I’ve never really understood birthdays. Call me an old curmudgeon if you like, but I’ve somehow missed the point that our arbitrary calendar system, based on the distance round the giant glowy thing that our damp ball of rock has travelled, requires us to mark each revolution with some significance. Same applies to New Year – we have an odd and occasionally unhealthy fascination with running out of days in a particular year that requires us to spend ridiculous amounts of money to get drunk in public or stand around in the early hours of the morning singing a song that no one actually understands a word of. I’m not averse to a party, I can just think of better reasons.
Now lists, on the other hand, that’s something I can relate to. The need to obsessively collate and rank things in some sense of order, for no real point other than the satisfaction of having done it? Fantastic. I’m also absurdly competitive – get me in a pub with a pool cue or a set of darts in my hand and the demons appear from inside me and take over my brain. So if we have to mark the passing of the year, then I can think of no better way of doing it that with a purely arbitrary collection of a competitive nature, based around another damp-rock-glowy-thing-orbit.
The damp-rock-glowy-thing-orbit-collections that I remember from my childhood most strongly weren’t about movies at all, they were actually music. My sister and I had cassettes of music top 40s, recorded from the radio in the days when Now That’s What I Call Music came out once a year and you had to make your own entertainment in between. We waited avidly for the end of year charts and compilations, and the C90 cassettes with the year’s best tracks and Tommy Vance’s growling links stringing them together got played until they were worn out. So to keep that fine tradition going, which has served music so well even when the indignity of JK and Joel presenting the rundown was foist upon it, I present my top 40 movies of the year, in ascending order of greatness.
Just to qualify what’s in the list and what’s not; in the end I made 131 visits to the cinema and saw 127 films for the first time on the big screen. Of those, Back To The Future, The Shop Around The Corner and You, The Living were re-releases or festival films, so I have excluded them, and so this top 40 is my choices from the remaining 124. I did not see a single film on DVD for the first time this year, so everything on the list has been judged on a big screen somewhere. There were a few I didn’t manage to catch, such as The Arbor and Catfish, which will have to wait for another day.
40. The Kids Are All Right
This year’s entry for the default indie slot in the Oscar Best Picture countdown, it’s packed full of great actors and a script that feels as if it’s been constructed around the emotional beats needed to give the actors something to work with. It’s also occasionally almost cripplingly self conscious, but thankfully Moore, Bening and Ruffalo are all excellent and are given able support, and serve to make this more memorable than it should have been. I think they missed a trick with the soundtrack, though.
To all directors of romantic comedies, please make sure you have the following checklist to hand before starting work. Is your film (a) funny, (b) romantic and (c) does it not include a female lead named Jennifer in real life? Then proceed. Thankfully Heartbreaker, unlike far too many of its peers, ticks both boxes with great big sloppy ticks, and even survives referencing Dirty Dancing and Wham to pull together a delightfully light concoction that balances slapstick and screwball with tender moments and never once feels forced. An American remake feels tragically inevitable.
38. Shutter Island
Scorsese and DiCaprio in their fourth team up, and the first in which DiCaprio seems genuinely able to act, in what’s been a landmark year for his career. Expectations were high for this period piece, and there’s atmosphere in spades, but the whole ultimately isn’t quite the sum of its well constructed parts. The first act is by a shade the most interesting, and it is possible to see the ending coming, but that doesn’t detract from the quality of what Martin Scorsese has assembled. On a personal note, it also featured by far my most tortuous metaphor of the year.
37. A Town Called Panic
The words surreal and Belgian don’t feel an entirely natural fit, but two animators this year managed to fit both descriptions into their busy schedules. It’s a film that can easily be described in terms of concept (two men and a horse go on an adventure, described entirely with crude stop-motion animation) but is almost impossible to define or categorise, and is a joy from start to what just about passes for a finish. It took me a day and a half to write this description, mainly because A Town Called Panic is just that strange. Also, if you don’t like the milk adverts that look a bit like this, then don’t panic – the film is much, much better.
