I think 2011 has turned out to be a vintage year with well on the way to 200 hundred new releases that I thought were easily worth the time and money that I spent on them.
I’ve whittled that list down to the 101 films I think movie buffs should catch up with, for one reason or another, and sorted them, I’d say, into escalating order of interest.
Not every film here is for everyone, but they’ve all got something smart, unusual, interesting or exciting about them, and if you watch them with an open mind, you’ll have a whole variety of filmic experiences from the purely visual, to the narrative, to the more intellectual.
And bear in mind that I’m in the UK, so some of these may have been 2010 films for you, and some of your 2011 films won’t reach me until 2012.
Rainn Wilson and Ellen Page hold it together better than writer-director James Gunn does, but there’s enough provocation and plenty of interesting ideas in this ultraviolent take on the Kick Ass-style costumed vigilante idea to make it worth your time and dime. I just can’t promise that you’ll find it always coherent and sure-footed.
Co-writer Bryan Lynch ensures that there’s enough good gags and oddball conceits to distinguish this potentially tired and rote kids’ CG animal picture about an Easter Bunny with the voice and some of the attitude of Russell Brand. And despite a lot of standard-issue paddding, Hop is a cut above the Chipmunk films and no mistake.
Some documentaries will roar by on the inherent appeal of their subject matter, and this would be one of those. The titular Nim is a chimpanzee, raised as though human in the 1970s, and it’s hard not to care as he’s knocked back and forth by the competing ideologies of those he comes into contact with.
98. Final Destination 5
More from the deliberately contrived body-count franchise with a nice line in self-aware silliness. The best set-pieces this time around have some of the fun of a Road Runner cartoon, and there’s a fun twist that had me chuckling to myself.
3D used not for scale and scope and epic vistas, as has so often been the case, but to box the audience in and increase their sense of claustrophobia. Essentially a fairly polished b-movie but, thanks to the oppressive 3D work, Sanctum is one of a kind, as yet.
96. Transformers 3
Some expert CG animation and compositing and varied, often very intelligent 3D work help keep the film engaging even when the plot, characters and action staging threaten to bring it to a deadly halt. See it on a big screen, and see it in 3D, just don’t expect anything other than the stereoscopy and FX to be worth much to you at all.
95. No Strings Attached
My introduction to screenwriter Liz Meriwether. She’s good at little bits of character business, and managed to have a real idea of what she wanted her film to be about, way beyond just cashing in on the pretty stars, Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher. It stumbles in the last act, thanks to some silly plotting, but this is a very mainstream rom-com that also manages to have a heart of its own.
94. Bad Teacher
Director Jake Kasdan is capable of much more sophisticated and rich work that this, and don’t think Justin Timberlake really “got” his character here, but there’s a lot of good comedy bits and some good texture. A good time will be had by most.
Oh, and yes – I’ve seen some of The New Girl, the sitcom from the writer of 95 and the director of 94, and I liked it. They go really well together.
There’s not a lot going on in Drive, really, beyond the re-heating of some noirish notions from a well-thumbed playbook. It’s less of a great film than a bit of fun with the dressing up trunk, but Gosling does fine, Albert Brooks does better, and the music and cinematography ooze seduction. It doesn’t quite offer the same thrill as driving around the scary bit of town with the perfect song blasting from your in-car sound system, but it’s getting that way.
By treating the unfolding of its story as a real-time concern and not assuming you know what will happen any further along than you have already watched, much less how it all climaxes, this documentary biopic of racing driver Ayrton Senna manages to maintain significant narrative momentum. Not cutting away to talking heads or newly shot footage also assists in the single-minded presentation of a single-minded man.
91. Three Musketeers
Paul W.S Anderson has done it again, where “it” is “made a colourful and fizzy action adventure that has all the serious dramatic intention of a Saturday morning cartoon from the late 70s.” But the action scenes make a lot more sense, in pure movie-world terms, than in a lot of other popcorn pictures, and there’s the odd bit of eye-brightening invention. For examples, check out M’Lady’s sneaky plan with the clock chimes, or the 3D images of the tiled floor shifting to reveal a staircase.
90. Larry Crowne
There’s no way you could convince me that Larry Crowne takes place in anything like the real world, but that doesn’t mean it can’t reflect upon it. An odd fantasy for these strange times, and gently surreal in ways that were regularly surprising.
