List: Top 30 Films of 2011 #15-1


Here you are, at long last, the final 15. I realize that the pictures for the 30-16 entry were a bit wonky. Hopefully it will look better for this entry. Again, this is a ‘favorite’ list, not a ‘best’. What were your favorites of the year?

15.  A Separation  (Farhadi)

Disputes become complicated very quickly, especially when the self-deception of individuals comes into play. Asghar Farhadi, who wrote and directed this masterful work, looks at the complex inner workings of individual desperation and pride. These motivations are presented through characters that are not malicious but are just trying to get by. Furthermore, Farhadi casts no judgment onto the various imperfect players involved, seeming to understand that situations get complicated fast. The truth becomes muddled beyond the comprehension of the law officers, immediate family members and even the two characters directly involved with the incident.

Farhadi presents this as a fact-of-life, combining universality and the specificity of Iranian culture. Every character is complex as the central incident and its aftermath unfolds at the same time as the breakdown of a marriage. There are no easy answers, no saints and no malevolence for malevolence sake. A Separation is heated from start-to-finish and it is impossible not to get caught up in all its sprawling glory as our sympathies shift and hover, grow and lessen. Reveals are slowly doled out with the skill of a deft thriller without getting caught up in any genre trappings. A Separation captures life in all its messiness.

14. Certified Copy (Kiarostami)

A film of halves; entirely based in conversation, simultaneously light and heavy. Certified Copy is about the burgeoning passion of a new love and companion, but also about the disintegration of a romance weighted down by history. It is a mysterious and ambiguous experience and the definition of transfixing. It is less about spending your time trying to decipher the exact nature of the central relationship and more about soaking in its essence, the conversation and the performances. It is about appreciating the ever-shifting but always simultaneous presence of the multiple phases of a dense relationship.

However one chooses to interpret or not interpret Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, it ensures that it can be experienced in a multitude of contexts, forming its own unique relationship with the viewer that is all their own. While this is something that always occurs with film and is something we often take for granted, Certified Copy seems to exist for this purpose, and what a gift it is.

13. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (Yates)

It is at this point where the numbers become even more arbitrary than they already are. Honestly, I love this film as much as my number 1. So think of these next 13 films as essentially being equal with each other in my mind.

Deathly Hallows: Part 2 represented the end of an era for me and the countless others that grew up a Harry Potter fan. I grew with this series; the first film came out when I was fourteen. I may not have been a child as the franchise started (it was through the films that I became a fan of the books, not the other way around) but I threw myself whole-heartedly into the books and films, and my adolescence was positively littered with Potter-dom. I still believe it is somewhat taken for granted that we were able to experience a franchise that ran this long and that stayed this arguably consistent in quality. The Potter series means more than words to me, so to find that the final film met my expectations to the utmost was in certain regards more rewarding than anything else I saw this year.

Nothing impressed me more than Snape’s swan song; an appropriate tribute to the character, heartbreakingly played by Alan Rickman. The battles and buildup are as successfully epic as the seven films of buildup have sustained. The entire picture is wall-to-wall dazzling, enhancing Part 1 and striving boldly and confidently forth to its capstone conclusion. While nothing can quite match my first experience of it, it ranks in the top three of the franchise for me. This series will be a part of me the rest of my life and I cherish my ability to revisit it at any time I please.

12. Hugo (Scorsese)

I thought it wise to pair my two favorite ‘children’s’ films together. Even more than Harry Potter (where adults represent a large portion of its legions of fans), Hugo feels made more for adult appreciation than for kids. This is not to say that children will not enjoy it as it does contain more than enough of the magic and intrigue that comes with children’s fantasy. Indeed, it has the unmatchable splendor of its own contained world; a train station in 1920’s Paris. It has a central mystery, a mysterious key, automatons, a colorful cast of inhabitants and the rediscovery of a forgotten legend.

Martin Scorsese makes Hugo a singular film experience for several reasons, entirely making up for any uneven pacing or eventual anti-mystery. The first is the 3D; it will be interesting to see how the film fares without it. It functions almost as a physical argument for the form. It does not have to be a gimmick; when someone with legitimate drive to make use of the form, to mold it to support and enhance the world within, it can be unforgettable.

The second is the sense of wonder it contains which is infectious and addictive. Scorsese makes you want to stay in that station. Amidst the darker plot appendages, there is an exuberance, the uniqueness of fantastical discovery that brings one back to childhood. The third is the heart of Hugo, as it reveals itself to be a tribute to the magic of film through its love for central character George Melies.

There is an understanding of what we all see in film that makes us love it so, that brings about an instantly deep connection with Hugo. This aspect of it is what comes straight from the director’s heart, whose passionate work for film preservation is constant and incredibly important. Hugo left me in a drunken haze of film appreciation and an unparalleled respect for the origins of an art form.

11. The Tree of Life (Malick)

I suppose many think this should be much higher on this list. Love it though I do, there is a connection with certain films that I make that results in thinking of said film as ‘one of mine’. It is a relatable feeling to see something and to form a connection with it that allows it to be hoarded amongst a collection of personal favorites. I have this connection with The Thin Red Line and with Badlands and with large chunks of The Tree of Life. Most of the film, starting with the formation of the universe and leading almost through to the end is a transcendent voyage unlike any other. For some reason though, the Sean Penn bookends and the somewhat problematic portrayal of Jessica Chastain (the character, not the performance; she is wonderful) as an all-too angelic saintly mother struck a wrong chord for me. I also question the film’s depth, mainly because The Tree of Life seems more like a record of the memory and singular experience of childhood and a pondering drift through life’s big questions and origins as opposed to something that is particularly complicated in essence. It’s technical achievement, construction and execution is more complicated and ingenious than words can describe, but the finished product, to me at least, does not feel like it is meant to anything but a gloriously complex (in form) but ultimately abstract expression.

More than anything, I do not want this interpretation of abstraction to be taken as a knock; this is what I love about it. I feel lucky to have experienced something this beautiful, poetic, enchanting and moving. I felt brought back to childhood despite watching an individual depiction of it, and the strange and elemental feelings I experienced while watching is something I will never forget. And its drifting ponderous nature; this is also what I love about The Tree of Life. It considers the big and the small and asks us to glide along with it as it moves in and out of its many facets. Terrence Malick has so much skill that he is able to take us through his thoughts and Jack’s memories with the kind of ambition that results in something new and special. Parts of it feel like a continuation on what Walt Disney was getting at with his ‘Rite of Spring’ segment of Fantasia. Other parts feel like a journey of growing up, of the realization that parents expect things of you and that innocence can no longer be maintained. No film this year or in the past several years has been discussed and delved into more than The Tree of Life. While I feel that the film is more of an experience, something that to a degree defies analyzing, it is justifiably worshipped by many in the kind of passionate way that only Malick can incite.

