Saturday, 28 January 2012

RespawningCouch Podcast: Episode 11: Coriolanus, Oscar Nominations and 'Are "used games" good?'

This Week: Jack, James and Ben discuss Steve McQueen's 'Shame', Ralph Fiennes' 'Coriolanus', Dead Space 2, and various Steam indie games in 'What You've Been Playing and Seeing'. Then give their opinions on the Oscar nominations for 2012, moving onto the debate over 'Used' or 'Pre-owned' games. Are they damaging the Gaming Industry? Is there an alternative option?

Coriolanus Review

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Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Coriolanus Review

Recently nominated for a BAFTA, Ralph Fiennes’s directorial debut comes in the form of Coriolanus, a modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy. Fiennes has had a strong and substantial stage career surrounding Shakespeare’s numerous works, so there was no doubt over his performance. However the choice to adapt Coriolanus as his first directing role is an interesting and brave one. The play itself isn’t the most recognisable work and with a growing reluctance for many to indulge in cultured cinema, its 16th position on the weekend’s Box Office was inevitable. Nevertheless, Fiennes’ first attempt is one that is compelling and filled with emotional dexterity and vigour. 
Set in ‘Rome’, the film follows the growing war between the Romans and the Volscian forces. Rome’s populous has become more aggressive towards Caius Martius Coriolanus’ (Ralph Fiennes), an accomplished, humourless general, political accession. Party opposition gains the support of ‘the people’, and mobilises against Caius culminating in his downfall and banishment from Rome. Vengeful, he forms an alliance with Volscian’s leader Aufidius (Gerard Butler), and orchestrates an invasion on the capital. Shakespeare’s tragedy is a relatively straightforward and engaging tale, never straying too far from the usual tropes of his work. Fiennes changes the period and the ‘costume design’, but keeps the narrative largely the same where it’s themes of social frustration and instability feel topical. Meanwhile, the ‘swords and sandals’ Siege of Corioles is substituted for visceral, modern shoot-outs that manage to settle nicely into the political drama. The script itself keeps the dynamic and sometimes cryptic language of the original source material. While initially feeling out-of-place in the modern context, the interchanges soon become natural and coherent. 
The film’s cast is one with incredible prowess, both experienced and young. Fiennes’ own performance is phenomenally intense and powerful. From his fierce exclamations to subtle hints of emotional fragility, his stern man of valour is one filled with rage, an emotion he excels at portraying. Equally impressive is Vanessa Redgrave’s portrayal of the autocratic mother, Volumnia. Dressed in military uniform, she delivers her lines passionately and with conviction, culminating a breathtaking scene in the final act. Brian Cox, Jessica Chastain, and James Nesbit also offer a fantastic supporting cast that manages to leave a lasting impression even with Redgrave’s and Fiennes’ substantial presence. Gerard Butler even manages to provide a memorable performance as the bearded, muscular leader of the tribal Volscians. 
The Hurt Locker and United 93’s cinematographer Barry Ackroyd captures the film’s tense drama and action. From the battle scenes to the numerous confrontations, Ackroyd creates a sophisticated picture. However the use of handheld cameras in certain scenes destroys the poignancy and atmosphere, and a problem with camera focus definitely becomes all too noticeable. Meanwhile the sound design is good, while the soundtrack unfortunately never makes itself apparent. 
Overall Coriolanus is a fierce and well-executed adaptation of one of the ‘lesser’ known Shakespearean works. It’s clear that Coriolanus doesn’t strive to be an grand epic, but rather constrains itself to its ‘ordinary’ locations and rightly focuses on the torment and emotional complexities of each character. And it does that spectacularly. Great performances, engaging story and a sophisticated look, Ralph Fiennes’ debut is a fantastic start to his directing career. 

