First, the runners-up, in no particular order: The austerity of Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon , a totalitarianism origins story, is so chilly that it stays with you long after you've left the theater; similarly, the Coen brothers' A Serious Man persists past the end credits, as it grapples with that age-old, always appropriate question: Why does God hate me when I haven't done anything wrong? Cargo 200 is disturbing, too, in its gruesome critique of Soviet Russia, which includes putrefying corpses piled atop a rape victim. The vomit-colored You, the Living bridged the divide between disturbing and hilarious by making us laugh at the trials of self-obsessed depressives; the classical and timeless Shall We Kiss?, on the other hand, turned a light comedy into a grave assessment of romantic failure and disloyalty. Now, without further ado, the Top 10, in order from least best to bestest:
There's no denying the mastery of the man behind Inglourious Basterds' camera: Tarantino knows how to ratchet up suspense over long stretches of set piece. But the fine form isn't the deepest pleasure here: it's the kick in the ass Tarantino delivers to the WWII movie, which had been languishing since around 1945 under the weight of sanctimonious clichés.
In contrast, Park Chan-Wook offers little in Thirst, which exposes a vampire movie contemporary like Twilight to be as wan as Robert Pattison, aside from beautiful images; all of the deeper allegories, about the church or AIDS or addiction, get lost because they probably weren't there to begin with. Park is a virtuosic but vacuous visualist. Which, here, isn't that bad of a thing to be, because it bolsters the operatic love story at the film's heart.
Meanwhile, overlooked Romanian New Waver Corneliu Porumboiu (12:08 East of Bucharest was a gem!) drains the police procedural of all its beauty but not its blood in Police, Adjective. Set in the present—unlike many of the celebrated films of his countrymen, which hide in the past—the movie exposes Romania's failure to construct a better society in the wake of Ceaucescu with the story of a detective torn between protecting a teenager's future and administering a backwards and unjust law. The Socratic climax, shot in a single take and centered on a dictionary, is a formal and intellectual doozy.
Otherwise, cops and robbers were so out this year. James Gray spent the decade making exceptional gangster movies like We Own the Night. But, with Two Lovers, he defies Godard's famous dictum about a girl and a gun by replacing the latter with another girl, and proves that no other contemporary director has a stronger sense not only of Brooklyn—he puts New York, I Love You to shame—but of the epic pathos involved in Affairs of the Heart.
Although other directors did display a facility for tragic romance: Richard Kelly shows he has an emotional sense after all with the wrenching finale of The Box, which is otherwise standard issue Kelly: an insane story of alien possession and invasion, in which the E.T.s have come to earth to test humanity's moral fortitude. We fail, of course, just like an America using violence to make a profit—but which refuses to (literally) get blood on its hands—has been failing too, from even before (but especially since) Bush 43.
While Kelly attacks his fellow Americans, Yoji Yamada, who spent most of the decade rewriting the samurai genre, went back in time again but not as far back as usual to criticize his fellow Japanese in Kabei: Our Mother; he loosed his immeasurable talents on the WWII picture. He didn't (literally?) set the genre on fire like Tarantino: he merely fashioned an expert and old-fashioned melodrama, a perfect portrait of a Japanese Mrs. Miniver struggling to keep her family together in wartime Nihon, where the locals are so jingoistic Yamada almost suggests they deserved their atomic bombs. Yikes.
But the year wasn't without its share of feel-good, or something like good, movies. There's no other word to describe Olivier Assayas' Summer Hours [ ] but lovely—it's just a lovely film, from the lived-in-ness of its world of books and art-objects to its complex feelings about artifact, which, lacking naivete, are both reverential and practical, though not without tinges of nostalgia and poignancy.
But if it's poignancy you're after, you can't do much better than Greg Mottola's Adventureland. You can see where the story's going from the first reel, but because Mottola steeps the film in such emotional honesty—from the pained awkwardness of perpetual students to the money woes affecting every character and family—the predictable developments (boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back) are never less than genuinely wrenching.
Ditto for The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Wes Anderson's hitherto masterpiece. Animated in stunningly gorgeous stop motion, it's a fun kid's movie, hilarious and action-packed. But it's emotionally rich, too, with jealous relatives, spousal abuse and murder, revolving around a complicated struggle between animal urges and the pull of civilization. And, while pushing a radical socialist agenda, it's steeped in the deep pain of personal failure—of not being so fantastic after all.