Pelican Blood takes lots of disparate ideas, including male obsessions and mental illness, and also takes elements of both drama and thriller and combines them all into a single package that actually comes to be more than the sum of its parts. The juxtaposition of the obsession of birdwatching and the other obsessions in the characters’ lives are all worked very effectively, but at the core Harry Treadaway and Emma Booth both excel as the mutually destructive lovers. Comparisons already made to Skins are quite misleading, but not unflattering to either party. Hopefully it won’t have trouble finding an audience if and when it gets distribution, because it’s also got the mop-haired bloke off Doctor Who in it.
35. World’s Greatest Dad
It was almost a fascinating novelty when Robin Williams first turned his hand to serious drama rather than comedic roles, but they have become a mill stone around his neck in recent years and it’s a struggle to think of the last time he appeared in anything of appreciable quality before this delicious black comedy came along. Williams’ relationship with his son rings true despite, or actually because, of their actions and the only concession to predictability and safety is in the slightly pat ending. (I was also quite astonished when researching my review as to quite how many celebrities have succumbed to an almost identical fate to the son. Dirty buggers.)
34. Made In Dagenham
Another in the fine tradition of British ensemble casts of recent years, this tale of female empowerment in the Sixties is packed with excellent performances and enough swearing, if producer Stephen Woolley is to be believed, that landed it with a higher classification and caused much of the British public to miss out on it. The fact that it rarely eschews convention shouldn’t detract from the winning combination of those performances, especially Sally Hawkins and Miranda Richardson, and well judged writing and direction.
33. I Love You Phillip Morris
Apparently, in the wonderful world of American double standards, an Oscar worthy indie with two straight women playing lesbians finds it much easier to get distribution than a black comedy set extensively in prisons with two straight men portraying gay lovers. It’s a shame, as Jim Carrey is the best he’s been in years and the writers of Bad Santa push the boundaries even further, but still keep a soft, marshmallowy core of emotion on which the farce is based. The appearance of the former man from the Orange ads, Brennan Brown, will make you pine for the pre-Jack Black era of post-trailer cinematic awfulness, though. (Or, it will do for you what it did for me and cause you to believe that the walls of reality are breaking down.)
We live in an age where our cinema screens are increasingly being taken over by opera lovers on a Saturday night watching the latest overpriced London production beamed across the country, clogging up my pick’n’mix area with their long queues for bottles of wine, so it was very pleasing to see cinema as opera reclaim some of the territory. This Italian production of the story of the secret lover of Mussolini has grand flourishes and bold emotions worthy of the finest operas, but some wonderfully tender moments in the mix and possibly the best love letter to cinema itself this year in its midst.
31. Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale
Living up to its title quite happily, Finnish cinema has its biggest hit in years with this dark take on the festive tale and its alternate Santa Claus mythology. It manages to make a little go a long way and puts its younger stars front and centre for much of the tale, who rise to the challenge admirably. The black comedy has ripples of cynicism running through it, and it’s the perfect antidote to the sugar coated commercial Christmases we are forced to endure in the 21st century. Warning: contains repeated shots of very old, very naked Finnish men.
30. The Illusionist
Sylvain Chomet’s delightfully understated and often wordless animation, based on a previously unproduced Jacques Tati screenplay, charmed its way across France and Scotland, a love letter to the end of an era and one tinged with melancholy but also beautifully balanced with gentle humour, it’s a delicate film that still leaves a lasting impression, but somehow it got a little lost in a quite magnificent year for animation. It may also feature the most tear-jerking scene involving a bunny since Watership Down, although this one’s thankfully a lot less bloody.
29. The Disappearance Of Alice Creed
Or Gemma Arterton proves she can actually act. Not to diminish the contributions of Eddie Marsan or Martin Compston who both bring subtle shades to their roles, but this is Arterton’s film and proves to anyone who’d doubted her after a string of middling roles in middling blockbusters and prancing around in a schoolgirl outfit just what she’s capable of. One particular plot twist did prompt sustained fits of giggles from the audience who I saw it with, and I’d just like to take this opportunity to tell each and every one of them this: GROW UP.
