Tuesday, 7 February 2012

My Top 15 Films of 2011


You can't imagine the blood sweat and tears that went into this list. I'm serious between the months of November and January I must have watched a good 50 films to prepare for this list. Now before we start I'd like to make a few notes, first of all these are going by US release dates, second I didn't see "My Week With Marilyn" or "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" despite my darndest efforts, so I'll just assume they were good and watch them hopefully in the future. Finally these aren't necessarily in order, it's more or less going up in quality and the final three really are my top three, but it's not in exact order. So without further ado...

*amendment* I have no seen "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" and had I seen it before it would have been high on this list. Great, great movie

 Hanna

I was surprised by the number of people who told me this film looked bad from the trailers. A teenage girl trained to be a deadly assassin... sounded pretty good to me. But "Hanna" was not the film I expected, rather than being a flat out, fun, over the top action film it was more a character study of Hanna, who is absolutely fascinating and brilliantly portrayed by Saoirse Ronan. She manages to be both sweet and innocent at times and violently deadly at others. An interesting notice about this film is it's directed by Joe Wright, who's most famous for "Pride & Prejudice" and "Atonement" and his transition from period romantic drama to spy thriller goes off without a hitch. "Hanna" reminded me in many ways of another of my favourite films "Run Lola Run" and in fact seems like the film Tykwer should have gone on to make. This is partially due to the excellent score provided by the Chemical Brothers ensuring that the film never feels like it's slowing down. Now to say this film is not a flat out action film, is to do it a disservice as the action films in this film are astounding. The highlight of the entire film is a sequence in which Hanna's father, played by Eric Bana is pursued from and airport into the underground where he single handily takes  five CIA operatives with hand to hand combat, and it's all one shot. Highly recommend this film.

The Rum Diary

Another film this year I felt was given the short shrift. I really liked this film, and when I went back to see it again, expecting to like it less, I absolutely loved it. Johnny Depp reprises his role as gonzo founding journalist Hunter S Thompson, in what is more or less an origin story of one of the most brilliant contemporary writers. He's given a job in Puerto Rico where he soon finds himself at odds with the "bastards" he's forced to work with who rape the land for their own good and leave behind and impoverished society. Johny Depp nails it once again and is as always infinitely watchable. He paints Thompson as equal parts genius and sociopath striving to find his voice of protest in a world he sees as so flawed. The film is beautiful, Puerto Rico is simply a paradise on earth and the fact it's set in the swinging sixties, my favourite time period, full of slick hair, jazz clubs and people smoking in doors, doesn't hurt my adoration of the film. It also has one of my favourite lines in any film, after meeting the love interest, played by the stunning Amber Heard, Depp says quietly to himself "O god, why did she have to happen...just one I was doing so good without her." While it's true that most of the best dialogue in the film comes straight from the mouth of Hunter S. Thompson, the story that ties his message together is nothing if not thoroughly enjoyable.

The Guard

I very nearly saw this in the cinema; unfortunately at the last second my friend decided he'd rather see "The Inbetweeners Movie." This was the wrong choice. "The Guard" might be the ultimate genre mix film, its equal parts crime, comedy, buddy cop film and noire story. Gleeson plays the sole Garda, Irish policemen, of a small rural village in Ireland. He's clearly not much for law himself, the film opens with him stealing LSD of a corpse, but it's clear that in such small town, there's no real need for police anyway. That is until a bizarre murder brings in an FBI officer, played by Cheadle, who thinks this village is going to the be base of a drug smuggling operation he's been tracking for months. Initially everyone seems totally set against Gleeson's character, understandably as all he does is drink, whore and make racist jokes at Cheadle's expense. Unfortunaly for both the criminals and the law enforcement it slowly becomes apparent that, when given the chance Gleeson's character is very competent at his job. What follows is a quirky tale of these two very unlikely friends working together to solve a case that seems unsolvable. It's more than a little bit heart-warming for such a twisted tale, and is without doubt one of the most enjoyable films of 2011. 

