Tag Archives: David Cronenberg

Trance – all in the mind, not in the script

Trance, tragic trance: McAvoy, Dawson and Cassel

Trance, tragic trance: McAvoy, Dawson and Cassel

Memory’s a tricky subject to study in film, and the complex workings of the mind are even trickier. Danny Boyle, surely one of the most ambitious and thematically ambidextrous filmmakers working today, here takes his shot at making a real mind-bender, following in the footsteps of Christopher Nolan, Satoshi Kon, David Cronenberg, David Lynch, Jean Cocteau and Luis Buñuel. Surprisingly, the director of Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire finds himself struggling with these mental gymnastics, producing a film that looks, but never feels, the part.

James McAvoy stars as Simon, an art auctioneer with serious gambling debts who winds up in trouble when a heist goes wrong – he’s the only one who knows where the £25 million painting is, but a bash to the head means he can’t remember. Vincent Cassel and his cronies try to torture it out of him, but to no avail. Enter Rosario Dawson’s expert hypnotherapist, Elizabeth, whose attempts to mine the corridors of Simon’s subconscious turn up unexpected secrets, and put her in a position of power over both Simon and Cassel’s Franck. Mental and sexual manipulation is never far off.

Opening with a superb, jauntily paced heist sequence that feels like an MTV version of Inside Man, Trance never recaptures the energy of its pre-credits sequence. Spurred forward by a pulsing soundtrack by Underworld’s Rick Smith, it descends into a lot of sitting around watching McAvoy sleep and Vincent Cassel becoming oddly less frustrated. A whirligig of twists in the final act reveals so many character reversals that it becomes difficult to decide whose side you’re on, who the main character is and whether or not you actually like any of them to begin with.

In the same way Inception never felt properly like a dream, Trance rarely feels like a nightmare, and shies away from symbolism or other techniques for addressing real emotional issues. This is a film which pseudo-poetically discusses the virtues of female pubic hair, while using Austin Powers-esque camera angles to cloak the two male leads’ members from the audience’s gaze.

However, the cast are all in top form. McAvoy is full of the charisma that once shot him to the top of the game; that he gets to use his real accent for once is a plus. Cassel makes a very likeable villain. Dawson, whose 25th Hour promise has been time and again dampened by poor subsequent roles, plays the mysterious, dominant female with plenty of class, and remains watchable even as the material of the film collapses around her.

Boyle’s regular collaborator, the genius cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, has created a stunningly glossy, red-stained palette for Trance. The images are crisp throughout, with some clever cycling of focus, but there’s very little cutting-edge imagery on show here to add to a portfolio already packed with 28 Days Later, Slumdog and 127 Hours. Editor Jon Harris ties it all together as best he can, but is hindered by Joe Ahearne and John Hodge’s front-heavy screenplay.

Despite some unpleasant body horror (of which finger-nail torture and genital squibs are only mild examples), Trance never manages to notch up the tension effectively. It is never as disturbing as the cold turkey scene Boyle’s Trainspotting, nor as demented as the video game trip in The Beach. This is all due to the script and its inconsistent characters.

Trance has a number of fine moments, but it never amounts to anything more than a cleverer-than-average thriller. And it’s not nearly as clever as it thinks it is.

2/5

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Side Effects – Always read the label

The drugs don't work: Jude Law in Side Effects

The drugs don’t work: Jude Law in Side Effects

Allegedly Steven Soderbergh’s last film (I for one won’t believe it ’til he’s dead), Side Effects is an adept, twisty work that ranks among the prolific director’s more interesting and unexpectedly strong films.

More familiar to audiences for his straight, often stripped-back genre pieces such as Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Traffic, Ocean’s Eleven, Magic Mike and Haywire (the latter was so stripped back it even forgot to add character, dialogue or story), Side Effects exists on a plane closer to his tongue-in-cheek heist movie Out of Sight, in terms of toying with genre. Almost an hour into this film you still can’t quite predict which turn it’s going to take, into what kind of movie.

Evoking Hitchcock in its first frames, Side Effects leads with one of the most stylish scenes of foreshadowing in recent memory; a mysterious toy sailboat, a dead body and fresh bloody footprints on the floor. While the mind digests these images, we turn to a few months earlier, as Emily (Rooney Mara) awaits the release of her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) from prison after a stint for insider trading. Martin’s return has a surprisingly negative effect on Emily, whose longstanding depression begins to consume her. A suicide attempt lands her in the care of psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law).

