With the Oscars upon us this weekend, it's time for the return of another tradition - one I used to do regularly but have opted out of the past few years as the 'Notable Films' guide took up my concentration around this time of year. That tradition? A top films list.
As always with these lists I've painted myself into a corner somewhat by laying down the tricky rule of considering all films released within the United States and parts of Europe over the past calendar year. Being in Australia however with our staggered release schedule means that it takes me well into February to get around to seeing all the films under consideration - indeed I saw the final two titles I really needed to see just this past Friday.
There's also the debate over whether you list what you think are the best made films of the year, and the films you found the most enjoyable. While there's often crossover of the two, there are always some titles you admire or respect the filmmaking craft on offer more than actually enjoying the film itself. There are also films you adore and find thoroughly engaging, even though you are well aware it has a range of issues and faults that objectively are hard to ignore.
I tend to employ a mix of the two approaches, with a bigger emphasis on my personal taste - as a result this list differs from quite a few. Only one Oscar Best Picture nominee made my top ten and none made my top five. Everyone will no doubt have issues with the ordering, I myself often find it changing slightly from day-to-day. Yet overall there's fifty films - twenty-five numbered and twenty-five on the 'other recommendations' list - and honestly pretty much all of them are films I would suggest checking out if you haven't already.
Easily my favourite film-going experience of last year, Nicolas Winding Refn's energetic retro tale of a reserved stunt driver takes the conventions of car-centric crime movies and smashes the formula to bits. It's not an action film per se, but when it does turn on the action the result is both suspenseful and daring.
The mashing up of Refn's European sensibility with this most American of film staples leads to a movie that never settles down, finding its identity in both its restlessness and refusal to easily slot into a niche. It's leisurely paced and yet changes tone and genres on a dime - a soft and slow-build romance one moment, a violent revenge thriller the next - and all set to a haunting synthpop soundtrack that's the year's best.
Stuck with only a few real lines of dialogue, Ryan Gosling conveys a hell of a lot through his body language and expressions here - proving just how good and promising an actor he really is. The seemingly everywhere these days Carey Mulligan is delightfully warm, while Albert Brooks ravishes chewing the scenery as a true old school villain. Small turns from Bryan Cranston, Christina Hendricks and Ron Perlman also impress.
It's familiar pulpy stuff but Refn has a distinct vision here which just pulls you along even if, and often thankfully because, you have no idea where it will go next. A perfect antidote to bloated blockbusters, this is lean, smart and full of life in a way so few films are these days.
Fascinating as much in people's differing reactions to it as to the film itself, Steve McQueen's tale of a thirty-something sex addict in New York City struggling to find an emotional connection leaves much of itself open to interpretation.
In an already strong year for performances from him, actor Michael Fassbender delivers his best, boldest and most vulnerable work here. He plays Brandon neither as a monster or a deviant, rather as a genuinely nice guy in arrested development - desperately wanting to escape a cycle he's trapped in but is unable to. The fact that you sympathise and even feel sorry for a guy who is handsome, well hung, successful and scoring a lot of sex is a feat in itself.
Some don't like icy tone, that for a film about sex it's oddly passionless and all too clean both aesthetically and conventionally (I love that approach though). Others don't like that the character ultimately doesn't grow or change despite attempts to - it's a believable arc rather than a conventionally satisfying one.
Debates have run rampant that he's struggling with his sexuality or his and his sister's behaviour is a consequence of sexual abuse growing up. Both bits of speculation sound like weak attempts to rationalise behaviour which can rarely can be attributed to such an easy source and full credit goes to McQueen for not spelling out a definitive answer either way.
The only potential fly in the ointment I experienced is an odd undercurrent of moral disapproval both on McQueen's part and within the narrative itself such as the married boss character who thinks watching online porn is sick but is more than happy to commit infidelity. The themes and storyline are simplistic, but the larger issues it brings up are anything but. Maybe not as powerful as McQueen's first film "Hunger", but certainly more engaging and interesting.
3. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Deceptively slow and virtually impenetrable to those unfamiliar with the material, Tomas Alfredson's adaptation of John le Carre's Cold War espionage literary classic is a truly outstanding piece of cinema that works on every level but the one that arguably matters most - commercially.
Much more akin to 60's classics like "The Ipcress File" and "The Quiller Memorandum" than James Bond or Jason Bourne, there's no hand holding, no dumbing down, and no clear spelling out of le Carre's infamously stark and demanding prose. As a result it offers no real entry point to those unfamiliar with his style or incapable of patience.
For those who can keep up and/or are familiar with the story, Alfredson's film is a marvel - achieving pretty much everything the 1979 mini-series did in one-third the time. Shots which seem inconsequential at first come back into play in devastating ways later on, small gestures conveying volumes about character.
