A Film Snob's Favorites of '09
by Chris Dashiell
|Time and again, when I read the accounts of film critics who go to the
many festivals around the world, I’m struck by the richness and diversity
of what’s out there, and how that contrasts with the limited number
of movies that make it to screens in my town, and I daresay most towns and
cities in the U.S. or the world. If I had seen as many films as, say, the
excellent Olaf Möller, I could imagine coming up with a completely
different list. However, as we enter a kind of dark age of the big screen,
we also have unprecedented access to films on disc, limited only by our
funds and the time we have available to spend.
As usual, many of the films I valued from 2009 were released in 2008,
and just took their time getting to my neck of the woods. I found myself
drawn most of all to works of radicalism and resistance.
1. Che (Steven Soderbergh).
There’s a strictness of purpose at work in this paradox of a film, epic in length while resisting the dramatic sweep and breadth customary in the form. The upward and downward movements of its two parts mirror the exhilaration of purpose and the bitterness of defeat that epitomized the 20th century left. Soderbergh refrains from idealization or psychology, focusing on the daily grind of life as a guerilla, first in Cuba, later in Bolivia. We are not shown the triumphal entrance into Havana at the end of the first part, since that piece of theater would obscure the film’s aura of objective observation. The one element that steps outside of this structure—the black-and-white flash forwards in Part One to Che’s New York visit in 1964—is wholly ironic in intent.
Benicio Del Toro is utterly relaxed and unassuming in the title role,
achieving an authenticity that is rare even in the best film performances.
In the doomed Bolivia enterprise of Part Two, he turns into a gaunt skeleton,
a vision of the total loneliness of a revolutionary who has given his
life for an idea. The two parts have two different looks: the triumph
in Cuba in widescreen steadicam; the defeat in Bolivia shot with handheld
cameras. Che isn’t just thought-provoking—it recreates
an experience in the light of a transpersonal view of life, letting us
feel in our bones, as it were, the results of a way of life and action
based on Marxist revolutionary ideas. Make of it what you will. There
is no other film like it.
2. Hunger (Steve McQueen).
Tragedy takes a certain kind of courage and ambition for a modern artist—a need to portray the darkest hell on earth that people inflict on themselves and each other. To that end, the British first-time director McQueen turns his gaze on the 1981 hunger strike led by IRA leader Bobby Sands in Belfast’s Maze Prison. A good deal of time passes before we even meet Sands (the excellent Michael Fassbender), in which McQueen establishes, with his austere visual strategies and very little dialogue, the atmosphere of rage, affliction, and powerlessness, evoking the experience of prisoners and guards in their harrowing, rat-like confinement.
In the middle of the film a long dialogue between Sands and a sympathetic
priest lays out the central dilemma: the ethics of suicide as political
action. The rest of the film shows us the slow tragic wasting away of
the self-martyred revolutionary, in a darkly lyrical style that moves
the viewer from the agony of political struggle to a painfully intimate
sense of frailty and inwardness.
Hours (Olivier Assayas).
A film about a family’s possessions, and what to do when the person dies that held them together. The subject seems so universal that it’s a wonder no one’s made a movie like this before, at least not a wise and thoughtful one like this, depicting the delicate intertwining of grief for the loss of a parent with the more subtle grief of letting go, both of one’s old home and all the objects that symbolize the past.
Helene (Edith Scob) owns a magnificent country estate in France, and
has devoted much of her life to preserving the heritage of her deceased
uncle, a famous artist. But her children (played by Charles Berliner,
Juliette Binoche, and Jérémie Renier) are forced to let
it all go, and another theme emerges: the loss of the sense of tradition
itself in the midst of a modern world that erases boundaries. Ultimately
it is the plight of the eldest son that takes center stage, and Berliner’s
performance is delicately expressive. The narrative and camerawork is
graceful and fluid—this is perhaps Assayas’ most beautiful
work. The film combines the depth of a novel with the lyric tone of a
Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel).
title refers to a state of mind, a disconnection from the world that Martel
invests with meaning both personal and political. Veronica (María
Onetto) hits something or someone with her car during a rainstorm. Instead
of stopping to see what’s happened and perhaps call for help, she
leaves the scene. For the remainder of the film, Martel ingeniously employs
her elliptical, fly-on-the-wall style to replicate Veronica’s disoriented
state of mind. Her little world—with its family, relationships,
and secrets—comes gradually into focus, while she struggles with
the conflict between her need to know the truth and her desire to be protected
from it. As background to the themes of guilt and responsibility we see
the class structure and sexual roles in Argentina embodying a universal
sense of denial. As in all of her work, Martel—one of the most talented
directors we have—invites the viewers to participate in the imagination
that illuminates her story.
