Taking stock: It has almost become an obligation when the end of the year approaches. For some strange reason this year, train breakdowns and flash floods seem somewhat more spectacular than what local cinemas had to offer here in Singapore. While chaos happened in the real world, the lights go out in the cinema halls. And that’s when this reviewer laughed, cried, reminisced, fell in love, reflected on life – hoping to find that rainbow connection. Here’s his top 10 of the year – enjoy.
Life’s a happy song, that’s the philosophy THE MUPPETS wants us to walk away with after watching them sing and dance. James Bobin’s movie is a perfect package: Charm, entertainment, heart and most importantly, an apt homage to Jim Henson’s beloved characters.
Danny Boyle may not have won that Oscar, but his movie about a mountain climber who becomes trapped under a boulder is a triumphant tale. 127 HOURS (screened theatrically in 2011 here) is a story about survival, one that came alive, thanks to Boyle’s bold vision.
Cannes' Palme d'Or winner THE TREE OF LIFE will never fully be understood, and director Terence Malick probably wants to keep it that way. That’s what is so intriguingly wonderful about this film – every time you view it, it gives you a different take on life.
The wild success of Giddens Ko’s YOU ARE THE APPLE OF MY EYE is not surprising. The Taiwanese movie has got a story everyone can relate to, and who doesn’t love an ensemble cast who reminds you of the crush you used to have?
It’s almost tragic when you are “warned” at the ticketing counter that Michel Hazanavicius’ THE ARTIST is in black and white and contains no dialogue. It’s even more tragic when you step into a cinema and find less than 20 people watching this tribute to the silent film era. But the smiles this French production brings to your face are all it matters.
BIUTIFUL (screened theatrically in 2011 here) tells the story of Uxbal, a man living in this world, but able to see his death. The Spanish film is director Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu’s most engaging to date, and it helps that Cannes best actor Javier Bardem portrays a man viewers truly cared about.
Tom Lin’s STARRY STARRY NIGHT captures the spirit of illustrator Jimmy Liao’s picture book, and does more by having its characters experiencing what growing up is all about. The Taiwanese film is pretty to look at, and with some effort, you will find that bittersweet memory chucked in some corner.
What? A list without any Pixar film? Cars 2 was a tad disappointing, but Steven Spielberg’s THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN turned out to be a pleasant surprise. The 3D animation is a fun adventure across continents. We can’t wait for the sequel.
Rain will never look romantic in Singapore, so viewers will have to make do by watching films like Woody Allen’s MIDNIGHT IN PARIS. Walking in the rain in Paris, meeting icons like Salvador Dali and Cole Porter? It’s an experience only film can provide.
Jiang Wen’s LET THE BULLETS FLY (screened theatrically in 2011 here) has so many twists and turns, it made viewers grip their seats, laugh their hears out and wondering how a story about a bandit chief can be this wacky. You’d love the showdown between Jiang and his on screen nemesis Chow Yun Fat.
Just as it was last year, an American remake of an already sturdy horror film creeps onto this list. A classic vampire movie from 1985 gets an update and loses nothing in the translation. FRIGHT NIGHT is proof of the value that smart remakes can have during our ever changing social landscape. In this case, it minimises the nostalgia (save for a pleasantly surprising Chris Sarandon cameo) and with intensely wrought set-pieces, focuses on contemporary familial anxieties, so far removed from the original’s unsettlingly calm Reagan-era suburban realities. Another horror film sits beside it at the start of this list. This one proudly drenches itself in horror classicism -- INSIDIOUS uses old-school techniques to devastatingly effective results as the team of James Wan and Leigh Whannell from the “Saw” franchise demonstrates supreme control over the genre by juxtaposing strikingly unnerving imagery with the jangled psyche of a family in siege by demonic forces.