A few minor but effectively conveyed alterations have been made, but the film is generally better for them be it the sexuality change of Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) to an office party scene which establishes several traits for numerous characters in one sitting. The attention to detail here is superb from the design touches recreating the period to the simple choices like not showing Karla or Ann's faces.
The performances, like the film itself, are understated yet brutally efficient and much more complex than they may at first appear. Gary Oldman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Mark Strong and the like all deliver top notch work. It's a film of subtlety that requires paying careful attention to the tiniest details because so much happens in the small gestures. As a result it has only a limited appeal, but those who appreciate it will get more and more out of each viewing.
Von Trier's best work in years and arguably his most accessible thus far, "Melancholia" is nothing if not a dark and more interesting counterpart to Terrence Malick's "Tree of Life". Both feature similar structural beats and both tackle much bigger questions of existence and cosmological events tied into very personal stories.
Yet while 'Tree' was about finding meaning in even the most trivial aspects of our lives, "Melancholia" is about how everything we give meaning to in our lives ultimately means nothing - the universe is indifferent, all our choices are arbitrary and humanity itself not even a blip in the grander scheme of things.
It's also a great big metaphor for depression and on that front it shines beautifully, finding virtue in its character's acceptance of the inevitable. Kirsten Dunst gives us a raw and career best performance that's very tricky to pull off - asking you to empathise with a character who really isn't that sympathetic.
Yet she and Von Trier nail their portrayal of depression spot on - how it's not about feeling down but rather not feeling at all - how the daily rituals of our lives are pointless and it becomes a major struggle to do anything. Charlotte Gainsbourg also shines as the sister who herself is a counterbalance to Dunst, gradually slipping into mania and anxiety as Dunst ultimately achieves a certain level of solace.
It's a remarkable work with some truly resplendent visuals, showcased in an admittedly overly long slow motion impressionist montage at the start. Some may find it far too bleak a work for them as this is certainly not a film for the optimists of the world. For the rest of us however, including myself, the opposite is true - it's one of the more life affirming films I've seen in ages.
5. The Guard
A few years ago Irish playwright Martin McDonagh unleashed "In Bruges", a deliciously dark crime comedy about two hit men (Brendan Gleeson, Colin Farrell) who hide out in Belgium after a job gone wrong. The script scored a deserved Oscar nomination and reviews all round were full of praise for the great fun and energetic little caper film.
Now Martin's brother John Michael McDonagh makes his directorial debut with "The Guard", a film inhabiting a very similar tone and genre, and the result is as good if not a touch better than 'Bruges' - it's certainly darker and more reflective, but is just as quotable and unabashedly cynical.
Superb performances, a wicked but playful sense of humour, impressive cinematography and brilliant scripting combine to give us what is an often uproariously hilarious politically incorrect buddy comedy, one however with more going on under the surface than it would at first appear.
The humour, like the more dramatic elements, ranges the full gamut and it's only on repeated viewings that some of the more subtle but often cleverer gags come to the fore. All the actors are excellent, even the small one or two scenes roles, and Brendan Gleeson truly shines in what is ultimately a complex role. With most feature comedy playing it safe these days, "The Guard" is like a welcome slap to the face.
6. X-Men: First Class
Smartly opting to effectively reboot the series after the pitiful "Last Stand" & "Wolverine", "X-Men: First Class" not only lives up to its high ambitions but exceeds them. Inventively scripted, smoothly directed and well-acted, this winning combination has yielded not just the best film in the series, but the best adaptation of a Marvel comic title yet.
It may lack the gloriously rich trappings of Chris Nolan's Batman saga, and has a few (ok quite a few) issues in terms of balancing its supporting cast and subplots - faults which become more apparent in the middle and latter stages of the film. Yet it's a remarkably effective blockbuster which greatly impresses in both its scale, consistency and taste.
Vaughn tones down his usual overly stylised touches in favour of smart old school filmmaking with cleanly shot and well-staged action. He also gives us far more insight into the various characters here, especially the key ones, than any of the previous films.
In particular the performances and the subplots involving both the game James McAvoy as Charles Xavier and the intense Michael Fassbender as the man who would be Magneto are the film's highlight - the duo sharing an excellent onscreen chemistry and a fascinating friendship that you would love to see further explored and portrayed on screen.
The ending is undoubtedly rushed, some of the shenanigans with the younger mutants borders on cringe-inducing, and there's little getting around some of the clunkier supporting cast such as January Jones doing her best impersonation of a sequoia. Yet, much like "Batman Begins," "Casino Royale" and "Star Trek" before it, "X-Men: First Class" will soon be listed as an example of a franchise reboot that works. The fact it came together so well despite intense time pressure and reports of production troubles is a testament to the hard work of all involved.
As someone with zero interest in baseball let alone a film portraying the sport, I was expecting very little from this. Yet filmmaker Bennett Miller surprised the hell out me, delivering a widely accessible story with sharp characterisation, strong humour and genuine drama.