Playing on fears of prescription addiction in modern America, Side Effects sees Jonathan prescribe Emily a series of pills to calm her, help her sleep, give her energy, kick-start her sex drive, etc. Each pill has a side effect cancelled out by the next. When Emily begins to crack, the answer seems to come from her previous shrink, Victoria (Catherine Zeta-Jones), now a pharmaceuticals rep. The shifty Victoria recommends a new partially tested drug, Ablixa, which helps Emily get her life back in order. But soon a shockingly violent incident, apparently a side effect of the drug, lands Emily in hot water and Jonathan, who prescribed her meds, fighting for his career.

Prescribed a heavy dose of sexy: Rooney Mara and Channing Tatum

Prescribed a heavy dose of sexy: Rooney Mara and Channing Tatum

The twists come fast in this psychological thriller, which often threatens to veer into increasingly unexpected territory. An early shot of Emily’s distorted reflection in a barroom mirror hints at a Cronenbergian metamorphosis. An undercurrent of sexual tension constantly shifts Emily and Jonathan between the roles of hero and villain.

While these twists are welcome, it is a shame that Side Effects goes down the least ambitious route it could. Writer Scott Z. Burns, who scripted Soderbergh’s Contagion and The Informant!, chooses to weave his tale around the use and abuse of anti-depressants, rather than draw analogies that might make the same points with more inventive imagery and less subtlety.

Soderbergh’s editing is tight and he shoots his film finely, although his excessive toying with focal depths to recreate sensations of drug use grows old long before the film’s end.

Mara, in her first mainstream appearance since The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, carries much of the weight of the film on her teeny shoulders, and does not disappoint. Jude Law drifts between slightly seedy and panicked fall guy in one of the best performances he’s given in years. Zeta-Jones plays it perfectly coy, while Tatum continues to impress, however miscast as a Wall Street big shot.

Stylish and clever, but undemanding of both itself and its audience, Side Effects is a fine, twisty thriller, and a decent swansong for Soderbergh. But then no amount of drugs could make us believe for a moment that he’s really done.

3/5

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Wreck-It Ralph – Game changer

Hero for a day: Wreck-It Ralph tries his hand at Hero's Duty

Hero for a day: Wreck-It Ralph tries his hand at Hero’s Duty

It is a widely held opinion that no good film based on a video game has yet been made, and it’s a hard point to argue against. But the culture around video games and its concept of infinite digital worlds has produced some fine stand-alone films, from charming ’80s family fun like Wizard, to reality-bending thrillers like David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ. But if any film paved the way for video games to be taken seriously in the movies, it was The King of Kong, the outstanding 2007 documentary about obsessive gameplay and retro fixation.

It’s hard to think of Wreck-It Ralph existing in a time before The King of Kong, and yet the idea was first pitched at Disney back in the 1980s. The set-up is reminiscent of Toy Story – when an arcade closes down for the night, the characters from various games take their leisure time, travelling between games or resting in the train station-like lobby inside the multi-socket plug that connects the games together.

Inside Fix-It Felix, a fictional 8-bit retro game still mercifully standing in the arcade after 30 years, time has taken its toll on the game’s badguy, Wreck-It Ralph. A Donkey Kong-like brute (Fix-It Felix is a window repairman to Mario’s plumber), Ralph dreams of being taken seriously by the denizens of the game, and not still treated like a villain when he clocks-off after closing. At an AA-style meeting for video game badguys, Ralph admits to his peers (cameos include Mario’s Bowser, Street Fighter 2’s M. Bison and Zangief, and Sonic the Hedgehog’s Dr. Eggman/Robotnik) that he doesn’t want to be a badguy any more. “Just because you are a badguy doesn’t mean you are a bad guy,” Zangief reassures him, but Ralph takes no solace in the good advice.

It's good to be bad: Ralph attends a badguys' anonymous group

It’s good to be bad: Ralph attends a badguys’ anonymous group

To prove he is a hero, Ralph game jumps from his 8-bit pixellated comfort zone into the hi-def world of contemporary shoot-’em-ups in a game called Hero’s Duty (Halo meets Medal of Honor). Come morning, his absence from the Fix-It Felix game draws disappointment from arcade customers, and the manager is forced to mark the game “out of order”, making unplugging imminent. Felix himself teams up with a feisty female sergeant from Hero’s Duty to find Ralph and save their world.