89. The Theatre Bizarre
The first of two horror anthologies on the list, though I don’t know what we can read into that. One segment in particular warrants mention: The Accident, as written and directed by Douglas Buck, is a child’s-eye view on the death of a deer hit by a car. It’s powerful and emotive. Note also that the first segment, the not entirely successful Mother of Toads, marks the return of Richard Stanley, director of Dust Devil and Hardware.
88. The Rum Diary
It would be cruel to compare The Rum Diary to its sister film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but Depp has once again captured the voice of Hunter S. Thompson. And so has writer-director Bruce Robinson who kept almost none of Thompson’s original words but plenty of his personality. There’s a real sense of dirt and sweat, and sadness.
I’ve never been a fan of the found footage genre – the audience is constantly banging heads against the conceit, knowing full well that they’re watching a fake – but there’s a lot of dappy fun to be had with this film about giant, Muppet-y trolls rampaging across the Norwegian countryside and the social outcasts who work to keep track of them for the good of an unknowing public.
Split into two strands, its the sections of Farewell that deal with the Russian mole who has decided to leak info to the West that are the most interesting. Emir Kusturica fits the role of the informant very well, and the character is nicely written. Not the most razzle-dazzle spy thriller of the year, nor the most intricate, but a very human one.
A sometimes uneven mix of living, breathing character comedy and more slick, smooth Big Screen Adventure. The title character is a CG creation with the voice of Seth Rogen, and he’s a deliberately over-familiar grey type. That he can generate the kind of interest and investment that a live action actor can says a lot for how well he’s blended into the film, tonally as well as technically.
84. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger
Woody Allen’s less popular film of the year is a yarn about the irrationality of romance, and is, like every other Woody Allen film, sincere, and interesting and populated with deftly sketched characters and sequences. What sets a good Allen apart from a bad one is how often the film comes to life and really grabs the audience by the scruff of the neck, and the answer in this case is “often enough.”
83. Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame
Spectacular enough and playful enough to feel like a special night out at the movies, it’s unfortunate that most people outside of China will see Detective Dee at home and on the smaller screen. This is a much better attempt to put a Sherlock Holmes-y figure into a fast paced, action romp than Guy Ritchie ever managed, not least because director Tsui Hark knows much better how to invent, shoot and edit action.
82. The Help
The odd bit of genuinely deft visual storytelling stands out in this adaptation of a confoundingly super-popular bestseller. The Help doesn’t have the sharpest bite, but the not-inconsiderable running time zips by, many of the cast are genuinely engaging, and there’s the ultimate sense of a story told well, if with a shortage, perhaps of ambition and genuine insight, but also surfeit of charm.
81. Miss Bala
A formally ambitious and politically charged thriller about organised crime in Mexico, this film has all of the guns, tense shoot outs and women in bikinis to be a cross over hit as well as art-house draw – but still people seemed afraid of it. No need for fear, this is an accessible picture, for all of the conceited camera movements. Miss Bala builds up quite a powerful head of steam before all is said and done.
A moral fable with some well-executed visual ideas (as well as a couple of silly ones) and a good talking-point premise. The cinematic equivalent of a popular paperback thriller.
79. When Harry Left Hogwarts
Released as a special feature on the Deathly Hallows Part 2 DVD and Blu-ray (at least here in the UK, and in some stores in the US) this documentary by BAFTA-lauded director Morgan Matthews, brought back the magic to the Potter series. There was more surprise and wonderment in these forty five minutes than any Potter film since The Prisoner of Azkaban.
78. My Week With Marilyn
Beautifully lit and lensed by Ben Smithard, this film was a pleasure to look at. The storyline is perhaps slight, and you won’t really get under the skin of Marilyn Monroe, despite Michelle Williams’ best efforts, but I wasn’t bored, not for one second.
77. Lion King 3D
The addition of 3D to The Lion King has improved the film, just a tiny, tiny amount: the sense of danger in the stampede is enhanced; the Savannah is more sweeping than ever; the opening sequence, which was and still is head and shoulders above the rest of the film, is more tangible and emphatic than ever.
76. Tucker & Dale vs. Evil
Despite selling itself short for the odd obvious joke, this inversion of the killer hillbilly picture goes someway to undermining the insidious, sometimes inherently obnoxious cliches in a lot of traditional horror fare.
75. The Skin I Live In
Not vintage Almodovar and the “surprise twist” can be guessed from the poster, let alone the trailer, but there’s a wicked-black sense of humour here, some creepy ideas and more polish and slick stylisation than pretty much any other film all year round. The re-invention of mad doctor tropes through uber-fashionable design is just what you’d expect from an Almodovar horror film, and Skin certainly does not disappoint on that front.