Well filmed and deftly portrayed with Brad Pitt giving his strongest performance to date, "Moneyball" is a film of patience and skill. It's a lot of talking heads arguing statistics but it's never dry and rarely dull even as it explores minutiae that would send people screaming from the theatres in lesser hands.
Yes there's themes of the underdog bucking the system and of second chances, but what's great is that it doesn't pander on either front - which makes Pitt's character, and the film itself, feel far more human and real. Solid supporting turns from Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright and Chris Pratt also keep things grounded.
Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin's whip-smart script is superbly balanced - delivering the former's better grasp of plot mechanics with the latter's deft handling of dialogue. A testament to their work is that the most memorable moments have nothing really to do with the game but are rather simple character driven moments of quiet solitude (the final car ride) or enthralling energy (the four-way phone negotiation).
Miller's direction is equally up to the task, his takes lingering slightly longer than we're used to but never being too showy or distracting. The result is pretty much the only Oscar Best Picture nominee this year really worthy of the title.
8. A Separation
Part courtroom drama, part deftly constructed dramatic thriller - Asghar Farhadi's Iranian tale of what is essentially a domestic dispute spun out of control is deceptively simple. What is actually here is an intricately plotted story of an imperfect situation in which flawed characters behave in logical albeit selfish terms to the detriment of themselves and everyone around them.
The actual separation of the title isn't the focus, instead it revolves around two individuals - the stubborn Nader determined to look after both his daughter and dementia-ridden father, and the financially struggling and religious devout Razieh who begins work at the household as a caregiver.
Their actions and decisions soon escalate into a dispute - one in which neither is portrayed as a saint or sinner, both fundamentally good people even if they knowingly lie to themselves to justify their behaviour. Though Iranian culture and religion are key elements that factor into events here, it's never political and has a real universal appeal that should see it cross over into all sorts of different cultures - helped along by a uniformly excellent cast.
This is such a carefully observed script and a solid film in its own right that all the acclaim swirling around about it really doesn't do it justice - it really is that finely wrought even if it does take a little while to get going. There's no moral judgements here and no pat answers, the reactions are always honest and naturalistic and perfectly demonstrate how a small everyday error can have a much larger and life-shattering result.
9. Jane Eyre
Taking on the challenge of filming one of the true cornerstones of English literature is a daunting task, made more so by the fact Charlotte Bronte's work has been translated to the screen countless times before. Indeed the most recent adaptation of this tale, the 2006 BBC mini-series with Toby Stephens ("Die Another Day") and Ruth Wilson ("Luther"), was superbly done and is often well-regarded by Bronte fans.
Full kudos then must go to Cary Fukunaga for this fresh and robust take on the material that's surprisingly faithful to the work even as it makes some major readjustments to the classic three-act structure of the novel to not just fit it into two hours but to carefully layer in emotion and tension to this most restrained of bodice-rippers.
Resolute performances all round from Mia Wasikowska's down-trodden but strong-willed Jane, Michael Fassbender's brooding and gruff Lord Rochester and Dench's warm fusspot Mrs. Fairfax anchor this take on the story. Full props must go to the way it forgoes the fantasy melodrama of past adaptations in showcasing the bleakness and brutality of living in this actual time period, even amongst the gentry.
The most interesting parts of the book, the almost gothic horror elements with the mysterious goings on at Thornfield Hall, are present and Fukunaga makes good use of them. Yet he does so without embellishing it or taking his focus off the characters and their relationships. It's a superbly crafted piece that should be getting much more awards consideration than it has been.
10. Take Shelter
Michael Shannon brings his A-game as an average family man whose apocalyptic nightmares seem to be heralding early on-set schizophrenia in Jeff Nichols' assured and rarely dull parable that goes some places that will leave even the most open-minded art house film lovers scratching their heads despite being enthralled.
An exploration of male stoicism, the isolation of mental illness, and middle class anxiety in these turbulent economic times, Nichols' film is actually something of marvel of pacing - especially for a limited budget indie. The tension here builds gradually and consistently, the foreboding the character feels is carefully filtered in so we as an audience experience it along with him and thus it's easy to sympathise with his plight.
Helping is that his character reacts in logical ways and Shannon sells it without ever overdoing it. Jessica Chastain lends able support and a grounded warmth which we anchor to as the visions become more surreal. That the film deftly portrays anxiety - how dread can overwhelm a person and make them paralytic one moment, then they're perfectly functional and able to consider their problem quite rationally and logically the next - is a testament to the level of nuance on offer here.
Yet it's also not entirely sure when to pull back at a few key moments, leading to a much debated about 'second ending' - one that's ambiguous but suggestive enough it presents a completely different perspective to the film's entire meaning. While I find that bait-and-switch more an amusement than anything, it certainly doesn't negate the good work and insight that came before it for me.