Ralph’s rage issues make him an unlikely children’s movie hero, as his tantrums range from hormonal teenager to potential domestic abuser, but his upset is easy to appreciate and his journey makes him a calmer, happier person. Voiced by John C. Reilly, whose input into the character earned him a writing credit on the film, he is far gruffer than traditional Disney heroes – a less handsome or street-smart Aladdin, a less upbeat Pinocchio.

Much of the latter half of the film is set in the game Sugar Rush, a candy-themed version of Mario Kart where Bratz-like J-pop characters race across mountains of marshmallow and rivers of caramel. Here Ralph meets Vanellope, a childish outcast like himself, who due to faulty programming uncontrollably glitches into 1s and 0s, meaning she can’t take part in the actual game, or leave its world. Sarah Silverman’s potty-mouthed performance is at first highly irritating, but once Ralph and Vanellope develop a rapport there is an undeniable sweetness in the oddball coupling, he 20 times her size.

Manic pixel dream girl: Vanellope von Schweetz gets ready to race

Manic pixel dream girl: Vanellope von Schweetz gets ready to race

Jack McBrayer (of 30 Rock fame) is awkwardly charming as Felix, but Jane Lynch steals the film as the no-nonsense Sergeant Calhoun, a far tougher version of her Glee character Sue Sylvester. Calhoun is “programmed with the most tragic backstory ever”, and nabs many of the film’s most brilliantly melodramatic lines, referring to the unsettling world of Sugar Rush as a “candy-coated heart of darkness”. Alan Tudyk hams it wonderfully as King Candy, the flamboyant ruler of Sugar Rush, taking his cues from the Mad Hatter in the 1951 Disney Alice in Wonderland.

While the story is mostly predictable (barring one excellent twist near the end), Wreck-It Ralph’s greatest achievement is in its creation of its video-game world. Like Rex the dinosaur discussing his being “from Mattel” in Toy Story, the characters know the rules of their complicated world – there is no Buzz Lightyear-style confusion. In addition to the countless cameos by famous game personalities (Mario is notable in his absence), there are several clever nods to more obscure games and gameplay rules. Minor characters in Fix-It Felix move in stuttered pixellated spurts, even when fully realised in 3D animation. The 1980s beer-serving game Tapper is where characters go to drink, and a drunk game character walks mindlessly into a wall like a World of Warcraft avatar with the forward key held down. 3D versions of Pong figures, massive cuboids instead of bars, continue to pass the ball back and forth even outside their game. Even more subtle, the security code to a vault is the “access any level” cheat code from the original Sonic the Hedgehog.

8-Bittersweet Life: Felix gets the pie, Ralph gets the angry mob

8-Bittersweet Life: Felix gets the pie, Ralph gets the angry mob

Despite its charms and humour, Wreck-It Ralph is let down by its look, lacking the gloss of Pixar or DreamWorks’s latest outputs. So much of the film is set in the Sugar Rush game that the artificial colours and textures begin to grate visually, although the countless puns on sweets are more than welcome (Felix nearly drowns in a pit of Nesquiksand!). The added 3D throws up very few moments of engrossing depth, even during the climactic race, so opt for the glasses-off version.

But this is not an ugly film, and it is often very playful with its look as it switches between 3D and pixellated visuals – the closing credits feature the heroes popping up in several classic games tracing decades of video game development. Sometimes moving, regularly funny, often exciting and always far more clever than it needs to be, Wreck-It Ralph is a real treat worth putting all your quarters into for a fun arcade adventure.

It would be unfair not to mention the Disney digital short, Paperman, which precedes Wreck-It Ralph; a gorgeous, simple romantic tale, told in black and white, about a pencil jockey trying to attract the attention of a beautiful stranger. Make sure you’re not late to the cinema.

4/5

(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)

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Cosmopolis – Review of a play on wheels

Packer and his iLimo

David Cronenberg’s decade-long run of reality-grounded character dramas has come to an end following his last venture, the disappointingly sterile A Dangerous Method. His latest, Cosmopolis, feels more like a film from the director of Videodrome and Crash than anything since the 1990s, but is this shift back towards his roots one for the better?

