Fourteen critics ranked their favorite 2009 theatrical premieres and currently undistributed films for our first annual(?) film poll, which yielded a Top 10, especially, more demographically on-point than we had expected, given the diversity of sensibility demonstrated in the film writing published this year in The L. In 2009, a disproportionate number of Filmmakers We Grew Up On—Tarantino, Anderson, the Coens, Jarmusch, perhaps also Mann, Bigelow and Pixar (whose Up would have leapfrogged more than a half-dozen films if we had scored on number of votes rather than points)—released mature works; contrastingly, all but two of the foreign films on this list were 2008 (and in one case 2007) festival premieres, which delayed-release exposure underscores the usual distribution struggles contributing to the diffusion of votes among non-Hollywood/indiewood films. That said, The L's best film of the year—world premiere in August '08 in Venice, US premiere this March at Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, NYC theatrical run in September—was the only film to receive more than one first-place vote: it received five.1. 35 Shots of Rum
2. Inglourious Basterds
The movies drop like a bomb to end World War II, as history's rewritten in a celluloid inferno cued from the projection booth—which is no more or less reprehensible than most historical fictions, it's just that QT's more honest than most about how filmmakers use their medium to satisfy private desires. He's also better than most at contriving fetish scenarios: delayed-gratification suspense set-ups and genre role-playing; masturbatory dialogue and orgiastic violence; inside references peeking through the movie like handkerchief code.
3. Fantastic Mr. Fox
It's obvious now: of course Wes Anderson's masterpiece would be his stab at stop-motion animation! The technique not only lends itself to but demands meticulous control over the minutiae—Anderson's specialty. But Fantastic Mr. Fox is more than a delight of details: it's endlessly hilarious and steeped in pathos, most of which emerges from the film's complex struggle between civilization and human, er, vulpine nature. And, thanks to its Roald Dahl origins, it's Wes' first political film, a bold and serendipitously timely statement about wealth redistribution that sticks it to the fat cats.
4. Two Lovers
Before disguising himself with a shaggy beard, Joaquin Phoenix allowed an excess of childlike vulnerability to twist his mouth into a permanent pout. Gray's riskiest work yet finds the actor pushing the archetype of the sullen, pallid, pleading-eyed romantic to new heights, walking that dangerous line between unabashed melodrama and grotesque self-parody. The result is a rare modern love story that combines the headiness of infatuation with a disgust at the infantalizing nature of raw human emotion.
5. A Serious Man
(Joel and Ethan Coen)
Amid gathering storms in a complacent suburban Jewish milieu where a tradition of skepticism has become institutional (and where even uncertainty is formulaic), the Coens search not for certainty—which A Serious Man's merchants of ambiguity possess in abundance—but for authentic doubt. A work of moral philosophy more profound than Manichean pulper No Country for Old Men, A Serious Man doesn't lament the collapse of the order imposed on chaos—it satirizes chaos's domestication. (Don't call the Coens glib ironists: they take irony seriously.)
6. Summer Hours
After kicking off the decade with a turn-of-the-century period piece (Les destinees sentimentales), France's preeminent neo-New Waver spent the rest of the aughts dividing his fans and critics with oft-outlandish DV experiments (demonlover, Clean, Boarding Gate). In his latest, the Chekhovian story of bourgeois siblings forced to liquidate their family estate after their mother dies, Assayas triumphantly returns to the domestic sphere, while retaining his unparalleled eye for globalism's discontents.
7. The Headless Woman
Martel fashions ultra-realistic narratives of visceral unease like no one else—here, a bourgeois woman's internal dissolution after a car accident we only half-perceive is a lean-forward-and-hold-your-breath nightmare in which every off-kilter composition and cut is engineered as an unemphatic WTF mystery. Is it amnesia, or something about our viewer's lust for omniscience? That it has rankled so many is a testament to what's unsaid and to the secret superpowers of off-screen space.
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.
Pixar grew up this year, making an intimate little movie about a reclusive old widower trying to cope with the suddenly very real (3D, even) prospect of his own mortality. Sure, there was a talking dog, a floating house, an aerial battle and a Skittles-colored emu, but Up's actually a superior, animated remake of About Schmidt.
