15:/ The King’s Speech : After its countless accolades, what remains to be said about Tom Hooper’s smash-hit historical drama? As I’m sure we’re all now aware, the story follows George VI (Colin Firth) whose terrible stammer had hampered him for years before he is thrust unexpectedly into the limelight when his older brother abdicates the throne. With war looming in Europe, Britain needs a leader and a figurehead to rally behind and so George’s stammer takes on a newfound importance. He visits an Australian Speech therapist called Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) and the duo spark up an unlikely friendship as George prepares to address the nation. Firth fully deserved his Oscar win and Rush and Helena Bonham Carter, who played George’s wife Elizabeth (The Queen Mum to you and me), were likewise deserving of their Oscar nominations. There may be some slight artistic licence taken with historical events but overall it’s a fairly accurate portrayal of a crucial period of British history. The King’s Speech is both powerful and rousing and is not just an historical drama but also an inspiring triumph over adversity tale.
14:/ The Skin I live In : Now this is one entry I will keep completely spoiler free. Pedro Almodovar delivers a macabre thriller with a jaw-dropping twist that you will not see coming. Antonio Banderas is Robert Ledgard, a skilled surgeon who has lost both his wife and daughter in tragic ways. First his wife was horrifically burned in a car crash and after seeing her disfigured face she jumped to her death from a window. Robert’s daughter requires psychological treatment after her mum’s death but is let out of the clinic in order to attend a wedding. While there, she is sexually assaulted by a boy at the party, an act which drives her back into treatment and ultimately pushes her to commit suicide as well. After the death of his wife, Robert begins to dedicate his life to developing skin-grafting technology and even keeps a young woman captive in his house, we presume as part of an ongoing experiment. Almodovar delves into the horror genre at times and you are kept guessing as to where the director will take the story next. Shocking, suspenseful and truly unique, The Skin I Live in is a tough but rewarding watch.
13:/ Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 : After 8 movies, 7 horcruxes, several dubious Defence Against the Dark Arts teachers and a whole heap of hormones, the Potter franchise finally came to an end. It was always going to be a tall order to suitably round off the series but director David Yates and his team did an excellent job. There’s far too much going on and far too much back story under the bridge (probably not a phrase) to give a sufficient plot summary but needless to say…it all ends. The battle of Hogwarts is a fitting finale to the raging battle between good and evil and as with many of the Potter films it gets pretty hard going when the body count starts to mount up. Knowing this is the final outing for Potter and Co. gives proceedings a greater sense of importance than its predecessors and sure enough the drama is amped up to 11. Questions are answered and rivalries are resolved for good. A great last instalment in a hugely successful franchise.
12:/ Ides of March : The year of the Gosling continued with this slick and polished political thriller which was directed, produced, and co-wrote by co-star George Clooney. The story focuses on Gosling’s enthusiastic and passionate Junior Campaign Manager Stephen Myers. Stephen works for Clooney’s charismatic Governor Mike Morris , a frontrunner for the Democratic Presidential nomination. Stephen grudgingly goes to a meeting with the campaign manager for Morris’ rival, played with world weary brilliance by Paul Giammatti. Giamatti’s Tom Duffy tries to recruit the young go-getter to work for his candidate instead but Stephen declines, citing his intense belief in Governor Morris’ ideals. Duffy assures him that his optimism won’t last and sooner or later he’ll become just as cynical as everyone else. From here the central thrust of the film is a battle for Myers’s political soul and his loss of innocence. As scandal and backstabbing begins to engulf the Morris campaign, Stephen must decide what he values most of all, his values or victory. The supporting cast is top draw with both Giamatti and Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays Stephen’s immediate boss, proving why they are Hollywood’s go-to guys for weather-beaten middle aged grumps. Both actors play the more experienced political operatives who provide the clear counterbalance to Stephen’s wide eyed optimism. A cynical and scathing look at modern American politics.
