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2015 in review – You had us worried there for a bit

2015 best of

There was a moment when it looked like 2015 would be a pretty miserable year for cinema. A good few moments, to be honest. Battling through my final semester of college, my film viewing was restricted, and it wasn’t until May that I saw the first of the films to make my Top 20 of the year (Mad Max: Fury Road, if you’re asking).

Highly rated horrors It Follows and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night proved to be effective diversions that thoroughly failed to live up to the hyperbolic heights of the Film Twitter opinion machine. Furious 7 was a delightful (and dumb, but delightful) way to spend my birthday and a night away from my thesis, but that franchise continues to move away from the success of Fast Five. After Mad Max summer descended into a farce of blockbusters: the paint-by-nostalgia monstrosity that was Jurassic World, the lopsidedly bloated Avengers: Age of Ultron, the Roland Emmerich-lite San Andreas.

It was well into autumn before things picked up for me. Some early triumphs from the year made their ways to Netflix, and by then I was working on a project at the Museum of Modern Art, where keeping up to date with the better film releases became little more than a matter of staying late after work. In so many ways 2015 ended a lot better than it began.

It was Star Wars that sealed the deal. Not my favourite film of the year (in fact you’ll see it absent from the list below – but it was a close cut), The Force Awakens proved to have that little bit of magic that has been missing for all too long, a film the world can absorb the hype of that then manages to live up to expectations and be a genuinely terrific film. I saw a late screening opening night, and regardless of reservations, I left the cinema more charged than I can remember being in years.

There were, as always, dabbles in film history to charge me also. Painfully overdue, I finally viewed Kieślowski’s Three Colours trilogy, which lived up to the expectations of that teenager who caught three minutes of White on the TV so many years ago. At the cinema, I caught some real masterpieces for the first time: The Naked Spur, A Star Is Born (1954), The Masque of the Red Death, Fires on the Plain, the five-hour cut of Until the End of the World, Touki Bouki, Lonesome, and a 3D screening of the delirious Kiss Me Kate. Nothing compared to Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, which stole my heart and exhausted my mind at MoMA in November, and instantly catapulted itself into the list of very greatest films I have ever seen.

Knowing 2015 would be a busy year, my annual movie challenge was intentionally a light one. Spying an obvious blind spot in my film knowledge – Bollywood – I took to forcing myself to watch one (long) feature a month. I only scraped the surface of course, but I’ve developed an understanding of and passion for this major branch of Indian cinema, its flamboyance, its love of twists and hatred of subtext. I watched essential classics including Zanjeer, Mother India, and Mughal-e-Azam, as well as recent hits like Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and 3 Idiots, and even contemporary madness like Dhoom, Dhoom 2, and Enthiran. I’ll be watching more in future, and I can’t recommend enough that film fans who have yet to dip their toes in Bollywood streams take care of that, and see what a sixth of people on earth considers mainstream cinema.

So on to the films of the year. As always I missed a few things. Beasts of No Nation, despite being right there on Netflix, never got seen. Clouds of Sils Maria, Bridge of Spides, Magic Mike XXL, and Creed similarly got missed. Some lauded films were appreciated, but fell short for me, like Straight Outta Compton, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, The Hateful Eight, and The Revenant. Films that narrowly didn’t make my Top 20 include Mistress America, Tangerine, Taxi, James White, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Song of the Sea, and The Big Short. The terrific farce 7 Days of Hell was considered, but rejected for the same reason A Very Murray Christmas, the worst thing I saw all year, doesn’t feature in my worst-of list – they’re both productions designed for home viewing and barely of a length to qualify as features.

 

Now, who enjoys a good list?

 

20. Queen of Earth

Alex Ross Perry’s psychological drama about the breakdown of friendship between two millenial yuppies is peppered with nightmarish oddities that keep the viewer on their toes. It’s violently negative in its lack of faith in people supporting one another in need, but not unjustifiably so. Shot in bright airy spaces, but the focus is on intense close-ups that further alienate the characters from each other. Elisabeth Moss gave one of the year’s most committed performances.

 

19. Youth

Still struggling to recreate his earlier successes in The Consequences of Love and (the near-perfect) Il Divo, Paolo Sorrentino has made his best film in seven years. It focuses on two elderly artist friends hiding from the world in a Swiss spa. Michael Caine is the retired classical composer who peaked too soon, Harvey Keitel is the Scorsese-like filmmaker who keeps pumping out films that cannot compare to the works of his youth. Finely acted and sublimely scored, and featuring a deluge of Sorrentino’s delicious, unexplained eccentricities, it is hampered only by its dialogue, which feels all too scabrously translated from Italian.

 

18. Ex Machina

As sci-fi continues to recapture the public imagination (2015 was quite a good year for it overall), this unexpected gem, a sexy Asimovian tale of A.I. versus real en-souled intelligence, became a surprise favourite for many. Written and directed by Alex Garland, known best for writing Danny Boyle’s sci-fi ventures, this was a slickly produced psychological thriller that brought together demi-perspex android Alicia Vikander and 2015 MVP Domhnall Gleeson’s computer expert for the ultimate Voight-Kampff test. Oscar Isaac’s untrustworthy tech billionaire, all creatine and superego, stole the show, along with the lush visuals. A mishandled finale was the only sour note.

 

17. Phoenix

Christian Petzold, the emerging master of German historical melodrama, weaves a strangely original yarn in Phoenix, in which a Holocaust survivor attempts to uncover if her husband served her up to the Nazis. Unrecognisable after reconsructive surgery, she is hired by her husband to impersonate his supposedly dead wife to claim an inheritance. The greater mystery is therefore known to us, creating a scintilating game of cat and mouse. Impressive period detail, Nina Hoss’s restrained performance and a jawdropping conclusion make it one to remember.

 

16. Sicario

What should feel overly familiar, another tale of cynical cops and murderous cartels, is given new life and energy in Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario. The descent of Emily Blunt’s FBI agent from go-getting SWAT member, to toughened special forces volunteer, to exhausted, disillusioned survivor, stands as a superb metaphor for the bewildering War on Drugs. Smart dialogue and incredible cinematography by Roger Deakins (the night vision sequence was one of the year’s finest) saw it through clunkier moments; it leaves a lasting impression.

 

15. Goodnight Mommy

The old dark house of classic horror is here replaced with a soulless, polished modernist monolith, a bright white country house full of dark terrors. A pair of twins – spritely, Aryan-looking – begin to suspect that their mother is no longer who she claims to be. A nasty game of powerplay ensues, with the story cleverly shifting the viewer’s allegience. Keenly cut and often blackly comic, it’s a skin-crawling horror that reinvents torture porn as Oedipal nightmare.

 

14. The Assassin

Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s stunning wuxia fable was one of 2015’s most beautiful and most frustrating films. With an intentionally obtuse storyline and an editing style that cuts away from the main action on a whim, it is not a film that satisfies a hunger for solid storytelling. What it does have however are exquisitely lush production values and, in its star Shu Qi, a remarkable feminine intensity. Many of the year’s most arresting images were imbedded in this work, in particular a dramatic cliffside confrontation slowly enwrapped in mist.

 

13. Inside Out

Pixar rarely let us down, but lately their hits have numbered their misses. But their hits remain some of the smartest, most charming and most universally appealing films to come out of Hollywood today. Pete Docter, responsible for Monsters, Inc. and Up, here takes us inside the mind of a young preteen, demonstrating her emotional turmoil through anthropomorphised emotions that dwell in a sci-fi wonderland; part playground, part bureaucratic stampede. The characters both inside and out carry the film’s hefty emotional punch, and the designs are handsome and witty. Only its repetitive, stop-and-start adventure narrative prevents it from being listed with the very top of the Pixar pantheon.

 

12. Brooklyn

Old-fashioned in the best possible way, director John Crowley’s take on Colm Tóibín’s novel, adapted by Nick Hornby, puts its money where its heart is. Saoirse Ronan beams as Eilis, a shy parochial Irish girl who moves to New York to better herself, and soon emerges from her shell, only to be torn between her new home and the one she left behind. Plus there’s an ideal romantic match on both sides of the Atlantic. Excellent period detail and finely paced, simple human drama create something traditional yet timely. Earnest, genuine, and unironic storytelling.