Starring Tilda Swinton in a galvanic, often horrifying, lead performance as an aging barroom queen, Julia unfolds as both ludicrous character study and nutso thriller. But it's so committed to its wonky absurdities and ultimately so grounded in a great abyss of human need that it demands to be taken seriously.
17. Night and Day
Gentler with age, Hong continues his Godardian-Rohmerian rumba through modern triangulated romantic warfare, this time relocating to Paris, following after a half-assed Hongian man as he dallies amid art students and experiences love as a series of painful and self-contradictory revelations. Kinda unforgettable.
18. You, the Living
Andersson builds both the desolation of his down-and-out urbanites and the darkly humorous nature of their plight directly into the letter-perfect framings of his miserablist tableaux. Music and dreams provide Andersson's grotesques with their only escape, but it's in showing us how to adapt an absurdist's perspective that the director teaches us how to accept our own world of woe.
The blunt title translates as Revenge, and the plot pivots on a robbery gone wrong, but the pulp is merely the surface. Austrian writer-director Spielmann slowly, assuredly takes his smoldering film into unexpected terrain. This nominal scuzz effortlessly doubles as a study in the corrosive effects of revenge and guilt, triples as a nuanced character piece, etc.
20. Police, Adjective
Romanian filmmaker Porumboiu likes a challenge—or is that a gamble? After the dribbling on-air debates of 12:08 comes this longest of wind-ups: a police procedural reworked twice—first with the interminable imagery of surveillance, then with a dive into language and its grip on reality.
Beaches of Agnès: Agnès Varda, Godmother of the French New Wave (and den mother for international bohemia), reflects, with henna-haired playfulness and aching nostalgia. No one in cinema history has so perfected the art of leafing through a photo album. Asch
Beeswax: Andrew Bujalski's observational (which is not to say passive, it's structurally quite elegant) consideration of the search for clarity in personal and professional communication—which begins with knowing what you yourself want to say. Asch
Bright Star: Jane Campion's tragic John Keats-Fanny Brawne romance beautifully renders both plein-air flirtation and the cloistered pursuit of poetic inspiration, as well as the day-to-day domestic rituals of early-19th-century England. Mercer
The Class (Laurent Cantet): A friend, a 9th and 10th grade history teacher in Bushwick, reports: "I have every single one of those kids." Asch
Confessionsofa Ex-Doofus-ItchyFooted Mutha: From adolescent groping to pirates to love-starved grannies and even more touch-hungry gorillas, Melvin Van Peebles' audacious bildungsroman epitomizes the boundless spirit of DIY filmmaking. Gallagher
Henry Selick's Coraline, adapted from the Neil Gaiman text, has a living-storybook quality with its gorgeously intricate stop-motion animation and a haunting, sometimes even subtle use of digital 3-D tech. Hassenger
Goodbye Solo: Ramin Bahrani, New York's next neo-realist maestro (of Man Push Cart and Chop Shop fame), went home to North Carolina for this moving story from America's fringes. Sutton
Independencia: Raya Martin's as-yet-undistributed silent-film pastiche fits its tale of Filipinos hiding out from the Americans with an appropriately colonized aesthetic, but what sticks most are the silvery, dreamlike images. Schenker
Of Time and the City: Queer, erudite Terence Davies' history of Liverpool is equally the story of his self-conscious, perhaps guilty attempts to distance himself from his working-class Catholic origins: the nostalgia is doubly poignant for the filmmaker's self-defeating attempts to deny it. Asch
Paradise: Michael Almereyda preserves on video a collage of fleeting, stolen moments from around the world. The film's unassuming reticence only heightens its expressive, evocative power. Gallagher
Tokyo Sonata: Kiyoshi Kurosawa's masterpiece, about people out of place, centered on one family but with an eye on the surrounding world, which parallels their condition. H. Stewart
Serbis: Brillante Mendoza's hauntingly lurid modernist story about a Filipino family in crisis and the porno theater they run. A celebration of the tactile, no matter how grotesque. Simon Abrams
Still Walking: Hirokazu Kore-Eda's tribute to Ozu and Naruse, about two generations of a family who desperately want to but cannot connect. Brimming with genuine warmth and hurt. Abrams
Senior L writers present their year in film.
Dec 24, 2009