Best Films of 2009

Well, as things go, this wasn't a particularly good year for film. By which I mean the stuff that made it to first-run theatres tended to suck out loud; not all of it but, you know, most of it. In fact even the stuff that was a little left of center which critics fawned over (Inglorious Basterds, say) left me cold. This was a year of directorial titans giving it their all. Modern art house giants Ang Lee, Stephen Soderbergh, Park Chan-Wook, Tom Tykwer, Lars Von Trier, Jim Jarmusch and Wes Anderson all gave us their latest opuses alongside old favorites Marco Bellocchio, Alain Resnais, Agnés Varda, Francis Ford Coppola and Michael Mann. Granted there are a few films I still haven't seen that will have to be appraised with next year's crew. Resnais Les Herbes Folles remains tantalizingly out of reach and I've yet to find a theatre near Doylestown, PA showing either The Lovely Bones, A Single Man or The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. Though I will say that despite my complaints there were a lot of very interesting movies that found their way to me, in fact I count 61+ in all that I really enjoyed. I'm going to focus on twenty specifically that were a cut above the rest and then I'll list the others below. Oh, and they go in ascending order, so I Sell The Dead is #20 and so on; it looks a little confusing, sorry. I'll get into specific things when the Oscars come around and fuck everything up. Until then, these are just the best, most satisfying over-all films I saw this year.

I Sell The Dead
by Glenn McQuaid
The first of two entries by my favorite production house, Glass Eye Pix, I Sell The Dead is a knowing pastiche of a number of different eras of horror cinema that never tries to do anything but entertain you. Dominic Monaghan and Larry Fessenden (in the role he was born to play) are resurrection men with a long and storied career. Monaghan spins many a yarn to priest Ron Perlman while waiting for his turn at the gallows and a lot of tongue-in-cheek horror clichés are sent up beautifully. McQuaid's direction and writing are efficient, knowing and lovingly carried off. He works around a small budget with panache and makes sure that the focus remains on our love and fixation on the horror genre. His hilarious treatments of vampires, zombies and aliens are just as winning as his nods to die-hards like when he ends the film with this most charming bit of post-modern tribute "A good cast is worth repeating;" as are viewings of the movie.

Black Dynamite
by Scott Sanders
This year saw a number of great pastiche films and I have to say that Scott Sanders' Black Dynamite has the most research (and fun) evident in its every scene. Sanders and star Michael Jai-White clearly did their homework as to what usually lights up the blaxploitation films of the 1970s and used nearly every cliché in the book to hilarious ends. There are poorly edited pursuits on foot, kung-fu set to brass and wah-wah guitar, a posh hideaway staffed with girls, a pimp council, a criminal conspiracy led by whitey that goes straight to the top (and I mean the very top) and of course lots and lots of gettin' it on. Black Dynamite, like Shaft, Black Sampson, Dolemite, Slaughter, Savage and Sweet Sweetback before him knows when to kick ass and when to tap it - a crass joke, sure, but that's this movie's knowingly goofy mentality. It takes a real connoisseur of blaxploitation films to get the importance of the scenes of Black Dynamite dressed up to go to the park after he's 'cleaned up the streets'. Everything from the clean blue shirt to the hitherto unseen suburban setting is pure 70s cutaway and that it could have fallen out of Coffy or Foxy Brown is really what measures Black Dynamite's success. I hadn't laughed so hard in months.

Drag Me To Hell
by Sam Raimi
One of the only things as good as being scared to death is being able to laugh at yourself for being scared. Drag Me To Hell, Sam Raimi's first proper horror film in 22 years, is full of winking terror. Even as he presents obvious scares, he outmaneuvers us by making them still more terrifying and cruel than we imagined. The story of a girl trying outwit a gypsy's curse is blackly hilarious as the terror intensifies by the minute providing classic jump-out-of-your-chair moments the likes of which rival the best moments from Raimi's first two Evil Dead films. Wonderfully cheesy performances from Dileep Rao, Justin Long, Reggie Lee, David Paymer and Lorna Raver compliment feisty farm girl Alison Lohman's hilarious lead performance. It's a rare horror film where knowing the outcome and seeing the semi-cheesy set-pieces before they happen just makes for a more endearing viewing, like a joy-buzzer, but instead of getting a mild shock, a giant horned goat demon jumps out of a closet...wait, that doesn't make sense...