Honour and moral codes line up a pair of combustible American neo-noir thrillers – DRIVE is an exquisitely rendered masterwork by Danish crime auteur Nicolas Winding Refn who incredibly pushes the boundaries of sustained tension and stylistic throwbacks that only a true cinephile would have dared attempted. Tarantino, this is how it’s done. Next up is WINTER'S BONE, a film that finds a poetic realism in the Ozarks, where clan lines are drawn and a vivid picture is drawn through a young woman’s audacious struggle to break with treachery and hostility when she searches for a bail-bond skipping father. As if suspended in the time, the environment takes on an air of menace, pervading every frame of this exceptional film that exudes the truest nature of an independent American feature, earning its principle stars (Jennifer Lawrence and John Hawkes) Oscar nominations in the process.
There’s something to be said for cinema being a medium that continuously keeps the past alive through its penchant for recreating idealised memories through celluloid ruminations. BEGINNERS, Mike Millis’ beautiful autobiography achieves a striking tone in its trenchant melancholia and stirring uplift that in its moments of graceful revelations present wise truths about our lives and the people around us as we examine memories through the filter of our continuum of experiences in the grief of loss and the joy of rediscovering.
Perhaps then it’s only fitting that we travel back in time to the Golden Age of the 1920s, not once but twice this year through two remarkable films that ignite the source of all our artistic passions. French writer-director Michel Hazanavicius brings us a gentle paean to the era of filmmaking that started it all in THE ARTIST. A near-silent homage that’s at once charming and altogether disarming in how ecumenical its presentation endeavours to be through a crafty sense of performance and affectation, introducing the Fairbanks-esque star appeal of the impossibly dashing Jean Dujardin to the world. Merely a skip away in time and space is Woody Allen’s best film in a decade. MIDNIGHT IN PARIS is his achingly poignant reminder of the way things used to be and also a touching paean to the way things are. Like a page out of his private journal, Allen observes the importance of owning your place in the world and brings about pure magic for the artistic soul by being intellectually and emotionally fulfilling all at once.
Old masters and new masters continue stretching the direction of the medium this year. In the 2010 Palme d'Or winning UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES, Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul has elevated himself into a true visionary. Cinema becomes the dreamscapes of our lives and this document becomes a resonant fever dream redolent of love, acceptance, illusion and other kaleidoscopic themes. He has made a humble but deeply felt film about the vagaries of our soul's migration between realms but what emerges is an experience that emerges us in the cosmic canvas, revealing the divinity inherent in nature and being -- a remarkable and beguiling meditation on life, art and the soul.
In similar vein but wholly different modes, Terrence Malick’s magnum opus, THE TREE OF LIFE begins a gentle observation of the relationship between father and son before spinning a narrative as discursive and all-consuming as the nature of the time itself as he explores the nuances of existence to reflect, not only on the self and life, but also the intrinsic history and interconnectedness with the universes beyond our purview. Ultimately, the film becomes one that floats in the ether, becoming more than just codified expressions of beauty (filmed by a godly Emmanuel Lubezki) but a sublime study of disarticulated frailty and something that becomes a genuine cinematic experience that transcends the screen and into our souls. These films expanded the scope of cinema and showed us the future of the medium.
The final film on this list reaffirms the place of cinema not just as art but also one that operates on the level of popular fare for the mainstream, touching the hearts and minds through raw emotions and a shared level of immersion. Gavin O’Connor’s WARRIOR places among the best of sports films ever made. It is rare that such a clearly defined genre movie has such thematic depth and narrative grace, blending in top tier performances with a truly compelling story of a father’s redemption and desperate siblings at war. Extending a generous spirit towards the harsh times we live in, the film looks beyond common tropes, finding a dreamy and gripping hard-boiled style. The action delivers an intense wallop with terrific rollercoaster pacing.