 

11. Spotlight 

Telling the story of how The Boston Globe broke the news of massive cover-ups of paedophilia within the Catholic Church, Spotlight repeatedly evokes the champion of the investigative news genre, All the President’s Men. While never quite reaching its forebear’s heights, it recaptures much of its energy, making the gathering of information or the biting of a new lead as thrilling as a gun battle or foot chase. It is functionally, unshowily shot, with some choice montage work, but it’s the slowly building story and the great performances, most notably Mark Ruffalo, that made this one of the year’s most surprisingly powerful dramas.

 

10. Anomalisa

Resurrecting a 10-year-old stage play, the unique surrealist Charlie Kaufman chose to visualise this tale of depression and isolation in stop-motion animation form. The antihero of the film, Michael, is so cut-off, introspective and self-obsessive, that he perceives every stranger as sharing the same, expressionless face, each bearing actor Tom Noonan’s barely shifting tones. A chance encounter with Lisa, wearing her own 3D-printed face and wielding Jennifer Jason Leigh’s sweet voice, evolves into a simple love affair with complex repercussions. At times hilarious, tragic, or nightmarish, it sculpts two incredible character studies as rich as the miniature universe built to house them. The shower scene alone guarantees this one immortality.

9. The Duke of Burgundy

Peter Strickland has emerged as a late British Lynch, an artist who understands the film camera as a literal dream machine, producing deep truth from the illogical. In this, his third dramatic feature, he explores female sexuality through a series of twisting sexual games of cat-and-mouse, as a lesbian couple indulge in sado-masochistic role-play in opulent fashion. The lavish English country estate décor, sensuous lingerie and extensive all-female cast create a gratifying otherworldliness, while the rich cinematography, sharp cutting and unexpected insect imagery add to Strickland’s ethereal scenario an extra sexy pinch.

 

8. The Look of Silence

The companion piece to 2012’s untouchable The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence sees Joshua Oppenheimer turn away from the perpetrators of Indonesia’s anti-communist genocide to look at its victims, and the survivors. In a metaphor too perfect for fiction, clear sight is given to us through an optician (or supposed optician), a man whose brother was savagely slain by government-backed gangsters. He visits these older gangsters, now local big wigs, and while performing eye exams, has them probe their despicable pasts for reasonings and methods. Mixing gut-wrenching old video testament with brightly shot contemporary footage, Oppenheimer hints that an emotional cleansing is possible, but all too late for our protagonist and his withering parents.

 

7. Mad Max: Fury Road 

Just when reboots and remakes and all-too-late sequels were becoming old-hat, George Miller undid more than a decade’s worth of talking animal abuse to bring back Max Rockatansky from his shallow, sandy, post-apocalyptic grave. An adrenaline-pumping extended chase sequence of a movie, Fury Road has all the thump and energy of the finest post-’90s action cinema with the dedicated, unpatronising world-building of ’80s fantasy. Tom Hardy grunts as Max, while Charlize Theron stands a one-armed feminist archangel as Imperator Furiosa, a second-tier thug in a cultish tribe who decides enough is enough in the face of crippling misogyny and rape. With exquisite stunts and mind-boggling costume and vehicle design, Fury Road is that rare art film in blockbuster’s clothing. Indulgences in the thrill of the chase undermine the broader themes at times, but this is still exceptional filmmaking from start to finish.

 

6. The Tribe

Part gangster movie, part coming-of-age tale, part pitch-black parody of high school dramas, The Tribe is a monstrous and brilliant work. Set at a Ukrainian school for the deaf, the dialogue is entirely in sign language, without accompanying translation of any kind. The audience is thus forced to engage doubly with the material, to absorb what story it can while the thunderous, angered performances confront them head on. Extended shots without cuts for interruption draw you further in, only to be assaulted by a McDonagh-ian propensity for sudden, horrifying violence. Other sequences our ears pick up the important sounds that could mean life-or-death for the characters on screen. It is a hopeless look at an isolated, noiseless world, that milks the potential of cinema to both reveal and conceal for everything it’s got.

 

5. The Martian

Another story of survival in space – so what makes this one different? Well for starters, Matt Damon gives his finest performance in a decade in one of his greatest roles, as astronaut Mark Watney, a cocksure scientist whose wit and ego are enough to just about sustain him after he is abandoned on Mars in a dust storm. His quest to stay alive with limited resources is created with real (or at least believable) science and exceptional wit, through Drew Goddard’s bouncy screenplay and Damon’s sardonic delivery. The momentum jumps along at a solid pace, while sequences on Mars, Earth, and in space sustain the drama without an ounce of fat. Ridley Scott, working as a director for hire, commits to a great project, tying together excellent location shooting (in Jordan) and expertly deployed special effects. A testament to human perseverance, a uniquely smart blockbuster, and just a really good time at the movies.

 

4. Son of Saul

Shot on 35mm with needle-point-shallow focus, Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes’s debut feature redefines ‘harrowing’, by bringing you into the whirling hell of a Nazi death camp and refusing to let you out. The sensational Géza Röhrig is Saul, a Jewish prisoner fit enough to be part of the team who assist in the mass murder of their own people, and thus an enforced collaborator. His impossible last chance for redemption is to save the corpse of a young man (his son, perhaps?) from the furnace, but escalating events in the camp block his way at every hurdle. An exhausting, frustrating and beautiful work, that dares to reveal the darkest, unwhispered barbarities of the Holocaust.

 

3. 45 Years

The year’s simplest, meatiest tragedy, Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years feels like the untold not-so-happy ending to many of the greatest love stories. An older couple is about to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary when he receives a letter regarding a lost love from his past. The nostalgia and sadness bred in him stirs regret and paranoia in his wife, threatening not just the occasion, but the legacy of their relationship. Capturing beautiful moments of human interaction and shot from a permanently respectful distance, 45 Years is a remarkable story that triumphs through its two stars, the resurrected ’60s heartthrob Tom Courtenay, and the irrepressible Charlotte Rampling, at her very finest.

 

2. Carol

Todd Haynes’s sumptuous, delicious film of forbidden love in 1950s New York hits with an emotional wallop, as wide-eyed salesgirl Therese (Rooney Mara) meets older divorcee-to-be Carol (Cate Blanchett), and embarks upon a seemingly doomed lesbian romance. Made up of perfectly framed glances and erotically charged conversations, Carol highlights the cruelty of the attitudes of the time without preaching or descending into melodrama. The period detail and lighting astonish, while the score by Carter Burwell captures and holds the energy of the drama. But it’s the performances by the film’s two female leads that make this one for the ages. Heartfelt and empathetic, they carry their flawed characters with immense pride right through to the heart-stopping finale.

 

1. Hard to Be a God

One of the defining qualities of a great movie is that it either shows you something that has never been seen before, or tells a story that is unlike any you have ever seen. It has been too long since a film did both. Aleksei German’s final film (it was completed in post after his death), shot over six years, originates in a novel by Russian authors Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, who wrote the work on which Tarkovsky’s Stalker was based. It is about a group of human scientists observing a world almost identical to Earth, but still in, and seemingly stuck in, the Middle Ages. In an explosive performance, Leonid Yarmolnik plays Don Rumata, a human observer succumbed to extraordinary hubris, encouraging the peasants of this backwards planet to treat him as a god. The themes of madness and decline are handled with the gravitas they deserve, but the film retains a casual cheekiness throughout, defiantly grotesque and dirty. The lengthy takes with roving handheld cameras get you right up in the thick of it; you can almost smell the sweat and mud. German has done the near impossible, rigidly blocking his scenes despite the wild camera movements, so that his frame is perpetually full, busy, and yet with no action obscured. It is monumental filmmaking, beautiful and hideous and deep.

hardtobeagod

Good god, man!

 

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So as for the worst films of 2015, well, for a year that never seemed like it was going to be a good year for cinema until the last minute, it never looked much like a bad year either. I never saw Mortdecai or Rock the Kasbah or Pan or Terminator: Typo. End-of-the-world examples of cynical capitalist cinema in the guise of Jurassic World or Minions were so blandly efficient as to escape this list. Here’s what utterly disappointed or downright infuriated this past year.