Still, no movie this year expressed the pain of personal failure like Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Tokyo Sonata, another example in a year full of them of a long-working director finally fashioning his masterpiece. The film deals with the shame of unemployment and the way families fall apart, a microcosmic allegory for the way economic depression can destroy an entire country—even a hemisphere. Kurosawa lets his characters run away from their problems and each other, but ultimately brings them all back, stressing the fact that rehabilitation begins at the epicenter of destruction. The final scene, a piano recital of Debussy's Claire de Lune and a perfect marriage of music and image, is not only the most moving scene of the year—it's one of the most moving, like, ever.Nicolas Rapold's Best (and worst) Films of 2009
With 35 Shots of Rum and Summer Hours, Claire Denis and Olivier Assayas give two different, elegant, moving models for getting the feel of family, home, and time's passage, in milieus that together span the local and the global, tradition and change. Profound confusion reigns in the minds of The Headless Woman and A Serious Man (though in the latter case, the title is a knotty proposition). Each courts viewer alienation with its strange cosmos, yet in separate ways Lucrecia Martel and the Coen Brothers took us deep into fascinating states of psychological and existential irresolution.
Mystery-man protagonists of a different sort drive The Limits of Control and The Informant!. One was an exquisite trance-like journey with an art-appreciating, anticapitalist hit man; the other an often goofy but vexing portrait of jawdropping chutzpah.
In Night and Day, Hong Sang-soo lets loose another man (played by Kim Yeong-ho) mortifying himself in romance and life, this time in Paris; meanwhile, in the Brooklyn of Two Lovers, James Gray lets loose another guy (Joaquin Phoenix) to throw himself about, make declarations, agonize, and do many of the same things. And just as Hong and Gray are willing to send us toppling forth awkwardly with these men, so do the best parts of Where the Wild Things Are sketch out difficult not-yet-worked out childlike emotions (and difficult people) with an under-your-skin intuition.
Fantastic Mr. Fox brought the compromises of marriage, tragic compulsion, and sibling rivalry to a delightful and funny Roald Dahl adaptation, while Coraline pulled off the alternate-world fantasy of a young girl with the necessary scariness intact. Ponyo dazzles with riotous color that transcends age. A gangster legend gets an otherworldly, even Brechtian treatment in Public Enemies, which brings together Michael Mann's career with macho gunplay, period detail, and pushing-to-abstraction digital aesthetic. In Police, Adjective, Corneliu Porumboiu does something just as radical with the police procedural.
Before, during, and after: White Material (coffee farmer Isabelle Huppert digs in before impending revolution), The Hurt Locker (bomb squad ritualizing danger and death), and The Messenger (new friendship in the shellshocked aftermath) burrow deep into moods, moments, and terrifying suspension imposed by war.
Despite fatigue setting in after a hyped decade, the possibilities of documentary were on full display, including: a Wiseman special in La Danse and its exploration of dance and dancers, art and its institution, the moving and hilarious friendship depicted over the sad-sack arc of Anvil! The Story of Anvil, Peter Greenaway's dense investigation of a painting he calls Rembrandt's J'Accuse, an only slightly shrill précis of established research and systemic analysis in Food, Inc., and the more-than-meets-the-eye memoir-essay-compilation of Varda's The Beaches of Agnes. (And where does 24 City fit in?)
Randomly selected rep-house pleasure from the hat inexplicably containing titles of old movies I have seen: any number of the double and triple takes across the Jerry Lewis series at Anthology Film Archives.Michael Joshua Rowin's Best (and worst) Films of 2009
For the first time two films forced me into a difficult position in deciding the best of the year; strangely enough, the two films in question are near inverses of each other. James Gray's Two Lovers paints an intimate, brooding portrait of a damaged first generation Jew caught moodily between his immigrant parents' old world-bound Brighton Beach provincialism and the unexplored universe (Manhattan?) beyond, as represented by the romantic choices of the film's title. The Coen brothers' claustrophobic and generically cross-wired (the suburban Kafkaesque meets the Summer of Love) A Serious Man, on the other hand, creates a hilariously frightening satire of a post-war middle-aged first generation Jew caught neurotically between the bourgeois assimilation of his spiritually oblivious tribal members and a dusty religious tradition unfit to solve his existential emergency. Both are masterpieces. Other links this year? Summer Hours and Frontier of Dawn are French, but otherwise only poetically similar, with the haunting past embodied by a vacation home turned museum in the former and by beyond-the-grave amour fou fatalism in the latter. Both possess unforgettable evocations of ephemeral places and vanishing times; their respective creators, Olivier Assayas and Philippe Garrel, each execute graceful and surprising camera work in so doing.