Sunday, 22 January 2012

RespawningCouch Podcast: Episode 10: Most Anticipated of 2012

This week: Jack, James and Ben discuss Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Real Steel and Bioshock in 'What You've Been Playing and What You've Seen'. Then talk about their 'Most Anticipated Games and Films of 2012: Mass Effect 3, the new Tomb Raider, Bioshock Infinite and Max Payne, as well as The Dark Knight Rises and other film releases.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes Review

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Saturday, 21 January 2012

Rise of the Planet of the Apes Review

Rise of the Planet of the Apes 
Released last year, Rise of the Planet of the Apes did phenomenally well at the Box Office and gained positive critical appraisal. The long standing and iconic franchise has never managed to truly build on the original Planet of the Apes back in 1968. The last instalment was Tim Burton’s dreadful 2001 remake that pretty much ‘killed‘ the series. However 20th Century Fox obviously saw the financial potential for another after Burton’s film grossed in $362,211,740, and thus green-lit a ‘reboot’. Relative new-comer Rupert Wyatt was given the $98 million project, and for the most part does fairly well. The end result is a genuinely entertaining blockbuster that ticks most of the action film boxes. 
The film’s plot follows Caesar (Andy Serkis), a highly intelligent and increasingly human-like chimpanzee as a result of an experimental drug. After the project is shutdown, Will Rodman (James Franco), the drug’s creator, raises Caesar with the help of his ill father (John Lithgow) and girlfriend (Freida Pinto). However Caesar’s growing uncontrollable emotional complexity sees him imprisoned in an ape sanctuary. Harsh treatment by his captivators results in his search for justice and the start of a rebellion against the human-race.  Essentially a prequel to the franchise, Rise of the Planet of the Apes’s story is riddled with plot-holes, but remains a straightforward affair. Never delving into twists or narrative complexities, Caesar’s ‘origin story’ is an engaging and interesting one. However, the film’s conclusion is annoyingly underwhelming and its attempt to build a romance between Franco and Pinto fails miserably and is unnecessary. 
Andy Serkis’ performance as Caesar is by far the best asset of the film. The sheer effort and execution of Caesar’s character is fantastic. Posture, facial expressions and the growing humanisation are perfectly captured throughout the course of the film. Meanwhile James Franco performance is competent, never needing to truly test his acting capabilities, and John Lithgow is great as the father. However Freido Pinto’s character is pointless, while David Oyelowo and Tom Felton play the epitomes of the greedy ‘business man’ and an insolent ‘prison guard’.  Cinematography-wise, the film never stretches beyond the typical camera-work and lighting associated with action films. However where Rise of the Planet of the Apes truly shines is in its special effects. A BAFTA nomination and a highly probable Oscar one, are justified by the use of CGI on the primates. Outstanding motion-capture and facial-capture are amazingly complex and realistic even during sustained, zoomed shots.  
Overall, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a surprising enjoyable action film. Andy Serkis performance is fantastic, and the story is pretty entertaining. However it feels slightly light on the action front, and builds to a less-than-impressive conclusion .

