Friday, January 1, 2010
2009: A Year at the Movies
I actually wanted to wait until the year was officially over to present the best films that came out this year, as well as some other random thoughts. It should be noted that I still have plenty of movies to catch up with over the next year, including some films I still want to catch in theaters the next month, such as "Avatar", "The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus" and "The White Ribbon". Plus, I have films such as "Silent Light" and "The Headless Woman" in my home now via Netflix. Since my list is not limited to 10, I will make any updates and note them if I feel I want to include any additional films in this group.
This was not exactly the greatest year for movies. In fact, it was rather depressing, but there were some films that gave me hope that all is not lost. I have seen a total of 45 movies as of this writing either in theaters, on DVD or VOD. I only counted films that received an official release in the United States this year on any format. For example, I did not include Bong Joon-Ho's "Mother" (that I saw at the New York Film Festival) which would have easily made my best movies list but will not be released here until spring. First, I will present what I consider the 13 films that stood out most for me, followed by special categories that highlight special achievements, as well as reflect my complicated reactions to what cinema offered us in 2009.
The Best Movies of 2009 (presented in alphabetical order):
The Chaser (Directed by Hong-jin Na)
This was the last film I saw this calendar year. I watched this South Korean film on Sundance on Demand, but it was given a theatrical release in New York two days before the year ended, so I included it. The first film directed by Hong-jin Na takes one of my least favorite genres, the serial killer movie, and avoids all of the cliches you would expect. The serial killer is no criminal mastermind. The hero of the movie is a former cop turned pimp whose stable of prostitutes are becoming victims of the killer. Oddly enough, this pimp turns out to be more honorable and competent than the police force. This movie has several well-edited suspense sequences and I genuinely did not know what was going to happen after the first half hour. I was surprised how effective it was and how it avoided the exploitative tendencies of the genre.
Hunger (Directed by Steve McQueen)
First time director Steve McQueen's film is about the 1981 IRA hunger strikes in Maze Prison and eventually details the last 6 weeks of leader Bobby Sands' life. This film has imagery both harrowing and beautiful. A nearly 20 minute scene where Sands (played by Michael Fassbender) and a priest (played by Liam Cunningham) debate the righteousness of the strikes is possibly my favorite scene from any film this year, as well as containing about 90% of the movie's dialogue. "Hunger" is about the debate as to whether fighting for a cause is worth the destruction of one's own body. The film sees Sands as both a symbolic martyr, as well as someone's son.
The Hurt Locker (Directed by Kathryn Bigelow)
Much has been discussed about Kathryn Bigelow's war movie that was the first Iraq War film to be about something more than preaching to the choir about whether we should have invaded or not. If anything, the addiction of Sgt. James to a life of defusing bombs says more about the American mindset that led to the invasion than anything else. What does it say that we think this man is both reckless and admirable? He may get other people caught in the crossfire, but who else are you going to get who's brave enough to do his job? Sequences from this film will be studied for years to come to learn how to build suspense in film.
Il Divo (Directed by Paolo Sorrentino)
Paolo Sorrentino's biopic of former Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti is a Scorsese-esque look into the criminal mindset of politicians. It is a testament to the film that I still do not quite know what to make of it and its central character, a slightly hunchback man who expresses little outward emotions. While it is without doubt that Andreotti is corrupt (and it seems everyone in Italy knows this as well), you also understand why he has gotten away with this for decades. It becomes a 2 hour depiction of a man who exerts his power with a poker face.
In the Loop (Directed by Armando Iannucci)
Armando Iannucci's film, based on his series "The Thick of It", took awhile to grow on me, but I was fascinated by how it showed that troublesome foreign policy can be based on misspoken words that are then reshaped to avoid public embarrassment. Much like "Il Divo", this film shows that politics is a rather absurd business where the winners create bigger problems, the losers are shown the door and the citizenry is completely unaware of the circumstances that have gotten their country into another mess.
The Messenger (Directed by Oren Moverman)
A dramatically involving film directed by Oren Moverman centered around three terrific performances by Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson and Samantha Morton. Low-key and earnest, but rarely dishonest. This was the rare issues drama that did not suffer from talking down to its audience and further demonstrated the costs of a war by making the soldiers and their immediate loved ones flawed and human. I wrote more about this film here.
