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)

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