 

5. The Good Dinosaur

One step forward and one step back is Pixar’s game right now. This mindlessly banal tripe is only a patch above Cars 2 in that studio’s canon. It’s utterly unbelievable, uncrafted world, with barely a dozen dinosaur inhabitants implying rampant inbreeding, its rehashed boy-and-his-dog plot that goes nowhere new, its lazy voicework and godawful twangy score, all add up to bad family entertainment. The backgrounds are, admittedly, extraordinarily illustrated, but that’s no use when the characters in front of them look like Aardman characters crafted from nasal drippings. The magic mushrooms scene was the most socially and ethically misjudged moment in an American movie all year, and I’m including Entourage in that.

 

4. Taken 3

Climbing its way up from the very bottom a few years back, the Taken franchise now no longer feels like an advertising campaign for ISIS, at least. But this remains truly exhausted action garbage, with growling and exhausted Liam Neeson killing all the Russians in America after his ex-wife is murdered in a desperate attempt to raise the stakes. The action sequences barely thrill (as they barely thrilled when seen in the trailers), and Forest Whitaker only serves to depress with his role-slumming. The dramatic ending is gloriously, unintentionally laughable.

 

3. The Editor 

Genre spoofs are not easy, and this attempt to lampoon giallo and B-movie horror manages to bungle everything from the get-go. The look, the rhythms, the acting styles are all wrong, as if no one involved actually bothered to watch a giallo beforehand, or thought a movie all about analogue film editing might wanna look like it’s being shown on old film. The murder mystery isn’t intriguing, the horror isn’t frightening and the gags just aren’t funny – desperate as it is to find comedy in old-timey Italian misogyny, it comes off as disinterested in appearing at all respectful to women. At least it tried, but it failed utterly.

 

2. Fantastic Four

The superhero reboot no one asked for became the film no one wanted, including, it would seem, the actors or filmmakers involved. Every step is so blatantly miscalculated, from the casting (Jamie Bell as tough guy Ben, Michael B. Jordan as lovable fop Johnny, Toby Kebbell as someone with an accent) to the overly realistic look, to the epic score played over characters crossing the street or typing things into computers. Supposedly plagued by production issues, its bipolar switch in the second act reveals that no one could quite agree what kind of movie they were making. For once with a messy major Marvel-based project, the box office reflected this.

1. The Loft

Erik Van Looy’s remake of his own modestly successful Belgian thriller Loft, this is an uncompromising study in bad filmmaking. An unengaging murder mystery, that doubles as a deeply unsexy erotic thriller, The Loft starts off on the most wrong foot by having its five male stars buy an apartment together in which to cheat on their wives. By the time a dead body turns up, we already want all these men locked away for it regardless of their role in the murder. Painful miscasting and excruciating dialogue build up to a pathetic series of convoluted twists. Men’s rights activist cinema, with all the talent you imagine goes with that.

 

 

And with that, onward into 2016…

 

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2014 in review – It wasn’t the best of times, it wasn’t the worst of times

(clockwise from top left) Ida, Nightcrawler, Under the Skin, Calvary

Another year goes by, more films come out than I get to see, and a promise to my young self to one day watch every film there is becomes ever-more a betrayal. The year 2014 was a busy one for me, still entrenched in the Moving Image Archiving and Preservation programme at NYU; moving images took a back seat in all but theory.

Towards the end of the year there were many saying that 2014 had been a disappointing 12 months in film. It was hard not to see some small truth in this; I certainly saw very few films that deserved consideration of being called masterpieces, and reports from others suggested I had not missed many either. But I saw no lack of great films in 2014. Whittling down a top 20 remained a challenge, with several films I feel hugely positive about not making the cut. Despite what some may think, there is no lack of greatness out there, even amongst the most mainstream of Hollywood popcorn fare.

Indeed, if anything, 2014 was a year of noble failures and flawed triumphs. Hollywood gave us works like Godzilla, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Divergent, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Edge of Tomorrow, Lucy, and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 – solid action movies with ambitious themes, some better pulled off than others, but evidence that the business of show and global audiences still want their brain candy to come with a little brain.

And then there were the dramas. 2014 opened with everyone finally catching Spike Jonze’s Her (a film that would’ve done quite splendidly on my last year’s ranking had I caught it in the last weeks of December but which I can’t in all anal conscience include this year), and the year didn’t quite live up to this until the post-summer pre-Oscar season. Gone Girl gripped for two hours, then choked its audience with a bewilderingly unsubtle final 20 minutes. Wetlands provoked more than any film in recent memory with its study of female sexuality, but came to be more a tantrum of provocation than a truly meaningful inspection. And Maps to the Stars took one of the finest shotgun blasts to the myth of celebrity that has ever been unleashed, before inevitably turning that weapon on itself. Elsewhere, Love Is Strange was that rare film that handled its subject matter with such maturity and confidence that it seems laughable to think that any of the issues it addresses were taboo in the last 100 years.

Then there were the comedies. While The Lego Movie provided more laughs than any film in years, movies like Neighbors (Bad Neighbours in countries with good soaps) and The Trip to Italy showed there’s still plenty of material out there to mine for clever laughs. The Grand Budapest Hotel was a ferocious misfire, gorgeous to behold but utterly empty of heart, bound to endlessly repeat the same two gags of “famous people appearing” and “famous people swearing”. 22 Jump Street failed to live up to its predecessor; critiquing the Hollywood formula for sequels by repeating every one of their failings is cute at first but rapidly succumbs to its own poison. At the very least its closing credits will go down in history as some of the most enjoyable and inspired in forever.

Sequels were a mixed bag. Captain America and Planet of the Apes saw marked improvements, while the finest X-Men movie in more than a decade may have saved that stagnant franchise. But The Amazing Spider-Man 2 proved that franchise alone cannot guarantee success, with a bloated and thematically bipolar production almost crucifying Sony’s hopes to move forward with more. Transformers: Age of Extinction was not the worst film in the franchise, but that’s about all that can be said for it, while How to Train Your Dragon 2, despite the expected gloss of its design, managed to extinguish much of the fire of the original surprise triumph. The Raid 2 was a misery of convoluted and derivative over-plotting that redeemed itself with some of the finest action spectacle ever recorded.

Back home, Irish cinema had a tremendous little year. Calvary, while hugely divisive with homegrown audiences, was viewed as a spectacular work elsewhere. Frank, if inconsistent, proved that Lenny Abrahamson could branch out of dark drama, and raised his profile as the saviour of Irish cinema (while also proving Michael Fassbender is so beloved he doesn’t even need to be visible on screen to astonish as an actor). Up North, ’71 took complex and controversial historical events and mutated them into a sophisticated thriller without feeling exploitative.

If 2013 was the year Netflix began to conquer television, 2014 was the year streaming releases became an enormous part of movie-viewing culture. Nymphomaniac saw online distribution just as it hit cinemas, while the terrific thriller Blue Ruin never saw a real cinema release. Netflix produced The Battered Bastards of Baseball, one of the year’s finest docs, while a Christmas tragedy (and World War III?) was avoided with the iTunes drop of The Interview after hacker threats saw it pulled from cinemas.

And then there’s TV. Basically True Detective happened, and then nothing else lived up to it all year.

My own year of film, as I’ve already suggested, has been very wrapped up with my studies, and will continue to be so for the first half of 2015. I was privileged to have the chance to spend the summer working at the Oregon Historical Society in Portland cataloguing and repairing a large collection of nitrate film, which will likely go down as one of the most important tasks I ever achieve in the film world. Discussing and recommending movies feels that little less important after you’ve saved a film from literally eating itself into a puddle of toxic goo.

As for the classics, well I continued to work away at those. Two films this year instantly ranked themselves for me as amongst the finest I’ve ever seen or will see: The Devils and The Holy Mountain. Other essentials included World on a Wire, Queen Christina, Spider Baby, The Adventures of Prince Achmed, Z, A Star Is Born (1937), El Topo, Thief, Design for Living, The Sacrifice, The Tin Drum, Phantom of the Paradise, Tampopo, Sitting Target, Fury (1936), Woman in the Dunes, Possession, Taxidermia, The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, Eyes Without a Face, Toute la Mémoire du Monde, Steamboat Bill Jr., Black Sabbath, A Page of Madness, Umberto D, and Tokyo Godfathers. There were many more, of course, but here is not the place to recommend them. And there were even more films too awful to ever recommend, but they’ll remain unmentioned.

