2009 YEAR IN REVIEW
How am I going to remember 2009 in terms of movies (which is how I generally tend to remember the years of my life?) Well, 2008 was such a great year - the best since 2005 - that I feared (as mentioned in my last Year in Review) that 2009 would be as disappointing a follow-up as 2006. And sure enough, most of my favorite movies this year could be described as good, as passable, but probably only my top 2 or 3 choices would even have a chance of touching anything from last year's top 10. There was even something wrong with the bad movies this year: with one major exception, my bottom 10 is made up of a bunch of subpar efforts that weren't terrible per se they just came so far away from the mark that I thought their failure deserved mentioning. Everything just off, and overall disappointing.
1. The Headless Woman.
That said, I'll start by talking about the best film of the year, which is also one of the best of the last decade. Lucrecia Martel's two previous features are both very good and showed lots of promise, but The Headless Woman is a whole new game. More than social drama observed with its director's restive, geographical need to constantly search, the film is rich with modernist compositions that are one moment intimate with its characters and painfully detached the next. The elusive plot about a woman who may or may not have hit a dog or a young boy with her car, blatant yet unaggressive in its disregard of narrative drive, begs comparison with those of L'Avventura and Last Year at Marienbad. But the movie I was most reminded of (in structural terms, the look and feel of the film are totally unique) was Hollis Frampton's Nostalgia.
The images in Martel's film - signs of an oncoming storm, the people outside a hotel room, hand prints on a car window - are directly connected to what will happen in the next scene, or what did happen in the previous one. Like Frampton's film it's all about memory, and the intricate layers Martel constructs (what the woman remembers, what the audience thinks it understood, what we know about the character and what about herself she either forgets or cant verify in her own mind) are as textured and rewarding as the writings of her fellow Argentine Jorge Luis Borges. Meanwhile the marital politics and class relationships are as smartly observed as straight-faced Buñuel! Does it seem like I'm going a little overboard with the praise? Yeah, well check this out: I've now watched this film three times and am absolutely convinced that Martels movie shares a sense of visual language with Clouzot's Le Corbeau, Erice's Spirit of the Beehive and Franklin's One False Move. Simply put: mesmerizing.
2. White Material.
Maria, the white material of Claire Denis' latest masterpiece, is the most alternatively sympathetic and odious lead character of recent cinema. On the one hand, she's more strong-willed than any of Denis' heroines, refusing to vacate her family's coffee plantation despite the escalating military tensions within its unnamed African region. You have to admire her steadfastness and fervent activity towards saving her home and business, but at the same time the stance she takes represents the worst kind of post-colonial usurpation and European superiority (not to mention she's selfishly putting her family at risk.) Her determination to remain under threat of persecution from authorities or invasion by coup-created child soldiers reflects the insanity of the countrys turmoil, and could be said to represent the inexplicable horrors and confusion found in any African nation throughout history.
Brilliantly played by Isabelle Huppert, Maria is impenetrable in her stubbornness and beautiful in her stoic desperation, calloused and unromantic - a far cry from the impudent young woman of Denis' 1988 debut Chocolat. Her lead characters have changed, and so has the director. Progressing in a flawless career marred with not a single misstep (fight amongst yourselves, Intruder detractors), she has followed last year's outstanding 35 Shots of Rhum with what is arguably her riskiest film yet. Forceful yet understated and poetic even in its disturbing moments of casual violence, White Material is as spellbinding as her smaller films but has an impact that is devastating in a way none of them (even the powerful Trouble Every Day) have been. It's challenging (even Denis has stated in interviews that she's not sure how to feel about Maria) and lyrical: photographer Yves Cape frames the emptiness of dirt roads and anxiety of tiny rooms unlike anything I've seen, and there wasn't a more beautiful-looking film made this year.
3. The White Ribbon.
Haneke's latest is actually a great companion piece to Denis' white movie. Whereas her film plays like a tragic epilogue, White Ribbon is like an ominous prelude. It's not the Nazi babies movie so many have declared it (look, l'il Goebbels!) Its passive tykes aren't even representative of the rise of socialism and bermensch purification in and of themselves (that would be a Rob Zombie remake.) Rather, it's a film about people whose dependence on a certain set of morals, a way of living and a code of behavior is tainted by their hypocritical methods of enforcing them. Remarkably, it suggests that some forms of rebellion are going to reflect the oppression that inspired them an endless stream of anarchic punishment ambivalently meted out that nurtures the very foundation of terrorism.
It's also about the people who are powerless to stop this absolutist interpretation from seeding and sprouting into a new society that manipulates religion and a system of classes into a government where dehumanization is all that's left. Leave it to Michael Haneke to inspire Battle of Algiers-like questions about reactionary retribution without clearly identifying the culprits or even addressing the problem within the narrative until it's all over. After seeing it, I thought that this must be some new film language: whereas Cache was an exercise in peeling off wallpaper only to discover even more cryptic and sinister surfaces, The White Ribbon's wallpaper stays on and we're left to contemplate the room. Opaque as its painterly discolored cinematography, it's an epic scaled down to uncomfortable intimacies that make it the most haunting picture of the year, and possibly be its most important.
