Every year, critics, pundits and bloggers try to boil down a varied and amorphous year into far too rigid ranking systems that, through a similarly restrictive consensus, tell us what the best films of the year were. And who am I to go against the tide? To (ever, ever so slightly) fight the system, I've done a sort of Top 20. This first ten have been ranked, whilst the second ten have been listed alphabetically. This year was such a strong one for film in general that I wanted to show my love for the ones that just missed out.
Note: Where possible, I've included links to my reviews of the films in question. Some I haven't had time to review fully, but they are well good.
10. The Illusionist
Seven years after his enchanting and strange debut, The Triplets of Belleville (or Belleville Rendezvous, depending on which region you're in) Sylvain Chomet returned with a film based on an unproduced Jacques Tati screenplay. It was a rare instance in which the voices of both authors could be felt in the final work as Tati's graceful slapstick and whimsy worked wonderfully alongside Chomet's muted colours and acute sense of melancholy. Probably the saddest film of the year to feature a psychotic rabbit.
9. Four Lions
Whatever people were expecting from Chris Morris, the controversial comedian behind such provocative satire as The Day Today and Brass Eye, I don't think they expected a film like Four Lions, which was fitfully funny but was mainly characterised by a deeply thoughtful sadness. By depicting his quintet of suicide bombers as incompetents, Morris satirised the idea of extremism whilst also arguing that the people who are most likely to be drawn to become suicide bombers are often vulnerable, easily misled young men who don't understand the consequences of their actions. Whilst the phrase "fuck Mini Babybels" made for one of the funniest moments of the year, the scene of Waj (Kayvan Novak) on a phone in a kebab shop was also one of the more heartbreaking.
8. Exit Through The Gift Shop
In a year full of "is it real?" style documentaries like I'm Still Here and Catfish, Banksy's debut film stood head and shoulders above them all since underneath the questions of authenticity was a hugely entertaining film about the history and technicalities of street art, as well as an engaging insight into the creative process of someone like Banksy who has spent so much of his career hiding himself from the public. That it then crafted on an equally entertaining and farcical element that may or may not be real (watch the film and judge for yourself) merely added to the pleasures of the film.
7. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
The best videogame movie that wasn't based on a videogame in the first place? Absolutely. Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) took Bryan O'Malley's cult comics and turned them into a visually dazzling coming of age story full of wit, great performances and just the right amount of heart to stop it from being just an empty trifle. It lacks the emotional depth of its source material, but it is a frenetic and exhilarating movie experience unlike any other this year, or possibly ever.
So much has been said about Christopher Nolan's dream-heist movie that I don't feel like there is all that much to say. It's a viscerally exhilarating action movie, a blockbuster with more thought and intelligence behind its plot than most, and a film that ends on a note of playful ambiguity that kept people talking about it long after the credits rolled.
5. A Prophet
There's something to be said for originality in films, but it is all too often an over-prized commodity. I, for one, would much rather see a story that is overly familiar but brilliantly told than an original idea poorly implemented. A Prophet falls squarely in the first category. Whilst invoking any of dozens of movies about prisons and criminality, Jacques Audiard imbues his story of a young Muslim (Tahar Rahim) surviving and thriving in a French prison with equal parts gritty realism and metaphysical spiritualism. As Malik is gradually inducted into the Corsican syndicate that runs the the institution he finds himself in, Audiard shows us the ins and outs of prison life, as well as the effects that walls have on the souls of the men trapped inside them.
4. Of Gods and Men
A late entry but a deserving one, Xavier Beauvois' account of the lives of Trappist monks faced with a terrible decision as Islamic extremists threaten their community and their lives was a thoughtful, engrossing and emotionally draining experience that left me with more questions than any other film this year. It sets out to be provocative, not in the petulant style of, say, Kick-Ass (probably my biggest disappointment of the year), but in a way which is genuinely profound, asking serious questions about what it means to believe in something.
3. Winter's Bone
Debra Gronik's breakthrough feature is an intense and shattering noir that, rather than being set in a dark urban landscape, takes place in the Ozark mountains of Missouri. Boasting an astounding performance by Jennifer Lawrence as a young girl who sets out to find her father whose bail-jumping might cause the rest of his family to lose their home, the film evokes a mood and a sense of a community that keeps its secrets buried deep and doesn't take kindly to anyone asking questions, then pushes them as Lawrence tries to get to the truth. The tension and terror of watching this young girl dealing with Very Bad People in a Very Bad Place was unrivalled by any other film this year.
2. The Social Network
David Fincher rebounded from the turgid and mawkish The Curious Case of Benjamin Button with a film about such timeless themes as greed, betrayal and the quest for power, but addressed them in a thoroughly modern way. Jesse Eisenberg gave one of the year's best performances as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who he portrayed as an inscrutable enigma as arrogant as he is brilliant. Buoyed by Fincher's effortless direction and Aaron Sorkin's witty script, the story of something as potentially dry as the founding of a website became vibrant, tense and entertaining.
1. Toy Story 3
Reviving the beloved franchise over a decade after the second instalment could have been a disastrous move on Pixar's part, especially considering its beginnings as a straight-to-DVD cash-in back when it looked like Pixar and Disney were going to part ways. Fortunately, director Lee Unkrich and writer Michael Arndt (Oscar-winner for Little Miss Sunshine) kept what worked about the first two films - their diverse cast of characters, smart sense of humour and perfectly judged melancholy - and worked them into a story that worked equally well as a boisterous homage to prison films and as a film about aging and accepting the things we cannot change.
