Monday, December 28, 2009

The year in review: 2009's best

OK, so 2009 wasn't a banner year for movies, but that doesn't mean it didn't produce its share of memorable work. And, no, I don't want to hear about how Avatar saved the year for you or why Star Trek made your summer. The best of 2009 either took place away from Hollywood or in mainstream movies that were touched by indie spirit. I have to admit that I was shocked to discover no less than four French movies on my list. It's a little late in the game to be turning into a Francophile, but so be it -- at least for 2009.

Without further ado, then, my 10 best movies of the year with some footnotes about films that almost made my list and other memorable matters.


Director Olivier Assayas' impeccably acted Summer Hours deals with things that matter to us all -- or should: the deterioration of family bonds and the disconnection that can develop between generations. A mother passes away and her three grown children -- two brothers and a sister -- must decide what to do with her house and possessions. There's no faux melancholy here, only the sadness that's felt as time passes and the world as we understand it begins to vanish.


Set in Baghdad, director Kathryn Bigelow's combat-ready movie could have been No. 1 on my list, but this year I put love for Summer Hours over respect for Bigelow's considerable achievement. The Hurt Locker builds unbearable tension as it follows a three-man bomb squad around Baghdad, showing how different soldiers react to the strains of war. Jeremy Renner does exceptionally fine work as a sergeant who finds both purpose and an undeniable high in defusing bombs. Bigelow works in a sparse, no-nonsense style that proves that she might be a Sam Fuller for the 21st Century.


George Clooney excels as a man who earns his living by depriving others of theirs. Clooney's Ryan Bingham works for a company that specializes in corporate dirty work. Too timid to downsize? Hire Bingham to let your people go. Funny and trenchant, director Jason Reitman's ultra-loose adaptation of a novel by Walter Kirn tops my list of mainstream entertainments. Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick give Clooney able support, and -- as he proved in Thank You For Smoking and Juno -- Reitman is much too smart to sabotage either a movie's entertainment value or its ability to say something meaningful.


Joel and Ethan Coen defy expectation with a profoundly serious comedy based on their experiences growing up Jewish in a Minneapolis suburb. A Serious Man focuses on the fast-unraveling life of physics professor Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg). Well observed down to the last painful detail, A Serious Man allows the Coens to ponder big questions. It should come as no surprise that the Coens' view of the world -- though often funny -- does not brim with optimism.


The year's best satire deals with the way British and American bureaucrats talk themselves into an impending war in the Middle East. (Any resemblance to U.S. and British involvement in Iraq should be taken as purely intentional.) The result is compelling and arch, and just about everything in the movie rings true. The government officials that we meet are a venal lot, careerists who spend as much time jockeying with one another as they do advancing the interests of their respective countries. An ensemble cast shines, but Peter Capaldi earns special recognition as a ruthless, profanity-spewing PR man for the British prime minister.


Director Stephen Soderbergh denies us a strong rooting interest in this story of corporate corruption; Soderbergh does, however, make us wish that sanity might suddenly penetrate the movie's intricate web of irresponsibility and greed. Based on a true story, The Informant! not only lacks a bona fide hero, but takes a surprisingly comic approach to a price-fixing scandal. I know that sounds dull, but it's anything but. Matt Damon gives an Oscar worthy performance as whistler blower who's not all that he seems.


A little-known painter who died in 1942, Seraphine de Senlis spent much of her life working as a domestic. A woman of mystical bent, Seraphine believed that God had commanded her to paint. She also believed that she had a winking, intimate relationship with the Virgin Mary. Not surprisingly, Seraphine wound up in an insane asylum. Director Martin Provost's somber movie revolves around a great performance from the Belgian actress Yolande Moreau, whose portrayal of Seraphine is utterly unselfish and deeply committed. Plain and portly, Seraphine isn't the sort of character who endears herself to us or to the residents of Senlis, the town in France's Picardy region where she resides, but Moreau's performance proves unforgettable.


French director Claire Denis' look at an African father and his daughter quietly (and that's a crucial word) reveals the subtleties of adjustment demanded by those making their way in a changing and increasingly multiracial society. Don't look for screaming or abrasive conflict. Denis' story deals with the great population change in Europe on the most intimate of levels. 35 Shots of Rum expands in the mind as you think about it, and, in some ways, can be viewed as a companion piece to Summer Hours, two movies about the shifting tone and tenor of life in Europe. If only we had American equivalents.


I always like to include at least one documentary on my 10-best list. This year's spot goes to Agnes Varda's reflective (and joyfully creative) look at her own relationship to a life in film. The 81-year-old French director remembers her childhood, her development as a still photographer, then as a movie director, and, of course, as the wife of director Jacques Demy, most famous for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Varda's movie is at once arty and playful -- serious without ever being solemn. Varda, who was 80 when her film was made, concludes by telling us that she's alive and that she remembers. Good news for us on both counts.


