Thursday, November 18, 2010

Year in Review: 2009

To end this series, I decided to revisit 2009 – which I had already posted a top 10 list for back in January. Has it changed? Yes, because I decided to move a film that I was going to consider for 2010 back to 2009. It was nominated for the Foreign Language Film Oscar last year, and as such, is not eligible for anything else this year (due to restrictions, it wasn’t eligible for anything by Foreign last year). Other than that, this is the same list. But I felt the need to post it, if for no other reason than for completeness sake. Now that the series is done, I think I will continue to post a rethought list near the end of the following year – because sometimes once the dust as settled, you get a better chance to view the films.

10. District 9 (Neill Blomkamp)
There isn't much left to do with the alien invasion genre - or at least I didn't think there was until I saw Neill Blomkamp's wholly original movie. The setting is South Africa, where an alien spaceship has broken down and its inhabitants have come down to earth. They are treated like crap, shoved into makeshift shanty towns, derided by everyone, who wants them gone. Sharlton Copley gives a wonderful performance as an unprepared government bureaucrat, who is charged with moving the aliens to an even worse place, and doesn't expect what he gets. The movie has a documentary feel in its opening scenes - brilliantly handled with special effects that fit in naturally with its surrondings. And the climax is one of the best action sequences in recent memory. District 9 is a science fiction film that has a larger outlook than most in the genre - and that adds weight to the proceedings. Yet, for me, this is first and foremost a film about Copley's character, and his tragic downfall. A brilliant debut film - I expect big things from Copley in the future.

9. Antichrist (Lars von Trier)
Lars von Trier is, by all accounts, an asshole in real life - which is why many actors refuse to work with him more than once. Yet, for all his experiments in style, all his preteniousness, he is still a vital, original filmmaker. Antichrist represents von Trier at his most far out. It is a film about a married couple - Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourgh, reeling after the death of their infant son (shot in stunning black and white for the opening scene, which is contrasted by the two of them fucking). He, a doctor, takes her to their cabin in the woods and tries to "cure" her of her depression - which doesn't go well. The film is a study in abject pain and cruelty - he is cruel to her mentally, and she in turn is cruel to him physically, leading to a confrontation. The film mixes genres - throwing in horror with psychological drama and others. The performances are brilliant - especially Charlotte Gainsbourgh who undeniably gives the bravest performance of the year, and also one of the best. You may end up hating Antichrist - but it is a film that demands to be seen.

8. Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson)
The films of Wes Anderson have always had a slightly animated feel to them, so it was probably only a matter of time before he made an actual animated film. This allows Anderson to indulge himself in things like costume design and art direction like he never has before, and also gives him complete control over every aspect of the film. Yet, while to some this may be stifling, I think it actually freed Anderson up a little bit. His films before this hadn't hit the heights of Rushmore or The Royal Tenenbaums, but with this film, he has made one of his absolute best. It doesn't matter that the film is animated - or about talking animals - this really isn't a family film (although I think kids will enjoy it, even if the wonderful animation isn't quite what the expect), but a film about a dysfunctional family. I have no idea what Anderson's father was really like, but his film fathers are usually distant and cruel - and Mr. Fox here is no exception. When Mrs. Fox berates him for what he has done, and claws at him, it is a painful scene full of honesty and heartbreak. Yes, it's animated, yet it is still a stunning portrait of family dysfunction by a director whose has made it his obsession.

7. Up (Pete Docter)
Pixar may just be the most consistent creative force in American movies right now. Even when they make a film not up to their standards - Cars, A Bug's Life - they are still quite good. And when they get everything right - like in Up - they make animated masterpieces. Up is a strange film about a sad old man, who lost his wife (in a heartbreaking, tear inducing introduction that recalls their life together) and now just wants to be left alone. But they want to take his house away from him - so he ties a bunch of balloons on to it and takes off - unwittingly taking a small child with him on his adventure. The film hits all the right notes, even though it changes tone quite frequently - it is potent study in loss and redemption, a hilarious comedy and a thrilling adventure and action film. While it may not be quite the film that Wall-E was in 2008 (or Toy Story 3 in 2010 for that matter) Up is still Pixar at its best.