Friday, 20 January 2012

Random Drawings: Arrietty

Random Drawings: Only Yesterday

Sunday, 15 January 2012

The Thing (2011) Review

The Thing 2011 
(Originally written for Impact Magazine: 5/12/11)
John Carpenter’s 1982 remake of the 1951 classic The Thing From Another World, is one of the best adaptations and remakes of all time. And it’s a personal favourite of mine. Originally based on John W. Campbell’s 1938 novella Who Goes There? the film followed an American Antarctic research team who struggle against an alien parasitical organism, that perfectly replicates lifeforms. With the modern trope of regurgitating sequels, reboots and remakes, it was inevitable that the ‘cult classic’ would fall victim to modern cinema’s latest phase. Unfortunately, Matthijs van Heijningen Jr’s version fails to distinguish itself  between being a genuine sci-fi horror film, a prequel or simply trying to recreate Carpenter’s cinematic opus.
The prequel follows the events that transpired in the Norwegian research facility, which was briefly explored in Carpenter’s film. Set in 1982, palaeontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is recruited by Dr. Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen) to join a team of Norwegian scientists in Antarctica. They have discovered an alien spacecraft and the frozen corpse of a creature that crashed there 100,000 years ago. After excavating the body, they soon realise that the life form isn’t here to make friends. It is hard to ignore the fact that Heijningen Jr’s The Thing has an uncanny resemblance, structurally and narratively, to Carpenter’s version. We’re introduced to the setting, the characters, the ‘Thing’ makes an appearance, hell breaks lose and people start getting killed off. His and screenwriter Eric Heisserer’s clear intensions were to create a ‘remake’ in a similar style to the ’82 version within the confinements of a ‘prequel’ story. However their unequivocal and flawed attempts to mimic the predecessor become the film’s major downfall.
Bogged down in trying to replicate the styling and visual demeanour of Carpenter’s work, it soon becomes apparent that the same care and attention weren’t devoted to the screenplay. An overzealous nature to show every death scene and the constant exhibition of the ‘thing’ itself, completely removes the psychological element that the ‘assimilating alien’ concept allows for. The sense of mystery and paranoia amongst these characters is never a continuous notion that descends into the ‘cabin fever’ madness that Carpenter perfected. Individual scenes attempt to recreate those memorable experiences, but don’t have the same visceral impact and substance to successfully accomplish the same significance. The film’s ‘horror’ element therefore and unsurprisingly boils down to jump scares and predictable revelations, culminating in a horrendous third act.
The lack of character development, in particular, is a major missed opportunity with The Thing.We’re introduced to lead characters far too quickly and never have sufficient time to build an attachment to them. Thus, their imminent deaths become far less shocking, which has become a frustrating failure of most modern horror films. While the acting isn’t memorable, its competent and believable. Mary Elizabeth Winstead does well with Heisserer’s lukewarm script, providing a realistic and understandable protagonist who avoids turning into a typical action-hero. Meanwhile, Joel Edgerton and Adewale Akinnuouye-Agbaje are unarguably rehashes of Kurt Russell’s and Keith David’s characters from Carpenter’s film and while pale in comparison, they offer humour and charm to the proceedings. The Norwegian cast members adds believability and realism to the narrative with Jørgen Langhelle character Lars, bringing much needed madness and intensity.
The cinematography and sound design are top notch. The extensive set design conveys the claustrophobic nature and drab interiors of the research base, while the long establishing shots emphasise the remote and hostile surroundings. Marco Beltrami’s soundtrack manages to capture the chilling tone of Ennio Morricone’s original score and the iconic synthesised repetition, whilst adding his own mixture of sharp and flowing notes. The gory depictions of the ‘thing’ sound fantastic, however the same can’t be said about the visuals. Heijningen Jr’s employment of CGI in order to realise the creature’s transformations and assimilations, while inventive, don’t have the same awe-inspiring impact as Rob Bottin’s effects in the ’82 version. Prosthetics and practical effects are used, but the constant CGI showcase of the creature quickly takes away any suspense and anticipation, and looks more ridiculous than genuinely terrifying.
As a sci-fi horror film, Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. efforts fail to scare and shock, nor does he bring anything original to the genre. While it’s an entertaining and competently acted romp, its predictable nature and failure to evolve from the basic genre elements, result in a shallow experience. But as a prequel to John Carpenter’s film, it tries too hard to follow in the footsteps of the 1982 version. Numerous references, the soundtrack, the narrative structure will undoubtably and momentarily satisfy fans. But plot-holes and a disregard for the principle concepts and themes of its predecessor create further criticism towards its purpose and existence. Go watch Carpenter’s version.


Here's my thoughts on John Carpenter's The Thing (1982) 