Moon (Directed by Duncan Jones)
The first feature by Duncan Jones represents what I look for in a science fiction film: ideas. It is a film that understands space, edited with a measured pace and camera movements that breathe and take in the atmosphere of the space station and the terrain of the moon. It is the first science fiction movie where the inside of the space station has traces of dirt and dust, making this feel like a true location rather than a sterile environment created to call attention to its beauty. Why has Sam Rockwell's great performance in this film gone unappreciated?
The Road (Directed by John Hillcoat)
The second most-overlooked film of the year that was dumped into theaters for the crime of staying true to its source, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Cormac McCarthy. This movie was most welcome during a time when it has become disturbingly trendy to release films that get off on depicting mass destruction. I do hope that this movie finds its audience one day, as it is a film I gather fathers will most likely relate to very closely. I wrote more about it here.
A Serious Man (Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen)
The third film in what I consider the Coen Brothers' Apocalyptic Trilogy, following "No Country for Old Men" and "Burn After Reading". It is amazing that this film has managed to rub a good number of people the wrong way, but I guess that's what happens when a filmmaker decides to tackle the taboo subject of religion. It was recently derided by J. Hoberman of the Village Voice as "Nazi porn" to build up the facile "Inglourious Basterds". I believe this film will affect people of all faiths, as well as non-believers, deeply, as they puzzle and rethink this movie for years to come. I wrote more about it here.
Sin Nombre (Directed by Cary Fukunaga)
Another debut feature, this time by Cary Fukunaga, about a gang member and a teenage girl from Honduras trying to get across the border to the United States, mostly by traveling on the top of trains. Although there are a couple of iffy plot points, the film is the work of a natural born filmmaker with some of the best compositions I have seen this year. It is a film about how certain lives are treated as cheap, although this film highlights the value and worth of each life, treating them as more than a social issue statistic.
Thirst (Directed by Chan-wook Park)
The most overlooked film this year, released in one theater in New York City for about 3 weeks. Chan-wook Park rounds out a decade of great films with one of his most disturbing (and that is saying a lot). Though on the surface it is about vampires, it is truly about the important moral choices we make in life and how there are always repercussions to them. This is a movie that clearly turned off people who found it almost too oppressive, but it is clearly the work of a rare filmmaker who re-invents himself with each film and never shies away from going where most directors are afraid to go. I wrote more about it here.
Tokyo Sonata (Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
A simultaneously reserved and off the wall movie about family and unemployment directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Subtract all the Hollywood bullshit from "Up in the Air" while making the story take some truly bizarre turns and you get this film. It understands the shame of losing one's job (and the extra free time you have because of it) while also portraying the family at the center of the movie realistically, warts and all. The last scene of this film is one of the most beautiful of the year.
Up (Directed by Pete Docter)
The only big budget Hollywood movie to make my list this year is ultimately about aging and death, which seems to get lost when some dismiss this as sentimental claptrap. It may be so, but that silent opening sequence in the film made me tear up, probably the only time I have done so in a theater this year. Need I say more about how Pixar truly understands how to tell story through images and memorable ones at that.
Flawed, But Not Forgotten:
Tetro (Directed by Francis Ford Coppola)
Julia (Directed by Erik Zonca)
World's Greatest Dad (Directed by Bobcat Goldthwait)
These three films by Francis Ford Coppola, Erick Zonca and Bobcat Goldthwait (How did he get in here?) were not perfect films by any means, but still left me elated by the possibilities of cinema. Coppola's film was messy, melodramatic and had an unnecessary final plot twist, but I was still moved by the tale of family rivalry. This was the first time in a very long time I could say that about one of his movies.
"Julia" is a pretty bizarre Cassavetes by way of Coen Brothers mood piece that features Tilda Swinton in the performance of her career. This has a plot turn every twenty minutes due to Swinton's character being a drunk with the propensity for fucking up plans that were stupid to begin with. She's barely smart and lucky enough to just avoid complete disaster but sure does come close to achieving it. Did I tell you this was one of the funniest movies of the year?
"World's Greatest Dad" covers a taboo subject in our society, the hypocrisy of the living when dealing with the death of someone who is far from perfect. It also has the best Robin Williams performance of the past few years. Sure. It's not the most visually interesting film and Goldthwait relies on one too many music montages. What can I say? I saw this movie about a month or so after the media-sanctioned mourning of Michael Jackson. Perhaps, a few connections in my mind were made to make the subject matter rather timely.