10. I Saw the Devil (Kim)
Full Review Link: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2011/03/20/review-i-saw-the-devil-2011-kim/ 

I Saw the Devil is an example of a film I hoard as ‘one of mine’. I perk up when I hear its name, I want to shove it into people’s eyes and praise it to the high heavens. Because I Saw the Devil does something extremely clever with the revenge genre; it sets out to be the end-all be-all, to distill its cliches into an essence of basic emotions, using repetition and pure brutality to really get at what this genre is all about.

What others may see as one-note is actually a very purposeful execution complete with uncomplicated character types and uncomplicated motivations. It uses what may be considered weaknesses in other films and turns them around, using it to an advantage. I Saw the Devil takes revenge as far as it can go, thereby making it automatically relevant. The film excels, because noted South Korean director Kim Ji-woon knows how to tell a story with effectiveness and panache, unlike many others who venture down extremist territory.

The idea that one must become a monster to destroy a monster is familiar. The really wonderful study that takes place in the film are Soo-hyun’s craving to prolong the satisfying feeling revenge gives him, and the idea of revenge as a functioning stopgap between the actual mourning process.

Kim Ji-Woon is a filmmaker who knows how and when to use style. He chooses his moments carefully and infuses them with a trendy sensibility without allowing style to overwhelm his film. His always impeccably choreographed fight scenes are on display, riveting as ever. A confrontation in a greenhouse as well as a rather incredible scene that takes place in a taxi cab are two examples where Kim’s penchant for building up tension and delivering action heavy scenes are on display.

The pacing here is among the most accomplished of 2011. Clocking in at almost two and a half hours, the film flies by, yet it never feels rushed. Kim takes his time letting the story unfold and allowing atmosphere and mood to sink in, without the running time ever imposing itself. It is fully engrossing throughout which is not an easy feat.

I have seen this film twice and it strengthened for me the second time; it is and exhausting roller-coaster that is well worth the ride.

9. Hanna (Wright)
Full Review Link: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2011/04/09/review-hanna-2011-wright/ 

I will be the first to admit that Hanna is not entirely strong. The father-daughter relationship falters, and Wright’s attempts to create a layered fairy tale do not pan out with quite the success he clearly wants it to. But for a multitude of reasons, Hanna is a stylized dream come true for me.

Joe Wright takes himself completely out of his comfort zone with an entirely new type of project. The resulting visual experimentation from Wright’s involvement is invigorating to the extreme; a feast on the eyes and ears that overcomes the script’s shortcomings. His use of tracking shots, extreme close-ups, extreme long shots, handheld camera work and much more all contribute to Hanna’s singularly high-powered style. He also keeps a lot of the action in camera, making the choreography stand out. Whether creating an engaging hyper-stylistic action set piece or subjectively aligning the audience with Hanna’s experiences, Wright always has motivations for his choices and it is a delight to work through them while watching the film.

Along with Wright and Ronan, the third irreplaceable element of Hanna is the score provided by The Chemical Brothers. As opposed to using music to manipulate the audience into certain emotions, Wright creates several different effects with the sound of hypnotic bass-heavy electronica. The score is first introduced at a very precisely chosen moment. Throughout, the music forms a cohesive relationship with the diegetic sound, with both influencing and informing each other. It is also used to crucially represent and accompany each of the action set-pieces. The music The Chemical Brothers have created here is addictive and is as important anything in Hanna.

When all is said and done, Hanna had me entirely at “I just missed your heart”.

8. Melancholia (von Trier)
Full Review Link: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2011/11/11/review-melancholia-2011-von-trier/

It may seem contradictory to say that Lars von Trier’s end-of-the world opus is the director as his most peaceful and life-affirming; but it is. This isn’t to say that Melancholia is sunshine and rainbows; just look at the title and basic plot synopsis. But this is the Danish auteur reaching out and making a human connection with his audience as much as he likely ever will. It is a meditative exploration of the unexpectedly dichotomous nature (and the ways the two converge) between depression that renders one immobile in life, and having to face that which we will all eventually come to meet; death.

Dunst and von Trier, both having first-hand experience with depression, make painstaking connections with Justine that culminate in an uncompromising understanding and loyalty to her. They are unwilling to cater to standard cause-and-effect rules of characterization or to apologize for the frustration and lack of sympathy she can elicit.  For those of us who know what bouts of depression are like, this reveals it in all of its extreme truths and ugliness. Von Trier’s previous film Antichrist was made as he went through a severe depression, and no matter what one thinks of that work, looking at Melancholia in the context of a follow-up to his previous film will make for worthwhile discourse someday. In fact, it seems like an entirely essential context to have going into the film.

Melancholia is one of those films that successfully fulfill their ambitions in dealing with profound and fundamental subject matter on a grand level of intellectually-based intuition. You come away with, yes lots to talk about, but just as importantly, a feeling that a filmmaker has come upon something almost indescribable that gets at how we experience life, death and what it all means (or ultimately doesn’t mean). Synecdoche, New York is one of these films (an example that goes about it in an infinitely complex fashion, whereas Melancholia and The Tree of Life is based in abstraction and how the writers’directors have experienced life.) The Tree of Life is another. Some might call these films pretentious but this is reductive and dismissive. Lars von Trier’s latest film is his most accessible, but is no less thought-provoking. In fact, if there is one film that will temporarily win over his detractors, it would be this one. It takes us through the cathartic process of grieving mankind with a scrutinizing look at depression, death, acceptance and world annihilation with an uncharacteristically humanistic eye.

7. The Arbor (Bernard)

Speaking of Synecdoche, New York, here is a film that gets at truth through conceptual reenactment and fiction. What could have been a disastrous execution (the film consists of interviews lip-synched by actors who address the camera) is just the opposite. The past comes to life, going beyond narrative and documentary films, achieving something that exists in between.

The actors become a vessel for the voices and the people behind them. The actors are literal messengers, and having them address the camera, and in turn the audience, creates an intimate connection between the documentaries subject and those who knew her, and us. We also get to know subject Andrea Dunbar through watching segments of her plays performed by actors in the actual slums of Bradford, West Yorkshire where she grew up and lived.

The Arbor is about as deeply depressing as it gets, and director Clio Bernard keeps the frames uncluttered, letting the format and interview material speak for itself by presenting it in a progressive but simple way.

6. We Need To Talk About Kevin (Ramsay)

Here we go with the word abstract again; I tend to love films presented in such a way. The visual representation of an emotional state and a literal materialization of the fearful apathy of motherhood are what We Need to Talk About Kevin is getting at. I may love this film partly because Lionel Shriver’s novel is one of my absolute favorites, and I was able to see Eva and immediately heap upon her 450 pages of the author’s anything but abstract contextualization. The symbolism may be is in-your-face with splattered reds everywhere (for a start), but it represents a state of being and a constant reminder of the guilt and loss Eva feels that cannot be expunged. Kevin exists as the embodiment of a worst-case scenario, a being whose chief understanding of the world is borne out of his instinctual knowledge of Eva’s motherly indifference.

5. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Alfredson)

When Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy ended, I immediately wanted to revisit it, getting the sense that my love and appreciation for it would only grow over time. Above all other films from this past year, I became the most attached to Tinker’s feel and atmosphere above any other. Tomas Alfredson’s second feature (his first being Let the Right One In), is another adaptation. Everything from the cinematography to Alberto Iglesias’ fabulously wistful jazz score is in a lurking state of mourning.

The film mourns for an era fading before the characters eyes with its air of grey repression amidst the period world of Britain’s M-16 intelligence. It boils down the plot density of the novel into its essentials, without ever having narrative clarity as its priority. Reading the novel before seeing the film did allow me a basic understanding of what happens (which was a task in itself as I find myself easily lost within these types of stories), but the film is not about that. With the ensemble cast of the year, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a treasure trove of intrigue.

4. Drive (Refn)
Full Review Link: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2011/09/21/review-drive-2011-refn/

It is an all too uncommon feeling when a film ends and you realize you are not yet ready to leave its world. This is the feeling I had when Drive ended. It is a slick retro ride, filled with homage and influence, operating as a nostalgic demonstration of American genre filmmaking and oozing European sensibilities, complete with existentialist sleaze and minimalist touches. It is a hybrid creature that dabbles in a number of genres that are all in harmony through Nicolas Winding Refn’s infectious appreciation for using cinema to create mood and atmosphere.

It is clear that Refn has been influenced at every turn. But it is not a hollow experience; far from it. Perhaps what impressed me the most about Drive is the smoothness with which Refn blends what is a clear unabashed love for both high and low art. He lets them bleed together in what can be succinctly described as effortless cool. There is a stable assuredness in every shot, every movement and every creative choice made here. One cannot help but want to revisit Drive and explore those choices, the motivations behind them and why they work as well as they do. This is confident filmmaking on display. The mere construction of it is something to behold.

The thankless female characters may be a slight misstep, but it is a minor quibble. With Drive, Refn represents cinema at its most assured, plowing directly into the heart of genre filmmaking.

3. Take Shelter (Nichols)
Full Review Link: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2011/10/26/review-take-shelter-2011-nichols/

Jeff Nichols does not play the ‘is he or isn’t he’ game with his audience; Curtis (Michael Shannon) is succumbing to paranoid schizophrenia. We are invited to simultaneously experience events as the protagonist does, and to see the reality of the situation at the same time. Take Shelter is an astonishing second feature by director Nichols whose first feature Shotgun Stories, plays out as pre-destined Greek tragedy. The interplay between conscious choice and being pulled further and further into something that was, on some level, always going to happen is present in both films. In Take Shelter, poor conscious decisions are made by Curtis, but he is also being helplessly dragged down by family legacies and a general feeling of doom.

Take Shelter affected me quite heavily, mainly because it preyed on my fears and depicted them in ways that service the sad reality of the situation as opposed to the heightened subjective journey. After death, going insane might be my biggest fear. It is the suddenness of certain disorders existence that strikes me. Some of the heavier psychological disorders don’t creep their way into you; they make sudden and grandiose entrances.

Curtis’ psychological descent clearly represents the current state of America, and the film never tries to hide this. Nichols wants you to know what he is really getting at. There are a couple of reasons it works. One is that the film does not feel preachy even in its openness; in fact, its message feels necessary. No matter what your political inclinations are, it is difficult not to feel the growing sense of dread all around us. Nichols takes that familiarized feeling and translates it into a different filmic context. In that sense, Take Shelter is frightening in its resonance. It may manifest itself openly, but Take Shelter works hauntingly well because of Nichols’ precision and ability to have his film make its mark in more ways than one.

2. Project Nim (Marsh)
Full Review Link: https://cinenthusiast.wordpress.com/2011/05/08/review-project-nim-2011-marsh-iffboston-2011/

When discussing Project Nim, it becomes tempting to immediately spring into all-out praise mode. James Marsh approaches stories from different angles. 2008’s Man on Wire functions as a heist narrative. Project Nim is a chimpanzee biopic. Herb Terrace’s experiment was amateurish and botched from the start. By default, this allows Marsh to focus all his energies on telling Nim’s heartbreaking story, using archival footage and some very honest and candid interviews by the many people who came in and out of Nim’s life.

Project Nim is structured as a biopic that allows us to be acquainted with Nim as well as understand our incapacity to truly know a wild animal. All of the action is focused around the chimp, but the film says so much more through the story it tells. It is about humanity and our need to control and manipulate everything to be more like us. It is about the incompetence of man. It is about the well-meaning individuals like Joyce Butler, who care so deeply but are powerless in the bigger picture, and those like Bob Ingersol and Dr. James Mahoney, who never give up on making a difference.

Those who see Project Nim will be heartbroken. It works on many different levels, but people will remember first and foremost the story of Nim’s unstable life. James Marsh has told an unforgettable story and Project Nim is a true accomplishment.

1. Young Adult (Reitman)

Young Adult sadly did not connect with audiences based on box-office numbers and divided the people who did take the time to go see it. My number one was not clear this year; over the last few weeks, I have had about five different films in the top slot. So many character types have had countless films of their own, but to tread new ground and focus with someone like Mavis Gary offers something fresh and new; it took me in entirely. The film would not have succeeded if some did not walk away annoyed and frustrated; this only enhances how uncompromising and ugly its honesty can be.

Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody have created something that feels completely organic; effortless and seemingly simple when it is actually incredibly layered and intricate. Cody knows Mavis Gary in-and-out and pulls no punches when presenting her to us. She is delusional and ruthless; a total basket case who lives either in one extreme lazy sweats and reality TV consumption or another extreme of all-day primping as she presents herself to her old town with unrelenting purpose.

Theron fully inhabits Mavis as someone who cannot see past her own perspective or selfishness. She seems genuinely confused by the existence of certain emotions, and seeing her try to fake her way through them when she needs to is truly something else. This is also the first film I have seen to depict Trichotillomania and I have a special appreciation of the film for this reason. It is a compulsive disorder I have lived with since a young age, only with me the eyelashes are victimized and not the hair as with Mavis.

Young Adult turns expectations on its head with its kitchen scene that denies the audience the expected character turnaround, except that Cody dangles the possibility in front of our face first, making it all the more fascinating. Mavis’ relationship with Patton Oswalt’s Matt is one of the more distinctive interactions between two characters I have seen as he brings a self-aware sadness and longing to the proceedings. He is filled with the same emotions as Mavis but one is delusional while the other is not.