4. Observe and Report.
The world has no use for another scared man. Right now, the world needs a fucking hero. There were two great American films this year, both dark and unsavory reflections on the human condition, that were misrepresented in their publicity as brusque, Apartow-esque romps about lovable dolts. The title of the first is a command by its writer-director Jody Hill, coming off 2008's hilarious The Foot Fist Way and the funniest show of the year Eastbound and Down, who wants the audience to take a good look at the movie's crude, angry, bipolar racist of a mall cop and judge him as we will. That's something the filmmakers don't ask of audiences guffawing at the antics of a broad characterization like Ron Burgundy or Ricky Bobby, and that's what makes Hill's strange brand of comedy stand out.
Seth Rogen's Ronnie Barnhardt is the Travis Bickle of his generation, inheriting the mantle of god's lonely man complete with his own rescue fantasy (in this case makeup counter clerk Anna Faris, targeted by a serial flasher) and even a Rupert Pupkin self-importance that shields him from the idea that there's anything wrong with what he's doing. He's not a war veteran, he has no credentials outside his own self-appointed authority: he's a man who functions on the lowest grade of survival fuel. The mall is his world and he casts himself as its licensed protector - but then that's his job, he's head of security! The film smartly sets its events through Ronnie's frustrated, impotent, hateful eyes but asserts that these are the kind of people you find in the world and, yeah, that's their job. In terms of comedy, there are funny moments but it's the kind of laughter that catches in your throat. Really, it's the scariest movie of the year, with scenes of physical and sexual assault, employee abuse, backstabbing, pill popping and a memorable case of resisting arrest that are as uncomfortable to sit through as they are brilliantly realized. Inevitable comparisons to Paul Blart: Mall Cop and Seth Rogen's unfortunate response to allegations of sexism to Howard Stern aside, Hill's film is edgy and anything but safe.
5. Drag Me to Hell.
Most people were so focused on the negative aspects of Spiderman 3 they didn't bother to notice that the real Sam Raimi, the one who mounted a camera on a board and gleefully ran it around the woods 25 years ago making the Evil Dead films, had returned. Not even the Coen Brothers at their peak were able to combine the technical prowess and unbridled fun of a true Sam Raimi movie, a style that lacked energy in The Quick and the Dead and was nonexistent in For Love of the Game and The Gift. But Drag Me to Hell is full tilt Raimi: irreverent, hilarious and even pretty fucking scary. And kind of a miracle: how many iconic horror auteurs ever return from big studio productions to make another modest monster movie?
Alison Lohmans Christine Brown is the perfect Raimi heroine, as flawed and ambitious as the desperate thieves in A Simple Plan but endowed with all the proactive survivalist instincts of an Ashley J. Williams. And Lorna Raver as vengeful gypsy Ms. Ganush is a terrific monster, not to mention constant vessel for every repulsive bodily function Raimi and his co-screenwriter-brother Ivan can come up with. It shares elements with classic horror, especially Jacques Tourneurs Curse of the Demon (both films even end with the demon claiming its victim on the train track) and classic ghost stories, hence the deliciously nasty EC Comics-esque twist ending. Its old school tricks and modern gross-out humor are a tribute to how fun horror movies used to be and still can be: it's the anti-Antichrist. Coming in at a period that's simultaneously the most exciting time for new horror films and the most creatively bankrupt thanks to young directors heavy reliance on shock over atmosphere and character, Drag Me to Hell is a breath of fresh scare (Sorry, I've been watching a lot of the Crypt Keeper on the Chiller station) and the very definition of a good time at the movies.
In Henry Selick[s adaptation of Neil Gaiman[s excellent book, reality is so rich with wonder and discovery that the movie seems like it might peak in its first scene. But then it transitions into the other world where everything is swirling and nothing is subject to the laws of gravity, where eccentric characters we've already met are replaced with even more fantastic doppelgangers who literally pop out of their own skin, where everything is all the more dazzling and designed specifically to please the film's eponymous young girl, who for her part revels in all the attention. It took three years and 450 crew members (one, Ms. Althea Crome, was hired just to knit miniature sweaters) to complete Coraline, and for once the effort is actually evident on the screen.
The gorgeous character design, excellent stop motion and stunning 3-D effects are clearly the work of skilled animators and, more importantly, a skilled animation director (which is the difference between the quality of this and something like the soulless The Fantastic Fox and His Friends.) Here is a film that stands up with any of the great animated features of the last decade: it shares the heart and character of Wall-e, the sense of fantasy and adventure of Spirited Away, the brilliant eye for detail and subtle horror of Curse of the Were-Rabbit, even the witty and independent female protagonist of Persepolis. It's a psychological bender of a story about being careful what you wish for, because a thrilling and magical world created for you will naturally want to consume you utterly and entirely. I want to officially redact my 2008 Year in Review prediction that Selick would ruin Gaiman's story. He makes it his own, and everybody elses, without demanding the audience's souls.