6. The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow)
Audiences do not want to see movies about the Iraq war. None of them have made all that much money, perhaps because America is still mired in the war there, and audiences crave escape. But they should - and I think have, at least on DVD - see The Hurt Locker, a film that drains the politics out of the film, and simply looks at one bomb squad going about their last month of duty before being sent home. They get a new leader in Jeremy Renner, who is an adrenline junkie - he loves the rush of defusing a bomb, and takes unncessary risks. The other two just want to get home. This is the best film of Kathryn Bigelow's career - that strangely for a female director has mainly focused on wounded masculinity. She is a great director, and the action and thriller sequences in the film are as good as any I have seen in war movie. But there is a deeper level here - and that is what makes The Hurt Locker the one film about the Iraq war that must be seen.

5. Where the Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze)
Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are was criticized by some for not being a kids movie, even though it is based on a beloved children's book and stars a bunch of large creatures. While its true that this film is likely too slow for children, I don't think that's a criticism of the film - which really is a movie about childhood, not a movie for children. The little boy at the center of this film is going through a hard time - his parents are divorced, his mother is dating again, he has no real friends, and his older sister won't hang out with him anymore. He runs off after an argument, and finds himself in a strange land populated by "wild things" - each one representing a different facet of his life and imagination. The movie takes place in the mind of a confused child - one that is fighting his feelings of abandonment and hurt, and his budding sexuality that he doesn't understand. The film is also, it must be said, very entertaining and tremendously directed by Spike Jonze - who I think has made the best film of his career here. This is a funny, sad great movie about what childhood is really like.

4. The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke)
Michael Haneke never makes it easy for his audiences. In Funny Games, he literally punishes his audience with what he puts on the screen - in Cache in implicates his French audience in the guilt of his protaganist. In The White Ribbon, he has made a film about the birth of fascism, as seen in a small German town just before WWI. The adults in the town - who all indentified by their jobs - impose a strict, absolutist moral code on the children - and then are shocked when the children hold them to the same standards. Shot in brilliant, beautiful black and white, The White Ribbon is not as shocking violent as some of Haneke's films - and isn't quite as good as Cache - but it is still a masterpiece by one of the boldest filmmakers in the world today.

3. A Prophet (Jacques Audiard)
Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet is a film about a teenage Muslim who goes to jail a naïve young man, and comes out a career criminal. When he arrives, he is a loner, an outsider who doesn’t fit in with any of the groups – not even the other Muslims, who beat him up for his shoes. He is embraced by the Corsicans, who operate like the Mafia, not because they like him – they don’t – but because they need him to murder someone that they cannot get close to. This murder, early in the film, sets the tone – it is brutal, bloody, violent and messy. It doesn’t come off like most movie murders, but has the messiness of real life violence. The young man sits back and observes what he sees around him – just like we sit back and observe him – until he is ready to make his move. Jacques Audiard has been an accomplished director for a while now, but in this movie he takes things to another level – his film is violent and sweeping, encompassing politics, identity issues alongside its prison movie structure – which is also different than most prison movies we see – no one here is looking for redemption. They are violent men. At the heart of the movie is a remarkable performance by Tahr Rahim, who subtlety transforms himself as the movie progresses – from that young man who shakes when he kills his first man, to the confident criminal who leaves the prison years later. In its own way, A Prophet is a rather profound tragedy – the story of a young man who has wasted his life, and has so much more of it to waste.

2. A Serious Man (Joel & Ethan Coen)
The Coen Brothers are the best directing team in history - and among the most original filmmakers in the world right now. A Serious Man is one of their very best films - a strange, dark comedy about a Jewish phsyics professor in 1960s Minnesota who is being tested like no one since Job. His family life is falling apart, because his wife wants a divorce to marry his friend - who is one of those infuriatingly calm people who just wants to talk about his feelings. His professional life could also be in tatters, as his tenure is up for review. At each stage in the film, he is given one moral test after another, and struggles to come up with the right answers - going to see three rabbis who are, of course, no help at all. When he finally relents, finally gives in and makes a bad moral choice - it brings on the Apocalypse. A Serious Man is a brilliant, bold dark comedy from the Coen brothers - filmmakers who make whatever the hell they want to.

1. Inglorious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino)
Quentin Tarantino is like no other filmmaker in history. You can't really call his films original, as they are inspired by so much of cinema past, and yet he makes films like no one else would even dare. To me, Inglorious Basterds is his masterpiece - his most fully realized film, where his love of language and cinema are ingrained in the narrative like none of his other films. It opens with one of the best scenes ever put on film, as Jew hunting Nazi Christophe Waltz, questions a farmer he thinks is hiding Jews. The sequence is so brilliantly written, directed (with a great nod to Hitchcock) and performed by Waltz, that it is masterpiece in and of itself. The rest of the film - told in various chapters - are just as good though, as Tarantino weaves his complex, masterful alternate history and multiple storylines together until it all comes to a brilliant climax at, where else, a movie theater. To reference another Tarantino film, Inglorious Basterds is like a shot of adrenline - brilliant, bold, original and completely unique. Tarantino's best film, and one of the very best of the decade.

