10. SCREAM 4
I am a big fan of the original “Scream” but have felt that none of the sequels have lived up to it. In fact with the exception of one scene in “Scream 2”, they are pretty forgettable. “Scream 4” is easily the best of the sequels and by a long way too. I had such a good time with this film, everything just seemed right here and importantly I was surprised by the identity of the killer (and the motive for the killings). “Scream 4” also has the best death scene in a “Scream” film since Drew Barrymore’s demise in the original. The scene in question is the murder of Olivia, which is witnessed by her friends living in the house next door. It is incredibly bloody but what makes the scene so cool is when Ghostface holds Olivia’s lifeless body out the window just to taunt her terrified friends. It just has a nasty edge to it which has been missing from the “Scream” films for a long while. Another thing “Scream 4” gets right is the fact that this time around the new characters are actually interesting which includes the awesome new character of Kirby (played by Hayden Panettiere). She is just so cool and hopefully she will make it into further sequels.
The production of “Scream 4” was a strange one with a lot of behind-the-scenes tinkering that Wes Craven was not at all happy with and when you actually sit back and look at the film, it is a bit of a mess, but at the same time, (amazingly) it all works perfectly too. I only wish it would have ended ten minutes before it did because although I did enjoy the hospital finale, if it had ended before that scene, it would have been so clever and brilliant, and may have put the film into “classic” status. As it stands now, it is a very enjoyable film and incidentally was the only film I saw theatrically twice in 2011.
9. THE IDES OF MARCH
One thing that I would not call myself an expert in is politics, but something I know even less about is American politics and the political system within. This ultimately puts me on the back foot right at the beginning of “The Ides Of March” because the first half an hour of this film is heavy with political mumbo-jumbo, where I must admit, I found myself lost as to what exactly was going on. However once all the background information has been laid, the story really kicks into a great political thriller that is handled expertly by George Clooney in the director’s chair. What I liked about the film besides the thriller aspects is that it dealt with moral themes like loyalty, deception and being willing to do something you are against all for the greater good. “The Ides Of March” is a showcase for the plethora of brilliant actors that Clooney has assembled and none of them let him down. They are all at the top of their game and seeing the caliber of actors like Ryan Gosling, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Woods, and Clooney himself, all going toe-to-toe with one another just elevates this picture to a whole new level. Technically, “The Ides Of March” is very well put together, as Clooney seems to be going from strength to strength as a director.
Without a doubt, “Tangled” is the film I have watched more than any other in 2011, and it is not even close. My girls went through a stage when it was on our television 24/7, it was the only thing that they would watch and because of how good the film is, my wife and I did not have a problem with that at all. Disney’s take on the Rapunzel fairytale is their first classic in what seems ages. I can walk into this film at any stage during it and it will always entertain me to the point that I end up realizing that I have stopped what I was doing and am now glued to the screen. The characters are all so well rounded, especially fun are the two animal characters, the chameleon Pascal and Max the horse, who for once in a Disney film do not speak (and yet they say so much). The voice talent for “Tangled” is also very well chosen because they are not immediately recognizable, and therefore you can just sit back and enjoy the film without picturing the actor behind-the-scenes performing the lines. While I do miss the old Disney hand drawn animated films, the computer animation that is done here is just spectacular rivaling the work done by Pixar. So while “Tangled” (or “Rapunzel” as it is known in my house) may not be on our television as often as it used to be, I still love it when my daughters decide to revisit it, so while it may seem strange to see a Disney animated film on my list, it is thoroughly deserved. Sadly, I must admit that I know the film almost word for word. Click here to read my original review of the film.
I know as much about baseball as I do about American politics, so “Moneyball” was a film that was never on my radar to watch (that is, once Steven Soderbergh left the project). Again, I only ended up watching it due to the positive word of mouth it was receiving and because I was a big fan of director Bennett Miller’s previous film, “Capote”. Still when I saw the extended running time of “Moneyball” I was skeptical that I would find much enjoyment out of it at all, but I was blown away by how great this film was. For a film that is basically a baseball film, there is actually very little baseball in it. Instead the focus is on a theory which was coined “moneyball” which gave the poorer clubs a chance to compete against the rich marquee clubs. The main thrust of it is to find the most undervalued players by the use of statistics and then pick them up at a very cheap rate and then build a team around them. While I am not sure that I have explained the theory as well as I could have, you needn’t worry because the film makes it very easy to understand exactly what is going on. Brad Pitt gives an excellent performance in the role of Billy Beane, who goes against the grain to implement this new theory, but it is the performance of Jonah Hill that shocks and impresses the most. He is fantastic and seeing him here in a more dramatic role than what is usual is quite exciting as I was not aware that he had this kind of range as an actor. Another thing I really liked about “Moneyball” were the small scenes of Billy with his daughter. They really anchored the film and gave it some heart. Also for a film that runs just over 2 hours and 20 minutes, it never felt long, it flew by which is a great indicator to the quality of the film.