My review for this contained my best pun of the year in the pitch (“Tanks for the memories.”) which was sadly under-appreciated in its own time. Much like the film, in fact. Taut, tense and claustrophobic, almost the entire film takes place from inside the tank, but still manages to provide another perspective on the conflict in the Lebanon and serves as an excellent companion piece to 2008’s Waltz With Bashir. Just a shame that the promotional material for the film was almost entirely made up of the final shot.
There are only half a dozen films on this list that could be completely described as British; with one of them being the latest Mike Leigh effort and another filling the standard Brits in adversity stereotype, it feels like there’s a complete lack of imagination in our film industry at present, even if the quality’s there in spades. That is, if you haven’t seen Skeletons of course. Jason Isaacs is the marquee name (and obligatory “hello to Jason Isaacs”, of course) but Nick Whitfield’s debut is a true original, always feels fresh and is in places almost startlingly inventive, Isaacs sports another quality moustache and there’s Bulgarian references aplenty – what more could you want?
26. Black Dynamite
In stark contrast to the films either side of it on this list is the year’s best and probably only blaxploitation spoof, and something to be clung to in a world where we no longer have Leslie Nielsen. Michael Jai White has come up with a creation of comedy genius, and his affection for the source material keeps it grounded. The plot is both well structured and completely bonkers, quite a feat, and you really don’t need an understanding of the source material to get a lot from this one. You can’t fail to love any film with the line, “First lady, I’m sorry I pimp-slapped you into that china cabinet.” Can you?
25. Four Lions
I’ve been a fan of Chris Morris ever since On The Hour, so when it was announced that he was making a Jihad satire comedy I was, to put it simply, thrilled at the prospect. While Four Lions is great, it actually does fall slightly short of what I would have expected from the talent involved (also including Peep Show writers Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong); both the comedy and the satire feel just slightly short of what they could potentially have been. It does serve to generate debate and humanise the terrorists without justifying them, but it just runs out of steam slightly before the end.
24. The Last Station
Yes, it’s another of those “pack it with quality actors and it should be OK” efforts, and in this case it absolutely was. There’s surely a risk that the story of a man who composed the most famously long novel of all time might end up being a little dry, but Christopher Plummer, as well as being a dead ringer for Tolstoy with his lovely mop of facial hair, is suitably fruity and shouty by turns and the rest of the cast are also excellent. The story itself is compelling and a wonderful insight into a period and a mindset of Russian history, but it’s never less than very enjoyable.
23. Exit Through The Gift Shop
The question about the authenticity of this “documentary” seems to have preoccupied most reviewers at the time of the original release; at this time of end of year reviews, most seem to have come to the conclusion that it doesn’t actually matter as it’s just so damn entertaining, which is a conclusion I came to in my original review. Of course, the internet being what it is, I could have come to that conclusion since and you just think I did, in an attempt to look clever – and after all, isn’t that just what the film’s doing? Or is it? We’ll probably never know, unless Banksy is actually Casey Affleck in disguise.
22. A Single Man
One of the many reasons that I take no interest in the Oscars anymore is that they’re a peer driven back-slapping fest that randomly rewards some career achievements while ignoring others. I wasn’t a huge fan of Crazy Heart or Jeff Bridges’ performance, so it was all the more painful that the acting achievement of the year got overlooked by the giant shiny bald man and his friends. Tom Ford’s direction made this a work of art, but the performances, especially the never more subtle Firth, deserved more recognition than they got, and I can only hope Firth has enough career cachet to beat out Bridges this year.
21. Jackass 3D
It’s not big, and it’s not clever. Except it is big; probably the best use of 3D yet committed to film (yes, even better than James Cameron’s Blue Man Group), if you can tolerate the sight of a giant pink sex toy being shot out of a cannon RIGHT INTO YOUR FACE. And it is actually clever; managing to reflect the passing of time in the faces and the actions of this barmy army while never actually shirking the responsibility to keep on delivering the ridiculous stunts. None of its contemporaries ever worked anywhere near as well, because they didn’t have that sense of camaraderie that adds not only extra frisson to the stunts but also helps draw you into the laughs. The stunts remain as inventive and subtly playful as ever, but whether I could cope with Jackass 4D is a question for another day.
