In the age of digital video and CGI, the old virtues -- style, story, vision -- still seem to matter. CineScene critics and readers weigh in on their favorite films of 2009.
Eight writers contributed
this year, including our regular crew, with tastes spanning from the art
house to the multiplex. There was nothing close to consensus, but a film
about a real war, Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker was
the biggest favorite, and a film about an imaginary World War II, Quentin
Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, was close
behind. That Star Trek, J.J. Abrams' blockbuster
revision of a beloved franchise, and Up, Pixar's
latest hit, were popular, should be no surprise. What was surprising was
the strong showing of two low-key art films, Ramin Bahrani's Goodbye
Solo and Kazakhstan director Sergei Dvortsevoy's Tulpan.
Rounding out the top mentions were James Gray's Two Lovers,
Marc Webb's (500) Days of Summer, the Coen brothers'
A Serious Man, and Michael Haneke's The
As usual I have made a list of the films I've seen in English that seem best, and those in other languages, and documentaries, and some other categories. But when I think of 2009 what comes to mind are only a few films, ones that somehow personally mattered most to me. Two Lovers, with Gwyneth Paltrow and Joaquin Phoenix, is a very particular little love story, like a novel or short story, directed by a director I've always liked, James Gray, and it restores my faith that he can still make small, personal films rooted in his own experience in the Russian part of New York City. The same thing happened with Goodbye Solo, a sad, unique tale rooted in the South where the Iranian American, Ramin Bahrani, comes from; I liked it very much better than his two much praised earlier films set in New York. And Jim Jarmusch's The Limits of Control is a miracle of precision and elegance; only a few people saw it, and it was damned by most critics who did see it, except for a happy few; one of the most discerning rightly called it his best since Dead Man. Jarmusch works to please himself, and that's why his films are so good, but sometimes the result is a shocking lack of public attention.
Out of the New York Film Festival, where I admittedly have the most cinematic fun of the year, I found in this grimmest year for the series I liked the most harsh and shocking offerings on the slate. Some of them are not released yet: Harmony Korine's Trash Humpers and Todd Solondz's Life During Wartime. Watch for them. Only Korine could have made a movie that looks like a video found in a dumpster that you're afraid to watch because you think it may be a snuff film or something horribly real and obscene. I knew nothing about Solondz, and now he is one of my favorite American independent filmmakers. The cinematography by Ed Lachman is beautiful, and the plot, working with characters introduced in Solondz's Happiness illustrates his way of working interconnectedly and his rapport with actors. This director that people damn as dark and nasty is actually humanistic and kind (you can also say that of the Coens in A Serious Man). I also admire von Trier's Antichrist and Lee Daniels' Precious. Both are somehow off as filmmaking and perhaps not utterly sincere, but they hold your attention and they're bold; they leave a mark on the psyche.
The NYFF relies heavily on Cannes, and Cannes seems to have been right: their top two prizewinners are the best foreign films I've seen all year. Number One, the Palme d'Or, is in US release, Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon, and the other, the Grand Prix, is Jacques Audiard's A Prophet, which is coming. It wasn't in the New York festival; I saw it in Paris, around the corner from the Café des Deux Magots. These are two of the best European directors at the top of their game. I didn't see any Asian films that were on that level this year. The White Ribbon has been called Haneke's most beautiful, most accessible, and best film. Its logic is inexorable and its mastery is awesome. A Prophet, about a very young French-Algerian mentored by a Corsican Mafioso (the marvelous Niels Arestrop) in a French prison and turned into a precocious capo, is so rich and intense it takes multiple viewings to begin to get all that's there.
There were many other good films that I loved (yes, including The Hurt
Locker). But those are the ones that left the deepest impression.