 The Descendants
O George Clooney, you perfect specimen of humanity you. Clooney is one of my top guys, he is the definition of charm, charisma and a great actor and director on top of it. He is however, not as young as he used to be, having turned 50 last year, and this seems like a film in which he's fully accepted that. In Alexander (and the appropriate name of the year award goes to) Payne's latest film, dealing as always with coming to terms with difficult human conditions and characters who love to lie to themselves about themselves, shows Clooney as a rich, very rich, land baron and lawyer who's life has just gone from paradise to hell in a hand basket when his wife became comatose after a boating accident. He describes himself as "the backup parent" and is forced to take care of his two troublesome daughters whilst also dealing with some horrible secrets his wife kept hidden. Essentially "The Descendants" is a film about family, in the purest sense of the word and all the madness, heartache, anguish and beauty that comes with it. Highly recommend this film.

13 Assassins

A foreign film? Does this mean I qualify as a pretentious art critic? O no wait I don't have "The Tree of Life" on my list, then again it is a terrible movie. "13 Assassins" is not a terrible movie. It is fact a great movie. Japanese director Takashi Miike brings us an epic Samurai tale, about a group of assassins (guess how many) undertaking a clandestine quest to slay a monstrous, psychotic man who's about to ascend to a position of extreme power in the government of Japan. When I say epic, I mean epic, the film is two and half hours. The time is however spent wisely. The initial half an hour introduces us to the hero and the villain, and a lot of effort goes into making you hate the villain and O BOY do they make you hate him. Really really hate him. The next hour is spent assembling the 13 Assassins and watching them step by step plan their daunting task of killing this man and his army of guards. The final hour is hands down the most impressive action sequence I have seen in a film to date. It is essentially an hour long fight between these 13 men and army taking place in a town which the samurai have converted into the world’s biggest mousetrap. It's as thrilling and inventive as any action sequence I've seen and almost feels more like a war if only the numbers weren't so small. The true greatness of the film is they put effort into making you really care for each of the samurai, most of who have by the end distinct and unique personalities and you become obsessed with their success. And trust me when I say the payoff is worth it.

Warrior

This year was full of pleasant surprises and perhaps none more so than "Warrior". A film I'd dismissed entirely as it had received little to no fanfare and on the basis that it was an MMA sports film. Not a lot there to grab my attention. What was there to grab my attention was Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton two actors I'm quite fond of and this was enough for me to give it a shot. I was not let down. "Warrior" is a hard film to sell someone on because you tell them the premise and it sounds cheesy as all hell and quite stupid. Two brothers both enter the biggest MMA tournament in the world and end up having to fight each other to win. Sounds dumb right? Wrong! What "Warrior" pulls of so well is telling not one, but two underdog stories in one film. They manage to make you root for both brothers equally so that when the big showdown comes you don't know who to support and you can't believe that the film will find a resolution as perfect as the one it does. No cheese, no stupidity just raw human emotion. Edgerton plays a down on his luck teacher, who's happily married to his childhood sweetheart with one kid and another on the way. He's struggling to make ends meets and begins participating in underground tournaments to make a little extra cash which ends up getting him fired. Hardy plays the more unstable of the two and Afghanistan veteran, clearly still disturbed by his traumatic childhood with an abusive alcoholic father and a brother who abandoned him when he was 18. Their father played by Nick Nolte is one of the films highlights, playing a reformed alcoholic trying to earn back the trust of these two boys who have no interest in him anymore. The dynamic between these three men is the highlight but every performance in this films shines, and the fights are as brutal and brilliant as the story and the characters. 

Midnight In Paris

If I had anything had anything bad to say about "Midnight In Paris" it would simply be that it's a shame I couldn't love it more. If you don't already know the premise of this movie I won't spoil it for you because I genuinely think is one of the best films to go in blind to. Let me start off by saying that I love Paris, favourite place in the world wouldn't even begin to describe and for me that's probably the best thing about this film. It captures the beauty and majesty of the city so perfectly, as well as giving us a protagonist, played by Owen Wilson, who knows exactly how to enjoy it. The real problem I had with this film is that you have to be quite well read to really get the most out of it. It's filled with cameos and jokes about great literary and artistic icons all too many of which I'm afraid completely passed me by, and since they come and go at such pace I often didn't realize who someone was until they'd left the film for good. That said even ignorant old me got enjoyment out of watching the performances of the ones I did recognize (Adrian Brody's Dali was especially enjoyable.) Of course the film doesn't entirely rely on this gimmick; otherwise I wouldn't have enjoyed it nearly as much. More than anything it's just a story about a man hiding the truth from himself and having a very surreal experience to help him come to terms with the state of his life and what he needs to do to improve it. And it's filled with as much wit and charm as any Woody Allen film.