I love science, but I also love religion. So which is better? There’s only one way to find out… FIIIIIIIIGHT!!! Yes, like a Gladiator with a calculator, this sets out to study the life and (spoiler) death of professor and atheist Hypatia of Alexandria in the context of the battles for religions to establish themselves in fourth century Egypt, and how science was getting lost in the mix. Rachel Weisz gives Hypatia both the sense of excitement in the scientific discovery and the authority to stand up to those around her, and the drama, the debates and the action are all equally compelling.
19. Please Give
Please give Please Give some more love on DVD, because this is another one that got largely neglected on its theatrical release. Director Nicole Holofcener has worked a sturdy apprenticeship on some of America’s finest TV, and expertly marshals an impressive cast, including Catherine Keener, Oliver Platt and Rebecca Hall. Where The Kids Are All Right felt consciously knowing, as if it was extending a hand out for you to place an award in it, Please Give never feels forced, and the drama and the laughs flow that much more naturally. It’s also more expert in saying those things that you were thinking, but were just too polite to mention.
Let’s be clear, if Hitchcock was still alive today, he’d have locked Tom Hanks or George Clooney in a box, not some guy who’s most famous for a spectacularly sweary performance in the second Blade sequel and for a Sandra Bullock rom-com. But Rodrigo Cortes is not afraid to take chances, and this is absolutely the most compelling “man-locked-in-a-box-for-ninety-four-minutes” movie you will ever see. It not only gave me massive respect for Mr Reynolds and his commitment, it actually made me claustrophobic when I wasn’t before. When my time comes, just chuck me in the ocean, please.
17. Up In The Air
I do feel there’s a distinction to be made between the life of a blogger and that of a film reviewer. While I review everything I see, I still retain the element of choice; I also feel it’s more appropriate to bring my personal experience into reviews, because blogging is, by its nature, a very personal pursuit. Which leads me nicely into the fact that this is a movie about personal pursuits and choices, and I can only envy Clooney’s Ryan Bingham for his single-mindedness in the pursuit of his choices. I also wonder if you have to have had the experience of being made redundant (which I was, five years ago) to truly understand the pain of the characters and the arcs that they experience. A very raw experience, even five years on.
Gareth Edwards has, since I started writing this up, got the gig to direct Godzilla, leading me to wonder just how much Godzilla will actually be on screen. Yes, Monsters is a metaphorical title, but you do get actual, honest-to-goodness monsters, and they are worth the wait, but they’re not the primary reason for taking the journey. Edwards has, using just two real actors and a bunch of locals, crafted a worthwhile and fulfilling story and managed to predict chemistry so well between his leads that they ended up marrying in real life. When you knock out something so technically proficient and dramatically sturdy in your first attempt, it’s both utterly enviable and slightly frightening to think what you might be capable of.
15. Another Year
It’s a title that’s begging for the “another year, another Mike Leigh movie” treatment. Thing is, I can’t remember the last time that a new Mike Leigh movie was just another Mike Leigh movie; there’s always something subtly different about his approach each time, and somehow the actors involved seem to find ways of pushing themselves on to greater and greater heights. For Reason I Won’t Watch The Oscars #2: Lesley Manville should win the Best Actress award this year; she will be lucky to be even nominated. There is no justice in this world. Also, please someone nominate Jim Broadbent for a knighthood.
14. A Prophet
This might be largely prison based, but it’s no Shawshank Redemption; it’s strong, it’s distinctly Gallic and it doesn’t pull its punches. It also on the surface a slightly strange mixture of social realism with almost fantasy elements, but somehow director Jacques Audiard manages to bring the elements together totally. Tahar Rahim deserves to go on to bigger and equally good things from here, because there’s not much better he can actually do. Two and a half hours absolutely flies by.