7. World's Greatest Dad.
In Shakes the Clown, Bobcat Goldthwaith knew about the anxiety of performers. In Stay/Sleeping Dogs Lie, he knew that people are judged more on sexuality than personality. And in World's Greatest Dad, he knows that parents use their kids to achieve their failed goals, and Robin Williams does so literally by using his son's accidental death by autoerotic asphyxiation to become a celebrated writer. It defines Goldthwaith's approach: using a seemingly offensive devise (alcoholic clown, dog blow job, teenage masturbation death) to show that he understands a lot about people.
Just as he employed his abrasive vocals to mask the intelligence and genuine sweetness of characters he played back in his acting days, you hear the plot of Worldhs Greatest Dad and think iths just an easy crowd-shocker. But he fooled you again, and thaths what makes him possibly the smartest (and certainly most underappreciated) comedic filmmaker in America today. Just compare the manipulated reactions of the dead kid's fellow students to the phony suicide* to William's honest grief and subsequent guilt over his exploitation. William's performance is grounded and a little heartbreaking, and his moment on the diving board at the end of the movie is as riveting as it is hairy.
* Goldthwaith, albeit through broad satire of cliques, understands students and is willing to portray them head-on, unlike Antonio Campos similar yet visually restricted death-and-media in high school Haneke/Van Sant mishmash Afterschool.
Sorry, Uma Thurman fans, this isn't that Motherhood movie she was in this year. This is the latest from Bong Joon-ho, who returns to the crime plot of the exemplary Memories of Murder but puts his detectives in the background as a frantic mom tries to clear her accused son's name. While the mystery plot is not as involving as in Memories and the film is not entirely void of melodrama, Bong is a talented and unpretentious storyteller. He makes up for the necessary suspense and plot twists with his little moments like knowing glances between friends, and surprising ones like a car crash that happens in the middle of scene to add to the confusing tone rather than serve any forced dramatic purpose.
He has a good sense of humor that lightens up what could be several oppressively bleak situations. Ultimately, Mother is a film held up by an excellent lead performance from Kim Hye-ja, who makes the title parent a tragic figure driven by enduring selflessness. The film's tense urgency is directly tethered to her desperation over saving her son - come to think of it, Bong's movie would make a good companion film to Worlds Greatest Dad (class, please discuss what Mother does for her son, and what World's Greatest Dad does for his.) The director had previously touched upon a parent determined to save their child in The Host, but here Kim's mission isn't simply one of motherly devotion; it's the only thing let in her life.
9. Police, Adjective.
A film that almost does succeed at tapping into Memories of Murders quixotic labyrinth of police procedure, except rather than trying to expose a crime the conflicted young cop here is trying his best not to solve it. It's a lot like Blow Up, but here images don't piece together to form a picture: language (specifically, words) conspire to impose the cold, indifferent hand of Romanian bureaucracy. Who are you to argue with language? Go shave! Honestly, the film's final scene could easily be considered a hack trick of performance and dialogue to pull the previous proceedings together, but it's such a great scene I'm willing to let it get away with that. Without digging myself into too much of a hole (I'd like to see the movie again, and I'd like to like it again) I can honestly say the scene, and by extension the movie, reminded me of Milan Kundera, particularly The Joke. The scrutiny of language by an oppressive authority head is enough to tell the cop who he is and what's expected of him, and leave him a hollowed-out tool of his government.
10. The Informant!
The other great, misrepresented American film of the year which also includes one of its best performances. Matt Damon seemed an unlikely candidate to bring someone like Mark Whitacre to the screen, but his performance in Steven Soderbergh's true life story (about price-fixing in the lysine industry that's so mind-boggling it feels deceptively like a comedy by default) is his best to date: playful, free of any self-conscious mockery and accentuated by some of the most entertaining voiceover in any movie.
When Soderbergh pulls a great mid-film shift and goes from telling a story about responsibility to telling a story about identity, Damons performance moves to an entirely new level of complexity. At that point The Informant! recalls the recent Kanye West episode of South Park and the mental gymnastics some people go through when they transition from deceiving those around them to actually believing their own bullshit. Whitacre (whose name doesn't even look right) is a character so far beyond that point that even the motivations for his lies seem completely unbelievable; his eagerness to play whistleblower and the extent of his grandiosity redefine the term "self-made man." This must have been what the Coens were attempting to do with last year's miserable Burn After Reading (Bourne After Reading?), a movie about how intrinsically slippery and complicated the ethics of government (corporations, in Informant!) that those involved lose track of their original involvement and reinvent themselves as the courageous disclosers of their own corruption.
(continues on next page with THE WORST films of 2009)
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