With Bashir (Ari Folman).
brilliantly animated film about a former Israeli soldier’s quest
to reconstruct his memories of the 1982 war in Lebanon could perhaps only
be done in this form, not only because recreating the war scenes would
be expensive in live action, but because trauma is more powerfully conveyed
in just this way. A friend’s disclosure of a recurring dream prompts
Folman to have flashbacks of the infamous massacre at the Palestinian
refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. Folman then talks to old comrades
in the army, other veterans and witnesses, and a psychologist friend.
The memories come back in pieces, and they are deeply disturbing. As the
stories of the witnesses build on one another, the film becomes an indictment
of military cruelty and callousness, but more importantly a document of
the shattering effect that war has on the psyche.
Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow).
is a tense, terrific film about men who defuse roadside bombs in 2004
Iraq. Mark Boal’s screenplay captures the casual insulated talk
of soldiers who don’t have the leisure to focus on anything but
the task at hand. The picture has a vivid sense of mortality, dynamic
use of hand-held camera, and superior editing craft. Each of the unit’s
assignments is handled differently, with varying rhythms of tension and
suspense, and after a while the film has made you experience what it must
feel like to be in the middle of this deadly adrenalin rush, where you
could blow up any second. Jeremy Renner was an inspired choice to play
the hot dog sergeant whose fearless behavior puts his fellows at risk.
ray of light falls on the mystery of artistic creation in this drama based
on the life of a real person, Seraphine Louis, a peasant washerwoman in
early 20th century France, who uses clay from the river, tallow from candles,
and even chicken’s blood from her work at a butcher’s to paint
astonishing pictures that attract the notice of a German art critic who
is renting one of the houses she cleans. Yolande Moreau is riveting as
the title character, an intensely driven, prideful yet vulnerable visionary.
This is a film of much silence, in which we observe the toiling of the
artist as a solitary, sacred, and sometimes disturbing place. Shot in
soft palettes and what appears to be natural light, the picture is similar
itself to a beautiful painting.
young shepherd in Central Asia, living with his sister and her dour and
hard-working husband, dreams of his own flock and tries to woo the marriageable
(and unseen) girl who gives the film its title. The setting is the southern
steppes of Kazakhstan, a plain with shrubs and scarce grass that is flat
as far as the eye can see. Yet the director’s style does not partake
of distance—every shot, every sequence, is precisely orchestrated
so that you are immersed in this world, its hardship and its humor. If
you’re expecting a National Geographic-style movie about exotic
foreigners, you’ll be surprised. This wise, starkly beautiful, unsentimental
and drily funny film is a fully realized work of art.
Maid (Sebastián Silva).
Catalina Saavedra is absolutely compelling in the role of a live-in maid who finds her only meaning in life through her attachment to the wealthy Chilean family she serves. When the family’s mother tries to bring in other domestics to help her, the maid feels profoundly threatened and tries to sabotage and undermine each new domestic. Although the film subtly satirizes the class system, its real insight has to do with an internal servitude, a state of mind. Then a surprising shift, simple and beautiful, broadens our perspective on the main character, and on the question of what people really need.
(Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck).
young baseball pitcher in the Dominican Republic, nicknamed Sugar (marvelous
newcomer Algenis Perez Soto), gets the long-wished for chance to play
in the United States. The filmmakers have created something special in
a normally rather predictable genre: the sports film. While exploring
the ironies and small injustices involved in assimilating into a different
culture, Sugar also depicts a clash between what is expected of us and
what we really want deep inside. Rather than using sports as a symbol
of character and excellence, the film takes a refreshingly critical stance,
treating the well-being of its character as more important than the game.
The confident, natural style conveys both honesty and compassion.
|And the B-sides:
11. In the Loop (Armando Ianucci).
A fearless and very funny satire from Britain, inspired by the lead-up to the Iraq War, captures the absurd labyrinths of bureaucracy, the wretched Orwellian lingo, and the endless jockeying for career advantage among political insiders at the highest levels of government. Tom Hollander heads a uniformly excellent cast.
