Another year over, another best of list finally complete. I always paint myself into a corner with these lists. The ‘Notable Films’ guide takes up all my spare time for much of December and all of January, and being based in Australia means that many ‘end of year’ films in the United States don’t open here until well into late February. So, I have to find a balance between going later, allowing me to see what I need to catch up on, or going earlier which increases the relevance of the list at the expense of missing some key films.
With a ‘Best Films’ lists there is also always the debate over whether it is a true ‘Best Films’ list, or more accurately a ‘Favorite Films’ list. As I’ve discussed before, I judge films on both their filmmaking quality and engagement level. Filmmaking quality is the level of cinematic skill and craftsmanship on display, and is more objective in nature. Engagement level is an entirely subjective element, and is all about how emotionally involved and/or intellectually engrossed one is in the story playing out.
I tend to employ a mix of the two approaches in straight up reviewing, but when it comes to lists my personal taste takes precedence. Everyone will no doubt have issues with the ordering, I myself often find it changing slightly from day-to-day. Yet overall there’s forty-five films – twenty-five numbered and twenty on the ‘other recommendations’ list – and honestly pretty much all of them are films I would suggest checking out if you haven’t already.
There’s a couple of key art house films I didn’t get the chance to see that I would have liked to. These include: “Barbara,” “Chasing Ice,” “The Deep Blue Sea,” “Farewell My Queen,” “The Forgiveness of Blood,” “Goodbye First Love,” “The Hunt,” “Keep the Lights On,” “Kon-Tiki,” “The Loneliest Planet,” “Lore,” “Middle of Nowhere,” “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia,” “On the Road,” “The Queen of Versailles,” “A Royal Affair” and “Tabu.”
25. The Intouchables
The term ‘bromantic comedy’ sounds like a bad cliche, the kind of sub-genre that has been spoiled by the ridiculous antics of the self-centered man-childs that are served up as the unlikely heroes of Judd Apatow movies. “The Intouchables” brings it back to a level of respectability with this story of the friendship that develops between two men who couldn’t be more different.
Though a French language movie, there is a definite Hollywood influence on offer which gives it a wide crowd-pleasing flavour that translates well across many cultures. From the various little moments that will make you smile, to the eventual ‘fight and reconciliation’, the film develops this mutually enriching relationship along familiar lines that wouldn’t be out of place in a romantic comedy.
The difference is the relationship here is strictly platonic, and it develops at a natural and believable speed. You can understand what each person gets out of this friendship, while at the same time the characters have their own distinct personalities. Francois Cluzet and Omar Sy fully inhabit their roles, and there is a genuine enthusiastic chemistry and rapport between them which makes the film endearing and amusing.
If there is an issue with “The Intouchables,” it is that it doesn’t set the bar very high. This has been designed and executed purely as a crowd-pleaser, there is nothing in particular about this story that is either unfamiliar or daring. Yet, the film’s wild popularity all over the world shows that it doesn’t always matter. It’s a familiar story told well, cast with leads that share good chemistry, and delivered with an optimistic and human tone. One of the most effortlessly likeable movies of the year.
OTHER RECOMMENDATIONS (#26-35):
26: Michael Haneke’s trademark hands-off approach robs “Amour” of the story’s full potential impact. However, the lack of manipulative melodrama does render this a confronting work which will hit home to many due to its meticulous realism. Superbly acted by both its leads, it’s a sparse film and you know exactly what direction it is headed in. As someone who lost two grandmothers from dementia over the years, and a grandfather from old age just the other week, “Amour” was hardly a pleasant experience even if it was a familiar one.
27: More a straight up filmed version of a lavish stage production than an actual movie adaptation, your reaction to Tom Hopper’s “Les Miserables” is all about your emotional attachment to the source material. Boasting three stellar performances (Jackman, Hathaway, Redmayne) and a couple of truly great numbers, Hopper also makes some choices that don’t quite click so well from the relentless close-ups to a lack of culling of some of the less necessary songs. A grand and mostly successful adaptation, but I can think of a half dozen other film musicals over the past decade I warm to far more.
28: One of the single hardest films on this list to rank, the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer’s wildly ambitious sci-fi saga “Cloud Atlas” is astonishing and frustrating in equal measure. Though more elaborately integrated than most, it is essentially an anthology film and so some of the separate storylines are decidedly more effective than others (1936, 2012 & the Hawaiian far future subplots were my favourites). Despite some questionable directorial choices and a whisy-washy central message, it is never dull and boasts some occasionally terrific filmmaking.
29: Though “Dredd” was shot before and released after the very similar “The Raid,” I saw it first and it is more up my alley with its hallucinogenic drug and violence-infused visuals. There’s also actual character work, a fun villain, an interesting building of tension as the ammo begins to run dry, an enjoyable dark humor, and legitimate use of slow-motion which renders various scenes beautifully artistic. One of my favorite guilty pleasures of the year.
30: LAIKA’s delightfully mature “ParaNorman” fuses some quite adult themes and references into a family friendly adventure with imaginative genre leanings. The stop-motion visuals are astonishing, the character-driven script is often laugh out loud funny and smartly constructed, and the horror elements are inventive. There’s an admirable central message, hammered home with one of the year’s best throwaway revelations, and some excellent voice work to go along with the often trippy weirdness of the film.
31: After annoying me for so many years, my opinion of Jack Black was completely turned around once again by his teaming with Richard Linklater. “Bernie” is a deliciously quirky fact-based black comedy with rich characters and some surprising twists. Black fully inhabits his unique character, so much so even the supporting characters pale in comparison. The true story aspect makes it all the more compelling, especially in the second half, but it could have used a bit more trimming.