Though made 40 years apart, Lucrecia Martel's amnestic The Headless Woman and Marco Ferreri's 1969 cryptic battle cry of freedom Dillinger Is Dead (which only received theatrical distribution this year) are birds of a feather in a single sense: their protagonists are both forced to see the world anew and confront their own alienation within it. That Martel's heroine remains largely passive, drifting through her privileged milieu in a fog of childlike fear and disbelief, and Ferreri's hero comes to an active solution, launching into a surreal psychodrama of violent rebellion, speaks to the films' very different responses to their respective eras of ennui.
Inglourious Basterds was the most misunderstood film of the year, and though it contained unignorable flaws (what could have been a brilliant performance by Christoph Waltz was nearly sabotaged by Quentin Tarantino's confused direction), it's pretty stunning how critics and audiences alike didn't get it—as a World War II movie not about World War II movies but about the political power of images it makes a bizarre blockbuster meta-commentary. A Perfect Getaway didn't receive a fraction of the same press as Tarantino's enormously hyped "epic," but it works along similar lines, a generic B-movie that makes dark fun of narrative machinations.
The last couple of the year's best share no traits except excellence, but I've come this far: Tulpan uses its Kazakh desert setting for much more than melancholic landscape ogling (think: the visually beautiful but narrative-atrophied Birdsong), displaying first-time fiction filmmaker Sergey Dvortsevoy's eye for intricately choreographed, ensemble piece slapstick and real-time miracles. And Revanche is as straightforward and complex (and patient and searching) as its post-noir characters, whose poor decisions, bad luck, and morally ambiguous deeds result not from the state of a fallen world but from the inevitable bind of living as noble yet fallible human beings.
... and the worst:
There have been committed far worse cinematic sins than Cold Souls, but Sophie Barthes should still be ashamed of herself: quick to follow on the heels of Charlie Kaufman's last decade of consistently brilliant meta-tales with a weak-willed derivative (even her "as himself" star Paul Giamatti is several conspicuous steps down from John Malkovich), Cold Souls makes one long for the Juno rip-offs that only recently seemed like they were on the horizon. At least there I couldn't care less about the dishonored source material
35 Shots of Rum (Claire Denis)
Denis charts new territory in humanist filmmaking in this deceptively modest tale of a father and a daughter, and their neighbors, in a Parisian banlieue. And whereas Summer Hours, Olivier Assayas's similar take on the relationship of globalism to family, restricted itself to the bourgeoisie, Denis burrows deeper, exploring the quotidian lives of France's post-colonial working class.
Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson)
Finally striking the sweet spot between art direction and the megalomaniacal manchildren he loves to indulge, Anderson makes good on his promise with a story about the dangers of hubris. The funniest comedy of the year (co-written with Noah Baumbach) and an instant classic of the stop-motion technique, Fox also has the merit of George Clooney, who as an unrepentant thief and troublemaker sets a new standard for voicing animated characters.
24 City (Jia Zhang-ke)
Some have cried sell-out, but in this oral history of a Mao-era factory—his first movie subject to Mainland approval—Jia is up to his usual tricks, straddling the boundary between the fictional and the documentary.
The Informant! (Steven Soderbergh)
SS's best picture since 1999's The Limey was widely criticized for having the nerve to be a comedy, though all this movie about Clinton-era corporate malfeasance was doing was demonstrating the Marxist principle that history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce.
Tyson (James Toback)
Giving, in a sense, the performance of the year, the former heavyweight champion sits on a couch and opens up about his demons—showing us both his intelligence and his humanity, but also his blind spots.
Where the Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze)
I don't know what all those critics hating on Jonze were doing when they were kids (presumably they were indoors reading André Bazin) but Wild Things vividly captures the anger, naiveté, and above all the physicality of boyhood, at least as I remember it.
