Hankering after a movie as effortlessly aesthetically cool as those bastions of 90s cinema Pulp Fiction, Trainspotting and Reservoir Dogs with a soundtrack to die for and career defining turns from a plethora of previously under-appreciated actors? Drive is just that slab of celluloid. Featuring Ryan Gosling’s Travis Bickle-esque anti-hero who is that rarest of things – a man straight men want to sleep with too – it also boasted a poster that will adorn student bedrooms for years to come, a score to drive (fast) down motorways at night to and an item of clothing that, if it isn’t already, will be a staple of Top Man’s the length and breadth of the country for the next 12 months. Zeitgeist-defining.
On paper a movie about the statistics of that most confusing of American sports – baseball – sounds like a challenging sell, but just as Aaron (West Wing) Sorkin’s script made the unappetising prospect of computer geeks designing a social networking tool positively fizzle with tension in The Social Network – here he repeats the trick to re-imagine the underdog sports cliché as spine-tingling drama. To merely proclaim this the best sports movie of the year, however, would be an understatement – Moneyball delivers a million-fold over the Oscar-bothering The Fighter by swapping the scenery chewing histrionics of Christian Bale for a calm, majestic performance from Pitt and a career high for Jonah Hill whose unfancied statistician steals the show with every subtle tick and nuance.
Despite the fact that you already know the ending before you sit down, this masterful, if somewhat biased, documentary captured the sheer excitement and tension of motorsport better than any work of fiction ever could. Delving deep behind the scenes to capture the drivers at their most honest and open it painted a picture of a man who was to Formula One what Eric Cantona was to football or John McEnroe was to Tennis. A flawed rebel with a streak of genius running through his core like letters through a stick of rock. Spare a thought for poor old Alain Prost though. A driver every bit Senna’s equal, painted here as a pantomime villain provoking a “boo-hiss” every time he features on screen.
Gotta love Eddie Marsan – you know he’s gonna be a proper rotter from the moment he steps on screen and he delivers the goods with relish. A truly grim villain for a deeply dark debut from Paddy Considine (who’s taken a healthy leaf from his mentor Shane Meadows’ weighty tome of celluloid) to provide one of the UK’s finest cinematic achievements. As with Meadows’ characters, the leads of Tyrannosaur are fully dimensional creations with enough soul mixed with their flaws to never appear black and white and, in Olivia Colman’s Hannah (a woman literally torn between two brutally violent misogynists) a thoroughly believable and sympathetic woman taking justice and revenge into her own hands without any Hollywood-style final-act get out clause.
A disturbing “based on real events” serial killer movie so bleak and gritty you wonder why anyone bothers inventing villains when the real world is more than a match for imagination. Daniel Henshall’s depiction of father-figure and brutal degenerate John Bunting is a performance so chillingly realistic you have to pity the actor having to walk down the street for fear of a lynching his character would more than deserve.
Kevin – part Damien Thorn, part Eric Harris – a disturbed young man with an almost (but not literal) demonic thirst for violence. Played with brooding intensity by Ezra Miller, Kevin is that most frightening of creations, a villain that no one suspects (except us as the audience through the eyes of his long-suffering mother, played with exceptional delicacy by Tilda Swinton). The final pay-off is all the more satisfying for being played off-screen leaving us bewildered and exhausted by the final act of compassion between mother and son.
Before he began his quest to demand a whole lot of kneeling as General Zod – Michael Shannon treated us to one of 2011’s finest central performances as Curtis LaForche a man troubled by apocalyptic visions that may point to a bout of hereditary schizophrenia. A film with a similar DNA to Donnie Darko or even Close Encounters of The Third Kind, Take Shelter is a stunningly crafted piece of work that, after one brilliant false ending, leaves you questioning, debating and almost as utterly confused as LaForche has been throughout.