Lorna's Silence
by Jean Pierre & Luc Dardenne
Though sadly this is my first film by the brothers Dardenne, I understand that they're aces at this sort of thing. This sort of thing is painfully honest portrayals of lower class relationships and the pain of needing other people who take and take and take. Lorna has married a drug addict so that she can get Belgian citizenship. Once she's done that she'll try and get rid of him (her mob connection wants to kill him) so that she can then turn around and do the same to gangsters. Arta Dobroshi as Lorna and Jérémie Renier as her drug-addled sham husband Claudy are achingly good as they use each other to achieve new lows. When Dobroshi bashes her head into a hospital wall to make a case for abuse that isn't happening it's just about the most tragic thing you'll ever see. To fill that one moment (and it looks like she's really hurting herself) with so much sombre tension is no small feat. Lorna's Silence is a story full of humanity that happens to focus on the injustices that greet those with dreams. Like the best of Ken Loach, the Dardennes have taken a sad story, someone you pass on the street but don't give a second thought to and given it the full breadth of understanding everybody deserves.

Where The Wild Things Are*
by Spike Jonze
Like Fantastic Mr. Fox, Spike Jonze's beautiful children's film isn't strictly for kids. Unlike Fantastic Mr. Fox, kids shouldn't really have any trouble understanding all of it. This is because Jonze managed to create not only a beautifully winding narrative but he managed to replicate the mindset of a child. The tone shifts are set to the rhythm of a child's mood swings and the non-sequiturs (my favorite involving a dog) are all skillfully played reminders that the movie takes place in a child's psyche. At a time when Avatar is bringing critics and nerds alike to their knees, I think it particularly appropriate to have a film whose main characters are gigantic puppets with CG faces that act circles around everyone in James Cameron's film. Jonze manages to wring an insane amount of pathos from disembodied voices (James Gandolfini deserves an oscar) issuing from giant teddy bears. Best of all is the doubly heart-breaking ending. Like another film on this list, Where The Wild Things Are knows the one surefire way to make me cry: a kid, an adult and an almost silent scene of tenderness and understanding that fills the room with warmth.

*Basho's Pick

by Götz Spielmann
Whatever your preference cinematically, fantasy, romantic comedy, horror, western, there is an objective truth to be found in direction. You may enjoy broad comedy or slapstick or a campy slasher film but one must see that those films are not truthful, they speak a language that has nothing in common with reality. Revanche is how it is. It is an honest film even though it presents artifice and 'superficial' action; everything rings true. For a film with as promising a title as Revanche (Revenge) Götz Spielmann's portrait of a man driven by guilt and hatred is surprisingly placid for much of its running time (albeit tense). Johannes Krisch is Alex (whoever said he's inexplicably mesmerizing was absolutely right. Something about him screams 'likeable' even as he acts like a heel) who has a plan to get him and his prostitute girlfriend Tamara (Irina Potapenko in a similarly subtly awesome performance) out of their financial trouble. He tries to rob a bank but thanks to rookie cop Robert things don't go as planned. Alex holes up at his grandfather's farm contemplating revenge but discovers that maybe he isn't such a scoundrel after all. It's a complicated look at a not-so-complicated situation that becomes all the more fascinating as things level out. I think the strength ofRevanche is indefinable; I can't say exactly why I love any particular aspect, but I know I do. The film, like Alex's life, just unfolds and we have to make of it what we will; it's an honest look at a dishonest world.

