Who says you have to compose and make public your year-end list right at the end of December, or even the first weeks of January? If the Oscars can wait until February to announce their honorees, then why can’t I? I’m not really all that defensive. It’s just that ever since I started paying attention to such things I’ve considered January (and now, I guess, February) a sort of official catch-up zone, a month devoted to finding my way to all the movies that were still available to see from the holiday season just past before attempting to sit down and actually round up the whole year. And now, with Netflix and the godsend of Netflix Instant Play (which accessed through my PlayStation 3 really is almost like a revival theater in my own home and makes even waiting a day for a DVD in the mail seem hopelessly quaint) there’s even more available to catch up on. Of course, back in the bad old days the first couple of months of the year used to be Hollywood’s dumping ground, where the carcasses of films already moldering were dusted with lime and left to decompose amongst the shadows of all those big studio movies vying for end-of-the-year awards and Oscar consideration. Not much there to provide distraction from one’s list-making duties. But now, even though the dreck is still out there (anyone actually recommend seeing Leap Year?), it’s not unheard of that an honest-to-God good movie makes its way into the January slot-- Cloverfield made a splash in this no-man’s-land of scheduling a couple of years ago, and this year Daybreakers and Youth in Revolt, both first out of the gate in 2010, turned out to be fresh, worthwhile movies. Nice that the studios aren’t necessarily arranging for our year to start out with an exclusively bummer-filled roster of choices, but it all adds up to just making the pile higher at a point when I can usually count on escape from newly generated studio hype for at least three or four weeks. (What a sad, sad problem to have, eh?)
The main obstacle I find in composing all my thoughts at such a relatively late date, when I’ve undoubtedly seen just about every other critic’s list—best-of, worst-of, best-of-decade, et al.—is keeping my own feelings and thoughts separate from everyone else’s. In introducing her own list Stephanie Zacharek wrote with equal measures of amusement and exasperation over the expectation of so many of the same movies appearing on different lists (just a natural occurrence?) and the occasional appearance of a list that some would feel compelled to label “idiosyncratic.” Her point was that, despite the occasional similarities, any list composed by an individual human being is necessarily going to be somewhat idiosyncratic, as it theoretically represents the tastes and whims of that individual who is composing it. “Is there a hypothetically perfect list, a list that follows some ideal template?” she wondered, before concluding, correctly, I think, that “The notion that there's an acceptable critical view, that certain movies must — or must not — appear on a list in order for any given critic to be taken seriously, flies in the face of what criticism is supposed to be.” Yet one could be forgiven, when looking at a cross-section of reviewers and their takes on the year, for assuming that not only is the appearance of certain water-cooler titles a requirement on the majority of lists (in order to better keep up with Oscar buzz and the tastes of John Q. Public who, we are told over and over again, doesn’t like the same thing critics like), but also that there were only about 200 movies released in a given year from which to choose instead of the actual number, which is around 600. The difference this year (and it has been a factor before but never, it seems, to this degree) is that the Netflix phenomenon has put more movies (and a wider diversity of movies) at J.Q.P.’s disposal than ever before. Whether she/he chooses to exercise the option to color outside the lines and actually rent and watch Two Lovers instead of The Ugly Truth is not up to anyone but the person doing the renting. Consequently, I feel, as someone whose chosen task is to talk about my own favorites of the year, more justified than ever in my own idiosyncratic choices, not only as self-indulgence but also because someone outside of Los Angeles or New York may have the opportunity to actually see some of the less well-distributed items on my list. On the other hand, I’ve never been an exclusive purveyor of esoterica, so the real danger I have to ward off is composing a list that is either a faint echo or a rote duplicate of the lists of every other critic whom I enjoy reading while remaining true to my own sensibilities. Thankfully, I’m just screwy enough for that process to come naturally. Which is not to say that my list won’t look in a lot of ways very familiar, but only that I’m satisfied that I arrived at my choices as honestly as possible.