Two Lovers (James Gray)
Moody as a teenager, unstable as its medicated leading man, this emotionally risky Brooklyn love triangle is all the more affecting for its imperfections.
Drag Me to Hell (Sam Raimi)
Relieved of Spidey duty, Raimi returns to his forte, the comical horror film. A less confident director would have flinched, but Raimi understands he's conveying a morality tale, and in the final scene he goes for broke with our sympathies.
Red Cliff (John Woo)
They quite literally don't make them like this anymore, mostly because they're so fucking expensive. The priciest movie in Chinese history has a cast of thousands, led by a typically badass Tony Leung. Even in its cut-in-half U.S. theatrical version, Woo's old-fashioned epic is the year's best action movie, the anti-Avatar.
Police, Adjective (Corneliu Porumboiu)
The oft-overhyped Romanian New Wave grows up with Porumboiu's second-feature, a policier about his country's misguided war on drugs. American viewers should be able to relate.
... and the worst:
Avatar is way too obvious a choice, The Girlfriend Experience too slight to warrant the attention, and the better half of Julie and Julia was a decent enough film. Let's give this one to Antichrist. Lars von Trier was, after all, asking for it.
Pixar's latest animated masterpiece brilliantly chases a devastating, lyrical passage of love, disappointment, and aging with a lovably wacky child, a daft exotic bird, and pretty much the last word on talking dogs in cinema. If Dug the dog and his more ruthless biplane-piloting frenemies can discourage future filmmakers from even attempting to add CGI lips to live-action canines, Pixar should be considered for collective sainthood. In the meantime, feel free to enjoy every minute and every genre of this life-affirming comedy-drama-adventure-fantasy. Carl Frederickson's lonely house lifting up by the power of a thousand helium balloons is, in some ways, the ultimate Pixar image: whimsical, gorgeous, memorable, surprisingly weighty.
The Brothers Bloom
The expert con men played by Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo travel the globe performing elaborate, multi-step symphonies of deception in Johnson's hilarious and heartfelt follow-up to Brick, his excellent teen-noir debut. For purposes of this whimsical but thoughtful fable, cons are made near-synonymous with storytelling; reclusive mark Penelope (Rachel Weisz) characterizes the chicanery as an "adventure story" and gets to work doodling logos for her new smuggler's gang. It's a small gesture, but funny and oddly touching, and The Brothers Bloom is full of such details. Johnson sometimes gets tagged as a filmmaker who knows mainly about other films, but the pure pleasure of his characters and their peculiar obsessions transcends mere riffing.
Speaking of movies about movies that are actually so much more, Quentin Tarantino may have turned his men-on-a-mission WWII project into a paean to the cinema, but the sustained power and confidence of his work is on full display in this two-and-a-half hour movie that contains, what, like a dozen scenes? For a director with such a supposedly predictable MO, Tarantino continues to make surprising, idiosyncratic, carefully paced films with, get this, kickass roles for women.
A Serious Man
The Coen brothers have taken to observing a gaping void in the universe where the meaning is supposed to be, and that unfeeling maybe-God has taken to them right back. The spiritual searching they oversee in A Serious Man is less thoughtful inquiry than increasingly panicked rummage, which of course resembles dark farce, which of course they observe with their characteristic deadpan humanity.
Where the Wild Things Are and Fantastic Mr. Fox
Adaptation, as you may remember from some movie, is key to survival; this is especially true in modern Hollywood, where even the most inventive filmmakers are encouraged to snap up brand names and develop properties, like a big-ticket game of Monopoly (which is, by the way, on Ridley Scott's current to-do list). But Spike Jonze and Wes Anderson kept their voices, maybe even intensified them, while working within the confines of the big-studio kid-lit business. Jonze takes Sendak, Anderson takes Dahl, and they both come up with meditations on wildness in families: Wild Things navigates the vivid, perfectly captured emotions of children swinging from delighted to disappointed to near-feral, while Anderson's wayward fox struggles with his natural urges to both endanger and protect his family.
