Wednesday, 29 December 2010

2010 In Review

2010 has come to an end and I'm rounding up an eclectic year of film with an epic five part review of the best and worst cinema has had to offer over the past 12 months. Where films have been reviewed for different publications, the hyperlink is included. Enjoy this round-up of my favourite art-form in all the world!

Best Films of 2010

#1 Inception (Christopher Nolan)

Christopher Nolan's achievement with Inception is nothing short of miraculous. Building on his technically astonishing, dramatically astute work on The Dark Knight, Nolan here continues a rich, intelligent vein of form, deploying literary tropes and metaphors (notions of dreams and the subconscious) and bolting them to a confidently realised, visually dazzling world, one which can pivot, shift and tilt at will. It is at once an art film and a blockbuster; an intellectual powerhouse and a James Bond style spy adventure. Fingers crossed that it will mark a sea-change whereby executives privilege films that respect an audience's intelligence. Brilliantly cast, fabulous to look at and bracingly complex, Inception raises the bar on summer movies.

#2 Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich)

Who ever thought that a CGI animated feature could prove more moving than most other live action movies? Toy Story 3 manages a quite extraordinary coup, transcending crude notions of child and adult cinema to take on a beautifully complex texture. It is a film which carries a colourful exterior but mines heart-wrenching notions of loss, identity and the dreaded concept of neglect; an ostensibly kiddie-friendly story that portrays complex emotions through the eyes of plastic toys. It is by a long distance Pixar's greatest achievement to date; not only the best film in an already landmark trilogy but a profound meditation on what it means to be human, with an ending that proudly takes its place alongside the likes of The Shawshank Redemption and It's a Wonderful Life.

#3 A Single Man (Tom Ford)

Certain daft accusations were made against A Single Man; namely that because it marks former Gucci head Tom Ford's directorial debut, it's a triumph of style over substance. Such claims are perfectly ridiculous. The beauty of Ford's film is the way in which it finds the substance beneath the admittedly plush style, eking out the deeply moving story of a bereft ex-pat teacher as he sets about what he's decided will be the final day of his life. In a world where sharp suits, cuff links and chrome cars mask wrenching sadness, Colin Firth conveys a breathtaking sense of melancholy, supported by vivid turns from the likes of Julianne Moore and Nicholas Hoult. Heartbreak never looked so handsome.

#4 The Kids Are All Right (Lisa Cholodenko)

It comes bearing the dreaded 'indie film' tag but The Kids Are All Right is a fantastically warm experience, fizzling with rich humour and wonderfully observant of awkward social situations. Hitting on the simple yet deceptively profound notion that a supposedly unconventional, lesbian family are far more conventional than they appear, Lisa Cholodenko's breezily confident direction gazes unflinchingly at the sun-baked California suburbs, exposing the frailties that lie beneath. But it's never smug or unpleasant; rather honest and refreshing, backed by superb performances from Annette Bening, Julianne Moore and, especially, Mark Ruffalo.

#5 The Secret In Their Eyes (Juan Jose Campanella)

Both a profound meditation on memory and a gripping suspense thriller spanning decades, The Secret In Their Eyes begins with one of the most striking opening scenes of a film in 2010. Encapsulating feelings of loss and sadness in just a few frames, the power of these early scenes reverberates throughout the rest of the film, transforming it into a rippling, eerie tale of lost romance and second chances. Throughout, Juan Jose Campanella's multi-stranded direction is underscored with a gripping sense of portentousness, and a tracking shot into a football stadium takes its place as one of the year's most astonishing cinematic achievements.

#6 Lebanon (Samuel Maoz)

A long-gestating personal project of director Maoz, Lebanon is a remarkably accomplished technical venture, painting a picture of the 1982 Lebanese conflict from within the confines of a tank. But the film's most remarkable achievement resides in its vivid portrayal of humanity, painting a picture of anguished young soldiers trapped within an environment that conspires to sever any notions of compassion. Maoz, drawing on his own experiences, clearly draws cinematic inspiration from the likes of Das Boot but his film is a strikingly original, haunting effort nonetheless.

#7 The Social Network (David Fincher)

A film crucially not about Facebook but about those who created it, David Fincher's latest is blessed with his usual formidable attention to detail and fascinatingly taps into a period of recent history where the possibilities for online networking were still in their infancy. Graced with excellent performances, a witty sense of humour and a fascinating central portrayal from Jesse Eisenberg, how much of it is true or not is up for grabs, but it's film making done with integrity and self-belief nonetheless.