OK, maybe it's a bit of stretch to put director Werner Herzog's helping of neo-noir nastiness on a 10-best list. And, yes, I have to admit that at times I was a little too aware of Nicolas Cage's tendency to push himself as far over the top as possible. Cage plays a reprobate detective, a guy who seems to have crawled out of the muck of post-Katrina New Orleans. But Herzog, who usually makes films involving great physical challenges (witness Fitzcarraldo or Grizzly Man), accomplished something wholly unexpected. In telling the story of a corrupt New Orleans detective, he rediscovered American funk. Lord knows, our CGI-dominated culture could use more of it.

I'm going to cheat a bit here, and add one more movie to my list, the film I regard as the year's best animated entertainment:


Wes Anderson's adaptation of a Roald Dahl story about a rebellious fox boasted the year's best voice work in any animated feature, and, for me, stood out as one of the year's most enjoyable entertainments. How about George Clooney (as Mr. Fox) and Meryl Streep (as Mrs. Fox) as couple of the year?


Not unlike health-care legislation, a 10-best list involves a series of ugly compromises. I could have gone in different directions. Take documentaries: I was partial to Every Little Step, Anvil: The Story of Anvil and My Neighbor, My Killer, which played at the Starz Denver Film Festival and which dealt with attempts at reconciliation in Rwarnda. I went for Varda's movie out of a sense of fondness for a director who insists on following her own muse.

Had I been able to see the five-hour version of John Woo's Red Cliff, it probably would have made my list. I passed because thus far I've seen only the condensed two-and-a-half hour edition that was released theatrically in the U.S. What I saw suggested that Woo may have made his masterpiece.

When it came to acting, 2009 was a strong year. Morgan Freeman's portrayal of Nelson Mandela in Invictus was quiet, subtle and revealing. Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer were superb as Mr. and Mrs. Tolstoy in The Last Station. Tom Hardy was spectacular as Britain's most violent convict in the little-seen Bronson, and Christian McKay accomplished the near-impossible in Me and Orson Welles: He brought Orson Welles back to life -- arrogance, genius and all.

Young women -- Carey Mulligan in An Education, Abbie Cornish in Bright Star and Emily Blunt in The Young Victoria -- distinguished themselves in 2009. And, yes, Mo'Nique stopped me in my tracks as an abusive mother in Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Saphire.

I had my qualms about Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, but Christoph Waltz deserves big-time praise for creating one of the most frightening characters of the year: Hans Landa, a terrifyingly polite SS officer.

I don't think most people realized -- and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences probably won't either -- that Michael Jackson: This is It was a triumph of editing. Credit a talented team of editors who made something coherent and even revealing out of tons of raw footage.

Some of year's stronger movies flew under the radar of hype: Director Ramin Bahrani continued to explore the "real" America with Goodbye Solo, an unsentimental look at the oddball relationship between a bitter white southerner (Red West) and a taxi driver (Souleymane Sy Savane) who emigrated to the U.S. from Senegal. Director Sergei Dvortsevoy took us to the steppes of Kazakhstan for Tulpan, a simple story about a herdsman who wants nothing more than to find a wife. German director Uli Edel may have made the year's most exciting thriller by telling the real life story of the Baader Meinhof gang in his Baader Meinhof Complex.

Special mention is due The Messenger, which stars Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson as soldiers assigned to deliver news of GI deaths to their next of kin. To my way of thinking, director Oren Moverman came closer than anyone to date in showing the deep and abiding impact of war on the lives of those who survive it.

And one final note: I haven't had a chance to review A Single Man, but I have seen the movie. Director Tom Ford's finely wrought adaptation of a Christopher Isherwood novel about a gay English professor trying to cope with the death of his partner is graced by an admirably restrained performance from Colin Firth, as the English professor, and by a sad, nervy performance from Julianne Moore, as an increasingly desperate and lonely woman.

So that's it for 2009. With the awards season looming, we'll hear a lot more about the year's best movies, but I always enjoy the prospect of moving on.
People sometimes ask me to name the best movie I've ever seen.
Of course, I could pick a movie, but I always prefer to answer with hope rather than history.

"My favorite movie ever? I hope I haven't seen it yet."


Peter Nellhaus said...

The five hour version of Red Cliff has been available for months on DVD. If you had asked me, I could have told you where to buy them, or you could have invited me over to Chez Denerstein to see my copies. John Woo's film made my best of the year, if you want to check out my blog. Magnet is said to have the full version on DVD at the end of March.

Robert Denerstein said...

Have it on order, but decided that for review purposes I should deal with the theatrical release. Thanks for the info.