Every year I set myself a film goal, and for 2014 it was exceptional. Having finally watched the second Godzilla film, Godzilla Raids Again, in December of 2013, I set out to finish the entire Toho kaiju catalogue (a further 26 Gojira films and more than a dozen connected features) by the end of this past year. It took a lot out of me, but I achieved it. There’ll be a full report soon, so stay tuned. It’s going to be silly.

And now we prep ourselves for my top 20 of 2014. As always let’s clarify what I missed. Films which evaded me that I suspect may have had places in this list include Two Days, One Night, Selma, Locke, Mommy, Citizenfour, Winter Sleep, and Force Majeure. I will catch them in their own time. Close contenders for the top 20 include Through a Lens Darkly, Captain America 2, La Sapienza, Tom at the Farm, Blue Ruin, The Battered Bastards of Baseball, The Congress, and, a late removal, Edge of Tomorrow. As I said above, it was a year full of great movies, even if all too few of them were spectacular.

20. The Babadook

The feature debut of Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent is one of those horror films that gives you the sensation of having seen it all before, while simultaneously feeding you with the unnerving sensation that that isn’t as reassuring as it could be. A superbly nightmarish take on the boogeyman idea that goes all-in on the “what if it’s just in my head” trope, The Babadook builds to several terrific frights. The all-grey aesthetic becomes wearisome before the end, but the film’s two terrific leads, Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman, hold attention to the very last scene.

19. Jodorowsky’s Dune

The greatest film never made is an easy tag to throw around, with so many notorious cases of the ‘development hell’ concept out there. But Alejandro Jodorowsky’s abandoned take on Frank Herbert’s Dune is a stronger contender than most. This documentary assembles the essence of the cancelled ’70s psychedelic sci-fi epic through use of talking head interviews and an avalanche of spectacular concept art illustrations that once upon a time nearly saw this film into production. It is a nostalgic and remorseful study of a different time in Hollywood, while also a declaration of the need for experimentation and risk-taking in epic cinema and adaptation.

18. Inherent Vice

Critiquing Paul Thomas Anderson’s stoner detective movie without referencing the other films it invokes memory of is difficult, and that seems to highlight the film’s undeniable imperfections. But Anderson has made a gorgeous film, meticulously detailed and with a suitable faded ’70s look to the image. Bloated with too many oddball characters and a meandering mystery that never quite catches the imagination, it still finds a terrific lead performance in Joaquin Phoenix, and in Josh Brolin’s Detective Bigfoot Bjornsen one of the most audacious eccentrics in American cinema.

17. Interstellar

Contemporary science fiction has gone from ignoring big issues to addressing issues of colossal importance in frankly stupid ways. Just look at Prometheus’ “intriguing” explanations for the origins of life on Earth and our relationship with god. No, scratch that, please don’t. For all its aspirations Interstellar is not a smart movie, but it is a tasteful one, and a production unrivalled in envisioning outer space since 2001. Despite all its faults (abandoned subplots, awkward romance, poorly paced action, a self-contradicting emphasis on the power of love over science, and a second act twist that reeks of rewrites), there is no denying Christopher Nolan is a showman par excellence. The film’s imagery, accompanied by a divine score by Hans Zimmer, assaults the senses throughout, and Matthew McConaughey commits wholeheartedly to a role that supports the whole production.

16. The Lunchbox

Just when you think you’ve seen every high concept romance, this little gem emerges. Utilising Mumbai’s famed dabbawalas, an intricate and vast system of lunch delivery men, Ritesh Batra’s film finds a lonely widower accidentally receiving the lunchbox of a man whose unfulfilled wife is trying to reignite his passion through cooking. The wrong passion is ignited, and a complex love affair begins without the pair in question meeting. Effortlessly charming and rhythmically enrapturing, leads Irrfan Khan and Nimrat Kaur achieve the impossible, to have extraordinary onscreen chemistry without sharing a scene together.

15. Guardians of the Galaxy

Much can be argued about the damage Marvel is doing by dominating mainstream action cinema (and encouraging rivals to try likewise), but when their output can be this furiously exciting there’s little room for complaint. Featuring a gaggle of lesser-known celestial superheroes, James Gunn took a postmodernist comedic slant to the story while also making room for genuine pathos. Challenging the progressively darkening aesthetic of comicbook movies with an effervescent purple, blue and yellow glow and an upbeat ’60s and ’70s pop soundtrack, Guardians showed that a blockbuster could refute seriousness without being dumb. Who knew?

14. Birdman

Speaking of superheroes, where did this one come from? A startling experiment by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Birdman reimagines the fate of actor Michael Keaton after his glory days as Batman and conjures a fascinating tragic character, Riggan Thomson, typecast and devoid of credibility, attempting to reinvent himself on the Broadway stage, while simultaneously going insane from the pressures of failed ambition. The finest ensemble cast of the year and a thrilling jazz score help propel it through some overlong reflections, while cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s single take illusion is as mesmerising as it is unjustified by the content. The ending is an unsatisfying collision of the shocking and obvious, but the film is an intriguing treat throughout.

13. Foxcatcher

A hypnotic study of madness and obsession that slowly lures you in with its unsettling unpleasantness, Foxcatcher leaves you unable to look away from the disintegration of family and trust at its core. Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo impress as real life Olympic wrestling champions and brothers, dazzled by a chance at wealth and immortality offered by psychologically damaged billionaire Steve Carell, in a career-redefining role. Shot with restraint and edited with beautiful subtlety, it is charged with a homoerotic intensity that builds to an impossible, exactly-as-it-happened conclusion. One scene of grotesque binge-eating stands out as the greatest horror moment of 2014.

12. The Wonders

One of the finest reflections on the isolation of farming communities from contemporary society, Alice Rohrwacher’s The Wonders took beekeeping as its subject. The family at the film’s centre, overburdened financially and by the sheer size of their clan, and patronised by an embarrassing reality TV show, represent a dying race of people, whose contributions are no longer respected by growing cities. Seen through the eyes of the eldest daughter, played longingly by Maria Alexandra Lungu, a cycle is revealed that cannot be reversed. Beautifully shot in the Italian countryside and full of witty asides, it is bolstered by fleeting sprinkles of magical realism.

11. Whiplash

More jazz drumming here, but this time it is central to the plot. Damien Chazelle’s tremendously rhythmic film features one of the year’s most intense relationships, a symbiotic S&M partnership between teacher and pupil. The idea that without punishment and cruelty genius can never be achieved is hardly new, but it has never been sold with such wit and ferocity as it is here. Miles Teller makes a convincing lead and impressive percussionist, while J.K. Simmons is simply thrilling as his demented and brilliant mentor. The green colour grading intrudes once too often, but otherwise is an extremely tidy film, hard to fault.

10. Mr. Turner

Attention to detail is all there is to this film. But isn’t that everything? Like the artist himself, whose paintings evoked such feeling by capturing the vastness of sea and landscapes in glorious detail, Mike Leigh’s film recreates the London of the first half of the 19th century down to the most inconsequential minutiae. But while the film reflects on art, class and late-blooming romance, it is Timothy Spall’s outstanding performance that holds the whole work aloft. Every tremor in his face and grunt from his mouth carries a trove of meaning and sadness, and Spall simply becomes another man, a great and tragically faulted man. If the film struggles with pacing and focus, Spall never stumbles for a moment, delivering the performance of his career and the performance of the year.

9. Nymphomaniac

This two-part study of female sexuality revels in the violent and grotesque; it’s almost a shame it’s so brilliant. Lars Von Trier’s latest is a series of vignettes taken from the life of Joe (Stacy Martin and later Charlotte Gainsbourg), which examines her spiral of self-discovery and sexual liberation with wit and pain. Certain sections work better than others, but the continuous raising of stakes, awe-inspiring visuals, and brazen abuse of pop music make for a delirious and provocative work.