So let’s hit it then, the list of my 2009 Personal Best. Last year I allowed myself to untether from the arbitrary number of “10” in gathering my thoughts together, and that’s the way it’s going to be again this year. My initial impression of the year is that it’s been a pretty good one—Netflix Instant Play has insured that it has come to a close on a note of optimism surrounding the availability of titles that get meager distribution (sometimes only one week even in Los Angeles, if at all), but this year I felt even less obligation than usual to put myself through the machinery-driven (and money-driven) paces of movies like Bride Wars, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, The Ugly Truth and several other heavily promoted audience pictures that have consequently been frequently mentioned as candidates for lining the bottom of the 2009 birdcage. So my own list of the 90 or so 2009 releases that I was able to see during the calendar year is somewhat weighted toward movies that I ended up liking. The barnacles still attached themselves to the boat, believe me, and we’ll get to them eventually, but for me the year is characterized far more by the movies that worked well, movies that I can actually hold dear, movies that are even works of art, and by the return to importance in my movie-going life of seeing classic movies on the big screen. My “ten-best” list is actually more like 15 (I indulged myself in specific arenas—horror, documentaries and animation—because the achievements in those genres seemed exemplary to me over the past 12 months), followed by 10 more titles that would have been good enough for anyone’s top 10 in a lesser year. Afterward, we’ll get into some of the usual diversions, including an ever-expanding list of links to other top 10 lists and great reading that will come in handy to anyone who is still trying to catch up to last year in February and March.
2009 HONORABLE MENTION
OBSERVE AND REPORT (Jody Hill) Exhibit “A” in this year’s comedy of personal horror (the second is a notch or two higher on this list), in which the impulse to erupt into belly laughs is subsumed and replaced by a vague ache in the abdomen initiated by the grim lengths to which the film in question is willing to travel down the dark corridor of its own twisted vision of American character and institutions. This brutally funny shopping mall wrinkle on Taxi Driver alienates more viewers than it wins over because it’s not really trying to claim anyone’s heart so much as drive a stake through it—imagine how they lined up at the multiplex for that privilege! Seth Rogen, coming off the dispiriting debacle of Kevin Smith’s Zack and Miri Make a Porno, does career best work here as Ronnie, the dangerously delusional would-be cop who, when rejected by the police force, works out his fantasies of aggression as a mall security officer. His very own Betsy/Cybill Shepherd, played with conviction and brio by Anna Faris, is no blond angel though—her demons give way to and inspire the ones already driving Rogen toward a bloody date with infamy. Director Hill doesn’t have Scorsese’s conviction, however—where Travis Bickle’s climactic catharsis had already curdled by that film’s end credits, Hill lets his audience off the hook by never pulling back to examine the ripples of concern sent out by the validation of this crackpot’s fantasies. Despite this and other occasional lapses in judgment, the movie is nervy and unnerving, simultaneously genuinely hilarious and mean-spirited (a quality that shouldn’t necessarily be counted as a negative here), a fiercely funny projection of the logical extremes of the kind of narcissism, delusional anger and reaction to social impotence that are at the center of its characters.
Seth Rogen, Anna Faris, Jody Hill and Danny McBride talk about Observe and Report at the 2009 SXSW festival
STAR TREK (J.J. Abrams) I promise not to use the term “reboot” ever again. I believe the coinage of this bit of computer-ese, as it relates to the movies, can be traced to Casino Royale a few years back, when Daniel Craig and director Martin Campbell so successfully revived the moribund James Bond franchise. Since then it’s become unavoidable Hollywood-speak, an easy and catchy replacement for such tired and worn-out phrases as “sequel” or “remake.” But the term has never been as appropriate as it has been when used to describe how J.J. Abrams has approached the return to relevance of this most enduring TV/movie franchise (which is younger than 007 by only a few years and has far surpassed the British agent in terms of sheer profligacy of offshoot projects in various media since the original TV series aired). The movie is distinguished by the surprisingly intelligent choice to create not just a rehash of the same familiar starship Enterprise scenarios with fresh faces but to instead construct a fleshed-out origin story in which a routine time-travel notion evolves into a map of a parallel universe, where beloved characters take on new dimensions without suggesting that all which has come before should be scuttled and disregarded. It also helps that those fresh faces (Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, John Cho, Simon Pegg, Anton Yelchin and, most spectacularly, Zoe Saldana) occupy the skins (and our memories) of those characters with fresh energy and enthusiasm—only Urban’s Dr. McCoy comes close to an impersonation, and he’s so delightful in the role that it doesn’t matter anyway-- DeForest Kelley would have been damn proud. Abrams and cinematographer Dan Mindel may have overdone the lens flares, but that’s just over-decoration, a stylistic bugaboo that frankly never worried me all that much-- the story, the actors and the director’s loose yet reverent tone would have been space aces even without them.
