Sunday, January 08, 2012

14 Genre Films from 2011

As a sort of adjunct to my Best of 2011 list, this is a list of my favourite Genre films, all released in the UK in 2011:

(George Tillman Jr.)
Alongside Jason Statham, the most dependable action star presently working in American cinema is Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson. He is utterly convincing in action sequences - this is a man who could cause serious damage if he felt like it - he can act just enough to never become laughable in emotional scenes, and he has an appealing ability to inject irony and wit into his performances where appropriate. He perhaps makes too many family films, but his regular forays into action are generally more than worthwhile.
Faster is exceptional; a taut and tight revenge thriller with a post-Tarantino sensibility to its characterisation, especially in the supporting cast, some brutally lucid action, a great Clint Mansell score and Johnson playing a driven, emotionless killer with commendable intensity.

(Jose Padilla)
This somewhat schizophrenic Brazilian film is an angry cry of frustrated rage at the police and government corruption which besets the Country, told with the staccato rhythm of a documentary. But its also a ferocious action film in love with the adrenaline rush of violence, and fetishizing weaponry at every opportunity. There are massive shootouts with assault rifles in the Rio favelas, there are amped-up chases and beatings scattered regularly amidst the political debate. Somehow it all holds together coherently, and what's more, even works quite well.

(Kevin MacDonald)
An old-fashioned sword-and-sandal mini-Epic which could have been made, with only a few alterations, in the 1950s. I write that as a good thing, since it means an emphasis on strong storytelling, on classically shot scenes, and on solid characters and plotting. The two leads - Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell - should be the weak point, but they are both good here, and the action scenes are excellent; rousing and visually interesting but never gory or exploitative. Better than last years superficially similar Centurion, which I also liked.

(Jeon-Beong Lee)
There are three Korean films on this list, testament to how well that particular national cinema handles genre material. Of the three, The Man from Nowhere is the most commercial and unoriginal, a familiar (in conception at any rate) action thriller about a hollow shell of an ex Government Agent tracking down the little girl next door who has been kidnapped by gangsters. Leading man Won Bin is a Superstar heartthrob in his homeland and he excels in the brilliant action scenes here, each of which crackles with visceral energy and bravura style. Added to that is a surprising dose of emotional weight and that inimitably Korean tonal variance which makes films like this so unpredictable and exhilarating.

(Simon West)
Statham, playing your standard existential focused hit man - frowny, liable to have planned how to kill everybody in the room and get away Scott free at any moment - gets involved in a mash-up of two hoary old genre plot stand-bys. "This time its personal" meets "the student turns on the teacher". But this is a tight, commendably stripped down action film with strong set-pieces, Statham in the kind of role he's best at, Ben Foster offering great support as another of his damaged wild cards and slick direction from ex-Blockbuster genre hack West.

(Joe Wright)
I love the collision of the art house and the action genre. Here Joe Wright takes the chilly European setting and choppily edited action of a Bourne film, blends in some fairy-tale whimsy, a little Godard, a touch of Brit sitcom, some Fassbinder, a little techno, and makes a thoroughly modern action film. Saoirse Ronan puts that unearthly quality to great use in the lead, the supporting cast are pure-breed class and having great fun, and the Chemical Brothers score is another example of a recent trend for dance, electronica and trip-hop musicians excelling while scoring movies. Add to that the best action scene of the year: Eric Bana fighting multiple agents in a subway. In a single take. Awesome.

(Takeshi Miike)
I had issues with Miike's distancing and deconstruction of the samurai genre in this film. But they all fall away, to some extent, during the lengthy carnage of the central battle, in which the 13 warriors face hundreds in classic fashion, and where Miike tries to have his cake AND eat it (ripping the genre to shreds while also indulging in it's greatest excess) and largely succeeds. Full of casually immortal classic action beats, face-offs and heroic deaths, and lots of blood. Lots and lots of blood.