74. Little White Lies
The extended opening scene is the most interesting sequence, and that can’t be a good thing, but this variant on the Big Chill paradigm benefits from a good cast more than up to the tasks of chat-wrestling that the script sets out for them. The trickles of irreverent humour are essential, and always welcome, and for those who like good looking people in good looking locations, there’s plenty of both.
73. The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec
It fails to build continuously and we never get to the show-stopping set piece that seems to be forever lurking around the next corner, but Luc Besson’s Tintin-meets-Hellboy-ish adventure film has several witty and offbeat sequences and a supporting cast of compelling grotesques and caricatures. I’m hoping for a sequel that builds on part on as Del Toro did with the Hellboy pictures.
72. Happy Feet 2
Structurally unusual, this second picture about dancing penguins in danger from climate change throws in a second story strand wherein existentialist Krill, voiced by Brad Pitt and Matt Damon, move around in their own universe, co-existing unseen alongside the Penguin-scale world. A hymn to the power of pop music, and a film committed to its creator’s eccentricities, I found it easy to love.
71. A Separation
The skeleton of a thriller clad in the discreet disguise of a domestic drama, this film is devised, chiefly to be a critique of Iranian culture. It is, ultimately, quite dispiriting – but I mean that as a positive observation. This is the sort of story, and is about the sort of sad events, that should press the air out of you.
70. Mademoiselle Chambon
Intimate and quiet, this character piece about the attraction between a school teacher and a construction worker, relishes its own texture and subtlety.
69. Source Code
Very successful as a film of ideas, and a twisting, turning thriller with a complex plot and some exciting surprises, Source Code doesn’t quite render its characters and their motivations in a way the audience will most easily share in and connect to. The musical score really doesn’t help, and neither does the sudden shift to a more ambiguous view of our protagonist near the conclusion. Still, it’s a really good mystery film, packs some brilliant set pieces and certainly bears repeat viewing.
Several cliches of the genre bog the drama down – the relationship between Thor and Jane Foster is a thin convention, for example – but there’s a lot of forward drive, some fun design, sets and costumes, and a surprising amount of actual, honest-to-goodness gags that come off. Nothing to write home about, but definitely an interesting flavour that should add something to the Avengers blend.
67. The Ward
John Carpenter hadn’t made a theatrical feature in almost a decade, so there was some relief that he came back without embarrassing himself. He’s at home with the material, which becomes particularly unsurprising once you see how much the set-up actually shares with Assault on Precinct 13 or The Thing – a group are holed up in locked down location as the threat closes in, attempts to infiltrate. It would have been nice to have some more complex writing, but the camera and editing often show great skill.
The films of Miranda July might be an acquired taste, and The Future seems every bit as disjointed and modular as Me and You and Everyone We Know, but a lot of her ideas are worth chewing over, and when she’s at her best, there are believable characters on screen, with believable emotional lives – even when related through deliberately impressionistic means.
65. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark
This is one of those tales in which a child is encountering supernatural danger – in this case, evil fairies – but it’s presented in a way that echoes and underscores their real life anxieties. Many of the scarier ideas are up front, but there’s a late set-piece in this “haunted house” thriller that brings things back up to the boil nicely. Not a film that will haunt your dreams, perhaps, but a good enough Boo! movie.
64. Kung Fu Panda 2
Rather more of a soap opera than the first installment, this is a rare CG action adventure film that gets a lot of its energy from character ideas. The film even ends on an Eastenders-style domestic drama cliffhanger. There is also a lot of high-pitch, colourful stuff, with big explosions and great (slightly impossible) martial arts action.
The best film to date from James Wan, creator of the Saw franchise. This isn’t a haunted house film – not quite – but it works as one, and is at its best when doing screwy revisions on old ghost movie staples. I particularly liked the seance with a gasmask device and polaroid camera flashbulbs going off again and again – it didn’t really make a lick of sense, but it was striking.
Another horror anthology, and also patchy. Adam Green’s The Diary of Anne Frankenstein is a genuinely funny assault on the icon of Hitler, and Joe Lynch’s Zom-B-Movie is a splatty, sticky indulgence for genre nerds.