Despite my assertions that none of these films actually have a true order of preference to them in that any of them could be top at any given day depending on context, the following are another 10 films that could have made the cut on this list:
RABBIT HOLE / THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT / RANGO / SUCKER PUNCH / WEST IS WEST / MADE IN DAGENHAM / X-MEN: FIRST CLASS / HEREAFTER / RED DOG / HORRIBLE BOSSES
Instead of numbering my top 10 movies of the year, I prefer to pick 10 of them without any order so here goes:
Tom Cruise owns December with his MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE GHOST PROTOCOL. Expect high-octane action sequences, breath-taking stunts and the directorial debut of Brad Bird which is an A by the way. The most under-watched movie of 2011 belongs to WARRIOR with its rich MMA action, absorbing performances from Nick Nolte, Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton, it's a must watch!
When it comes to superheroes, THOR deserves a spot in the list. The hammer-wielding, blonde-hair superhero comes alive under the direction of Kenneth Branagh, the unlikely choice to helm an action movie but he proved us wrong. After years in development hell, X-MEN: FIRST CLASS finally passed with flying colours. Matthew Vaughn got us glued to the saga where it all began, the history of two iconic characters, Professor X and Magneto.
Do we need a thinking man sci-fi movie each year? Absolutely. Duncan Jones’ sophomore effort, SOURCE CODE definitely deserved multiple viewings to truly grasp its premise and believe me the ending will have you gasping.
A great number of animation titles graced the screen each year and RANGO is the one I highly recommend for 2011. It’s mostly unpredictable, clever and filled with uncompromising visuals. This debut animation from renowned animation house, ILM is a hoot and did I mention a certain pirate named Johnny Depp voices Rango?
Peter Chan’s WU XIA is the only HK movie in the Top 10 list. The star of the movie is in fact not Donnie Yen but Chan’s own spin on the wu xia pian genre. Combining mesmerising storytelling, a superb cast and brutal martial arts, Wu Xia stood out as the best HK movie of 2011. The teen hit comedy from Taiwan, YOU ARE THE APPLE OF MY EYE scores a homerun with its laugh-out-loud gags ranging anything from puppy love, exams, friendship and errr..masturbation.
Prequels are normally monkey business probably a gimmick to attract ticket sales to an established franchise. Surprise, surprise, RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES rises among the slew of prequels and remakes with its overall intensity and ultra-believable CGI chimpanzees to a deserving spot.
After a decade long feud with the dark side, everyone’s favourite wizard boy, Harry Potter finally gets a showdown with his nemesis, Lord Voldemort in the concluding chapter, HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOW PART 2. Meticulous craftsmanship, wondrous CG effects and nostalgia completes audience’s magical journey.
Other recommended titles outside the Top 10 include FAST & FURIOUS 5 / CRAZY STUPID LOVE / 30 MINUTES OR LESS / SUCKSEED / REAL STEEL
10 of the worst this year, that shameful waste of celluloid that had the audacity to be screened to paying audiences anywhere around the world, and to think that almost half belonged to our sunny little island. Are we facing a dearth of ideas, or are we reaching a saturation point where local films no longer are of respectable quality, and that anything goes so long as they can try to make a quick buck at the box office?
2359 by Gilbert Chan was riddled with horror film cliches and complete disregard to army protocols despite it being touted as an army horror story, with weak scares generated and would have found a proper place should it be rebranded as an accidental comedy. How it made more than a million dollars is plain baffling. Lee Nanxing's THE ULTIMATE WINNER was so overtly preaching religion, with its television qualities just being overwhelming, that it became a turnoff even without its illogical plot making things worst, while Han Yew Kwang, responsible for some of the best independent local films of late, had to make the largely derivative PERFECT RIVALS. Pure laziness was seen in AKU TAK BODOH which adapted lock, stock and barrel from Jack Neo's I Not Stupid Too, down to the dated jokes. Neo's protege Boris Boo could have worked harder on this, but is developing a knack for making cinematic flops. Whether he completes a hat-trick with another bottom 10 entry in 2012 remains to be seen, but my money's on it.