Paramount strikes out on its own into the animation genre with a highly impressive debut effort that often defies description. In a field so dominated by formula, "Rango" offers a welcome change as it travels on tangents that vary from the crazed to the surreal which results in the year's best animated feature.
Director Gore Verbinski and scribe John Logan are newcomers to the field and it shows, but what the film may lack in coherence and depth, it generally makes up for with a refusal to pander to kid-friendly conventions. At times it's so delightfully obtuse and just downright weird that you're inclined to forgive its lack of bigger laughs.
ILM's visuals are jaw-dropping, everything from the various skin and fur textures of the animals to the details of the town of Dirt is impeccably rendered. The script itself is a bit rougher, cobbling together an offbeat plot lifted almost directly from "Chinatown" while cloaking it in western tropes that John Ford and Sergio Leone would've been proud to call their own.
Strong performances from Depp's manic but thoroughly engaging titular chameleon, Isla Fisher's almost "True Grit"-inspired female lead, John Huston's Noah Cross-like tortoise mayor and Bill Nighy's slippery rattlesnake enforcer all shine.
It is a good 15 minutes too long and overdoes it on some key sequences which, aside from their length, are otherwise brilliantly conceived. As such this sharp and eccentric film won't find a wide appeal with the masses, but a certain portion of the audience will walk away adoring it.
12. The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn
Steven Spielberg's impressive CG animated adaptation of the Herge comics works beautifully in spite being something of a strange hybrid in its own right. The plot uses elements from three of the books but mixes them into the body of its own original narrative.
Similarly the animation uses often startlingly realistic period settings and backgrounds, but populates them with humans and creatures that are given cartoonish dimensions and features albeit with believable skin textures, hair and mo-cap performance movement. It's a fit that some simply won't be comfortable with despite being leap years ahead of any of the animated films Robert Zemeckis has done in recent years.
For the rest of us though, it's a smart rollicking family adventure turning admittedly three of the blander of Herge's two dozen books into a fast-paced, high faring yarn - a more kid-friendly Indiana Jones if you will. Though some of the Belgian scenes early on struggle a bit in terms of pacing and tone, once the action moves to the ship half an hour in the film becomes a thrill ride with all sorts of clever homages along the way.
Those unfamiliar with the comics may have a more difficult time getting a hang of this, or have issues with it those of us who're fans automatically accept such as Tintin's character being a cypher for the reader/viewer to project themselves onto. Yet all will likely be astonished by various elements on display here be it the single shot Bagghar chase, John Williams' lively score or Andy Serkis' just plain fun performance as Haddock.
As someone who grew up with these comics and having far more familiarity with them than any DC or Marvel title, I'm happy to see Spielberg and Peter Jackson being so faithful to the spirit of these books and can't wait to see what they do next.
Martin Scorsese's impeccably made and ambitious 'Hugo" wears its heart on its sleeve, which is to its detriment at times. The second half, an ode to early cinema and film preservation, is a wonderful piece of cinema in its own right which celebrates a field the filmmaker himself is a big champion of.
One of the most visually splendent films of the year, it's also the first film since "Avatar" to really get 3D right - using it to enhance the story and being prevalent enough to be noticeable whilst tasteful enough to almost never be distracting. From its Parisian cityscapes to its wild trips through the inner workings of a railway station, the design and cinematography are so rich you want to see it again just to bask in it.
Yet while we might have a maestro conducting the orchestra, the music on the page is not exactly a great work. Much of the first hour is almost "Lemony Snicket"-lite, a piece of frilly Dickensian nonsense following an orphan boy and his near escapes from a wacky station inspector (an overacting Sacha Baron Cohen) while a group of colourful supporting characters look on.
Young Asa Butterfield makes for a sincere and likeable lead, but he vanishes or takes a backseat for much of the second half, making the whole endeavour feel like two very different movies aimed at very different audiences wedged together in a hardly seamless fit. One of these films is a stunning piece of work and deserving of all the accolades. The other is generic kiddie fare that, despite being made quite palatable by the craftsman behind-the-scenes working at the absolute top of their game, is nevertheless enough dead weight to pull it from my Top Ten.
14. Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol
While I've still got a big soft spot for Brian De Palma's Euro-centric mid-90's original, this fourth entry in the 'Mission' series comes the closest to grasping the greatness that has eluded the franchise thus far. It does so precisely because it keeps its focus on the basics, and if nothing else proves that there's still a lot to be said for formulaic action when it's handled with such aplomb.
Michael Nyqvist's Russian baddie is woefully underdeveloped and the film's plot is a loose framework to string together numerous set pieces across three major cities - Moscow, Dubai, Mumbai. Yet helmer Brad Bird dishes out one of the most entertaining and energetic studio films this year by embracing a classic action approach rather than running away from it in an attempt to seem edgy.