35 Shots of Rum (Claire Denis)
Antichrist (Lars von Trier)
Il Divo (Paolo Sorrentino)
I'm Gonna Explode (Gerardo Naranjo)
Lake Tahoe (Fernando Eimbcke)
(Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)
The Sun (Alexandr Sokurov)
Tulpan (Sergei Dvortsevoy)
Revanche (Götz Spielmann)
The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke)
In Sin Nombre, first-time writer-director Cary Joji Fukanaga has crafted a uniquely moving film experience that dramatizes with authenticity the drive among the poor in Latin America to pull up roots and seek a better life in the U.S. It is not an easy task for any immigrant who wants to make it to America, and Sin Nombre alerts us to the dangers as well as the opportunities, striking a dangerous balance between poetry and violence. It succeeds as education and as theater, allowing the viewer not only to understand the perils illegal immigrants face but to relate emotionally to them as human beings. It is a film of heartbreaking sadness but also one of joy and redemption.
2. 35 Shots of Rum (Claire Denis).
French director Claire Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum is a film of infinite tenderness in which the characters lives are delicately interwoven to build a tapestry of interconnectedness that signals life’s inevitable passages. Reminiscent of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Café Lumiére with its intimate depiction of city life and the coming and going of trains, the film pays homage to Yasujiro Ozu in its story of the relationship between Lionel (Alex Descas), a train conductor of African descent and his student daughter Josephine (Mati Diop) who is eager to assert her independence. One of Denis’ best films, it draws its power from its creation of magic through silences, glances, and a loving warmth that lingers in the memory.
3. Two Lovers (James Gray).
An old-fashioned character-driven romantic drama without camera tricks or other gimmickry, Two Lovers describes a creative but emotionally unstable young man caught between his ideal of romantic love and the demands of career and family designs. Set in Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, director James Gray's film lovingly captures the sights and sounds of the immigrant experience in New York. Families eat together in tiny apartments filled with faded, dusty furniture and yell out the window to their neighbors just as they did fifty years ago. Tapping into his personal experience, Gray avoids romantic clichés and delivers a work with heart, making us care about what happens to the film’s lost and lonely people whose longings do not seem all that different from our own.
4. The Limits of Control (Jim Jarmusch).
In the beautiful and enigmatic The Limits of Control, director Jim Jarmusch puts it this way: “The universe has no center and no edges” and, “everything is subjective,” or “reality is arbitrary.” Based on a script of only twenty five pages, the film is about an immaculately dressed but emotionally frozen hit man (Isaach de Bankolé) who goes from place to place awaiting further instructions. He has no overview of the entire game plan but waits for his next move whenever he meets the next contact. Supported by a soundtrack of electronic music by the trio Boris, The Limits of Control is a film of mystery and silence and unexpected twists that is about the power of imagination and poetry to operate without arbitrarily imposed limits.
5. Goodbye Solo (Ramin Bahrani).
Bahrani’s third feature is about William, a man clinging to being a victim so tightly that he turns away from the only person who cares, a high-energy cab driver from Senegal who is willing to go the extra mile to tear down the wall that separates William from his fellow human beings. Bahrani’s Solo is not a stereotype of the cool hip black man out to rescue the forlorn white man from himself. Solo is a multi-faceted human being with his own set of problems who is always depicted with respect. Shot in the beautiful North Carolina mountains in October, the film captures the stirring symphony of autumn color, and the long look that William and Solo give each other before they part is the essence of compassion, given freely with an open heart, even to the point when no payback is achieved or expected.
6. Lorna’s Silence (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne).
The Dardenne Brothers have a habit of immersing us in the muck of life, then casually reminding us that, in case we forgot, we are surrounded by beauty. Their latest film, Lorna’s Silence, set in the Belgian city of Liege, focuses on Lorna, an Albanian immigrant, who is eager to realize her dream of owning a snack shop with her boyfriend Sokol, a long-distance truck driver. To do this she must enter an arranged marriage with a Belgian heroin addict in exchange for Belgian citizenship. Lorna’s Silence is a gripping, powerful drama, full of searing insight into the human condition. What is most important is not the story or the movement of the camera but the continuity of the theme of the awakening of conscience.
