Darkest Before
the Dawn

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.

3. Summer 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 poem.

4. The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel).

The 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.

5. Waltz With Bashir (Ari Folman).

This 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.

6. The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow).

Here 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.

7. Séraphine (Martin Provost).

A 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.

8. Tulpan (Sergei Dvortsevoy).

A 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.

9. The 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.
10. Sugar (Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck).

A 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 (Agnès Varda).
On the occasion of turning eighty years old, the great French director presents this autobiographical tone poem, playfully using the theme of beaches, along with some colorful surrealist strategies and props, to illuminate the many phases of her wise and charming life. A film of joy, reflection, and oddly enough, humility.

13. Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt).
One very hard day in the life of a wandering soul (Michelle Williams) and her dog, living on the edge of homelessness. Here is the real landscape of America, with its chain stores and lonely strip malls, and in Williams’ tense movements and expressions are revealed the tyranny of money over spirit. Reichardt’s clarity of vision is bracing.

14. Gomorrah (Matteo Garrone).
In interweaving stories we gradually get to know a group of characters whose lives are controlled or affected by the Camorra, the powerful Neapolitan crime syndicate. The movie has a patient, detailed, and unsentimental style. A very moving aspect is that it shows some characters who choose to say “No,” despite the cost.

15. Ballast (Lance Hammer).
In the Mississippi Delta, three people suffer the after-effects of a man’s suicide: his brother, estranged lover, and 12-year-old son. Their lives are scarred by drugs, poverty, and despair, but rather than a self-conscious social statement, the film is a quietly beautiful portrait of love struggling to emerge from grief.

16. The Class (Laurent Cantet).
In a multi-ethnic junior high classroom in Paris, a teacher (François Bégaudeau, playing himself) interacts with his students. You can forget the simple conflicts and easy answers conveyed in the usual teacher films—this film recognizes the flawed and fallible nature of the enterprise, while maintaining a gaze both realistic and compassionate.

17. Lorna’s Silence (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne).
Once again the Dardennes present an urgent moral dilemma while employing their raw, minimalist technique. An immigrant (Arta Dobroshi) is using a fake marriage to a junkie (Jérémie Renier) to get into Belgium, but her heart rebels against the murder her friends are planning. The open-ended structure signals a possible new phase in the brothers’ aesthetic.

18. Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson).
Doing an animated film has brought out the best in Anderson. The script, co-written with Noah Baumbach, displays a wit both whimsical and adult. George Clooney gets to play against his signature cool, and the puppet animation and backgrounds are beautiful and amazingly detailed.

19. Il Divo (Paolo Sorrentino).
Toni Servillo plays the notorious Italian politician Giulio Andreotti, whose enemies and allies had a way of getting bumped off. It’s a performance of dark humor and disturbing power. The film has been compared to Scorsese’s gangster movies, but it’s much more free-form, like a rock-and-roller’s idea of history, with an over-the-top style and a love of anarchy.

20. An Education (Lone Scherfig).
A whip-smart 16-year old London girl (Carey Mulligan) falls for a sophisticated older man (Peter Sarsgaard) and rebels against the drudgery of her life. You don’t see light charm and intelligence in films too often any more, but here it is. Mulligan is a delight, and the story takes an unexpected, very satisfying turn.

More good acting:

Johnny Depp, Public Enemies
Mo’Nique, Precious
Peter Capaldi, In the Loop
Martina Gedeck, The Baader-Meinhof Complex
Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
Toni Collette, The Black Balloon
Woody Harrelson, The Messenger

Cinematography:

Eric Gautier, Summer Hours
Barry Ackroyd, The Hurt Locker
Laurent Brunet, Séraphine

Music:

Teho Teardo, Il Divo
Carter Burwell & Karen O., Where the Wild Things Are
John Ottman, Valkyrie

Avenue of the Overrated:
Up in the Air.
There are some funny lines. But the film wants to be about the need for human connection, while remaining glib and shallow. People seem to go nuts for this kind of middlebrow stuff year after year, as if there weren’t any really honest, powerful films out there.
Also: Star Trek, Up, District 9.

Ho-Hum Award:
The Men Who Stare at Goats
An amusing premise, based on actual events, but not enough good ideas to sustain a full-length film. George Clooney getting some overexposure this year and batting 1 for 3.

Evil Movie of the Year:
The Blind Side
An entire movie built around self-congratulation for a well-to-do woman (played by Sandra Bullock) who takes in a young black man and helps him become a football player. He barely has any lines in the film. In one scene, Kathy Bates tells the football player that a rival university to Ol' Miss that he's considering stores body parts under the field, and that they come to life during games and will reach up and grap him. Cut to a shot of the kid's scared face. Then he picks Ol' Miss. Insulting. Have we really regressed this far that a major film resorts to the old "black man scared of spooks" motif?

Duds:
Nine.
It takes a special kind of awfulness to make all these big stars, including Daniel Day-Lewis, look so bad. I wish I could sue Rob Marshall for this travesty.
Also: It’s Complicated, The Hangover, Amelia, The Lovely Bones, Thirst, Coco Before Chanel, Pirate Radio.

You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned Avatar. I just had no urge to see it.

Documentaries:
Food, Inc. (Robert Kenner).
An exemplary film that thoroughly examines industrial farming from multiple angles, clearly demonstrating that the food industry is unhealthy and unsustainable. Level-headed, absorbing, and understandable, the movie also offers good alternatives to our present methods.
Also:
The Cove (Louie Psihoyos). A team of activists exposes the secret killing of dolphins in Japan.
Outrage (Kirby Dick). Why some of the most anti-gay politicians turn out to be gay themselves.
The Garden (Scott Hamilton Kennedy). The struggle to save the South Central community garden in L.A., and what it reveals about back room politics.
Capitalism: a Love Story (Michael Moore). Moore’s take on the Wall Street collapse argues that capitalism itself is inimical to democracy.

Interesting Failure Award:
The Box.
I like Richard Kelly, I really do, but this is the second time I’ve given this award to one of his films. The picture’s weighty ethical and metaphysical concerns don’t mix well with its science fiction spoof elements. The characters played by Cameron Diaz and James Marsden are so banal that their moral quandary seems more ridiculous than meaningful. Half the time I was wondering whether the film was meant to be funny, or taken straight, or some kind of David Lynch spin-off. Still, the picture looks fabulous, and Frank Langella’s performance is almost hypnotizing. Worth seeing just to wonder what the hell Kelly might have been thinking.

 



Johnny Depp



Summer Hours



Il Divo


Up in the Air



The Men Who Stare at Goats



The Blind Side


Nine



Food, Inc.



The Cove



The Garden



The Box

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
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