6. TRUE GRIT
Another year and another Coen Brothers film makes it onto the list. “True Grit”, a remake of the John Wayne classic, is the Coen’s first western and like every other genre they seemed to have tackled, they knock it out of the park. This film finally reunites the brothers with Jeff Bridges who played “The Dude” in their best film, “The Big Lebowski”. Here he plays the role of Rooster Cogburn, a drunkard U.S Marshall who is hired by a young girl named Mattie Ross to hunt down and capture the man who killed her father. Joining them on the trek is a Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf, played by Matt Damon who is just a revelation here because he is so damn funny (the scene where he bites his tongue is comedic gold). In fact, both leads are hilarious. The way Bridges delivers the line “’Coon hunt? This aint no ‘coon hunt” when Mattie is excited to be going on their trek, is one of my highlights of this great film. I know a lot of people complain about the fact that Bridges seems to mumble most of his lines, making him hard to understand, but for the most part Cogburn is drunk, so his speech has to be affected as such. As usual for a Coen Brothers film, it has been impeccably made from a technical standpoint, with Roger Deakins cinematography being particularly superb.
5. THE SKIN I LIVE IN
Pedro Almodovar’s latest is an amazingly great Frankenstein / mad scientist thriller that is unlike anything this great director has tackled before, and yet it still deals with a lot of the same themes. The film is about a plastic surgeon who, after finding out his daughter has been raped, is determined to find the offender and then make him pay, in one of the strangest, most bizarre and yet brilliant revenge films that you are ever likely to see. This film is full of so many amazing twists and turns that it would be criminal to spoil them here, but once the film is done and you actually process everything you have just witnessed, you begin to realize just how insane and demented it all really is. It is madness, but so good, at the same time. Almodovar really knows how to put a film together, with some immaculately composed shots from cinematographer Jose Luis Alcaine, to the gorgeous production design, and Alberto Iglesia’s score is to die for. As good as all this is, it is the reuniting of Almodovar with Antonio Banderas after twenty one years that really makes “The Skin I Live In” special. Banderas is amazing in the main role of Robert, and it is so good to see him comfortable in a role again, no doubt due to the fact that he is finally speaking in his native tongue. It was a reminder at just how good an actor he can be. If you get a chance to check this film out, make sure you do, because you will not regret it. Click here to read my original review of the film.
4. TAKE SHELTER
This was another film I saw at MIFF that just blew me away. The film is about a family man, Curtis, who is disturbed by the apocalyptic nightmares he seems to be regularly having that always start with a massive storm, and oil-like rain, until they explode into something more violent and sinister. As the dreams become more and more vivid, Curtis is terrified that he is in the initial stages of a mental illness. He is particularly scared because there is history of it in his family with his mother being diagnosed with schizophrenia at the young age of 37. Because of her illness, she had to be institutionalized and couldn’t look after her children, which is something that has obviously affected Curtis, and he has sworn that he would never allow the same thing happen to his own family. This family is particularly heartbreaking, not just because of what Curtis himself is going through, but because of what his family must deal with without ever truly understanding what exactly is going on in Curtis’s head. Jessica Chastain is again stunning as Curtis’s wife, Samantha, who goes through so much suffering while trying to be there for her husband. Director Jeff Nichols almost pulls off a perfect film here with “Take Shelter”, until the disastrous final scene of the film. It is such a mis-step and goes against everything that has happened in the film previous, that it may have caused the film to collapse in on itself. In fairness, the scene itself is a good scene, it just did not belong in this film. Aside from this minor blemish, “Take Shelter” is an amazing piece of work. Click here to read my original review of the film.
Without a doubt, Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive” was the best directed film that I saw in 2011, and in any other year it probably would have taken out my top film of the year.
What Refn has done here is take a middling script of a potboiler thriller and turned it into a true work of art. He has also created the coolest film of 2011. “Drive” is about an unnamed stunt driver who also moonlights as a getaway driver for hire in his nights. The driver ends up falling in love with his gorgeous neighbour, Irene (played by Carey Mulligan), and ends up getting mixed up in a job with Irene’s husband, that ultimately goes horribly wrong. Ryan Gosling is awesome as the quiet and cold driver, wearing a soon-to-be iconic white scorpion jacket. Mulligan, as usual, is superb and gives further proof that she is able to excel in any role she is given. I also love her hairstyle in this – she is just so cute. Visually the film is very assured and I felt it owed a lot to David Lynch’s work. The slow paced first half of “Drive” is absolute gold, Refn does not make a mistake and it all leads up to the single greatest scene of 2011. The scene in question is set in an elevator when the driver and Irene share their only kiss, until seconds later that perfect moment is destroyed and nothing will ever be the same again. For the entire scene, Refn is firing on all cylinders, the composition, lighting and music all come together to create a simply outstanding scene, but from this scene on, the tone of the film changes dramatically as it explodes into inevitable violence (and it is extremely brutal violence too). I suppose my only complaint about “Drive” is that the second half of the film becomes a little more generic, but overall “Drive” is a stellar film filled with amazing supporting performances (from the likes of Albert Brooks, Oscar Isaac, Ron Perlman and Bryan Cranston) that guarantees that it will become a future classic. As good as everyone is in “Drive”, at the end of the day it is all about Nicolas Winding Refn, and his direction is simply stunning (and it is disgusting that he was not even nominated for an Academy Award). I cannot wait for his reteaming with Ryan Gosling for this year’s “Only God Forgives”, which is currently shooting in Thailand.