In an era of tortured heroes and drunken handheld cinematography, 'Protocol' brings back exotic locales shot with wide framing, a focus on glossy style over dark grit, ambitious stunts rather than generic shootouts, an embracing of high-tech gadgets, and even (god forbid) a sense of humour. It's not a film of great depth to be certain which will probably hinder its appeal or rewatchability with some.
We do however finally have a full-on team approach (rather than a Cruise-centric one) in this series, a team that not only works well together but one you'd really like to see again in another film as each gets a decent enough amount of time to impart an impression, while working well together as a whole. The film's pacing is amongst the best I've seen in years, almost never losing its momentum thanks to character & expository elements being well blended into the action.
15. Martha Marcy May Marlene
Enigmatic, at times frustratingly so, Sean Durkin's indie drama of a young woman's escape from a Manson-esque cult and the psychological after effects of re-acclimatising to a normal world is a haunting work and one worthy of the acclaim it has been receiving.
An effective use of flashbacks and time-jumping unfolds the backstory and adds suspense and atmosphere to sequences that could otherwise seem mundane - most notably an extended shot of a lake swim that still sticks in the memory long after you leave the film. More importantly the script never takes the easy path, portraying the cult as believably twisted (not evil per se) and Martha's recovery as a long, slow process that may never fully resolve itself.
Sarah Paulson and Hugh Dancy bring steadfast support as her sister and brother-in-law who try and be understanding even if the latter is ultimately less patient. John C. Hawkes as the cult leader is excellent, portraying the handsome welcoming charmer with a dark edge and ultimately violent disposition when things fall out of his control.
However this is a star vehicle really for Elizabeth Olsen who truly shines as the titular Martha - distraught, haunted and ultimately deeply disturbed. She displays an expansive range and skilled handling of nuance here, a performance that's certainly due some awards consideration.
16. The Descendants
While the bite of Alexander Payne's comedy has softened over time, his knack for blending it with more serious subject matter has improved which results in a deftly handled domestic dramedy which ultimately deals with acceptance - how giving in is not giving up.
It's also often a good laugh, offering a strong sense of humour along with its insight thanks to stellar scripting combined with strong performances from all involved. George Clooney plays a distinct character and the result is one of his best bits of work, not because it showcases his range but rather an ability to seamlessly disappear into a believable character.
The same applies to pretty much the entire cast who give performances that, though quirky at times, are always believable. Even the kids, especially the older daughter Shailene Woodley, deliver star turns which promise greater things to come. The pacing remains stable throughout, never suffering from some of the lulls that have shown up in some of Payne's earlier efforts.
Full props also must go to the production personnel who convey a realistic view of Hawaii. Yes there's the occasional pretty beach or lush forest scenery, but most of the time this sticks to the realistic suburban and urban areas which gives everything a more familiar and grounded feeling. A finely crafted effort worthy of all the praise it has been getting.
17. The Tree of Life
Terrence Malick has always been an impressionist, a man whose films are far more about exploring mood and greater themes than forming a cohesive narrative. His latest divisive masterpiece takes that approach to its most extreme ends yet.
The result is the year's most challenging and visually splendant film, and yet also one of its most fundamentally flawed. In a way Malick is treading grounds Stanley Kubrick walked over four decades ago with "2001: A Space Odyssey" - both exploring larger questions of existence with major visual effects montages portraying universal birth and death combined with a more straightforward story.
Yet while Kubrick opted for a more interesting and suitable sci-fi bent, Malick wedges it with a frustratingly simplistic coming of age tale in 1950's Texas with duelling approaches to parenting served up like a big old spiritual metaphor - the father being the grounded and brutal way of nature versus the angelic selfless mother.
Though never cynical, these Texan scenes do lose a lot of interest in the second half of the film as the need to have an actual story grounds Malick in laboured tropes that had no real empathetic hook for me, while a third storyline involving the now grown up kid (Sean Penn) wandering skyscraper foyers never really clicks and later spills into the silly with a heavenly beach scene.
Yet when Malick is at his most unrestrained, as in the first half and near the very end, it's a wonder of a film. A pseudo documentary of sorts asking questions about existence - juxtaposing the prehistoric and the modern past, the galactic and the trivial. All set to a haunting score and the best cinematography and visual effects of the year hands down. A challenging piece that one wishes would happen more often.
18. The Help
Crack all the jokes you want about how this is a story of how "white people solve racism", it doesn't take away from the fact that Tate Taylor gives us a thoroughly entertaining and heartfelt little dramedy that's intent on emotionally engaging you first and educating you second.
Does it soft pedal the issue of race relations? Sure, but in doing so it becomes more accessible to the kind of audience that might turn away from more pointed or graphic depictions of the subject matter. On that charge it's no more guilty than say "Brokeback Mountain" which turned gay sex into some fully clothed rutting rather than depicting a naked Jake Gyllenhaal drenched in bodily fluids.
