Woo-hoo! It's finally here! I know that you, my dear viewers (all eight of you), looked to this blog in the wee hours of New Year's morn, wondering, "Where could Jake's list of the best films of 2009 be? I don't know how I can keep going without hearing him coalesce a year's worth of opinions-as-fact into one giant opinion!" Well, I can only hope the arduous wait has not tortured you too terribly, but, after capitulating to the sad truth that I won't be able to see all the films that caught my eye out here in the ass-end of who-cares, and I've caught up with almost everything else.
To say that 2009 was not exactly bursting at the seams with cinematic riches would be akin to saying that Charles Manson was a bit of a nutter. Even coming off the relatively low-key offerings of 2008 (which looked even weaker compared to the gold mine that was 2007, the most rewarding year at the cinema since 1999) appeared numerous in the face of this, the year that the aftershocks of the late 2007 writer's strike hit and hit hard.
Yet the triumphs of 2009 could largely stand in the same company as the previous year's finest productions, even if neither could ultimately hold a candle to '07's cream of the crop (save a few choice exemptions, such as '08's Synecdoche, New York). Indeed, where the best of 2008 for the most part only just lifted itself above that year's cavalcade of mediocrity, the small pool of genuinely great movies released this year could more easily fit on a list of the best of the decade, though this might be a matter of perception given the rancid banality and outright horror of so many of the year's offerings. Perhaps the brightest aspect of the year's failure to deliver on most of its hyped films is that, in a year in which Oscar bait typically failed, more visceral entertainment like Inglourious Basterds and The Hurt Locker emerged as frontrunners for awards. Thus, for all its flaws, 2009 was decent enough to balance its diluted quality by easing the onslaught of insufferable message movies. Let's see what was left in the pan after sifting out the Watchmens and Proposals of the year, shall we? (includes links to full reviews)
1. Inglourious Basterds
The first time I saw this, I knew I'd seen the most fun film of the year. With a second viewing, I knew I'd seen one of the most intelligent as well. Yes, you heard me: for all of Tarantino's mimetic revelry, there's a message in this film that goes beyond a simplistic celebration of the West's undying love affair with hating Nazis (not that they should be loved, naturally). Basterds follows a route not vastly different from the director's Kill Bill films, of characters trapped in a horrible situation with a thirst for revenge that leaves most of its "heroes" dead. Its gory climax, set against a theater showing a propaganda film of Americans dying, is one of the most interesting commentaries on how a filmgoing audience can be a disturbing entity since Powell's Peeping Tom. Yet for all this surprising depth, Inglourious Basterds never loses sight of its sense of, dare I saw, whimsy nor its infectious love of that most visceral of art forms. Besides, in a year when Michael Bay glorified Bush-era fascism and superiority, I find something wonderful in an American film that plays in part as a love letter to France.
2. The Hurt Locker
On one hand, Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker is a pitch-perfect wartime thriller that does the finest job of capturing the sheer visceral terror of combat since Black Hawk Down, with the added bonus of showing soldiers in the tedium between fights (all without losing an ounce of momentum). On the other, it's a deft examination of the folly of the War on Terror, while never betraying its politics through grand speechifying and while always respecting the bravery of our fighting forces. Jeremy Renner's breakout performance ranks second only to Christoph Waltz's star-making turn in Inglourious Basterds.
3. Two Lovers
Two Lovers is the sort of movie one simply doesn't expect from American filmmakers anymore in a cinematic landscape where the notion of love is presented on-screen in regressive rom-coms that pervert love into a process by which people learn to ignore personalities in favor of physical attraction. James Gray, however, presents us with a story that, on paper, has all the trappings of melodrama but works as a searingly realistic and painful depiction of an unstable man's romantic dilemma. Two Lovers is the kind of film that ends with a traditional declaration of love, yet no one truly gets what he or she wants. Quietly devastating and always human, Two Lovers is the most surprising picture of the year.
4. A Serious Man
The Coen brothers' creative resurgence, begun with No Country for Old Men and continued with their deliberately empty caper Burn After Reading, reaches its apex with A Serious Man. While No Country may well remain the superior film, but A Serious Man shows an emotional connection to the story that the brothers haven't exhibited since their fond appraisal of Marge Gunderson in Fargo. A cynical retelling of the story of Job, A Serious Man uses the filmmakers' Jewish upbringing to reconstitute the entire religion around the concept of "Jewish humor." The ending was the best joke of all.