61. The Lincoln Lawyer
The Lincoln Lawyer is pretty much all plot or, as Pixar would put it, “everything is story.” This is whodunnit fun in the modern mode, and with better clues and twists than most of its TV counterparts.
60. Love and Other Impossible Pursuits
Natalie Portman’s character attempts to grieve her lost infant and build a bond with her husband’s eight year old son. It’s a rich role in a nuanced drama, and she does a good job. Top marks, though, for writer-director Don Roos who finds a lot of effective and sometimes brilliantly, if subtly, cinematic ways to relate the story, an adaptation of the novel by Ayelet Waldman.
59. The Beaver
I was bowled over by the script for The Beaver, and it should have translated to the screen much better but director Jodie Foster has made some bad judgments, not least of which was the casting of Mel Gibson. Most of the humour inherent in the screenplay has been flattened out, and the film goes too in-your-face and on-the-nose. What survives is smart and sophisticated and worth your time, however.
58. The Debt
On paper, Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman’s rewrite of a popular Israeli thriller was fit for Hitchcock. Unfortunately, he was not available, and John Madden picked up the megaphone instead. Overall, The Debt feels like a film from forty years ago, perhaps something that De Palma or Schlesinger would have aced. It’s often exciting and there are some good twists and character moments, and the themes are deep and interesting.
57. Winnie the Pooh
Tremendously well-crafted hand drawn animation and, relatively speaking, acheived on a budget. If you are to study the sheer volume of very well executed draftsmanship in this film you’ll be dazzled by the depth of love and intelligent thinking on display. The story structure is nifty too, blending a handful of Pooh stories into a rather seamless whole.
56. Beautiful Lies
A bright and jolly rom-com from France that somehow works as an anti-Amelie. This time, the meddling of Audrey Tautou’s character doesn’t bring about true love and joy but disappointment and misery, and she’s really not the one to set things back to rights. One late scene, played in silhouette, helps connect the dots: this film is quite consciously a romantic comedy, and there’s some intention to play with the traditions.
A dramatisation of the Valerie Plame affair, Fair Game succeeds because of the tight, well-shaped script by Jez and John Butterworth.
54. Tower Heist
While it’s intermittently a little bland, Brett Ratner’s best film to date benefits from a strong cast – Ben Stiller, Matthew Broderick and Tea Leoni all seem to be finding it easy and having some fun. There are some cracking bits of writing, not least the big reveal of what our heisters are going to be stealing and where they’ll have to steal it from. Co-writer Ted Griffin is a past master at this kind of caper (see Ocean’s 11 or Matchstick Men) and it shows.
53. Pearl Jam 20
While I will be waiting until 2012 for Cameron Crowe’s We Bought a Zoo to open in the UK, I did get to see his documentary on the twenty year history of Pearl Jam – or, as it turned out, on Pearl Jam, the grunge scene, early 90s music culture and Ticketmaster’s unfair policies. I left liking the band a whole lot more than I would ever have expected when going in.
52. The Adjustment Bureau
Truly and deeply romantic, all the way down to its essential story structure. Late in the film, the hero and heroine are on the run from the otherworldly bureaucrats of the title but, as it happens, they needn’t run at all. No – as is explained by their actions, and the dialogue, and what happens as a result, they simply need to kiss. But the film isn’t all pie in the sky. Director George Nolfi’s point is a very human and relevant one: the lead character won’t be – can’t be – a successful politician if he has love in his life.
51. Page One: Inside the New York Times
In the right place at the right time, this documentary captures the Wikileaks scandal through its coverage in the New York Times. Real drama with real stakes, and witnessed from a fascinating vantage point.
50. Puss in Boots
Why Puss in Boots works is pretty simple: Antonio Banderas, as the voice of the title character. He can both embody and undermine a sense of sexy machismo, creating a cocky, silly antihero that we can laugh at while we still find him charming. A nice bit of battle-of-the-sexes fun that pricks Puss’ ego to great effect, over and over again.
49. Human Centipede 2: Full Sequence
One of the most unusual and broken power fantasies in all of horror cinema, courtesy of a metatextual conceit. A pathetic man dreams of creating a human centipede, as he has seen and fetishised from the first movie in the series, but even in his delusions he trips himself up and renders himself impotent. A fascinating response to the most off-putting and disturbing audience responses to this kind of horror cinema.
48. The Silence
A murder mystery procedural about guilt and grief and the weight of heavy secrets more than fingerprints and forensics. Somewhere between the original Danish The Killing and Bong Joon Ho’s Memories of Murder, I think this will be a cult film in years to come.