Red Cliff
by John Woo
Told like a folk tale with a huge budget, John Woo's epic Red Cliff is a return to form even as it blows his previous work away. Not since his Hong Kong action days has he been this good and the reference to Hard Boiled at the start of the film tells me that he knows he's on fire. The Battle of Red Cliff is a famous Chinese battle fought in the year 208 and Woo renders it gorgeously (though his CG effects occasionally fail him). Red Cliff is about the art of the epic and the unbridled masculinity that usually carries it. Unlike, say, The Two Towers or Letters From Iwo Jima, the focus is on romanticizing nature and the love between people. The reason given for why the battle is ultimately fought is over a woman and unlike many on screen wives, she takes the offensive out of love for her husband. The reason that one side prevails isn't because they love their country more or have some convoluted notion of honor or patriotism, its through devotion to each other and to an understanding and love of the land and reading into every clue the earth gives them. It's a blast to watch and though, yes, there is a good deal of violence, Woo does get to the tragedy of just that. This is not violence for the sake of it because every death is a loss and we are made to feel it.

The White Ribbon
by Michael Haneke
Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon is a troubling and tense experience but ultimately rewarding. To see that Haneke's methods have matured and that he can both indict society and craft a classically beautiful movie capable of producing many kinds of stunned silence is worth any horror he has in store. A school teacher remembers a particularly harrowing chapter in his life in which unspeakable things started happening to pillars of his small village community. This isn't the first out-and-out mystery that Haneke's written but unlike Caché the answer isn't the thing that preoccupies us. As it becomes clearer who's actually behind the acts we want less and less to do with it because their targets become more sympathetic. The final clue is one of the more unnerving things you're likely to see even though so little actually happens. The White Ribbon plays like Cormac McCarthy's Our Town and is unsettling in the utmost but the quiet moments that break up the tension are so wonderfully underplayed that you come away feeling better than you have any right to. watching Christian Friedel's school teacher courting Eva (played with awkward charm by Leonie Benesch) is a little strange at first but very ends up being very sweet, and that Haneke can find both terror and loveliness (necessary when families are on trial) is a new direction for him.

by Bong Joon-Ho
Bong Joon-Ho is a terrific director with gonzo personal baggage. Taking the oddball dynamic of The Host and the subject matter of Memories of Murder, his previous two films, Mother is David Lynch weirdness and subtext given the rhythmic quality he's become dependable for. From Kyung-Pyo Hung's dusky cinematography to the lovingly applied technique (I don't think anyone's quite so in love with what a camera can do as Bong Joon-Ho. His tracking shots and POVs are awesome) Mother is like a theory textbook paraphrased by someone at Cahiers du Cinema. Taking familiar routes to unfamiliar territories there is enough at play for casual observers to see Hitchcock, Twin Peaks & Blue Velvet, Takashi Miike, Insomnia and other unsettling crime stories but there is a clear voice dictating the proceedings. I may not like everything that happens in Joon-Ho's films but I love the distinctness of his vision and that despite the tangents it goes on Mother's message is quite touching and the characters ultra-compelling. Mother is one of the most engaging (while simultaneously jarring) films of the year and it stops at nothing to deliver its message: we'll stop at nothing to save the ones we love.

Il Divo
by Paolo Sorrentino
Or as I like to call it, the film that Guy Ritchie wishes he had made. Il Divo is one of the most flashy and stylish movies ever made but for once that isn't the kiss of death. Rocketing from hyper-kinetic society bashes to rumbling horse races to quiet church interiors at four in the morning, Il Divo tells the story of Giulio Andreotti one of Italy's most corrupt and sinister Prime Ministers or political figures of any kind. As a companion piece to Matteo Garrone'sGomorrah (see below), Il Divo illustrates that not only is Italy one of the most dangerous places in the world to be poor but politicians and journalists are just as susceptible to crooked practices and murder as working class 40 somethings and teenagers. Caring less about verisimilitude than Garrone, Paolo Sorrentino spins a tangled web of intrigue about the facts and myths around Andreotti during his famously hellacious reign. Toni Servillo gives an unsettlingly unreadable performance, half Noseratu, half Hirohito, and he remains the unchanging face as Sorrentino turns up the crazy and calls the truth into question, by the end the only thing certain is that Il Divo is wild as hell.

by Nicholas Winding Refn
It should stand as some testament to this film's power that I wrote a nearly twelve page essay on it the day after I saw it. No one read it but no matter, Bronson is about violence and our fixation on violence as a people. Using the body of Tom Hardy playing Charles Bronson née Michael Peterson, Britains' most famous convict, director Nicholas Winding Refn creates a world focused on and propelled by violence and our acceptance and indeed reverence for it. The film brims over with stylistic brio that matches Hardy's energetic performance punch for punch. To root for Bronson is to root for Tom Hardy is to root for Refn pulling the strings it to root for the movie and the success of charismatic trailblazers doing what they do best. A Clockwork Orange done right.