Anyone who has lived through a loved one’s battle with cancer will undoubtedly take this exceptional little movie to their heart. A painfully funny but also beautifully touching account of one man’s journey from anally retentive and slightly neurotic ordinary joe to heroic cancer survivor. Seth Rogan gives great support in a role based on his actual real life position as best friend to the semi-fictional central character, but its Gordon Joseph-Levitt who steals the show as the too-young-for-a-tumour Adam flitting between anger, resignation, quiet resolve, bitterness and affection with effortless style. He’s gonna be a proper leading man one day – just wait.
He may back out of more high-profile gigs than your average fan-boy can cope with (Batman, Wolverine, Robocop) but Darren Aronofsky never fails to deliver something truly unique by way of apology. Black Swan was his balletic flipside to The Wrestler – that, despite a more delicate lead, still offered gritty darkness and an ending bathed in applause but tinged with a terrible sadness.
A vampire helicopter attack – a central set-piece that suggests kitschy Grindhouse but in-fact delivers war-movie buzz – elevates this grim post-apocalyptic road movie above the B-movie toss to sit comfortably alongside The Road, Zombieland and The Walking Dead at the pinnacle of that most modern of genres – the horror-western. Beautifully shot, moodily acted and thoroughly engrossing…take note Twilight, this is how Vampires are supposed to be portrayed on screen.
Fuck me – this is one of those films that leaves you stunned at its finale. Just as with A Serbian Film (or, more accurately, The Wicker Man – a film with which it shares more than a few strands of dark DNA) the final revelation of just what the central protagonist has endured is so utterly twisted you can’t help but doff your cap to the director/writer for such balls out bravado. Basically a classic Brit gangster movie directed by Mike Leigh and written by Dennis Wheatley – yeah that good….
Controversial Remake #1 – despite the fact that the original Swedish version of this dark tale of lady-hating men and their comeuppance at the hands of a computer hacking cyber-Goth was directed like a David Fincher movie, the man himself thought he’d have a crack at bettering it….and surprise, surprise….he bloody well managed it. Daniel Craig’s inability to put on a Swedish accent notwithstanding, Fincher’s version is, on every level, superior to the original. Even knowing the convoluted ending in advance doesn’t ruin the rollercoaster ride as clues are uncovered, rapey social workers are brutally punished and characters are revealed to be much more than previously imagined. In a year when the boring Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was lauded as a thriller without ever thrilling and Sherlock Holmes did less detecting and more cross-dressing for no apparent reason. David Fincher went back to good old fashioned plot development to create the twisty, turny, film of the year.
Exactly the kind of film the Americans think we make (and watch) in Britain and all the better for it. Colin Firth delivers his second best performance ever (the best being his turn in A Single Man) whilst director Tom Hooper continues his winning streak of delivering biographical masterpieces (he also directed the stunning John Adams TV Series for HBO and the much lauded Cloughie movie The Damned United). Geoffrey Rush’s amazing portrayal of speech therapist Lionel Logue steals the show here though. Criminally robbed of an Oscar in favour of the fiendish overacting of Christian Bale in The Fighter, Rush’s complex characterisation keeps you engrossed throughout.
A chilling vision of an all too familiar world gripped by the panic of a killer new virus, Contagion is a good-old fashioned disaster movie minus a Steve McQueen or a Bruce Willis ready to save the day. Instead of focusing on the mass hysteria and terrified screams we encounter in most Hollywood films, Steven Soderbergh delves deep into the medical response, the effects on family and the underhand schemes of corporations and greedy individuals creating a taught and powerful drama that feels more like a documentary than a feature film. Major actors and characters are killed off at surprising times, conspiracies are hinted at and later (mercifully) renounced, an immune man doesn’t save the world but instead hides himself and his daughter away until the panic is over and man’s rape of the natural world is subtly criticised. Superior filmmaking, a magnificent ensemble cast and a sincere and believable narrative makes this an infectious treat (boom and indeed boom!)