47. Julia’s Eyes
Almost a feminist take on the tropes of Giallo. Blind, and blinded, characters fall under threat from a killer, each of the scary suspense set-pieces swelling with cinematic ideas and great visual thinking. For fans of early Dario Argento, students of cinematography, and anybody looking to bite a few nails off.
46. Scream 4
Uneven but conceptually intriguing, this return to the Scream series is a fascinating response to today’s pop culture, and not any longer just within the boundaries of horror films exactly. The final pay-off has proven contentious, not least because it becomes a bold statement on the film’s themes, and not one that every audience agrees with. There’s a great soliloquy from the/one of the murderers (delete as applicable).
Judd Apatow apparently advises the writers he works with to concentrate on making their scripts t work as drama because they can take care of the necessary funnies during the shooting. That’s obviously something Kristen Wiig and Annie Mummalo took to heart because Bridesmaids works, first and foremost, as a great character jounrey for our main character.
44. Oranges & Sunshine
The directorial debut of Jim Loach, this drama about a child care scandal has a lot to fit in, not least plenty of exposition on just how the deck was stacked for children deported from England to Australia in the middle of the 20th Century. Thankfully, the film tends not to feel informational or overstuffed, and several scenes pack a great emotional charge.
43. Real Steel
A family film in both senses – there’s a family on the screen, and there are families in the audience, thanking the heavens that they aren’t as mixed up as the one on screen. The success of this film is in its navigation of some tricky narrative points: balancing a bad dad’s characterisation against his eventual redemption; the creation of an is-it-or-isn’t-it-thinking robot character; the interweaving of various crucial ideas at the climactic boxing match. Real Steel looks like it was easier to get right than it was, but there’s been a lot of pitfalls brilliantly dodged here.
A lyrical French horror film that ultimately eschews narrative conventions for striking and enticing images and sounds. Neither keep-you-awake creepy nor spill-your-drink startling, Livid instead goes for was-I-dreaming haunting.
41. Red State
Kevin Smith has threatened to give up filmmaking to become a full time podcast baron, but his timing is dreadful. I think Red State, a horror thriller turned character drama siege film, is his most ambitious and sophisticated film to date. While there’s some lumpy bits, and there was definitely scope for a tighter and more savage rewrite before the cameras rolled, this film isn’t afraid to upset its audience with either the utterly predictable or the impossible to predict, and that’s a mix that kept me constantly on the wrong foot.
Lars von Trier’s first science fiction film is, actually, a rather grounded picture of depression. Two sisters face the end of the world: one is clinically depressed, the other is not, and they react accordingly, one better equipped than the other. There’s some very black humour, particularly early on, but overall, the film is a looming shadow, slowly moving in with grace.
39. Tinker Tailor Solider Spy
A densely woven adaptation of John Le Carre’s spy drama keeps an amazing amount of the novel’s detail, and even introduces more. Not the kind of film one can just dip in and out of, but a good yarn enriched with an amazing sense of detail and context.
38. Blue Valentine
The decomposition of a romance, as essayed by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. It could be argued that the film believes in love, and underlines this by showing us love breaking down, but you still wouldn’t choose this for a first date. There’s some sex that originally garnered the film an NC-17 rating in the US, perhaps because they offset the collapse of emotionall intimacy with frank, physical scenes.
A fictionalised account of screenwriter Will Reiser’s experience with cancer, this is a 60/40 split of tender character work and bleaker, bolder laughs. The interplay between Joseph Gordon Levitt and Seth Rogen as, sort of, Will Reiser and Seth Rogen – a real life friend of the writer – cements their standing as extraordinary young actor and… Seth Rogen.
36. The Glass Man
Andy Nyman stars as an unemployed man living a lie and trying to maintain his middle class life style while his finances slip away and his wife becomes increasingly suspicious that there’s something she doesn’t know. There’s a twist to this film which we have seen countless times before but, quite unexpectedly, Nyman’s performance and the film’s clean screenplay actually renders this one of the definitive accounts.
With great imagination and a real sense of personal investment, director Mike Mills has fashioned two interlocked stories of the titular beginners: while Oliver begins a new relationship, he also reflects on his late father’s coming out as gay at the age of 75. Christopher Plummer as Hal, the father, was one of the most charismatic characters in the year’s movies.
34. Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Despite some underwritten characters and a bit of silly pseudoscience, Rise managed to build a dynamic and changing narrative around one of the most original movie heroes in some time – Caesar the chimp, superbly essayed by Andy Serkis and his motion capture touch-up animators. What begins as a blend of low-key sci-fi and domestic drama, passes through animal rights thriller and ends up as an epic, apocalyptic action film.
Julie Taymor films look and behave unmistakably like Julie Taymor films. Her movie version of The Tempest blends a number of bold styles, some of them rather unfashionable, to create a very personal picture on the shoulders of Shakespeare.
32. The Artist
Reputedly a silent film in the style of early 20th Century cinema, The Artist is nothing of the sort – just watch the cutting style and rhythms, or how, where and when the camera moves, for example. But this very contemporary, even postmodern, romance does draw on a lot of the silent era tropes and traits to build a real crowd pleaser.
31. Take Shelter
In the tradition of films where a character experiences something the rest of the world does not and we are expected to question their sanity. In this case, Curtis, as played by Michael Shannon, is fearing an apocalyptic storm. When the film really comes to life is when it moves away from the central question into other aspects of Curtis’ life, letting the storm and his fears reflect on his family life, or on his place in the local community. Shannon’s central performance is commanding and memorable.
30. Princess of Montpensier
A historical drama with no remove, rendered as immediately and urgently as anything contemporary. Princess is a very 21st century film, despite being based upon Madame La Fayette’s 17th century short story about 16th century events, a love affair amidst the Catholic-Protestant wars. Joe Dante praised director Bertrand Tavernier for the film’s action scenes, and it’s easy to see why.
29. Damsels in Distress
The return of Whit Stillman and in a new idiom. Damsels was a college set comedy full of wordplay and goofy-surreal gags, not the updated-Austen social satire of his previous pictures. The underlying interests are the same, however, with mores and morals very much at the forefront.
28. Midnight in Paris
Woody Allen’s most whimsical picture in some time is, on the one hand, a beautiful advertisement for the beauty of Paris. But Allen doesn’t just find romance in the city, or in courting couples, for him it’s also in Poetry and literature and nostalgia, and so he mashes all of these together. It’s a meringue, but a delicious one.
A documentary that recounts the story of Mark Hogancamp, a victim of a brutal assault that left him brain damaged, and which captures his subsequent work in creating the miniature world and stories of Marwencol, a town populated with dolls. Hogancamp’s dioramas tell stories of World War 2 Belgium, but incorporating resonances from his life. There’s more vivid, cinematic storytelling in one of his tableau than in some entire films.
Errol Morris’ latest documentary is an exploration of truth and fiction in the tabloid press, recounting the strange stories of Joyce McKinney, beauty queen turned kidnapper, alleged sex-in-chains-fiend and, eventually, cloned dog owner. Laugh out loud hilarious and constantly surprising.
Incendies‘ story starts quietly. A pair of twins at the reading of their mother’s will are each given an envelope and told to track down and deliver them, one to their father, and one to their brother. In their resulting investigations, they start to uncover the secret life of their mother, and it changes everything they thought they knew about her. This could have been the premise for a 1930s film noir, and in places, Incendies has that same doomy, shadowy mystery about it. At other times, it’s a hard thriller set against the backdrop of war in the middle east. Other times, a deep family tragedy.
24. The Deep Blue Sea
Terrence Davies’ retelling of the post-war play by Terence Rattigan is melancholy while measured, elegant while abundantly emotional. Tom Hiddleston’s performance as a dashing yet dull RAF boy is his best big screen showing to date, and Rachel Weisz and Simon Russel Beale are dependably excellent as the other two corners of this terrible and cold broken-down love triangle.
23. The Ides of March
George Clooney, director, comes of age with a crackingly cinematic translation of the Beau Willimon play, Farragut North. A cleaver bit of framing here or a subtle bit of lighting there and the faint echoes of decades of political corruption and self-destruction can be heard coming up from inside the drama. Once it becomes a suspense story it really comes to life, and I think the best ideas would have done Alan J. Pakula proud.
22. X-Men: First Class
It’s remarkable to think about the conditions under which this film was made – against the clock, under the studio thumb, working with pre-existing choices. I’m amazed it’s so ambitious and, frankly, grown up. What’s more, it contains some of the briskest and most efficient storytelling I’ve seen in any recent blockbuster. An awful lot happens, and awfully quickly at times, but it’s all clear and while some nice moments might be over in the blink of an eye, this can only reward repeat viewers.
