The first of several top ten film lists from the writers of WhatCulture!
We’ve reached the end of another calendar year, with what could, for once, be an interesting awards season just around the corner. While many of the big contenders for the BAFTAs and Oscars have yet to see the light of day in cinemas, it’s as good a time as any for me to look back on the year that was. And while we have had to endure many a stinker from Messrs. Bay, Snyder and Marshall, and see a number of good directors come unstuck (Ron Howard and Terence Davies spring to mind), there has overall been much to celebrate.
The Coen Brothers kicked things off optimistically with True Grit; while a semi-skimmed effort by their standards, it is far superior to the original. Wake Wood showed that the reborn Hammer is here to stay, reworking The Wicker Man and Don’t Look Now to serve up good gory chills and set us up nicely for The Woman in Black. Sarah Key was one of the better-judged films about the Holocaust, and featured an astounding central performance by Melusine Mayance. Kill List takes the gong for Toughest Film of the Year: the high wince factor of the knee-capping sequence was matched only by its brilliant claustrophobia. And while it never quite reached the heights of his early work, Steven Spielberg’s Tintin was jolly good fun.
All of these films were good or very good, but only those worthy of being called great can make it into my Top 10. So, here we go.
10. Love Like Poison (Un Poison Violent)
Ivorian debutante Katell Quillévéré kicks off the top 10 with her haunting coming-of-age effort set in the Britanny countryside. As 14-year-old Anna Falguères (Clara Augarde) prepares for her first communion, she struggles to reconcile her faith to her nascent sexual urges, as well as taking care of her bedridden grandfather, broken mother and dealing with her absent father. A coming-of-age film which avoids the clichés of the genre, it is a very promising debut from both director and leading lady which lingers long after the choral version of ‘Creep’ has ended.
9. The King’s Speech
There’s not a great deal more that can be said about Tom Hooper’s Oscar-winning hit, save that it deserved most of the accolades and superlatives bestowed upon it. Colin Firth probably should have won his Oscar for A Single Man the year before, but it is good for an actor frequently written off as a lightweight to get recognition as nothing of the sort. The highlights of the film remain the swearing sequences and Guy Pearce as Edward VIII, who mocks “B-B-B-B-Bertie” as he goes about the business of “kinging”. It is this generation’s The Madness of King George and Hooper is one to watch.
8. The Skin I Live In
After the forgettable Broken Embraces, Pedro Almadóvar bounced back in style with one of the year’s creepiest offerings. Tied with Black Swan for the crown of Maddest Film of the Year, this reworking of Georges Franju’s Eyes Without A Face found Antonio Banderas in starting form as a tormented plastic surgeon, who develops a new type of skin which cannot burn and seeks out a guinea pig on which to test it. The twist is both ridiculous and astonishing, but it is best remembered as a horror movie with intelligent gender politics, something which is all too rare in the 21st century.
7. Black Swan
Ballet has fascinated great 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 now we have what is possibly Darren Aronofsky’s maddest film – quite something from the guy who gave us The Fountain. Natalie Portman gives a great performance as a conflicted and fractured ballerina, encouraged to get in touch with her dark side by the reliably brilliant Vincent Cassel. Cue loving and hysterical homages to the great giallos of Argento and his mentor Mario Bava, interspersed with some of the creepiest acting since Hitchcock’s Vertigo. And as the icing on the cake, Winona Ryder turns up in her darkest performance since Heathers.
6. The Guard
Billed as a cross between Lethal Weapon and Father Ted, the debut by John Michael McDonagh takes the edge over In Bruges, the debut from his playwright brother Martin from three years ago. 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.
5. Oranges and Sunshine
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 children were forcibly relocated to Australia by the British government. What could be an Oscar-baiting dirge-fest instead emerges as a powerful and heart-breaking drama with sensitive and 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 all the difficult questions whilst always keeping the characters at the forefront.
Asif Kapadia’s documentary flourished in cinemas for two key reasons. The first was that it took something innately televisual (i.e. TV 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 as human beings. 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.
3. Source Code
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.
2. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
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
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 not only in the film of the year, but 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 anchored by magnificent performances from Tilda Swinton and Ezra Miller. This is the film which showed more than any other in 2011 just how powerful and transcendent cinema can be. It is an utter masterpiece which deserves multiple viewings.
Thanks for reading all my contributions to WhatCulture! this year. Unless the Mayans get their way, I’ll see you to 2012. Happy New Year.