Young Adult is a film I felt an instant connection with; I laughed a lot, I cringed a lot, but mostly I admired the delicate craftsmanship at work from the spot-on writing and directing to the perfect acting. It is a blistering piece that is on the one hand an awkward comedy about emotionally stunted growth. On the other, it is a frighteningly candid character study about how sad it is to be so constricted by a superiority complex and perception of the world including where one places oneself within it.

Complete List of Films Seen in 201113 Assassins, 50/50, A Better Life, A Dangerous Method, Albert Nobbs, American Grindhouse, Another Earth, Attack the Block, Beastly, Beginners, Being Elmo, Bellflower, Bill Cunningham, New York, Biutiful, Black Death, Bobby Fischer Against the World, Bridesmaids, Buck, Cameraman: the Life and Work of Jack Cardiff, Captain America: The First Avenger, Carnage, Cars 2, Caterpillar, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Cedar Rapids, Certified Copy, Cold Fish, Cold Weather, Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, Contagion,, Cracks, Crazy, Stupid, Love, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, Dream Home, Drive, Edge of Dreaming, Hanna, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, Hesher, Hobo with a Shotgun, Horrible Bosses, Hugo, I Saw the Devil, If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, In a Better World, In Time, Incendies, Insidious, J. Edgar, Jane Eyre, Kung Fu Panda 2, Last Night, Le Quattro Volte, Love Crime, Margin Call, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Meek’s Cutoff, Melancholia, Midnight in Paris, Mildred Pierce, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Moneyball, My Week with Marilyn, Of Gods and Men, Outrage, Page One: Inside the New York Times, Passion Play, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Poetry, Project Nim, Rampart, Rango, Red Riding Hood, Red State, Redline, Retreat, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Rubber, Scream 4, Senna, Shame, Sleeping Beauty, Source Code, Submarine, Sucker Punch, Super, Super 8, Tabloid, Take Shelter, Terri, The Adventures of Tintin, The Arbor, The Artist, The Debt,The Descendants, The Devil’s Double, The Double Hour, The Future, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Green Hornet, The Help, The Housemaid, The Ides of March, The Last Circus, The Lincoln Lawyer, The Mill and the Cross, The Muppets, The Rite, The Roommate, A Separation, The Skin I Live In, The Sleeping Beauty, The Thing, The Tree of Life, The Trip, The Ward, The Woman, Thor, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, TrollHunter, Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, Tyrannosaur, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Unknown, War Horse, Warrior, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Weekend, Win Win, Winnie the Pooh, X-Men: First Class, Young Adult, Your Highness, Yves Saint-Laurent: L’Amour Fou

Lists: The Top Fives of 2011 Film


Everyone has pretty much already posted their Top Ten’s for the year. I like to go list crazy in summing up the year in film and go beyond the standard 10 ‘best’. I go over this again and again, but it’s all about subjectivity for me and what I considered my favorites. And in going through the year in film, there are a lot of different facets I like to recognize. Everyone comes away with a new batch of films to hold near and dear to their hearts, myself certainly included. This particular post will recognize things like types of performances, characters, beginnings, endings, character dynamics and more. For my attempts at judging technical aspects of film, my eventual Dream Oscar Ballot will cover that particular ground. The two films I will be seeing before posting my final Top 30 of the year (yes, I do Top 30, not 10; I am in no way, shape or form a Top Ten purist) are A Separation and Love Exposure. By the time I see Mysteries of Lisbon, Margaret, Into the Abyss, The Interrupters and others, my lists will be posted.

Like last year, the upcoming posts that will get more time dedicated to them (and will be posted within the next week and a half) are:
Top 10 Worst Films of the Year (which will really be Least Favorite, but nobody will search for a ‘Least Favorite’ list, so I will conveniently name it ‘Worst’.
Top 10 Song Usages
Top 20 Scenes in 2011 Film
Top 20 Performances in 2011 Film
Top 30 Films of 2011

This first post is supposed to be pure harmless superficial fun. I have seen 133 films from 2011. I will list them at the bottom so readers will know what was considered. Beware of spoilers in the Top 5 Romances regarding Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy for those who have not seen it. These preliminary posts will give some hints as to my favorite films of the year, a group that may not be particularly original, but that I am nonetheless proud of and happy with. The year in film has already been picked apart with collective themes of identity, nostalgia and more running deep. There are many who think this was a weak year for film. From an awards standpoint I would agree. But from an overall standpoint, I wholeheartedly disagree.

On to the 1st Annual Cinema Enthusiast Awards! Being a huge fan of The Film Experience’s Film Bitch Awards, I borrowed a few categories from there.


Top 5 Beginnings:
1. Melancholia
2. Incendies
3. Kung Fu Panda 2
4. Contagion
5. Drive (The Driver’s opening speech)


Top 5 Use of Title Card/Opening Credits
1. Drive (Title Card/Opening Credits)
2. Hanna (Title Card only)
3. Insidious (Title Card Only)
4. Outrage (Title Card Only)
5. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (Title Card/Opening Credits)
Honorable Mention: The Adventures of Tintin (Title Card/Opening Credits)


Top 5 Endings:
1. Hanna
2. Melancholia
3. Warrior
3. The Housemaid
4. Take Shelter
Honorable Mention: The Skin I Live In, Moneyball, The Trip, Of Gods and Men

Top 5 Ensembles:
1. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
2. Midnight in Paris
3. Melancholia
4. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
5. Hugo
Honorable Mention: Margin Call


Top 5 Underrated Films in 2011:
1. The Sleeping Beauty (that other Sleeping Beauty film not directed by Julia Leigh, but by Catherine Breillat)
2. Bobby Fischer Against the World
3. Black Death
4. Terri
5. The Green Hornet
Note: Underrated could mean anything. But seeing what films get attention in the blogosphere, with critics, from a box office standpoint and from a year-end list perspective, these are the films I felt did not get enough attention from at least two of the aforementioned considerations.

Films That Started Strong But….
1. Source Code
2. Insidious
3. The Double Hour
4. Cold Fish
5. Crazy, Stupid, Love (Where the other films are on this for their final thirds, my last choice appears only for that final speech. It did not entirely dampen the experience and is still ranks among the better films I saw this year)

Top 5 Newcomers:

1. Rooney Mara – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
2. Jessica Chastain – The Tree of Life, Take Shelter, The Help, The Debt (the ones I’ve seen her in)
3. Elisabeth Olsen – Martha Marcy May Marlene
4. John Boyega – Attack the Block
5. Ezra Miller – We Need to Talk About Kevin
Honorable Mentions: Oscar Issac (Drive, Sucker Punch), Asa Butterfield (Hugo)
Note: I realize this is not the first year some of these actors have been in significant parts. But I’d call all of these actors newcomers this year relatively speaking.