Just Missed The Top 10: Avatar (James Cameron), Bad Lieutentant: Port of Call New Orleans (Werner Herzog), Drag Me to Hell (Sam Raimi), An Education (Lone Scherfig), 500 Days of Summer (Marc Webb), The Informant (Steven Soderbergh), In the Loop (Armando Ianucci), The Messenger (Oren Moverman), Passing Strange (Spike Lee), Police Adjective (Cristi Puiu), Public Enemies (Michael Mann), The Road (John Hillcoat), Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa), Up in the Air (Jason Reitman).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture & Director: The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow)
I remember seeing The Hurt Locker at the 2009 Toronto Film Festival and thinking that it was a great film that would never get seen by anyone. After all, Iraq war films had all tanked at the box office - and this included films with big names, not one starring Jeremy Renner in the lead role. So it made me very happy in 2010 that the film got embraced by critics and awards groups - and although it remains the lowest grossing Best Picture winner ever, I have heard from more and more people who have seen and loved the film on DVD. It had pretty much the perfect campaign strategy by going all David vs. Goliath against Avatar, and the Academy made the right call by giving it to this film. True, I would have loved to see Tarantino or the Coens win the big prize this year, I won’t complain too much.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
Jeff Bridges is one of the best actors of his generation, and with Crazy Heart he picked up his fifth Oscar nomination since 1971, and he had yet to win. His work in Crazy Heart is the reason to see the film. It is a fairly standard country music movie about a washed up, alcoholic singer who finds a second chance when he cleans up his act. The music, written by T. Bone Burnett is great, and he gets some good support from Maggie Gyllenhaal, Robert Duvall and Colin Farrell, but Bridges really is the whole show here. He is great in a movie that is merely good. Out of the nominees, I would have given the Oscar to Jeremy Renner for his work in The Hurt Locker, and would have loved to have seen the ridiculously great Nicolas Cage in Bad Lieutenant got a nomination, but how can you really complain about Bridges finally winning an Oscar?

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
Sandra Bullock’s win for The Blind Side caught a lot of flak from many critics and film buffs for a number of reasons. First, Bullock has never really been known as a great actress - she has spent most of her career doing mediocre romantic comedies. And the film itself, although a HUGE hit (I mean really, how many straight dramas make $250 million? Answer - none). I myself thought the movie was pretty good for what it was - not great by any means, but okay and I don’t think Bullock deserved to win, or even be nominated, so I’m not going to defend it too much. But I will say that Bullock was miles better than fellow nominees Helen Mirren, who was WAY too far over the top in The Last Station, and she was at least as good as Meryl Streep’s wildly over praised performance in Julie and Julia. Yes, the youngsters Gaborey Sidibe and especially Carey Mulligan deserved to win - but considering the Academy completely ignored truly great work like Charlotte Gainsbourgh in Antichrist and Tilda Swinton in Julia, what did we really expect?

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: Christophe Waltz, Inglorious Basterds
Christophe Waltz’s work in Inglorious Basterds is, in my opinion anyway, far and away the best performance of the year. Even if his performance was nothing more than the first scene in the movie - where he goes back and forth between French, German and English while questioning a man he thinks is hiding Jews in his house - he would have deserved this award. But the performance goes much further than that. Waltz is perhaps the vilest, most memorable movie Nazi in history. A masterful performance in a truly great movie. There was some other decent work this year - particularly Woody Harrelson in The Messenger - but Waltz was still the best by far.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Mo’Nique, Precious
There are some performances that seemingly come out of nowhere. If you asked me at the beginning of 2009 if Mo’Nique would win an Oscar this year, I would have laughed. There is nothing in her background that would suggest that she was capable of delivering this type of performance. But as the title character's monstrous mother, Mo’Nique is truly amazing. I’m sure most people will remember her profanity spewing rants early in the film, but it really it her masterful final scene, where we start to understand what makes this woman tick, that earned her this award. Whether or not Mo’Nique turns this into a more sustained acting career remains to be seen - but no matter what, she earned this Oscar.

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