Big names do not guarantee success as well, with James Cameron's name attached to SANCTUM which sunk no thanks to the weight of its illogical moments the characters seem to get themselves into. DREAM HOUSE had famous acting thespians but not even they can stop the film from becoming a real bore with external meddling and finally being a film that didn't know what genre it wanted to play in. LEGENDARY AMAZONS that had the likes of veterans Cheng Pei Pei, Kathy Chow and heralded the return of Cecelia Cheung was funny, then you realize it was supposed to be all serious, and with Jackie Chan's producing cred, you'd half expect him to come up with some money to complete all the raw CG effects, and to have proper location shoots than to film fight scenes under multiple spotlights in a soundstage.
Others are boiled down to the characters that make the movie a stinker, with BEASTLY proudly telling the story of an arrogant prick, THE TWILIGHT SAGA: BREAKING DAWN PART 1 making Bella so desperate in getting her cherry popped, and FIST OF DRAGON just making kung-fu flicks look bad with a non-charismatic male lead who wore too many hats in his first feature outing with responsibility in writing and directing as well. All these films should be avoided with a ten foot pole, but if you're up for some comedy and post-screening bitching session, then by all means pick up any of these films to do just that.
The language of film is universal, and that means a bad film is a bad film no matter where it comes from. Yet it is also no coincidence that five out of ten of the worst ten films for this reviewer came from the now synonymous HK/ China industry. Not that we hold such big-budget co-productions in disdain, but HK filmmakers need to preserve some semblance of artistic integrity even as they venture where the money flows and pander to Mainland sensibilities.
Top of the list (and mind you, there’s little honour in this) goes to director Frankie Chan’s LEGENDARY AMAZONS, an awfully-written, appallingly-directed period war epic that tramples on the legend of the Yang family and then some. From bad CGI, to ill-conceived stunts, to cringe-worthy overacting, it deserves to be remembered only as an exercise in how not to make a film. And yes, this was supposed to be Cecilia Cheung’s big comeback vehicle! Much as we’d like to exonerate Cecilia for being rusty in the acting department after a five-year hiatus, it’s extremely difficult when she’s also headlining Wong Jing’s TREASURE HUNT, a film aimed squarely at kids with their brains removed.
Unintentionally hilarious too was the Peking opera epic MY KINGDOM, whose second half was so incoherent and overplotted that we wanted to walk out right away. On the other hand, Gordon Chan’s MURAL was so underwritten that we could not figure out what the point of it all was by the end of the movie- except for being a pastiche of Hollywood-style special effects. The same could be said of Wilson Yip’s MAGIC TO WIN, a clumsy attempt by a top-notch HK director to revive the ’Happy Ghost’ franchise. For Wilson’s career’s sake, he’d better be making ‘Ip Man 3’ sometime soon.
Hollywood too was similarly deserving of blame for thinking Thanksgiving came early. Turkeys came in the form of Frank Coraci’s ZOOKEEPER, where even the jovial Kevin James couldn’t inject life into another tired talking-animals family-comedy routine. The cash-grab attempt by the Weinstein brothers at milking their past successes was all too apparent right at the start- and getting Robert Rodriguez to go at yet another SPY KIDS 4D: ALL THE TIME IN THE WORLD or Mike Disa to HOODWINKED TOO: HOOD VS EVIL their audiences just didn’t work.
Finally, our very own Li Nanxing also deserves a spot on this chart for his directorial debut THE ULTIMATE WINNER. Amply showing his inexperience both as a writer and a director, Li also was responsible for exploiting his past ‘The Unbeatables’ fame for rehashing another sub-par morality tale built around the ills of gambling. What further irked us was the outright proselytising so clumsily handled it should have been flagged out as consumer advice. Suffice to say it wasn’t a winner by any shot, especially when you consider its box-office returns.
It hasn’t been a great year for film- a lot of movies were just middling- but with ‘The Avengers’, ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ and ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’ coming along, 2012 promises to be even better.