There’s the distinct feeling as 2011 has now come and gone that it will not be remembered among the stronger years of recent cinema; countless prestige pics (The Iron Lady, J. Edgar, The Lady) proved disappointing, more so than is regularly anticipated, while blockbuster fare, though solid, didn’t deliver any Inception or Toy Story 3-caliber outings. There were, however, some wonderful genre films populating the later months of the year, including peculiarly tantalising sci-fi and sports films, as well as the British horror scene’s most diverting entry in years. Add to that some profound meditations on parenting, the film industry, memory, addiction, animal cruelty and domestic abuse, and you have what is nevertheless as diverse a year as any, even if it possibly lacked that one affirmative zeitgeist film that is going to be talked about not only in art house circles but in pub discussions for years to come.

Special Achievement Award:

Senna

(Asif Kapadia / Tomatometer: 92%)

I have to preface my list by singling out one film which does not technically speaking qualify as a 2011 film, but just had to be mentioned. Having been released in Japan and Brazil in 2010, the wonderful racing doc Senna is listed on IMDB, Wikipedia and other such sites as 2010, though it did not find major distribution in the likes of the U.S. and the U.K. until after the Sundance Film Festival in 2011. Frustrating it is, then, that this remains the only new release that I saw in 2011 and awarded five stars, so I couldn’t miss the opportunity to drop an honourable mention and give it an asterisked place ahead of my list. For boring and complicated reasons, yes, it is not a 2011 film, but very few people in the world had access to it prior to 2011, so it deserves recognition nevertheless.

If we define a classic documentary by its ability to transcend niche subject matter and engage all audiences, then the exhilarating and unbelievable Senna is one of cinema’s recent best. I am not and have never been interested in F1 racing, that is, until the afterglow of Asif Kapadia‘s impeccable documentary began to pulse through my mind in the moments following its conclusion. Chronicling the life and untimely death of Brazilian motor-racing star Ayrton Senna, the eponymously-titled doc briskly depicts Senna’s rise to prominence in the sport, in a manner free of the typical talking heads and locked-off cameras. Rather, Kapadia focuses on a streamlined, visually dynamic experience, keen to get your heart pumping and palms sweating, with diverting, break-neck footage of some of Senna’s more accomplished feats on the track.

Even more compelling, though, is the insight into the political plays and rivalries that he became embroiled in; outspoken and an advocate of driver safety, Senna was the frequent foil of FISA Jean-Marie Balestre – who comes off terribly here – and yet this only helped enhance Senna’s stature as a consummate sportsman and “driver’s driver”. His feud with teammate Alain Prost is depicted here with the enthusiastic grip of a tightly-wound narrative feature, as the two jostle to become the title driver for McLaren. Finally, after it thrills as a slick sort of thriller-actioner, it ends with a heartbreaking climax; the accident which cost Senna his life, which is not shied away from here nor exploited for false sentiment. Devastatingly, we learn much of what Senna meant to the Brazilian people; a triumphant symbol of hope, now extinguished and leaving many in agony. In a broader context, Senna is a monument to the power of sport, but most prominently a testament to the worth of a passionate human being and amazing sportsman. It doesn’t get much better than this.

20. Super 8

(J.J. Abrams / Tomatometer: 82%)

J.J. Abrams demonstrates a real love for cinema – primarily Steven Spielberg’s classic sci-fi pics – with this doting homage, which puts a frantic alien invasion plot secondary to an involving, emotionally resonant family narrative. Many filmmakers over the years have tried to ape Spielberg’s unmistakable style, but few – if any – have succeeded as well as Abrams here; even produced by Spielberg and his company Amblin Entertainment (which famously features a scene from E.T. in its logo), the film bleeds the legendary filmmaker’s DNA at every turn, from its spectacularly-filmed chase sequences to its overarching sense of wonder, and indeed, its focus on strained family dynamics amid a world crisis.

What really distinguishes this film from countless other similar films is not only Abrams’ skill as a director – coming off the outstanding Star Trek reboot was no doubt a savvy move – but the hugely impressive performances from the three young leads, especially Elle Fanning as a troubled girl who finds solace in helping her new friends make a charming little Super 8 movie outside their home. With all of the clear reverence for the filmmaking process and the joy of youth discovering it, the science fiction elements often take a back seat, but Abrams knows when to crank the set-piecery into full gear, delivering thrilling scenes of destruction which also turn out to be surprisingly pungent on an emotional, visceral level.