#8 The Ghost (Roman Polanski)

Roman Polanski is on his best form in years with The Ghost Writer, ironic when one considers his famous imprisonment during the film's post-production period. Not that you'd know from watching the confident results on-screen. It's a classic Polanski poisoned chalice, where dark humour and menace exist as sides of the same coin. Ewan McGregor gives a superbly blank performance as the ghost writer of the title, getting into hot water when he's called to work on the memoirs of a former UK Prime Minister (a brilliantly creepy Pierce Brosnan). Special mention must go to Olivia Williams' understated but vital supporting role.

#9 Four Lions (Chris Morris)

No other comedy this year was as bold, as controversial or indeed as successful as Chris 'Brass Eye' Morris' directorial debut, the story of a group of British jihadists on a quest for glory. Blending uncomfortable laughs with a genuine sense of tragedy, it refuses to go for the cheap shots, portraying its lead characters, first and foremost, as human beings. In fact, it occupies a particularly difficult position where comedy proves to be tragic and vice versa, never aiming for tired punchline gags but always striving for that intangible glimpse of humanity.

#10 Fuse (Short) (Ben Barfoot)

A beautifully realised slice of dystopian horror, Fuse is an astonishing achievement, influenced by a rich heritage of sci-fi cinema and achieved on a virtually non existent budget. Proof that money is no harbinger of talent, the pioneering technology used to animate live action photography lends the film an eerie texture, remarkable when one considers its torturous post-production process. My interview with the makers of the film can be found in the October section of this blog. For more information on the film itself, visit

...2010 In Review (cont.)

The Best Film Scores of 2010

#1 How to Train Your Dragon (John Powell)

Forget Inception. No other film score in 2010 brimmed with such a magnificent, thrilling sense of adventure as John Powell's How to Train Your Dragon. Boasting as sweeping a main theme as one could hope to find (one that perfectly encapsulates the thrill of flying), plus an array of energetic, dazzling action music typical of this composer, it's arguably Powell's finest score to date. A massively bold, massively exciting score from start to finish.

#2 Alice in Wonderland (Danny Elfman)

Proof of the frequent, bizarre disjunct between fantastic scores and dreadful films, Danny Elfman's latest collaboration with Tim Burton conjures up more magic than the movie in its entirety. Blessed with the composer's most memorable theme in years, thundering along with choir, vocals, timpani and prancing strings, the array of marvellous instrumental textures combined with an overriding sense of whimsy make this one of the best scores of Elfman's entire career.

#3 The Ghost (Alexandre Desplat)

In an outstandingly prolific year for one of Hollywood's most exciting up and coming composers, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I may have stolen the limelight, but for sheer edgy atmosphere, The Ghost takes some beating. Alexandre Desplat conjures up a brilliantly spiky sense of menace for Roman Polanski's thriller, deploying an almost quirky ensemble to represent the blackly comic whirlpool into which Ewan McGregor's eponymous ghost writer sinks.

#4 The Last Airbender (James Newton Howard)

Another fantastic score for a truly awful film! James Newton Howard proves once again that his burgeoning talents in the realm of romantic fantasy are wasted on the inept M. Night Shyamalan. By composing such a breathtaking score for a useless film, Howard proves he has his own sixth sense, resulting in massive orchestral forces that are enormously engaging, moving and spiritual. The finale, Flow Like Water, is likely the most awe-inspiring track of the composer's career to date.

#5 Gulliver's Travels (Henry Jackman)

A marvellous surprise with which to end the year, Henry Jackman's robust, delightful effort for Jack Black's Gulliver's Travels proves there's plenty of life left in the old-fashioned, fully orchestral film score. Conjuring up the spirit of John Williams in its brassy sense of adventure and powerfully rhythmic action sequences, it's a superbly romantic work from start to finish and earmarks Jackman as a talent to watch in future.

#6 Tron: Legacy (Daft Punk)

An example of an electronic/orchestral hybrid score done properly, the spirit of Vangelis is very much alive in Daft Punk's thrilling score for Tron: Legacy. Drawing on their background in live performance, the band base the score around a powerfully noble theme that is put through a series of pulsating synthetic variations, ranging from the action-packed to the serene. Many film scores attempt a likewise fusion but very rarely is it pulled off with as much confidence and flair as it is here.