13. The Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans
Nicolas Cage, a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, trying to shout his way out of an enigma. The indie darling of the early Nineties who became the unlikely star of that decade’s action Holy Trinity (The Rock, Con Air, Face/Off, in case you were wondering), he lost his way in the next decade but started this one in absolutely blinding form. The path to redemption despite yourself rather than because of it is an interesting journey in itself, but when you have Werner Herzog directing, littering the path with old women and iguanas, then it takes on a whole new level. If the picture above doesn’t make you smile, you may need to consult a physician.
12. The First Movie
If someone went out to make a movie to try to singularly demonstrate to people why I’m doing what I’m doing (and in case you were wondering, because I probably don’t make it clear enough, it’s about the power of cinema and the unique experience), then I’d tell them not to bother, because Mark Cousins has already done it. Take one village in Iraq, a bunch of children and five perfect evocations of what makes cinema great, show them to the kids and then see what they can do? If the concept is perfect, then the execution comes close to matching it, finding repeated moments of genuine beauty in both the surroundings and the people.
11. The Secret In Their Eyes
2009 was a fantastic year in the Best Foreign Language Oscar category, and it’s provided two of this list (as well as one of last year’s best), and this was another worthy inclusion. The majestic, astonishing tracking shot got all of the attention, which does a disservice to what else is here; effortlessly flitting backwards and forwards over the course of a quarter of a decade, and with a couple of stings in the tail, it’s a fantastic crime drama-cum-thriller with a sprinkling of love story thrown in, and yet another example of why people shouldn’t be sniffy just because a film has writing on it in case you don’t speak fluent Spanish.
10. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
Thanks to the idiosyncrasies of international distribution, we got all three parts of the Millennium trilogy in the same year in UK cinemas, and they were brilliant / a bit daft / not as good as the first one but better than the second, in that order. Only the first felt truly cinematic, and but for the Lord Of The Rings succession of ending scenes that pushed the running time out to two and a half hours this would have been an epic at the very top of the list. The original Scandinavian title, of course, translates as Men Who Hate Women, but maybe should have been Woman Empowered By Men Who Hate Her. Although what that would have done for the other two titles is anyone’s guess.
And the award for the most staggeringly original and refreshingly blunt movie of the year goes to… More than anything else this year, Dogtooth creates its own world, both literally within the confines of the house and figuratively within its own rules, and then explores that to its unlikely conclusion. Repeatedly subverting expectations, impeccably performed and superbly paced, it’s a slow burner but by the end is piling classic scene upon classic scene. Just make sure you’ve seen Flashdance before you see it, as in this case not getting the reference may actually diminish your enjoyment slightly. Yes, I said Flashdance.
8. Winter’s Bone
Let’s be honest, this is not a cheerful film. Almost unremittingly bleak, in fact, but at its core is Jennifer Lawrence’s Ree Dolly, burning through middle America with a steely determination and a refusal to submit to the almost inevitable. But there’s also optimism here, although you have to look hard to find it, and a fascinating portrayal of the drug culture that keeps families together and communities apart. Lawrence is a revelation, but Debra Granik essays a believable and bleak world that will have put you through the wringer by the end.
7. Of Gods And Men
Coming on initially like the love child of Twelve Angry Men and Songs of Praise, this is another “based-on-a-true-story” tale of events in and around a troubled area, in this case the Algerian Civil War. There’s a few well known names in the cast, including Lambert “Merovingian” Wilson and Michael “Hugo Drax” Lonsdale, but the performances aren’t showy. The tone is at times meditative, allowing the monk’s plainsong to assist the ebb and flow of the mood, but the tension in the environment is constant, the moral dilemmas believable and complex and the ending almost heartbreakingly powerful; the final shot in particular will live with me for some time to come.
6. Toy Story 3
Ah Pixar, how we’ve come to love you over the last fifteen to twenty years. I make it sound like a prison sentence, but actually it’s been a liberation, with their eleventh full length feature showing just the same mix of technical ability, storytelling prowess and emotional manipulation as many of their first ten. Mostly, they still retain their capability to bring out both the little boy in me, gleefully cheering the well constructed action sequences, and also the little girl. I was sobbing so much at the end that most little girls would be offended by the comparison. (And that was at my second viewing, where I was trying to look manly in front of my wife.)
