We're now firmly into Christmas and New Year, a time for celebrating what we have and reflecting on what this year has given us. A time, in other words, when film reviewers like me start thinking about our Top 10 lists for the year.
While I've already got a pretty good idea of what shape my list is going to take this year, there's still a couple of offerings from 2012 that I want to track down before I commit pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard. I may not be able to provide full written reviews of these in time, but if I do manage to catch, say, The Hobbit before New Year's Eve I'll be able to give you my brief thoughts. Assuming, of course, that it's good enough to make the list.
In the meantime, I'm going to look back at last year's Top 10, which was published on WhatCulture! on New Year's Day. I've made an effort to catch up on a lot of stuff from 2011, and there are a few additions to the list which have pushed out some of the lower entries from the original article. So, in a half-hearted bid to build suspense for this year's list, here is my revised Top 10 of 2011.
NOTE: Some of the entries could be counted as 2010 films, but I am going on UK release date as a guide. You can read my original WhatCulture! article here.
10. Black Swan (dir. Darren Aronofsky)
Ballet has fascinated filmmakers for generations, for reasons which have never been entirely clear. The 1940s gave us Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, the 1970s gave us Dario Argento’s Suspiria, and 2011 gave us Darren Aronofsky’s maddest film – quite something, considering his back catalogue. Natalie Portman gives a great performance as a conflicted, fractured ballerina, encouraged to get in touch with her dark side by the reliable Vincent Cassel. Cue hysterical homages to Argento and Mario Bava, interspersed with some of the creepiest acting since Vertigo and Winona Ryder's darkest performance since Heathers.
9. The Guard (dir. John Martin McDonagh)
Billed as a cross between Lethal Weapon and Father Ted, the debut film by John Michael McDonagh takes the edge over In Bruges, the 2008 debut from his playwright brother Martin. Brendan Gleeson plays an earthly, beyond-the-book Connemara cop paired with Don Cheadle’s FBI agent to take down a group of drug smugglers led by Mark Strong. Fully aware of its generic origins and conventions, it uses its low-budget aesthetic in its favour to rattle through insanely black and hysterically funny scenes. Gleeson is in the form of a lifetime in a future cult classic which acknowledges its roots and carves out a gleeful little niche of its own.8. Take Shelter (dir. Jeff Nichols)
Conceived as an indie take on the disaster movie genre, Jeff Nichols' Take Shelter is a haunting and slow-burning psychodrama which edges out The Road as the great apocalyptic film for our time. Michael Shannon anchors the excellent cast with a typically intense and complex performance, and the film's great strength is the strength and believability of its characters. Drawing on works as varied as Deep Impact, The Rapture and The Birds, it's also an intelligent examination of how people deal with disasters, the Biblical stories of Noah and Revelation, and the current financial crisis.
If Jim Loach’s debut is anything to go by, he has learned much from his father as a filmmaker. Emily Watson is on strong form as Margaret Humphries, a Nottingham social worker who uncovered the Home Children Programme, by which thousands of British children were forcibly relocated to Australia. What could be an Oscar-baiting dirge-fest instead emerges as a powerful and heart-breaking drama with sensitive, confident direction. Watson is paired with Hugo Weaving and David Wenham, both in the form of a lifetime, and the whole project is expertly judged to ask difficult questions whilst keeping the characters at the forefront.
6. Drive (dir. Nicolas Winding Refn)
Nicolas Winding Refn continues to creatively straddle arthouse and exploitation with one of the coolest films of the last 20 years. Drive has all the hallmarks of a pulpy B-movie thriller, with plenty of bloody violence, chase scenes and a classic heist-gone-wrong setup. But it also draws on more ambitious material, like The Passenger and the films of Paul Schrader, to create both a compelling character portrait and a modern-day fairy tale. Ryan Gosling's career-making performance is really something, channelling the best of Charles Bronson to create someone both endearing and intimidating.
5. Senna (dir. Asif Kapadia)
Asif Kapadia’s documentary flourished in cinemas for two reasons. The first was that it took something televisual (racing coverage) and made it deeply cinematic. The second was that it approached a sport which many people couldn’t care less about, and showed convincingly what makes its competitors tick. The extraordinary life of Ayrton Senna is beautifully captured with an eerie intensity; we relive the build-up to his tragic death, sitting on the edge of our seats even if we know the outcome. Most fascinating of all is the conflict between Senna and Alain Prost, a clash between passion and calculation, principles and politics.
4. Source Code (dir. Duncan Jones)
Source Code follows in the wake of Inception as proof that blockbusters need not be stupid, and when done well can be as smart and multi-layered as any arthouse effort. Duncan Jones cements his status as one of Britain’s brightest young filmmakers with a savvy and substantial science fiction film about identity, government conspiracy, terrorism and lost love. Jake Gyllenhaal turns in his best performance since Donnie Darko as Lieutenant Colter Stevens, a US soldier forced to relieve the same 8 minutes before a train bombing until he finds the people who are responsible.
3. Tyrannosaur (dir. Paddy Considine)
Having proved his acting chops through his work with Shane Meadows, Paddy Considine delivers a harrowing and raw debut effort which rivals Dead Man's Shoes for its commitment, brutality and ingenuity. Tyrannosaur is a film that gives no quarter in examining the collapse of its characters, asking hard questions about the lifestyles of both the unstable Joseph (Peter Mullan) and the trapped Hannah (a fantastic Olivia Colman). The violence is tough but justified, and running through all its most difficult moments is a ruthless honesty and intelligence, resulting in a film with few answers but much reward.
Fans of the TV series may gripe at the sheer amount of compression that has been employed to bring John le Carré’s novel to the big screen. But for those who can put that to one side, Tomas Alfredson’s second film is a triumph which almost hits the same heights of Let The Right One In. Le Carré’s game-changing novel about Cold War paranoia and betrayal has been beautifully adapted with immense attention to detail and superb, understated performances by a stellar cast. A film in which every gesture means at least three different things, and whose evocation of 1970s malaise is second to none.1. We Need To Talk About Kevin (dir. Lynne Ramsay)
As they say in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, “from the ashes of disaster grow the roses of success”. Lynne Ramsay’s failure to adapt The Lovely Bones, which almost led her to give up filmmaking, has resulted in an early candidate for film of the decade. Her mesmerising adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s novel is a bold and adventurous piece of filmmaking which draws you in from the first image and never lets you go. Difficult questions about parenting, violence, voyeurism and insanity are presented without easy answers, via imagery worthy of David Lynch and magnificent performances from Tilda Swinton and Ezra Miller. More than any other film from 2011, this film just how powerful and transcendent cinema can be. It is an utter masterpiece.
HONOURABLE MENTIONS (ALPHABETICAL): Kill List, Love Like Poison, Shame, Suburban Knights, The Artist, The King's Speech, The Skin I Live In.