CINEMA: The Best Films Of 2009


BuskirkByline_REV.jpgBY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC The New York Times recent analysis of the 2009 box-office led them to conclude that the adult drama is dead; what audiences most wanted to see was “relatable, non-thinking comedies.”  Looking down my list I can see how film critics get the reputation for championing the type of movies that are “good for you,” like bitter medicine.  If this list of cinematic high points from the last twelve months is wanting in laughs perhaps these often grim perspectives on modern life stood out because they offer something other than the narcotic comfort of escape, at a time when facing society’s challenges seems more urgent then ever.

The Hurt Locker is the only film on this list that has been a consensus favorite, its concise focus on a bomb-defusing soldier slowly losing his marbles gives the film the feel of a popular modern classic (although the public seems a little behind on discovering it).  Who knew the director of semi-preposterous thrillers, Kathryn Bigelow , would finally wed her visceral direction with an action-oriented plot that was both hyper-real and utterly otherworldly?  I barely recognized its pug-nosed star Jeremy Renner from a Jeffrey Dahmer biopic years before but he burns here with a Cagney-like intensity in a tale that literally had me clutching at the armrest.

Red Cliff is a war film of another stripe, one of those big-budgeted Asian period epics, made to play huge across Asia as well as to mainstream U.S. red-cliff.thumbnail.jpgaudiences.  Since the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Asian directors with art house credentials (Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige) have tried their hand at mounting a blockbuster whose production values would stand beside Hollywood films in scale and quality.  John Woo shows himself best-suited for this task, re-discovering his breath-taking gift for action choreography and the shameless sentimentality which has all but disappeared in his lackluster Hollywood films.  Red Cliff contains a trio of major battles whose staging has a clarity and cleverness all but missing in the cacophonous climaxes of its American counterparts, as well as vividly-drawn characters whose fates we care about.

food_inc_xlg.thumbnail.jpgThe film Left Bank from Belgian director Pieter Van Hees barely got a release here, playing the Philadelphia Film Festival at the same time IFC was streaming it On Demand. It deserved more attention, its Polanski-style elegance raising it above its horror film framework.  While resting her injury, a vulnerable track star (a wrenching performance by Eline Kruppens) is seduced by a wealthy archer living in an ominous highrise.  Van Hees plucks each of his thrillers strings with precision, creating an unforgettable fable of dangers lurking from without and within our naive heroine.  It is body horror of a different kind in Robert Kenner’s documentary Food Inc., the horror being what we put inside our bodies courtesy of our modern factory food system.  A sometimes stomach-churning look at the path food takes on its way to our plate, Food Inc. stands out from the long string of scary news docs of the decade by the sheer intimacy of the subject, the meat and veggies we greet at every meal.

An ubiquitous figure in Italian politics during the second part of the 20th Century, Giulio Andreotti has been a Cheney-esque figure in his drag_me_to_hell_poster.thumbnail.jpgcountry’s history, a corrupt politician referred in the press as “The Black Pope”.  With Il Divo, director Paolo Sorrentino gives this decrepit bureaucrat a phantasmagorical biopic worthy of Ken Russell in his razzle-dazzle glory.  Tony Servillo (of last year’s mob pic Gomorra) is mesmerizing, playing the satanic senator as a man at peace with his evil deeds, violent deeds carried out far beyond his bubble of endless luxury.  Bravura direction also wows us in Drag Me To Hell, with Sam Raimi returning to the type of boundary-pushing horror he abandoned for the hyper-lucrative Spider-Man franchise.  Raimi comes back to the genre with a streamlined sense of storytelling, pulling perky star Alison Lohman through her voodoo curse without a wasted gesture.  This tale of a banker’s heartless foreclosure on an elderly gypsy seer reverberates politically with a sly criticism of modern banking ethics as well.

antichrist_ver2.thumbnail.jpgSome of the most difficult viewing this year comes not surprisingly from Lars von Trier (Dancer in the Dark), whose Antichrist examines the grief channeled through two parents holed up in a isolated forest cabin.  Many viewers couldn’t seem to get past the politically-charged scenes of Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg traumatizing their genitals yet the film plays less as a male-female showdown than a look at the dueling academic and emotional nature ofvon Trier’s subconscious.  Seeing him leave the naturalism of Dogma for a return to the highly-stylized, surreal visuals of his early work makes Antichrist a particularly vivid work in von Trier’s endlessly intriguing filmography.  Seeing Tilda Swinton turned loose on as anguished a character as the title wreck she plays in Erick Zonca’s Julia is an event not to be missed.  Swinton’s volcanic presence can command the screen with as much authority as still_walking.thumbnail.jpgany of her acting contemporaries and as the alcohol-addled kidnapper she gives a performance of Raging Bull-scale ferocity.   A change from the normally brainy characters Swinton usually plays, watching Julia as she makes one bad decision after another is an unforgettably nerve-jangling experience.

Much more dignified, Hirozaku Koreeda’s (Afterlife, Nobody Knows) unveils a subtler dysfunction in his family drama Still Walking.  With a script that recalls the domestic dramas of O’Neill or Albee, Koreeda probes the unspoken frictions that travel like unseen electricity between members of a seemingly unexceptional family.  There is a level of invisible craft in this exquisitely detailed screenplay that puts the clunky obviousness of similar American adult dramas to shame.

taking_woodstock_movie_poster_.thumbnail.jpgAnd finally there is another family drama, probably oversold on its rock and roll setting, at the heart of Ang Lee’s disappointingly-received Taking Woodstock.  Only peripherally about the legendary concert, Taking Woodstock dares to pay tribute to the loosening moral code of the Hippie Generation that give birth to social freedoms we take for granted today.  Based around a quietly natural performance by comedian Dimitri Martin as the closeted gay man who issued the permits to the overwhelming concert, JamesSchamus ‘ script captures that moment within 1969’s chaos that allowed people to think more expansively about their lives and their personal options.  It a film full of “relatable comedy”, though not in the “non-thinking” mode the New York Times was celebrating.  The film also has a clear-eyed optimism in America’s ability to evolve which was a fresh change from the choice between positive-minded happy talk or zombie-infested doom which most often defines the possible fates projected large on our movie screens today.

Psst…also: Olivier Assayas’ rumination on the passing of generations, Summer Hours, the cheerful losers of Anvil: The Story of Anvil, Korean action a-serious-man-poster.thumbnail.jpgrendered sublime in The Chaser, Richard Linklater summoning a Wellesian moment of triumph in Me & Orson Welles, Tina Mabry’s masterful debut with  the unusually intimate drama of black poverty Mississippi Damned (alas, still undistributed), the old-school “sci-fi of ideas” in Duncan Jones’ Moon, Fiona Gordon and Dominique Abel’s near-silent comedy Rumba, Martin Provost’s conjuring of the natural world observed by naive French painter Seraphine , continued strong work from the God-bothering Coens’ with A Serious Man and the avalanche song found in the long-dormant footage assembled around the 1974 Zaire r&b concert in Jeffrey Levy-Hinte’s Soul Power. That’s the year!  Now that we’ve wrapped our minds about that, its on to thinking what this first decade in Twenty-First Century cinema might mean….

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