12. The Beaches of Agnès
13. Wendy and Lucy
16. The Class
17. Lorna’s Silence
(Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne).
18. Fantastic Mr. Fox
19. Il Divo
20. An Education
More good acting:
Johnny Depp, Public Enemies
Eric Gautier, Summer Hours
Teho Teardo, Il Divo
Avenue of the Overrated:
Evil Movie of the Year:
Interesting Failure Award:
|The most frustrating film experiences of last year were the movies that came to a theater but then quickly left before I had a chance to see them. Two Lovers, Me and Orson Welles, and Bright Star all left quickly, while Paul Blart: Mall Cop and Monsters vs. Aliens seemed to stick around forever. Sigh.|
|And farewell to:
Jean Simmons, Edmund Purdom, James Whitmore, Howard Zieff, Wendy Richard, Horton Foote, Kim Manners, Jimmy Boyd, Betsy Blair, Ron Silver, Natasha Richardson, Maurice Jarre, Francois Villiers, Nagesh, Moultrie Patten, Robert Quarry, Jorge Preloran, Andy Hallett, Wayne Lewellen, Jody McRae, Bea Arthur, Robert W. Anderson, Dom DeLuise, David Carradine, Millard Kaufman, Philip Carey, Marc Rocco, Darrell Sandeen, Shirley Jean Rickert, David Tree, Lorena Gale, Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, Michael Jackson, Gale Storm, Bob May, Wouter Barendrecht, Derek Benfield, Harve Presnell, Awilda Carbia, Tullio Pinelli, Jan Rubes, Karl Malden, Mollie Sugden, Miguel Angel Suarez, Budd Schulberg, John Hughes, Gheorghe Dinica, Jean Martin, Larry Gelbart, Whitey Mitchell, Ken Annakin, Jack Cardiff, Peter Rogers, Simon Channing-Williams, Michael Roof, Jane Bryan, David Wheatley, Mort Abrahams, Steven Bach, Monte Hale, Terence Alexander, Simon Oates, Oleg Yankovsky, Monica Bleibtreu, John Furia Jr., Henry Gibson, Patrick Swayze, Al Martino, Linda Dangcil, Mary Howard de Liagre, Shakti Samanta, Lou Albano, Tapan Sinha, Collin Wilcox Paxton, Robert Ginty, Ward Costello, Lucy Gordon, Del Monroe, Vic Mizzy, Joseph Wiseman, Feroz Khan, Soupy Sales, Lou Jacobi, Fred Delmare, Carl Ballantine, Judi Ann Mason, Clayton Hill, Virginia Carroll, Dennis Cole, Army Archerd, Edward Woodward, Harry Alan Towers, Blake Snyder, Howard Smit, Gene Barry, Jill Balcon, Reiko Ohara, Jennifer Jones, Yoshiro Muraki, Steven Rothenberg, Danny Gans, Susanna Foster, Neil Munro, Mimi Weddell, Zena Marshall, Dan O’Bannon, Dominick Dunne, Troy Kennedy-Martin, Brenda Joyce, Joe Maross, Paul Wendkos, Jocelyn Quivrin, Alaina Reed Hall, Jane Randolph, Prakash Mehra, Connie Hines, Brittany Murphy, Arnold Stang, Art Clokey, James Mitchell, Jack Manning, Richard Moore, Frank Deasy, Ed Reimers, Philip Saltzman, John Bentley, Ruth Ford, Jean-Paul Roussillon, Zelda Rubinstein, Timothy Bateson, John Quade, Paul Burke, Frank Coghlan Jr., Iain Cuthbertson, Allan Ekelund, John David Carson, Martyn Sanderson, Abrar Alvi, Aaron Ruben, Pamela Blake, David Brown, Giulio Bosetti, Michael Currie, Frances Reid, Roy E. Disney, Moyra Fraser, Barry Blitzer, Vishnuvardhan, Val Avery, Bina Rai, Garfield Morgan, Bryan O’Byrne, Robin Wood, Roger Pierre, Johnny Seven, Richard Todd, Maggie Jones, Donal Donnelly, Ian Carmichael, John McCallum, Pernell Roberts, and Eric Rohmer.
©2010 Chris Dashiell