Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn tells the uniquely British tale of Charles Bronson, Her Majesty's most dangerous prisoner, who earned himself 26 years in solitary confinement during his stays at various prisons around the UK due to his ultra-violent, sociopathic nature - or as he puts it, "making a name for myself." Tom Hardy is mesmerising as Bronson, a charismatic, hilarious and downright terrifying jokester, whose direct-to-camera raconteur-style monologues (to an imagined auditorium of besotted spectators) endear you to this otherwise vicious man who it would have been only too easy to demonise. Does Refn glorify and encourage violence in his film that has been dubbed "A Clockwork Orange for the 21st Century"? Not at all. The brutality of his actions and resulting punishment and attrition for his acts are never glossed over, but at the same time Refn's energetic visual style and eclectic soundtrack of 80s pop ensure that the film never descends into grimy kitchen sink drama, instead bouncing along as a deranged pantomime that mirrors Bronson's own skewed world perspective.
This beautifully crafted medieval war epic was easily my favourite Chinese film of the year. Dispensing with generic sprawling battle sequences, director He Ping instead focuses on a village of Zhao war widows, who mistakenly rescue two Qin deserters and nurse them back to health, only for deception, romance, insanity and ultimately tragedy to follow with them. Gorgeous to look at, Wheat is part Kurosawa, part Aristophanes and a refreshing perspective on China's Warring States period, anchored by a career-best performance by Fan Bing Bing as the young woman left in charge of the village after their men head to war, only to slowly buckle under the compounding pressure. A delightful surprise.
To say that this is the best work Jean Claude Van Damme has ever produced is to undersell JCVD. Playing a version of himself reeling from a custody battle for his children, mounting debts, drug addiction, an endless cycle of direct-to-video projects and just plain old age, the Muscles From Brussels heads back to his home town, only to inadvertently be swept up in a bank robbery siege, which the police believe he is masterminding. Treading the fine line between deconstructing the action genre and being knowingly self-referential, JCVD beautifully portrays a man in the middle of complete meltdown, offered a single, unrealistic opportunity at redemption by doing what he's always pretended to do throughout his career. Exciting, funny, smart and ultimately deeply moving, JCVD emerged as far more than anybody ever expected, particularly from the man himself.
Korean director Bong Joon Ho returns to similar territory as his breakthrough hit Memories of Murder after dabbling with the big budget monster flick The Host. In small-town Korea a schoolgirl is brutally murdered and the cops are quick to arrest the local simpleton (Won Bin). When he is tricked into a confession his elderly, overprotective mother (fantastically played by Kim Hye Ja) takes the law into her own hands and proves to be terrifyingly resourceful. Bong tells a deceptively simple tale with incredible gravitas, turning a straightforward fight for justice into a darkly comic and emotionally harrowing journey, both for the characters and the audience.
6. Vampire Girl Vs. Frankenstein Girl
Yoshihiro Nishimura & Naoyuki Tomomatsu join forces to create arguably the most openly enjoyable film of the year. A simple high school love triangle pits new girl Monami against queen bitch Keiko, when they both fall for the same boy. Monami is actually a vampire and intends to convert her new beau to the undead by feeding him her blood. Keiko tries to intervene and is pushed from the roof of the school, but luckily her Daddy is secretly a mad scientist who reanimates and modifies her corpse before sending her back in to the fray for a final showdown. Kitsch, funny and soaked with Nishimura's trademark blood splatter effects, Vampire never takes itself too seriously and never allows the constraints of its modest budget to get in the way of a good time. Accused of being racist for some admittedly rather misguided humour, any offense was quite clearly unintentional and should not detract from the fun to be had in this film. The school wrist-cutting team alone should not be missed!
5. Il Divo
Not to be confused with Simon Cowell's operatic boy band, Paolo Sorrentino's biopic of former Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti is a barnstorming thriller that plays more like a gangster film than a political drama. Toni Servillo plays the creepy corrupt leader, elected to office seven times and accused of having wide-reaching mafia connections, like he's Nosferatu himself, all hunched shoulders and skulking shuffle and Sorrentino's highly energised direction, coupled with an excellent electro-pop soundtrack, make for a fantastic movie-going experience that personally won me over in favour of Matteo Garrone's gritty Gomorrah. Politics has never looked so cool, sexy or dangerous.
