You may agree, you will more likely disagree, but here the twenty films this year that I enjoyed the most. Before you read on, I’d like to give a special mention to the five movies that almost made the list.
X-Men: First Class
Cowboys and Aliens
So with no further ado, let’s get into the top twenty!
20/ My Week With Marilyn
Considering that I’ve never had any liking for Marilyn Monroe nor understood the fuss about her, I would never have dreamed in a million years that a film about her would appear in one of my Top Twenty Films Of The Year. My Week With Marilyn, though, is a hugely pleasing endeavour. Maybe one assistant’s experiences on the set of an old movie is not the most exciting story in the world, but his tale is told with a fantastic sense of time and place, terrific observation, a great deal of humour [Monroe’s complete lack of professionalism is certainly not avoided] and a wistful sense of nostalgia; as much as anything else, this is a coming of age story, and a rather lovely one. Many Monroe fans disagreed, but for me Michelle Williams was her.
19/ The Debt
Though a remake of a 1997 Isreali film, and 2011 has been another year clogged with too many unwanted remakes, the original version is rather hard to see, so I have no regrets including The Debt in this list. This gripping old fashioned thriller, relying more on actual suspense than action in a way that reminded me of Alfred Hitchcock [no higher praise, in my opinion], also examines several moral dilemmas without ever losing sight of the fact that first and foremost it is a piece of entertainment. In telling two stories, one set in 1966 and one in 1997, it is undoubtably flawed by the fact that the cast members playing the characters in the two periods don’t look like each other enough, but I was totally gripped and sometimes surprised by the fascinating tale told by this film, and by Guy Madden’s [not a director who normally interests me] skill in telling it.
18/ True Grit
I’m going to admit something. I’m not too fond of the Coen Brothers. Their films usually either bore me or just leave me with a feeling of pointlessness. However, with True Grit, which easily betters the 1969 version, they had me right from the beginning, giving us one of the most convincing Old Wests in years with everything seeming authentic, yet also looking fabulous with Roger Deatkin’s gorgeous photography painting wonderful scapes with his pallet of mainly brown and yellow. The film’s story is told with a slow but steady pace, rarely getting bogged down in the bizarrely unfunny humour and dull diversions the Coen’s usually feel their films need [though I know what’s what their many fans love!], while Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfield are simply wonderful together. Towards the end, I was really involved and rather moved, and I couldn’t believe how surprised I was at that!
17/ The Fighter
Many boxing dramas follow the same basic template and the based on truth The Fighter doesn’t deviate too much from that, but that Rocky kind of stuff always gets me going, and so it did with this movie, though actually the majority of the actual fighting takes place outside of the ring, with Micky sparring with his junkie brother and his pushy mother. As much of a family drama then, but a totally riveting one, told with great intelligence, heart and a nice amount of humour, and with many fine performances, with Christian Bale back to his old brilliance which I felt he had recently lost, totally immersing himself in this character, and even Mark Wahlberg doing some acting. Come the end though, all I wanted to do was cheer, and you may call it corny, but what’s wrong with that, really?
16/ Cars 2
Before Cars 2, the only Pixar movie that didn’t get great reviews was Cars, and, going by the poor critical reception to Cars 2, which is very different from Cars [unlike Toy Story 3, which rehashed its two predecessors], I can only surmise that critics don’t like films about talking cars! Cars 2 though is also an action movie, moving at a fast and furious pace that never slows for a moment, and we all know how action movies, like horror movies, tend to be looked down up on by reviewers! Perhaps there’s less ‘heart’ than normal, but Pixar’s usual eye for detail is evident in every shot [you can have fun just watching the film to see all the subtle background changes to recognisable places], the laughs are usually really funny and the set pieces are often tremendously thrilling, all set to terrific music from Michael Giacchino.
15/ Attack The Block
Hoodies versus aliens! To be honest, I think it’s a genius concept, and Joe Cornish’s wonderful debut feature really does it justice. It successfully manages to replicate the feel of 80s classics like The Goonies and The Monster Squad, while being very convincing with its depiction of its environment and its protagonists, and not being afraid to make the latter dislikeable. Social comment is present, but it’s rarely in your face and doesn’t get in the way of the spills and thrills, which are almost constant, while the low budget almost helps, with nicely simple and lo-tech aliens. At times, I even started to route for the hoodies, which surprised me no end as I detest the little bastards and was ready to cheer the aliesn on!
14/ Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes
Who would have guessed, after Tim Burton’s shoddy remake of the 1968 classic, that someone would successfully revive the ‘Apes’ franchise? Rupert Wyatt managed to achieve this, with a terrific movie that managed to be intelligent and yet never forget to be entertaining. Its compelling story is told with a steady pace, giving it the space it needs, and makes us deeply care about both its human and ape characters, even being pretty emotional at times. Even the CG is excellent; for the most part, you really believe that these CG creations are apes. It successfully holds off on the action for most of its length, then rewards us with the terrific spectacle of apes running amuck. Perhaps the movie ended a bit suddenly, but never mind; there will probably be another one or more, and I can’t wait!