The Artist

If you would dismiss this film, as my History teacher did, so flippantly as to say "It's a silent film, why would I watch that. There's a reason we got rid of silent films. Because they're crap" I would tell you that maybe you just shouldn't watch films anymore. "The Artist" was the first silent film I saw and it has made me want to watch many many more. This film focuses on George Valentin, Hollywood's number one movie star at the peak of the silent film era. Then suddenly sound is brought to films a technology Valentin dismisses as gimmicky and refuses to have any part of. This defiant decision unfortunately causes Valentin's downfall and as we watch him descend into poverty and oblivion we watch the rise of his co-star and love interest Peppy Miller. The really heartwarming thing about this film is their love story. No matter how far up the star ladder one of them climbs they remain unflinchingly loyal to the other. The film is absolutely full of charm and beauty and clever visual tricks only possible through the black and white filter in which it was filmed. The only complaint I could level against it is that it spends a little too long in the tragedy compared to the comedy but honestly that apart from that it's more or less flawless. The supporting cast shines as well especially John Goodman as the producer, and James Cromwell as Valentin's manservant...and of course Uggie, Valentin's performing dog...no seriously the dog is amazing.

Drive

Something that makes me truly love a film is if I didn't like it the first time I saw it, which was very much the case of "Drive". The first time sat through it I was pretty much expecting a Fast&Furious style car chase movie with Ryan Gosling as a strapping lead and Carey Mulligan as the damsel in distress. Not that case. "Drive" is instead a character study of, well, The Driver, played by Ryan Gosling. This character is absolutely fascinating as he seems kind and sweet at times and at other times is horrifically violent. He seems like a gentle giant who is trying to hide the fact that deep down he is a complete psychopath. "Drive" is a strange film also in the way that it's impossible to not watch in and think of the 80's from the neon-pink opening credits to the funky electro soundtrack yet it feels like a the great films of the 70's, films like "Taxi Driver." The dynamic between Mulligan and Gosling is as fascinating as they have this practically wordless connection with many scenes of them just looking at each other without saying a word. Around her and her child Gosling is totally caring and obviously genuinely cares for them yet when it seems like something or someone is going to put them in harm’s way he become absolutely lethal. The antagonist, a gangster played by Albert Brooks, who initially seems charming and funny but has a constant sense of threat to him. That's the thing about "Drive" everything seems so nice and simple on the outside but you quickly realize they are not good people.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Unlike a film like, say, "The Artist" I would not be able to hold it against someone if they didn't like "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy." I would however hold it against them if they told me it was a film people only say they liked to sound smart. "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" is not an extremely difficult to understand movie it's simply a movie that takes its time. If you're willing to give it that time that's fine, it's not for you, it is however very much my kind of movie. Gary Oldman gives one of his finest performer as George Smiley (an inappropriate name as I think he smiles only once in the entire film) a recently forcibly retired spy who's put in charge of a secret operation to discover the identity of a mole at the top of British Intelligence. What then ensues is an ever expanding web of intrigue with a star studded cast (Tom Hardy, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch to name a few) showing exactly how far into MI5 the mole has dug itself. It's a beautiful puzzle watching Smiley put all the pieces into place. The film is also wonderfully directed, it has the exact gritty dirty grey look a cold war film should and honestly seems more it was made in 1961 then 2011. If you didn't stop reading when I mentioned how slow paced it was you should almost definitely give this a look.

