As we head for 2012 with awards season looming large, it seems appropriate to take a look at the last twelve months and let you know what we liked, loved and were simply blown away by.
First though, the ones we loved that didn’t quite make the final ten.
Whatever your thoughts on boxing as a sport, it was difficult not to get swept up in David O. Russell’s biographical drama, with Mark Wahlberg putting in a solid display as Mickey Ward, bolstered by a supporting cast bursting at the seams with star turns, most notably from Melissa Leo and Christian Bale, who each clinched hard-earned Oscars for their performances. A film as much about family conflicts and the trappings of notoriety as it was about the sport itself, this was a real triumph.
A film destined to lurk just below the mainstream in the UK because of its subject matter, Moneyball tells the true story of the man who revolutionised baseball in a manner few could have imagined possible. Pushing the sport itself to the periphery in favour of numerous intensely dialogue-driven scenes, Social Network writer Aaron Sorkin does little to harm his reputation as one of America’s finest and wittiest humorists here, and while it’s good to see Brad Pitt continue to try new things, it’s Jonah Hill who’s Oscar-worthy here as awkward numbers man Peter Brand.
As adaptations go, a book written in the form of memoirs spanning decades with mysterious corrective footnotes is up there with the most challenging. However, Barney’s Version sailed through, combining excellent performances from Paul Giamatti and Rosamund Pike with a sharply funny script and a narrative that only occasionally came off as a little fragmented.
So unfortunate as it is, there’s no room in our top ten for any of those. With that in mind, here are the ones that did make the cut.
10. We Need To Talk About Kevin
An artistically immaculate adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s bestselling novel, We Need To Talk About Kevin is a superbly acted film which might provide us with the scariest story about parenting ever told. Jumping chronologically between past and present, it tells the story of Eva (Tilda Swinton, in a turn that deserves recognition from the Academy), a mother coping with the atrocity committed by her son, and the fallout it caused. Swinton steals the show here, but Ezra Miller earmarks himself as a name to watch with a genuinely unsettling portrayal of the titular character. In terms of how it sits in relation to the book, it’s not without its flaws, but uniformly great performances, smart direction and stunning cinematography still make this one of the year’s best.
9. It’s Kind Of A Funny Story
This gentle, warm-hearted adaptation of Ned Vizzini’s novel was afforded an unfortunately limited theatrical run on these shores, but those who found it were treated to one of the year’s most uplifting films. Essentially the story of a suicidal teenager learning how to enjoy life and develop a sense of perspective during a short stint in a mental institution, this is a story stuffed with lovable, brilliantly-sketched characters and a trio of excellent performances from Emma Roberts, Zach Galifianakis and newcomer Keir Gilchrist. Loosely based on Vizzini’s own experience in such a facility, and boasting the year’s finest musical sequence, this is a must-see.
8. The Ides of March
Although it might come eighth in our list, The Ides of March easily runs away with the award for best ensemble cast of the year. Outstanding performances from George Clooney, Ryan Gosling, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood meant this was never likely to miss, and this story of an idealistic young campaign manager navigating a world of lies and betrayal was pretty much guaranteed to register as the direct hit it was.
7. Another Earth
While most of the praise for dramatic sci-fi this year is being reserved for Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, Mike Cahill’s Another Earth offered a more relatable story with more emotional impact. Keeping a fairly major sci-fi-influenced plot point very much in the background until the final act, the story of a developing friendship between a man and a woman who (unbeknownst to him) was responsible for the death of his wife and child carried plenty of dramatic impact, with the existential element posing real, worthwhile philosophical questions. A work of impressive scale that somehow managed to remain completely free of pretentiousness.
6. Never Let Me Go
Adapting Kazuo Ishiguro’s unrelentingly bleak best-seller was bound to prove tricky, but Never Let Me Go‘s modest performance at the box office had less to do with its quality and more to do with the heavy subject matter. Outstanding performances from Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield and some restrained direction from Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo) meant that this mirrored the tone of the novel with ease, and provided us with something whose very success hinged on its understated nature.
Effortlessly sidestepping all the risks inherent in making a comedy film about a cancer patient, 50/50 balances the laughs and the sentiment to dazzling effect, telling the story of Adam Learner, a young journalist in perfect health who is diagnosed with a tumour on his spine. Joseph Gordon-Levitt fills Adam’s shoes with the kind of sure-footedness we’ve come to expect from him, while supporting performances from Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick, Anjelica Huston and Bryce Dallas Howard keep things afloat. Commendable for dealing with such a uniformly bleak topic with respect, humour and an emotional steady hand, this was 2011′s finest comedy.
4. Win Win
Writer director Thomas McCarthy kept his near-unbelievable hot streak going this year with Win Win, a moving drama littered with gently comedic moments. As good as his first two features (The Station Agent and The Visitor), this story about the complications even the best-intentioned of us can encounter was elegant in its simplicity, and boasted a typically brilliant performance from Paul Giamatti, who’s choosing gold-standard projects as he ages with alarming precision. Also, be sure to check out the theme song ‘Think You Can Wait’, an original song from Brooklyn indie overlords The National.
3. Black Swan
Just barely making the cut with its early January release, Darren Aronofsky produced one of the year’s most unsettling efforts with Black Swan, an intensely theatrical and unapologetically insane psychological thriller about the mental disintegration of a ballerina. Natalie Portman produced the performance of a lifetime here and clinched an Oscar in the process, but this film’s success is equally as reliant on Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassell, Aronofsky’s direction and Clint Mansell’s haunting score.
While cinema history is littered with revenge stories of various kinds, there are very few like Confessions, Tetsuya Nakamura’s tale of a scorned teacher exacting a devastatingly calculated revenge against the students who killed her young daughter. Visually arresting with a fresh, original approach to storytelling, it boasts one of the best (and longest) opening sequences in recent memory, and a genuinely shocking twist ending. Bold, dark, and brilliant.
For as many gems as the last twelve months have thrown up, nothing comes close to Drive, Nicolas Winding Refn’s meditative, atmospheric and shockingly violent adaptation of James Sallis’ novel. Ryan Gosling plays the unnamed Driver unwittingly thrown into a world of mob protection deals gone wrong, and not only emerges as the finest actor of his generation but the star of 2011′s real masterpiece. It’s scenes of startlingly graphic violence will probably mean it doesn’t get quite the recognition it deserves at awards season, but if you happen to have missed this, don’t make the same mistake when it hits DVD at the end of January.