 

19. Kill List

(Ben Wheatley / Tomatometer: 82%)

Down Terrace director Ben Wheatley returns with what is a hugely impressive sophomore feature and also the scariest, most unsettling British horror film in years. Kill List begins with a family in crisis, as unemployed ex-soldier Jay (Neil Maskell) realises his funds are running dry and he has a wife (MyAnna Buring) and young son to feed. His army friend, Gal (Michael Smiley), mentions a rich job prospect; to perform a series of three contract assassinations which will be doled out one after another.

Wheatley sets a profoundly weird and subtly disquieting atmosphere from the outset, one which slowly but surely grows more and more disturbing; one victim thanks Jay prior to killing him, and seconds later, in a mind-boggling technical feat, the man’s head is hammered to pieces in a seamless take without cutting away. The film explores the immensely dark capacity of man’s nature, to enjoy murder, and also leaps off to make comment about a recession-riddled Britain, in which people will literally kill to put dinner on the table. Its grisly third reel, though, is best of all; it employs a huge tonal shift which won’t please all viewers, but in its stead delivers the most consistently tense 20-minutes of the year, with a kicker of a final shot to boot. I can’t wait to see what Wheatley does next.

18. The Ides of March

(George Clooney / Tomatometer: 86%)

One of the more underrated films on this list, following its cold reception at the Venice Film Festival, The Ides of March is nevertheless a stirring, superbly acted political thriller with George Clooney pulling astounding quadruple-duty as actor, co-writer, director and producer. While ostensibly less of a legitimate Best Picture play than his hugely acclaimed Good Night and Good Luck, this proves his success as a director was no fluke, for it is another fiercy political vehicle which, while hardly shocking in its statement that, yes, politicians frequently lie to further their careers, nevertheless reminds us of this fact in a uniquely arresting, dramatically satisfying manner.

Ryan Gosling is astonishing once again, this time as Stephen Meyers, the Junior Campaign Manager for the Presidential campaign of Mike Morris (Clooney), who has his cloud of optimism pierced once he finds some unsavoury truths out about his seemingly unflappable leader. Pointed quite clearly as an allegory of the disappointment of Obama’s presidency thus far, the film is nevertheless enjoyable whatever your political allegiance, for it is a more general statement about how much we invest in politicos and how they are always going to invariably disappoint personally if not professionally. Gosling puts a human, boyish face on this disappointment, and Clooney is stellar – though fleetingly used – as the slick but troubled president. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti are also wonderfully vicious as the Democratic and Republican campaign managers respectively.

Read my full review here – http://whatculture.com/film/london-film-festival-2011-review-the-ides-of-march.php

 

17. The Interrupters

(Steve James / Tomatometer: 99%)

Just about any director would find it difficult to top the immensity of 1994′s Hoop Dreams, unquestionably one of the greatest and most involving documentaries ever made. Steve James, however, rises to the challenge with a worthy doc about a trio of so-called “violence interrupters” operating out of Chicago. The three, all former felons, have learned from their mistakes and turned their lives into something productive, courageously breaking up gang violence whenever they chance upon it. In fact, it’s fascinating that it has taken so long for a film to be made about the group, now quite large in number, because their bravery and the ripple-effect of their actions has a grand social consequence.

More so than a police officer or social worker telling gangs to stop the violence, it is people on the same level as the gangs, of their race, class, and social status. This raises some taxing moral questions, such as where the interrupters’ place stands between the offenders and the police, and of course whether when pushed, the interrupters themselves could turn violent. Much like the director’s seminal doc, this is a richly-drawn slice of real life that’s weaved with the finesse of a fine Hollywood drama; we care for these characters – people, even – and as is true in real life, little is ever solved overnight, such that plenty remains up in the air as the film comes to a close.

