and Two-Lane Blacktop (Monte Hellman, 1971), and its hot-pink Mistral font evokes ‘80s poster typography. There’s something tangible, textured, and ‘feely’ about Drive that any filmmaker aims to achieve for their audience: the pure ecstasy of cinema we occasionally experience. Perhaps you haven’t felt it since Drive.
Drive is currently available to stream on Netflix, Google Play, and Amazon Prime.
Critic’s Choice: Shame
Written by Cait Murphy
To make a film about sex addiction is to make a film that will deter a significant fraction of filmgoers from the outset. I am not one of those people. Steve McQueen’s Shame enjoyed festival success in 2011 but was commercially sidelined. Amongst the Oscar bait feel-goods and period dramas, there was McQueen’s sex-themed melodrama. But really, the film isn’t about sex. Its protagonist Brandon (Michael Fassbender) experiences sex as more of a damaging opioid. If McQueen’s glorious Hunger (2008) wasn’t transcendental enough for you, the director puts further emphasis in Shame on bodily suffering (specifically Fassbender’s). Brandon’s body is, alternative to Hollywood convention, the to-be-looked-at in Shame: a vessel experiencing not starvation and decay like in Hunger, but moral masochism.
McQueen’s direction of performance is sublime, and Sean Bobbitt’s cinematographic style is wickedly overlooked. Blues and greys dominate Brandon’s clothing and apartment bereft of personality, with the colour red marking his troubled yet vibrant sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan). The score swells with melodramatic poignancy to fill silent, repressive spaces. Tom Tom Club’s ‘Genius of Love’ plays ironically in a bar where Brandon has sex with a stranger. To contextualise it, it’s like a Bergman melodrama with flickers of Bresson and Schrader in a fantastic quagmire of a psychoanalysis textbook. At times Shame can rely too much on moralism for its tragic narrative trajectory which culminates ambiguously. However, moralism doesn’t detract from the feeling of utter despondency Shame grinds into the viewer who ‘ashamedly’ identifies with a character who sees people as mere implements for momentary relief.
Shame is currently available to stream on Hulu and Amazon Prime.