32: A smart micro-budget sci-fi thriller done without any visual effects, “Sound of My Voice” is all about suggestion and tension. It keeps its answers ambiguous, and raises some provocative questions. Mostly though it is a stunning performance piece about two students trying to expose a cult led by a mysterious woman (an often utterly riveting Brit Marling) who claims to be from the future. Christopher Denham also delivers a strong turn, and there’s one particular scene between him and Marling that is one of my favorites of the year.
33: “The Raid” is utterly relentless action both helped and hindered by a single sentence concept instead of a plot for its first hour. The physicality of the complicated martial arts is stunning, the camera work is often inventive and the pace is relentless. However, it is not until the final act that actual character development seems to raise its head so it is hard to get emotionally invested, while the fights do drag on far too long. For those into streamlined martial arts films, this is pretty much perfect.
34: After one of the strongest first acts of any film this year, “Flight” settles down into a more familiar addiction drama which marks the welcome return of Robert Zemeckis to live-action. Zemeckis’ trademark skill at filmmaking has lost none of its edge, garnering stellar performances from Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly and John Goodman. This darker subject matter of alcoholism doesn’t make for the most pleasant viewing, even if it will be familiar to almost everyone.
35: Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom” sports some of the year’s finest filmmaking in any genre. The technical level of this production is astonishing, but Anderson’s approach is so attuned to his particular tangent that those outside his already devoted fan base will potentially struggle with its lack of accessibility. Nevertheless there’s a real sweetness to the uncynical relationship at the core of the movie, something which should be thoroughly applauded.
OTHER RECOMMENDATIONS (#36-45):
36: One of most inventive genre efforts in a long time, the Joss Whedon-scripted “The Cabin in the Woods” is a clever and often amusing deconstruction of the horror movie formula. While the ‘underground’ scenes and the last act are glorious fun, the film is slightly hampered by the tedious slasher film it has to live out over the first hour to make its point. It is something of a one trick pony, but that first ride is such a thrill.
37: Studio Ghibli’s “The Secret World of Arrietty” is a sweet, enchanting little animated film whose deceptively thin tale surrounds a gentle heart and intimate focus. There’s a remarkable reserve on offer, one that finds beauty in a friendship between a sick boy and a young girl from a family of tiny people. It is a more sedate, romantic and measured effort than their recent output – but every bit as well-crafted.
38: A respectable museum documentary disguised as a major feature, “Lincoln” boasts an excellent performance by Daniel Day-Lewis and a commendable commitment to historical accuracy. Yet it feels very much like a film version of a play, a movie oddly lacking in both cinematic feel and emotional engagement. It picks up considerably in its third act, and boasts Spielberg’s usual craftsmanship, but it is ultimately a somewhat stolid curiosity.
39: Despite its grittier trappings, Jacques Audiard’s “Rust and Bone” is pure melodrama that would be ridiculous if it weren’t for the skilled filmmaking on offer. From the committed performances by Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts, to several emotional moments which are handled with just the right amount of tact, it is one of the year’s most compelling adult dramas. Sadly, it just isn’t the modern masterpiece his 2009 effort “A Prophet” was.
40: Reinventing the superhero movie with a found footage technique, Josh Trank’s “Chronicle” is an excellent and often inventive take on the material. Boasting career launching performances from the highly promising Dane DeHaan and the impressive Alex Russell, it’s a low-budget affair that looks like it was done for considerably more than what it cost. Top quality work from all involved.
41: Much of the issues people will have with “Jack Reacher” is the baggage they bring with them. An efficient mesh of a 1990s John Grisham-esque thriller procedural with flashes of a 1970s vigilante movie, Chris McQuarrie’s adaptation of Lee Child’s “One Shot” proves a surprise. The film is a moody pulp thriller – often exciting even if far-fetched, it’s a fun ride with a real economical sensibility.
42: Relentlessly funny, even if overly long, Seth MacFarlane makes a strong directorial debut with “Ted”. The comic fantasy blends very adult humour and 1980s references galore to often hilarious comic effect. Not all the brazen jokes land, but it pushes forward with a fearless attitude, which means it works more often than not. Admittedly it struggles with story elements to fill out its feature-length runtime, but even its weakest sections contain suitably demented moments such as Giovanni Ribisi’s Tiffany dance and Patrick Stewart’s monologues.
43: Violent pulp with art house trappings, John Hillcoat’s Prohibition-era tale “Lawless” is a commendable gangster movie that is being overlooked by many because it didn’t live up to ridiculously high expectations. While it lack focus with some of its subplots, it boasts commendable performances from Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf, Jessica Chastain, Dane DeHaan, and delightfully slippery Guy Pearce. Highly watchable and thrillingly tense at points, it’s a serious work worthy of more consideration.
44: I’m a sucker for Victorian Gothic horror, so I thoroughly enjoyed James Watkins’ effectively creepy and old school take on the classic play “The Woman in Black”. It does go off the rails a bit towards the end, and the CG is occasionally overused, but for the most part this is a grand spook story with a post-Potter Daniel Radcliffe impressing as the sole man on screen for much of the runtime.
45: Nicholas Jarecki delivers a confident and polished writing/directing debut with the GFC-themed low-key suspense drama “Arbitrage”. An excellent performance by Richard Gere as a believably slimy hedge-fund CEO, an able supporting cast including Brit Marling as his daughter, and a commendably intimate and smart focus delivers a layered character drama with some mild thriller overtones.
JUST MISSED OUT:
21 Jump Street, Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Sapphires, John Carter, Side by Side, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Prometheus, Compliance, Killer Joe, The Invisible War, Monsieur Lazhar, Safety Not Guaranteed, Seven Psychopaths