The Escapist
by Rupert Wyatt
Like a classic man's story a la John Sturges or Howard Hawks, Rupert Wyatt's The Escapist has a lot of hard-boiled conventions and one bitchin' conceit that isn't clear until the very end. You realize then that you haven't just been watching one of the more exhilarating prison break films on record but also a film as smart as it is taut. Brian Cox is Frank Perry who's settled into a life sentence until he hears that his only daughter is in trouble. Now he wants out so he can help her get off her drug addiction and out of her troubles. He turns to his cellmate Liam Cunningham and down-and-out cons Seu Jorge, Dominic Cooper and Joseph Fiennes for help breaking free from bondage, each of them delivering terrifically natural performances. Standing in there way is deranged informant Damian Lewis, playing the polar opposite of his Major Winters character from Band of Brothers, who has designs on Cooper's timid inmate Lacey and of course the prison itself. Art director Irene O'Brien and production designer Jim Furlong created an awesome prison underbelly, a gothic labyrinth that rivals David Fincher's in Alien³, another underrated English film driven by character actors. A dark and beautiful film with a grim and tough story but a starry-eyed philosophy; a crime film with ambition.

Bright Star
by Jane Campion
Maybe I'm just totally susceptible to this kind of story but I think Bright Star is actually one of the most devastating love stories ever told. John Keats and Frances Brawne's romance only lasted long enough for him to propose to her before he fell ill and died. Jane Campion's shows us love in good times and bad, in sickly pallor (cold and dull brown interiors) and good health (brilliant pastel summer landscapes). Abbie Cornish works on so many levels; her unbalanced teenaged worldview and moodswings are carried off tremendously. Her physical presence is also a refreshing departure from English and American starlets. Aside from Paul Schnieder who's performance as the Scotsman Charles Brown is just as good, she's the most captivating in a very capable cast. That Cornish's Brawne feels like a real person is one of the movie's greatest successes and it makes her heartbreak all the more effecting. A film that gets to the root of young love's problems, that there are older and in some ways wiser people over your shoulder who don't take you seriously. Not only does Brawne have to fight just to see and be near Keats, she has to beg and plead for everyone to validate her feelings. It's the saddest kind of love story but it's worth the struggle to understand how greatly she felt for him. Their final scene together is tragic and stunning and like all of Bright Star makes you feel for impossible love.

The Road
by John Hillcoat
I think the difference between the two kinds of filmgoers can be tested with films like The Road. If you hate it or can't understand it, you're in one camp, if you enjoyed it, you're in the other. Needless to say I loved The Road and found it poignant, hopeful and overall a tremendous experience. I love post-apocalyptic movies, I love movies that relish in depictions of dead natural occurrences, I love movies about family that do not take obvious routes at showing their connections and love. The Road, on top of looking gorgeous, featuring an amazing sound design, a terrific score by Nick Cave & Warren Ellis, has a myriad of excellent performances that ensure the film's realism in spite of its premise. John Hillcoat manages to fill in the gaps between McCarthy's prose with haunting visuals and quiet moments that illustrate the distance between people, even those linked by blood. It says the same thing that the novel does but in a purely cinematic form, never relying too heavily on the words of the source novel but always remaining true to its spirit.