21. Jane Eyre
Finding the deepest, darkest seam of thunder and doom in the central romance, this latest, superbly styled account of Jane Eyre is a success on pretty much every level. Superbly cast and wonderfully photographed, it even re-orders the narrative into something more suitable for a cinematic presentation.
After a sometimes stiff and (just momentarily) inert drama of political espionage that comprises the first act, Takashi Miike’s stunningly well-staged picture becomes a huge, unrelenting action piece. If you want to see Samurai taking a stand, this really is your best new opportunity since Kurosawa. Never before has Miike displayed this kind of precision, and rarely will you have been so surrounded by a huge, sophisticated action drama.
19. Win Win
Tom McCarthy’s lightest film to date, but every bit as deftly drawn as The Visitor and The Station Agent. Amy Ryan and Paul Giamatti give quite superb performances as a couple who end up taking in a teenager for both right and wrong reasons, all at once. While some of the plot points might echo The Glass Man (no. 36 on this list) their context and execution is worlds away and the film is, despite some realistic turns, uplifting and fun.
18. The Interrupters
A big and perhaps insoluble documentary that presents an epic-scale, tragic picture of urban violence in America, while also digging for hope and positivity. The Interrupters of the title are members of the CeaseFire program, reformed gang members and criminals looking to engage with violent members of the community and, in short, “interrupt” their behaviour. This could be one of the most important films of the year just for asking where violence comes from, and how we might be able to stop it.
17. Rabbit Hole
From a screenplay of uncommon depth and nuance comes this story of bereaved parents, played superbly by Nicole Kidman and particularly Aaron Eckhart, who are trying to resolve their grief a year after their young son was killed by a car. There’s a surprising amount of humour and a real delicate precision in the writing that the cast and filmmakers manage to walk across just lightly enough.
16. Sucker Punch
Far from the film presented in the trailers – which seems to be some kind of videogame more than a movie, in fact – what we have here is a complex, multilayered drama in the mode of Brazil or Mulholland Drive, using the model of psychodrama to play out the emotional and psychological conflicts inside one character, a young woman at the mercy of a corrupt patriarchy. Lots of dead-ends have come up in discussion of this film, with several faulty assumptions getting in the way. Stop considering the fantasy sequences as being aspirational or empowering and you’re half way to getting inside what Zack Snyder and his collaborators were after.
15. The Woman
It’s hard to describe the tone of The Woman, and the plot – lawyer finds feral woman, chains her up at home, displays her to family and abuses her – is hardly appealing. Nonetheless, it’s a serious and compelling film and one that demands an engaged audience. The final scenes are introducing new ideas and resolving old ones so fast that it might take a couple of views to get the most out of the film, but there’s no denying how horrific and challenging its vision is.
One of the fastest paced and most dense audiovisual experiences I’ve had in a cinema, Detention is a time travel slasher film teen movie that bowls ideas at you so incredibly rapidly you’ll assume they’re all being thrown away until they later all come back round again and get paid off by one of the late-stage unexpected twists. Director Joseph Khan has found the perfect vehicle for his bottomless bag of video conceits, but the film’s reach is so wide and it burns up of ideas is so exhaustively, I don’t know where the filmmakers could go from here.
Kenneth Lonergan’s second film was, famously, shot almost seven years ago and then given only a cursory release this year after disagreements between the director and 20th Century Fox. In the meantime the film had been cut down significantly, and lots of interim versions tried out. You can see this in the film as its presented now, as not every transition is anything like smooth, and some scenes bear obvious scars. Still, the drama is utterly spellbinding. The central character is a teenage girl, played by Anna Paquin, who feels that she was responsible for a terrible accident that we witness in the opening scenes; as the film goes on, we get closer and closer to her, and she never becomes any more sympathetic, just better and better understood.
12. We Need To Talk About Kevin
An impressionistic horror film by way of an airlessly claustrophobic drama. The film shows the span of a relationship between a mother and a son, from the first hours in which she simply could not bond to him, onwards until his teenage years when he commits an act of pathological violence. It’s a terrible, shocking picture of a basic human connection broken down and made into the stuff of nightmares. Kevin is an almost ceaseless assault on the senses and on the heart.
