Okay, so it has come to that time again where I list my favourite films from the past year. I am trying to keep it brief, so lets get straight into it.
This became the little film that could. “Insidious” turned out to be the horror hit of 2011. The Australian creators of “Saw”, Leigh Whannell and director James Wan, returned to the world of horror with this super creepy haunted house film. This modestly budgeted flick seemed to come from nowhere but certainly left its mark on horror fans around the world. It is smartly written, well performed, beautifully and atmospherically directed, but most importantly, is very scary. The change in the film’s tone and direction at the half way point may put off some viewers, but those that go with it, will be well rewarded. Importantly, the film has a great ending. While the film echoes the Tobe Hooper classic “Poltergeist”, “Insidious” still seems like a breath of fresh air, with all of the sequels and remakes the horror community is currently being flooded with.
19. THE LAST CIRCUS
The latest film from insane Spanish filmmaker Alex de la Iglesia was a fantastic return to form after his previous “vanilla” effort, “The Oxford Murders”. It is safe to say that you have never seen anything like “The Last Circus” as it is about two murderous clowns, Javier and Sergio, fighting one another in an attempt to win the love of a woman they both want, Natalia, the circus’s acrobat. The film is also an allegory to Franco-era Spain. As usual for a de la Iglesia film, everything is done to excess (no room for subtlety here) from the blood and violence, the story, even the filmmaking itself, it is all so baroque and over the top, but it is also so enjoyable. It has some of the most amazing images within that you are likely never to forget (such as a machete-holding clown laying waste to soldiers while clothed in a dress). “The Last Circus” is such a visceral and energetic film, and is only let down by its over-reliance on poor CGI in the finale. Click here to read my original review of the film.
18. SUPER 8
J.J Abrams’s homage to the Amblin / Spielberg films of the 1980’s is both exhilarating and frustrating at the same time. “Super 8” is absolutely brilliant when it focuses on the group of young teenage friends who are attempting to make a zombie film for a local film competition. When the kids are front and centre of the film, it absolutely shines, as the kids have been cast to perfection as they all feel so natural and it is easy to believe that they could have been friends from a very early age. However when the adults are introduced and featured more in the second half and the sci-fi plot becomes more of a focus of the film, it loses a lot of its greatness and starts to even become generic. It is a shame that more time wasn’t taken on the script to address these second half problems. Also again, the over-reliance of CGI is a shame (especially due to the fact that the film is an homage to a time of filmmaking when everything was done practically) and the reveal of the actual creature is a major disappointment. Still that is not to say that “Super 8” is a bad film, it clearly is not, it’s just a shame the quality of the brilliant first half doesn’t fully extend into the second half. Click here to read my original review of thefilm.
This is the sole documentary on this list. I must admit that I am not a huge viewer of documentaries, but this latest film from Errol Morris was just so damn entertaining. This very funny documentary looks at the extraordinary life of Joyce McKinney and at all of the media attention and celebrity she obtained after she kidnapped a Mormon, shackled him to a bed and proceeded to have her way with him for a weekend in a small London town back in the 70’s. Or did she? That is one of the version of events we hear in the film. Morris has been able to track down a number of participants of the events, but the crown jewel is the recollections of Joyce McKinney herself. Let’s just say that her version of the “truth” may actually include very little of it, but from listening to her telling her life story, it is obvious that she believes it to be true….and boy, what an “insane” life she has led. This is truly one of those “truth is stranger than fiction” kind-of-a deals, because you just will not believe some of the things that happened to this girl. Did someone mention “cloning”? Click here to read my original review of thefilm.
16. MOTHER’S DAY
This film was a massive surprise for me because I was actually expecting very little from it. I mean, it is a remake of a Troma film (which I admittedly had not seen) directed by Darren Lynn Bousman (of “Saw II – IV fame), and it has still yet to be released in the United States almost two years after it was made. Surely the film had to suck? Wrong! This film turned out to be quite an intense little horror / thriller about a family of thieves holing up in their old house, while on the run from the police, while holding hostage the current owners (and their friends) of the place. Rebecca De Mornay is brilliant of the matriarch of the family, who is willing to do anything to keep her boys out of prison. Meanwhile the opposite is true of the friends being held captive downstairs, who end up turning on one another for their own chance at survival. It is also nice to see Deborah Ann Woll (from “True Blood”) in the substantial role of the thieves’ sister, Lydia. As I mentioned above, it is the intensity of the film (rather than a reliance on blood and gore) that makes “Mother’s Day” so special and worth it for any horror fan to check out. Click here to read my original review of the film.