The Next Ten:
Mike Leigh's warm film about a year in the life of a happily married couple and their friends was light on narrative drive but heavy on atmosphere and mood. Recalling the work of Yasijiro Ozu more than any of the British realists that he is usually grouped with, it's a film which is at its best in its emotionally fraught final 'Season' but the ones leading up to it are full of rich characters and beautifully observed moments.
A film about Japanese funeral rites doesn't sound like the most interesting of subjects, but Yôjirô Takita's film brims with life and vitality even as its characters spend all their time caring for the dead. By turns funny, poignant and deeply moving, it's one of those films that sneaks up on you, lulling you in with its broad comedy then shocking you when you realise how much you love the characters and how much the drama has affected you. At least that was the case with me.
Enter The Void
Though it's story was inane to the point of being interminable, Gaspar Noé's film triumphed through the sheer audacity of its visuals. Telling the story of young man (Nathaniel Brown) who winds up getting himself shot by the police and dying on the floor of a toilet in a Tokyo bar, Noé used the same point-of-view technique that made Irreversible such a disorientating experience to show us what happens to Brown's consciousness as his mind slowly dies and he watches as his sister and best friend try to come to terms with his death. The neon lights of Tokyo and Noé's ever-moving camera combine to create a phantasmagoria in which past, present and future collide in ways more often ridiculous than sublime, but never less than fascinating.
How To Train Your Dragon
Whilst the critical and commercial success of Toy Story 3 were not all that surprising, the acclaim that welcomed How To Train Your Dragon when it opened was pretty shocking. A DreamWorks film full of warmth, wit and heart that doesn't rely on lazy pop culture references? I suppose it had to happen sometimes. Though it lacks the depth that marks out the best work of DreamWorks' main rivals, there is a sense of giddy abandon and joy to How To Train Your Dragon that rightly sets it apart. The flying scenes are hugely exciting, the central relationship is heartwarming, and it manages to work in a message about peace and understanding that feels refreshing and stops just short of being preachy.
The King's Speech
Tom Hooper's (The Damned United, HBO's John Adams) film looks, on face value, to be the worst kind of Academy-courting Oscar bait going. A historical drama about a real-life figure who struggled with some form of disability (George VI, who spent much of the early part of his life with a debilitating stammer) who is then treated by an unconventional specialist, with nothing short of the fate of the world in the balance as war looms in the distance. However, thanks to two towering central performances by Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush, as future king and therapist, respectively, and a funny, witty script makes the film a surprisingly entertaining and joyful prestige pic.
Following up The Host, the twentieth best film of the last decade, was a pretty big ask, but South Korean director Bong Joon-ho's film about the lengths that a mother will go in order to prove that her son is innocent of a murder he has been accused of was a creepy, intense journey carried by Bong's typically assured direction and a revelatory performance by Hye-ja Kim, who plays the Mother as sympathetic throughout, but gradually shows us how borderline deranged she becomes over the course of the film.
The Secret In Their Eyes
Much like A Prophet, there isn't a huge amount of originality in this Argentinian thriller (which beat A Prophet for the Best Foreign Language Oscar, a decision which I'm not entirely happy with) but what it lacks in startling newness it more than makes up for in craft and artistry. Directed by TV veteran Juan José Campanella (who has prior form in this genre as a frequent director for the various flavours of Law & Order. Also, weirdly, Strangers With Candy) the film tells a story that spans decades as a retired detective decides to write a book about the case that he couldn't solve and which has haunted him all his life. Boasting one of the most stunning sequences of the year - for those who have seen it, I am of course referring to the scene at the football stadium - and a complex, immersive story to rival the best work of Raymond Chandler, it's a fantastic genre exercise and a touching character study.
Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll
In telling the story of Ian Dury (Andy Serkis), of ...and The Blockheads fame, Mat Whitecross took the well-trodden tropes of the music biopic and tore them apart to tell a story that was theatrical, discursive and intensely enjoyable. Serkis brought a ferocious energy and bile to Dury, perfectly capturing the anger that drove him to try to overcome the polio that left him crippled as child and informed his vicious stage presence, whilst the loose structure of the film allowed Whitecross to jump from one time period to another in order to investigate the relationship Dury had with his father (Ray Winstone) and to contrast it with Dury's relationship with his own son (Bill Milner). The end result is a film as fractured and frantic as its subject.
Despite its plodding and predictable plot - the result of its origin as a pretty clunky Dennis Lehane novel - Martin Scorsese's genre exercise succeeded thanks to bravura direction indebted equally to the psychological thrillers that Scorsese watched in the 1950s and modern Asian horror, showing that the ultimate film geek-turned-director hasn't lost his insatiable desire to learn everything there is to know about the medium. Grounded by a frenzied performance by Leonardo DiCaprio (this was a good year for him as far as playing men with dead wives and ulterior motives went) and alternately creepy and funny turns by Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow, Shutter Island was the a perfect example of a film as rollercoaster; you knew exactly where it was going, but the ride there was deliriously fun.
A Single Man
Fashion designer Tom Ford's debut feature is an achingly sad portrait of a gay man (Colin Firth) struggling to come to terms with the death of his partner. As we follow him through what he thinks will be his last day on Earth, Firth's haunted expression and Ford's evocative use of sound and colour create an incredibly moving mood piece about the fear, pain and loneliness of such a profound death, but in a way which is so vitally alive.