Often "The Help" will hit moments where it threatens to spill over into high camp or lay on the racism a bit thick with the outright nastiness on display, but it always corrects itself thanks to some sharp humour, distinct characterisation and a steady moral compass. I'll admit it has more than a few issues, it's a good half hour too long, and is quite predictable throughout. Despite its faults though it works.
The biggest asset in its arsenal is its cast, a group of brilliant actresses anchored by the straight and steady Viola Davis and Emma Stone around which a roster of colourful personality types revolve. Bryce Dallas Howard's delightfully bitchy antagonist and Allison Janney's ultimately redeemed mother for example are major standouts.
However it's the brilliant turns by Octavia Spencer as a brash maid and Jessica Chastain as a sweet but ditzy trophy wife who stole my attention and their subplot together is what really pushed an already good film higher in my estimation.
19. Midnight in Paris
A fluffy nostalgic comic fantasy proves to be Woody Allen's best, certainly his most accessible film, in years. Knowingly sentimental and full of charm, 'Paris' is not just a love letter to that city but a different time (the 20's & 30's) when true artists and literary giants were the celebrities of their day.
To get there though is a bit of a slog. The film frames these flights of fancy back to the past with a present day story of a hack Hollywood screenwriter holidaying in France with his bitchy fiancee and her snobbish parents. It's not that these scenes are badly acted, but they do heavily try one's patience and leave you wondering why Wilson's meek whiner puts up with McAdams' outright psychologically abusive behaviour toward him.
Once she's ditched and Wilson takes his nightly sojourns back to the past, the film suddenly becomes a whole different and far more entertaining beast. Various actors like Kathy Bates, Tom Hiddleston, Corey Stoll and Adrien Brody give great turns as famed intellectuals, authors and painters of the period like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Salvador Dali and the like.
It's a polished and also quite honest film from Allen who uses the time jumping device to celebrate both his craft and his inspirations to the point of bordering on sycophancy. There's a beautiful if touristy montage of the City of Lights right at the start and while the whole film does wander off point at times, its whimsy and its unabashed optimism make it a joy to experience.
20. The Devil's Double
More gangster film than biopic, Lee Tamahori eschews any deeper psychological exploration or political elements in favour of a lurid and twisted escapist piece that actually proves more engrossing than had this been a straightforward drama.
It's an absurdist take on the story of a quiet man forced to become a body double for Saddam Hussein's mentally deranged playboy son Uday during the 80's and 90's when the Iraqi ruling class lived in wealthy excess. As with shows like "The Borgias" and "The Tudors" or a film like "Elizabeth", it follows a historical figure and squeezes in the key events, but is more concerned with entertainment than accuracy. This of course leads to some moments that you're well aware just wouldn't happen in real life (such as much of the third act).
Certainly at times it threatens to slip into parody, especially with Cooper's dual roles - one a reserved, somber and logical man while the other a screeching, scenery chewing monster akin to a modern Caligula. Yet it's a stunt that works as the young actor demonstrates superb skill on all fronts and is thoroughly convincing at playing two completely separate characters who often occupy the same shot.
The film's best trick is really its subversion of the gangster genre. From "Scarface" to "Blow", people are drawn to these kind of films because they represent a twisted ideal - a dark mirror of the American dream. The project themselves onto this life of excess as the only price paid seems to be the occasionally violent aside with other criminals or some jail time.
Here though Tamahori almost dares you to try and idealise Uday as his violent, sadistic tendencies are brought more and more to the foreground. It's uncomfortable subject matter already and Tamahori's approach - glamming it up then layering in the debauchery and sadism - is one that won't sit well with some people. Nevertheless it's already an underrated film, one made stronger by Cooper's star turn(s).
21. I Saw the Devil
It's not a kick to your face groundbreaker like the still highly impactful "Oldboy", but Kim Ji-woon's Korean thriller contains some really adventurous and unconventional filmmaking in a dark revenge flick that's unafraid to go some truly nihilistic places.
The beauty here is this brutal cat-and-mouse game often swaps the roles we're accustomed to - instead of the smart killer being a step ahead of the police, here we get a cool and collected cop sadistically toying with an increasingly desperate and brutal serial killer.
The tension is only added to by the film's atmosphere which, much like Cormac McCarthy's "The Road", portrays pretty much everyone as either vicious predators or lambs to the slaughter. Kim doesn't hold back on the gore, but he doesn't revel in it either and keeps the emotions of the piece limited to the key moments when they have the most impact.
Had it been tighter and shorter it would've ranked higher than it does here, nevertheless it's a clever work made with ambition and fearlessness, along with some incredible technical skills (the revolving taxi knife fight shot is a masterpiece).
22. The Skin I Live In
The re-teaming of director Pedro Almodovar and actor Antonio Banderas in a genre the filmmaker hasn't really tackled before results in arguably his most distinctive film since 2002's "Talk to Her". It's an ambitious piece of work with inventiveness making up for its occasional lapses of confidence.