7. A Prophet (Jacques Audiard).
Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet is an engrossing coming-of-age drama set in a French prison, in which a Muslim, estranged from his own community, is recruited into the ruling Corsican Mafia and eventually becomes a gang leader himself. Supported by a compelling original score by Alexandre Desplat and brilliant cinematography by Stéphane Fontaine, A Prophet is often difficult to watch but is redeemed by the honesty in which it handles the conflicts among ethnic groups, conflicts that mirror French society as a whole.
8. The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke).
Strange things happen in a small rural village in pre-World War I Germany. The local doctor is thrown from his horse and seriously injured because of a trip wire stretched between two trees and the wife of a farm worker is killed when she falls through a rotted barn door. These incidents and others create a climate of fear and suspicion in Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon. It is the kind of climate in which a hornet’s nest of guilt, repression, and abusive behavior that has been festering in the community for years begins to surface. Filmed in high contrast blank and white, The White Ribbon succeeds as an engrossing mystery, an insightful character study, and a cautionary tale that suggests that the roots of war and hatred lie not in ideology but in the corruption of our values and the emptiness in our souls.
9. Munyurangabo (Lee Isaac Chung).
No film more fully captures the residual pain resulting from the 1994 Rwandan genocide than Munyurangabo, an intimate and deeply moving first feature from American director Lee Isaac Chung, the first film ever made in the Kinyarwanda language. Shot in only 11 days using local actors who were orphans of the genocide, Munyurangabo centers on the friendship between two teenage boys, Sangwa (Eric Dorunkundiye), a Hutu, and Ngabo (Jeff Rutagengwa), a Tutsi named after the great ancient Rwandan warrior Munyurangabo, subtly weaving the story of their relationship with a plea for reconciliation in Rwanda. Munyurangabo always feels authentic, moving seamlessly from a story of estrangement to one of spiritual redemption and ending in a fevered dream.
10. The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel).
Argentine politics from the 1970s and class differences of today play an important role in Lucrecia Martel’s third film, The Headless Woman, the story of a middle-aged woman refusing to confront the truth about a hit-and-run accident. The film defies conventional cinematic language and can be challenging to appreciate on first viewing. Characters come and go, seemingly unrelated incidents pile up, and we hardly know who is who, but little of that ultimately matters. What is more important is that Martel has taken us effortlessly into the head of the main character as persuasively as any film in recent memory and has turned one woman’s failings into a clear and simple statement of her own vision. In the process, she has shaken us and provoked us to look at unpleasant facts about her characters, the world, and perhaps even about ourselves.
11. Police, Adjective (Corneliu Porumboiu).
Police, Adjective is a poem of mood, silence, and soul about a taciturn, plain-clothed police officer who has developed a conscience over making an arrest, an unusual occurrence in the bureaucratic, post-Communist society of Romania where the law is rigidly enforced regardless of its logic. The film provides a welcome dose of conscience to a genre that has been buried in technology and filled with violence, car chases, and ugliness, a genre that has dealt only with methods and not consequences. Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu forces us to relate to the characters by observing their eyes, their physical movements, and their facial expressions. He expects us to think about what we are seeing and, in the process, to bring us face to face with what makes us truly human.
12. In the Loop (Armando Iannucci).
Based on Ianucci's award-winning TV series for the BBC, The Thick of It, In the Loop is the freshest political satire since Wag the Dog. Though the storyline suggests British-American machinations leading up to the Iraq War of 2003, it could be taking place at any time or in any country where venal politicians manufacture a crisis based on misinformation or lies. In the Loop raises obscenity to the level of an art form, spewing layer upon layer of invective upon staff and innocent bystanders, some of which will make you weep from laughing, others will make you cringe and pretend that you did not hear what was said. The film is so full of snark that one must constantly maintain a separation from its dark vision to retain one’s sanity.
13. Letter to a Child (Vlado Skafar).
No film conveys the innocence of childhood and its passage more poignantly than Letter to a Child, Vlado Skafar’s beautiful meditation on the essence of life. The film is a series of heartfelt monologues prompted by the director’s searching questions to a group of young children, teenagers, young adults, parents, an elderly couple, and an old man in a village in Slovenia. Skafar simply brought a small camera crew to ask the townspeople questions about their ideas on things that are important in their lives – their love for family, the joys they share, their sorrows, and their views on death and the hereafter. The result is a cinematic testament to the adventure of life and the beauty of love. Letter to a Child is a simple film on the surface, but penetrates to the deepest parts of human experience to record a poetic chronicle of life.
