Director: Alfonso Cuaron
NEXT time you think you're having a bad day at the office, imagine what the two astronauts played by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney had to go through in Alfonso Cuaron's claustrophobic thriller Gravity. The Mexican director keeps the pacing tight with the film clocking in at a brief 90 minutes and the action even tighter as the free floating camera work puts the audience in the centre of things. Visually, the film is a spectacle and for best effect, watch it in the giant Imax format to get the most out of the 3D. Like James Cameron's Avatar, Gravity is a groundbreaking film on the technical front but it also has a plot that hooks you from the first frame and doesn't let go until the breathtaking last.
Director: Vicky Zhao Wei
WHO would have thought one of China's most sought-after actresses had such a fine filmmaking bone in her. This movie is based on Xin Yiwu's bestselling novel, To Our Youth That is Fading Away, and the author initially wanted Zhao in the lead role but the latter, who recently graduated from film school, opted to go behind the camera instead. And what an accomplished debut it turned out to be. The adaptation takes its title from an old hit by Britpop band Suede (the song is featured prominently in the film and a scene revolves around the English quartet's historic concert in China) and Zhao not only nails the job but manages to coax fine performances from the fresh-faced cast, including lead actress Yang Zishan who's making her big screen debut here. In China, So Young is the year's second-highest grossing film, finishing behind Stephen Chow's slapstick comedy Journey to the West. Not just a commercial hit, the film is also critically acclaimed and has scooped numerous awards for Zhao and her cast.
Director: Woody Allen
AFTER making his last few films in Europe, Woody Allen returns home to the US for Blue Jasmine. Set in New York and San Francisco, this bittersweet comedy's jewel in the crown isn't really the 78-year-old's energetic script but Cate Blanchett's excellent performance. She plays a Manhattan socialite who moves to San Francisco and into the apartment of her poorer adopted sister. Unable to move on and adapt to her new surroundings, she makes life a living hell for everybody around her. Comedians Andrew Dice Clay and Louis C K make memorable cameos in a film that critics have unanimously called Allen's best in years.
Director: Wong Kar Wai
EVERYBODY was kung fu fighting but they certainly weren't fast as lightning in king of slo-mo Wong Kar Wai's Ip Man biopic. The film has been in the making for years and it was rumoured that the Hong Kong arthouse auteur was still editing it hours before the premiere. Even then, no definitive version of The Grandmaster exists because there are three versions of the movie - a 130-minute domestic Chinese theatrical cut, a 123-minute Berlin International Film Festival cut, and a 108-minute international cut. Each has exclusive scenes and the storytelling is re-ordered to make them all look like different films. Why? Because a perfectionist's work is never done.
Director: Anthony Chen
THE Golden Horse hype could kill it a little for those who have yet to watch Anthony Chen's impressive debut but that shouldn't stop anybody from catching Ilo Ilo. It's a small film with a big heart and plenty of cinematic soul - the sort of things that would restore the faith of anyone who might have given up on local movies because they think the commercial success of Jack Neo's films means Singapore cinema is only about lowest-common denominator slapstick comedies. The film might have ended its second cinematic run here but the impending home video release around Chinese New Year sounds like the right time to gather the family for a (repeat) viewing.
Like Father Like Son
Director: Hirokazu Koreeda
LIKE Ilo Ilo, Hirokazu Koreeda's Like Father Like Son is a family drama that has been wowing critics and audiences alike at festivals around the world. Just last weekend, it was a big winner at the 56th Asia Pacific Film Festival, picking up two major prizes - Best Picture and Best Director. The heartwarming plot revolves around a pair of boys who are mistakenly switched at birth. The quiet drama caught Steven Spielberg's eye at Cannes and he has acquired it for a Hollywood remake.
Only God Forgives
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
BOOED by some at Cannes while receiving a standing ovation from others, Nicolas Winding Refn's hypnotic thriller, Only God Forgives, is like an accident scene - rubbernecking is not an option even if your conscience tells you otherwise. Hollywood hunk Ryan Gosling, a frequent Refn collaborator, slices and dices his way through the Bangkok underworld in search of the men who killed the brother of his character. The violence is stomach-churning but it's all done so beautifully you'll be missing plenty if you shut your eyes even for a second. Don't watch it after dinner though.
Director: Harmony Korine
GOOD girls go really bad in Spring Breakers, writer-director Harmony Korine's pseudo-arthouse drama about four girls who go on a robbery spree to pay for their spring-break trip. Barely legal ex-Disney girls Vanessa Hudgens and Selena Gomez appear in their most grown-up roles to date (read: they wore the smallest of bikinis for most of the film), playing with guns and cavorting with James Franco's spaced-out drug dealer character. As always, Korine's work courts controversy and critics are divided over whether Spring Breakers empowers women by portraying the girls as anti-heroes or is just one big sexist film with the director exploiting the sexuality of his young actresses. Watch it and decide for yourself.