#7 The Tourist (James Newton Howard)

Entry number two for James Newton Howard finds him in a frothy, exuberant kind of mood - but there are terrific hidden depths here. Howard's score for Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's lambasted comic thriller blends modern electronic rhythms and exciting action sequences with some of the loveliest romantic work of his career, resulting in a score that's at once traditional and contemporary. It may be insubstantial but the composer is rarely as entertaining.

#8 A Single Man (Abel Korzeniowski)

Korzeniowski's stately, moving score for Tom Ford's acclaimed adaptation of A Single Man brims with the same style and tragedy inherent in the visuals, but that description makes the score sound as dull as ditch water. Nothing could be further from the truth; despite being one of the more classically oriented film scores in 2010, this is beautifully wrought music, dripping with emotion and adding further layers of melancholy to Colin Firth's outstanding central performance.

#9 The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (David Arnold)

Film score fans have waited a long time for David Arnold to return to the exuberant, lavish style of Independence Day and Stargate. 2010 marked just such a return. Voyage of the Dawn Treader, like Henry Jackman's Gulliver's Travels, restores life to the full-blooded fantasy score, paying lip-service to Harry Gregson Williams' original themes while relying on a bedrock of swashbuckling new material. Both thrilling and, in the end, extremely moving, this is Arnold's best score in years.

#10 Predators (John Debney)

With Predators, John Debney achieved the finest tightrope act of any film composer this year, re-orchestrating Alan Silvestri's classic themes while also bringing the franchise into the modern age courtesy of some truly terrifying, abrasive new material. Debney's greatest achievement resides in that difficult position between homage and original work: this is score aware of its rich heritage but possessed of a thunderous new identity that is thrilling to behold.

...2010 In Review (cont.)

The Worst Films of 2010

#1 The Lovely Bones (Peter Jackson)

Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Someone really needs to take Peter Jackson's computer away from him or else risk inflicting another tacky, gaudy, CGI-led monstrosity like this on the world. Completely bereft of the confident storytelling seen in Lord of the Rings and reducing spiritual concerns and notions of evil to offensively trite levels, it's a waste of a talented cast (Saoirse Ronan, Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci) and an example of self-indulgent, big-budget film making at its worst.

#2 Alice in Wonderland (Tim Burton)

The award for Biggest Disappointment of the Year goes to Tim Burton's latest. When it's not even apparent what planet a dual-accented Johnny Depp is on, it's not a good sign, but truthfully Alice in Wonderland is a mess from start to finish. Lumpen storytelling, the exhausting gloss of green-screen in every other shot and a relentless march to a derivative sword-swinging climax somehow bleed all the whimsy and enchantment out of Lewis Carroll's source material, literature that, ironically, should have played right to Burton's strengths.

#3 The Last Airbender (M. Night Shyamalan)

If anyone harboured doubts about the increasingly po-faced, patronising nature of M. Night Shyamalan's movies, then said doubts were replaced by hearty belly-laughs in this mega-budgeted piece of nonsense. Further proof that Shyamalan can't script dialogue, can't direct actors and clearly finds anything approaching humour a struggle, there are some priceless lines in here ('From birth, I knew you were always destined to be a bender'), ones which invite more laughs of derision than gasps of awe

#4 Clash of the Titans (Louis Leterrier)

1981's Clash of the Titans was no masterpiece but it was at least fun and respectful to the rich history of Greek mythology. Louis 'Hulk' Leterrier's bone-headed remake is none of those things, replacing any sense of artistry and entertainment with a stream of noisy, CGI dominated set-pieces cribbed from any number of stupid, forgettable blockbusters. It shouldn't be possible to make Greek myths boring but Leterrier and a faceless cast led by a shockingly vacant Sam Worthington somehow achieve it.

#5 Skyline (The Brothers Strause)

A triumph of effects over the fabric of cinema, the idiotic Skyline is so brazenly derivative, it actually becomes jaw-dropping. Fighter pilot attack from Independence Day? Check. Gribbly fleshy/mechanical monsters from The Matrix? Check. The list goes on but where those films lucked out was in entertainment value. Skyline's incoherent reliance on set-pieces is just boring. But then what did we expect from the directors of Aliens Vs Predator: Requiem, one of the worst films ever made?