Um… yes?

Based on the 2003 novel by Don DeLillo about a corporate high-roller’s disassociation from reality, Cronenberg’s film could be seen to be more relevant in a world in recession, post-Occupy Wall Street, than its source material.

Robert Pattinson stars as Eric Packer, a 28-year-old magnate travelling across New York City in his fortress-like stretch limo, just to get a haircut. A fan of routine, nothing will stop him from getting his hair cut at the barbers where he has always got his hair cut; even as fate conjures all the traffic-halting forces it can to prevent him from reaching his destination. A presidential visit, a funeral march for rap star, and an apocalyptic anti-capitalism protest keep this finance-themed Waiting for Godot from reaching its destination.

Along the way Packer engages in corporate back-and-forths with his underlings (amongst them Jay Baruchel’s financial wünderkind, Samantha Morton’s top adviser and Juliette Binoche’s art expert), all of whom he summons to his limo-cum-office, while making time for various sexual encounters and even undergoing his paranoia-induced daily prostate exam. He also finds time to squeeze in meetings with his already-estranged new wife Elise (Sarah Gadon). But as these run-ins become less polite and the markets begin to tumble, Packer’s mindset becomes dangerously self-destructive.

Largely set within Packer’s high-tech iLimo, there’s a very stagey feel to proceedings; dialogue is adeptly scripted but highly self-aware, and much of the film feels like a play imperfectly adapted. Pattinson is strong in the lead role, carrying the dignity of a reckless, self-made man and the madness of a man about to lose it all. But at times it feels too much like he is delivering lines unnaturally, performing the character’s more bizarre decisions without the necessary certainty – a fault with the complex story perhaps more so than with Pattinson himself. The cast is strong across the board, especially Morton and an enjoyably hammy Kevin Durand as Packer’s head of security. A last-minute appearance by Paul Giamatti in a very Paul Giamatti role feels a little too easy, but he fits the character fine.

Cronenberg fans may be a little disappointed that it is not quite the mind-bender anticipated, although there are plenty of Cronenbergian touches. The fetishisation of technology, especially the limousine itself, echoes back to Crash. While not made of biological matter like in Videodrome or eXistenZ, Kevin Durand’s personalised, almost en-souled sidearm, feels like a subtle hark back to those most Cronenberg of movies.

The unimpressive effects designed to pass Toronto off as New York take time to get used to, but once you get past that there is plenty to admire, or be horrified by, in Cosmopolis. Some of its longueurs however will frustrate viewers, and the film’s central message of how capitalism controls our lives does not always strike home.

It’s a wildly straight-forward film from Cronenberg, which shows him at his best and worst, but most often at his most middle-of-the-road. Which is, curiously, where this movie is mostly set.

3/5

(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)

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2011 in review – Style, meet Substance. Substance, Style.

Now, perhaps I’m just misjudging the subtext of what I’ve read in the blogo/Twitter-sphere, but I get the impression that there is consensus that 2011 was a particularly fine year for cinema. There were definitely a lot of great films released, and compiling the list below was not easy, but was it a particularly great year?

It was certainly a standout year for American (and English-language) cinema. With some exceptions, blockbusters were smarter and tighter, and even where they failed (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) they still had ambition. Source Code led the charge for a new wave of intelligent sci-fi thrillers. Bridesmaids and 50/50 showed that American comedies could have as much heart as they had bodily fluids. Drive proved enough flair on a filmmaker’s behalf could erase any need for strong dialogue or acting – yet that film brought some great lines and fine performances nonetheless. At Cannes, The Tree of Life conquered, and around the world audiences were left mesmerised and/or walked out of the cinema.

The build-up to 2012’s The Avengers continued with two enjoyable tongue-in-cheek superhero adventures, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger; the success of both suggested the heroic team’s first outing will be one of the biggest films of this year. If rivals DC and Warner Bros wish to meet the Avengers threat head-on with a Justice League film, the critically mauled Green Lantern and a trailer for 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises should ensure that no one wants to see a JL film without Christopher Nolan at the helm any time soon.

