And so begins Part 2...
10 - The Raid: Redemption
This explosive action film from Indonesia is one of the best Kung Fu movies I've ever seen. Although released in some festivals in 2011 it got its official release this past year with a smashing techno-rock soundtrack and the inexplicable subtitle 'Redemption' was added. What takes it beyond other martial arts films is that it eschews the silly notion that a plot is needed; let alone any down time at all. As the back of the DVD case rightfully purports, "1 minute of romance, 99 minutes of non-stop carnage!" The 'plot' of the film has a SWAT team raiding an apartment tower loaded with a gang of drug dealers. As they infiltrate and rise up each floor, the foes get tougher and tougher, climaxing with the best fight scene in recent memory. Bouts of pure kinetic hand to hand combat, an intense scene between walls with a machete and an explosive refrigerator will surely entertain any and every action junkie.
9 - The Imposter
There is always at least one documentary every year that blows me away (and it usually gets shunned by the Oscars). These ones are those that not only have interesting stories, but also manage to be more than just facts and figures. The Imposter takes its obscure material and presents it as a mystery and thriller, making sure to hold its cards close to the chest until need be. Bit by bit, pieces unravel and layers are revealed. Every time you think you've heard it all, the story takes another twist; thanks to the way the film makers present it. What's more astonishing is they get most every person involved to play themselves in reenactments. Without giving away too much, this 'believe it or not' tale begins with an American family whose son goes missing. Four year later, they get a call that he has been found in Spain. From our title, the viewers have figured out that this might not be their son, but rather an imposter claiming this identity. We then follow his 'skills and steps' in being recognized and admitted back into the family. This is all interesting enough, but that's just the beginning of a set of lies that twist us through this story. The less you know going in, the better.
8 - Chronicle
Just when you thought the silly gimmick of making a 'found footage' film was done and gone, there comes a film that warrants its use. This little film came and went early in the year with a tiny budget, and when you have limited funds, there is no simpler solution than to shoot your film on digital hand-held cameras. Thankfully, the plot justifies the gimmick. A troubled loner teen feels threatened by his abusive father, and decides to have a camera on him at all times. He begins to live vicariously through his lens, hiding from society until he and 2 other kids stumble upon a mysterious substance which grants them the power if telekinesis, and he now has a means to 'act out'. The joy of this film is the direction it takes. It is a low-budget superhero film and therefore relishes in the little things such power can do. These are kids with superpowers and they act like kids with superpowers: stacking Lego with their minds, taking revenge on bullies, performing 'magic' tricks and playing football in the sky (here the low budget really shows). Chronicle is a refreshingly honest film that is unique in its approach, nice and short, and has a killer third act that ends with a bang.
7 - The Master
A beguiling film set after WWII, a time when the now purposeless veteran Freddie (played by Joaquin Phoenix in the finest performance of the year) returns home only to embrace alcoholism and lose all ambition. But this is not a critique of the effects of war, it is instead a mesmerizing analysis of Freddie's confrontation with therapy. Does man truly need a master, and is it not himself? This therapy comes in the form of Lancaster Dodd (played with glowing confidence by Philip Seymour-Hoffman), a self-help guru and cult leader of The Cause. Shot with staggeringly beautiful camera work by my favourite filmmaker P.T. Anderson, this is a hypnotic film to watch. Even though I didn't quite follow what the point was by the end, every second of this 2 1/2 hour film is mesmerizing and memorable. This is an intriguing film which requires a second viewing (I intend to do so) and could very well move to the top of this list or drop right off. It is nevertheless a masterful high-quality film to watch, ponder and discuss.
6 - The Dark Knight Rises
There are movies that are perfect examples of textbook filmmaking and then there are movies that just know how to entertain. I like to think that my taste in films incorporates an equal dose of both. Over time I’ve become more forgiving of flaws in films so long as they are ambitious and entertaining (as I'm currently watching Avatar and looking past the conventional script and just enjoying how awesome it is). The Dark Knight Rises is not as fantastic as Batman Begins or The Dark Knight, and there are plenty of expositional script problems, but I don't care. This is a thrilling and definitely epic conclusion to the 'new' batman trilogy that satisfies every story line. It lacks the energy of the first two, but ramps up the scope and puts the focus back on Batman himself. Zimmer is rocking his best score since Gladiator. Production values and stunts are through the roof. The 2 new villains are no ‘Joker’, but certainly are grand editions. Christopher Nolan's direction with quick cuts and overlapping scenes (as usual) does not let up and makes the long run time feel like a breeze. It's not perfect, but the sheer epicness makes this the sure-footed satisfying conclusion to the 2nd greatest trilogy of all time...(ahem,Toy Story).
5 - Skyfall
This was an easy choice for me to include since I'm a huge Bond fan. I love my 007 films, and Skyfall might be my favourite. Although my principle issue is its lack of kinetic action (like my other fave Casino Royale), this one has many strengths that are not prevalent in any of the other 22 films. First and foremost, Skyfall has the great cinematographer Roger Deakins on board. He brings some technical and visual class for the first time to a Bond film. This is the best looking film of the year and the lighting is outstanding. Secondly, along with Casino Royale, there is a higher caliber of acting going on. Daniel Craig gives it all he's got, along with Dench and Bardem in the 2 other principle roles. But this is because the characters are given more to do than usual. Which brings me to my third point, the script. In the last few Daniel Craig films, for good or bad, Bond has been trying to shed the baggage of the spy's film history. He has been looking towards the future, in search of a cynical, more self-aware character that rejects his ‘surface level’ past. In this film however, I find him with both feet firmly planted in the future and the past. The best of both worlds; in with the old, in with the new. The film is an analysis of who Bond is (both as a character and a series) and questions what place he has in modern action films. And yet Skyfall also confidently embraces its history and relishes what makes Bond fun. A Grotesque over the top villain, a few gadgets and traps, snappy remarks and an appreciation for staying classy. To me, this is the pinnacle of the Bond films: a little Goldfinger, mixed with Timothy Dalton, mixed with some Casino Royale, and then shaken, not stirred.