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows Review

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows 
(Originally written for Impact Magazine: 27/12/11) 
Guy Ritchie’s 2009 film Sherlock Holmes proved to be a financial success, making an estimated  $524,028,679 worldwide. It was therefore only natural that a sequel would be made. However, while the general populace found enjoyment from the action-adventure romp, the essential and characteristic mystery/detective elements of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic novels were lost in its ‘Hollywoodisation’. Ritchie’s sequel, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, offers more of the action-hero visualisation of the British icon, but suffers from a lack of solidity and further misplaces the quintessential notions of the source material.
The film follows Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and Dr. John Watson (Jude Law) as Europe descends into political chaos after a wave of extremist attacks and assassinations. They decipher that Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris) is central to the conflict, and attempt to thwart his diabolical schemes. As a sequel, Game of Shadows is more of the same; explosions, fights and banter. However its plot lacks the substance and charm which its predecessor marginally established. Instead, it ramps up the action and abandons any thread of engaging and competent narrative. First and foremost this is an action/adventure film, and to its credit it has some enjoyable set pieces. Fight choreography is sophisticated and intense, while shootouts are punchy and immersive. But Ritchie’s story, which is loosely based on the events of Doyle’s novels ‘The Final Problem’ and ‘The Adventure of the Empty House’, as well as the lacklustre screenplay both fail to add any context to the domineering warfare. The mysterious and cryptic elements of the first film and the source material are lost amongst the generic structure, wildly fluctuating pacing and underwhelming story.
Sherlock Holmes himself comes across more as the Bond/superhero character rather than the Bohemian forensic detective. The symbolic dispassionate, arrogant personality and his powers of deduction are portrayed through Downey Jr.’s over-the-top performance and the shallow screenplay. But his perfect ability to predict the unpredictable in a ‘spidey-sense’ manner is undeniably inane. The screenplay also tamely constructs the essential relationship between Holmes and Watson, unfortunately never progressing from witty banter. These flaws linger into the majority of the film’s dialogue, resulting in either futile back-and-forth wisecracking or monotonous monologues that conveniently churn out exposition.
The performances themselves are competent but nothing spectacular. Robert Downey Jr. continues his quirky, exuberant character that would spontaneously combust if he were to stand still. His shaky accent and maniac behaviour persist in the contemporary vision of Doyle’s creation and is still entertaining in small doses. Jude Law remains restrained and likeable, but Jared Harris’s Moriarty never captures the mysterious and sinister character of Holmes’ primary antagonist, becoming more of a throwaway villain. The final showdown manages to eventually convey the mental sparring between the two intellects, but bewilderingly whittles down to a confusing ‘psychic’ duel and an immensely sub-standard climax. Harris doesn’t impress nor offend, but a better script would definitely have resolved this issue. The incessantly irritating Stephen Fry makes a pointless appearance as Holmes’ brother Mycroft, and ironically highlights the mysterious lack of Britishness in Downey Jr.’s Holmes. Meanwhile the frivolous inclusion of Noomi Rapace as leading lady Sim, lacks character development and more importantly, contextual purpose. She’s merely a plot device to move the film along and as a result her storyline peters out in the film’s finale.
Cinematographer Philippe Rousselot returns and consequently so too does the grey and gritty colour palette. The lack of lighting manages to capture the gloomy setting of late nineteenth century London, but when Paris, Switzerland and Germany are all devoid of visual atmosphere, everything starts to look the same. Meanwhile the use of head-tracking camera shots, CSI-esque “deductions” and slow-motion, while they looked impressive the first time, restlessly grace the screen at every opportunity. Action set-pieces are edited and cut far too quickly and shot too intimately to do justice to the well-calculated sequences. The production values are there, but aren’t employed constructively or measuredly.
Overall, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows will please those who loved the first installment. Explosions and shootouts provide mild enjoyment, but when the whole experience is tainted by an uninspired narrative and a lack of depth, it becomes short-lived and tedious.


Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol Review

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol 
(Originally written for Impact Magazine: 2/1/2012)
The Mission Impossible franchise has never been able to go beyond the averageness of the first in the series, directed by Brian De Palma back in 1996. John Woo’s sequel in 2000 was simply a travesty that stuck far too near to Woo’s own action directing traits and quirks rather than producing a genuine espionage film. Meanwhile JJ Abrams’ directorial debut Mission Impossible III attempted and mildly succeeded in reinvigorating the mediocre series. Where these films have unanimously triumphed is financially and that evidently justified Paramount’s demands for another sequel. However, the appointment of Brad Bird as director seemed a misguided choice after his success in the animated genre and lack of live-action experience. However, Bird’s “debut” is slick, action-packed and highly entertaining, but one that is superficial and lacks depth.
The plot follows Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) as he escapes from a Russian prison. Joined by agents Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and Jane Carter (Paula Patton), they are soon framed for a tiny explosion in the Kremlin. The real culprit, a nuclear terrorist named Kurt Hendricks wants war between Russia and America for an undefined reason. As a result, the IMF (Impossible Mission Force) are disavowed and Ethan and his team, now joined by analyst William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), are labelled ‘international terrorists’. The rest of the film sees the team attempt to clear their names and stop the bad guys. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol simply boils down to exotic locations, explosions, guns and Tom Cruise. It doesn’t help that we’ve seen the ‘rogue agent’ storyline twice already in the seriesmaking the narrative rather stale and tired. Subsequently there’s nothing complex nor original about MI: GP, but there isn’t anything offensive either. Brad Bird’s first live-action film is a massive departure from his usual animated opuses (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles), staying clear of any major semblance of emotion or sympathetic characters. This is a straight-up action film that has flashy production values, cool individuals and intense sequences. The entire section in Dubai is ludicrously over-the-top, but fantastic. From Cruise dangling from the Burj Khalifa to a frantic chase in the middle of a sandstorm, its constantly thrilling and engaging.
However it’s when the film tries to add elements of poignant backstory and light-hearted comedy that the cracks start to show. Ironically the sheer fast-paced nature consequently means that these attempts to slow things down end in frivolous nonsense or boring exposition. The main issue lies with its overly simplified and one-track script. There is substance, but nothing engaging or dramatic. A forced backstory between Cruise and Renner’s characters lingers on until the end when its merely resolved in a sentence. Meanwhile Patton’s poorly developed “relationship” with a murdered agent seems like a justification for a minor revenge sub-plot, and a cat-fight. The whole rationale behind Pegg’s character is primarily for comedic relief, but is one flawed by a distinct lack of amusing dialogue. Repetition of gadgety breaking down and quirky reactions from Pegg don’t constitute humour.
Unfortunately this mediocrity persist into the performances. Cruise is his usual self; cool, determined and robust, but nothing more than the part entails. There’s no emotional element that drives his character, which Abrams wisely introduced in the third film. And therefore there’s no complexity or substantial depth to him. Simon Pegg’s “comedic” role seems out of place in amongst the serious tone that his fellow actors and actresses are aspiring to create, to which Paula Patton is competent as the lead actress but forgettable. However, Jeremy Renner gives strong ground towards his lead role in the upcoming Bourne Legacy, offering a sharp and solid performance that has an interesting edge.
Cinematography-wise, Bird and Robert Elswit do a great job in framing and filming the car chases, shootouts and high octane action. The use of CGI looks slightly awkward, but an array of spectacular stuntwork, to which Cruise himself frequently took part in, help keep the film fresh and captivating. Annoyingly Apple’s phones and tablets, BMW’s cars and Dell product placement aren’t subtly instituted and become all too obvious and crude with frequent closeup shots. And as much as we complain about film trailers increasingly showing too much, an opening credits scene that shows glimpses of the film we’re about to see is a horrendous decision by the filmmakers. Meanwhile the sound design, while punchy in action-scenes, is somewhat lacking richness and scope. A race to save the world doesn’t sound so exciting when Cruise is driving a hybrid car. Michael Giacchino’s soundtrack is capable, however funnily Lalo Schifrin’s iconic Mission Impossible theme isn’t played enough.
Overall, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is a fast-paced, explosive load of drivel. But it is pretty entertaining. Generic plot and lukewarm dialogue aside, Brad Bird has made an enjoyable action film that, while paling in comparison to his animated work, is a fun blockbuster to end 2011.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

RespawningCouch Audio Review: The Artist

The Artist 

Jack and Nick review the fantastic 'The Artist'. Visually stunning, well-acted, perfectly crafted and an amazing soundtrack create one hell of a film. Definitely going to win a ton of awards. 

Rating: 4.5/5               GO SEE!!