14. The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow).
The Army’s first study of the mental health of troops who fought in Iraq found that about one in eight reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder: flashbacks, nightmares, feelings of detachment, irritability, trouble concentrating and sleeplessness. Even more distressing is the fact that the suicide rate among veterans is almost four times the average for non-veterans of the same age. The possible reasons behind these statistics are spelled out in Kathryn Bigelow’s magnificent The Hurt Locker, a heart-wrenching film that explores the world of Explosive Ordinance Disposal technicians in Iraq, whose job is to locate and disarm IEDs. Structured around the 38 days three men in the EOD squad have left in their rotation, the film underscores the sudden movements and constant tension of the unit which must constantly scan rooftops and hiding places for possible snipers.
15. Unmistaken Child (Nati Baratz).
Israeli director Nati Baratz’s documentary Unmistaken Child is a tribute to a director and a young Buddhist monk who are willing to share with the world a journey of love. The film concerns twenty-eight year old Tenzin Zopa, a Buddhist monk who left his family at the age of seven to become a disciple of a Tibetan Buddhist master, who then takes on the responsibility of searching for his master’s reincarnation when he dies at the age of 84 in 2001. Though Tenzin is devastated when he loses his teacher, Lama Konchog, and feels inadequate to the task ahead, he agrees to search for his master’s reincarnation out of a sense of duty to pass on his master’s wisdom to the world. Shot in the villages and countryside of Nepal, Unmistaken Child is a film of unexcelled beauty, both physical and spiritual, that left me with a glow that lasted for many days.
16. Mother (Bong Joon-ho).
After a night of drinking, Do Joon (Bin Won), an intellectually-challenged young man, encouraged by his reckless buddy Jin-tae (Ku-jin), attempts to pick up a young high school girl walking home alone. Shockingly, the next day, Do Joon is arrested for the girl’s murder as his mother looks on helplessly. Bong Joon-ho’s Mother is an intelligent, suspenseful, and darkly comic revelation of the lengths to which an overbearing but deeply loving mother will go to pursue justice for her son who, she believes, has been wrongly convicted of murder. Reminiscent of the quirky, offbeat films of Alfred Hitchcock, Mother is an intense, witty, and engaging psychological thriller with enigmatic characters that do not just populate the screen, but are vitally alive.
17. Bluebeard (Catherine Breillat).
Infused with a sumptuous elegance, Breillat’s eerie retelling of the Charles Perrault fairytale Bluebeard is very sensual and highly stylized while adhering to a literary interpretation of the story. The film operates on parallel levels, both involving two sisters. Bluebeard’s setting immerses the audience in a world that is far removed from today’s realities, yet the lead character offers a playful confidence and pride to go along with her natural purity and innocence in a way that speaks to today’s feminist sensibilities. Resonant with wit and sexual tension, Catherine Breillat has, in Bluebeard, reestablished the reality of the world of children as both full of terror and untold beauty and, in the process, has created a minor masterpiece.
18. Bare Essence of Life (Satoko Yokohama).
Bare Essence of Life is the story of 25-year-old Yojin (Kenichi Matsuyama), a farmer in the rural village in the Aomori prefecture on the island of Honshu. Yojin is different, very different. Prone to strange outbursts, throwing things, repeating words and phrases, and wildly disconnected thoughts, something has gone wrong in his wiring. Combining black comedy with fantasy and a little romance and drama thrown in to stir the pot, Bare Essence carves out a niche all of its own and shows enough raw talent to warrant a close watch of this director who has endowed her film with a free-spirited exuberance and enough miracles and surprises to hold us until the Second Coming.