(James English)
Speaking of blood, this ultra-violent siege and battle B-film has plenty of it. A small group of hardened warriors defend a castle from a larger force in a series of gritty, brutal clashes. James Purefoy has become something of a specialist at sword-wielding lead roles and he is central here as the killing machine Templar caught up in this fightnon his way back from the Crusades. The moment where he finally unleashes a massive broadsword he has held back is built up by director English and the chaos he causes with the weapon shows why. Paul Giamatti adds some class as the villainous King John, snarling and scenery-chewing his way through the film.

(Ji-Woon Kim)
A serial killer thriller so violent, intense and disturbing, it was cut for release in Korea, a country not exactly famed for squeamishness where cinematic standards of violence are concerned. A serial killer butchers the fiancee of a Special Agent, whose revenge is to make the murderers life a living hell in a game of cat and mouse, repeatedly hunting him down, beating and mutilating him, then releasing him only to do it all again. Undeniably overlong - its 140 minutes could have been cut down to 90 or so - but the genuine emotion of the first act infuses the entire film, giving it a weight denied to much work in this genre, Director Ji-Woon Kim stages, paces and shoots each scene brilliantly,particularly the set pieces, and its two leads are great.

(Nicolas Winding-Refn)
If this had come out in 1978, or 1983, it would have been taken for what it is; a cool, stylish little genre flick. A little bit Michael Mann, a little bit Walter Hill, a little bit To Live & Die in LA Freidkin allied to a pretty classic action-Noir plot (from James Sallis' smart little novel), it allowed Refn to show how good a technician he is, gave Ryan Gosling a movie star role to bask in, and somehow appealed to hipsters and a certain brand of Cineaste both. It's empty, beautiful, and full of pure cinematic pleasures.

(Tsui Hark)
This slightly overripe, consistently ravishing Kung Fu epic shows Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes movies how this sort of material should be done. Andy Lau's Detective Dee investigates the spontaneous combustion of a couple of Government officials and gets into a fistful of sprawlingly impressive fights; all set against a vividly realised historical backdrop. There is also a talking deer, some dodgy cgi compositing, and Tsui Hark's direction, as imaginative and authoritive as ever.

(James Wan)
The first half of this low budget shocker is absolutely terrific; creepy, disturbing, and atmospherically tense throughout as it lays out a generically familiar tale of the haunting of a typical suburban family. The central couple are played - very well - by the ever-excellent Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne, who invest it with more emotion than this material usually warrants. It all falls apart to some extent in the second half, with explanations mixed in with climactic narrative pyrotechnics, but this is still an interesting, high-quality horror film.

(Na Hong-Jin)
No guns, but the most visceral and thrilling action film of this year concerns a taxi driver who gets into debt and agrees to carry out a hit for the mob. Only things get complicated - not least by his own plan to murder his cheating wife, once he's done - just as he's about to do the job and soon he finds himself on the run. Rooted in a grittily realist view of people scrabbling to make money on the margins of society, Na Hong-Jin's film showcases a series of brutal, awful knife fights and exhilarating chases through the city, and every minute of it has terrific impact. It starts off as a Noir, turns into a chase thriller and ends up a mix of gangster and action film, each element extraordinarily well-directed and gripping.

(Tobias Lindholm, Michael Noer)
Grim, hard-as-nails Danish prison film with some superficial similarities to Audiard's A Prophet. A young man ends up on a wing full of terrifying lifers during his first stint inside and has to learn the ropes fast; which means getting involved in the Prison drug business, selling to the Muslims in another wing. But that only makes his life more complicated. Starkly, intimately shot in mostly tight close up, full of moments of uncomfortable tension, dreadful suspense and horrible explosions of violence, and with a cast full of nastily-memorable character actors glaring at each other, this is a sort of perfect model of how to do this genre well: relentless, compelling, always convincingly hard-worn, with a cruelly unhappy ending.

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