5. Goodbye Solo
Ramin Bahrani's first two films revealed a filmmaker of depth and unassuming skill, but Goodbye Solo adds an emotional resonance to his formula without losing the neorealist touch of Man Push Cart or Chop Shop. A loose re-imagining of Abbas Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry, Solo takes that sparse tale of a suicidal man looking for someone to bury him and reworks it into a heartrending story of loneliness and regret, featuring two of the year's tragically unsung performances by Souléymane Sy Savané and Red West. Goodbye Solo isn't as elliptical and meditative as Taste of Cherry, but it uses its more direct approach not to drill the plot into our skulls but to flesh out these characters to the point that their agony becomes our own. One of the most beautifully devastating films in years.
6. Summer Hours
Oliver Assayas takes a tried-and-true staple of French drama -- family disintegration -- and crafts a meditative, ultimately hopeful portrait of a family slowly cutting its ties not because the concept of the family cannot exist in the modern world but because the modern world allows us to cut old ties to go elsewhere to form new ones. I've never bought into the sentimentality of objects -- the concept of "school spirit" has long baffled me -- but Assayas does as good a job of showing me the indefinable role objects and places can have in the shaping of our identities and self-perception.
7. Silent Light
Featuring cinematography to best even Tarsem Singh's recent visual feast The Fall and the best shots of the staggering beauty of nature since Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven, Silent Light is, for all its aesthetic distance, every bit as intimate and affecting as Goodbye Solo. Carlos Reygadas, a Mexican filmmaker working with American Mennonites who speak Plautdietsch, crafts a film that recalls the most rending of contemporary Asian cinema, capturing the pain of romantic anxiety in a society with strict social codes evidenced so beautifully by directors such as Wong Kar-wai.
8. In the Loop
Only in a year as thoroughly odd as 2009 could not one but two films directly concerning the Iraq war make my top ten (and I never did get around to seeing The Messenger or Brothers). In the Loop could hardly form a double feature with The Hurt Locker, its absurd black comedy a harsh contrast to the realism of Bigelow's opus. Playing aesthetically and conceptually like a politicized Office, In the Loop survives on a profane poetry to match even the vulgar ramblings of Quentin Tarantino. Its fantastic cast, featuring savagely funny performances from actors on both sides of the pond, never falters in their delivery of the incessant swearing. By the end, Iannucci and his writers undercut the laughs with the sobering reminder that this actually happened, and that even those who pledged to prevent the invasion were as vain, ignorant and manipulative as the people who sent men and women to die for a lie.
9. The Limits of Control
The most Jarmsuch-y Jarmusch film yet in a year where a number of auteurs crafted summations of their work (Inglourious Basterds, Public Enemies), The Limits of Control openly references its antecedent The Lady from Shanghai, which didn't make any sense either. Gorgeously photographed by Christopher Doyle, this occasionally impressionistic view of a hitman in Spain contains all of Jarmusch's wry humor, such as the subversion of the hitman genre by constantly parading a nude woman around who does not tempt the stoic killer. Its broad range of quotation -- not limited to film but art and philosophy as well -- might not add up to a coherent narrative, but it makes for a unique and oddly fun ride through the mind of one of modern cinema's most interesting directors.
10. Bright Star
Jane Campion's period piece about the romance between the great poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne may be the most interesting, least conventional and best directed period drama since Scorsese's The Age of Innocence. She gets the most out of her two leads, and her elliptical style breaks the script from the crushing tedium of your typical three-act biopic (though, by placing the film in Brawne's perspective, I'm not so sure you can call it a biopic at all). It's understated, gorgeous, witty and often devastating, all the more so because for once I felt like I was watching real people and not some two-dimensional mock-up of an older society.
11. The Girlfriend Experience
Unlike a number of Soderbergh's films, The Girlfriend Experience never overstays its welcome. The best of his low-budget, experimental films, TGE is the 25th Hour of the financial collapse, a character study that doubles as an incisive look at the mindset of traders and bankers who brought about such ruin. Few films boast the sort of verisimilitude of Soderbergh's tale of a call-girl offering hollow comfort for high rollers, what with its casting of a real porn star. And I've said it once but I'll say it again: nothing this year was as funny to me as the idea that all of the broken and terrified money handlers of the world would flee into the arms of the world's oldest profession for solace.
12. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans
Werner Herzog's anti-police procedural is a demented singspiel, a lament for New Orleans by way of a pitch-black comedy concerning its addled tyrant, fully unleashed in the flood of the broken levees. Perhaps the most quotable film of the year, Bad Lieutenant is so off-the-wall that it's easy to miss how perfectly it fits into Herzog's canon, albeit as an inverted take on his usual theme of the man at odds with nature. Come for Nicolas Cage channeling Klaus Kinski; stay for the iguanas.