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Episode 9: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Mission Impossible and Recent Trailers

This week: Jack and Nick give their thoughts about the American remake of 'The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo', and the fourth instalment of the Mission Impossible franchise. Then go on to tackle the 'Dark Knight Rises' and 'The Hobbit' trailers.
Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol Review 
Jack's Top 11 Films of 2011

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Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Top 11 Films of 2011

My Top 11 of 2011 

Now, ‘Top 11’ what’s that all about? Well, I’m an indecisive person and looking back 2011 was a great year to be a film ‘critic’. After frequent arduous debates with myself, I finally compiled a list that I personally feel deserves an award. Without further ado here it is:

11. From Kokuriko Hill

Yet to be released over in the West, I managed to see this on my holiday in Japan. Goro Miyazaki rectifies his less-than-impressive debut Tales of Earthsea with a more mature and realistic look at Post-war Japan. Adapted from a 1980s manga, From Kokuriko Hill’s story and characters are charmingly developed in a historic and pure setting. Great performances and personalities manage to merge well with the surrounding hustle and bustle of Japan’s economic rise in the 1960s and the incoming Olympics. Beautifully animated, 1963 Yokohama is laden with intricate details and jaw-dropping visual landscapes. And Satoshi Takebe’s flowing soundtrack perfectly compliments the artistic character of the picture, with Aoi Teshima’s theme song ‘Summer of Farewells’ that remains sewn into my brain, this is a fine addition to 2011.....or 2012 for the UK. 

10.  I Saw The Devil  
Korea has recently become a hotbed of impressive thrillers such as Oldboy and The Chaser. Kim Ji-woon’s fast-paced, violent and engaging I Saw The Devil is another to add to the growing list. Sticking to the traditional tropes of the ‘revenge’ plot, it’s a capture-and-release game between a serial killer played by Choi Min-sik and a secret agent avenging the death of his fiancee, played by Lee Byung-hun. The story isn’t substantially deep or original, but Hoon-jung Park’s screenplay constantly blurs the line between the concepts of a ‘victim’ and an ‘aggressor’ that creates an potent narrative. Meanwhile, a terrifyingly disturbing performance from Choi Min-sik outshines everyone else, as his disposition completely transforms one scene after another. It’s an amazing spectacle. Debut cinematographer Mogae Lee’s work is superb, using sophisticated camerawork and lighting to craft an immersive and atmospheric experience. One scene in particular, a 360shot knife fight within a taxi, is breathtaking and certainly gives some credibility to the visual cliché. It’s a brutally tense and violent film, but one that’s exhilarating and sophisticated. 
9. Kill List 

A late addition to this list, I bought the Blu-ray version of Kill List on a whim and “bloody” loved it. Vicious, darkly humorous and unbearably disturbing, Ben Wheatley’s thriller/ horror is sure to become a British cult classic. While achieving positive critical reception, the general audience has been dramatically split over the film, especially towards the  unforgiving and ambiguous narrative. However it’s this mysterious and uncomfortable element that makes Kill List so memorable and so effective. Michael Smiley and Neil Maskell provide harsh and savage characters, but ones that manage to provide some genuine laughs and slithers of sympathy. However where this film excels is in it’s cinematography and sound design. While comparisons have drawn with the 1973 The Wicker Man and 2004 Dead Man’s Shoes, Wheatley and Laurie Rose’s visual direction perfectly construct a uniquely terrifying and unsettling atmosphere that completely descends into madness in the film’s final 30 minutes. Not since Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure has a horror film left such a harrowing and speechless effect, and that’s one of my all-time personal favourite films.
8. The Fighter 
Back in March I gave The Fighter an overly impressive 10/10 and labelled it as ‘my 2011 film of the year’. Stupidly premature in hindsight, The Fighter still remains a personal favourite of 2011. Loosely based on Mickey Ward’s path to Light Welterweight champion after a tentative early career back in the late 1980s, the film reframes from becoming a “boxing film” along the lines of Rocky. Instead The Fighter focuses on the drama within the Ward family between a crack addicted brother, a fiercely protective and authoritarian mother, a band of horrendous sisters and a dimwitted “father. We experience the resulting psychological anxiety Micky and his girlfriend Charlene deal with through the unfolding and intense drama. This wouldn’t have been possible without truly impressive performances and The Fighter nails those. Christian Bale’s scrawny yet energetic Dick Eklund thoroughly deserves his Academy Award. His ability to portray an unpredictable addict while retaining an essence of charm and sympathy is a testament to his talent. Meanwhile fellow award-winner Melissa Leo is simply amazing as the villainous Alice Ward. Not to be missed. 
7. The Ides of March 
Written for Impact Magazine (30 December 2011): 
“George Clooney’s return to the director’s chair is an engrossing, well-written and slick outing. American politics isn’t my forte, but the film manages to balance the complexities of a Democratic nomination race with the treacherous affairs going on behind-the-scenes. It manages to restrain it’s intense and atmospheric nature throughout its runtime and becomes remorseless in its measured approach. Superb and fiery performances from Ryan Gosling, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti culminate in raw and volatile confrontations. Giamatti’s last scene with Gosling is one of this year’s best, perfectly encompassing both the actors’ adeptness and the morality of the story. Meanwhile, Phedon Papamichael’s cinematography manages to perfectly capture the sinister and brooding narrative with his dynamic use of lighting. His skilful employment of close-up shots slowly reveals glimpses of the verity within each character’s poker faces. Expect award nominations.”
6. Drive 

