With the end of 2011 drawing nigh, as tradition demands, the time comes to sit down and try to remember all the films watched during the year, helped by a couple of generous glasses of moderately priced brandy. All in, 2011 has been a pretty good year for cinema, and while there haven’t quite been standout films to match 2010’s “Confessions” or “I Saw the Devil”, the overall standard has been not too bad. This has been true around the world, with Korea and Japan continuing to churn out strong films and seeing emerging new talent, China finally starting to shift away from identikit period sword epics (if showing an increasing fondness for inadvertently amusing patriotic cameo-fests), and Hollywood managing a respectable number of higher quality blockbusters, with there being a “Super 8” or “Contagion” for every loathsome piece of seemingly deliberate mediocrity like “Captain America”.
My selection for this year, which I’ve decided not to limit to the usual top ten, hopefully reflects this, with films from a variety of genres from all around the globe. I’ve been lucky enough to see almost everything I wanted which came out during 2011, with the one exception of dear old Tom Six’s comically controversy-baiting “The Human Centipede 2: Full Sequence”, mainly due not wanting to view the cut version – a film which might well have ended up either on my list of Best Films or Biggest Disappointments.
The Best Films of 2011
“Kill List”, from British writer director Ben Wheatley, is easily one of the year’s most savage, bizarre and memorable films. Mixing “The Wicker Man”, hitman crime drama and the domestic angst of Wheatley’s much praised feature debut “Down Terrace”, the film is a sinister enigma of occult themed madness and violence. Neil Maskell is superbly believable as the increasingly deranged Jay, a down to earth contract killer in middle England who takes on a series of jobs with comrade in arms Gal (the equally impressive Michael Smiley) that gradually drag him into unimaginable darkness. Although the film shows certain similarities with “A Serbian Film”, it’s a truly original work, with Wheatley’s grounded script and taut direction balancing banal suburban drudgery with extreme bestial violence (including some of the year’s most wince inducing gore and torture scenes) to stunning and often darkly amusing effect.
Equally brutal and setting a cinematic world record for its sheer number of knife and axe fights is Korean thriller “The Yellow Sea”, director Na Hong Jin’s follow-up to his modern classic “The Chaser”. The film follows Ha Jung Woo (who won Best Actor at the 5th Asian Film Awards for his sympathetic performance) as a desperate man up to his neck in debt, who takes on a shady job to assassinate a South Korean businessman in China. Needless to say, complications ensue, everything goes wrong, and he finds himself on the run and targeted by gangs, the police, and other killers. Na Hong Jin is quickly proving himself a master of tension, and despite a running time of over two and a half hours, “The Yellow Sea” is a breathlessly fast moving piece of hardcore action cinema, filled with intense chase scenes, mass brawls and wickedly vicious choppings and beatings. Grim, downbeat and believable, the film stands out not only due to its exhilarating set pieces, but its wonderful collection of offbeat, dog eat dog characters, Na Hong adding a cruelly humanistic edge to the proceedings and painting a tough, though not hopeless picture of life in the gutter.
Revenge: A Love Story
Hong Kong also blazed a bloody trail in 2011 with “Revenge: A Love Story”, another exploitation outing from Josie Ho’s 852 Films, following Pang Ho Cheung’s wonderfully gruesome 2010 slasher “Dream Home”. Co-written and directed by Wong Ching Po (“Jiang Hu”), the film features pop singer Juno Mak in the difficult lead role as a murderer who stalks and kills pregnant women in revenge for the horrific rape of his mentally challenged high school girlfriend (top Japanese AV star Sola Aoi). Far less straightforward and more artistically inclined than its premise might suggest, the film sees Wong Ching Po combining bloody and sadistic set pieces with philosophical concerns, and is all the more entertaining for its frequent dives into abstract meaningfulness. Exceptionally unpleasant in places, the film really isn’t one for viewers without strong stomachs, though in its defence does use its extremely graphic content as part of a powerful mediation on the nature of revenge and the self destructiveness of the human condition.
I’m honestly surprised and disappointed that more people didn’t take to David Gordon Green’s foul mouthed medieval stoner comedy “Your Highness”. With an awesome cast headlined by Danny McBride, Natalie Portman, James Franco and Justin Theroux, though admittedly puerile at times, the film shows the same kind of genuine camaraderie as the director’s equally enjoyable “Pineapple Express”, and is a godsend for anyone who grew up watching the likes of “Krull”, “Hawk the Slayer” and “The Beastmaster” and wondered why everyone in them always seemed to be so polite. With the cast all seeming to be having a fine old time, McBride and Franco in particular, the film is awesomely bawdy fun, and appeals by offering up a protagonist who I, and I would suspect many others can relate to, being a man who considers himself charming and witty, but who is in fact mainly just rude.
“Drive” is undoubtedly the film most likely to be prolific on critics’ end of year lists, an effortlessly slick thriller that harks back to the glory days of Walter Hill and Michael Mann. With Ryan Gosling on great form as the man with no name stuntman and getaway driver protagonist and impeccable support from Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman the mobster villains of the piece, the show really belongs to Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, who by now surely must be ranked as one of the most exciting helmers working anywhere in the world. Channelling the casual though shocking violence of his early nihilistic “Pusher” series and the art house brutality of “Valhalla Rising”, the atmospherically neon vibed, LA set film is exactly the kind of tough, near mythical action cinema that Hollywood used to do so well. A film which only gets more effective with repeated viewings, it’s a certain future cult favourite which will hopefully launch Refn’s career into the stratosphere where he absolutely belongs.
Another director on top of his game in 2011 was Korean helmer Ryoo Seung Wan, whose corruption thriller “The Unjust” builds upon excellent previous outings such as “City of Violence”, “Crying Fist” and the hilarious “Dachimawa Lee”. An uncompromisingly cynical flaying of the Korean justice system, it sees Hwang Jung Min and the director’s brother Ryoo Seung Bum as a cop and prosecutor facing off against each other and using every dirty trick possible to further their own aims, bending and breaking the law in their quests for self-gain. Combining a highly intelligent script, brutal action scenes and powerhouse performances from the cast, the film explores the challenging question as to whether it is possible to do worthy deeds almost in spite of a lack of morals or care for the greater good, Ryoo serving up an utterly gripping two hours that is both intellectually challenging and viscerally entertaining.
Guilty of Romance
Any year with a film released by Japanese poet pervert auteur Sono Sion is a good year. 2011 saw the cinematic genius (a term not used lightly, but deservedly, as anyone who has seen his “Suicide Club”, “Love Exposure” or last year’s “Cold Fish” can attest) completing his thematic ‘Hate Trilogy’ with serial murder drama “Guilty of Romance”. Another piece charting the disturbing darker recesses of identity and sexuality, the film begins with the discovery of a hideously mutilated female corpse, and goes on in flashback to chart the transformation of the gorgeous Megumi Kagurazaka from repressed housewife to empowered/corrupted porn star and prostitute. The power of the film lays in its refusal to offer a clear message or philosophy, depicting desire as both something which tortures and frees its wretched characters, showing a cruel sense of humour as it delights in their tragic fates. Violent and openly courting accusations of misogyny, the film is a tough nut to crack, with Sono throwing in colourful and hallucinogenic visuals in a dance of demonic depravity. A ferociously provocative affair, whilst the film’s lack of any obvious moral compass or judgement may throw viewers looking for easy answers, it’s a masterpiece of ambiguous horror that is certain to be enjoyed by fans of his earlier works – sadly, I’ve only been able to see the director approved international cut, which clocks in at 112 minutes instead of the 144 minute version screened at Cannes.