13. The Headless Woman
Lucrecia Martel's third feature is a blurry, peripheral glance at the lives of an amnesic middle class woman and her ingrown family. Alternately a commentary on Argentina's history of making dissidents "disappear," a look at gender roles and an indictment of Argentina's blindness to its widening class gap, The Headless Woman offers enough barely discernible visual and aural clues and metaphorical interpretations to drive a film twice as long.
14. World's Greatest Dad
What begins as a twisted look at an emotionally distant father-son relationship morphs into a blistering commentary on the media's fascination with death and the tendency for people to latch onto tragedy in a desperate attempt to make themselves a part of the story. Bobcat Goldthwait at last establishes himself as the demented Albert Brooks with this, by far his best effort to date.
As an admitted fanboy of both, I admit that the combination of Neil Gaiman and Henry Selick stacked the odds in Coraline's favor from the start, but I could not have anticipated how gripping, beautiful, haunting and downright terrifying it would be. One of the few modern children's tales that carries the full horror of the old "be careful what you wish for" fable, Coraline puts its spoiled brat in her place while still presenting its protagonist as a strong and resourceful young girl who proves her mettle where it counts. In a year that featured massive innovation in digital animation, Selick proves how beautiful and rewarding it can be to do it the old-fashioned way.
And now for the extraneous awards:
Best Guilty Pleasure That Is in No Way Weak Enough to Qualify as Such
So nice I reviewed it twice. Just missed out of the top 15 by *this* much.
Best Guilty Pleasure That Absolutely Embodies the Definition of the Term
Crank 2: High Voltage
Is it possible to list a film that offers me absolutely no pleasure as a "guilty pleasure"? Crank 2 is not a good film; it is not a film, period. It is racist, fascistic, misogynistic and just generally offensive to every human being who ever lived, and yet, like stumbling onto a video of some horrid sex act, I am repulsed and nauseated but unable to turn away. People are right to say that the phrase "guilty pleasure" is nonsense because no one should feel bad about something they enjoy. This film is definitive proof to the contrary: I felt like scum sitting in a theater watching it, and I feel worse for buying a copy for my Blu-Ray collection. But something about this absolute train wreck of a film keeps me ogling, just like a, well, train wreck. I shall continue, in vain, to explain my love-to-hate affair with this movie as my attempt to see just how terrible it really is, but maybe I'll just get therapy one of these days instead.
Best Use of a Single Song
(Tie) Adventureland: Velvet Underground -- "Pale Blue Eyes"/Inglourious Basterds: David Bowie -- "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)
Any year that Tarantino releases a film more or less seals up this specific category, and he certainly didn't disappoint with Inglourious Basterds. His use of spaghetti western scores helped establish the movie's off-kilter approach to World War II, and the sheer off-the-wall brilliance of the juxtaposition of David Bowie's "Cat People" with the usually tedious "game face" psyching-up characters do before some big fight made the scene the film's most memorable "proper" scene (i.e. one that didn't last 20 minutes, à la the opening and the tavern scene). OK, I supposed the absolutely gorgeous cinematography and fluid camera movements helped, too.
Yet I was equally struck by Greg Mottola's perfect usage -- in two separate scenes -- of the most aching song Lou Reed ever penned, "Pale Blue Eyes." Kristen Stewart's eyes are more green than blue, but they're just as striking and inviting as those Reed describes. The first time it is used, in a silent, sexually-tense car ride, it establishes a mood of James' growing attraction to this fascinating girl and his inner poet barely containing itself for fear of its clingy and obsessive aspects. When we hear it again, played from the jukebox of a local dive, it is a piece of heartbroken longing affecting on a level normally reserved for the purest of blues songs ("Love in Vain" could not have pulled my heart strings as much in that moment). The usage of Lou and the Velvets was enough to make this film stand out to begin with, but each of these perfect moments have stuck in my head for the entire year.
Most Sexual Tension in a Film Featuring Abstinent Lovers
Most Overrated Film
Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" By Sapphire
A reprehensible mountain of Von Trier-esque character torture masquerading as incisive social commentary, Precious speaks more of the lascivious instincts of the filmmakers than the crippling pressures placed upon the black urban poor of the nation. The film's performances were strong -- I cannot think of another performance this year that shook and terrified me as deeply as Mo'Nique's portrayal of Precious' monstrous mother, and this year gave us one of the most noteworthy on-screen Nazis ever -- but they're working in service of evil. For a film cited by many of its admirers as honest and revealing of life for poor blacks in our cities, Precious uses race as simply another one of its cheap tricks for inducing horror, a means to an exploitative end. Jim Emerson brilliantly pointed out the film's connection to the madcap, gross-out black comedy of John Waters, but, even if we accept a certain level of cheekiness and Almodóvarian melodrama, I don't think that lessens the rampant hypocrisy of Daniels and Sapphire's unpalatable moralism. This film does not spark civic outrage; it simply creates nausea.