EXTRACT (Mike Judge) The antidote to the bitter pill of comedies like Observe and Report and World’s Greatest Dad has to be the mixture of sweetness and generosity with sharp social observation that marks Mike Judge’s amiable and affecting look at the various levels of manipulation afoot inside and outside of a small cooking extract factory. The work place milieu is one shared by his earlier Office Space, but the new movie isn’t about the precise drudgery of assembly line work. Nor is it about the creeping decline of intelligence as the Dusk of Man approacheth, as was Judge’s bitterly hilarious Idiocracy. Judge surveys the factory floor here and infuses the comic parade of low-income everymen and everywomen with a heartening degree of good faith to go along with the genial pinpricks. His is a movie filled with rich, quickly sketched characterizations of people whose shortcomings are close to the surface who we like anyway, despite their own occasional lapses in faith and judgment. Jason Bateman, as the plant’s owner/operator, who hires a gigolo to lure his wife (the brilliant Kristen Wiig) into an affair so he won’t feel guilty about lusting after a new employee (Mila Kunis, she of the gorgeous Keane doll eyes and comically voluptuously demeanor), hits just the right, beautifully modulated notes of reserve and submission to the warring personalities on his payroll. But the actor is at his best trying to weasel his way out of daily encounters with an aggressively friendly neighbor (David Koechner) who refuses to acknowledge Bateman’s attempts to stifle the one-sided conversation. There’s room for all sorts of contradictory, slightly cracked, entirely human behavior within the comic universe of Mike Judge which, with this movie, has begun to evoke, and even justify, comparisons to that of Preston Sturges.
IN THE LOOP (Armando Iannucci) Back to the acid bath. A great satire of the backbiting and political ineptitude leading up to America’s decision to declare war on Iraq—a milquetoast and none-too-eloquent British secretary for international development appears to back the war and is co-opted by hawks and doves inside the British and American governments as the focal point of an argument with terrifying implications, one which despite his own hazily focused ambitions he is ill-equipped to manipulate. The movie is shot documentary-style, with an immediate sense of how typically guarded politicians behave when that guard lets down behind closed doors, but also with a jaundiced ear for the piercing, vicious dialogues of middle management careerists who spend their lives playing both sides of any given fence. It’s also a textbook on great comic acting, a quality of which each cast member seems to understand involves the degree to which the actor is willing to dole out a glimpse of the dark underbelly, whatever gruesome details that glimpse might reveal, alongside laughs that stick in the throat. Tops in this cast are Peter Capaldi as the eloquently foul-mouthed British communications chief; Tom Hollander as the perpetually hounded British secretary; David Rasche as the slickly warmongering policy committee chairman whose accommodating grin barely conceals his desire to consume his opponents rather than simply debate them; James Gandolfini as a general who has seen war close-up and doesn’t want to go back; and Mimi Kennedy, superb as an assistant diplomatic secretary who attempts to mold Hollander’s wishy-washy personality into a credible advocate for anti-war sentiment. Brilliant support is given these players by the likes of Gina McKee, Anna Chlumsky, Chris Addison, Steve Coogan and, memorably, Paul Higgins playing a loose-cannon British press secretary. The movie knows the giddy highs and the sinking horror of being swept up in a tide of one’s own making, yet it has a clarity of vision any politically oriented comedy would kill for, and it takes no prisoners.