#6 Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (Oliver Stone)

Unbelievably spineless fare from a director as politically charged as Oliver Stone, the long-awaited Wall Street sequel has its priorities up the spout. Instead of taking an angry, impassioned look at the events which exacerbated the current recession, Stone frustratingly points the camera in the direction of charisma-vacuum Shia La Beouf, something which robs the film of relevance and political intuition. Thank goodness then for Michael Douglas, returning to his Oscar-winning role as Gordon Gekko; he single-handedly makes it all watchable.

#7 The Other Guys (Adam McKay)

Will Ferrell is, on occasion, capable of producing something truly brilliant (Anchorman) but there's always a danger of his comedies turning into cliquey frat-parties between actors and filmmakers keen to pat themselves on the back. The Other Guys unfortunately leaves the distinct impression that a better, funnier edit was left on the cutting room floor. What we're left with is a smug montage of improvised bits, a wasted partnership between Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg and a bizarre end credits sequence clearly hinting at the film it once was.

#8 Unstoppable (Tony Scott)

Draining any and all tension from a real-life incident with blatty, MTV style camerawork, Tony Scott's bag of tricks prove tiring in the extreme with Unstoppable. Denzel Washington and Chris Pine do what they can but in the face of such hectic film making, it's hard to remain interested. With edits every five seconds and a hectoring sound design, Scott frustratingly refuses to let the incident speak for itself (perhaps because the train in real life wasn't travelling as fast as the filmmakers like to make out).

#9 The Book of Eli (The Hughes Brothers)

Ouch, stinker number two for Denzel this year. The Book of Eli tries the classic bait and switch with its audience, pretending to be a Christian allegory when in fact it's all about the in-vogue monochrome look of current post-apocalyptic movies. Both Washington and Gary Oldman as the baddie are subservient to the needs of a narrative that punches far above its weight, one that is riddled with holes and falls apart on closer inspection. Stupid films are one thing; stupid films that think they're onto bigger and better things are something else.

#10 Hot Tub Time Machine (Steve Pink)

A film that was clearly sold on the basis of its title, the extent of the wit in Hot Tub Time Machine is measured by those very four words. It's a peculiarly lazy comedy, one that's dominated by its high concept but which fails to do anything especially funny with the concept itself, bar a few good jokes about 80s fashion. By and large, the humour just withers and deflates, relying on a series of tired bodily fluid gags that could be taken from any substandard comedy. The presence of John Cusack may have fooled viewers but really this is just lazy formula.

...2010 In Review (cont.)

Best Surprises of 2010 (Film/Actor)

#1 The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford, 1962)

As rich, disturbing and ironic a take on the Western as it is possible to find, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is one of John Ford's most assured films. In the film that gave birth to the famous epithet 'When the truth becomes legend, print the legend', James Stewart and John Wayne occupy opposing points of the moral compass in a burgeoning town beset by the repulsive criminal Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin fashioning one of the most intimidating villains in cinema). Featuring an extraordinarily forward-thinking sense of pessimism and melancholy in its outlook on heroes and how society perceives them, it's a rare film that hasn't dated since release but has instead increased in stature and complexity. A masterpiece in every sense of the word.

#2 Bad Day at Black Rock (John Sturges, 1955)

A ruthless exercise in furniture-chewing suspense, Bad Day at Black Rock has few rivals in terms of quietly mounting paranoia. From the moment one-armed army veteran Spencer Tracy arrives in a backwater, redneck town to investigate a disappearance, the eerie, ill-defined sense of menace never lets up, and things aren't helped by the presence of monstrous thugs Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin. Tracy acts as a riveting moral centre in what is a remarkably quiet film, one which features few scenes of overt violence but which is rife in deadly, slow-burning atmosphere. Director Sturges brings his customary intelligence to bear on a chilling story that bubbles with unpleasant racial undercurrents, bringing the western kicking and screaming into the modern age.

#3 Noomi Rapace (Lisbeth Salander, The Millenium Trilogy, 2010)

Whatever the flaws in the adaptations of Stieg Larsson's Millenium novels, Noomi Rapace's tremendous central performance never faltered. As goth, bisexual, anti-social computer hacker Lisbeth Salander, Rapace is electrifying from first frame to last, fashioning a thoroughly modern heroine who lies at the heart of Larsson's disturbing expose of male-female relationships. By turns victim, persecutor and enigma, Salander is never a cipher but always a plausible centrifuge to the increasingly convoluted and ridiculous plot machinations surrounding her. Rapace plays it to the hilt, and the moment in the final entry, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, where she turns up in court with a mohawk is one of the most triumphant moments in a film in 2010.

