Now, I was asked to compile my Top 10 films for the Radio Times website a couple of weeks. I found I couldn’t reduce the year in film down to ten choices, so I did 12. Well, I’ve had a couple of weeks to adjust, and I’ve seen two more films that deserve recognition, so I’ve decided to go nuts and expand it to a Top 20. This has, it turns out, been a good year for films.
Ryan Gosling had an amazing year – especially in terms of being fancied by heterosexual men – but although The Ides of March, Crazy, Stupid Love and Blue Valentine (in which we see him as a balding, paunchy, older version of himself) showed him off, this was the film that surely anointed him as one of the most exciting, sexy, subtle actors of our time: as a driver-for-hire in Nicolas Winding-Refn’s superstylised LA-set thriller, Quentin Tarantino-like in its sheer arrogance. Although horribly violent in places, it’s the shock of these scenes that holds the power, and subsequent viewings – which Drive merits – cauterise their repulsion factor, and you can watch with your eyes wide open. (Interestingly, I have never seen a Winding-Refn film before, despite having his Pusher films on DVD in my cupboard.)
2. The Artist
Didn’t see this one coming, but I’m glad I waited until the actual end of the year before carving this list into stone tablets. It exists in a category all of its own, and stands apart from the rest of the list (while there is a lot of crossover between other pictures, whether in terms of casting or theme).
3. A Separation
An Iranian film that pushed back the boundaries of what could be portrayed in a kitchen-sink drama in a still-oppressive country, this was a tantalising glimpse into the world of day-to-day middle-class life in Tehran, in which a couple simply seek a divorce in the face of a patriarchal society. If a film can be a window on another culture, then Asghar Fahardi’s domestic drama is it. An education in the most enlightening sense of the word.
It still feels odd to recommend a film that’s violent, harrowing and depressing but Paddy Considine’s feature-length directorial debut is not a film you’ll forget easily. It’s always on my mind. Peter Mullan, Olivia Colman and Eddie Marsan are superb as a triangle of damaged souls, whose individual calamities seem insoluble. In the best tradition of British film-making. Makes This Is England ’88 seem like a sitcom. Avoid if you find implied violence towards dogs difficult to stomach.
Arguably Lars von Trier’s best work, certainly his most visually sumptuous; an end-of-the-world disaster movie combined with a Mike Leigh-style wedding reception from hell. I found it profound and moving, and actually very scary. Best thing Kirsten Dunst has done, too.
6. Animal Kingdom
As if we needed any more proof that the Australian film industry was in tip-top shape, this brooding, tense but thoroughly believable suburban crime drama was a smash hit in Oz in 2010 (released here in February this year) and earned Jacki Weaver, as the Melbourne family matriarch, an Oscar nomination.
7. The Deep Blue Sea
Terence Davies, a unique British talent who stays away for too long at a time, provided the year’s most torridly romantic film in his liberty-taking adaptation of the 1952 Terrence Rattigan play set in bombed-out, postwar London. Rachel Weisz is impeccable, rising star Tom Hiddleston (also seen in Archipelago, Midnight in Paris and, less probably, Thor) even looks like a 1950s matinee idol.
8. The Guard
An Irish film in all but funding – and its talented writer-director John Michael McDonagh (brother of Martin) is actually London Irish by birth – this low-budget, Connemara-set police buddy movie is all heart. Witty and scurrilous by turns, it gives Brendan Gleeson a homegrown role that only he could properly play as a Galway Garda visited by Don Cheadle’s FBI man to help bust a drug ring. This is where I like to go on holiday, so it gave me real pangs in a year when I couldn’t afford to go on holiday.
9. Kill List
More horrible violence, but narratively justified in Ben Wheatley’s follow-up to the low-budget Down Terrace (which I’ve never seen), in which two hitmen get mixed up in something far nastier than they imagined. Like Melancholia, it goes for the Mike Leigh vibe early on, but mutates into something else. Seems like it was a good year for British, and Irish, cinema, with emergent, original talent everywhere you looked (Joe Cornish, Richard Ayoade). You may need to avert your eyes, at least once. I did.
10. Meek’s Cutoff
I love a modern western, and Kelly Reichardt’s dusty, authentic Oregon Trail fable was the height of visual splendour and languid storytelling. Michelle Williams – also fantastic in Blue Valentine; I’ve not yet seen her in My Week With Marilyn – might be America’s most reliable screen actress.
11. We Need to Talk About Kevin
Our own Lynne Ramsay made her American debut with this stark and inventive telling of Lionel Shriver’s bestselling novel about the gulf between mother and first-born son. It’s actually a UK/US co-production, and it stars Tilda Swinton, but the subject matter is definitively American: high-school shootings. Ramsay finds beauty amid all the hate and violence.
Documentary of the year, in a crowded field, Asif Kapadia’s skillful and compelling montage of Formula One star Ayrton Senna’s firework-like ten-year Grand Prix career, which ended in tragedy, tells its tale without narration, using only existing footage and spoken testimony. I hate motor racing, and I was gripped.
13. The Tree of Life
With Terence Davies and Terrence Malick back in the same year, somebody is spoiling us. Malick also takes his time between films, but really pulled one out of the hat with an apocalyptic tale that takes us back to 1950s America and uses abstract, scientific imagery to suggest the creation of life and its apparent doom. Heavy stuff, but how nice for US cinema to produce something this challenging.
14. Another Earth
I mentioned to Peter Bradshaw that I thought he was too hard on this debut feature from Mike Cahill – he gave it two stars in the Guardian – and he said that maybe he expected too much from its premise. I had lower expectations, although I was intrigued by the trailer, and I felt it hit the spot. A moving and philosophically provocative slice of no-budget sci-fi.
15. True Grit
Easy to take this for granted, but another modern western that – like all the best modern westerns – loves the old westerns. The Coen Brothers on top form.
16. Take Shelter
Of a piece with Melancholia, Contagion and The Tree Of Life – and even Another Earth – for its interest in the end of the world and more cosmic matters than, say, a global recession, this was director Jeff Nichols proving himself a talent to watch, with Michael Shannon perfectly cast as the Ohio engineer plagued by apocalyptic visions that may, or may not, be rooted in a genuine approaching storm.
It’s been a good – and bad – year from dogs in film. They were being strangled in Wuthering Heights and kicked to death in Tyrannosaur, while Uggie the Jack Russell in The Artist and Cosmo the Jack Russell in Beginners, were having much more meaningful roles, and saving the day. The latter, from writer/director Mike Mills (not that one), is the kind of American indie that gives the economic imperative-cum-genre a good name. Best thing Ewan McGregor’s done for ages, and Christopher Plummer as his gay dad might well find himself Oscar-nominated.
Timely dramatisation of a global pandemic in which everybody is famous, this was a modern day disaster movie that might have been made especially for me. Stephen Soderbergh will be sadly missed if he really does retire to paint, as he’s threatening.
19. The Skin I Live In
A film whose imagery has stayed with me, Pedro Almodovar’s tribute to 1930s “mad professor” horror movies inevitably manages to work in transgender issues and rape, and although not as obviously ravishing as Volver, packed with audacious ideas.
20. X-Men: First Class
You see? Credit where credit’s due. A comic-book sci-fi blockbuster can find its way into my Top 20.
The next 10: Archipelago; Blue Valentine; 127 Hours; Pina; Sarah’s Key; Dreams Of A Life; 13 Assassins; Salt of Life; George Harrison: Living in the Material World; Black Swan
Worst film of the year: The Tourist