5. Mary and Max
But, in something that must count as a major shock, Toy Story 3 wasn’t the best animated movie I saw this year. That honour went to a little Australian animation that edged the Pixar effort in two key areas. For all it’s greatness, TS3 doesn’t have quite the subtle shades that some of the earlier Pixar efforts have had, which are present here; and Mary and Max tackles mental illness and depression, subjects that don’t quite fit with the family friendly audiences that Pixar aim to pull in. Mary and Max is a towering achievement, channelling the heights and depths of its subject and creating an astonishing bond between its two leads and the audience, and there’s a well constructed twist in the life-affirming tale to boot.
If this is the result of making movies outside the studio system, then the studios have a lot to answer for. It’s not as ground-breaking as many (mostly those who were looking to tear it down) would have claimed, but it is impeccably put together in every aspect and it does take a fair few risks. What it is, though, it utterly enjoyable from start to finish, if Chloe Moretz isn’t the next Jodie Foster in the making then I’ll eat my Cineworld card and the final sequence was so insanely brilliant I actually did a little Tim Henman fist pump and nearly leapt out of my seat. I pray that Vaughn and Goldman manage to put their own imprint as successfully on the new X-Men movie this year.
I wrote more words about this film than possibly any other, and chichés be damned, if Christopher Nolan’s next film turns out to be Christian Bale reading the phone book, I have faith that it will be done in a compelling and interesting way. Something tells me his ambitions reach a little higher, though, and there can’t be many people in that phone book who didn’t get into the discussion when this one came out. It just falls slightly short of masterpiece level, thanks to the third level down not quite being as interesting as the first two (snowmobiles never quite work for some reason), but I will happily challenge any other criticism you’d care to make of this one.
2. The Social Network
If Christopher Nolan is my favourite director working in the Hollywood system at present, then David Fincher comes a close second. The main difference is that Fincher is a pure visionary, unlike Nolan who scripts as well, so Fincher is more vulnerable to the quality of his material. The easiest way to remedy that, of course, is to get Aaron Sorkin to write your script, and between you to take a simple idea, around the creation of Facebook, and lay out as many of the facts as possible before then filming them within an inch of their life. Fincher is the master of technique and has learned over the years when to hold back, but he doesn’t hold back that often. Oscar doesn’t do justice very often, but of the major contenders, this one is the most deserving.
1. Scott Pilgrim vs The World
So here we are, top of the list, king of the hill, number of the beast. Probably. At first I felt I might need to defend my decision, but of course it’s my list, and it’s my decision that ultimately counts. I’ve made reference on this list to both the personal nature of blogging and also of the choices made, and this sits top of my list not least for the reason that I’m blogging, because this ticked every personal box for me in the quest to define why movies are better in the cinema.
First off, it’s the most fun I had with a fellow cinema audience all year. Admittedly I saw it at Movie-Con in London, and there were people there who’d paid their money just for the privilege of watching Edgar Wright’s latest, but the audience lapped it up. The sound and visuals are a textbook demonstration of why movies need to be seen on the big screen, in this case more than once to pick up the layers and layers of exquisite details. But it’s also an intensely personal movie, not in the sense of any relative life experience, but in that it lays bare the essence of human emotion and love, except that it then wraps it back up in the shiniest, brightest, smartest package available, and sadly all my inadequate words are likely to do at this point are to muddy the waters of what you may feel about it. (Mainly because I’ve realised I’m starting to sound like The Architect from The Matrix.)
I adored it, it rewards repeat viewings, it’s already improving with age and it’s challenging for a place in my top 10 of all time and I somehow feel that if it weren’t for an entirely unfounded Michael Cera backlash and a sense of anticipation within the geek community that expected this to transcend mere film and become one of the greatest artworks ever made, this would have gotten more love from Joe Public than it actually did. But I love it, and that’s all that matters to me. (Still would have picked Knives myself, though.)