Top 5 Underrated Performances
1. Ludivine Sagnier – Love Crime
2. Eva Green – Cracks
3. Melanie Lynskey – Win Win
4. John C. Reilly – Terri
5. Brie Larson – Rampart


Top 5 Film 2011 Limited Performances (characters with only a few scenes/a limited role)

1. Oscar Issac as Standard – Drive
2. Corey Stoll as Ernest Hemingway – Midnight in Paris
3. Michael Stuhlbarg as Rene Tabard – Hugo
4. Collette Wolfe as Sandra – Young Adult
5. Kathy Baker as Sarah – Take Shelter


Top 5 Worst Performances:
1. Lauren Petre as Miss Hindle – The Woman
2. Sean Bridgers as Chris Cleek – The Woman
3. January Jones as Emma Frost– X-Men: First Class
4. Mickey Rourke as Nate Poole– Passion Play
5. Vanessa Hudgens as Linda – Beastly

Top 5 2011 Film Scores:
1. Hanna – The Chemical Brothers
2. Senna – Antonio Pinto
3. The Skin I Live In – Alberto Iglesias
3. Jane Eyre – Dario Marianelli
5. Take Shelter – David Wingo
Honorable Mentions – Contagion, Moneyball, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Attack the Block


Top 5 Film 2011 Characters:

1. Charlize Theron – Mavis Gary – Young Adult
2. Kristen Wiig – Annie Walker – Bridesmaids
3. Philip Seymour Hoffman – Paul Zara – The Ides of March
4. Eva Green – Miss G – Cracks
5. Ryan Gosling – The Driver – Drive
Honorable Mention – Michael Shannon in Take Shelter and Jonah Hill in Moneyball


Top 5 Character Dynamics:
(this could be any kind of dynamic between 2 or more characters whether adversarial, based in friendship, etc.)
1. Juliette Binoche and William Shimell – Certified Copy
2. Carey Mulligan and Michael Fassbender – Shame
3. Peter Mullan and Olivia Colman – Tyrannosaur
4. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon – The Trip
5. Charlize Theron and Patton Oswalt – Young Adult
Honorable Mentions: Choi Min-sik and Lee Byung-hun – I Saw the Devil, Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph – Bridesmaids, William Jøhnk Juels Nielsen and Markus Rygaard – In a Better World


Top 5 2011 Film Villains:
1. Tom Hollander as Issacs – Hanna
2. Albert Brooks as Bernie Rose – Drive
3. Choi Min-sik as Kyung-chul – I Saw the Devil
4. Gary Oldman as Lord Shen – Kung Fu Panda 2
5. Ezra Miller as Kevin – We Need to Talk About Kevin
Honorable Mention – Ralph Fiennes – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2


Top 5 Film 2011
Romances:
1. Kristen Wiig and Chris Dowd – Bridesmaids
2. Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender – Jane Eyre
3. Tom Cullen and Chris New –Weekend
4. Ewan McGregor and Melanie Laurent – Beginners (less for the material the two are given and more for the chemistry between McGregor and Laurent which, for my money, was the strongest of perhaps the last few years)
5. Mark Strong and Colin Firth – Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Honorable Mention: Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone – Crazy, Stupid, Love

List of 2011 Films Seen: 13 Assassins, 50/50, A Better Life, A Dangerous Method, Albert Nobbs, American Grindhouse, Another Earth, Attack the Block, Beastly, Beginners, Being Elmo, Bellflower, Bill Cunningham, New York, Biutiful, Black Death, Bobby Fischer Against the World, Bridesmaids, Buck, Cameraman: the Life and Work of Jack Cardiff, Captain America: The First Avenger, Carnage, Cars 2, Caterpillar, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Cedar Rapids, Certified Copy, Cold Fish, Cold Weather, Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, Contagion,, Cracks, Crazy, Stupid, Love, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, Dream Home, Drive, Edge of Dreaming, Hanna, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, Hesher, Hobo with a Shotgun, Horrible Bosses, Hugo, I Saw the Devil, If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, In a Better World, In Time, Incendies, Insidious, J. Edgar, Jane Eyre, Kung Fu Panda 2, Last Night, Le Quattro Volte, Love Crime, Margin Call, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Meek’s Cutoff, Melancholia, Midnight in Paris, Mildred Pierce, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Moneyball, My Week with Marilyn, Of Gods and Men, Outrage, Page One: Inside the New York Times, Passion Play, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Poetry, Project Nim, Rampart, Rango, Red Riding Hood, Red State, Redline, Retreat, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Rubber, Scream 4, Senna, Shame, Sleeping Beauty, Source Code, Submarine, Sucker Punch, Super, Super 8, Tabloid, Take Shelter, Terri, The Adventures of Tintin, The Arbor, The Artist, The Debt,The Descendants, The Devil’s Double, The Double Hour, The Future, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Green Hornet, The Help, The Housemaid, The Ides of March, The Last Circus, The Lincoln Lawyer, The Mill and the Cross, The Muppets, The Rite, The Roommate, The Skin I Live In, The Sleeping Beauty, The Thing, The Tree of Life, The Trip, The Ward, The Woman, Thor, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, TrollHunter, Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, Tyrannosaur, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Unknown, War Horse, Warrior, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Weekend, Win Win, Winnie the Pooh, X-Men: First Class, Young Adult, Your Highness, Yves Saint-Laurent: L’Amour Fou

List: Top 20 Film Posters of 2011


If you have eyes, then I’m guessing you’re sick of seeing the same images again in again with different actors acting as various ciphers. There’s Photoshopping galore, some it truly sad. Each genre has its own set of expectations. They have all become tired; heaps of tragically unaware self-parodies plastered everywhere. Each year we can lament and question; where has the magic of movie posters gone?

Well, it’s not entirely gone. Hopefully my choices this year will emphasize that periodically something aesthetically worthy comes along. I cannot lie though; the countless mediocre/pitiful posters I had to go through to get to these is more than a little disheartening. I would go through 100 posters before anything stuck out.

The ‘Worst Posters’ list will soon follow. But I prefer this list this year. Why? Because there have been a few Worst Posters list to come out already and I must admit that after doing my own research, they hit the nail on the head for nearly all of them. Which means that my list and theirs will be very similar.

What were your personal favorite posters of the year? Here are the 20 film posters of 2011 that represent mine. The rule was only 1 poster per film. I do not claim these to be the best; just the ones that caught my eye the most and that I find myself most drawn to. I have seen 14/20 of the films here. A few of these films I’m not really a fan of but a great poster is a great poster regardless of the quality of the film it represents (and I won’t be getting into which films those are here). Off we go.