8. Goodbye to Language

Cinema’s aging revolutionary, Jean-Luc Godard, delivered one of his most obscure and inspired works. Reflections on language and philosophy, the duality of relationships and existence, are framed in a series of stylistically contradictory shots; steady shots, concave angles, and handheld cinematography enlivened by simulated video errors. Godard’s decision to shoot in 3D is what makes this experiment the boldest work of 2014, and allows it to feature the year’s most astonishing shot – a stroke-inducing uncoupling of the stereoscopic cameras that bends the eyes and brain in ways cinemas has never done before.

7. The Lego Movie

If everything truly were awesome, how could we fully appreciate The Lego Movie? Phil Lord and Chris Miller began their deconstruction of the Hollywood machine in 2014 with this anarchic work of mainstream commercialism, managing to sell toys and major brands while also breaking down the very ideas that make them successful. The chaotic animation and riotous barrage of regularly sophisticated gags made it an audience favourite, but beyond that it was a complex discussion of artifactual purpose, creative intent, artistic inspiration, and obsessive anality. It is perhaps the smartest film aimed at young audiences since Toy Story, or even Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

 6. Boyhood

Much of the criticism that can be laid at the feet of Richard Linklater’s opus seems largely superfluous upon reflection of the effort that went into its making. Shot in spurts over 12 years, with music, technology and the rapidly aging protagonist underscoring the passage of time, Boyhood is hardly unprecedented in cinema, but not even Truffaut could craft the experience of growth and the triumphs and betrayals of life’s promises with this much confidence and style. Ellar Coltrane is strong as 6-to-18-year-old Mason, more awash in a sea of experience than an active dramatic character, while astonishing support is offered by Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette and Lorelei Linklater. While it sometimes slips off course to focus on matters more of interest to Linklater Sr. than Mason, it remains an often overwhelmingly powerful study of what it is to be a young American, and what it is to become a man.

5. Under the Skin

So then what is it to be human? Jonathan Glazer cast hominid perfection Scarlett Johansson as an empty vessel, an alien purporting to be human to prey and consume. Using an astonishing and eerie array of editing techniques, cinematographic styles and complex sound design, Glazer at first stalks mankind with his alien subject, then has her seduced by its flawed complexity and finds herself the prey. Johanssen excels throughout, while the film pulls no punches in studying the darkness that dwells in the emotionally disconnected. Glasgow, stark and grey, stands in for the traditional invasion spots of New York or small town America. A chilling horror film and a riveting philosophical drama.

4. Calvary

In the finest performance of his career, Brendan Gleeson plays a priest chosen to be the target of an abuse victim’s revenge, a tortured mysterious figure who feels only the death of a good man will awaken the world to horrors gone unpunished. But since the lead knows who the would-be killer is from the first scene, we are left alone to investigate while he decides how to spend his allotted remaining days. A terrific cast of local oddballs make up the parishioners and suspects, allowed to run rampant with writer-director John Michael McDonagh’s deliciously biting dialogue. Ireland has rarely looked better, and the film acts as a remarkable dissection of a country in a state of schizophrenic uncertainty as to where it is going, or even where it has been.

3. Nightcrawler

A scathing assault on tabloid journalism, Nightcrawler is as bleak as it is beautiful, shot in the fluorescent glow of pre-dawn Los Angeles. Jake Gyllenhaal grips as the sociopathic, ruthlessly efficient and zealously self-serving Lou Bloom, whose morality-free clamber into the ranks of accident and emergency reporting represents the worst nightmare of the American dream in the information age. Unpredictable without being extreme, it builds tirelessly to a thrilling conclusion. In Bloom, writer-director Dan Gilroy has created perhaps the most original character of the 21st century so far.

2. Ida

This gorgeously composed black and white film emerged with little fanfare this year but was embraced rapturously by critics and its small audience. Set in 1960s Poland, still in turmoil after the War and the Holocaust, and with the lingering Damoclean sword of Soviet overlordship, Ida is a gentle reflection on identity that both uplifts and stings with the brutality of its humanity. Agata Trzebbuchowska and Agata Kulesza give astonishing, tragic performances as a young orphaned nun and the aunt she has been newly reunited with. The film packs an emotional wallop, but every frame along the way dazzles with pristine simplicity.

1. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

One of the last films produced by Studio Ghibli before it ceased production of new animations to much distress this past year, and the assumed swansong of Ghibli cofounder Isao Takahata, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is that director’s third masterpiece, and perhaps his most triumphant work. Based on one of Japan’s most famous fairytales, it tells of a childless bamboo cutter and his wife who find an enchanted infant, who they raise as their own. Financially supported by a divine source, the loving parents give the young Kaguya everything she could ever want, but her uncertainty and feelings of alienness prevent her from securing true happiness in a society that so pressures women to be what it demands of them. Once more abandoning Ghibli’s traditional style, Takahata this time paints in liquid bursts of watercolours, creating a spellbinding visual feast that reaches a cinematic zenith in a dashing charcoal nightmare. Wit and heart and fantasy combine; the story is pure magic. The production is too.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

Booyah! Kaguya!

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I’m just assuming you skipped down to here. Because these are the films I hated this year. Dross such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Need for Speed, and even the egregiously misjudged Transcendence, which would easily have taken the bottom honour on a better year, weren’t as bad as these disastrous attempts at films, only one of which I can possibly recommend for ironic viewing (hint: it’s at No.3).

 

5. Gun Woman

Mindless and grotesque even by Japanese gore porn standards, this was certainly the most unpleasant film experience to be had in 2014. Featuring an antihero so bland it’s hard to call him a character, and a villain so cartoonishly despicable the man who thought him up should be kept under police surveillance, this is a joyless stool of a film, hideous to behold, and ritually disemboweled by its attempts at Tarantinoesque postmodernism.

4. Let’s Be Cops

Please, just make up your mind, do you respect cops or not? Do you think they are morons who should be made fun of, or that they are disrespected heroes one and all? Because really your film did not make it clear. But congratulations, you made a scene where a character chokes on a fat man’s testes look more pleasant than hanging out for just half an hour with your two buddy leads.

3. Winter’s Tale

Something about miracles and magic and horses called Horse. This overproduced farce is actually in the realm of so bad its funny. Colin Farrell and his awful hair have a brief and unbelievable love affair, while on the run from Russell Crowe, who is either Irish or suffering from some kind of brain aneurism. The dialogue redefines cheesy, the performances redefine confused, and the first act takes up 75% of the running time. The greatest miracle of all is that the film got made in the first place.

2. A Million Ways to Die in the West

Seth MacFarlane and his troublingly featureless face headline this Western pastiche that is… well nothing. Flatly shot, with a tsunami of jokes that don’t make landfall, and a plot so hackneyed you could write something more inspired by farting in sand, this follow-up to the genuinely enjoyable Ted proves McFarlane doesn’t understand high concept without being high. The supporting cast all seem embarrassed to be present. You’d almost feel sorry for them, ’cause they should be.

1. The Legend of Hercules

Where to start? The first of two big budget takes on the copyright-free demigod in 2014, this Renny Harlin venture took the most liberties with the material, pouring countless other myths and histories into the pot, and even a lightning whip-sword. The whole film is so joyless and po-faced, the actors so completely out of their element (unless their element is “stand there and look pretty”), the special effects so… uncompleted, it’s simply hard to believe this film exists at all. Thankfully, it proves as forgettable as it is awful, and due to The Rock’s moderately well-received Hercules, history will forget this Grecian stillbirth ever appeared in 2014.

 

See you again next year…

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Iron Man 3 – Suit yourself

Casual wear: Iron Man at home

Casual wear: Iron Man at home

The crushing weight of expectation rests on Iron Man 3, but like the target of a rampaging Hulkbuster suit, that weight is lifted, thrillingly and amusingly, for its 130 minute running time.

The first Marvel Cinematic Universe adventure since the face-explodingly successful The Avengers, Iron Man 3 reunites Robert Downey Jr., as Tony Stark/Iron Man, with the man most responsible for his getting the role in the first place; Shane Black. Black, who rose to fame as the writer of the first (ostensibly only) two Lethal Weapon movies, had very much come to Downey Jr.’s rescue in the mid-noughties when the actor was finally recovering from a harsh decade-plus of substance abuse and finding guest roles on Ally McBeal insufficient in revitalising his career.