WORLD’S GREATEST DAD (Bobcat Goldthwait) The acid bath heats up. I’d always assumed that after Patch Adams (1998), the deal-breaker of all deal-breakers, I would never again care to see Robin Williams on screen, and that assumption held true for 11 years. But the staggering humiliation and pressure made to bear on Williams’ Lance Clayton feels like penance for the ages, not just for one in a seemingly endless series of bad movies (up to and including Old Dogs). Clayton is a high school teacher teetering on the brink of irrelevance and unemployment (he teaches poetry) and an unpublished, oft-rejected would-be novelist who has to swallow hard at life’s little ironies, like witnessing the joy of a colleague who has an essay published in The New Yorker on the first try. But he can’t air his problems out at home, because the only one there is his stupendously bitter, openly hostile, sexually-obsessed teenage son (an utterly brave and perversely winning performance by Daryl Sabara, little Juni Cortez in the Spy Kids series), who seems bent on making the coffee mug sentiment of the film’s title the bitterest irony of all. When Kyle auto-asphyxiates while masturbating over Polaroids of his dad’s girlfriend’s crotch, Clayton decides to spare his son (and himself) further humiliation by making the death look like a suicide. He fakes a suicide note and subsequent journal, which given Kyle’s universally recognized awfulness, becomes acclaimed for its surprising sensitivity, at which point the movie has grasped its satirical subject—how the public and the media uses death as a convenient occasion to refashion the memory of the deceased into multiple self-serving delusions—by the sharp points of its horns, and those horns draw blood. Williams is exquisitely reined in here, and director Goldthwait, despite the description above, never lets the proceedings, which are almost always funny but often too painful to laugh at, turn into a freak show. There’s a boatload of abandoned souls floating through this movie, and it’s a testimony to Goldthwait’s satirical precision that he never loses sight of the humanity of even his vilest character.
TETRO (Francis Ford Coppola) The director of The Godfather and The Conversation delivers his most heartfelt, passionately spirited movie in years. It’s been said that this story of two estranged brothers and the untangling of gnarled family ties that keeps one (Vincent Gallo) distant from the other (newcomer Alden Ehrenreich) is the work of a 70-year-old man who directs with the conviction and élan of a youngster, yet despite the spectacular black-and-white cinematography (courtesy of Mihai Malimaire Jr.) and the overreaching ripeness of Coppola’s directorial embrace, Tetro is a movie only a 70-year-old man, and one with Coppola’s familial temperament, could have made. The roots of betrayal, of patriarchal indifference, of love lost and loyalties desperately sought to be regained, these are all tangled in the director’s vision of bohemians living in Spain sorting out the tangents of their own artistic and emotional relationships, and Coppola brilliantly fuses these concerns with an openness that feels new, not completely worked through, and despite the stylized canvas, raw. The movie is emotionally all over the map and it courts silliness as often as it does profundity or emotional resonance. But the chances Coppola takes here pay off in ways that the ones he took with his hermetically sealed Youth Without Youth did not. Any director could be proud of a movie that fetishizes Carmen Maura as a flamboyant film festival critic, gives as much time as it does over to the enchanting Maribel Verdú as the woman navigating the rough waters between the two brothers, and takes time out for sequences that not only invoke the spirit of Powell and Pressburger (in Tales of Hoffmann mode) but survives the implicit comparison with its own spirit intact.
BIG MAN JAPAN (Hitoshi Matsumoto) Just when we had every reason to suspect that the mockumentary concept had begun to run out of fresh air, along comes popular Japanese TV star Matsumoto with the driest, oddest, most peculiarly delightful mock doc of them all. Masaru Daisatô (played by the director) is a sedentary, vaguely depressed slacker whose job consists of waiting for a city-wide emergency and then receiving high-voltage shocks that somehow transform him into the titular 30-foot, vaguely Sumo-esque superhero, who must then defend Tokyo against all manner of giant invading creature. But unlike his heroic predecessors, who were embraced by the public, Daisatô is a pariah railed against by the citizenry for the excessive noise and destruction of property that usually follow in his wake. Matsumoto warps superhero and giant rubber monster iconography to delightful ends—one confrontation between BMJ and an oversized fiend degenerates into a philosophical argument between the two behemoths who lean up against (and shatter the windows of) a skyscraper as if they were dawdling over a backyard fence. And the director ascribes everyday concerns to the mopey Daisatô which subtly jab at Peter Parker-esque hand-wringing—he has an agent who wants to exploit the massive landscape of BMJ’s physique for product placement, and a wise grandfather who occasionally turns into a surly giant in dirty undies. Matsumoto tops off the mockery with the most piquantly absurd CGI effects I’ve ever seen, turning Big Man Japan and Tokyo itself into the wackiest, most off-center playground of destruction since the heyday of Ishirô Honda and Eiji Tsuburaya.
