L Critic Picks for Best (and worst) Films of 2009

12/24/2009 4:00 PM |

Henry Stewart’s Best (and worst) Films of 2009

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.

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