Directors Who Still Challenge Themselves:
Joel & Ethan Coen "A Serious Man"
Chan-wook Park "Thirst"
Although they are at different stages of their careers, the Coen Brothers and Chan-wook Park both came out with films that are not just filmmakers coasting on their past work. It always excites me to see directors who have not lost their will to explore. Is it a coincidence that both chose to put out their most theological films in the same year? "A Serious Man" and "Thirst" demonstrate that the most vital directors today are the ones who use film to search and probe the world around them and especially themselves.
Director Who Finally Fulfills Their Early Promise:
Kathryn Bigelow "The Hurt Locker"
Anyone can look at Bigelow's previous films and know that she was exceptionally talented. The problem was that her direction was often better than the stories she told. Though I do admit that I was an early champion of "Point Break" being one of the best action movies of recent time, even I acknowledge that it was a pretty ridiculous film.
This year, Bigelow finally directed a script that not only played to her strengths, but also took her usual themes of men and their need for an adrenaline rush much deeper than ever before.
Most Promising Directors:
Steve McQueen "Hunger"
Duncan Jones "Moon"
Cary Fukunaga "Sin Nombre"
These are three directors working with low budgets, who can tell thematically-resonant stories, are willing to experiment and have a strong eye for compositions. That their debut features are different genres about completely different subject matter gives me hope about the diversity of directors in the coming decade.
Michael Fassbender as Bobby Sands in "Hunger"
I still think it's too bad more people recognize him from "Basterds" than they do here, but, once again, that 20 minute scene where Sands and the priest debate his hunger strike showed this was an actor to watch.
Ben Foster as Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery in "The Messenger"
Oddly, the least discussed performance of the three central characters in this film, though it is clear the film is anchored by Foster's acting. Montgomery does not have to talk about his pain from the war because you can see it in Foster's eyes at any moment.
Charlotte Gainsbourg as She in "Antichrist"
Despite my mixed feelings about the film, there is no doubt this performance went the distance in creating discomfort for anyone watching it. Was it wise for Gainsbourg to do some of the things von Trier asked her to do? Probably not. It still does not take away from how haunting her performance is.
Ok-bin Kim as Tae-ju and Kang-ho Song as Priest Sang-hyeon in "Thirst"
Kim was a 22 year old model with little acting experience, while Song has shown up in leading roles in several movies from both Chan-wook Park and Bong-Joon Ho. Their performances are central to this movie as the two lovers who feel various levels of guilt at their increasingly amoral acts.
Viggo Mortensen as Man in "The Road"
Mortensen is one of the most underrated quiet actors of our time, working mostly with slight gestures and eyes that don't move a whole lot. I'm not even sure I've heard him speak at high volume too much, but yet his body language expresses so much.
Jeremy Renner as Staff Sergeant James in "The Hurt Locker"
A characters actor I had only seen in "28 Weeks Later" and "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" gets his breakout role. What I appreciated was the coolness of his demeanor, making it difficult to get a read on what was going on internally with that character.
Sam Rockwell as Sam Bell in "Moon"
Rockwell, another often underrated actor, gives a performance that goes beyond the obvious stunt of acting against oneself. You really see the various Sams in this movie have slightly different nuances to their mannerisms bringing different life experiences to each scene.
Toni Servillo as Giulio Andreotti in "Il Divo"
Another character difficult to read, the actor has to work with the limited range of the real life subject's public persona as an emotionally restricted man who walks around with a slight hunch in his posture. Yes, he is guilty. but you sure cannot read it in his eyes.
Michael Stuhlbarg as Larry Gopnik in "A Serious Man"
This performance has not received the attention it deserves. Since the actor is a relatively unknown theater actor, one wonders if anyone knows that he is acting. The accusations that this movie is mean-spirited towards its characters seems to have ignored this very empathetic performance at the center of it.
Tilda Swinton as Julia in "Julia"
I have to admit I notice the pattern in my choices for best performances, mostly restrained performances from actors and go-for-broke ones from the actresses. Tilda Swinton has already had a track record for strong work, but this one is her best. A kitchen sink role where she throws everything she has into this performance. A drunk who cannot help but fuck up things more than they can be fucked up.
Directors Most in Need of a New Tune to Play:
Pedro Almodovar "Broken Embraces"
Jim Jarmusch "The Limits of Control"
Michael Mann "Public Enemies"
Quentin Tarantino "Inglourious Basterds"
This is where I know some will find great disagreement because I have seen all of these films named as one of the best of the year by some. They are all made by talented directors who have at least made one great film in their careers. I have to admit, however, that these films, ranging from mediocre to pretty good, had the stench of familiarity. Not only of directors retreading familiar ground thematically and visually, but making their directorial influences front and center above all else. Yes, we not only know Tarantino loves Leone, but Jarmusch loves Melville and Mann, for some odd reason, wants to be Wong Kar-Wai. Almodovar has too many influences to list all of them here.
