28 January 2010
THE BEST FILMS OF 2009
1. STILL WALKING
Hirokazu Kore-eda applies his usual nimble touch and graceful understatement to this deceptively straightforward tale of a family that reunites annually to commemorate the anniversary of its eldest son’s death. While paying tribute to Ozu’s timeless domestic dramas, it still retains a singular, contemporary feel. Set over the course of one day, it does not contain many shocking revelations or artificial culminations, and it doesn’t need to: Kore-eda and his cast find beauty in simplicity while crafting a fully-realized family portrait.
2. 35 SHOTS OF RUM
Having hit an enigmatic plateau with the inscrutable L’INTRUS, Claire Denis pulls back a little for this intimate tale of a single father, his adult daughter and their neighbors in a Parisian apartment building. Communicating less through words and glances and more with evocative stylistic choices such as the lengthy, hypnotic shots of commuter trains in motion or a mesmerizing Tindersticks score, Denis remains an unconventional storyteller, but this is her most likable, possibly most affecting effort.
3. BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS
Some films defy all logic, and this one is at the head of that class: you’ve got veteran weirdo Werner Herzog directing a sequel-in-name-only to the Abel Ferrara cult flick, starring a bug-eyed Nicolas Cage as a coked-up cop. What could go wrong? Well, in this case, practically nothing—the end result is inspired lunacy, redolent of Herzog's classic 1970s films, and only he could have tempered such an unexpectedly great turn from Cage.
4. THE HURT LOCKER
This war film about an American bomb squad in Iraq is first and foremost a character study about the thrill and pull of having to do an ultra-risky job that infects a life to a degree that that's all there is. Daringly refusing to take a political stance, Kathryn Bigelow’s film is an exciting blend of realism and dramatic tension, courtesy of its fantastic, you-are-there cinematography and editing, but also due to Jeremy Renner’s searing, stirring lead performance.
This Austrian thriller about an ex-con who attempts a bank robbery to pay off his debts and retire for good kicks off unassumingly, like hundreds of interchangeable thrillers. Then, something truly unexpected happens and REVANCHE splendidly comes to life. Director Gotz Spielman has crafted a film that’s Hitchockian in every positive sense of that term, but he’s also a true original in how he creates and sustains suspense while taking the genre into rarely visited moral and emotional territories.
6. FANTASTIC MR. FOX
I explained/dismissed THE DARJEELING LIMITED as a transitional work, but it turns out it was an aberration. This lovingly crafted, stop-animation Roald Dahl adaptation is more of a logical (if belated) follow-up to THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, recalling that film’s wild creativity and occasionally matching its poignancy while working with a pitch-perfect cast and a medium that plays to all of the director’s strengths. As usual with Wes Anderson, I anticipate additional great things to surface on subsequent viewings.
7. A SERIOUS MAN
In their darkest, most personal (and possibly most hilarious) film yet, those Coen Brothers look to their 1960s suburban Jewish Minnesota adolescence for inspiration in exploring the existence of God via a kind nebbish whose luck is worse than Job’s. Yiddish folk tales, record club scams, bad television reception, and the wackiest bar mitzvah ever depicted on screen all disquietingly lead towards nothing less than impending apocalypse in what is (seriously) the Coens’ mature masterpiece.
8. THE BEACHES OF AGNES
Nearing her 80th birthday, French New Wave icon Agnes Varda examines and reminisces over her lengthy career, and this luminous essay film proves she’s still a master of the form. Her affable, whimsical persona lithely guides us from one topic to the next; whether musing on everything from her Belgian childhood to her late husband Jacques Demy or constructing a beach in the middle of a city street, she always engages with her playfulness and insight.
9. IN THE LOOP
Political satire is an increasingly tricky business, especially as the models themselves approach new peaks of ridiculousness. Armando Ianucci’s film confronts this challenge head-on with brisk, witty dialogue and a labyrinthine plot that successfully splits the difference between utter satire and a frighteningly plausible situation. However, it all soars thanks to its exceptionally gifted ensemble, from Tom Hollander’s overconfident, underqualified politician to Peter Capaldi’s delightfully foul-mouthed communications director.
10. LAKE TAHOE
Fernando Eimbcke’s follow-up to DUCK SEASON may not ascend to its predecessor’s giddy, poetic heights, but then, few films do. Leaving the confines of an apartment building for the streets of a run-down coastal town (but still using long, static takes), Eimbcke follows a young man trying to get his crashed car fixed so he can leave town—only the film is about something else entirely. This eventual revelation, so simple yet unexpectedly profound, is marvelously executed, and it leaves a staggering imprint.
ANVIL! THE STORY OF ANVIL
I hate heavy metal music, but I loved this documentary about a long-running, fairly obscure Canadian metal duo, for it rapidly transcends the obvious “Real Life Spinal Tap” tag with an unlikely compassion for its subjects.
A refreshing alternative to every last faux-inspirational teacher film, Laurent Cantet’s study of a multiracial Parisian classroom gives us a winning but flawed instructor whom, like most of his profession, doesn’t know the answer to everything.
In a better-than-average year for big budget animation, Henry Selick finds a kindred spirit in Neil Gaiman and his darkly comic little fable, and apparently no pressure at all from any studio suit to soften or dumb down the material.
HERB AND DOROTHY
This fairly basic documentary about unconventional art collectors The Vogels gives viewers a unique, touching story and a neat crash course introduction to modern art—what’s not to love?
Good to see Tilda Swinton hasn’t sacrificed any of her eccentricity following her Oscar win: she’s absolutely lacerating in this outrageous extended riff on John Cassavetes’ GLORIA, and arguably no one else could have pulled it off.
First timer Oren Moverman takes on a difficult, sensitive subject few veteran directors would even touch, and guides Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson to career-best work (and gets more great work from Samantha Morton).
OF TIME AND THE CITY
Making a long-awaited return to his essay-film roots, Terence Davies expertly weds documentary footage, a carefully selected soundtrack and his own agreeably grumpy narration, and the whole is a monumental requiem for a vanishing city.
Bent Hamer’s film tells a well-worn story about how retirement breeds complacency and regret over a half-lived life, but you probably haven’t seen it told this way before, with an odd but engaging blend of wistfulness and surreal, deadpan humor.
THE PLEASURE OF BEING ROBBED
With the “mumblecore” genre having gone as far as it can reasonably go, The Safdie Brothers invent what could possibly replace it, retaining the low budget, DIY aesthetic and irascible characters but infusing them with a real lyricism and depth that suggests a bright future indeed.
Shane Meadows collects Thomas Turgoose, his remarkable young lead actor from THIS IS ENGLAND and plops him into a noticeably different slice-of-life that could be a British take on mumblecore, only much more fun.
Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden are more than up to the task of following the great HALF NELSON with a perceptive meditation on immigrating to America and what it means to follow a dream—even if it means not pursuing it.
THE WHITE RIBBON
Part mystery, part period piece (a rural German village on the eve of World War I), part creepy children film, Michael Haneke’s Cannes winner may be his most accessible work to date, but rest assured, his fixation on the worst aspects of human behavior has not diminished one bit.
Other films that received at least 4 stars out of 5
LA DANSE: THE PARIS OPERA BALLET
THE NEW YEAR PARADE
PRECIOUS: BASED ON THE NOVEL "PUSH" BY SAPPHIRE
THE SECRET OF THE GRAIN
A SINGLE MAN
SITA SINGS THE BLUES
THEATER OF WAR
UP IN THE AIR
VALENTINO: THE LAST EMPEROR
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