11:/ Black Swan : Darren Aronofsky’s dark and unsettling psychological thriller is an audacious movie which is gripping and disturbing in equal measure. Natalie Portman gives a career best performance as troubled ballet dancer Nina who is handed the chance of a lifetime as the lead role in Swan Lake. Nina is innocent and sexually naïve and thus perfect for half of her role as the pure White Swan. She struggles however to find the dark side of her personality which is required to portray the sensual Black Swan. Vincent Cassel’s brooding director, Thomas Leroy, begins to push Nina to find her inner Black Swan and suggests she learns from fellow dancer Lily (Mila Kunis). As Nina gets close to Lily and begins to embrace her dark side, her grasp on reality begins to slip and the line between what is real and what is imaginary becomes blurred. It’s these hallucinogenic scenes which give The Black Swan its disconcerting tone and which make it so much more than just a drama about rival ballet dancers. This is a film about the lengths to which a girl will go to achieve her dream, whatever the cost to her own sanity.
10:/ Kill List : I’ll reiterate the advice I gave in a recent review of Kill List, try and see this film without any prior knowledge of what it contains. It makes it all the more tense, shocking and at times nerve-wracking. The story follows the actions of Jay (Neil Maskell) a seemingly retired hitman who is coaxed back into action by old pal Gal (Michael Smiley) to do one last job. As they head out on the road and begin to knock off the three names they have on their ‘kill list’ things take a turn for the surreal as the victims begin to thank Jay for what he is about to do. Needless to say, there’s far more to this job than meets the eye. The film is brutal and violent in parts and isn’t one for the squeamish. Mainly though it possesses a creeping tension that just builds and builds as the film goes on. It can be very unsettling at times and you won’t be quite sure where it will go next. An incredibly savage and dark British thriller which really keeps you on the edge of your seat.
9:/ Super 8 : Director J.J. Abrams and Producer Steven Spielberg delivered the years finest family film which harked back to Spielberg’s own 70’s and 80’s heyday. The story of a group of kids in small-town America embarking on an adventure is straight out of the producer’s playbook and here it is skilfully translated to an alien invasion story by one of his protégé’s. Super 8 follows a group of friends who are out one night filming their own movie on a Super-8 camera, when they witness an explosive train derailment. The train was transporting dangerous cargo which duly escapes and terrorises their town which inevitably attracts the attention of the military into sleepy old Lillian Ohio. As well as the plot itself, the movie’s key themes such as letting go of the past and the father and son struggling to connect after the death of the mother, are pure Spielberg too. The film’s predominantly young cast all do sterling work, particularly Joel Courtney as the central character Joe. For moviegoers who grew up on the likes of E.T., The Goonies and Close Encounters, Super 8 is a nostalgic trip back to these childhood movies. For younger audiences it is a breath of fresh air amidst the onslaught of brainless action movies they usually have marketed at them as here is a film suitable for kids that is not only entertaining but also possess emotional depth and an exciting plot.
8:/ 50/50 : Easily the finest comedy about cancer of 2011, 50/50 juggled the tricky tasks of being both very funny and incredibly poignant. A film like this can so easily lean too far one way and lose its humour or go too far the other way and become mawkish and sentimental. Screenwriter Will Reiser however had first hand experience of the difficult situation 50/50 deals with as it is based on his own real life battle with cancer during which close friend Seth Rogan was right by his side. Rogen reprises his real life role here to great effect and after a few recent duds is back to his best as the brash but kind-hearted friend of cancer patient Adam, played superbly by Jason Gordon-Levitt. When Adam finds out he has the disease and only a 50/50 chance of survival, it obviously knocks him for six. The movie follows his attempts to come to terms with his predicament and all that it involves. The film does well to show that as dreadful as Adam’s situation is, his life still carries on while he receives treatment. As such we see him split up with cheating girlfriend Rachael (Bryce Dallas-Howard), hit the clubs with his pal and flirt with his young and inexperienced therapist Katie (Anna Kendrick). There are plenty of laughs along the way, mostly courtesy of Rogen’s Kyle, but it’s the more serious moments that really hit home such as Adam’s frustrated emotional outburst behind the wheel of Kyle’s car or the tender hug shared between two friends before he goes in for his operation. 50/50 was areal unexpected treat that is well worth seeking out.