I believe these filmmakers have the ability to innovate, as they have done so in the past. I cannot escape the feeling these movies all bored me a bit. I really did not see the masterpieces others had, but films that seemed rather undisciplined in the writing, directing and editing departments in particular. In some ways, the auteur theory has been, I feel, improperly applied to these directors who seem content on riffing on familiar themes rather than challenging themselves as artists. The odd thing is that all of these films contain moments that comment upon filmmaking and the power of cinema that almost feel self-serving when the directors seem like they are in a bit of a rut, recalling past glories. As I said, this is an opinion that probably will not be shared by some and will probably be debated for years to come. I wrote about most of these movies here, here, here, and, most notably, here.
Most Perpetually Overrated Director:
Jason Reitman "Up in the Air"
I have now seen three critically-praised Jason Reitman movies that have yet to rise above the level of mediocrity. He really feels like he should be more suited directing episodes of "The Office" or "30 Rock" rather than making feature films. Reitman seems like he is aspiring to be the heir apparent to James L. Brooks, who is someone no right-thinking director should aspire to be. I look at Reitman and wonder if there was some deal made with Satan to allow him to direct movies while putting Alexander Payne out of commission for 5 years. I wrote about Reitman's film here.
Film Director Hall of Shame:
Jody Hill "Observe & Report"
J.J. Abrams "Star Trek"
These were the two most cinema-illiterate films of the year. Both shot in 2.35:1, but understanding little about cinematic space, these movies inspired me a great deal. Why? Because if these two directors were allowed a mid-range budget for "Observe" and a mega budget for "Trek", anybody can pick up a camera and make a film that understands the medium, in particular, composition and editing in service of theme and emotion, more than these two did.
The Special Prize for Cinematography, Film:
Barry Ackroyd "The Hurt Locker"
Javier Aguirresarobe "The Road"
Roger Deakins "A Serious Man"
These three have a range of looks that bring out the grain and texture of film. "Locker" was shot on Super-16, but actually avoids the desaturated look overused in war movies for the past decade. "The Road" and "A Serious Man" were both clearly had digital intermediates for color timing, but also did not clean up their images to mask the imperfections. Both films have limited color palettes, except for a few selected scenes, but use them to serve the story and mood. It should be noted that I believe Deakins is one of the best cinematographers working today.
The Special Prize for Cinematography, Video:
Mihai Malaimare Jr. "Tetro"
Anthony Dot Mantle "Antichrist"
Steven Soderbergh as Peter Andrews "The Girlfriend Experience"
"Tetro" was shot on the Sony HDW-F900, while "Antichrist" and "Girlfriend" were shot on the RED camera. All three films are quite beautiful with "Tetro" timed to black & white in post, while the other two had richer saturation in their final forms. I am still amazed that "The Girlfriend Experience" was shot with little or no lighting, as the images captured the both the sterile and sensual environments more than the interactions between the characters did.
The Special Prize for Editing:
Chris Innis and Bob Murawski "The Hurt Locker"
This was probably the easiest choice to make, as every moment of this film shows the proper patience to set up the space for the action and to not oversell or glamorize the violence with slicker editing tricks. You can tell the editing choices on this film were well-thought out and ultimately precise, especially since they probably had a great deal of coverage to assemble.
A Tribute to the Diversity of Animation:
Coraline (Directed by Henry Selick)
Fantastic Mr. Fox (Directed by Wes Anderson)
Sita Sings the Blues (Directed by Nina Paley)
Up (Directed by Pete Docter)
Animation does not get much respect because many studios today crank out a lot of crap to appeal to the kiddie masses. It should, however, be taken seriously as a personal art form based on the diversity of these four titles alone. These films are not all perfect, by any means, but I do feel these are personal expressions by these directors who did not approach these projects as merely childrens' movies.
The Special Prize for Visual Effects:
Kevin Campbell "Moon"
On a $5 million dollar budget, this movie achieved what most CGI-laden films cannot. They created a believable world inside and outside of the space station on the moon that felt like it was genuinely inhabited, as opposed to being a backdrop to be wowed by. The model work recreating the lunar vehicle plowing through the rocks of the moon surface convinced you that this existed. Everything has the dimension of something real and doesn't feel like it was spit out of a computer.