20. Shit Year
Here, we get Ellen Barkin, whose presence seems to be single-handedly melting the watercolors (Watercolors? Inked water? I suck). She looks like a clown, has a cigarette hanging out of her mouth and the title indicates this was not a very good year for her. This poster makes me want to find out why.

As the list continues, you will see a lot of ‘it makes me want to know more’. That is what a poster should do. It is first and foremost an advertisement. If it can do this in a way that is not tired or a simple rehash of the ten stock images we get from posters these days, it is a success.


19. Hobo with a Shotgun

Last year I had a couple of posters on my list that evoked the exploitation era. Hobo with a Shotgun, coming from Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse trailer contest, follows suit in what has now become a welcome trend. Creases, lots of action overlapping with each other, a self-aware tagline; it’s all there.

You will see as we go through the list just how represented Magnet releases are (five total). They do some of the most consistent poster work out there and they deserve their due for presenting advertisements in a way that promotes creativity.


18. Drive Angry
Again with the Grindhouse inspired kind of look. This just works on every level for me from the font size to the artificial messiness of it. It is unfortunate that this poster was not the one mainly used, but such is the case; even the few great posters exist to be largely unused.


17. The Devil’s Double
An in-your-face concept that goes for the jugular as far as poster concepts go. It goes to an extreme to make its point and for that, it deserves major props. The only thing working against it is the oddly misrepresentative tagline; a minute irritation. I still say Dominic Cooper looks more like Michael C. Hall here than Dominic Cooper. I can’t be the only one that sees this; can I?


16. The Muppets
Out of all the imaginative send-ups for the return of the Muppets, I chose a sparse Kermit-centric one, the only reason being that I have a soft spot for Kermit the Frog. Any poster with his head on it earns a spot on this list. Just look at that smile; oh how it melts my heart.


15. The Future
It is hard to articulate what it is about this poster that I find so memorable. The centered upside-down photo with the font contained within has an unexpectedly long-lasting effect on the mind. There’s just something about it….


14. I Saw the Devil

I was so happy to be able to get this on here as it really stuck with me throughout the year. This is a haunting use of space with the victimized yellow car illuminating the shadowy figure just enough to get a sense his weapon but not his identity. Those who have seen the film will recognize this as a reference to the opening sequence.


13. We Need to Talk About Kevin
There is suspicion and paranoia afoot as Swinton’s temperament towards her child is shown with this image. I love posters that have this purple-brown hue to them. Just look at I Saw the Devil’s poster for further proof. I don’t know how else to describe it so there you go; purple-brown hue. My description skills are clearly tops.


12. Martha Marcy May Marlene
A case of the fuzzies. I can’t help it; I love out-of-focus images on posters. This really captures Jody Lee Lipes’ cinematography on the film which is still my personal favorite of the year. The poster provides a hook; why is she running away? Who from? Does she make it? Coincidentally, it is almost a reverse shot of the Margaret poster which was the last I cut for this list. And both have ‘M’ names. Weird.


11. 13 Assassins
A marvelous illustration for yet another Magnet release. Busy but not too busy, and positively engaging.


10. Black Death
I flat-out love this bleak and foreboding poster for a film that unfairly went under the radar. For those counting, this is the fourth Magnet release on the list. That endlessly hopeless feel the Middle Ages have (at least for me) is truly represented here. I think I caught the Plague just looking at it.


9. Gainsbourg
It goes without saying that Serge Gainsbourg equals suave. A poster for this biopic needs to be able to capture the personality we all think of when we hear the French lady killer’s name. This version adds the perfect touch in capturing his demeanor through the cool blue and lusty red. Just looking at this makes me want to listen to “Histoire de Melody Nelson” for the billionth time. In fact….


8. Rubber
….yeah, I put the album on; I couldn’t resist.

This graphic brings you front and center to the leering eye of a tire; a directly anthropomorphized illustration. It advertises its unconventionality, wearing it on its sleeve, begging onlookers to dig deeper into the unknown.


7. Certified Copy
I almost went with the equally impressive color-splatter poster for the film featuring the same image. The grey in this one allows Juliette Bincohe’s startling paleness to stick out as well as the ruby red of her lips and earrings in this important moment from the film.

6. Le Havre
In addition to having an irresistible illustration that is at once sparse and full of intrigue. I want to know more about what I am seeing. Who are the players and how do they relate to each other?


5. The Skin I Live In
What strikes me most about this poster is that it looks like a mid-twentieth century middle school textbook. Would it actually be found in a classroom? Who knows? But it gives off that kind of educational vibe with an artistic twist that really drew me in.


4. Shame
The poster for Shame evokes with its ruffled bed sheets an immediate context of the film’s title. It is slightly confrontational with its placement of the title smack dab in the middle; this film is not tiptoeing around its subject matter. Whether you have seen the film or not, the poster says a lot about the kind of experience it provides.  Well, that quote does not exactly scream subtlety as an allusion to the film’s content. Either way; we get the idea.


3. Cold Weather
There is an exquisite use of patterning going on and I love the placement of the actors. Even the font kills. It’s just perfect.


2. Sleeping Beauty
Emily Browning’s porcelain exterior blends right in with the beautiful embroidered couch behind her. The poster’s color palette is gorgeous. Her supposed vulnerability is being subverted just like in the film (although the film is questionably successful at this). What we would expect to be a pleading look is actually a stern stare-down daring us to pass judgment on her.


1. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
As soon as I saw this poster, I knew it would be likely impossible that another poster would take its place at the top of the pack. Designed by Chris Ware, best known for his visually complex graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, everything here is absolutely captivating. Ware also designed the equally impressive poster for 2007’s The Savages. The color scheme, the symmetry, the jellyfish-like middle, the water, trees; there is so much happening and it is all done through abstraction. So many aspects of the film are emphasized here, but you don’t have to know that to appreciate this masterful work on display.


List: Top 25 Worst Blu-ray Covers


Anybody else notice that the emergence of Blu-ray has coincided with the emergence of outrageously awful cover art? Well, I have. I am in no way suggesting that DVD cover art has been consistent; it hasn’t. However, many films previously available on DVD receiving a Blu-ray upgrade have completely reworked covers for no apparent reason. Posters and DVD covers that we all know quite well have in some cases been replaced by what looks like the kind of cover art commonly found on a bootleg. Major photoshop work has been done with often times poor, amateurish and downright embarrassing results. Another common thread on this list is a blatant attempt to market the film to coincide with a current trend, thereby misrepresenting the film entirely. Other reasons will pop up throughout. The rules for this list are that the Blu-ray cover could not be the same as any promotional poster and that it had to be different from the original DVD cover if the film if there had been a previous DVD release. If there are any glaring omissions, or if you want to share your own picks, I encourage you to do so! I would love to see them!