7:/ Animal Kingdom : A gritty and tense Aussie crime drama that really packs a punch. The movie follows young ‘J’ Cody (James Frecheville) who, after his mother dies of a heroin overdose, moves in with his estranged Grandmother Janine ‘Smurf’ Cody (Jacki Weaver). Smurf is the matriarch of a powerful Melbourne crime family which is dominated by her three volatile sons. The most dangerous of which is Pope (Ben Mendelsohn) who is conspicuous by his absence at the beginning of the film as he is on the run from the law. When he arrives on the scene however he is a dangerous, brooding presence who appears willing to stop at nothing to protect his own back. As events spiral out of control and J ends up being taken in by the cops for questioning, he is approached by Detective Leckie (Guy Pearce) who seeks to turn J into a witness against his own family. As the story progresses, you’re never sure which side J will end up on. He clearly wants out of the life of crime but is also loyal to his family, perhaps more out of fear of Pope than anything else. It’s a great all round cast but for me Ben Mendelsohn steals the show. Every scene he is in bristles with simmering tension and even scenes where you are awaiting his arrival are shrouded in a sense of dread. Violent and shockingly realistic, Animal Kingdom is one of the finest crime thrillers in recent years.
6:/ Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy : Tomas Alfredson’s movie, based on the 1974 John Le Carre novel, is a slow-burning thriller centred around Cold War paranoia. I won’t attempt a detailed plot summary here but essentially it’s a film about a former spy, George Smiley, who is brought out of retirement to hunt out a suspected high level mole in British Intelligence. Smiley is a methodical and clever operative who slowly puts the pieces together as the film goes on. Though the entire cast, including luminaries such as Colin Firth, Tom Hardy and Toby Jones, are all excellent, it is Oldman’s Smiley who dominated the entire film. Gary Oldman is outstanding as Smiley and will hopefully not be overlooked at the upcoming Oscars. Tinker, Tailor will not be to everybody’s taste, it opts for knowing glances and lingering camera shots rather than kinetic action, but if you allow yourself to get caught up in the paranoia and anxiety that engulfs these middle aged men, it is a thoroughly absorbing film.
5:/ True Grit : The Coen Brothers dipped their toes into the Western genre with No Country for Old Men but with True Grit they dived headfirst into that most American of art forms and delivered one of the finest movies of their career. Not so much a remake of the 1969 John Wayne version but a fresh attempt to translate Charles Portis’ novel to the big screen, the Coens capture the tone of the book perfectly. They provide their characters with an authentic turn of the century dialogue that gives the film a genuinely unique feel. Cinematographer Roger Deakins also deserves a great deal of credit for doing what all the best Westerns do and capturing the beauty of the rugged American wilderness. Jeff Bridges is phenomenal as gnarled lawman Rooster Cogburn switching between grumbling drunk and wise old cowboy with ease. Cogburn is recruited by determined young Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) to avenge the death of her father and help her track down his assassin Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). The duo are joined on their quest by Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) and these three unlikely comrades in arms bicker and trudge their way across desolate landscapes in search of the elusive Chaney. Steinfeld shows talent beyond her years and matches both Damon and Bridges every step of the way. With True Grit, The Coen’s deliver quite possibly the greatest Western since Unforgiven.
4:/ The Guard : This little gem may have passed a few people by upon its release but it is one of the funniest films released last year. Director John Michael McDonagh wrote and directed this independent Irish movie which is an incredibly funny black comedy which also manages moments of unexpected poignancy. The film focuses on unconventional Garda called Boyle (Brendan Gleeson) a cynical old copper who starts off the film by dropping a tab of acid we see him confiscate off a road crash victim. He drinks, deals with the IRA and hires glamorous escorts girls, needless to say we’re not in Frost territory here. Boyle teams up with a straight-laced FBI agent, Evertt (Don Cheadle) to take down an international drug smuggling ring which is operating in Boyle’s home town. Gleeson has great fun delivering Boyle’s witty put downs (“I’m Irish, racism is part of my culture.”) and reminds us again what a great comic actor he is. McDonagh is most definitely a name to look out for after this offering.