Controversial Remake #2 – Never mess with The Duke…unless of course you’re The Dude. Never been a big fan of The Coens…for every treasure (The Big Lebowski, Fargo, No Country for Old Men) there’s been too many overhyped messes for me (Raising Arizona, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Burn After Reading) but where their remake of The Ladykillers failed to sparkle here the brothers Coen have done the unimaginable – recreate a genre classic and deliver something that rubs the original’s face firmly in the dirt. A dusty, grime-flecked, but still gorgeous looking, western with a plethora of performances that can only be described as breath-taking.
If you thought Kick-Ass had cornered the market on the powerless superhero then think again because Rainn Wilson’s unhinged Crimson Bolt (thrust into the life of a vigilante following the infidelities of his beautiful drug addict wife) is more than his equal. Violently deranged and funny as hell Super is the ultimate take on revenge fantasy as Wilson and sidekick Boltie deliver their own style of justice to queue jumpers, drug dealers and child molesters with a wrench and the greatest of catchphrases – “Shut Up Crime!”
A stunning new take on the found-footage movie which ditches the quiet, creepy scares of Paranormal Activity and Blair Witch for a full on assault in the shape of fuck off BIG Trolls. A perfect mix of folklore (check out the Troll under the bridge and the fairy-tale like creature design) and classic monster movie action (the final battle between big-bad and ageing hero has elements of Dracula Vs. Van Helsing or, in terms of scale, the Godzilla or King Kong movies), Troll Hunter has firmly put Norway in Hollywood’s sights in the same way The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo and Let The Right One In did for Sweden.
A second entry for everyone’s favourite indie-hero turned Hollywood heartthrob Ryan Gosling here locking lips and insults with the equally charismatic Michelle Williams. A beautifully structured piece of cinema depicting the beginnings and end of a relationship which is so totally believable and magnificently played by the two leads that you start to wonder how “method” they went.
Reason enough to be glad you weren’t bought up in 1970s Glasgow (not just the fact that the accents are almost indecipherable) this is a mixture of This Is England gang culture and a North Of The Border version of Grange Hill as John McGill learns to tightrope between his undoubted intelligence and the peer pressure of joining the Non Educated Delinquents of the title led by his elder brother. A well-played out narrative, that never flinches from showing the consequences of actions.
The seedy Aussie underbelly makes a second appearance on the list with a film that plays out like the grimmest episode of Neighbours ever….the Cody family is a low brow bunch of Goodfellas: intelligent, desperate and utterly dangerous with a scheming matriarch who’ll do anything to keep her boys on top. There are plenty of similarities between lead teenager J and Snowtown’s Jamie Vlassakis sucked in by the bigger boys to a world of crime and violence both in search of redemption and revenge.
Marvel goes 60s retro in this Bondian re-imagining of the X-Men’s origin….and whilst McAvoy in no Patrick Stewart (and no amount of fingers to head “psychic” moments will change that) Michael Fassbender’s conflicted Magneto is every bit as engaging as McKellen’s elder terrorist and scourge of mankind (even with that shift to “oirish” in the final act). Girls in pants, sleek Cold-War backstory and a cameo from everyone’s favourite hairball deliver an opening gambit for a fresh new trilogy that should more than surpass Singer and Ratner’s original.
This is getting stupid now – Gosling in a third show-stopping role of 2011 every bit as engaging and complex as Driver and Dean Pereira – give this man a gong, actor of the year hands down. Here he bounces off Steve Carell’s bruised middle-ager, with such style and charisma you seriously wonder how the same guy could play the insular and slightly disturbed Real-Doll loving Lars. Answer: He’s a fucking great actor. With amazing support from Emma Stone, Julianne Moore, Kevin Bacon and Marisa Tomei, Crazy Stupid Love was the ensemble comedy of the year. That’s right Bridesmaids lovers…it was.