Toping many ‘Best of 2011’ lists, Nicholas Winding Refn’s highly stylised film is an impressive and stunning piece of cinema. Its well-constructed story and simplistic romance  are injected with artistic adrenaline that perpetuates Drive above the standard memes of the thriller genre. While the lead performances from Carey Mulligan and Ryan Gosling feel disjointed and lifeless, Bryan Cranston and Albert Brooks are pitch perfect. However, it’s Drive’s cinematography which has added it to this list. Oozing with style evocative of neo-noir cinema such as 1968’s Bullitt and 1985’s To Live and Die in L.A, Refn’s direction is top-notch. Entire sequences filmed inside the vehicles give an immersive quality that many contemporary car chases squander. Alongside is the exhilarating and punchy sound design that adds significant depth to the visual flair. And the soundtrack isn’t half-bad too. It’s an enjoyable, slick and highly entertaining feature. 
5. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Based on John Le Carré’s novel, Tomas Alfredson’s film adaptation of the British espionage story is one bursting with atmosphere and character. With a plot that perfectly balances the complex ‘Cold War’ narrative with meticulously detailed character studies, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy provides an intense and gripping cinematic experience. Gary Oldman, while no Alec Guinness (from the TV original series), puts in a solid performance as Mr Smiley, but becomes overshadowed by a phenomenally strong supporting cast. Benedict Cumberbatch and Mark Strong truly showcase the increasingly illustrious nature of British acting with profound and sincere intricacies to their performances. Stylistically, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is rich with detail. From its delicate recreation of the 1970s’ chic, to the cold, gray environments of London and Hungary, its gorgeous to watch. Definitely one of this year’s best, and one that will undoubtable do well at the BAFTAs, hopefully. 

4. 13 Assassins 

Always a sucker for Japanese films, Takashi Miike’s samurai epic was one of the most entertaining films of this year. A homage to the jidai-genki genre and Akira Kurosawa’s samurai opuses, 13 Assassins merged strong narrative drama with spectacular action. Leaving his comfortable refuge of controversial, violent and hit-and-miss cinema, Miike’s most mainstream work shows his ability to craft a well-rounded and more “restraint” feature. Saying that, the highly visceral and gripping 45-minute battle scene is a beautifully choreographed dance of violence, swords and ferocity. It’s one of the most amazing action sequences of recent date, using real people and practical effects on such a grand scale. Meanwhile performances from Koji Yakusho and Masachika Ichimura offer strong and dramatic characters throughout the course of the film, and manage to perfectly coincide within the fast-paced third act. Gorgeous cinematography and fierce audio design means it definitely deserves to be watched on Blu-ray or the Big Screen if possible.  
3. Animal Kingdom
Australian cinema hasn’t managed to escape the characterisations of Crocodile Dundee, Baz Luhrmann and the Mad Max franchise. However two releases this year certainly proved the nation’s cinematic capability; Snowtown but more impressively Animal Kingdom. David Michod’s directorial debut comes in the form of a grim and gritty crime drama that’s beautifully crafted and masterfully acted. Perfectly paced, Michod slowly layers the brooding atmosphere, ardent performances and sinister story, culminating in one of this year’s most uncompromising and intense films. Guy Pearce brings a glimpse of humanity into the sterile and psychologically deceptive Melbourne suburban. Jackie Weaver’s mother figure is unforgettable, while Ben Mendelsohn’s portrayal of psychopath Pope is disturbingly obsessive and genuinely eerie. Filmed beautifully, Animal Kingdom is an astonishing debut that leaves a distinctly profound impression. Definitely one of this 2011’s best.