 

16. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

(Tomas Alfredson / Tomatometer: 85%)

The first film of 2011 to hit the ground running with a certifiable shot at awards season (sorry, Tree of Life), Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a workmanlike spy thriller crafted with sublime skill by Let the Right One In director Tomas Alfredson. Adapting John le Carré’s acclaimed novel (which was previously made as an Alec Guinness-starring TV mini-series), this is a dense, layered, complex film that’s occasionally difficult to follow, but refreshingly demanding of the viewer as such; one must pay attention or risk missing vital information which is not repeated again. Gary Oldman is marvellous as the protagonist, ex-MI6 agent George Smiley, who is tasked with locating a mole within the Circus before he can compromise the entire sector. Dripping in anxiety and paranoia, this is a film that makes the best of long hallways and dark rooms, mining a certain banal sense of dread for all it’s worth, slowly but surely building towards a satisfying climax which nevertheless might leave the unsuspecting viewer’s head spinning. It’s a thinking man’s thriller that doesn’t talk down to you, and in this day and age, that must be commended.

Read my full review here – http://whatculture.com/film/tinker-tailor-soldier-spy-review-2011s-first-legitimate-best-picture-contender.php

 

15. The Muppets

(James Bobin / Tomatometer: 96%)

Six months ago, I would never have anticipated that a new Muppet film would end up among the best films of the year. Brushing aside decades of nostalgia, this is a whip-smart postmodern romp with a warm heart to boot, and as such, it should please both life-long fans and new initiates to the Muppet universe. What it does right is clear almost immediately; it acknowledges that the Muppets are outdated and even irrelevant in today’s age of more articulate pleasures. Children are more content with portable video game consoles than moving puppets, yet by working this into the plot, whereby the Muppets’ theatre is facing foreclosure and will be sold to greedy oil tycoon Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) along with their legacy, it manages to feel fresh and modern.

Jason Segel, who co-stars and co-wrote the film, is clearly a lifelong Muppets fan, and pours both his heart and soul into everything here, even if the human drama with his longtime love Mary (Amy Adams) feels very much secondary to the fabric-based characters, as it should. The song-and-dance numbers are wonderfully old-fashioned, yet the humour is updated with a wicked wit that better reflects modern, more developed sensibilities, keenly poking fun at some of our more inane indulgences, such as banal tween stars, it appears, without them even realising it (or being precociously self-aware enough to participate in the film). The Muppets have always been about love and joy – that was Jim Henson’s mission – and this film demonstrates there’s still plenty of life in the old dog yet.

 

14. The Descendants

(Alexander Payne / Tomatometer: 89%)

Alexander Payne’s much-anticipated follow-up to his fantastic Sideways is, I must say, no Sideways, but that’s a pretty high expectation as it stands. Payne’s latest is a riveting drama about Matt King (George Clooney), a man who must come to terms with the prospect that his comatose wife probably isn’t going to wake up, while having a parental role thrust upon him for the first time in his life. There are plenty more twists and turns early on in Payne’s film, but to ruin them would be to rob the film of its savage moral ambiguity, of how Matt’s predicament becomes inexorably more complicated than one would expect; he is forced to martyr himself for the good of others, to preserve reputations, and to make the greatest number of people happy.

It goes without saying that this film could finally steer George Clooney towards an Academy Award for Best Actor; it is a witty, extremely likable, emotionally complicated character with which he has been blessed, and as his daughter, Shailene Woodley is a major find and should herself considered in the Best Supporting Actress category. It lacks the airy wherewithal of Payne’s previous feature, but it is still a wonderful work from a master writer-director, and should do well in the upcoming Oscar platform.

Read my full review here – http://whatculture.com/film/london-film-festival-2011-review-the-descendants.php

 

13. Tyrannosaur

(Paddy Considine / Tomatometer: 80%)

Tyrannosaur is not the sort of film you go to see on a date or for a fun night out at the cinema. It is an actor’s film that you go to see for the acting. The debut feature from primarily comic actor Paddy Considine, Tyrannosaur traces patterns of abuse in a trio of people; an angry, violent old alcoholic, Joseph (Peter Mullan), a battered wife, Hannah (Olivia Colman), and her frustrated, abusive husband, James (Eddie Marsan).

Easily one of the grimmest films in recent years, Tyrannosaur is not for the squeamish; it is framed by savage acts of violence which represent choices for the protagonist, Joseph. In between, we merely observe how he tries in subtle ways not only to better Hannah’s situation, but perhaps unconsciously, his own. That the film offers only morsels of redemption will be no surprise; this is proudly unsentimental, incredibly harrowing viewing, most notably for Olivia Colman’s career-making performance as a maltreated wife who is looking for a way out of her predicament. Poor state-side distribution likely hampered her Oscar campaign, but this is one of the most alluring breakout performances in years, while Considine is an unexpectedly perfect conduit through which to channel this raw, unfettered emotion.