25. The Peacemaker
Much of the time, marketing films is a matter of exploiting star power; I get that. What I do not get is Nicole Kidman staring confusedly at a couple of helicopters; that is what I do not get.

24. Pleasantville
Here is another example of many that, again, exploit star power. The problem with this is that Pleasantville has a wonderful poster that was also used for the DVD cover. Getting rid of that for this lackluster effort is just sad. And something that must be pointed out; ALL OF THESE COVERS LOOK WORSE IN PERSON. Trust me on this one. Next time you go into a store selling Blu-rays; keep an eye out.


23. Wanted
Let us put aside the fact that about half of the space is taken up by blurred background (because the action is all happening so fast!). Look at James McAvoy’s face. The poor man looks like he is falling asleep. Either that, or he is drunk. I really just do not know. The point is, that if new cover art was going to be chosen, they could have at least picked a picture of McAvoy that looks like he is a functional person.


22. Buried
The main reason this was chosen was not because it is lazy, which it is, but because Buried had such a strong poster campaign, making it even more upsetting that this cheap image was chosen. It does get points for not featuring any discernible photoshop work.  I understand the film did very poorly in box office returns and they desperately need to feature Ryan Reynolds’ involvement to get anyone interested. It’s still a horrid cover.


21. …And Justice For All
The original DVD cover for this film was nothing to write home about. In its own way it was bad. Let me take a second to point out what has been done to Pacino. They took Pacino’s head from the DVD cover and plastered it onto another body. This looks like an elementary school student’s cut-and-paste project. Look at that head! Look at it I say!!


20. Lost in Translation
What’s wrong with this? It’s the same poster and DVD cover; is it not? No it is not. For no reason whatsoever, the Blu-ray cover is a zoomed in version of the poster. Why? I have no answer for you. It may look like a minor and acceptable change now, but just take a gander at this one in the stores and tell me how you feel then. Finally, his head is poking out through the white banner, a change that is not visible in any previous incarnation of the poster.


19. L.A Confidential
L.A Confidential has a very recognizable poster. There must have been a reason to change it. Yet I cannot for the life of me figure out why this was done. Most of the other films may have terrible covers, but to some degree from a marketing standpoint, I understand why the decisions were made. This has stumped me mainly because the structure of the original poster is very similar. Kim Basinger takes up the majority of the space in both. Each have Russell Crowe, Kevin Spacey and Guy Pearce making minor appearances. Here though, in addition to the bad photoshop work (which goes without saying for almost all of these (even though I’ll keep saying it), Spacey, Crowe and Pearce look like footnotes and even Basinger’s ‘boobs’ are on better display on the original poster. Then we have that reflection which makes no logical sense. Why was this done? It is a mystery.

18. National Lampoon’s Vacation
On its own, this is a moderately bad cover. What makes it terrible is the idea of it replacing the somewhat iconic cover art that preceded it.

17. Full Metal Jacket
This makes the list because it in no way represents the feeling of Kubrick’s film. Outside of the “Born to Kill” helmet, which is obviously not on Matthew Modine like it should be, nothing about this looks like or feels like Full Metal Jacket to me.

16. Secretary
Hmm…I did not know Secretary was a sitcom, but judging from James Spader’s whackadoo face, apparently it is. Also, this cover makes it seem like Spader is drawn into Gyllenhaal’s sexual inclinations when really it is the opposite; so it is also very misleading in its goofiness.


15. Primal Fear
The packaging for this is so corny. “Hard Evidence Edition”? Really? The one thing about this I do like is that it has the date on it. A nice touch; the only nice touch. “Warning: serves up twist after twist”. Yikes. The worst though, has to be the red EVIDENCE stripe across the top.


14. sex, lies and videotape
A cover of any kind featuring only Andie MacDowell’s face is, quite simply, not a good thing. Harsh I know, but I’m not a MacDowell fan (even though I will admit she is fantastic in this, her only standout role in my opinion). That aside, zooming in on this picture, makes everything about this look very cheap and hand-me-down.

13. The Resident
I present the first cover art on this list that made me burst out laughing. The original posters for this were also bad, but nothing reached quite this level. The image of Swank from the original poster has been taken and Jeffrey Dean Morgan has been pasted behind her. That’s it; that’s the poster. There is too much face here, making everything feel crammed in. Oh, and Christopher Lee is in it too, in case you didn’t know.


12. The Machinist
Another case of ‘why change the cover’? I liked the original cover art quite a bit. What they have done is taken a still from the film, reworked it a bit and pasted some truly bad font on to top it all off. Why? Why? Why?

11. Excalibur
I take issue with this because of the blatant aim to exploit a current trend in filmmaking. The original DVD cover is technically the same image. Here though, the image has been zoomed in and tinted with that grey visual trope that been be found in super serious films like Kingdom of Heaven, Robin Hood and others. Problem is, none of it looks natural and it is obvious what has been done and why it has been done. Also; terrible font.


10. Poltergeist II
This cover looks worse in person than most of the others. The effect is it looks like someone printed this cover on paper with a printer that was running out of ink (and also malfunctioning), folded it up and placed it in as the Blu-ray cover. That is how bad this looks.


9. True Grit
I don’t think this needs much explanation. The release of this Blu-ray coincided with the theatrical release of the Coen Brothers’ remake. It was taken a step further as the cover art is meant to evoke the remake, and not the original, taking away the identity of the Wayne version completely.


8. My Cousin Vinny
Jarringly different from the VHS and DVD cover, My Cousin Vinny has been photoshopped to death. From here on out, the reason will likely be terrible photoshop work. I really don’t know what to say about this.

7. The New World
This Blu-ray cover coincides with the release of the Extended Cut DVD and Blu-ray. There was a previous DVD cover before this one. Who in their right mind would look at this image, knowing nothing about the film mind you, and want to buy/rent/see it? Look at Colin Farrell’s face. Just look at it.


6. The Omen
I cannot describe how shitty this looks in stores. We are getting into speechless territory here, where nothing can even be said; the image speaks for itself.

5. I Saw the Devil
For the record, I appreciate the thought that was put into this cover. The concept is very clear here, and for that, I am grateful. I am not grateful however, to the botched execution, which is aesthetically unpleasing to say the least.  All I could do is shake my head in disappointment when I saw this. For a film that I hope to own one day, the idea of having cover art like this in my collection is just depressing to me. How dare they disrupt the beauty of Lee Byung-hun’s perfect face!


4. Never Let Me Go
What is with the red-yellow hues all over the place? The original poster did not highlight the “it” star power, so they took Knightley, who is in a supporting role here, and plastered her in the foremost spot. Then they threw in Mulligan and Garfield for good measure. Finally, we are painfully reminded of the beauty of the original poster as it is unfairly crunched it in the corner to remind us that the image is not the Blu-ray cover art. For shame. One of my favorite films from last year, if I saw this in stores knowing nothing about it, I would not give it a second thought.