3:/ Submarine : The debut feature from IT Crowd actor Richard Ayoade was an inspired coming of age comedy drama which combined the directors own stylistic quirks with a wonderfully deadpan sense of humour. Submarine deals with the confusion of youth and the perils of adolescent love and at the same time finds the fun in the often delusional quirks of its young lead Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts). Oliver is socially awkward and prone the flights of fancy which see him cast himself as the lead role in the movie of his own life. He soon becomes infatuated with a girl at his school called Jordana and eventually the two begin a nervy romance. The uncomfortable nature of flourishing young love is perfectly captured as we witness such benchmarks as the first kiss and the first time Oliver meets Jordana’s parents. Oliver now sees himself as an expert on relationships and sets out to help mend his parent’s fraught marriage with hilarious consequences. His own inexperience is soon exposed though as things with Jordana take a turn for the worst and naturally, in Oliver’s eyes, it’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to anybody ever. Submarine perfectly captures the innocence and naivety of those early teenage years and also contains Paddy Considine as a sleazy new-age mystic. What’s not to like?
2:/ Senna : An outstanding documentary from Asif Kapadia which is engrossing, informative and incredibly powerful. You don’t need to be a Formula 1 fan to enjoy Senna either, the story of Brazilian racing icon Ayrton Senna is at times inspiring but is also of course tinged with tragedy. The director’s decision to not break away to talking heads and instead maintain a steady flow of archive footage is an inspired one as it really allows the viewer to get fully immersed in the story. The volume of footage assembled by Kapadia is astounding, ranging from Senna family home videos of a young Ayrton racing go-karts, to behind the scenes footage from F1 drivers’ meetings.
Some of the footage is actually so naturally cinematic that at times it can be hard to remember you are watching a documentary. Take for instance the time when Ayrton first won a Grand Prix on home soil. He was far out in front when his gear box suffered a major glitch and he was forced to complete the race in sixth gear. Not to be denied victory though, Senna digs deep and manages to hold on to the lead and take the chequered flag. After the race his face is contorted in pain and he struggles to remain conscious let alone make his way up to the podium. A weakened Senna gingerly struggles to lift to enormous trophy above his head. Refusing to be denied his golden moment however, he somehow finds the energy to raise the trophy aloft to rapturous applause. It’s truly a joy to behold.
Obviously, the vast majority of vewiers are aware how this documentary is going to end and that tragic day at the Imola race track is agonizing to watch. The director lets us share his fateful final lap with Senna and as he zips around corner after corner the tension is almost unbearable. I defy anybody to watch that lap and not have a lump in their throat. Heart-breaking and powerful cinema at its finest.
1:/ Drive:A popular choice in many people’s ‘best of’ lists and with good reason. Drive was an exceptional film from director Nicolas Winding Refn who combined elements of action movies, crime thrillers, Westerns and even neo-noir to produce an instant modern classic. Ryan Gosling turns in a career-defining performance as a stunt driver turned getaway driver who lives a lonely existence until he meets neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son Benicio (Kaden Leos). The Driver grows close to them both and remains so even when Irene’s husband, Standard (Oscar Issac), returns from prison. Standard owes protection money to an Albanian gangster and agrees to take part in a heist as payment. The Driver agrees to help Standard with the heist but things don’t go according to plan and he is forced to delve deeper into the criminal underworld in order to protect Irene and Benicio. The Driver works at the garage of Shannon (Brian Cranston) a small time crook who also sets up his getaway jobs. Shannon mixes with local mobsters Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman), both of whom also become heavily involved in the Driver’s enterprises.
Everything about the film is incredibly slick and stylish, a prime example of which is the atmospheric electro-pop score which fits the film’s mood perfectly. The whole cast is superb, with both Brooks and Cranston putting in exceptionable supporting performances. It’s very much Gosling’s show however and as a Clint Eastwood-esque man-with-no-name he just exudes cool. The man even pulls off double denim, which is no mean feat. There are moments of extreme bloody violence in Drive, notably the most gruesome stamping scene since a wannabe robber was forced to bite the kerb in American History X, yet it never feels out of place or unnecessary. An engrossing narrative, visceral action and top draw acting all combine to make Drive my favourite film of the year. I genuinely cannot wait to see it again when it is released on DVD.