Read my full review here – http://whatculture.com/film/tyrannosaur-review-among-2011s-best-dramas.php

12. Margaret

(Kenneth Lonergan / Tomatometer: 66%)

Easily the most ambitious and perplexing film on this list, Margaret has languished in post-production Hell for at least the better part of five years, as director Kenny Lonergan agonised over creating a cut he was satisfied with. Thanks to Martin Scorsese and his perennial editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who delivered the final cut themselves, Margaret hit our screens – albeit in an immensely limited capacity – this year. While a 150-minute run time is a demanding ask for a blockbuster epic let alone a small, quiet tale about redemption and the grey edges of morality, Margaret is involving at almost all times, due to a cracking script, keen to mock the pretentious, poetic nature of these sorts of films even if it does ultimately concede to it itself a little.

On a simpler level, though, it is a fascinating insight into the mind of a 17-year-old girl, Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin), as she deals with love, sex, an overbearing mother, and most importantly, deciding for herself what to do about a fatal bus accident that she had a hand in causing. Paquin, while barely in her twenties at the time of filming, delivers what is unashamedly a career-best performance, demonstrating vulnerability and precociousness in plausible tandem, while nailing the grand emotional highs and lows of her predicament. Lonergan pulls no punches and his film is all the better for it; if you can get through the initial, protracted death sequence without wincing, you’re made of steel. Ambitious, stunningly-acted, smart, and astoundingly not outstaying its welcome despite a beefy run time, Margaret is destined to become a cult classic.

 

11. Martha Marcy May Marlene

(Sean Durkin / Tomatometer: 88%)

Most people probably weren’t even aware that there is a third Olsen sister, let alone that she is the most talented of the bunch. In a stunning debut, Elizabeth Olsen delivers what is easily the year’s most startling debut performance – earning comparisons to Jennifer Lawrence’s Winter’s Bone acclaim – and also one of the best female performances of the year full-stop, fighting off fierce competition from acting lionesses such as Meryl Streep and Glenn Close. Olsen is outstanding as Martha, a young woman who at the film’s opening flees from a cult of which she has been a part for some time. Returning to her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), she awkwardly tries to re-assimilate into her former life, which places a strain on Lucy’s relationship with her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy), while an increasing paranoia grows in her mind that she is being followed by abusive cult leader Patrick (John Hawkes).

Pitch-perfect editing renders this an economic and ever-engaging drama about the battle between what is a memory and what is artifice; while Patrick nary appears in Martha’ life once she arrives home, the dread-filled sense of anxiety is ever-present, revealed through increasingly harrowing flashbacks which explain why Martha decided to flee. Olsen, with her fresh, young face, encompasses the vulnerability and naivete of her character perfectly, while also dabbing it with her more uncouth behaviours learned from living with the cult. The ending may frustrate some hoping for succinct closure, but it is a more haunting and peculiar departure point at which to leave us. The film’s already gut-wrenching sense of paranoia and dread is wholly accentuated by Elizabeth Olsen’s searing, nuanced breakthrough performance.

 

10. Shame

(Steve McQueen / Tomatometer: 78%)

One of several films on this list that criminally did not receive a single Oscar nomination, Shame is an unforgettable, mesmerising second feature from Steve McQueen, whose first feature, Hunger, turned many heads as one of the more audacious debuts of any director in recent years. Again teaming with Michael Fassbender, McQueen explores sexual addiction through Fassbender’s Brandon, a high-flying business-type who spends his nights with call girls, random women he picks up at bars, and browsing Internet porn. When his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan) turns up on his doorstep, however, his insular, singular existence is challenged, and he finds himself trying to juggle a seemingly unstoppable compulsion with the emotional needs of his tortured sister.

There is no doubt a film here which would have gone too far and turned Shame into a tacky drama that goes incestual, but McQueen’s measured hand provides a glimpse into Brandon’s life that is at once riveting, disturbing, and occasionally quite hilarious. Fassbender rises to the considerable task of bettering his work on McQueen’s last film, delivering an astounding, year-best turn which would be a fine fit in the Oscar pantheon this year, though the NC-17 rating it received in the U.S. is no doubt detrimental to its prospects. Beautifully photographed, with an unforgettable score from Harry Escott, McQueen masterfully transforms scenes we would instantly assume to be erotic into the furthest thing from it; Fassbender’s anguished, angry, empty expression during these scenes is highly troubling, and absolutely gripping.

