While most blogs/sites post their “best of the year so far” lists in June, I like to wait until August – with good reason. You see, we here at Sound On Sight cover various film festivals across the globe. Five of the biggest fests (Sundance, SXSW, Cannes, Tribeca and Fantasia) all take place before August, while five other major fests (The New York Film Fest, Fantastic Fest, TIFF, Festival Du Nouveau Cinema, BFI London) all begin sometime in September or later. And since their are so few good films theatrically released in the first three or four months of the year, I feel like August is the best time to post this list. It gives us one more opportunity to further promote these great movies, before they are drowned out by all the major players heading our way. Before you read my list, there are a few things you should know. There are several films I have not yet seen (Take Shelter, Drive, We Need To Talk About Kevin, Martha Marcy May Marlene… to name a few), since I’ve been holding off for TIFF. These will most likely appear on my list at the end of the year. Finally it should also be noted that while many films had a theatrical release in 2011, I was fortunate enough to see them at film fests in 2010 (Tucker And Dale, Incendies, etc.). Lists are always tricky and they do drive me nuts since I will most likely want to come back and change it in a few days. In any case, here are my favourite films of 2011… so far. Oh and remember folks, most of these films have been reviewed on our podcast. Enjoy!
19 – Trollhunter
The latest venture into the realm of the mockumentary, Tollhunter, marks the sophomore effort for director Andre Øvredal, who had previously co-directed the psychological thriller Future Murder (2000). The high-concept mock-doc follows three students as they discover Norway’s biggest conspiracy: a government-run effort to keep the country’s troll population secret. Trollhunter works on a number of levels: fairytale, fantasy, supernatural adventure, political satire, workplace comedy, but the most immediately satisfying characteristic is Ovredal’s take on Scandinavian legends.
18 – Retreat
Retreat might not be a perfect film, but it is a well-constructed and closely observed claustrophobic thriller that continually teases its audience to uncover the truth behind all the madness. Both psychologically frightening and maddening to the senses, Retreat is a promising debut for former visual artist and now writer-director Carl Tibbetts. Watch out for Jamie Bell’s powerhouse performance, his best yet and one of the most memorable this year.
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17 – Hanna
A major departure for a director known for very proper British fare including Pride and Prejudice and Atonement, Hanna may have a few problems here and there, but as a thriller it works well as a kill-or-be-killed game of hide and seek. The spectacular photography by cinematographer Alwin Kuchler and the synth score by the Chemical Brothers rank among the best work this year. Also worth noting is the terrific, circling, clear long take in and around the subway station – one of the best Steadicam shots in any movie released in 2011.
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16 – A Lonely Place To Die
A hybrid of the Most Dangerous Game and Cliffhanger, A Lonely Place To Die is highly inventive, action packed, and chock full of and suspense. To create this truly relentless action film/gripping crime thriller, director Julian Gilbey spent years practicing to become an avid and experienced climber, in order shoot the film from impossible positions, situated in and around the Scottish mountainsides. Gilbey and cinematographer Ali Adas avoid CG and instead rely on their actors and stunt crew to do provide the thrills. Every frame of this film is in service of keeping the audience at the edge of their seats with it’s breathless nonstop pacing. This is the sort of action film I’ve been waiting years to see. Incredible.
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15 – Beyond The Black Rainbow
Director Panos Cosmatos pays loving homage to 70’s and 80’s sci-fi with his debut feature Beyond the Black Rainbow, but despite what some critics might say, Beyond The Black Rainbow is not simply a copycat pastiche. Taking influence from Richard Stanley, Stanley Kubrick, Kenneth Anger, John Carpenter, David Cronenberg and Luis Buñuel (to name a few), Cosmatos still finds plenty of room to showcase his own unique and challenging vision. Whether its slow pace, lack of narrative and strange visuals will keep your interest, depends entirely on you. Personally for me, the melting pot of ideas and visuals mixed with sci-fi and horror made for an interesting and thought-provoking experience. With his debut, Cosmatos shows great promise as a visionary director, with hope for more Canadian genre films in the near future.
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The film’s title is Latin for “in the absence”, and is a legal declaration stating that a person is considered deceased if their whereabouts have been unknown for an extended period of time. Mike Flanagan’s Kickstarter-funded horror flick was the biggest surprise of the year. An instant indie gem from a director to watch out for.
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13 – The Future
Written, directed and starring performing artist Miranda July, The Future, her sophomore effort, is a peculiar work. Taking on what seems to be a simple premise, The Future is a unique, at times an upsetting blend of nebulous whimsy and perceptive soul-searching. If you can get past the faux-naivete of its grown-up characters and its deadpan tone, The Future is well worth your time, and will have you thinking back on it again and again.
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12- Super 8
Writer/director J.J. Abrams teams with producer Steven Spielberg for this period sci-fi thriller set in the late ’70s, 1979 to be exact. This was a pivotal period for movie history. Only a few years earlier, Spielberg had directed the first ever summer blockbuster Jaws, and followed it up with Close Encounters and E.T. Super 8 is after all an homage by its writer/director, to its producer, the kind of high-profile movie we so rarely see these days, an old-fashioned, good-feeling summer movie spectacle that doesn’t rely on sequels, spin-offs, re-boots, adaptations, 3-D, comic tie-ins or big name movie stars. It’s also a love letter to all those with a passion for filmmaking that emerges at a young age and an offers today’s generation of movie-goers a hint of what it was like for their parents to go to a theatre during the ’70s and ’80s.
