1. Samson and Delilah. A tragi-comic (mostly silent) love story about two aboriginal teenagers who try to escape their troubled lives on a reserve. Funny, political and deeply personal, this debut feature by aboriginal filmmaker Warwick Thornton never lets you pity or idealise the central characters. I think he gets the balance between realism, compassion and hope just right. Some of the most beautiful cinematography I’ve seen this year. 10/10.
2. Four Lions. A dark comedy satirising the shambolic attempts of four British jihadis to jump the queue to paradise. Sometimes over the top – though never lacking in sincerity, realism or courage – this film is essential viewing, taking on a difficult subject in the toughest of all comedic styles. Chris Morris did his homework and exceeded all expectations. 10/10.
2. City of Life and Death. An epic, hard-hitting war film by Chaun Lu about the brutal Japanese siege of Nanjing in 1937. At times quite difficult to watch, the film treats its horrific subject matter with remarkable objectivity and pathos for the suffering on all sides. The battle scenes are masterfully edited and must surely rank amongst the most powerful ever committed to screen. 10/10
4. Winter Vacation. Poet/filmmaker Li Hongqi has crafted a dry and wonderfully experimental comedy about the lives of children in a rural Chinese town on the last days of winter vacation. Boredom rarely ever seemed as funny or political. I’m sure Jim Jarmusch wishes he still made films like this. 10/10.
5. Lourdes. A touching drama about a woman with multiple sclerosis who goes to Lourdes in search of company and some culture, and finds herself experiencing a miracle. Jessica Hausner’s film immerses you fully in the surreal world of faith tourism, laying bare the characters and institutions in precise and surprising detail.10/10.
6. Boxing Gym. The only new documentary I managed to see this year, this gem from master documentarian, Frederick Wiseman, epitomises everything I love about cinema verite: poetic imagery and editing; great characters; and all of the dramatic qualities of narrative fiction. The film brilliantly juxtaposes the beauty, discipline and controlled violence of boxing, and I don’t even like the sport. A mesmerising film; exquisite sound design. 10/10
7. The Road. A harrowing tale about a man and his son struggling to survive the horrors of a post-apocalyptic world. Many found this too bleak, and strongly disliked Nick Cave’s score. I agree to an extent, but the story is so thought-provoking and so well told by the writer, director and actors it’s too good to miss. See it when you’re feeling particularly robust. 9/10
8. Dogtooth. A twisted fable about a wealthy businessman and his wife who go to disturbing lengths to keep their children isolated from the outside world. This daring and unforgettable meditation on the limits of control would have got a higher placing had it not been for an implausible plot point and an unfortunately exploitative shot. Not for the faint hearted. 9/10
9. Inception. An action film, wrapped inside a con movie, wrapped inside a heist movie, wrapped inside a love story. Inception is all of these things and more. Ingeniously conceived and realised, the film’s strength is its innovative take on a brilliantly simple and insightful premise: namely, that we perceive and create our dreams simultaneously. Plenty of thrilling set pieces (if overly long in places) – for my money, the best Hollywood blockbuster since the Matrix. 9/10
10. Shutter Island. Nothing is as it seems in this film noir about two US marshalls investigating the disappearance of a patient from a high-secure mental hospital. Steeped in film history, this is pastiche in the best sense of the word (comprised from many different ingredients). Martin Scorsese excels at quoting shots from other films to add depth to the narrative and drop clues to the mystery that is unravelled (e.g. the opening shot reference to Taxi Driver and the showerhead reference to Psycho). Worth multiple viewings.9/10
The American. Clooney is eminently watchable as an assassin laying low in an Italian mountain village. Gripping and beautifully shot.
A Prophet. Good – at times, exceptionally good, with a compelling performance from Tahar Rahim.
Up in the Air. A moving, sophisticated and unpredictable film, with great dialogue and good performances by the main cast.
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Nicholas Cage in the kind of role he does best.
The Last Station. Funny and intelligent examination of the struggle for control of Leo Tolstoy’s legacy, marred only by Helen Mirren’s tonally inconsistent performance.
Precious. Fine and very brave performances, despite some flawed direction. The straight treatment of what turned out to be a classic education plot left me wanting more.
Of Gods and Men. A well-intentioned and thought-provoking film that (as my friend Ben put it) needed a 12 Angry Men moment. There is no real crisis of faith, and in the end, doesn’t reach the heights it could have.
The Brothers Bloom. Quirky and charming, this interesting take on the long con as improvised storytelling is fresh and highly entertaining.
Invictus. I have a soft spot for this film. It’s flawed and overly simplistic, but I knew exactly what they were going for and went along for the ride.
The Temptation of St. Tony. The lights go out, and for the first hour you’re firmly in an exquisite black comedy. Then, in a whisper, you drop through all nine circles of hell. I honestly felt cheated, but the first two acts are superb.