BROTHERS (Jim Sheridan) Relocated from the Denmark of Susanne Bier’s 2004 original Brødre (starring Connie Nielsen and Ulrich Thomsen) to the chilly winter of New Mexico, director Sheridan infuses the drifting relationship between two brothers—an aimless ex-con (Jake Gyllenhaal) and a career Marine (Tobey Maguire)—with almost unbearable emotion when the latter’s disappearance in Afghanistan (he’s thought to have been killed) prompts a further shifting of the family’s already unstable dynamic. Gyllenhaal is achingly good, but the quality of his presence has come to be expected; what’s more surprising is the way Maguire invests totally in the tearing-down process his character endures at the hands of his Taliban captors and how it completely shatters the humanity he has always taken for granted—the actor is in touch with something real that lends undeniable righteous fury to his disoriented, disbelieving glare. And Natalie Portman, given a role that could have amounted simply to sitting back and reacting, gives a career-best performance as the woman who has to come to terms not only with the death of a husband but the feelings she has for his brother, which won’t automatically subside when that husband returns from the dead. Also delivering a career-best performance—Sam Shepherd as the boys’ troubled, alcoholic father, a military man whose disdain for Gyllenhaal’s lack of focus, and the hate he displaces on him when his soldier son is lost, is played out in a way that echoes real experience and subverts every cliché of father-son dramatic tension in the book. Sheridan’s sensitivity is never austere, yet he manages to avoid the traps of the film’s melodramatic premise like a dancing prizefighter— he uses the film’s wintry landscapes as a way through the defenses of his characters, and his unflinching gaze as a cleansing power. The movie earns its tears and heartache.
TWO LOVERS (James Gray) A suicidal young man (Joaquin Phoenix) makes emotional trade-offs between the likable and lovely daughter (Vinessa Shaw) of his father’s business partner and a young woman (Gwenyth Paltrow) who is tied up in an unsatisfying affair with a married man. James Gray’s sensitivity as a director (his previous two features were The Yards and We Own the Night, both of which starred Phoenix) reaches a personal zenith here, charting and shading as he does the gray areas (the director is aptly named) between instinct, obligation and the irrational passion that fuels love. The palpable richness of Joaquín Baca-Asay’s darkly gorgeous cinematography radiates a lived-in ambience, itself reflecting the ambivalence of the characters in that the same way that Gray frames his characters within the walls of apartments and halls can seem simultaneously warm and claustrophobic, and the actors seem to take away an almost intangible confidence from being granted this space in which to exist and create their characters. They honor Gray’s commitment to understanding the reasons behind even their most selfish behavior without having to suffer judgment from on high. Two Lovers stands as an increasingly rare breed of drama which, in the age of Michael Bay et al, almost seems interactive, given the degree to which it seduces from its audience the kind of attention to character detail which comprised both the standards of the best character dramas of classic Hollywood and the ambivalence of the “golden age” of ‘70s dramas from which those standards were expanded. It’s a lovely, heartbreaking, and heart-healing movie.
DISTRICT 9 (Neill Blomkamp) Along with Duncan Jones’ Moon, the best evidence that the impulse behind the intent of most adult-oriented science fiction is alive and well—tales whose intent is to use their technological orientation and allegorical renderings of other, or futuristic worlds, to comment on our own, rather than just as an avenue of fantastical escape from it—came in Neill Blomkamp’s entertainingly hideous and pointed thriller, which relocates South Africa’s apartheid policies from oppression of Blacks to the ghettoization of a mysterious interstellar population known as Prawns, whose Earthly stranding results in abuse, prejudice and a quick plummet to basement-level sociological status. Sharlto Copley, a producer and friend of Blomkamp’s as well as an acting novice, is improbably brilliant as the audience’s stand-in, who bears the moniker Wikus Van Der Merwe, a Dutch name with resonance in Afrikaner culture through its association with ethnically-based jokes at the expense of the privileged ruling class. Van Der Merwe, a low-level corporate nudnik who is charged with forcibly evicting the alien population of the District 9 slum is, in the process, accidentally exposed to alien biotechnology and finds himself mutating, Seth Brundle-style, into one of the dispossessed creatures. Blomkamp cleverly subverts the problem of seeing the sociology of victimization through the eyes of the majority by refusing to accompany Van Der Merwe’s transition with a chorus of angels—his motivation remain recognizably, even movingly selfish as his acquaintance with recombinant biology progresses-- his self-realization comes colored not by glory but by invisible martyrdom. It’s a testament to Blomkamp’s restraint as a social satirist that Van Der Merwe stands distinct from the applied chaos and the electricity of the filmmaking, both of which are in ample supply, that he retains the qualities of a character rather than a boldly underlined concept in a kinetic position paper. The pathetic, ultimately heroic Van Der Merwe is the sorrowed spirit at the center of District 9’s despairing view of history repeating itself.
