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Maybe a film pinning itself to Paul Westerberg's couplet "Dreams unfulfilled/Graduate unskilled" was always bound to resonate with underemployed liberal-artists who write freelance movie reviews. And yet... Mottola makes his sticky-tarmaced setting into a sort of Middle American Kitschland, games and rides embodying the incurious Top 40, working-class prejudice and sexual hang-up his holding-patterned Oberlin-grad protagonist expected to finally escape; beyond the I-Love-the-80s particulars is a quintessentially American tale of upward mobility arrested—one that, this year especially, hurts like an unexpected smack to the nutsack.
9. The Limits of Control
First thing you learn is that you always gotta wait: beyond coffee-kibitzing cool, Jarmusch's cinema of people-watching is a matter of patiently attuning consciousness to latent surrounding patterns. As the still point in the turning world, Isaach De Bankole's hyper-alert calm and physical focus made for the year's most underrated performance; walking out of the theater afterwards felt like stepping out of a sauna.
10. Public Enemies
An oddity when it was fed in July to multiplex audiences sated with action (Transformers) and comedy (The Hangover), but for the ungrudging (not just Michael Mann geeks), this offered a thrillingly new kind of period crime picture. Depp's too good-looking, Bale's stiff, and the romance between Dillinger and Billie Frechette never quite crushes you, but the unique passion in every masterful DV frame—and the movie's accreting, poetic sorrow—can haunt your memory.
11. Lorna's Silence
(Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
At first glance we've seen this one before—a Dardenne brothers film about redemption—except Lorna's Silence isn't nearly so simple. The Dardennes reliably, realistically describe the socio-economic circumstances of scheming, citizenship-desperate foreigners within a porous post-EU Belgium, but what makes Lorna's Silence so unnerving is that the title character's quashed moral awakening transforms not into pure martyrdom but self-sanctifying madness, awing to behold but devastating to comprehend.
Michael Joshua Rowin
In a strong year for offbeat horror, the best may be Thirst, a vampire story less outright scary than icky, squishy, and transfixing. Park also made the beloved Old Boy, but Thirst's newly turned priest, who tries to stay sort of good while parlaying his condition into a forbidden affair, provides a more empathetic central figure, and despite the gushing blood, this is the more mature genre riff. The plot twists uncomfortably, Park's camera gazes steadily, and international cinema provides another reason for the U.S. to be embarrassed by Twilight.
13. The Hurt Locker
Like the bomb-defusing unit in her movie, Bigelow braved the (admittedly lower-stakes) minefield of Iraq War art-making and somehow came up with something that was tense and exciting without being exploitative, Call of Duty bullshit, and morally impactful without sounding liberal wakey-wakey alarms. Its missions are cleanly choreographed—here incoherence doesn't equal realism—and Jeremy Renner's lead performance is unforgettable.
14. 24 City
Having spent the decade taking on the mantle of "greatest Chinese filmmaker," Jia closes out the aughts with an impeccably restrained portrait of three generations of factory workers. Gut-wrenchingly candid talking heads are intercut with literary quotes, sing-alongs, and movie-star cameos, an aesthetically flexible approach that allows Jia to keep his trademark austerity while adding a few doses of TV-drama immediacy.
Senior L writers present their year in film.
Dec 24, 2009