The UK’s favourite odd couple returned without the direction of Edgar Wright with their own script, a Seth Rogan voiced Alien (the titular Paul) and enough geek-fuelled comedy chops to lure the likes of Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, Sigourney Weaver, Jeffrey Tambor and the ever reliable Jason Bateman to join the party. A uniquely British take on the American road movie and a suitable stop gap before the conclusion of their Cornetto Trilogy with Wright.
Sadly not a chicken drummer starring take on the Bernard Matthews story but still a quite stunning addition to Alejandro González Iñárritu ’s canon centring round a magnetic performance from Javier Bardem as the haunted single father, balancing his life on the wrong side of the tracks whilst unscrupulous characters complicate matters in the shape of a fidelity-flouting spouse, a portly brother, Chinese people smugglers and African street sellers who just won’t listen to our hero’s warnings. Ultimately though, this is a story of a father’s fears for his children as he approaches his own untimely death, and it’s played out biutifully.
Scenery chewing doesn’t come any more ravenous than Kenneth Branagh’s take on ultimate thespian (Laurence Olivier) in this slight but captivating bio-pic of Marilyn Monroe. Michelle Williams delivers another spellbinding performance as the screen goddess who, despite looking nothing like Monroe, has you believing you’re watching the tragic star from start to finish. A plethora of Brit-acting royalty flesh out the rest of the cast to deliver one of the finest date movies of the year…..
….and onto another perfect date movie. Woody Allen back to his best with this light but characteristically intelligent time-travelling rom-com that shoves Owen Wilson into an idyllic Parisian past where he bumps into a who’s who of famous faces like a grown-up Bill & Ted. Tom Hiddleston as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Adrien Brody as Salvador Dali steal the show but it’s Owen Wilson’s frustrated novelist who keeps you locked to the screen as he bumbles through the past looking for love whilst avoiding the realities of his present.
Joe Cornish’s directional debut delivers big laughs and subtle, but important, political messages as he throws an alien invasion not at The City or Government buildings (as would be the fashion right now) but at a run down South London tower block. The Daily Mail’s favourite hate figure “The Hoodie” makes the transition from villain to hero in a story which dares to discuss the motivation behind youth crime in London via the medium of a good old fashioned monster movie. The creatures themselves may be basic, and a wee bit shoddy but the action is pure (ahem) blockbuster.
For some reason this lovely little Ewan McGregor starring indie rom-com only got very average reviews but the third film on my list to deal with a cancer battle has all the ingredients to be a cult classic…elderly father comes out, a dogs thoughts viewed via subtitle….you get the picture. The film flits between Oliver’s (McGregor) dealings with his latest romantic interest and his (now gay) dad’s final years and balances the warmth and charm of the love affair with poignant, heart-breaking moments with his father with wonderful skill.
Pretentious yes, but this slow burning musing on human behaviour and relationships just pips the similarly ponderous Tree Of Life to the list due to its lovely twin earth plot device and two amazing performances from the central couple (Brit Marling and William Mapother). Intelligent, beautifully shot indie sci-fi with one of those brilliant endings that keeps you asking questions after the closing credits.
Quite simply a superhero-style origin story for the character of Hunter S Thompson. Depp returns as Paul Kemp, the thinly disguised alter-ego of Thompson after his previous tour-de-force as Raoul Duke (another Thompson alter-ego) in Fear And Loathing in Las Vegas. Here we see those early forays into drug and alcohol abuse as well as the moment his writing muse suddenly cocoons itself and the free flowing Gonzo king emerges like a bedraggled, ranting butterfly. It’s Depp’s show again, no doubt, but kudos also to the brilliant Giovanni Ribisi (forever Phoebe’s brother in Friends) as Moberg a hearty nod to long-absent director Bruce Robinson’s finest creation Withnail.
BUBBLING UNDER: Point Blank, Barney’s Version, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, Super 8, Thor, Captain America, Source Code, Tree Of Life, Submarine, Bridesmaids.
WORST FILMS OF THE YEAR: The Resident, Red Riding Hood, Green Lantern, Transformers: Dark Of The Moon, Unknown