4 - Life of Pi
I'm not sure why I love survival stories so much. Like Cast Away (one of my all time faves) and my #1 for this year, I just find something so pure and enthralling about someone stuck with confronting themselves in isolation. Maybe I should go on a Walkabout... Disregarding that tangent, Life of Pi is a beautifully shot film of a beautiful story about the beauty of storytelling. For me, this was the most touching film of the year thanks to its imagery and love of filmmaking. A young boy named Pi, an appropriate name for someone who embraces all aspects of life and every religion, winds up stranded in the ocean with a tiger in his lifeboat. That's pretty much the story. Pi experiences a remarkable tale of survival and undergoes a few introspective epiphanies. But what is most memorable about the film is that it is a parable about the merits of storytelling. Through the use of symbols and metaphors, a story can mean so much more. They are powerful tools that allow the reader/viewer to assess a personal meaning for themselves. When messages are allowed to be interpreted, rather than being told at face value, we appreciate them more and it becomes more personal. This is the stance that the film takes and the director Ang Lee, makes sure to present us with the most gorgeous imagery to transport us there. The bookends of the film are not as strong as the rest, but they are nevertheless essential to contrast the majesty of storytelling with the cold hard truth.
3 - Cloud Atlas
The most intriguing and ambitious film of the year is not without its flaws. But like my #1 from last year (The Tree of Life), I will always be in favour of ambition and creativity over perfection and lack of inspiration. Even if you don't like Cloud Atlas, at the very least you can find it interesting and appreciate the thought and ingenuity that went into making this. Like Life of Pi, this is also based on an 'un-filmable' novel. Spanning decades, we are introduced to 6 different stories with characters every bit as different as the next. Bit by bit, as we leap back and forth in time through cross-cutting, we simultaneously experience each high, low and climax as it is relative to each of the stories’ arc. Like the Wachowski's previous film Speed Racer, this is a masterpiece in film editing (unfortunately overlooked by the Academy this year). For a 3 hour film, it flies by thanks to the constant linking to the next story at just the right time. Cloud Atlas also boasts a great score, a plethora of entertaining characters, exquisite production design that helps you to immediately link to each story and a sublimely simple theme. It may be easy to dismiss this film after about 25 minutes, "Ya, I get it! We're all connected! Get on with it!" But the enjoyment comes from watching it all unfold in a beautifully crafted and original narrative.
2 - Cabin in the Woods
It's no surprise that horror films have become tiresome predictable jokes. So it feels refreshing when a little meta-horror-comedy called Cabin in the Woods comes along that displays a level of respect for itself and the horror genre it comes from. This is a proper homage that honours its elders while deconstructing them and providing insight into the essence of horror films (therefore a perfect companion film to Shaun of the Dead). When a group of college kids head to an isolated and abandoned cabin for the weekend, things get eerie and we fear that they might not make it through the night. And so begins a classic overdone scenario. The usual type of scares and cliches occur (or almost occur), then just when you think the movie is over, you realize only an hour has passed and you then enter one of the finest twists ever and a brilliant 2nd half that delights, shocks, satisfies and presents such an honest gleeful love for horror films. I refuse to give away what happens and where it goes, but it is certainly fun. That isn't to say that the first half is no good. Much of the comedy lies in the first half as we watch these smart college kids slowly fall into the required stereotypical character types (the dumb jock, the blonde floozy, the nerd, etc...) and experience purposeful horror tropes. This is easily the most enjoyable film of the year with an incredibly fun and creative story that provides insight into the horror genre. A delight for a film junkie like myself, even if I'm not much of a horror fan.
1 - The Grey
When this film came out last January, it was unfortunately advertised as a new Liam Neeson action movie wherein he fights and punches arctic wolves. Thankfully it turned out to be something completely different...although he does have one man vs. wolf scrap. This is a beautifully contemplative art film disguised with the thick winter coat of a survival thriller. We are introduced to Neeson, a depressed wolf hunter working for an oil company to protect their men while they work in the forests of Alaska. When this motley crew of strong and toughened men take a flight further north, the plane hits some bad weather and goes crashing down. After one of the most visceral and claustrophobic plane crashes ever committed to film (a marvel of sound design), the men find themselves stranded in the freezing north with no hope of rescue and a pack of wolves in constant pursuit. The coldness conveyed in this film makes you tight-chested and forces you to experience the intensity. Within the first 20 minutes, the main character contemplates suicide, a plane crashes and you watch helplessly as a man is being coaxed into death. Liam Neeson gives his finest performance since Schindler's List and evokes a man who fears death at ever turn; death which is epitomized by the insistent lurking if wolves forever in his shadow. With the falling snow, bleak scenery, glimmers from the blazing firewood and refreshing greenery and brooks this is a gorgeously framed and breathtaking film. As with Skyfall and Life of Pi, it is clear that great cinematography is the way to my heart. The Grey is an effective survival story with men getting picked off one by one, but it takes its time. Best of all, it winds up being a very philosophical and introspective look at the meaning of death. Yet despite all these dark, intense, depressing feelings, the film ends on a perfect note with an uplifting satisfying arc for Neeson's hunter. I love this film because of its thrilling start that smoothly opens up into an atmospheric dreamlike quality. Despite the desperation and frigidity, this is a film and place that I plan to return to again and again.