Read my full review here – http://whatculture.com/film/london-film-festival-2011-review-shame.php

 

9. Warrior

(Gavin O’Connor / Tomatometer: 82%)

Easily the most pleasant surprise of the year, nothing in Warrior’s advertising prepared me for how sublimely it would manage to transcend a conventional story and provide one of the most affecting and engrossing cinematic outings all year. Proof that mesmerising performances and subtle narrative inflexions can go a long way, Warrior provides us with a traditional sports film setup; various fighters with personal woes enter a tournament for a cash prize which can better their lives. The difference here foremost is that, while the majority of these combat-sport films are centred around boxing, Warrior instead tackles the burgeoning mixed martial-arts field, brought to colourful, gritty, brutal life by Gavin O’Connor’s probing direction, delivering tense, visceral fight scenes unlike any you’ve seen in a film of this sort.

Add to this a less-typical drama narrative in which two brothers, cash-strapped family man Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton) and angry former Marine Tommy Riordan (Tom Hardy), are competing in the same tournament, and ultimately face off against one another, and you have a story with its own unique twist on the genre, most impressively creating a scenario that makes you root for both men without seeming overly contrived. Tom Hardy is a knockout as the smouldering younger brother trying to make sense of a difficult upbringing at the hands of alcoholic father Paddy (Nick Nolte). However, the film film very much belongs to Nolte; scraggly-voiced and weathered beyond belief, it’s easy to see a Micky Rourke-esque self-reflexiveness in his performance, what with his own personal troubles with substance abuse. It’s a moving and fiercely committed performance which should hopefully provide Nolte with plenty of steam heading into the Oscars. Trumping even genre classic Rocky, Warrior packs a grand emotional wallop thanks to top-tier performances and the fact that you don’t want either fighter to lose.

 

8. Contagion

(Steven Soderbergh / Tomatometer: 84%)


Steven Soderbergh’s customary directorial flair combined with another meticulously composed screenplay from Scott Z. Burns makes more of Contagion than a simple, down-the-line genre film. Following the rapid growth of an aggressive virus which kills a large number of the infected within days, we observe the efforts of senior medical officials and ordinary people to respectively find a vaccine and survive the ravaging social and economic effects of its spread. As much a commentary on our own paranoia – no doubt exacerbated in an age of immediate information – as it is a frighteningly grounded depiction of the human race having its numbers sharply whittled, the fiercely intelligent Contagion outdoes its genre competition precisely because it doesn’t dumb itself down for our sake.

Featuring one of the best casts in any recent film, the performances here are outstanding almost universally; Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslett and Jennifer Ehle are stellar as scientists frantically chasing a cure, while the standout is Matt Damon, playing an impossibly hard-done-by man who loses most of his family to the virus and finds out some unsavoury secrets about his wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) in the process. Soderbergh’s film is ruthlessly fair, killing off children as ably as it does adults, but its real success is in generating palpable human drama alongside a scarily plausible scenario which has drawn firm praise from the scientific community as well as film critics. Cliff Martinez’s wonderful score evokes classics of the genre such as The Andromeda Strain, while Soderbergh’s confident direction keeps things pacy and ever-compelling alongside the stupendously good performances which rank among the best of any blockbuster this year.

7. Hugo

(Martin Scorsese / Tomatometer: 94%)

Martin Scorsese and 3D aren’t exactly two things one would immediately put together, but if anyone can validate something dismissed by many as a crass gimmick, it is probably the veteran filmmaker. While Hugo would have been just as entertaining in 2D, Scorsese acquits himself and 3D technology ably with a sweetly nostalgic, affecting tale of a young boy (Asa Butterfield) growing up in France, as he finds himself slowly making acquaintance with a disgruntled older man (Ben Kingsley), and his goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloë Moretz). Nostalgia seems to be the year’s cultural touchstone as far as plaudits go, yet Scorsese’s unlikely 3D family film takes an agreeably pragmatic stance, that we must embrace the past yet never deny progress.