The film they made together, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), a satisfying meta-noir, showed what the actor could do with his own persona when put on the right kind of leash. Jon Favreau, director of Iron Man 1 and 2, held the leash loosely on his first go around, before letting the barking dog loose for the sequel, with disastrous, rambling consequences. It wasn’t until The Avengers that we saw what good Downey Jr. could truly do with Tony Stark when a writer like Joss Whedon fed him material that was more fun than the shtick he could make up in his head. Shane Black, who Marvel have pitched this gamble on, is a similarly talented, smart and cool writer, and the result is the most satisfying Iron Man film to date.

Sometime after the Battle of New York in The Avengers, Tony Stark is struggling. He can’t sleep. He can’t stop building suit upgrades. He suffers panic attacks. He fears for the end of his relationship with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), the only thing he really cares about now. Suffering from PTSD and having taken a serious ego-bruising at realising that there are beings outside his world far smarter and more powerful than he, Stark shuts himself off to his tinkering, leaving the superhero duties to James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), formerly War Machine, now jingo’d up in red, white and blue as the ‘Iron Patriot’.

But when warmongering machiavelli the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley on a healthy dose of fun pills), the (un)acceptable face of terrorism, comes to challenge Stark, revenge becomes the name of the game. A crippling first strike by the Bin Laden lookalike leaves Stark stranded, friendless and temporarily suit-less, at a time when he is needed most, to take on twisted biological weapons expert Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce, finally back on form) and his band of suped-up military vets.

All you need is glove: Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark

All you need is glove: Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark

Bookmarked by a witty narration by Downey Jr. that plants us firmly in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang territory, Iron Man 3 kicks along at a solid pace, focusing far more on character development and interaction than exploding robots. Enough references are made to the events of Avengers to make it clear we remain in that universe, but the personal vendetta aspect (set up from the opening flashback scenes) makes it clear that this is a Stark only venture, and for good reason.

There’s a moment in Iron Man 2 where Iron Man takes out almost every villain with one laser attack, making the character all too powerful and much of the action redundant. What Iron Man 3 focuses on is how the more sophisticated Stark’s designs become, the more risks he takes, and thus the more vulnerable a character he is – Stark’s kryptonite is hubris. One of the film’s finest action sequences sees Stark suit-less, and forced to MacGyver himself a small arsenal. An aerial escape battle culminates in a finer gag than any the series (including The Avengers) has delivered thus far. The final showdown, which starts off sloppy with far too much happening on screen at once, boils down to a face-off between hero and villain that features the finest weapon-switching duel since the catfight in Crouching Tiger.

The character-building is truly commendable, although the script is not without fault. The Christmas setting, a Black staple, forces the morals home a little too heavily. The story’s link to White House intrigue feels utterly redundant and unfortunately echoes the recent G.I. Joe 2. The second act, with Stark stranded in wintry Tennessee, is too much of a diversion with too little of a payoff, although child actor Ty Simpkins deserves applause for holding his own against Downey Jr., and for not being irritating.

Back on the leash, Downey Jr. is as much fun as he’s ever been, with Paltrow and Cheadle remaining strong support. Favreau, relegated to cameo appearance, seems almost delighted to have the pressure of directing taken off his now much larger shoulders. James Badge Dale is impressively intense as a fire-powered henchman – the first such role in the MCU thus far. Rebecca Hall, as a morally concerned scientist and former Stark fling, gets the short end of the stick in a frankly underwritten and largely unnecessary role.

Aftershock: Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts

Brian Tyler’s decent but repetitive score begins to grate after a while, but the film looks sharp throughout, and Black’s script, co-written with rising talent Drew Pearce, makes this one of the most original blockbusters in recent memory. The Mandarin’s speech about American bastardisation of Eastern culture, using as his example the fortune cookie, is one of the finest villainous rants ever. He similarly targets Hollywood’s famous Grauman’s Chinese Theatre as an Americanised evil, taking a nice little pot-shot at the studio system while also blowing up one of the few landmarks Roland Emmerich had not gotten around to yet.

The film’s ending is far more concerned with concluding an Iron Man Trilogy than with perpetuating the MCU, but there is still a lot of places these characters can go, and if audiences can adjust to this film’s more sardonic tone, a future beyond Avengers sequel appearances should be assured.

As an MCU film, sticking around until the end of the credits is a must for fans, although those excited for previews of coming attractions may be disappointed to hear the witty scene is more “shawarma” than “Thanos”, if you take my meaning.

4/5

(originally published at http://www.nextprojection.com)

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Crisis of the Guardians – Where did DreamWorks go wrong?

Exactly who is this film aimed at?

Exactly who is this film aimed at?

Rise of the Guardians fell under the radar somewhat in late 2012. A family entertainment for Christmas (set at Easter) with some wonderful animation and an undeniable sweetness at its core, it has under-performed hugely for DreamWorks, only now in late January taking in twice its $145m budget, which will elevate it to just a notch above “disappointing”.

Exactly what went wrong is unclear. Admittedly trying to portray childhood fantasy icons such as Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy as Avengers-style superbeings is a bit much to ask of audiences, but compared to other US animated films released in recent years this was still a step above the average.

For all its problems, from the basics of its premise to its mismanaged marketing, I for one enjoyed Rise of the Guardians. The animation was as strong as DreamWorks has ever produced, and the story provided a deeply affecting reversal in the final act for the character of Jack Frost that was as good as any moment in How to Train Your Dragon (although Dragon admittedly had more than its fair share of those moments).

But while I liked Guardians, I could not shy away from the fact that the universe it created repeatedly threw up mental roadblocks for me. Overt silliness in the dialogue or subtle visual references to other projects (intentional or not) would grab me by the brain and drag me right out of the movie. I imagine, given the box office returns and lack of word-of-mouth, that I cannot be alone in this.

Here are the issues that troubled me most.

1. Guardians! Guardians! Guardians!

No, you did not see this movie

No, you did not see this movie

It’s not DreamWorks’ fault of course, but my goodness there are a lot of films with “guardians” in the title doing the rounds of late. Back in 2010, Zack ‘300’ Snyder directed Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, a CGI owl fantasy movie. If you know five people who saw it, you’re probably lying.

Elsewhere, Marvel have announced their most risky project for “Phase 2” of their Avengers series, Guardians of the Galaxy, which features a brigade of intergalactic superheroes (including a rocket-powered racoon – take THAT magic owls!).

Of course what both of those films have over Rise of the Guardians is that we know from the title precisely what they are guardians of. Rise of the Guardians could be set at a foster home for all anyone can tell.

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2. Guardians Will Rise

Planets full of apes have also been known to rise

It was an unfortunate year to choose “rise” to be the load-bearing noun in your movie title. The Dark Knight Rises was one of the biggest hits of 2012, and laid a flat-out claim to the verb “rise” and all its subsidiaries.

But Rise of the Guardians really is a nothing title. In fact, when we first meet the Guardians as a group, they are already an assembled unit; there really is no rising going on here. It’s just a title for the sake of it; that “rise” could be the most redundant noun in a movie title since Aliens Vs Predator: Requiem.

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3. Where have I seen this before?

Oh what fun Jack Skellington might have had behind the other doors...

Oh what fun Jack Skellington might have had behind the other doors…

I won’t be the first to point out the fact that Rise of the Guardians is more or less the film that happens when you open all the doors in The Nightmare Before Christmas. Far more troubling though is the similarities to the plot of (sorry about this) The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause.

Seriously, just try and see how much of that trailer you can get through before wanting to jam a fork in your eyes.

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4. Logorama

What if he hooked a person?

In this secular fantasy, the Guardians take their orders from The Man in the Moon – who traditionally appears in all DreamWorks films as a part of the company’s logo. In Guardians, is he a stand-in for God, or an overt advertisement for the company that produced the film?

It’s like having James Bond report for duty, only to learn that M has been replaced by MGM, a giant 80-year-old lion.

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5. Tom Hiddleston!

He even LOOKS like Tom Hiddleston!

What a 2012 Tom Hiddleston had! Riding high from the get-go after strong performances in War Horse and The Deep Blue Sea, he played the maniacal villain Loki in The Avengers before voicing the dastardly Pitch Black in Rise of the Guardians. How could things possibly get any better for… wait. That was Jude Law?! Well fuck me they sound alike!