2. Senna 

Asif Kapadia’s stunning documentary traces Ayrton Senna’s monumental path to becoming 3-time F1 World Champion. Constructed simply from a wealth of archived footage ranging from home videos to interviews, the film fluently immerses the audience in his trademark charisma and obsession towards triumph and accomplishment. Not being a fan of the sport itself, Kapadia’s superb direction culminates in a highly accessible experience that manages to illustrate the emotions, the passion and the justification for why many have an affinity for the sport and Senna’s story. With an exhilarating sound design and amazing soundtrack by Antonio Pinto, Senna is an emotional, in depth look into a phenomenal yet tragic story. Simply fantastic. 

1. Tyrannosaur

Paddy Considine’s directorial debut is a thought provoking and unsettling piece of raw cinema. A narrative that deals with themes of domestic abuse, alcoholism and animal cruelty while exploring the disturbing nature of the human condition, Considine creates an emotional powerhouse of a film. Olivia Coleman shrugs her comedic type-casting with an unforgettable performance that will hopefully be recognised at the BAFTAs. Meanwhile Peter Mullan’s vile decent into psychological self-destruction is perfectly captured, but his ability to stunningly retain an essence of empathy during these moments is sensational. Tyrannosaur’s narrative themes and stylistic look is reminiscent of close friend Shane Meadow’s work (This Is England and Somers Town), but it manages to stay fresh and beautiful in its poetic portrayal of working class reality. Tyrannosaur won’t gain the same critical attention of titles such as Drive or Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. But with its terrific performances, powerful conviction and emotional depth, its hard to not admit that its one hell of a directorial debut, and subsequently is my favourite film of 2011. 
Honourable Mentions 
Arrietty- Studio Ghibli’s take on ‘The Borrowers’ was a delightfully charming and beautifully animated production. A directorial debut by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, this is rich and elegant in colour and character, and a must-see for animation fans. 
The King's Speech- Great piece of British drama entwined with perfect performances from Geoffrey Rush and Colin Firth. Cinematography is excellent, but I can’t help but think that it’s slightly over-rated.
Black Swan- Visually and dramatically intense, Darren Aronofsky’s latest film is an unforgettable experience. Natalie Portman’s performance is certainly award-winning, but a totally overblown third act really hurts the film.
Snowtown- Another perfect export from Australia, and another film with an uncompromising rawness and disturbing reality. If you liked Animal Kingdom, I’m sure you’ll enjoy this. 
Attack The Block- A little gem of a film, Joe Cornish’s directorial debut comes in the from of an ambitious alien invasion, in the middle of a London council estate. Genuinely funny and engaging, Attack the Block is an entertaining and surprisingly well-acted and shot feature. 
Submarine- Richard Ayoade’s debut is a delightful coming-of-age film. Leaving a unique and charming impression, Submarine is a quirky and well-acted piece of ‘indie’ cinema. 

Confessions- Suffering after re-watching numerous times, Nakashima Tetsuya's very 'Japanese' thriller is still a stunning piece of cinematography. A darkly dramatic and sophisticated story, shocking characters and personalities, and great music come to foem one of this year's most memorable and beautiful pictures.

(My Full Review)