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