If you think about it, Hanna isn’t really that original. You can see bits of The Bourne Identity, Daryl, Kick Ass and others in there, while the many fairy tale allusions are hardly subtle. It is, though, striking filmmaking from Joe Wright, who makes the tale constantly interesting and grounds it in some kind of reality, while the set pieces show directorial virtuosity of a kind which isn’t seen much at the moment. Although a chase set set to The Chemical Brothers might be the most thrilling action scene of the year, it’s the quieter moments, with Hanna trying to understand a world that he has been hidden from, that work best, with Saoirse Ronan giving another absolutely brilliant performance in a very difficult role; I have no bones in saying that I believe she is the best young actress working in films today.
12/ Another Earth
Although I wasn’t entirely sure of this movie in places when I watched it, I can’t stop thinking about it. Part riveting human drama, part science fiction, this slow burning tale of guilt and redemption might move at a snail’s pace, but is utterly convincing throughout, is superbly directed by Mike Cahill [of whom I expect really great things in the future] employing a variety of cinematic techniques, and ends in a wonderfully puzzling manner that should send you away scratching your head, in the best possible way. The whole film has a trance-like feel, and more resembles European art house cinema than anything in the US, except maybe the equally beguiling and, for some, frustrating, Tree Of Life. The lovely and talented star [and co-writer] Brit Marlin is, I hope, to stay with us for a very long time.
11/ Source Code
Duncan James’ directorial debut Moon didn’t blow me away like it did many others, but this, his second movie, had me riveted within minutes. A terrific science fiction thriller which hardly ever slows down, Source Code adds just the right amount of humour, action and romance, resulting in a movie which, despite its complicated premise [the kind that makes your brain hurt if you think about it too much, though I love that!], is consistently entertaining and almost has something for everyone. Jake Gyllenhaal and Michelle Monaghan may very well be the nicest movie couple this year, despite having little time together, and Source Code is also not afraid to shamelessly go for emotion towards the end, and ends up being extremely moving. Well…..almost ends up being extremely moving, the movie has a weak, out of place last five minutes, but nobody’s perfect!
10/ 127 Hours
To my mind, Danny Boyle has yet to make a bad film, and it seems that whatever project he turns his hand to, he just manages to make it work. After Slumdog Millionaire, you’d probably think that he would do something easy. No, not Danny. He decided to make a movie featuring mostly one character and one location, a true life story of a guy trapped in a canyon for five days, and guess what? It’s as joyously cinematic as any film he has made. He keeps the pace fast and the many flashbacks and hallucinations ensure matters are not dull for a second, yet it’s also extremely convincing and has what might be the most queezy scene of the year, at least in mainstream cinema, though this is hardly a mainstream film in style. Best of all, James Franco, an actor I’ve generally thought as pretty awful, is a revelation in this movie, simply fantastic!
9/ Black Swan
Like Boyle, Darren Aronovsky just seems incapable of making crap, and the thrilling, disturbing drama and horror [yes horror, this is as much a horror movie as it is anything else] of Black Swan, which is in some way his twisted, dark take on The Red Shoes, resulted in the best acclaim he had had so far. Truth be told, the film is a little overrated, being very derivative of Repulsion and full of bits and pieces from other movies, the characters are all stock, while it doesn’t really seem to know what it is saying. Nonetheless, this is pulsating movie making, vivid and exciting, and even succeeds in making ballet seem thrilling. It gets under your skin in a way it’s almost impossible to describe, and stays there, long after you’ve exited the cinema.
Insidious is just out to do one thing; to scare the crap out of you, and it did that to me so much that I have yet to watch the film on DVD. By saying that, I am giving a horror film the highest praise I can give it. If you think about it, Insidious is basically a compendium of scenes and images you’ve seen in a hundred other chillers, a series of chills and jump scares, but who cares when it works so well? From the baby monitor to the thing standing behind the curtain, from the creepy family in ‘The Further’ to one of the Greatest Bloody Jump Scares Ever [even if it does feature Darth Maul!], from the…..nah, I’m going to stop, because I’m getting chills even thinking about all this stuff!
Hereafter seemed to leave most people cold. Instead of the supernatural thriller most probably expected, here was an extremely slow paced, talky drama closer to French art house than anything coming out of the United States at the time. I was a little bored at first, but the movie sucked me in, and I ended up totally riveted. It’s obviously the work of an old man, with a real sense of death being just around the corner, but it’s also a positive film, ending with a lovely romantic touch that seems to have bugged people more than anything else. It’s three stories are told with great care, so that you ending up hinging on every word, and, in a film full of stunning performances [though I won’t talk about the twins] and moments of great depth and truth, the scenes between Matt Damon and Bryce Dallas Howard really stand out, so touching they are almost painful, and culminate in the best acted scene of the year.