Greg Mottola's follow-up to Superbad isn't as laugh-out-loud funny, but it similarly benefits from his impeccable ability to ground comedy into reality. Aided by a wonderful cast including Jesse Eisenberg doing his patented lil' Woody Allen routine, Martin Starr as a sour, self-aware suburban intellectual, and Kristen Stewart doing a likable version of her twitchy neuroses, Mottola takes us through an uneventful but entertaining summer at a third-rate amusement park. The laughs, fleeting romance and pathos all have that extra bit of lived-in believability—which of course makes them funnier, more romantic, and, especially, deeply empathetic.
Observe and Report
I didn't have much use for Jody Hill's Foot Fist Way, but his newest riff on a deluded loser, with Seth Rogen as a 21st-century Travis Bickle, provides an intentionally depressing flip side to Paul Blart: Mall Cop (the existence of the latter hit may have sealed Observe's box office fate, but also made for a sick practical joke on budding aficionados of the nascent fat-mall-cop genre). Rogen's Ronnie Barnhardt is racist, sexist, oafish, and deranged but ultimately pitiable, which leaves Hill's shock comedy perching even more uncomfortably between big laughs and face-freezing psychodrama.
The screenplay, from Michael Bay's go-to writers, has some lazy storytelling, but you barely notice with J.J. Abrams and his young cast taking command of these familiar characters and making them human and fresh-faced without sacrificing iconography. Rocket-paced and quite funny, this franchise restarter doesn't sell out Star Trek—it cannily turns newbies into fans. I love a movie that can make nerds of us all.
Maybe it has to do with seeing it in the summer, sandwiched between fast-cut heavy-sheen blockbusters, but Public Enemies sticks in my head as one of the most beautifully composed movies of the year. Michael Mann is a convert to digital video, and not the kind that produces a shiny, barely distinguishable imitation of film: his depression-era cops and robbers are shot with handheld immediacy, with washed-out skies during the day and grainy, vivd blackness at night. It's all gorgeous, as are the understated performances from Johnny Depp as Dillinger, Marion Cotillard as his love, and Christian Bale as the no-nonsense fed who brings him down.
Honorable Mention: Comedy Division
Judd Apatow's Funny People rambles on a little—yeah, sometimes it feels like he's workshopping TV season arcs, not polishing a stand-alone feature—but its stubbornly thorny exploration of the male comedian psyche works more often than not, and the sprawl makes room for several hilarious yet believable characters on the margins. There may be caricatures on the margins of Away We Go, but the film's portrait of a thirtysomething couple (John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph) looking for a place to raise their impending child is disarmingly sweet and affecting and free of romantic melodrama. Both of these films made me laugh, but neither, nor anything in my top ten, made me laugh as hard as Derrick Comedy's Mystery Team, in which three boy detectives continue solving suburban mysteries at age eighteen.
Honorable Mention: Soderbergh Division
It was a good year for fans of Steven Soderbergh's brainily experimental side: The Girlfriend Experience, shot quickly in the fall of '08 as the economy collapsed, gave us an unknowable Sasha Grey and an all-transaction Manhattan, while The Informant! turned a thriller into a comedy into a psychological profile.
Honorable Mention: New Worlds Division
I also quite enjoyed the vivid (and in smartly deployed, non-gimmicky 3-D, immersive) new environments James Cameron and Henry Selick respectively created in Avatar and Coraline: new technology deployed to create an old-fashioned transporting effect.
Honorable Mention: Horror Division
Horror fans are used to setting low expectations and getting let down anyway, but this year saw a lot of strong work in that disreputable genre. Only one was actually scary: Paranormal Activity, a Blair Witch-y haunted house yarn that actually made me feel dread in the pit of my stomach. Thirst showed the continuing potential of vampires as movie subjects, even in the face of Twilight overexposure, while Zombieland and the minor but underrated Jennifer's Body went for comic but still human takes on horror tropes.
… and the worst: New York, I Love You
That Paris got the Coens, Alexander Payne, Tom Tykwer, and Gus Van Sant, among others, while New York's love-based anthology had plenty of room for Brett Ratner, is insulting enough. But not as galling as the final product, which paints an indelible and nuanced portrait of New Yorkers as fast-talking yearners who take cabs everywhere and are constantly smoking, even in bars; is this a poorly defined period piece, too, or have these filmmakers not visited or even thought about New York in the past five to ten years? First-time writer-director Natalie Portman fares the best, maybe because she's actually spent some time here, or maybe because her short rises to the level of proficiency.
The results of the first annual L film critics poll.
Dec 23, 2009