Most Underrated Film
Have I made clear yet my love of Adventureland?
Performances That Will Be Unfairly Overlooked, So Prepare Yourselves Now
Abbie Cornish in Bright Star, Sam Rockwell in Moon, Maya Rudolph in Away We Go, Kim Ok-bin in Thirst, Red West in Goodbye Solo, Souléymane Sy Savané in Goodbye Solo
Oddest Cinematic Trend
Science fiction has long dealt with concepts such as colonization and xenophobia, but 2009 overflowed with futuristic racial dramas, curiously (and fortuitously) timed with the inauguration of our first biracial president and the hysteria with which some of the right-wing reacted. Avatar, with its broad appropriation of the tropes of such PC Injun tales Dances with Wolves and Pocahontas, may have been clichéd but it was shocking to see such a big-budget spectacle so thoroughly damn the avarice and hatred of man. District 9, before devolving in its final act into a popcorn flick (with bizarrely antithetical shots of menacing, voodoo-mad black people in terrifying close-up), was a surprisingly thoughtful rumination on racism and the thought that apartheid and its equivalents might not be entirely behind South Africa and elsewhere. Even Transformers 2 contained an element or two of spacism, albeit only in the sense that it was itself racist.
Best Cinematic Trend
(tie) the first good films about the Iraq war vs. "It's a great year to be a kid"
After years of preachy, mediocre treatises on the War on Terror, Hollywood finally got its crap together and released some high-quality war film just as we began to uncover just how badly we'd failed in our military efforts. The Hurt Locker was a perfect thriller that never attacked the bravery of the soldiers it depicted even as it revealed how their mindsets are detrimental to the effort of winning an ideological war. In the Loop approached Iraq from the opposite direction, a scathing satire that decried the cataclysmic failure, deceit and mutually destructive collusion of two governments without once mentioning the words "Bush" or "Blair" aloud. Even Inglourious Basterds helped revitalize the war genre and, despite its setting, clearly commented on current conflicts, the notion of American soldiers becoming terrorists to fight an identified evil reflecting our own warped slide into, as Cheney called it, "the dark side."
Conversely, the kid's film, the light counterpoint to the bleakness of the war genre, nearly burst at the seams with quality entertainment. Miyazaki rebounded from the sumptuous but pat Howl's Moving Castle with the Totoro-like Ponyo, a cavalcade of visual imagination in a story that didn't have a true villain and didn't need one; it's always nice to have one of Miyazaki's girl-friendly pictures suitable for the youngest of kiddies, and The Princess and the Frog also offered up some progressive (for Disney, anyway) ideas about heroines in clichéd princess tales. Elsewhere, children were treated properly like the young adults they are: the Spielbergian Up ultimately simplified itself at the end, but it opened with a devastating montage of love and loss and made a convincing case for the relevancy and vigor of our elders. Coraline was so gripping I don't know that I could even recommend it for children. Where the Wild Things Are took a ten-sentence classic and turned it into a swirling torrent of the emotional maelstrom of pre-pubescence, a moving and (occasionally) terrifying paean to the uncertainty and vexation of childhood. Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox was so hip and occasionally existential it quickly became evident that he'd simply written the film he would have made normally and then softened the language and themes for kids (sidenote: I would like all future uses of censorship for television to substitute the word "cuss" for any inappropriate swear-word; how great would Raging Bull be on the tube with lines like "You cuss my wife? You cuss my wife?!" Hollywood put out so many quality animated films this year that the Academy might have to nominate five instead of the usual three.
Best Nod to Tex Avery
The anvil inexplicably hanging in a young woman's tool shed in Drag Me to Hell
Best Action Sequence
The shootout at the Little Bohemia Lodge in Public Enemies
Most Surprising Film Reference
The blatant nod to The Third Man in Fantastic Mr. Fox
Most Quotable Movie
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans. I might have argued for In the Loop, but I can't bring myself to quote from that one, as picking out random clips disrupts the pure, putrid poetry of it all; Bad Lieutenant, though, is a smorgasbord of gleeful absurdity, even if we mere mortals could never deliver the lines with such mania as Nic Cage.