After a terrific year in 2010, children’s films hit a hurdle – only one children’s film cracked my top 20, and it was released in the US in 2010. Martin Scorsese’s beautiful but shamefully overlong Hugo deserves applause however, even if it did prove once and for all (to me at least) that 3D cannot be mastered even by the most talented of filmmakers. Nostalgic methadone The Muppets and the enjoyable Kung Fu Panda 2 (which featured superb sequences of traditional hand-drawn animation) also narrowly missed my list.

As for documentaries… well, for work-related reasons I saw more docs last year than any year previous. Unfortunately many of them are so obscure that there is no point in listing them here. But suffice to say it was a strong year for documentary from around the world, even if the interesting but unambitious Inside Job won most of the acclaim this year. Docs like Senna and Page One: Inside the New York Times told their stories with far more flair.

A few notes on the list. Traditionally I have stuck with what was released in Ireland during each individual year, meaning that some of the previous year’s late releases (especially the Oscar push) end up on the subsequent year’s list – there’s never been a way of avoiding that. To add to the confusion now, I spent almost half of 2011 living in the United States, so this list may see some films released in late 2010 in the US but early 2011 in Ireland, while others will have yet to arrive in Irish cinemas yet.

It’s fair to say I didn’t see as many new films in 2011 as I might have liked (so few bad ones indeed, that I do not have enough to fill a “worst of 2011” list), but I did see a huge number of films this year. On the big screen, just some of the classics I saw include: Walkabout, The Driver, Paisan, Pickpocket, Network, The Wages of Fear, Quai des Brumes, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (a restoration presented in person by Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker), Bridge on the River Kwai, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Orpheus, The Warriors and The Big Lebowski. Most of these were made available to me during a three-month internship I undertook at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, a position I could talk endlessly about, but will not concern you with here.

That didn’t leave much room for new films, and amongst those I missed that I suspect may have challenged the films on this list are: Paul, The Beaver, Warrior, Moneyball, Take Shelter, My Week With Marilyn, Tyrannosaur, Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Skin I Live In, War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin.

Honourable mentions for films that I saw but barely missed out on the list are: Hugo, The Guard, The Muppets, Attack the Block, Senna, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2, Bridesmaids, The Inbetweeners Movie, Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Super 8.

Now, enough stalling… shall we?

20. The King’s Speech

The eventual reigning champion at last year’s Oscars, this was a beautifully produced and (for the most part) strongly acted account of the troubles faced by the young King George VI. A powerful and memorable ending casts a positive light on an otherwise largely forgettable flm; but damn, what an ending it is.

19. Troll Hunter

One of 2011’s most unexpected delights, this “found-footage” comedy/horror used the bizarre natural landscape of Norway as the perfect paradise for surprisingly realistic CGI trolls on a budget. An outrageously straight performance by Norwegian comic Otto Jespersen as the government-sponsored hunter of the title and surprisingly effective pseudo-science about troll biology made this film a sometimes scary but consistently hilarious outing – Man Bites Dog meets Rare Exports. “TROOOOOOOOOLL!” may have been the funniest delivery of a single word last year.

18. Tangled

Disney finally put a CG challenge to their successful underlings Pixar with this gorgeous retelling of the Rapunzel tale. Colourful, enchanting, witty and light, the film was only let down by standard music numbers and a fairytale parody feel all-too familiar from the Shrek films. A superb villain, a playful chameleon and an indestructible horse were all highlights, but the film’s greatest feat is the animation in Rapunzel’s seemingly endless waves of golden hair.

 17. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

M:I4 came out at the end of a year which had featured some strong blockbusters but had been for the most part low on action (Transformers: Dark of the Moon notwithstanding). But Ghost Protocol made up for that. Beginning with a simple prison breakout, Ethan Hunt and his team go on to infiltrate the Kremlim, abseil the world’s tallest building and embark on a chase through a sandstorm where every grain can be heard whistling violently by the camera. The story was light spy fare, but the commitment by actors and filmmakers on show were as awe-inspiring as the stunts they pulled off for the camera.

16. The Descendants

Alexander Payne’s latest is a powerful family drama. George Clooney is impressive as a lawyer nigh-widowed when his wife is left in a vegetative state after a boating accident. Trying to hold his family together, he must also deal with a sale of his family’s massive estate on which many relatives are relying. Hawaii has never looked so naturally beautiful and also hideously metropolitan as it does here. The music is wonderfully chosen from local sources, and Shailene Woodley gives one of the year’s best performances as the distraught and destructive older daughter. However, the film’s tiresome insistence on ending every dramatic scene with a punchline keeps it from being one of the greatest of recent American dramas.