Though dubbed a psychological thriller about a vengeful plastic surgeon, Almodovar avoids the trappings of the genre in favour of what is essentially a batshit crazy soap opera with left field twists at every turn and obvious "Frankenstein" and "Eyes Without a Face" influences. Banderas is with him at every step, portraying his character as cool, controlled and charismatic.
A deliciously strange and playfully perverse mystery becomes something deeper with its exploration of bigger themes of identity, masks and power. There are revelations galore carefully built in, along with some sudden jolts of surprise and some truly delightful performances be it Elena Anaya's demanding role, Marisa Paredes' housekeeper or Jan Cornet's ultimately tragic Vicente.
What ultimately sells the whole shebang though is the more formal approach Almodovar adopts, quite different from his normally loose and emotionally accessible style. We're a long way from "Volver" here and some won't like that change in tone, I however loved that it takes him out of his comfort zone. I wish more filmmakers would follow suit.
Among the more common complaints about independent film from those who rarely see them is the pacing and structure, the thought being that they're slow, straightforward, simple tales about esoteric subject matter. "Beginners" is a great example of just how wrong that stereotype is, delivering a quite fast paced and universally appealing comedy with a dash of romance and a structure that is often anything but linear.
This sweet but never cloy tale has Ewan McGregor as a graphic artist stuck in the ennui that a lot of people in their 30's hit at one point or another. It's an interesting character to focus on as that personality type - introverted, apathetic, mildly depressed - ultimately acts as a calm center for us to follow between the wildly shifting time periods and assortment of colourful supporting characters.
While Melanie Laurent as the potential love interest is warm, charming and comes with her own set of paternal neuroses, Christopher Plummer is the scene stealer here as Ewan's father - an elderly man who comes out of the closet just a few years before his death from cancer. It's an often hilarious turn that Plummer milks with aplomb, but best of all is that it always feels honest in spite of the seeming ridiculousness of the situation.
It's too quirky at times for its own good, and the son-father storyline is much more engaging than the son-girlfriend subplot. Yet the death of a parent is something practically all of us have to deal with at one point or another, and this ultimately hopeful little tale handles the topic with both grace and a cheeky smile.
24. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
What's surprising about the Hollywood adaptation of Stieg Larsson's best-seller is that it's actually "less Hollywood" than the Swedish version. The previous film adaptation was a more viscerally engaging piece that looked far more impressive than its $15 million budget and made-for-TV origins would suggest.
In contrast Fincher's more polished $90 million adaptation opts for something along "Zodiac" lines - an investigative procedural with a cool approach and meticulous attention to detail. It does however hem closer to the book and makes better use of some supporting characters and elements like Erika Berger and the Wennerström subplot.
Yet it also lacks the atmosphere and social commentary of the book, and the rawer and more accessible emotion of the Swedish film. The result is a film neither decidedly better or worse than its predecessor, just different. The same goes for the central performance - Rooney Mara delivering a more vulnerable and waifish but still incisive Lisbeth Salander as compared to Noomi Rapace's more fiery, take no prisoners version.
How you'll respond to this will depend on your familiarity with the material. Those who've never read the books or seen the Swedish film will likely be blown away whereas those who are (like me) will likely feel a little deflated by it. Nevertheless it's an adaptation that's pulled off with more skill and craft than it might appear on the surface.
25. Attack the Block
Joe Cornish's inventively comedic spin on the alien invasion genre sets the action in a British council estate with the heroes being a gang of not terribly bright but tough young thugs who take on the ET's - brilliantly conceived quadrupedal creatures made up of glowing teeth and pitch black fur.
What works here is the way Cornish spins this story into an energetic, thrilling and often quite funny yarn that keeps itself grounded in spite of the craziness that unfolds. Indeed it stays bluntly honest about the characters, portraying our heroes as unapologetic young council flat kiddies who mug people for kicks. This makes an interesting bit of social commentary, as does a few of the great bits of dialogue.
The various performances are strong across the board be it Jodie Whittaker, John Boyega and my personal favourite Luke Treadaway. The comedy and action are blended well, giving us thrilling chase scenes or surprisingly effective suspense-horror set pieces one moment, and pointed British working class humour the next.
Though the thick accents, heavy use of slang and pounding Basement Jaxx score make some of the great dialogue a little hard to catch on the first viewing, it's worth persevering. The online press has overpraised it to some extent, but it is a fun ride that's far better than a lot more expensive films in this genre (I'm looking at you "Battle: Los Angeles" and "Super 8").
While "Captain America: The First Avenger" was a more polished and a commendable retro adventure in itself (let down by a cruddy forced ending), it didn't have either the rewatch value or fun for me that Kenneth Branagh's grand space opera meets campy action/comedy "Thor" had. It's a film that could've gone so wrong and surprisingly works in its own way - helped heavily by both Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston's brotherly performances and its embracing of ridiculous fantasy with both arms.