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6. Santa LOLZ

If there’s one thing kids love it’s Night of the Hunter references

Santa Claus having a Russian accent makes a lot more sense than the English accent he regularly has in films (although it’s not quite the Turkish accent it should be). But seriously, Alec Baldwin does the voice?! That’s the best Russian accent they could dig up?!

Further to the film’s secular standpoint, Guardians moves away from calling him Santa and he is regularly referred to in the film as “North”.

But wait a second, his name is North, he travels all over the world, and his best friend is the Easter Bunny? Where have I see this one before…?

Oh.

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7. Rabbit-proof farce

Is that an Aboriginal tattoo in his fur?

Is that an Aboriginal tattoo in his fur?

Hugh Jackman’s Easter Bunny gets upset when people get his species wrong and think he’s a kangaroo. “It’s the accent, isn’t it?” he asks in his actual Hugh Jackman voice. Yes, it is. That, and the boomerangs. If you want people to not think you’re a magic kangaroo, put down the goddamn boomerangs.

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8. Oh Guillermo…

Who honestly thought this didn't look stupid!?

Who honestly thought this didn’t look stupid!?

Executive producer and top-tier visual fantasist Guillermo del Toro’s fingerprints are all over this movie, but nowhere more so than in its interpretation of the Tooth Fairy as a humanoid hummingbird woman. Honestly, I preferred his tooth fairies in Hellboy 2.

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9. I represent the estate of Miyazaki Hayao…

You know, I can handle the fact that Santa’s workshop shares its architectural plan with the bathhouse from Spirited Away. What I can’t handle is that the yetis that populate it look like this:

What does that remind me of?

What does that remind me of?

Goddammit.

Goddammit.

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10. Safe sex elves

Insert additional "horn" comment here

Insert additional “horn” comment here

I get the need to redesign the look of Santa’s elves, but why must they look like they’re wearing festive condoms? It brings a whole new meaning to the term “bell-end”.

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11. Putting all your eggs in one basket case

Kill it! Kill it with fire!

Kill it! Kill it with fire!

Living eggs that walk were creepy enough in Garfield and Friends. This was the stuff of candy-coloured nightmares.

Yeah, remember Garfield and Friends!

Yeah, remember Garfield and Friends!?

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12. The last three issues, combined

So the film explains where the Guardians come from rather well, but where the hell do all their minions come from?! Are the little hummingbird fairies actually the Tooth Fairy’s children?! This is the kind of thing that keeps me up at night.

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13. Rabbit Hole 2

Nicole Kidman in Rabbit Hole, from children's entertainer David Lindsay-Abaire

Nicole Kidman in Rabbit Hole, from children’s entertainer David Lindsay-Abaire

Based on the book series The Guardians of Childhood by William Joyce, the film was adapted by David Lindsay-Abaire. When he’s not scribbling family entertainment like Robots or the Shrek musical, Lindsay-Abaire is busy winning Pulitzer Prizes for work like his play Rabbit Hole, about family disintegration following the loss of a child. No one else finds this combination jarring?

Is it a coincidence that the Easter Bunny in Guardians has the ability to open magic rabbit holes anywhere he chooses? Does David Lindsay-Abaire shit in the woods?

No.

Probably not.

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The Amazing Spider-Man – The reboot is on the other foot

Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker-Man

The world has become a cynical place. Here we have a massive franchise reboot of a box office certainty only 10 years after the original, and five years after the last entry in that run. Desperate to hold onto the rights to the Spider-Man name and make more money (and, more importantly, deny money to Disney/Marvel), Sony have pumped out this curious superhero origin tale, The Amazing Spider-Man (was he not amazing back in ’02?), which is at times all too familiar and at others unsettlingly new. Even Marvel had the cop-on to pick up The Incredible Hulk more or less where Hulk had left off five years previous. Did Sony really need to put us through all this again?

But audiences are as guilty of this cynicism, many assuming the worst before release and, overwhelmed by the success of The Avengers, bitter that Sony’s declaration to use the Spider-Man brand will deny us a Spidey-Iron Man crossover anytime soon. You think this is bad, wait ‘til you see what Fox do with the Fantastic Four to hang onto those rights! The Amazing Spider-Man is actually a pretty decent entry in the comic book movie canon.

The problem is that now the previous films seem like a waste of our time. All of a sudden, everything we’ve been through with Peter Parker is undone. Tobey Maguire is off with Gatsby, Sam Raimi is off in Oz and Kirsten Dunst is basking in the glow of Melancholia. So we’ll start over. I guess.

Peter Parker is a young scientifically minded but socially awkward teenager who… no. No I’m not doing this again. You know it. You’ve seen the trailer. Spider bite, magic powers, gets the girl. So what’s different?

The film opens with young Peter Parker being left with his Uncle Ben and Aunt May (his traditional surrogates) by his mysterious parents, who flee for clandestine, sciencey reasons. Peter is left with abandonment issues and an identity crisis. In high-school, now played by Andrew Garfield, he begins the search for information about who his parents were, leading him to sky-scrapping science-hub OsCorp and his father’s former lab partner Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans). This is where the infamous spider bite happens, although the underlining issue here is that the spiders were a project Peter’s father had been working on. Comparisons to the movie Hulk come to mind. Curiouser and curiouser and possibly disastrouser.

Now super strong and flexible Peter becomes king of the schoolyard by showing off his tricks on the basketball court (in a scene worryingly similar to one from the cinematic travesty Catwoman). He begins to woo the girl, Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), a blonde, sassy science-type herself, and Peter’s original love interest in the comics way back in the 1960s. Because these details matter. Of course all this success and cool skateboarding comes with a sacrifice, and his relationship with Aunt May (Sally Field) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) becomes strained. Soon Ben is gunned down by an assailant who Peter selfishly chose not to stop during an earlier robbery. Racked with guilt, Peter decides to become a hero.

Peter Parkour

Well actually no, he doesn’t. He decides to go on a massive vigilante hunt tracking down goons who resemble his uncle’s killer. While doing the police a minor service, his actions are more than a little shameful and all too Batman. Thankfully a supervillain is on the way.

Dr Connors, with Peter’s help, develops a cross-species chemical thingy that might allow him to regrow his missing arm (we never find out where it went) by injecting himself with lizard DNA, but sure enough within minutes he’s a giant lizardman wreaking havoc on NYC. Determined to save the city and the man who can tell him about his parents (probably, Peter never mentions it again), Spider-Man must battle the Lizard and… well, it’s all the same from here on in.

This can only end badly

The Amazing Spider-Man has a lot going for it. Adeptly directed by Marc Webb (who made the appealing but bafflingly overrated (500) Days of Summer), it balances strong scenes of teenage anxiety with a surprisingly believable romance and some dizzying, well-choreographed and rather amazing action sequences. James Horner’s score is suitably epic throughout.

Andrew Garfield, who has frustratingly played the tear-stained, put-upon barely-adult all-too-many times before, finally gets his day in the sun as a character who avenges all his previous geek roles by leaping into affirmative action. And he really gets into the role, convincingly balancing moments of gentle tragedy with witty retorts during his wall-crawling escapades. Emma Stone similarly gets a strong role to sink her teeth into, a character who has all the pluck the Mary Jane role lacked in the original Spider-Man trilogy. Stone and Garfield, an item since filming this movie, have a suitably awkward but intense onscreen chemistry, and with Webb’s background in romantic comedy, it is this chemistry rather than the 3D action (or the silly “the lizard knows my daddy” sub[?]plot) that carries the film. Sheen and Field are similarly fine in their supporting roles.

Honestly I’d be jealous if they weren’t so damned adorable together

But as I’ve noted already, all this charming romance and quippery is buried in a bog-standard villain-of-the-week plot. Rhys Ifans, coasting carelessly, plays a role that has barely been sketched. Connors is not jealous of Parker (Sr or Jr), he’s not overly ambitious, and while he wants his arm back he doesn’t seem utterly traumatised by not having it. After his injection, he succumbs to a bad case of what the villains in the first two Spider-Man films fells prey to – superpower-induced megalomania. (Say what you will against Spider-Man 3 (please do, it’s wretched), but at least its villains had reasons to be bad). Once Connors becomes the Lizard, a weird CGI creature that more closely resembles Spider-Man villain the Scorpion than the traditional Lizard, he does nothing but rampage, attack children and try to poison New York.