15. HORRIBLE BOSSES
My wife and I’s love for Jason Bateman is a scary one because it often leads us into the path of some terrible films (“Couples Retreat”, anyone?). So it was with extreme caution I approached “Horrible Bosses”, however it turned out to be one of the funniest comedies I had seen in ages. The premise of disgruntled employees planning to kill their friend’s bosses (with obvious shades of Hitchcock’s “Strangers On A Train”) so as to avoid suspicion and capture, is ripe for comedy and the whole cast perform it brilliantly. From the three employees to the hilarious (and admittedly over-the-top) bosses, everyone is outstanding. As usual, Bateman’s comic timing is the highlight of the film, but so are the against type performances from both Colin Farrell and Jennifer Aniston. You have got to love Farrell for being brave enough to look like he does in this film (I mean that hair is hilarious!). I personally enjoyed a brief recurring joke involving a cat that had me in tears. Forget “The Hangover” films, I would choose “Horrible Bosses” over them any day of the week.
14. LE HAVRE
This was the first film I saw at MIFF this year and it has stuck with me. Aki Kaurismaki’s film about an old man and his surrounding community hiding and protecting a young African refugee whilst trying to find the boy’s parents in London, is just a beautifully told tale. It is also a sad tale too because as all of this is going on, the old man’s long term wife is tragically dying of cancer. What I really loved most about the film was the craft of it. It is beautifully and carefully put together with classic framing of shots and editing and I particularly loved the (admittedly self conscious) production design which gave the film an old time feel. As much as I enjoy the dark side of cinema, I couldn’t help but fall in love with “Le Havre’s” over-the-top and sentimental finale which proves that sometimes miracles do happen. It is one for the old time romantics. Click here to read my original review of thefilm.
This quirky coming-of-age dramedy from debut director Richard Ayoade was a great surprise at this year’s MIFF. The film is both extremely funny and packed full of real emotions that are genuinely heartfelt. The story is about Oliver, a fifteen year old boy who falls in love (for the first time) with a young pyromaniac named Jordana. Throughout the duration of the film we see him struggling with how to behave now that he has someone else in his life and respecting her needs as well. Like all teenagers, he makes a lot of mistakes while trying to figure things out, which are mainly due to being selfish or just being plain scared, but the fact that Oliver is a flawed character (in fact all the characters of the film are flawed) is a huge plus for the film. As well as his love affair with Jordana, Oliver is also dealing with his mother’s suspected infidelity with an old flame of hers (a fabulous scene-stealing Paddy Considine). Not only that, but it is early in their relationship that Jordana reveals to Oscar that her mum is dying from terminal cancer. This is a lot for a teenage boy to take in and deal with. A great aspect of the film is its visual inventiveness which has seen it been compared to the works of Wes Anderson, high praise indeed, but one which actually has some merit. Click here to read my original review of the film.
12. UNDER THE HAWTHORN TREE
It is rare that you find a romantic film on one of my end-of-year lists, let alone a “weepie” but “Under The Hawthorn Tree” is just that and it is fantastic. After fulfilling his need to make big budget martial arts epics and remaking the Coen Brother’s “Blood Simple”, director Zhang Yimou went back to the quiet character driven films that he is known for. Set in China in the 1960’s during a time of political and cultural change, two young students, Jing and Sun, fall in love with one another while living at the same foster home during their “re-education”. When the two lovers are caught by the young girl’s mother, she explains that this romance is forbidden and could destroy her daughter’s future and if Sun really did love her, to leave Jing until they are both of an age that is acceptable. Sun agrees to this, even though it breaks both of their hearts, and nothing more is heard from until a few months later when a friend from the village gives word to Jing that Sun is in a hospital dying. As I said, the film is a “weepie”, but it got me. Sure, it manipulates the viewers emotions expertly but I found “Under The Hawthorn Tree” to be utterly beautiful and ultimately heartbreaking. Despite being a simple tale, as usual for a Zhang Yimou film, the visuals are breathtaking. Click here to read my original review of the film.
11. RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES
This was probably the biggest surprise of the year for me. I had no interest in this film whatsoever when it was being made and marketed. I am not a “Planet Of The Apes” fan, with the only one I have seen being the woeful Tim Burton remake, so when I heard they were doing a prequel (that was animated, no less), well, I couldn’t care less. Because I didn’t keep up with the news of this film, I wasn’t made aware that I had misunderstood what was actually being animated, as instead of the whole film, it was the apes themselves that were being animated. The main ape, named Caesar, was also a product of motion control, and was played by the amazing Andy Serkis (motion control’s go to guy). By doing this, and animating the ape based on Serkis’s movements and emotions (as well as using his eyes), the filmmakers were able to create a character that was so believable, that you were sure you were witnessing the evolution of the ape before your very eyes. While the ape effects are all amazing, so is the story, in that it is actually believable enough that you can see that this is the reason that apes eventually rule the Earth. The film is full of humour and emotion but it doesn’t skimp on the action either, with the finale of the film which is set on the Golden Gate Bridge, being an absolute knock-out sequence. If you were thinking of not checking this film out, seriously do yourself a favour and I am sure you will be pleasantly surprised.
Stay tuned over the next couple of days when I will reveal my Top 10 of 2011.