THE TOP 10 (AND THEN SOME)
10) A TOWN CALLED PANIC (Stéphane Aubier & Vincent Patar) The full extent of stop-motion animation’s unexpected domination of the year in animated films—a year earmarked by a roster of brilliant films as effortlessly enjoyed and appreciated by adults as well as kids with no attendant pandering-- is best exemplified by the surreal delirium of this near-indescribable and utterly hysterical treat. Based on a cult TV series from Belgium, the movie follows the adventures of three plastic toys named Cowboy, Indian and Horse as they cavort around a papier-mâché rural landscape where panic and a genial deadpan lunacy are the order of the day. After only a few minutes of inspired visual delights and almost constant laughter, the movie connects you back up with what it’s like to be inside the head of an imaginative and genuinely bonkers child at play.
The year’s mini-renaissance in quality animation for all ages is also brilliant represented by Henry Selick’s fantastically tactile and dark-hued Coraline (based on Neil Gaiman’s book), rich with a little girl’s increasing terror over the prospect of getting exactly what she wants; Up, the latest sure thing from the Pixar stable; Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, a Sony Animation CGI feature artfully and delightfully expanded from Judy and Ron Barrett’s spare and suggestive children’s narrative into a full-blown parody of disaster epics, only with falling burgers and Jell-O instead of meteors (scroll down to #34 for more); and even Ponyo, Hayao Miyazaki’s flawed but dazzling interpretation of the Little Mermaid legend. It’s a genuine disappointment that there can be no place on this list, however, for Disney’s gorgeously mounted but otherwise routine The Princess and the Frog.
9) ORPHAN (Jaume-Collett Serra) The chill in the air surrounding Orphan is only nominally due to its frozen setting. The movie, by means psychological and cinematic, means to put a freeze on your nerves, and it does so handily by pushing the envelope of its Lifetime-ready premise—a well-to-do family adopts a Russian girl who seemingly no one wants, without the requisite background checks—and waiting for the horror rooted in the interpersonal instability and familial mistrust that already exists to come bubbling up. Of course, little Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman in a spectacular debut performance) soon reveals a malevolent side which tends to mitigate matters. She orchestrates accidents, threats, and eventually even murder, all while her adoptive parents (Vera Farmiga, superb, and Peter Sarsgaard) tear themselves up over suspicions and divided loyalties and allow her to take the whole family on a joyless ride to hell. If Patty McCormick was the Bad Seed, there is little doubt by the movie’s genuinely clever conclusion that Esther is the worst. To say much more would be a violation of the pact this movie makes with its audience to peel back ever-escalating levels of disturbing, psychologically believable behavior by means of a surprising level of horror filmmaking craft. But as it becomes clearer and clearer that Collet-Serra and company have something up their sleeves far worse than what we’ve allowed ourselves to imagine, Fuhrman’s Esther rises to the occasion with a fury and a camp (as well as vamp) haughtiness that places the movie in the vicinity of one of Brian De Palma’s great sick jokes.
Orphan is one for nightmares, but it’s not the only one. 2009 was an exceptional year for horror films, with additional screams provided by Sam Raimi’s sensational return to his horror roots in Drag Me To Hell; Chan-wook Park’s Thirst, a phenomenal twist on vampire lore in which a priest undergoes a radical medical experiment only to come out the other end a bloodsucker with a libido rejuvenated by a young married woman who wants him for his sex and his immortality; and Oren Peli’s absorbing, sometimes annoying, but ultimately spook-tacular Paranormal Activity, which goes a long way toward proving the old adage that what you don’t see is often scarier (but not always) than what you (suddenly) do.
8) FOOD, INC. (Robert Kenner) The best of yet another solid year of documentary films that got relatively wide exposure, Kenner’s piercing but by no means shrill reportage on the disturbing facts about food production, food-borne diseases, the reality behind your favorite fast-food burger, supermarket conspiracies, the economics of eating badly and other everyday land-mines involving the food we consume was perhaps the most personally radicalizing movie I’ve seen in the last decade. It was powerful enough for me to draw a line in the sand—no more McDonalds et al for me or my family—and make me peel my eyes for an even closer look at what I’m buying to cook at home. Kenner’s documentation of alternative and organic methods of harvesting animals for consumption is even-handed too—no one pretends that slaughter is pretty, organically carried out or not, but the film makes a convincing case for keeping a hands-on attitude toward preparing chickens and other meats for our tables as both a moral and a hygienic imperative.
