January 13, 2012

The runners-up of 2011

While I posted my ten favourite films of 2011 a week or two ago, they were by no means the only films I liked. Here are another 11 films I saw last year that are definitely worth your attention. As with last time, some of these were produced and released overseas in 2010, but were only released here in Australia in January and February 2011.

127 Hours
Danny Boyle's adaptation of the real-life mishap that left hiker Aron Ralston trapped underneath a rockfall for more than five days is a visceral, genuinely harrowing experience. In many ways it's like Gaspar Noe's Irreversible, a film that while brilliantly conceived and staged is so deeply upsetting to watch that you're likely to only ever watch it once. At least Boyle, along with star James Franco, manages to inject a little levity into the movie from time to time. This is another gem from Britain's most versatile filmmaker.

Don't Go Breaking My Heart
Johnnie To's Life Without Principle made my top 10 for the year. He's such a busy filmmaker these days that he also directed this, a romantic comedy based around the global financial crisis and a love triangle between an analyst, her manager, and a neighbouring architect. There are two surprising things about this film that lift it heads and shoulders above other Chinese-language romcoms: firstly, not until the last scene was I completely certain how the love triangle would resolve itself; secondly, this is the first movie I have ever seen that made my cry about a frog.

Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol
The fourth Mission: Impossible film is a delightful action film. It's slickly produced, well-paced and contains all of the requisite jumping, falling, running (oh, the running) and fighting audiences should expect. Tom Cruise is very relaxed in this film - this is the most appealing he's been in some years. A good support cast includes Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner and Michael Nyqvist. Brad Bird makes his live-action directorial debut, after years of providing some of the best feature animation the USA has made (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles). In short, for M:I fans: much better than #2, on a par with #3, still not as good as #1.

The Princess of Montpensier
Bertrand Tavernier is a wonderful French director, particularly when he tackles these kinds of swashbuckling period pieces. I adored his 1994 action film D'Artagnan's Daughter, starring Sophie Marceau as the titular heroine. I think The Princess of Montpensier is probably a better film. Set during the French Catholic/Protestant wars, it places a young woman at the centre of a complicated web of lovers as well as the intrigue of the French court. It's beautifully costumed as well, which always counts for a lot in these kinds of period films.

Source Code
Duncan Jones follows up his astounding Moon with another intelligent, well-paced and well-acted science fiction film. He's two for two at the moment, and depending on what he makes next he may soon be joining Christopher Nolan as one of the world's finest directors of genre cinema. I don't really want to go into the plot of this film - like Moon, the less you know going in, the more satisfying the viewing experience will be.

Writer/director James Gunn is behind this low-budget, idiosyncratic superhero movie. It works very much as a companion piece to Matthew Vaughn's Kick-ass, only while Kick-ass had an annoying tendency to shift from "what if someone in the real world became a superhero?" to being an actual superhero movie, Super takes its offbeat premise to its logical - and deeply uncomfortable - conclusion. The film's cast is great, particularly Rainn Wilson (The Office) as Frank D'Arbo aka the Crimson Bolt, Kevin Bacon as a laconic drug kingpin and Ellen Page as the Crimson Bolt's overenthusiastic sidekick Bolty. This is one of the funniest comedies of 2011, and is all the more effective for how suddenly the laughter can stop.

Super 8
A superb and effective tribute to the Amblin family films of the 1980s, produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by J.J. Abrams. It didn't make my top 10 because, for all the talent involved, this isn't really much more than an effective pastiche - but what an excellent pastiche it is. Strong teenage performances, an interesting story and some of the most beautiful imagery to grace cinema screens last year - particularly during the climax.

Tower Heist
A superb heist movie (the clue is in the title, I suppose) masquerading as a comedy. This is Hollywood popcorn entertainment at its best, and to be honest this shouldn't feel as outstanding a film as it does. This should be what counts as average. That said, if you're looking for a slick, breezy movie with appealing characters and a few twists and turns, Tower Heist fits the bill perfectly.

Usagi Drop
Daikichi, a twentysomething office worker, attends his grandfather's funeral. There he discovers that his elderly relative has left behind a six year-old illegitimate daugher. While the rest of the family debate whether or not to put the young girl up for adoption, Daikichi impulsively decides to take the young girl under his wing and raise her himself. This is a very light, gentle comedy with appealing performances and a lot of heart. It is a very sentimental film, which may turn off a lot of viewers, but if you like these sorts of heartwarming movies or are a fan of the manga it's adapted from, definitely check it out.

Winnie the Pooh
Walt Disney Animation's latest feature came and went with nary a trace this year. Given it's a new Winnie the Pooh movie (Disney's fifth theatrical feature based around the character), it's not a surprise that this one didn't capture the attention of audiences. It's also ridiculously short - barely more than an hour long including fairly lengthy closing credits. The hand-drawn animation is beautiful, however, and it captures the tone of Milne's original works better than any Disney Pooh since the original shorts. 

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