Senna is a loving document/tribute to Ayrton Senna, one of the greatest Formula One race car drivers, both on and off the track. What makes the documentary so special is that every frame of footage is 100% authentic. There are no no talking-head interviews, there is no voice-over nor any re-created footage. Not one piece of fakery was added for entertainment purposes, nor biased views. Senna evokes an honest insight into both the political side of the Formula One world, and the sheer determination of one man’s will to achieve his dreams.
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10- I Saw The Devil
Korean genre master Kim Jee-woon (A Tale of Two Sisters) has once again proven the versatility of his talent, effortlessly switching genres to craft a uniquely terrifying experience. Part police procedural and part serial killer, Kim finds surprising and exciting new ways to tell his story. As a crafty thriller and as a brutal horror film, I Saw The Devil will surely become a staple of late night festival strands.
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9- Certified Copy
After years of working on photography, poetry and more experimental films, the Iranian-writer director Abbas Kiarostami makes an engaging return to narrative cinema. He has always been enthralled by the shifting planes of fantasy and reality, and with his latest film, Certified Copy, most audiences will leave baffled. But understanding is not as important as making the effort to understand. Kiarostami never completely spells things out, leaving audiences to unravel all the film’s subtleties and mysteries themselves, using their imaginations. Audacious, radical and a genuine triumph, Certified Copy is a must see for those who like their movies challenging.
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8- Milocroze: A Love Story
Starring Takayuki Yamada (13 Assassins), playing all three male leads, Milocroze is the brainchild of Yoshimasa Ishibashi, best known for The Fuccon Family TV sketch show, featuring an all-mannequin cast. He’s spent years as a fucked up video artist, and his first feature film is unlike anything you will see this year; a plethora of styles and genres, mixed together in three separate stories about love, obsession and heartbreak. It is something you will never forget, and features one incredible long take, which just so happens to also be the best samurai sword-swinging action sequence in quite some time.
7- Hobo With A Shotgun
First-time feature director Jason Eisener and writer John Davies deliver an entertaining, comically violent throwback to low budget 70′s and 80′s genre movies. Eisener, who obviously grew up watching low-budget exploitation flicks, is clearly a visionary director with a true passion for the genre.
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6- 13 Assassins
Cult director Takeshi Miike (Ichi the Killer, Audition) delivers a bravado period action film that is both a vivid samurai drama to an absolute work of genius. The visually spectacular, stunning wide-screen cinematography, impressive full-scale sets and special effects, and incredibly immersive action scenes place 13 Assassins right up there among the finest in the genre.
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5- Attack The Block
Science-fiction movie buffs looking for a change of pace from Hollywood fare will appreciate this thoroughly entertaining but clever low-budget British action-comedy. On its surface, Attack the Block is about unlikely heroes saving the world from an alien invasion, but it’s really a metaphor for all the obstacles these kids face on a daily basis. Without a doubt the most energetic and fun screening at this year’s Fantasia Film Festival.
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4- Night Fishing
Clocking in at only 33 minutes, Night Fishing is by far one of the best films of the year; a surprisingly polished work by director Park Chan-wook (Oldboy) and his brother Park Chan-kyong that is shot entirely on the iPhone 4. Millions of people own iPhones, but few have the talent to use them and create such beauty as done here by a bonafide filmmaker. Watch the opening clip below to get an idea of just how brilliant this film is.
3- The Artist
French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius’ irresistibly delightful black and white silent film is not only a tribute to Hollywood’s silent movie days, but a story of evolution and adaptation. This made-in-L.A. French feature will enchant cinephiles with its striking black-and-white cinematography, grand flourishes of sound, and with the on-screen chemistry between Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo. Playing on modern audiences’ nostalgia for the Hollywoodland pics, The Artist is a truly magical journey, and one of the most charming efforts of the year, which just so happens to also boast one of the most memorable performances of the year – in Uggie the dog.
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2- Tree Of Life
Only the fifth work of Terrence Malick, it it obviously his most experimental. A hugely ambitious and at times brilliant pic, but also a bit of a mess. This cinematic poem from one of cinema’s great poets would have made my number one spot, had I not been seriously taken out of the pic by actor Sean Penn. Yes The Tree Of Life is a wonderfully dense film (both thematically and visually), but it is ultimately undone because of a poorly realized bookend and a lack of true emotional depth with Penn’s character. Perhaps a director’s cut would satisfy my criticism, but until then, The Tree Of Life takes second spot. With that said, I have to give a special mention for the utterly believable, lived-in and naturalistic performances of newcomers Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler and Tye Sheridan as the three O’Brien sons. Also, Alexander Desplat’s music is brilliant, punctuating the film along side pieces of classic music; arguably, music plays a much more important role here than words do. Along with the beautifully poetic imagery and Brad Pitt’s tour-de-force performance, I look forward to revisiting The Tree Of Life in the near future.
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For those looking for something new, Bellflower is a solid calling card, full of youthful ambition. It’s the bastard son of Two Lane Blacktop and Blue Valentine, a very personal film about relationships destined to self destruct, and a searing portrait of the disintegration of the love that once fueled it. Director Evan Glodell is a prime example of a true independent auteur with his own unique vision, and a man with a bright future ahead.
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