The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo
My golly me do I love me some David Fincher. This man has so far to me a flawless record. So as soon as I heard that he was doing a remake of this film I made sure to abstain from exposing myself to the story in anyway, I wanted to go in totally fresh. I feel this was a wise choice. It's easy to point fingers and say "This film was just made so lazy Americans don't have to read subtitles." Frankly I think that's a load of crap. I think Fincher saw this gritty intense thriller and thought, "You know what it's been a while since I've done one of these, and I am the master of that type of film, I want to do my version." And a glorious version it is sir. In case you don't already know the film is about a disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) who is hired by a rich industrialist (Christopher Plummer) hired to investigate the murder of his niece more than 30 years ago. Unable to complete this daunting task by himself Blomkvist enlists Lizbeth Salender (Rooney Mara) a young women who's equally part genius and psychopath. The two form an unlikely friendship and eventually something more than that as they solve the increasingly disturbing case of the girl’s disappearance.  It's the relationship between the two that drives the film almost as much as the narrative itself, they're both such fascinating characters. Fincher's style is as distinctive as always, gritty dirty and mean and getting Trent Reznor back to do the score as his score fills the film with an appropriate level of unease and discomfort. There are certain things to nit-pick like Craig not bothering with a Swedish accent unlike EVERY OTHER ACTOR IN THE FILM but on the whole this film blew me away. Go in cold if you can, if not I'm sure you'll still find this version thoroughly enjoyable.

Right before we get into my top 3 I have to take a little side not have a little rant about "The Girl With The Dragon "Tattoo and "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" as well as a number of other films I've seen recently. SPOILER ALERT's on? Good. Then I'll begin. Dear casting directors, if you're film is a mystery and you start of by telling us who the suspects are and they are all played by totally or relatively unknown actors except for one of them played by a well-known actor IT'S NOT TOO HARD TO WORK OUT WHO THE BLOODY CULPRIT IS. Either cast all unknowns or all celebrities but don't give me some group of bloody Swedes and then Stellen Skasgard and then expect me to be surprised when he turns out to be the villain. Right, rant over, let's proceed.

Limitless

And the pleasant surprise of the year award goes to. "Limitless" was not simply a film I wrote off because of the trailer, it was a film I flat out insulted because of the trailer. In case you haven't seen it the trailer tells you that Edward Mora, (Bradely Cooper) stumbles across a magic pill that allows him to access 100% of his brain unlike the maximum of 10% we can normally access. This is of course a completely erroneous premise, its nonsense to think we can only use 10% of our brain. This coupled with the fact Robert DeNiro is in it, an actor who unfortunately has recently become a mark of death to the quality of a film and the fact that I wasn't totally convinced of Cooper as an actor made we want to avoid this film completely. Good thing than that the only review I looked at for this film was a glowingly positive one.

I went to see this in the cinema, and then a week later I went to see it again. I rarely do this for films but Limitless was just one I couldn't wait to see again. The entire premise the trailer sells you on is a lie, the person who tells Mora about the function of the pill is making it up as he goes along and doesn't understand it himself. Rather than pill simply enhances you're brain function to a point where thoughts that would normally take hours or even days to materialize happen in seconds. As a result of this Mora's writer goes from an impoverished writer to a bestselling novelist and one of the most important business men working on Wall Street in a matter of days. He can learn languages overnight, talk his way into and out of any situation and of course make a LOT of money. He's hired by Robert DeNiro (who's in top form in this film) as a financial advisor to broker a major business deal.

The brilliant thing about this film is just like the pill itself (called NZT) allows you to juggle hundreds of things at once the film manages to do the same. Mora is faced with his business deal with DeNiro, an angry loan shark out for revenge, a stalker apparently out to kill him, his attempt to save his relationship with his girlfriend, the fact he's the prime suspect of a murder and the fact that the pill is very much a drug and he is struggling with addiction and running low on supplies. The film never drops any of these aspects, almost all are introduced in the first act and none of them are resolved until the end of the third act. Yet it never feels confusing or convoluted it balances all of the plots perfectly and works in a way where they all feed of each other and the film manages to make you feel smart watching it. To add to his Niel Burger, the director gives it a fantastic visual style from the subtle changes in lighting and contrast when Mora is high on NZT to the jaw dropping opening credit effect which needs to be seen to be believed Limitless is a visual treat. To top it off the script is brilliantly written and aside from a couple of awkward lines here and there it's filled with brilliant lines delivered so well you'll want to rewind and hear them again. There's nothing else like it and it's an absolute delight, it's the definition of entertainment.
Take Shelter

Yet another film that almost passed me by entirely. I watched "Take Shelter" on a whim after hearing someone praise Michael Shannon's performance.

