In no particular order:
A hardcore and unflinchingly brutal Australian Western set firmly in the darker recesses of the human soul and featuring one of the scummiest bunches of characters ever committed to celluloid. Despite this, John Hillcoat’s film manages some startling moments of serene beauty and genuine poetry, helped by a biblical script and haunting soundtrack from the legendary Nick Cave.
Bong Joon Ho’s creature feature set the Korean box office alight and charmed critics around the world with its smart, surprising mixture of special effects thrills and heartfelt family drama. Although the story is simplistic, he works in levels of depth and social commentary in a manner rarely seen in the genre, if ever.
Curse of the Golden Flower
Zhang Yimou returns to the big budget epic to reclaim his crown with a fantastically gripping piece of psychotic soap opera and devious scheming. Helped by a dream cast including Gong Li and Chow Yun Fat on top form, he not only delivers the expected grand spectacle, but matches it with fascinating, if hateful characters and wonderfully twisted plotting.
Dog Bite Dog
Easily the most vicious film of the year, this tale of men as animals confirms Soi Cheang’s growing reputation as one of Hong Kong’s most interesting directors, as well as proving that Sam Lee, and more shockingly, Edison Chen can actually act. Punishing and unforgiving throughout, the film is a darkly thrilling trip though the filthy back alleys and waste strewn badlands of the city with lashings of violence that is anything but glamorised.
Children of Men
Alfonso Cuaron’s film is science fiction at its best, set in a not too distant and all too believable future and exploring human nature and politics in a way which is somehow both bleak and steadfastly hopeful. Clive Owen is perfect as the nihilistic, world weary lead, though what surprises most about the film is just how cinematic and thrilling it is, containing some gripping action and explosive set pieces amongst the angst-ridden drama.
Guillermo del Toro’s film is amongst the top picks of the year for most critics, and with good reason, being one of the few labelled as a ‘dark fairytale’ to really live up to its billing. Delightful and wondrous, the film is captivatingly imaginative, with del Toro hitting a perfect balance between weird fantasy creatures and believable human characters. One of the few truly magical experiences of the last few years, it makes for beautiful, moving viewing and is likely to stick in the mind and heart for years to come.
A Dirty Carnival
Yu Ha’s long awaited follow up to his classic “Once Upon a Time in High School” provides what is perhaps the final word in Korean gangster dramas. Painfully human and completely engrossing, it mixes action and honest drama in a lyrical way which sets it above the many similarly themed efforts which were also released last year.
No Mercy for the Rude
This Korean film is probably the year’s closest thing to “Oldboy” or “A Bittersweet Life”, being a hip, stylishly violent tale of a mute hitman with the requisite amount of quirkiness and twisted plotting. Thankfully, director Park Cheol Hie plays things straight and although quite possibly designed with international cult appeal in mind, the film is gritty and surprising as well as entertaining.
Although it was unlikely that Johnny To’s follow up to his much loved “The Mission” would ever live up to the hype, it certainly comes close, and sees the director continue the rich vein of form he has been in following his excellent “Election” and its sequel. The film is as thoughtful as it is violent, and makes the best of its cast of Hong Kong favourites not only during its stylish slow motion shoot outs, but in its quieter moments of camaraderie and contemplation.
Not only the best horror film of the year, but the best drinking film as well – in fact, hard liquor should probably be made mandatory to maximise viewing pleasure. One of the very few horror comedies which is actually funny without sacrificing scares or gore, both of which it has a-plenty, along with some great creature design and gooey action.