4. The Mesrine Saga
Technically the Mesrine Saga comprises of two films: L'Instinct De Mort and L'Ennemi Public No.1, but they were made back to back and I saw them both in the same week, and need to both be seen to get the full story of France's real-life Scarface - the gangster Jacques Mesrine, who rampaged across two continents throughout the latter half of the 20th Century. Vincent Cassel it at his very best as the unpredictable live wire, who rose from petty criminal to Public Enemy No.1, frequently robbing numerous banks one right after the other and escaping from a number of maximum security prisons. Director Jean-Francois Richet keeps the pace fast and stylish, peppering his supporting cast with heavyweights like Gerard Depardieu, Matthieu Almaric and Ludivigne Seigner, but at the end of the day this is Cassel's show, walking the tightrope between charismatic ladies man and batshit crazy sociopath perfectly. Should be held high with the very best gangster films out there.
3. Un Prophete
Director Jacques Audiard's fantastic prison drama was another surprise for me. After its big wins at both the Cannes and London film festivals I was excited yet apprehensive going into this, half expecting a challenging, harrowing drama that might compromise on the enjoyment factor. Instead what we got was a superb piece of work that sees a young illiterate lad, Malik (played by newcomer Tahar Rahim) instantly fall in with a bad crowd of Corsican gangsters the minute he is incarcerated in a French prison. The Corsicans are at war with the Arabs (of which Malik obviously is one) but he finds himself caught behind enemy lines while behind bars, forcing him to make his own plans. Rahim is superb, the direction tight and focused and the story totally engaging - capturing the fear and survival instincts that surface when in the big house - without ever glamourising or trivialising the dangers that lurk around every corner. Brilliant stuff.
And yes, it is yet another prison film! That's three in my top 10, but all completely different in style, story and intent. Acclaimed British artist Steve McQueen's first foray into feature filmmaking is a beautiful, breathtaking piece of work. Set in Northern Ireland in 1981, the film details the famous Maze Prison dirty protests and hunger strikes by IRA prisoners seeking political status. The film begins with the prison guards and a new inmate before eventually seeking out Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) amidst a tangled mass of hair, blood and teeth - the man who leads the strike. The film uses next to no dialogue, save for a stunning 22-minute central conversation between Bobby and a visiting priest (played by Liam Cunningham) that includes a 17-minute single take of rapid-fire banter that perfectly encapsulates everything these men are fighting for. McQueen uses images and actions to tell his story, without the need for superfluous dialogue - an achievement made all the more incredible by the fact this was his first film. Poetic, dreamlike, intoxicating and deeply moving, Hunger is totally unique and utterly compelling.
1. Love Exposure
I went back and forth between this and Hunger, but finally felt that Sono Sion's 4-hour marathon of religion, depravity and love deserved the top spot. Japanese high school student Yu is haunted by the memories of his deceased mother, whom he worships as the perfect woman. His father has since become a Catholic priest and after a failed affair takes his anguish out on his son, forcing him to take confession every day. This sends Yu on a soul-searching mission to seek out new ways to sin and then confess in order to placate his old man. Yu's odyssey sees him cross paths with a mysterious cult, enter the seedy world of up-skirt "peek-a-panty" photography and meet the girl of his dreams, Yoko. The fact that I went to see this twice at the Cinema eventually convinced me I must love it more than any other - the second time was arguably more fun than the first, as there's simply too much to take in and remember from a single viewing. The Region 2 DVD is out next week & I've already pre-ordered it. This is a film I will doubtless go back to again and again, for its humour, its passion, its audaciousness and simply the fact that a film like this exists at all. Any film that has its main character drag-up like Meiko Kaji in Female Prisoner: Scorpion in order to woo the girl of his dreams just has to be awesome. And this is. Film of 2009, hands down.