"Take Shelter" is the scariest film I've ever seen. It is not a horror movie, a thriller or a mystery. It is a drama. It is a drama about a man going insane. It took me about five hours to watch "Take Shelter", it has a run time of exactly two hours. The reason it took so long for me to watch is because after about twenty minutes I started shaking and moaning in discomfort and I had to pause it, walk away and do something else for a while before I could return. This happened every twenty minutes until the end credits. Now that is probably not the best way to sell you on the film but honestly you have to watch it, I've never seen anything like it.

The plot of "Take Shelter" revolves around a blue collar worker (Shannon) who begins having apocalyptic visions in his dreams and hallucinations in real life and while he initially tries to ignore them, as is the case with all dreams they creep under his skin until he is forced to take action. He begins to build a storm shelter in his back garden to protect his wife (played by Jessica Chastain, who by the way deserves special mention because that woman was in about 7 films last year and was amazing in all of them) and deaf daughter against the coming storm he fears. This task comes at enormous emotional and physical strain to the family and that's one of the things which makes it so hard to watch. Shannon's character is a genuinely nice guy and so it's tragic to see him go through this, he realizes he's insane but knows he can't not build this shelter because he fears so desperately for his family. His wife also realized he's insane but loves him so much she supports him despite it. If that sounds at all cheesy trust me when I say it's not.
 
The other thing that makes "Take Shelter" so terrifying due to the brilliant narrative structure. Throughout the first third you keep seeing his visions and they come out of the blue so you're just sitting there watching the film, then in the second third you've gotten used to it and are expecting them to happen, which is when they stop but you don't become relaxed instead you become more tense the more you expect something to happen. Then the final third is when the whole film comes to fruition and we get to see whether or not his visions were accurate or not. The ending is one which will have anyone who sees it debating what it meant. One of the main reasons I want people to go see this is I need someone to talk about the ending with. It's perfect and beautiful, as is the rest of the film. If you have to stomach for it, go watch this by any means necessary.

Shame

Last but my no means possible least comes "Shame". "Shame" is my number one film of 2011, no doubt about it. It's risky to say you loved a film like "Shame" because you identified with it. From the very title it seems like it's the kind of film you don't want to see yourself in. Then you move onto the premise, a sex addict living in New York who's managed to shut himself off from the rest of the world so he can hide in a little bubble of insanity and satisfy his manic addiction until his equally manic sister intrudes and forces him to deal with his problems. Still not something you want to associate yourself with. Well let me be clear, that was not the aspect I identified with so much. This film, like many of my favorites of the year handle the topic of someone losing their mind and/or having to confront major issues of their personality and life and I suppose the reason that I connected with them so much is because that's what much of my 2011 was spent dealing with. 

"Shame" is about two people Brandon (played absolutely incredibly by Michael Fassbender in one of the finest performances I've yet seen) and his sister, Sissy (played once again by Mulligan who is equally fantastic). These two people come from the same background, and while it's never specified what this background is it's clear it was traumatizing. I was fortunate enough to see a Q&A with director Steve McQueen and writer Abi Morgan for this film in which McQueen said something which I think nails exactly what the film is about. It's about people trying to deal with a problem, one of them is imploding one of them is exploding. Fassbender's performance is so internalized, he hides all of his problems under a shell and his mania is only visible through subtle slight things. Mulligan on the other hand is completely manic. She's not on screen that much yet feels like another main character because whenever she's on she dominates it. One of the brilliant things about "Shame" is it tells you so little and gives you so much to think about. It's a true window of life film, you peer into this man’s life just long enough to get an impression without being giving too much information and then you're made to leave again full of questions and things to think about. It's a film that needs to be talked about and deserves to be talked about.

I'm afraid that this is not a film I can easily talk about on a blog on the internet. It is something you must see yourself and then seek me out for a face to face discussion, it is a very personal and very powerful film. There was nothing that even compared to me in 2011 and is the perfect way to end this list.



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