... 2010 In Review (cont.)

Best Surprises of 2010 (Film Scores)

#1 Explorers (Jerry Goldsmith)

Quite possibly the best collaboration between Goldsmith and director Joe Dante, the score for Explorers, one of Dante's most overlooked films, brims with a terrific sense of optimism not often heard in the composer's work. It's arguably his finest score for a live-action family film, boasting a tremendous main theme (The Construction) that is practically alive with the possibilities of childhood adventure. And with a plethora of typically accomplished electronic segments and an awe-inspiring round up of the primary themes at the climax, it's a magnificent, full-blooded effort from Hollywood's greatest film composer, one who is sorely missed.

#2 Kikujiro (Joe Hisaishi)

Joe Hisaishi is perhaps best known for his wonderful efforts on the Studio Ghibli films, scores which boast memorable themes and heavenly incidental sections. However, he also brought these principles to bear on his other key collaboration with director Takeshi Kitano (one that unfortunately came to an end a few years ago), most notably in his delightful score for the director's Kikujiro. Featuring a beautifully intimate sense of melancholy throughout, with special emphasis going on the interplay between piano and strings, it's an enormously moving work, one which underlines the film's central relationship (between a crook and an unnaturally repressed young boy) with deftness and intelligence.

#3 Heavy Metal (Elmer Bernstein)

For a composer best known for his work with intimate ensembles on the likes of To Kill a Mockingbird, Elmer Bernstein made an astonishing plunge into large-scale fantasy with Heavy Metal. For what is essentially an animated anthology featuring lusty babes, blood and guts, Bernstein composed an extraordinarily rich, almost apocalyptic effort, one that reaches for a grand sense of choral/orchestral chaos rarely heard in the rest of his output. It's a shame the film simmered under the radar as a cult classic because the score rivals the best of John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith, boasting one of the composer's best themes (Taarna), some blistering action music and the type of compositional intelligence we always associate with Bernstein's work.

Saturday, 25 December 2010

Happy Christmas 2010

Festive greetings and happy new year to all those following me in the blogosphere!

Long may it continue into the new year - stay safe

Friday, 24 December 2010

Reel Retrospective: It's a Wonderful Life (1946): The Richest Man In Town

As the festive season draws in, here's a reminder of a film (my second favourite of all-time, after The Shawshank Redemption) that redefined the way we look at Christmas. Just as Charles Dickens altered our perceptions with his landmark story A Christmas Carol (oft-filmed itself), when famed humanist director Frank Capra decided to spin the story of George Bailey, he crafted a masterpiece for the ages. It's a Wonderful Life is sometimes dismissed as sugary hogwash (indeed the film's antagonist Mr Potter may have described it as such) but the magic of the film is in the way it extracts perhaps the greatest moral ever seen in cinema from a story about a decent man contemplating suicide. Out of the bleakness comes an evergreen story that hasn't aged a day since the film's release in 1946...


Two of the close-ups in It's a Wonderful Life simply rip the heart out of the viewer. Both occur fairly late into the story, when businessman George Bailey (James Stewart) is plumbing the agonising depths of despair, having misplaced a sum of money vital to the survival of his Building and Loan, the ball and chain that has seen him tethered to his hometown of Bedford Falls. His gut-wrenching fragility as he frantically clutches his child to his chest is heightened in a scene later on where, out of sheer desperation, he verbally prays to God in his local bar. In the latter case, he is rewarded with little more than a punch in the face from the husband of his daughter's teacher whom he earlier insulted on the phone. 'That's what you get for praying', he caustically remarks.

George's cynicism and self-loathing gets a reprieve however when, on the verge of suicide, he plunges into an icy river to rescue an angel, Clarence Oddbody (Henry Travers). It transpires Clarence is not just an angel but George's own guardian angel, who has been sent to remind George of his very wonderful life. By showing him what life would have been like had he not been born, George is reminded of his importance in the world, importance he had previously taken for granted. In a neat twist on the Dickensian fable, Clarence's quest is used as a framing device during Capra's film; at the start he is instructed in the history of George's life, and it is through this framework that we come to understand the tormented everyman.