15. True Grit

The Coens went west again with this adaptation of Charles Portis’s book, while still undeniably owing credit to the John Wayne-starring original. With two terrific performances at its centre by Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld and stunning golden-brown cinematography, this was a notable entry in the Coens’ canon. Expectedly wacky minor characters and some thrilling and tense shoot-outs added to the fun.

14. Pina

An incredible documentary and the finest live-action 3D film yet produced (although still far from faultless in terms of that technology), Pina is a work of love in memory of the late choreographer Pina Bausch. Wim Wenders controls the cameras but he allows Pina’s choreography to direct the film, as her company, each member an instrument of their master, performs sensational modern dance pieces. The energy and beauty of the dances are on full display, as four massive ensemble pieces are intercut with brief personal performances by each of the dancers. For the most part the 3D recreates the depth of viewing dance in theatre while allowing the viewer to feel the power and intensity of each performance more intimately. The film has emerged from a tragedy (Pina’s sudden death just before filming began) to become a testament to one woman’s remarkable legacy.

 13. Poetry

South Korean star Yoon Jeong-hee emerged from retirement to star in this superb, harrowing drama about an ailing grandmother forced to raise money for a legal settlement after her grandson is implicated in the suicide of a teenaged girl. Unexpectedly powerful and heartfelt, Poetry is carried by Jeong-hee’s sensational performance as she tries to find the will, energy and love to do whatever it takes to save her grandson from prison.

12. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

This superbly shot, atmospheric spy thriller was one of the year’s most audience-dividing films, but few could doubt its style and the acting strength of its terrific ensemble cast. Despite some pacing troubles caused by adapting an extremely meaty book, Tomas Alfredson latest film maintained tension and intrigue from start to finish, while injecting some superb character drama into proceedings. Old-school storytelling meets modern filmmaking precision.

11. Kill List

The only film on this list that I can openly say I do not know if I wish to see it ever again. This genre-shifting oddity – part thriller, part horror, part kitchen sink drama – came out of nowhere this year; a low-budget Yorkshire production. With frenzied performances and horrific but effective storytelling, editing and imagery, this unforgettable beast manages to terrorise its audience but unlike most modern horrors actually has a genuine story. Family, friendship and the damage rage can do to them are the subjects at this film’s core. Unmissable – if your stomach can handle that sort of thing.

10. We Need to Talk About Kevin

It may have suffered from budgeting problems but this drama, about a mother who cannot love her son, is crafted by truly expert hands. Lynne Ramsay directs the irreproachable Tilda Swinton as the troubled mother – uncertain if her child is evil or, worse, if her fearing that is making him so. A wonderful mesh of flashbacks weave together a devastating story, told with wonderful plays of lighting and editing. Swinton gives perhaps the greatest performance of her career to date, while co-stars John C. Reilly and Ezra Miller offer strong support.

 9. Midnight in Paris

Woody Allen’s latest comeback is his best film in decades. Owen Wilson fills Allen’s acting shoes with aplomb as a writer nostalgic for an era he has never known – Paris in the ’20s. When, escaping his passionless fiancée, he inadvertently finds himself time-travelling to that age, he finds inspiration from his idols and, unexpectedly, a truer love in the form of Pablo Picasso’s mistress (Marion Cotillard). Beautifully shot, cunningly scripted and with a soundtrack to warm the heart, the film is elevated further by a series of charming cameos; most notably Adrien Brody, hamming it up magnificently as Salvador Dalí.

8. Black Swan

Darren Aronofsky’s film about obsession on the ballet stage combines the wildness of Powell and Pressburger with the psychological and body horror of David Cronenberg. Anchored by an incredible performance from Natalie Portman, this is a stylish, sexualised psychological thriller about a mental breakdown spurred on by determination to be the best. Ominous production design and chaotic editing kept the audience as confused and terrified as its lead character.

 7. Shame

Following his sensational breakthrough Hunger, director Steve McQueen’s second film is a tragic and overwhelmingly honest portrayal of a sex addict. The year’s biggest surprise star, Michael Fassbender, gives a disturbing but spellbinding performance in the lead role as a man obsessed with his own need. Carrie Mulligan gives a fine performance as his sister, the only person who stands a hope of getting through to him in his self-destructive cocoon, but who has her own problems to deal with. Shot with the director’s now signature style of long takes and anchored cameras, Shame gets you inside the head of a man you were happier only knowing the exterior of. A gripping, sorrowful, shameless movie.