by Marco Bellocchio
Since his debut film Fists In The Pockets in 1965, Marco Bellocchio has been persona non grata in his home country. Picking apart the political and social problems and contradictions that have defined modern Italian life, Bellocchio has been an outspoken critic for his entire working life and he has never compromised. Going back 50 years from his last political film Good Morning, Night about the kidnapping of Aldo Moro, Bellocchio turns his attention to Ida Dalser, one of Mussolini's mistresses, and the illegitimate son she named for his father. Played with rapacious determination and fascinating, ferocious sexuality by Giovanna Mezzogiorno, Ida Dalser has more of her freedom stripped from her and soon her quest shifts from demanding that her husband recognize her to being allowed to ever see her son again. Though her struggle can be read as allegory, it's hard not to see it as the destruction of fascism from within. The Italian politics of the day were based around hatred and superiority but they cannot afford humanity in their own lives because fascists were fundamentally imperfect but had to pretend to godlike status. Dalser is the tragic castaway of human skin when Mussolini relinquished reality for a life of fiction and power and murder. Set to Carlo Crivelli's driving score, flush with bold colours and frames that could be art deco paintings thanks to Danielle Cipri's cinematography, Vincere is a rich and sumptuous work.

The House of the Devil
by Ti West
Samantha is in need of money and though babysitting for the Ulman's smells like trouble she can't say no to the $400 Mr. Ulman offers her for one night's work. Even after he admits that he and his wife don't actually have children and that it's his mother that the hapless sophomore will be watching, she agrees. Now she'll spend the rest of the night regretting she ever answered the babysitting ad. Ti West's most recent entry into the Glass Eye canon, The House of the Devil is a stunning recreation of 1980s horror films. Everything from the look to the music to the costumes is a pitch-perfect reproduction of old fashioned production values. For every film that purports to deliver old-school horror, The House of the Devil is the only one I've seen that actually delivers. Not only is it a hyper-real reproduction of any number of slasher films from thirty years ago, it is also a better and altogether more effective film than any of those movies ever managed to be. Ti West has become a master at using a small budget to his advantage and House of the Devil is his masterpiece.

A Serious Man
by Joel & Ethan Coen

Though I was concerned, that this would be another Burn After Reading and all the early buzz comparing this film to Barton Fink was not encouraging. I like every other Coen Brothers movie and that wasn't what I wanted to hear. In point of fact this is much closer to a less whimsical Hudsucker Proxy. Michael Stuhlbarg plays Larry Gopnik whose life gets worse by the minute. His wife is leaving him for famous windbag Sy Ableman, his kids hate him, his brother's using up his money and good credit with the community, one of his students is threatening to blackmail him, the list goes on. Each scene is progressively funnier and Stuhlbarg sells his ridiculous unluck with such wonderfully twitchy energy that even as his life goes further and further into the toilet, you enjoy yourself more and more, like an episode of Arrested Development stretched to feature length and given a great period setting. The message is delivered in the prologue, an episode involving a dybbuk played by Fyvush Finkel. A man brings home a demon and he's worried about being courteous to it; she's worried that it means they're cursed. Weirdly it's the least experienced of three rabbis that Stuhlbarg visits in search of answers who gets it right: you just need a little perspective. "Just look at the Parking Lot!"

by Matteo Garrone
If Revanche is a film that depicts people in an honest and involving light, Gomorrah is like a slap in the face through the screen; a wake-up call. Between Roberto Saviano's book of the same name which gave the film it's five story framework and Matteo Garrone's stunning movie there is enough evidence to indict almost every corporation on earth for murder. In order to truly communicate the savagery of Saviano's work and of what really goes on in Naples, Garrone let the stories tell themselves. The performances are either pitch-perfect or they aren't performances; I've never seen an ensemble cast portray fuck ups quite so convincingly. The combined effect of Garrone's roving camera and the naturalistic performances makes it seem as if we're eavesdropping on some of the most heavy and horrifying things on the planet earth. There is never a moment's doubt watching Gomorrah that what you're seeing is real and that we should be afraid that the food we're eating didn't pass through Naples first. Though Garrone employs beautifully orchestrated plan-séquences and Marco Onorato's cinematography is frankly amazing in spite of what it captures, there isn't a self-indulgent moment to be found. It's only at the end of the film when the small print tells us that it's all real does it occur to you that everything you just saw was a movie; an incredible achievement.