19. Moon (Duncan Jones).
The most important issue we may face in the future is whether rapid advances in science and technology will change human beings into disposable resources, utilitarian subjects manipulated by indifferent centers of corporate power. Moon, the thought-provoking and thoroughly engrossing first feature from U.K. director Duncan Jones, son of the pop singer David Bowie, tackles these questions and raises others that have been pondered since man first set foot on this planet – Who are we? Where did we come from? What is our purpose on this planet? Though the answers do not come as easily as the questions, Moon attempts to recapture the science fiction genre from the mindless action-adventure films we have become accustomed to and brings it to a level perhaps not seen since the classic Kubrick film 2001.
20. Departures (Yôjirô Takita)
Winner of the 2008 Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film, Departures is a movie about the ritual of “encoffinment," the preparation of corpses before their cremation. While it teeters between serious drama and outright farce, it is a film of understated elegance that will leave you in a mood of contentment. Departures touches the heart and has a calming effect. At first put off by the work he is asked to do, Daigo learns to appreciate the value of ritual and how comforting it can be to the loved ones of the deceased, and he personally comes alive when seeing how his work touches others. Competing with blockbusters filled with bombast and brutality, it is good to see a film that offers compassion and respect for the dignity and worth of all people.
Most disappointing films of 2009:
The Hurt Locker
Basterds (Quentin Tarantino).
Trek (J.J. Abrams).
Up in the Air
These are the films that profoundly affected me and which I thought about for days after viewing. They cried out to be seen again.
Flame and Citron (Ole Christian Madsen).
Gripping, beautifully shot movie about Danish resistance in WWII; left me wanting to see it again.
Basterds (Quentin Tarantino).
and Report (Jody Hill).
Red Cliff (John Woo).
Is It (Kenny Ortega)
Worst film: Paper Heart. Haven't the slightest idea what the fuss was about at Sundance; Charlyne Yi has zero appeal; Michael Cera (one of the best things in Juno) comes off as a one-trick-pony.
“Best Of” lists give me heartburn. I rarely see films in the theater, so I never see the year-end prestige releases in time for year-end wrap up articles.
9. The Hangover
6. Paris 36
4. Star Trek
3. Drag Me To Hell
2. Goodbye Solo
(Pete Docter and Bob Peterson).
A wonderful picture. Reminds me of American Graffiti.
Avatar 3D (James Cameron).
Dances with Supersized Smurfs. Yes, a familiar story, but man, what a way to tell it.
District 9 (Neill Blomkamp).
A shockingly great sci-fi classic. This is easily one of the best of the last 20 years.
Drag Me To Hell (Sam Raimi).
Balls to the walls scary. Old fashioned Raimi. You can tell he was having a blast with it.
The Hangover (Todd Phillips).
It keeps topping itself, even during the end credits. Really hope a sequel doesn't materialize.
The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow).
My pick for best director of the year.
I Love You, Man (John Hamburg).
A sincere and funny look at a sorely overlooked subject. Why isn't Paul Rudd a huge star?
QT's best since Jackie Brown. It even had Rod Taylor in a cameo! And Christophe Waltz--marvelous.
Julie & Julia (Nora Ephron).
I can't cook, I'm not a foodie, and I would just as soon eat Ramen noodles than read a cook book. But damn if this wasn't a splendid movie.
The Proposal (Anne Fletcher).
I adore Sandra Bullock. She reminds me of what a classic era movie star was like. There. I said it.
Star Trek (J.J. Abrams).
Friggin' loved, loved, loved this movie. Like the Bond reboots, I can't wait to see what they do next. They've made this material new, fresh and unpredictable.
State Of Play (Kevin Macdonald).
A fine portrait of a dying institution: newspapers. Russell Crowe is in fine, shabby form.
Taken (Pierre Morel).
Shameless and silly, but a lot of fun to see someone other than Jason Statham kick ass. Liam Neeson is quite good at it. (Mr. Neeson, please go make "Lincoln" and earn your Oscar.)
Up (Pete Docter and Bob Peterson).
Will Pixar ever strike out? It's like Dimaggio's hit streak...
Watchmen (Zack Snyder).
Not a fan of the graphic novel, so I had low expectations. Extremely violent, but ambitious and smart.