 6. A Separation

As human as any drama could hope to be, this Iranian feature tells the story of a couple as they prepare to divorce, and the effect it has on their teenaged daughter. When an accident implicates the husband in a terrible crime, the familial bonds are tested to their limit. A Separation is an incredible, original-feeling story, in which every shot is sensitively composed, and the actors play out the drama with more conviction than most filmmakers could dream of finding. An unexpected gem of Iranian cinema.

5. Drive

Taking its cue from Walter Hill’s existential car chase classic The Driver, untameable Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn made his American debut with more class and style than most of Hollywood’s heavy-hitters could hope to conjure in an entire career. Shot so slickly the screen appears to ooze light and colour (and later, blood), and with a soundtrack that can only be described as “awesome”, Drive took the whole world by storm and topped countless best of lists in 2011. Ryan Gosling plays the largely silent lead role calm and cool, but the film is stolen by the enigmatic Albert Brooks as a business-savvy mafia boss who takes no prisoners.

4. Melancholia

Perhaps Lars von Trier’s finest film to date, this drama of personal agony/apocalyptic sci-fi nightmare was one of the most hotly debated films last year. It tells the story of a young woman’s lapse into a destructive depression as the very literal metaphor of the planet Melancholia begins a collision course with Earth. As our heroine, Kirsten Dunst reveals herself a remarkable actress of hitherto unexplored talents. However, several of the film’s other performances – especially those of Charlotte Gainsbourg, Charlotte Rampling and Kiefer Sutherland – deserve outstanding praise also. The film’s overture, a stunning sequence of painterly foreshadowings, and its conclusion in an orgy of emotion, light and music, make it a truly remarkable piece of filmmaking from an endlessly challenging filmmaker.

3. 13 Assassins

One of the year’s most over-looked films, 13 Assassins echoes the greatness of Seven Samurai while creating a grittier, more violent and altogether more carefree film. Takashi Miike builds the drama over the course of an hour, setting his band of samurai against an army of warriors and their utterly despicable master. When the tension finally gives way, one of the most remarkably orchestrated battle scenes in recent memory erupts in a flurry of swords, severed limbs and flaming cattle. The film’s realistic look and soundscape allow for a perverse weirdness to seep through, which provides a truly breathtaking entertainment.

2. The Tree of Life

A surprise victor at Cannes in 2011, Terrence Malick’s latest is a glorious thing to behold. The story of a Texas family is told in flashes of light and memory, accompanied by angelic music and bolstered by outstanding acting by Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain and Hunter McCracken. Through imagery of the dawn of time and the rise and demise of the dinosaurs Malick demonstrates the true reality of life; the lord giveth and the lord taketh away. Composed of one eye-shatteringly gorgeous image after the other, The Tree of Life simply has no equal in terms of skill in filmmaking. Only a misused Sean Penn and a clichéd (though beautiful) coda could be said to make this film anything less than a masterpiece.

1. The Artist

The filmmaker/actor partnership behind a pair of slight but playful French spy spoofs unexpectedly burst onto the global stage in a flurry of unbridled joy in 2011. The Artist, a silent tale of silent movies and the silent men and women behind them, is not just a throwback to the classics of old Hollywood, but is a touching, timely drama about obsoleteness and getting back on your feet. More importantly, it is a delightful, playful and utterly charming comedy that takes the visual medium to a place it hasn’t gone with such panache in over 80 years. Michel Hazanavicius directs like a silent-era pro, as if he were one of the European émigrés who built early Hollywood arriving a little too late to the party. In the lead role of former silent star George Valentin, Jean Dujardin is electric; every muscle in his body goes into his dazzling performance, his face does more work than most actors do with their entire beings. As his young muse, Bérénice Bejo provides a perfect mirror of physical support, while Valentin’s remarkable pet dog (also his co-star) steals many scenes without bending a whisker. As much homage as it is a work of sheer class in and of itself, The Artist is a joy-filled crowd-pleaser which also toys with the medium with some remarkable, truly satisfying results.

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