Another documentary with the potential to radicalize is The Cove—its primary human focus is Ric O’Barry, the man who trained Flipper and a man himself radicalized who leads a Mission: Impossible-esque charge against the mysterious procedures, hidden from the general populace, behind the systematic slaughter of dolphins in a Japanese fishing town. O’Barry is the year’s most haunted and driven camera subject; his guilt over his own major part in the anthropomorphizing and subsequent endangerment of dolphins is the unexpected emotional core of this stunning movie. And on the polar opposite of the pendulum swing from social significance is the year’s most enjoyable doc, Not Quite Hollywood, which tracks with goofball relish the history of Australia’s vibrant exploitation cinema of the ‘70s and ‘80s. The unleashed acid tongues of critic/filmmaker Bob Ellis and actor/filmmaker Barry Humphries, (purveyor of crude Aussie comedies like The Adventures of Barry McKenzie but better known to U.S. audiences as Dame Edna Leverage) make for barbed talking-head commentaries that are bitter and hilarious enough for their own movie. Not Quite Hollywood isn’t quite as unruly as its subject, and one gets the distinct notion that seeing the films in this fast-paced clip-laden format might sometimes be the best way to experience them, but as documents of trashy national cinemas go, this one’s a crackin’ bobby dazzler.
7) GOODBYE, SOLO (Ramin Bahrani) The movie begins with a with a crisp cut midway into a conversation between a Senegalese cab driver named Solo (Souléymane Sy Savané) and a morose old man named William (Red West). The senior’s eyes are red-rimmed and held like eggs pouched in sagging sockets, having been worn down by a lifetime of monitoring the slow detachment of his own soul from the life surrounding him, and they stare from the back seat at the driver who chuckles at something William said to which we were not privy. It turns out that the old man has asked Solo for a one-way ride to a placing called Blowing Rock, a peak where the winds are swift enough to carry into the sky anything that might fall from it. The realization of what the man is asking him for slowly dawns on the driver, and in the single take that opens the movie which continues to examine the men’s faces as one slowly changes while the other retains its hollow determination, director Bahrani establishes the humane gaze that characterizes the slow, tentative quality of the film, which is matched by how these two men relate to each other over the few days that pass toward that final drive into the mountains. This is a movie where the precise but never fussy cutting can say as much about feeling and temperament as performance does, and Bahrani is masterful at giving us the time within each shot to survey the fascinating, dissimilar landscapes of these two faces and map the shifting emotions therein before the next cutaway leads us to new and subtle understanding. Savané is a warm, inviting performer, and it’s a credit to his ability to underplay his characters enthusiasm for life, and his own frustration with his struggles to better life for himself (he’s studying to be flight attendant) that Solo’s attempts to draw William out never come off forced or melodramatic. William, whose personal mysteries of familial rejection may not go nearly as deep as the pain he suffers for them, is betrayed by those eyes which spell out the degree to which he has locked himself away. And the movie gives voice to his frustration without ever betraying its own pulse (the film is cut with an awareness of the insistent rhythms of life without being enslaved by them) or becoming precious. In the end, Solo grants his friend’s request and, to paraphrase the Coen Brothers, accepts the mystery of both a life he can never fully understand and the eerie bliss of trying to honor it. This is easily the least ostentatiously beautiful movie I saw all year.