Best Sign That You're Having a Weird Year
Willem Dafoe being able to say that he's in that movie with the talking fox and not immediately making clear which movie that is (Fantastic Mr. Fox, Antichrist)
Best Sound Mixing
The hysterically ear-splitting (yet always crystal clear) Drag Me to Hell HM: Public Enemies, for the nuance you'd expect from a Michael Mann soundstage, reserving the jarring, deafening gunshots for tight bursts while the elsewhere he explores the areas around the action.
Worst Sound Mixing
The screeching, bewildering, annoying grind of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
Scariest Moment of the Year
Robin Williams nude in World's Greatest Dad
Best Deliberately Bad Moment of Direction
The camera belatedly tilting up to follow Black Dynamite standing up in outrage, then moving back down when it overshoots
Best Method of Censorship
Replacing all curse words with the word "cuss" in Fantastic Mr. Fox
The Hurt Locker
The constant juxtaposition between pure lovey-dovey bliss and the outright misery of the self-absorbed, deliberately regressive protagonist in (500) Days of Summer
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. A year without Michael Bay assembling a team of editors and cutting off their thumbs for his own amusement is like a day without sunshine.
One megastar and one well-known actress (Diane Kruger) among the slew of unfamiliar faces all putting in spectacular work (well, except for Eli Roth) in Inglourious Basterds
Biggest Waste of a Cast
Nine. If you didn't know I was going to say that, congratulations on not seeing Nine.
Best Cinematic Moment Not Directly Involving a Film
A.O. Scott and Michael Phillips taking over At the Movies and sending Ben Lyons back to the E! Channel from whence he came.
Best Indicator that One Should Always Sleep on a Film Before Assigning a Concrete Opinion on It
Oh, how I manage to even look at this review through the pink wall of my crushed-together fingers escapes me, but it is only another form of mental anguish I've suffered since seeing that film, returning home to sing its praises, only to awaken bleary-eyed the next day and, upon a second viewing, trudging back to my computer with my tail between my legs to refute almost everything I enjoyed about it the first time, utterly contradicting even specific points I held up as particularly praiseworthy. I nearly deleted it in the hopes that no one would have spotted it in the interim. And yet, it stays, a public reminder to myself and maybe to others that first impressions are everything, but they are so often wildly misleading.
The Girlfriend Experience
I don't know anymore if I liked this poster on its own merits to begin with or if the buzz all over the place for it has influenced me, but the sheer odd sensuality of it is a good case for discussion, at any rate. Sasha Grey's suggestive pose, the multicolored polka-dots and the fantastic tagline all conspire to somehow tell you exactly what you're in for despite not giving away a damn thing. The barcode is just icing on the cake.
OK, this isn't coming out until this year, but the poster itself was released in 2009, and it's bad enough to deserve derision over two years. What's worse, the hysterically ludicrous Tough Guy poses (from the likes of Paul Walker and Hayden Christensen, no less), Chris Brown's Tough Guy Pose (yikes) or the god-awful Photoshopping on display here? Seriously, half these guys have such big heads on bodies that clearly aren't theirs you'd think they were posing for a fashion magazine.
And now, the ten worst. I'm not writing any capsule notes on these, as writing about them once was painful enough; follow the links if you dare (obviously, these are simply the worst of the films I saw; I had other things to do the weekend Translymania came out. Like breathing.)
10. Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" By Sapphire
9. The Informers
8. I Love You, Beth Cooper
7. The Unborn
6. Year One
5. Terminator Salvation
4. Fired Up!
3. New in Town
2. S. Darko: A Donnie Darko Tale
1. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
OK, I know that I said I wouldn't say anything, and I've driven this into the ground, but the fact that Transformers 2 not only cleaned up at the box office but ranks as the best-selling Blu-Ray of the season just depresses me. It isn't just that Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is racist, or sexist. It's not that it's inexpertly shot and, yet again, edited with idiotic, distracted carelessness. It's that Transformers celebrates the Bush administration's view of America: empty nationalism, lack of accountability and rampant, unapologetic jingoism. It opens with the U.S.-backed Autobots destroying large sections of Shanghai, and when a single government official comes by to protest the collateral damage, he is presented as a sneering, liberal pansy-waist; for its finale, it rubs our faces in a Transformer's balls, and by the time a character went to robot heaven I knew I'd slipped into the deepest bowels of Hell. Tell me all you want how the worst films are no-budget displays of nonprofessional acting, directing, set design and whatnot, but I'll take the honest enthusiasm of Ed Wood over this abysmal, ugly, offensive piece of shit any day.
Films I Wish I'd Seen Before Writing This
24 City, The White Ribbon, Extraordinary Stories, Antichrist, You the Living, Ne Change Rien, An Education, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, Sin Nombre