Speaking of Branagh, the utterly lightweight "My Week with Marilyn" boasts memorable turns from him and Michelle Williams doing spot on impressions of Laurence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe respectively. Both are helped by able support from Eddie Redmayne and Judi Dench and various British supporting actors whose work stands out amidst fairly pedestrian direction and a script that really doesn't give its characters much more than a quick brush over.
A B-movie dressed in art house clothes, Lynne Ramsey's "We Need to Talk About Kevin" is anchored by a sterling performance by Tilda Swinton (arguably the best of the year). Imaginatively directed, Ramsey overplays her editing and red-themed self-aware symbolism so much it makes the overall work feel more amateur and show-offish than it should be. Dial it down next time dear.
On the other side of the coin, David Cronenberg's almost too restrained "A Dangerous Method" still slips a little bondage into its fairly sober tale of the two fathers of modern psychology and the mad woman between them. A strong film but not up there with his last two pieces of brilliance.
The strongest work from the Apatow camp to date, "Bridesmaids" still has all the usual problems (collegiate-level scatological humour, bloated runtime, slightly ridiculous setup, preachy morality) but they're less obvious and more digestible thanks to a strong cast and a sweetness that's more earnest and honest than forced.
One of the few bright lights in the first half of the year was the Matthew McConaughey-led adaptation of Michael Connelly's "The Lincoln Lawyer", a legal/detective thriller as good as the better John Grisham film adaptations.
Roman Polanski's "Carnage" and the Ed Helms-led "Cedar Rapids" are both fun if ultimately inconsequential little films with "Carnage" making me regret I hadn't seen the play first. Many will dismiss both but I got a kick out of them.
The fighting and performances are excellent (I even like Joel Edgerton's work here, a rarity) and it has one of the year's most satisfying endings, but the forthright "Warrior" struggles in its bloated first two acts and could've easily chopped a good thirty minutes out of its first hour.
It'll likely take the Oscar, and to be fair "The Artist" is a sweet film with a big heart at its center and a slick polish to its surface. It's also, even at 90 minutes, something of a struggle to sit through and saved mostly by the charisma and chemistry of its two French leads who are goofily magnetic both apart and together.
"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two" climaxes the epic series with a solid entry that doesn't stand on its own as well as the first part. Watched back-to-back the whole thing works much better and is a rousing send off for one of modern cinema's biggest cornerstones.
A remake of a similar sort to 'Dragon Tattoo' - as in neither particularly better or worse than the previous version and quite strong in its own right - was John Madden's tale of young Mossad agents bungling an operation in "The Debt". The performances are weaker than the original, but still gives us solid turns by both Jessica Chastain and Sam Worthington.
James Wan's unofficial 'Poltergeist' remake "Insidious" may lack the original concept of "Saw" but is definitely his best work to date and certainly the best straight-up horror film of the year, all the more astonishing by the fact it was made for essentially pennies.
The big surprise of the Summer was the sheer ridiculous fun of "Fast Five", a series that finally ditched the tedious 'Point Break' plot lines and street racing in favour of a goofy Rio-set heist film with elaborate set pieces. One is almost ashamed to admit that the result is actually quite entertaining.
The best and worst talents of Steven Spielberg are on offer in "War Horse". Beautifully shot and scored with a solid cast (full kudos to the pouty Jeremy Irvine), it can't overcome the ultra thick coating of forced sentiment and script contrivances that rob it of any genuinely earned emotion. You will shed a tear but you'll also be fully aware said tear is being milked out of you which robs the experience of weight - something that feels wrong considering the seriousness of the subject matter.
While the 'doors are teleporters' sci-fi shenanigans of "The Adjustment Bureau" are fun trivial distractions, it's the small scenes of chemistry between the leads (Matt Damon, Emily Blunt) that really linger in the memory, along with some nice supporting turns from John Slattery and Anthony Mackie.
In comparison, "Source Code" is far stronger in its sci-fi setup and a good movie overall only let down by a silly mid-point twist and a ridiculous 'second ending' that destroys some of the good will it had earned. If you haven't seen it, turn it off at the fiery kiss - you'll thank me later.
One of the blockbusters I enjoyed but didn't fall head over heels for like others did was Rupert Wyatt's "Rise of the Planet of the Apes". A clever reboot of the property, it was a film that worked superbly when the apes were on screen. In fact WETA's masterful digital creations were so good they demonstrated just how weak the human performances and paper thin plotting were.
Steven Soderbergh's "Contagion", George Clooney's "The Ides of March", Joe Wright's "Hanna", Jason Reitman's "Young Adult", J.C. Chandor's "Margin Call" and Craig Gillespie's "Fright Night" are solid but notably flawed entertainments, all featuring good actors with underwritten parts in stories that ultimately don't add up to much. Yet each is so well done and slickly made it's hard not to enjoy the qualities that do work and each is worth a viewing.