6/ Tree Of Life
For me the latest film from Terence Malick isalways a real treat, this filmmaker having a truly distinctive and personal voice which results in works of art which are truly beautiful. Tree Of Life is his strangest work to date, and it’s easy to understand why was so divisive. This supposed family drama is constantly shot in a manner which breaks most of the supposed ‘rules’ of filmmaking and inserts many metaphysical elements, in particular a half hour segment showing the creation of the universe? I loved its ambition, and the whole film flowed over me in an incredibly relaxing and fulfilling way. What does it all mean? Does it matter? This is Malick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but his movie is emotional and intimate while Stanley Kubrick’s is cold and sterile [though still brilliant in its own way]. It’s also very reassuring that both this and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy did well at the box office.
For ages I couldn’t decide whether or not to include this movie, because, though released in the UK early this year, it actually dates from 2009. Well, I have finally decided to include it, and out of all the movies on this list, I would imagine this is the least known, virtually bypassing UK cinemas to go straight onto DVD. That is a shame, because Amer is stunning filmmaking. Partly a tribute to Italian giallos of the 70s and partly a clever subversion on them, it’s full of things fans of that subgenre will notice, but is still entirely its own movie, progressing like a dream, often almost silent, and containing the most suspenseful climax in ages. The middle of the three sections is a little pointless, but Amer is overall incredible stuff from Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani, stunningly experimental [at one point the film even seems to break down!] and astoundingly audacious, but totally involving and gripping too.
4/ Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Here is a supposed thriller with no car chases, no explosions and only brief gunplay, yet is absolutely gripping from beginning to end. Its complex story of betrayal and loyalty requires total concentration, and cleverly often seems to hint at things that are never elaborated on, but I personally found its supposed slow pace perfect for such a story. It’s a downbeat, sullen movie, but the stunning cinematography and array of great performances ensue that the film, while being claustrophobic and intimate, is also constantly cinematic and entertaining, as long as you don’t expect James Bond. I have a feeling that on a second viewing, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy will be even more rewarding as I notice more things. With two great movies under his belt, what is this genius director Tomas Alfredson going to give us next!
3/ Gnomeo And Juliet
I expect many readers, not to mention my fellow HCF critics, will be surprised at my inclusion of this animated feature, but I don’t care. Gnomeo And Juliet is a wonderful delight, combining British eccentricity with Disney sweetness and Dreamworks knowingness; there are so many laughs that I just couldn’t stop chuckling, but the essence of the oft-told Romeo and Juliet is still there, with scenes that are far both involving than anything in the disappointing Disney offering Tangled. The level of invention is of a height I haven’t seen in an animated movie for years [it must have been so fun thinking it up], while the set pieces deliver all the excitement that one could expect. Even the songs by Elton John, not my favourite singer, work well. No other film this year brought such a silly grin to my face, and it still does on repeated viewings. Writing this, I want to go and watch it again now!
Mix the best of Walter Hill with the best of Michael Mann, add a dash of modern sensibility, and you get Drive, which seems nostalgic in the best possible way, yet still seems very fresh and up to date. This magnificent work of art is a film of few words, but director Nicolas Winding Refn uses every device at his disposal to create intense feeling, even using pop music, something I’m not too fond of in movies, very well. Drive has some of the most visually stunning moments of the year, and some of the most gripping, but it also has some of the most beautiful and even romantic ones. Ryan Gosling, who does so much with so little, might say fewer than one hundred words, and you aren’t told much about him, but every action, every look, is there to give us possible clues and make us attempt to fill in the blanks. Totally hypnotic and absolutely perfect in its pacing, it’s a near perfect example of great cinematic storytelling, technically astounding yet made so that you are totally and utterly involved with its characters, to the point that I ended up on the edge of my seat, hinging on every action, even on every word.
Drive is fantastic, and if I had written this list just a few weeks before it would have been my top film of the year, but for me Hugo beats it. This is Martin Scorsese’s gift to true lovers of film, those who cherish the past of cinema as well as the present, and while certainly not the conventional kid’s adventure movie which trailers gave the impression of it being, it is a film that I believe should be seen by children as long as they are not too used to the lightning paced, joke filled stuff they are generally force fed these days. It has a childlike innocence and sense of wonder of a kind you just don’t see much of in films today, and is packed with moments of utter charm and sweetness that I just adored. Scorsese manages the impossible; he uses CG well, with almost every shot done to make full use of the format, and the fascinating plot eventually leads to my favourite sequence of the year, when Scorsese allows to travel back in time and allow us to be present at the making of one of the earliest motion pictures. Completely and utterly heart warming without being schmaltzy, Scorsese has finally made a film that ranks with his old masterpieces like Taxi Driver, and, most amazingly, it’s a ‘U’!