Some might see Scorsese as hypocritical for wrapping a grandiose propaganda piece for film preservation within a big-budget, 3D Hollywood spectacle, yet it is a lesson taught without a pretension to the lectern. Children will probably not immediately identify with some of its more rose-tinted moments later on, but within Hugo is a warm-hearted, visually dazzling adventure, the kind of which typically is not made for kids. This feels like a great sort of Tim Burton film that Tim Burton lacks the ingenuity to make these days; to ruin its grand conceit would be a disservice, yet it is no spoiler to say that Ben Kingsley’s wonderful performance as an unforgettable figure of cultural history should be commanding more awards attention than it is.

 

6. Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory

(Joe Berlinger & Bruce Sinofsky / Tomatometer: 100%)

The first two entries to Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Paradise Lost documentary series painted a convincing picture that three young men – dubbed the West Memphis Three – had been incorrectly convicted of the murder of three 8-year-old boys in Arkansas in 1993. This third film, an inarguably powerful knockout punch, reminds us of the documentary film’s power to change people’s lives. It would feel incomplete if Berlinger and Sinofsky examined the West Memphis Three case without drawing attention to the towering impact of their own work, which has drawn considerable attention to the apparent injustice at hand, driven by desperate, grieving families, and a mob-fuelled quest for vengeance against teens whose black attire and affinity for listening to Heavy Metal music apparently made them killers, despite no scrap of DNA evidence linking them to the scene.

Paradise Lost 3 is not a pleasant or uplifting documentary, opening with actual crime scene footage as the police discover the bodies of the murdered boys, and moving forward to consider other possible suspects, as well as examining how the situation has destroyed countless lives, and pointlessly, it seems, the youth of three men – now in their thirties – who were rendered scapegoats. What it does best is depict how public opinion has changed – in large part thanks to these films – such that, while the film was in post-production, prepping for a premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, the three men were finally freed. While it still screened in stilted form at the fest, HBO premiered the definitive cut on U.S. TV just this month, providing sure closure to an unfortunate but fascinating tale of human nature.

 

5. Project Nim

(James Marsh / Tomatometer: 98%)

Following up his Oscar-winning marvel Man on Wire with an even more impassioned and startling documentary, James Marsh has crafted a massively affecting, thought-provoking film about animal rights which is very much stranger than fiction. In the 1970s, a group of scientists attempted to raise a baby chimp, Nim, as one would a human baby, endeavouring to teach him sign language and observe how an animal can appropriate human means of communication. While this in of itself comprises an interesting enough doc, the real meat of the film’s drama comes from what happens in the wake of the experiment; when it didn’t yield the expected results, Nim was returned to a cage with fellow chimps, and of course, having lived as a human for so long, this transition was anything but smooth. Though firmly rooted as a heartbreaking chronicle of how an innocent animal was tragically failed by most of his human carers, much of the real insight comes from its observations of humanity, as we strive to find out more about our world and are in effect driven by ambition to selfish, cruel acts, ones which most of the subjects demonstrate devastating levels of guilt over in retrospect. Crafting a narrative that would in its own way operate as a wonderful feature, James Marsh manages to snappily contrast our similarities and differences to animals, and provides enough ambiguity that we’re never locked into one overtly polemical stance. Its snubbing for a Best Documentary Oscar nomination is probably the branch’s most infamous omission since Hoop Dreams didn’t make the cut.

Read my full review here – http://whatculture.com/film/dvd-review-project-nim-complex-heart-wrenching-tale-of-our-attempt-to-understand-animals.php

 

4. The Skin I Live In

(Pedro Almodovar / Tomatometer: 79%)

While unscrupulous critics have given away many of the secrets of Pedro Almodovar’s latest film, the best advice is simply to watch it without reading too much. Firing on his finest form in years, the Spanish auteur has crafted a uniquely disturbing film about revenge, sex, identity, and much more, absurd with an expectantly self-aware sensibility, milking the more maddeningly melodramatic aspects of its loopy story for genuine shocks, and a fair share of laughs too. Antonio Banderas is fantastic as a demented genius of a plastic surgeon who is driven to creative insanity by a tragic accident which robbed him of his wife.

Elena Anaya is a major find as the unwitting subject of his experiments, and also represents the surprising emotional core of the film: unlikely it is that a film so off-kilter actually manages to be affecting and warmly human, especially in its final moments. Beautifully shot, masterfully directed, and superbly acted, this feels like Almodovar at his least restrained and most enthusiastic; utterly haunting, often hilarious, always compelling, and deeply unsettling. This is a film that sticks with you.