When the film does employ computer compositing effects, it is used to complete the performance of Sam Rockwell, who had to act against himself (meaning no one at all). The best visual effects serve the story and do not become a sideshow of their own. It was great to finally see a movie that understood that.
Guilty Pleasure of the Year:
Drag Me To Hell (Directed by Sam Raimi)
I am well aware that this was a dopey film, but I saw this film after a week of dealing with some personal issues and it was a blast for that moment and time. There was no shameless and hokey plot device this film would not resort to. I mean, how many soothsayers, mediums and angry gypsies can one film contain? I do know if I would see it again, I would start asking questions, such as why the anvil is suspended by a rope in that garage? But, for that day, it served its purpose of going to the movies to have stupid fun.
Most Forgettable Film:
District 9 (Directed by Neil Blomkamp)
I walked out of this movie feeling the same exact way as when I walked in. I did not hate it or like it. It stirred no passion within me whatsoever outside of an appreciation for the visual effects. If you were to ask me any details from this movie I saw only 4 1/2 months ago, I could not recall much about the plot or characters. It's like it evaporated into thin air.
Don't Believe the Hype Award:
Watchmen (Directed by Zack Snyder)
The hype for this movie extended months back, deep into 2008. This was an adaptation of a supposedly brilliant graphic novel by Alan Moore and was directed by the allegedly "visionary director" of "300", Zack Snyder. What we wound up with was an overlong film that does not understand that cinema is different than a graphic novel. Oddly, the many loud voices proclaiming this the game changer of comic book movies have been silent recently. I wrote about this movie here.
The Special Prize for Recognizing the Troubles of White People with Disposable Income:
500 Days of Summer (Directed by Marc Webb)
Summer Hours (Directed by Olivier Assayas)
Up in the Air (Directed by Jason Reitman)
Now, you might think I might be taking a cheap shot at movies about white people, but, as you can see, my top movies of the year have plenty of troubled white people in them. My issue is that critics this past year have been, how shall we put this, acting a bit odd when tackling any films that deal with characters of different races or ethnicities, as well as characters experiencing financial hardship. I had no interest in seeing "Precious", but the reviews both pro and con seemed to be about primarily white critics touting themselves as people who truly understand the lives of non-whites, while simultaneously ridiculing those who do not see the world the way they do as out of touch with reality. Also, witness the hysteria directed at "Slumdog Millionaire" last year with accusations of "poverty porn", particularly when it looked like it would win the Oscar for Best Picture.
Yet, when films like the above three (each of varying quality) are released into theaters, it is never discussed that these, in some way, are the flip side of movies like "Precious". I am of Puerto Rican descent and have never lived in poverty (though I would probably not have been considered middle class until I hit my thirties), but these films often bring out the same thought in me: "Man, I wish I had their problems." While these movies do not offend me (though Reitman's film is certainly condescending), I certainly have a difficult time relating to a family deciding to sell a ridiculously large and beautiful house or a man hired to layoff people at different companies while sleeping at the best hotels or just a guy who is able to score with a woman who looks like Zooey Deschanel, for 500 days no less! These movies tend to get inexplicable praise for their, at best, modest achievements.
I would name this the Wes Anderson Award, but his most recent film "Fantastic Mr. Fox", using foxes, badgers and other assorted animals as its main characters, was his most relatable film in years. Perhaps, I should name it the Whit Stillman Award instead.
The Triple Feature to Watch In Preparation for Suicide:
Antichrist (Directed by Lars von Trier)
3 Monkeys (Directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
Where the Wild Things Are (Directed by Spike Jonze)
These three movies are so unrelenting in demonstrating how shitty life is (and I have yet to see "Precious" which would have probably made this list easily). Dead babies, lousy marriages and even cuddly creatures who are depressed all of the time. I wanted to get away from all these characters and lock myself in a mansion hunting imaginary animals like Daniel Plainview in "There Will Be Blood".
The Two Shots That Best Sum Up This Year:
In my mind, I can combine the final shots of both "A Serious Man" and "The Hurt Locker" to sum up how I feel entering the second decade of the 21st century. I am a man trying to walk down a dangerous street like a cowboy, though wearing a full-body armor protective suit. But that tornado approaches from the distance. Cue the Jefferson Airplane.