3. Groundhog Day
So I’ll just come right out and say it; Bill Murray looks like a bloated hamster here. He also looks like Joey Gladstone. A bloated hamster and Joey Gladstone. This is an atrocity. Seriously; what am I looking at? Those are not Bill Murray’s hands. That’s barely Bill Murray’s face. More work has been done to that face than I have seen on a Blu-ray cover. Then we have Andie MacDowell, (and you know how I feel about her) taking up way more space than she should, but at least her face looks somewhat acceptable. Murray’s does not. It’s actually slightly terrifying.


2. Minority Report
I ask this question yet again: what was the problem with the old cover? Tom Cruise has been airbrushed into oblivion. I feel like I am looking at a cover for a Russian war submarine film or something; something that is not science-fiction. What is with that font? Cruise’s face has taken over completely. Plus, there is no way his hand, which looks like a baby’s hand by the way, would line up that way.

1. Near Dark
Without a doubt, Near Dark is the worst Blu-ray cover in existence. The reasons are blatantly obvious. Kathryn Bigelow’s masterful horror film has been reconfigured for the Twilight trend. This is a film about vampires that never says the word ‘vampire’. Anyone who has seen it knows the two couldn’t be less related; in fact, even comparing them feels wrong. They are completely different beasts. This is the only cover that outright offends me. I won’t buy the Blu-ray because of it. It also helps that the 2-disc DVD edition has awesome packaging and converts so well on a Blu-ray player that buying this edition is unnecessary.

Poll: Favorite Kim Ji-woon film?


Review: I Saw the Devil (2011, Kim)


Review originally posted on criterioncast.com on March 19th, 2011

Revenge films have been done plenty of times. Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance trilogy and Tarantino’s Kill Bill have reestablished the subgenre as the go-to subject matter for hip hyper-violent cinema. They allow the audience to actively justify their desire for onscreen violence because, well, the bad guys deserve it don’t they? Plus, the morality issues at hand can make for juicy thematic material. I Saw the Devil transcends all of this by taking revenge as far as it can go, thereby making itself automatically relevant. The film excels, managing to overcome its flaws because noted South Korean director Kim Ji-Woon knows how to tell a story with effectiveness and panache, unlike many others who venture down extremist territory.

The plot is purposely simplistic due to a reliance on repetition. The emphasis on immersing the audience in the utter brutality of Kyung-chul, (Choi Min-sik) and the incessant and questionable determination of Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hun) is essential. Kyung-chul takes pleasure is assaulting and murdering women. The film starts out with his capture and murder of a young woman named Joo-yeon (Oh San-ha). Her fiancée Soo-hyun, a secret agent of some kind, immediately sets out to find the killer. When he finally confronts Kyung-chul, in what would function as the climax of a typical film of its kind, Soo-hyun beats his fiancée’s killer severely, but does not kill him; he lets him go. The rest of the film depicts a repetitious game of cat-and-mouse so Soo-hyun can carry out his revenge again and again and in increasingly merciless ways.

I Saw the Devil takes the revenge film as far as it can possibly go. It forces the audience to not only experience events from Kyung-chul’s perverse perspective, but it throws itself head-on into the pit of torture, pain and violence that the two men engage in. All that exists for Kyung-chul during the film is an unhinged sadistic desire and all that exists for Soo-hyun is a need for revenge that is impossible to deter.

Its examination of what revenge does to a person might not be an outstandingly complex one, but it does its job well and pulls no punches. The idea that one must become a monster to destroy a monster is familiar. The really wonderful study that takes place in the film are Soo-hyun’s craving to prolong the satisfying feeling revenge gives him, and the idea of revenge as a functioning stopgap between the actual mourning process. One of Kim Ji-woon’s strengths is his execution of specific moments that elevate the material. There are two moments where his study on revenge is fully realized. One is when you can actually see in Soo-hyun’s face that the feeling he has choking Kyung-chul is something he does not want to end. The second moment comes at the very end and is very affecting and adds a lot to our understanding of Soo-hyun. This is something Kim does with similarly excellent results in A Bittersweet Life, also starring Lee-Byung-hun.

Kim Ji-Woon is a filmmaker who knows how and when to use style. He chooses his moments carefully and infuses them with a trendy sensibility without allowing style to overwhelm his film. His always impeccably choreographed fight scenes are on display, riveting as ever. A confrontation in a greenhouse as well as a rather incredible scene that takes place in a taxi cab are two scenes where Kim’s penchant for building up tension and delivering action heavy scenes are on display. The pacing in I Saw the Devil is among the most accomplished in recent memory. Clocking in at almost two and a half hours, the film flies by, yet it never feels rushed. Kim takes his time letting the story unfold and allowing atmosphere and mood to sink in, without the running time ever imposing itself. It is fully engrossing throughout which is not an easy feat.

There are still weaknesses that cannot be ignored. The first is that Kim’s characterizations can be a bit too simplistic. It may be thematically understandable for the film to have a one track mind given the very succinct motives of the characters but Soo-hyun and Kyung-chul could have had more depth without losing the ferocity of their motives. This can be attributed to screenwriter Park Hoon-jung (this is Kim’s first film as director only), but characterization has never been Kim’s strong point. There are certainly moments that add quite a lot to our understanding of the two, but it is hard not to wish there had been a bit more.

This film is meant to be extreme and you will not see any arguments from me on the level of violence on display in relation to Kim’s vision. At a certain point though, seeing sexual assault after sexual assault on women adds nothing to the proceedings. This kind of violence is always a tricky subject and it is always going to be somewhat problematic. Aligning us with Kyung-chul and showing us his encounters with women is important to the story. The film is meant to be extremely disturbing but after a couple of these scenes, the audience full well understands the kind of person Kyung-chul is. Certain scenes could have been cut or shortened without losing any kind of its extremist point-of-view. It gets to a point where every time a woman walks onscreen, one can assume there will be an assault, and it becomes disconcerting and obnoxious.

It is impossible to give a blanket recommendation to I Saw the Devil because it is not for everyone’s tastes. Its problems cannot be ignored, and yet I cannot shake it. There is so much to admire here in the ferocity of its vision and execution. The performances are thoroughly strong but it is Choi Min-sik who is nothing less than captivating, giving one of the most memorable portrayals of a serial killer. Whether one thinks it is trussed up trash or a meaningful study on the nature of revenge, it makes no apology for what it is. Unlike many an empty-headed slasher film, I Saw the Devil shows that something meaningful can be said when it uses violence and its impeccable orchestration makes this a must-see for anyone up to the challenge.

8/10