11. Green Hornet
What if Paris Hilton had been born Seth Rogen? Taking Britt Reid, alter ego of The Green Hornet, and reinventing him as a waste-of-skin playboy heir with not a drop of good taste was not a particularly popular move, but it made for a cinematic superhero that I really hadn’t seen before. Reid’s journey from entitled brat to actually believing in something is a good origin piece, and a nice reversal on the TV-era Hornet or, say, Bruce Wayne. Director Michel Gondry did a great job with the film’s action sequences, rendering them clearly and with a nice, retro style, and pulled off a couple of great scenes with his inimitable flair for illusion including the most incredible split-screen stunt in all of cinema.
A “what if” exploration of a world racked by a viral epidemic that has an epic scope but plenty of intimate drama. The script by Scott Z. Burns was complex and detailed and required just the cinematic know-how that Steven Soderbergh brought, hitting pretty much every beat with the required impact or grace. Contagion‘s great success is that it plays, first and foremost, as captivating, and not just a great big shopping list of ideas and educational bits.
9. The Fighter
Some career-best acting from Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale are amongst the many pleasures of David O. Russell’s family drama that also manages to be the most engrossing boxing movie that I’ve ever seen. There’s real wit in how the camera is used, and the details of production design and costume are rich but never overpowering.
Pitch perfect casting and a brilliant way with shot selection (look at when and where the film uses close ups of feet, for example) really help to nail down a great telling of a tremendous screenplay, glimmering with wit and glowing with warmth. And it’s unusual for a rom-com to come packaged like this, but I was also bowled over by the last act twist and its implications for the characters and themes.
There’s a very simple but crucial change between God of Carnage, the play and Carnage the film, and it comes right up front. By staging a scene that was only ever talked about in the play, and therefore open to being read as less concrete, more subjective and open to debate, Roman Polanski immediately removes a whole fog of dead ends and red herrings. What we’re left with is a lean, tight pressure cooker of a film, and thanks to incredibly assured camera direction and four superb central performances from Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly at the very top of their game.
6. True Grit
The Coen Bros. re-adapted Charles Portis slightly off-kilter novel with a few grabs from the John Wayne movie and a handful of ideas from other Westerns and great American folktales. There’s a chase story at the hear of the film but what we have here is a collection of interesting characters, brilliantly well drawn, pitted against one another and the cruelty and injustice of frontier America.
The key set-piece in Rubber sees an inanimate tyre awaken, become sentient and set about finding its way, coming into contact with other denizens of its desert world then… deciding to kill them with its fledgling psychic powers. It’s achieved by classic storytelling that builds, detail by detail, into a fully understandable and engrossing tale, against all odds. Director Quentin Dupieux is pushing the envelope of what an audience will invest in and how much disbelief they’ll suspend without even thinking about it, and he’s got plenty of other ideas to pack in about narative convention and cinematic plausability.
Studio Ghibli adapt Mary Norton’s novel about a pocket-sized family dependent on “borrowing” from the world of humans. A beautifully crafted adventure film in miniature, the big trick with Arrietty was in creating its world of tiny characters fully and completely, enriching it with respect for nature, and stoking its drama with an eye for hidden danger.
While it’s very much a character drama, the appeal for Tyrannosaur was the same as with many great horror films: the audience are plunged into the darkness of the world and of humanity, and then follow a tiny light all the way back out, chasing hope. The performances by Peter Mullan, Olivia Colman and Eddie Marsan are almost unbearably intense, and their characters are caught up in a triangle of fear, rage and violence, but you’ll leave this film wanting to love and be loved and to appreciate the value of life.
2. Attack the Block
Successful as both a big, bold action film, complete with monster movie scares and an iconic hero, and as a great character comedy. Executing a film that blends genres this intrinsically is always tricky, but debut director Joe Cornish seems to have drawn on a legacy of films that he really, truly loved, and applied their conventions, in sometimes surprising ways, to the South London world he grew up in. Complex and smart and filled with telling details.
1. The Muppets
This is not the Muppet movie I was expecting. Indeed, the protagonists are two new characters, and one of them is a human which already sets it apart from the previous features. What’s more, it’s really the story of these new players, who work as brilliant guides for the audience, both those who love and miss Kermit and co. and those who are new to them. The film is also a testament to the collaborative process by which films are made when everybody is on top form, everybody is contributing – it’s a harmony of invention. I’m going to be writing a lot more about The Muppets, but in short: there are more good ideas and moments of excitement, joy and surprise in this film than anything else I saw in 2011.
Now, just in case you’re feeling like something a little more retro (and I mean a little), you can also check out my 51 Films From 2010 That You Really Shouldn’t Have Missed too.