2. THE TREE OF LIFE
Watching Terrence Malick’s “The Tree Of Life” was a very emotional experience. It just seemed to hit a chord with me right from the opening frame and it didn’t let up until it was over. It was also an exhausting experience as well. The film is about a young family growing up in Waco, Texas during the 1950’s, but it also deals with the beginning of time itself, as well as looking at Jack (the eldest boy), now an adult, coming to terms with his youngest brother’s death and trying to find himself again. “The Tree Of Life” tackles a lot of themes and issues and it isn’t always successful in its ambitions (the scenes with the adult Jack seem detached from the rest of the film, and lack context), but what it gets right, is simply breathtaking. The whole “creation” sequence is amazing, but the anchor of the film is the family scenes set in Waco, which is where all of the heart and emotions of this film originate from. The whole film is told by the use of a non-traditional narrative, so we are only privy to sections of scenes, that start and end almost as quickly, but the tapestry it creates of the family makes us, the viewer, understand and empathize everything they are going through. The casting of the three boys is absolute perfection with young Hunter McCracken standing out as the young and troubled Jack, but the biggest surprise of the film was the emergence of Jessica Chastain as Mrs. O’Brien. She is simply stunning and the way she has been photographed makes her look angelic, and I immediately fell in love with her while watching this film. Brad Pitt is equally good as Mr. O’Brien making it quite a year for the actor. The cinematography from Emmanuel Lubezki is, as normal for him, just gorgeous to look it and is sure to garner him an Oscar for his work here. For some reason I always find it hard to talk and write about “The Tree Of Life”, and I think this may have to do with the fact that this is a film that I feel more than anything else, and it moved me like no other film in 2011. Click here to read my original review of the film.
1. A SEPARATION
Here we are. This is it. We are finally at number one and this year that honour goes to Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi’s masterpiece, “A Separation”. This is the only (recent) film that I have gave a perfect five stars to in 2011 (actually for the past three years, I think), and it was a film that I saw in circumstances that were less than ideal. It screened at MIFF the morning after my wife’s 30th birthday, and it was also the first film of the day, so seeing a dialogue driven Iranian film on little sleep would not have been my ideal choice to see this film, but testament to the outstanding quality of it, I was enthralled right from its opening frame. The problem about “A Separation” is that when you describe the plot of it, it comes off sounding incredibly dry and boring, which it certainly is not. The film is a moral drama but the way the story is told and presented makes it almost seem like you are watching something like a thriller with little details and conversations that happen early in the film which initially seem insignificant and inconsequential, end up turning out to have massive repercussions into finding out exactly what is the truth or not. The film is about Nader, a man who has been recently separated from his wife Simin, who hires a lower-class woman, Razieh, to look after his Alzheimer-stricken father when he and his daughter, Termeh, are not at home due to work and school. One day when the two arrive home, they find the old man tied to his bed, near death with no-one else in the house. Eventually Razieh returns from wherever she has been and a verbal fight breaks out between the two adults until Nader forcibly removes Razieh from his apartment. The next day Nader finds out that Razieh is in hospital and has had a miscarriage, which she claims was due to her slipping on the stairs outside of Nader’s apartment after she was pushed out. Nader is then charged with murder, with the rest of the film trying to find out what the truth actually is.
Farhadi’s script is so compelling and is the star of the show here, as it is so complex tackling many subjects but it never comes across that way at all. It never feels like it has its own agenda, just that it is telling a (anything but) simple story. Farhadi has directed “A Separation” like a documentary so you feel as though you are watching events playing out in front of you, and thus you are not aware of the intricate plotting that is clearly taking place (and that is more obvious on reflection). The film is truly a masterpiece with all of the actors being so naturalistic and fantastic, it just adds so much to the piece. One thing that I liked about the film is that neither family is portrayed as evil or bad, both families have reason to be upset with the other and have a right to feel that they deserve some compensation. As I said earlier, the script is outstanding and it was great to see that “A Separation” has been nominated for “Best Original Screenplay” at the Academy Awards, which all things being equal, it should win. My favourite memory of my screening of “A Separation” was when the film finished, the entire cinema erupted in applause. It was not one of those traditional claps we give at the ending of each film at MIFF, this was something much different, as it was obvious to everyone that we had all witnessed something incredibly special and the applause proved that. It was so amazing it made the hair on the back of my neck stand. If you are not a fan of subtitles or think there is no way you would be able to enjoy an Iranian film, please put those thoughts aside and give “A Separation” a chance, and while you may not think it is the masterpiece that I do, I am sure that you will be pleasantly surprised. Click here to read my original review of the film.
Well, that’s it, my countdown of my top twenty films of 2011 is officially done. While I originally thought that 2011 was a lean year for films, after writing this list, I realized that there were quite a number of really great films. That said 2012 is shaping up to be a stellar year with a number of brilliant directors debuting their new films this year. I cannot wait for the year ahead.