As portrayed by James Stewart, arguably the Golden Age's finest exponent of human decency, George becomes the most vital, believable and sympathetic protagonist ever seen in a motion picture. We trace his wonderful life from the start, when he saves his brother from drowning in a frozen lake, to his marriage to childhood sweetheart Mary (Donna Reed) to his eventual financial struggles. Along the way, he is forced to give up his dreams of travelling and is locked in an eternal struggle with the odious Dickensian villain Mr Potter (Lionel Barrymore). But it is only when Clarence reveals the 'black hole' left behind in Bailey's absence that he realises what a plethora of riches he has bestowed on those around him.

It's a simple home-truth but a magnificent one at that, one that is rife with tremendous compassion and which transforms the cinematic tapestry into a joyous meditation on basic human decency. No actor was ever better at conveying the complexity of such straightforward emotions than Stewart, and Stewart never did better work than here, able to move from light comedy to melancholia to freewheeling joy in such a breathless fashion that more acute empathy for a central character was never felt again in a film. Capra's Italian-American eye again benefits the underdog and the everyman, observing small-town America with just the right amount of gentle humour and, eventually, overwhelming pathos.

It's also a darker film than is commonly suggested, making George's final push for redemption one of the most magical, gut-wrenching journeys seen on the big-screen. After all, it is about a man contemplating suicide and the circumstances that have brought him to such a position. Stewart, bringing his World War II experience to bear on the role, somehow makes the simple struggle to remain a good man the most gripping story of all. Throughout, we will George to fight against the darkness and bitterness within him, desperately wanting to cry out that he needn't yield to life's cruelty.

And it is George's eventual moment of revelation that culminates in perhaps the most magnificently moving moment in cinema. Faced with the bleak horror of a world in which he never existed, George finds Bedford Falls has been transformed into Pottersville; his brother Harry was unable to save the lives of comrades on a transport in WWII (because George wasn't there to save Harry as a child); his wife is a spinster; and his mother doesn't recognise him. It's an existential nightmare of the worst kind, and George realises the richness of his life needn't be measured in the money stored at the Building and Loan. Capra's deft handling of the film's moral tone however is never that glib or trite, the haunting black and white photography poised delicately between sadness and potential catharsis.

And when the catharsis does come, it is impossible for the viewer to leave feeling less enriched than George does. So careful has Capra's application of emotional texture been, and so involving have been the performances of Stewart and his co-stars, that the film taps into a vein of wonder guaranteed to evoke floods of tears. But they're not sickly, sentimental tears; they're genuine ones, evoked by genuine emotion and the closest thing cinema has got to genuine characters. It's a fabulous moment when George charges home simply appreciating the reality of his life (even if that means going to jail) but the coup de grace comes in the final 10 minutes.

Those are possibly the most inspiring and uplifting ever witnessed in a film, as George is reminded of his status as 'The richest man in town' by an assortment of colleagues, friends and family who each contribute money to bail him out of his troubles. Miraculously, it's never corny, just a celebration of love, courage and genuine emotion. As Auld Lang Syne reverberates on the heart-strings and Stewart comes to realise the magnitude of his apparently insignificant life, it's impossible not to be moved. It's not just reactions to the script rippling across the actor's face: it's the well-spring of humanity that has come bubbling up to wash over the audience. Never again would cinema work such wonders. If only every time a bell rings, we got a film as good as this ...

Sunday, 5 December 2010

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest

And so, Stieg Larsson's Millenium Trilogy finally reaches its end in The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest. Is it a cathartic finish for Noomi Rapace's goth computer hacker, Lisbeth Salander? Will Michael Nyqvist's crusading journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, be able to save the day? Or is it less of a sting in the tail and more a blunted climax?

Thankfully, after the idiotic Girl Who Played Fire, an entry that sank under the sheer weight of ridiculous, convoluted storylines, Hornets' Nest ends on a note that is at least satisfying, if nothing else. It's talky, prosaic and very long but it sensibly treats the characters as characters once again, as opposed to devices. It's hard to tell if all the extraneous storylines are tied up but the loyalty to the characters is refreshing and, crucially, plausible. It hearkens back to the moody Gothic intrigue of opener The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, a thriller that, although flawed, proved grimly compelling in spite of a muddled storyline.