Read my full review here – http://whatculture.com/film/the-skin-i-live-in-review-the-ballsiest-best-film-of-2011.php

 

3. The Artist

(Michel Hazanavicius / Tomatometer: 97%)

An out-of-nowhere surprise and a wonderful rebuke to pretty much anything else in Oscar contention this year, Michel Hazanavicius‘ warm, nostalgic and near-silent film about the onset of sound in the film industry may lack outrageous effects and even much dialogue, but its endless charm and reminder of a simpler time carries it to unexpected heights. Jean Dujardin is magnificent as George Valentin, a silent film star who feels threatened by the beginnings of the sound era, envisioned by gorgeous ingenue Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo). Quite obviously meant to imitate cinema’s most ardent resistor to sound, Charlie Chaplin, Valentin is extremely compelling as a monument to the bygone era, with Dujardin’s performance harnessing an affecting look at downfall and resurrection, rather unexpectedly for a film so often playful and joyous.

In a time in which 3D and lavish special effects dominate, the minimalism – if you can call it that – of this film is a potent tonic, reminding us of what talented people can do with little – charm and entertain with wit that no matter of visual grandeur can truly compensate for. Thoroughly romantic, and keen to have you skipping out of the cinema, this is a film lover’s film and indeed one which would be a snug fit for the Best Picture Academy Award which it seems to be inevitably sailing towards.

Read my full review here – http://whatculture.com/film/london-film-festival-2011-review-michael-hazanavicius%E2%80%99-the-artist.php

 

2. 50/50

(Will Reiser / Tomatometer: 94%)

Proof that writing what you know is the best way, Will Reiser’s screenplay for this ambitious and daring cancer comedy draws from his own experiences with cancer, and feels achingly, beautifully authentic as a result. Oscar-baiting cancer dramas perennially talk down to audiences or indulge in trite sentiment which comes off as disingenuous; 50/50 is a wonderful antidote to this. Suffused with bravely dark humour, this film confronts the real mortality of its protagonist, Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) head-on, making us feel that his life is very much in danger, while those around him, a lying girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard), a worried mother (Anjelica Huston), a trainee therapist (Anna Kendrick) and a caring best friend (Seth Rogen) try to deal with the news.

Capturing what I can only imagine is the very real, crushing loneliness of dealing with a disease like this, 50/50′s immensely likable protagonist goes through the stages of denial, anger, and acceptance with outstanding authenticity thanks to a knockout performance from Gordon-Levitt, which should have earned him a Best Actor Academy Award nomination. Most unexpected is the wonderfully understated supporting turn from Seth Rogen, quietly affecting and deriving grand power from a fleeting shot of a book sitting on top of a toilet later on (pay attention and you’ll see).

Read my full review here – http://whatculture.com/film/london-film-festival-2011-review-5050.php

 

1. We Need to Talk About Kevin

(Lynne Ramsay / Tomatometer: 85%)

Lynne Ramsay admirably and singularly adapts Lionel Shriver’s acclaimed and controversial novel to the screen with astounding impact, thanks to two incredible performances alongside her own pitch-perfect direction. We Need to Talk About Kevin asks questions of nature vs. nurture as a mother, Eva (Tilda Swinton) tries to come to terms with the massacre her son, Kevin (Ezra Miller) has perpetrated. As she ponders over memories of important moments in Kevin’s childhood, she confronts herself and whether she is to blame for how he turned out.

What makes We Need to Talk About Kevin so important and indeed, so brilliant, is that it challenges the much-cherished Hollywood notion of causation and reason; while most all psychological thrillers are keen to ascribe a very definite A-to-Z meaning to a psychopathic character’s actions, Kevin instead ardently rejects this, instead opting for an altogether more ambiguous conclusion as is true of life. Life does not box us into easily defined roles, and neither does this story; the moral panics of the media might be quick to blame video games or violent films, but here there is no sign of that, and in the end, it appears that even Kevin himself does not know. Ramsay’s brooding, visceral visuals create a discomfiting, Kubrickian tone from the outset, and Swinton’s mesmerising performance in the lead role should have earned her another Academy Award (shame on you, AMPAS). Ezra Miller, meanwhile, will surely do well off the back of it, delivering the creepiest performance of the year without a doubt.

Read my full review here – http://whatculture.com/film/london-film-festival-2011-review-we-need-to-talk-about-kevin.php

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This article was first posted on January 25, 2012