The Beaches of Agnès
by Agnès Varda
Agnès Varda is one of cinema's most important figures; she was one of the first successful female directors, an important forerunner of the French New Wave, one of the most experiment-oriented filmmakers to date, and just over-all her films are marvelous. The Beaches of Agnès is a tell-all that never seems indulgent or egotistical, a beautiful tribute to the people who have shaped Varda's life and to the power of film. Varda's lucious waltz through her past, noting every little detail, is one that engages you with its humour and sadness. It's impossible not to feel for Varda as she weeps over her late husband, the great Jacques Demy and shares the footage she took just days before he died of AIDS. It's also never anything but a loving and honest portrait of a touched and incredible life. Beaches shows that not only has Varda lived well but she remains just as capable a filmmaker as she was in 1957 when she made her stunning Cléo de 5 à 7 or 1965 when she made Le Bonheur one of the most interesting and beautiful films of all time. The Beaches of Agnès is a film that adds to a prolific life while looking back on it; wildly inventive, touching, sensual, lovely, a film as beautiful as any.

And the best film of the year...

by Steve McQueen
I may find in a few months when Hunger gets a Criterion DVD of its own that maybe I was wrong. Maybe it isn't one of the most intense films ever made, maybe it was just me, that I was in the right frame of mind, tired, alone, cold and hungry. I remember waiting for Hunger for months; it was all I could think about. Then it was out, at a theatre not a few subway stops from the apartment I was staying in at the time. I saw it, stayed until the end credits, stumbled back to the apartment wordlessly. Before I got there I had sworn off eating anything living, promised that nothing should ever suffer on my behalf again. The story isn't easy to understand at first glance: guards and prisoners in the Maze prison in 1981 fight bitterly. It's not easy to sympathize with either. Bobby Sands discusses a proposed hunger strike with his priest and then goes ahead with it, dying 66 days later. Steve McQueen turns suffering and filth into poetry; I could heap hyperbole onto it until my fingers gave out but you really need to just see it. I'll just say that I'd never reacted that way to any film in my life.

And The Rest...
21. Flame and Citron
22. Summer Hours
23. The Headless Woman
24. Zombieland
25. Moon
26. Tony Manero
27. Fantastic Mr. Fox
28. The Young Victoria
29. Brothers Bloom
30. The Hurt Locker
31. District 9
32. La Danse de la Paris Opera Ballet
33. Baader Meinhoff Complex
34. Broken Embraces
35. Up (Dizzy's Pick)
36. The Limits of Control
37. Pontypool
38. Sherlock Holmes
39. Big Fan
40. Star Trek
41. Coraline
42. Mesrine Parts 1 & 2
43. Tetro
44. Everlasting Moments
45. Thirst
46. Antichrist
47. Just Another Love Story
48. Tulpan
49. The Informant/Girlfriend Experience
50. The Good, The Bad, The Weird
51. In The Loop
52. Me & Orson Welles
53. Police, Adjective
54. 35 Shots
55. Three Monkeys
56. The Age of Stupid
57. The International
58. Public Enemies
59. Harry Potter & The Half-Blood Prince
60. Not Quite Hollywood!

*Basho also liked Invictus

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Dan Zukovic's "DARK ARC", a bizarre and disturbing modern noir dark comedy called "Absolutely brilliant...truly and completely different..." in Film Threat, was recently released on DVD and Netflix through Vanguard Cinema (, and is currently
debuting on Cable Video On Demand. The film had it's World Premiere at the Montreal Festival, and it's US Premiere at the Cinequest Film Festival. Featuring Sarah Strange ("White Noise"), Kurt Max Runte ("X-Men", "Battlestar Gallactica",) and Dan Zukovic (director and star of the cult comedy "The Last Big Thing"). Featuring the glam/punk tunes "Dark Fruition", "Ire and Angst" and "F.ByronFitzBaudelaire", and a dark orchestral score by Neil Burnett.


***** (Five stars) "Absolutely brilliant...truly and completely different...something you've never tasted
before..." Film Threat
"A black comedy about a very strange love triangle" Seattle Times
"Consistently stunning images...a bizarre blend of art, sex, and opium, "Dark Arc" plays like a candy-coloured
version of David Lynch. " IFC News
"Sarah Strange is as decadent as Angelina Jolie thinks she is...Don't see this movie sober!" Metroactive Movies
"Equal parts film noir intrigue, pop culture send-up, brain teaser and visual feast. " American Cinematheque