Briefly recapping the bloody end of Fire, Salander has wound up in hospital with a bullet in the head. Her repulsive, sex-trafficking father has survived as well, although her impervious-to-pain half-brother is still on the loose (maybe 007 can sort him out). The sense of intrigue and portent gathers steam when the mysterious organisation who have been lurking in the background of the previous two films plot to remove Salander and her father once and for all. It's up to Blomkvist to compile a credible legal case and begin the final fight back.

It's a big ask to sit through what is essentially more than two hours of exposition and, with even more characters constantly added to the mix, it threatens to become ever more over-wrought. But there's a vital sense of things coming to a dramatic head, and when Rapace turns up in court, hair done up in a mohawk, clad in heavy leather, make-up and rings, the moral concerns of Larsson's work cut through all the fluff like a hot knife through butter.

For while there's been a lot of padding during this trilogy, Rapace has been nothing short of magnificent, forging one of the most dynamic, complex female character studies seen in a film in years. Nyqvist is also impressive, albeit in a more understated, impassioned sense, and it's terrific to him finally fighting for the cause, but it's Rapace's show all the way. Her character is the greatest enigma of all, and the film has the good sense to end it as such. Ultimately, sexual politics may be the most confusing thing of all - but it's never dull with characters like Salander around.

The Kids Are All Right

A story about an unconventional family who are in fact far more conventional than they let on, The Kids Are All Right is as balmy and nourishing as a ray of California sunshine but with a firm grip on the neuroses bubbling beneath the swanky, terracotta suburbs. A rare indie that never idolises the lives of its characters, instead, it exposes a well-spring of philosophical uncertainties underpinning the lives of a supposedly hip lesbian couple, their children and the sperm donor who puts the cat among the pigeons.

Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland) and Josh Hutcherson (Bridge to Terabithia) put in charming performances as the kids of the title, Joni and Laser, conceived separately by Julianne Moore and Annette Bening via anonymous sperm donor Mark Ruffalo. With Joni about to head off to college, curiosity compels her to seek out her biological father. Although Ruffalo's shambling, womanising restaurateur Paul isn't exactly what she imagined, she welcomes him into her family, and director Lisa Cholodenko (Laurel Canyon) takes great pleasure in examining the baffling collision of characters, sexualities and attitudes.

'Lesbians? Yeah I love lesbians' a bewildered Paul explains to Joni during their initial phone conversation. Such a vignette beautifully sums up the understated, frequently rib-ticking, pathos of the entire picture. For Cholodenko's film is very much a dinner-table movie (the poster also bears this out): in essence, one that focuses on the claustrophobic interaction between people of all stripes, where a piercing glance or conflicting eye line says just as much as the razor sharp dialogue. In this sense, Cholodenko's work shares much in common with that of Mike Leigh. And although she isn't afraid to get bawdy in places, more pleasure comes from the character quirks that feel astonishingly genuine.

Of course it helps that Cholodenko has cast her film brilliantly. Wasikowska and Hutcherson refreshingly downplay the expected brattiness of the teenage archetypes, while Moore and Bening invest each of their parental figures with such a rippling sea of contradictions and agitations, it's dazzling. All cropped hair and guzzling wine, Bening's high-maintenance doctor Nic calls to mind her mother from American Beauty (much less grotesque however), such a contrast to Moore's flame-haired, free-spirited Jules that one takes enormous delight in simply observing their chemistry. Their clear belief in the characters results in a family portrait that's poignant, painful and very, very funny, ripe with a sense of conviction that bursts off the screen.

As good as they are, however, Ruffalo steals the film, hook, line and sinker. Having built up an impressive CV of understated, layered portrayals (those who saw Shutter Island this year would agree), his mumbling, shambling commitment-phobe is a delight from beginning to end. Both bemused by the turn of events (witness the crackling barbecue scene) and, in the end, consumed by them as sexual identities are criss-crossed and spiral out of control, if there's any justice, he's a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination.

His dry wit and crippling insecurities also form much of the concerns of the film, one which pries open the sun-baked California suburbs to uncover a series of inescapable moral truths. Regardless of whether a couple is straight or lesbian, humanity continues to be bound by the same anxieties; it's a straightforward conceit but one that sustains the film brilliantly, always underscored by Cholodenko's canny mix of comedy and drama. The Kida Are All Right is more than just alright; it's one of the best films of the year.