The various other plot threads of the film are abandoned like somany threads of webbing across the skyline of Manhattan. The mystery of Parker’s parents is not left unexplained, but rather sidelined by the reptile hunt. Similarly Ben’s killer remains at large, possibly set to become the Sandman in a likely sequel (dear lord no). References to Connors’s experiments being the only thing that can “save” Norman Osborn (owner of OsCorp, villain of the first Spider-Man and traditionally the web-slinger’s arch-nemesis) are similarly discarded, with only hints that he may be connected to the Parkers’ vanishing.

Ben and May: The only parents a good Spider-Man will ever need

And this Osborn stuff is at the root of The Amazing Spider-Man’s problems. While almost justifying itself as a reboot, it fails to do what is required of major comic book movies now: world-building. While the Avengers movies all hinted at their shared universe, even before them Batman Begins hinted at the rise of the Joker in its final reel. While Osborn is clearly part of the Amazing world, the only real hint at things to come is a mid-credits sequence about Peter’s parents. But at this stage who cares? What The Amazing Spider-Man needed more than anything was a last-minute stunt casting, having a major actor play Osborn or some other Spider-Man nemesis (or ally) to make us believe in this world. Because believing in this world requires us to believe it is better than the Raimi Spider-verse. And while Spider-Man 3 tainted that world to no end, it was still a place that we cinemagoers spent many years of our lives. So if we’re going somewhere new, you need to sell it better, and build it bigger, than this.

There is plenty of general clumsiness on display – a deus ex machina referred to early on as “gathering dust for 15 years”, but which is clearly plugged in, stands out – but we’ve come to expect this sort of thing from our blockbusters. A forced reference to Spider-Man’s traditional origin in the wrestling ring goes down like a lead balloon, while a skateboarding montage seems as desperate to be cool as the ‘Stayin’ Alive’ strut from Spider-Man 3 was desperate to be embarrassing. A scene where Parker tries to make money off photographing his alter-ego in action reaps no reward, denying a link to his traditional profession and also failing to explain how he pays for his nightly pursuits. At least the ubiquitous Stan Lee cameo (he created most of Marvel’s biggest heroes, in case you’ve missed him before) is amongst the cleverest yet.

The action scenes are slick and witty, although one sequence oddly falls back on the jingoism that those in the original Spider-Man films demanded in reaction to 9/11 – now in 2012 it feels very out of place. Determined to scupper the fun, the 3D effects on display are amongst the most jarring seen since Clash of the Titans, with horrendously blurred backgrounds and double imaging rife.

Needlessly overlong (it is but a few minutes shorter than Spider-Man 3!), The Amazing Spider-Man is still arguably the best Spider-Man movie yet. Its decision to set the story entirely during Peter’s high school days is a wise one, which adds to the character’s confusions and uncertainties. The love story is more believable, and Garfield’s Parker is more likeable than Maguire’s. Ironically it is in the major shifts from the original, particularly the empty mysterious parents story, that The Amazing Spider-Man falls down. Because of this, all the best bits in the film feel like retreads, even if for the most part they are pulled off with far more success than Raimi ever managed.

Quiet, no one likes you!

If 2002’s Spider-Man didn’t exists, The Amazing Spider-Man could have been one of the superhero movie genre’s greats. A truly amazing Spider-Man movie still alludes Hollywood, and probably will until Marvel get their hands on the rights.

3/5

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The Avengers, by Marvel, who Assemble – Review

Thor and Captain America watching the box office returns

It is now four years since Iron Man was released, a decent superhero movie that still felt a bit like any other. The big difference came once the credits had rolled, and Samuel L. Jackson appeared as comics spymaster Nick Fury to foreshadow The Avengers. This was an unprecedented move on behalf of Marvel, the comics powerhouse behind this almighty band of heroes. Actors crossed over between the ensuing films, and unlike the contradicting X-Men films, continuity was maintained – when one character is called away from the events of Iron Man 2, he shows up in the events of Thor.

And now the superheroes are brought together; Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, the Hulk, Iron Man 2 support Black Widow and Thor cameo star Hawkeye, all under the watchful eye (singular) of  Nick Fury; to battle Thor’s nemesis, and brother, Loki. And while that sentence is a mouthful, and the idea seems over-ambitious, it works. It really works.

You see this? This works.

Because this isn’t just sandwiching some characters together like Freddy Vs Jason or the proposed Batman and Superman movie of the 1990s. Despite their enormous differences these characters have, they have already been set up to exist within the same universe, so the film can cut to the chase without the slightest hint of being patronising.

The film opens with Loki, now an intergalactic outlaw, being given a chance for revenge by a shadowy otherworldly figure, provided he can summon an alien army to Earth. To do this he needs the Cosmic Cube (the macguffin from Captain America: The First Avenger, a further link), which is in the hands of Nick Fury’s agency SHIELD. Once he has achieved that, Fury has no choice but to call in the big guns, summoning superheroes from around the world to take down the impending threat. Thor, the god of lightning, returns to Earth to help take down his brother.

“Kneel before Zodki.”

And that’s pretty much all there is to it. The characters gel, the dialogue snaps back and forth for the most part, and when things explode they explode in style. Writer/director Joss Whedon, best known for creating Buffy the Vampire Slayer and countless prematurely cancelled TV shows, brings his comic book fascination and expertise to the table, creating a superhero movie that is as silly as can be while also remaining utterly confident in itself.

The incredible star cast are solid across the board. Robert Downey Jr. does what he does best as Tony ‘Iron Man’ Stark; it’s a role he has down to a T. Mark Ruffalo takes over the maligned role of Bruce Banner, the rage-riddled man behind the Hulk, and makes a strong effort with it. Chrises Hemsworth and Evans show the same committed passion for the roles of Thor and Captain America that they did in their solo adventures. Scarlett Johansson makes a case for a solo adventure of her own as the super-lithe assassin Black Widow, and Jeremy Renner has some fun as bow-and-explosive-arrow expert Hawkeye, even if he does get Cyclops’d off for half the film (X-Men 2 fans will get that one). Tom Hiddleston continues to charm as the Machiavellian Loki, although his character lacks the Shakespearean drama here that he had in Thor. The side are let down, ever so slightly, by Samuel L. Jackson, who invests every line with the same shouty drama that he did the infamous punchline in Snakes on a Plane. His scenes, by and large, steal energy from the film.

“Quick, this is our only dramatic scene in the whole movie, say something powerful and memorable.”

Fortunately this film has plenty of energy to spare, and much of that is down to Whedon’s witty script. While the drama drags in the first and second acts, there are enough one-liners and moments of superb comic timing that make up for these pitfalls. One gag about the getting of and not getting of pop culture references, involving Captain America and Thor, deconstructs the very idea of pop culture references in the same way that Whedon’s other current release, The Cabin in the Woods, deconstructs the entire horror genre.

Whedon is also careful not to let any two heroes hog the spotlight, à la that regrettable other “superhero” team-up, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. In the central action sequence that closes the second act, two of the heroes with the potential to steal the film, Iron Man and Captain America, are given the least exciting task, while Thor and Hulk spar, Black Widow and Hawkeye get their martial arts on and even fan-favourite Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) gets to blow stuff up!

The final act, in which the Avengers fend off an invasion of New York City, visually calls to mind the endless finale of Transformers: Dark of the Moon, but it is so less cluttered and more focused, giving each character a set objective and a limited space and time to achieve them in. Surprisingly, it is the Hulk who makes this sequence his own, rampaging across the screen in gleeful bounds of carnage. You’d be hard-pressed to hold in a raucous cheer as the Hulk smashes everything in sight!

HULK AWESOME!!!

The Avengers is far from perfect, but it is so much greater than what it might have been. Setting itself up nicely for both a sequel and a return to the solo films, this will be one of the most fondly remembered and rewatched blockbusters of the decade.

Avoid the 3D if you can, and please, stay for the bonus scene in the credits. Because why wouldn’t you?

4/5

(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.

That's all folks!

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