6) ANTICHRIST (Lars Von Trier) As for the year’s most unlikely beautiful movie… It’s more difficult than I thought it would be to write about this movie without seeming either evasive or clinical, or just plain dumb. There are things that happen in Antichrist, which swirls and lurches and heaves in the aftermath of traumatic loss, that defy immediate credulity, sense, logic, yet are so intensely powerful, so right for the confusion and agony of grief and desperation of its characters that I gave myself over to what I came to assume was a direct line into the personal pain of the director, Lars Von Trier, whose films I have never been able to tolerate before now. A couple, known only as He and She (Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg), retreat to a cabin in a primeval-looking forest (allegedly located outside Seattle, but really it’s somewhere far away, deep, impenetrable, inside) where He, a psychologist, attempts to counsel his wife (probably not a good idea in any situation) who is mired is self-destructive grief over the death of their toddler son (the boy falls to his death during the movie’s agonizingly protracted and, yes, beautifully realized prologue while the couple make love). The woods are never inviting, but it’s not long before they seem to take on a malevolent personality of their own, an urgency born of She’s own increasing paranoia and rage (it’s intimated that she may have abused her son during the previous summer’s stay at the same cabin, where she’s finishing a book on female rage and the history of misogyny). Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle makes the woods seem to undulate in hushed long shots, and as Von Trier peels back the layers of this troubled marriage to reveal just how deep the wounds go—He’s arrogance has corralled and made a lifestyle of nurturing the instability in She’s nature—the movie begins a descent into a peculiar kind of madness. (And one’s reaction to some of the film’s most bizarre imagery—a self-disemboweling, talking fox, a doe stopping to stare at Dafoe, its stillborn calf hanging halfway out of the birth canal, the couple screwing at the base of a tree whose trunk erupts with the arms and legs of other lovers apparently consumed by a malign force—nature?—will likely determine just how successful an individual viewer will consider Von Trier’s work here.) The movie drew me in with its structural cadences and visual tropes drawn from horror films (there is a “Horror Film Consultant” and a “Misogyny Consultant” among the listings in the end credits) but kept me enraptured, agonized and ultimately moved by the dark current of pain that Von Trier has accessed and channeled into it that makes the thing akin to a raging beast running loose in my imagination. My own reaction to the movie is so fiercely personal that I will be careful to whom I recommend it and never presume that anyone’s response to it would be anything like my own. (That said, it’s difficult to hear people deriding the film as if it were just another loony art-house exercise.) Antichrist almost seems as if it has a fearsome depth of feeling far beyond my ability to plumb; the wounds it exposes are so raw that I almost hope I never go that deep.
5) TYSON (James Toback) Mike Tyson, boxer, rapist, hustler, disgraced cultural icon, perhaps the most complicated, self-conflicted athlete of modern times, is sitting in a room, talking quietly, that famous lilting, lisping voice drawing us in, his defenses down, his candid demeanor almost embarrassingly intimate. It’s hard to imagine another director who might have been able to find the space to allow this muscular mass of contradictions room to lay out his worldview with such chilling immediacy, but Toback has done just that. Tyson has brought out the Norman Mailer in Toback before, for the worse-- the director baited the boxer in their previous work together, the pseudo-documentary Black and White in which Robert Downey bravely approached Tyson during a party, Tyson being unaware of the trumped-up situation, and slipped the fighter some homoerotic suggestions that could have easily earned the actor a hospital bed. But here the director’s methodology is all above board—Tyson’s shattered life is pieced together by the man himself in a continuous, sharply edited monologue that draws the audience into a strange kind of complicity with the fighter, a kind of guarded friendship in which he reveals the pressures, compromises, financial vulnerability and fractured personal loyalties that have led to the paranoia that characterizes the Life of Mike Tyson as he knows it today. Tyson isn’t concerned with convincing anyone whose mind is made up about the man and his on-the-record offenses against his sport, his opponents and those who got beaten (and bitten) when crossing his path. Toback is after bigger game—an autobiographical snapshot of a man’s soul, wounded ground where lies and facts cannot help but co-mingle the further that soul drifts from the ring, where an untrustworthy network of memories, selective and insistent, are the only things standing in between the fighter’s reality and his self-delusions.
4) SUMMER HOURS (Olivier Assayas) What is the real value of the objects that surround us? Does a prized family heirloom, a beautifully crafted chair or an armoire, perhaps, have the same value as a museum piece as it would as a functional part of one’s surroundings? Can art trump memory? On the surface the questions sound somewhat dry and academic. But in attempting to probe for an answer Olivier Assayas’s sunlit, tenderly crafted character drama disengages from Chekovian familial tension in favor of the rather more generous spiritual empathy of Renoir, transmitting the classical French director’s penchant for infusing every camera movement with the pictorial equivalent of a sigh of remembrance, of longing. Hélène (Edith Scob), the family matriarch, has devoted her life and her home to preserving the artistic legacy of her somewhat famous uncle, with whom she may have been romantically involved. When the family gathers for her birthday, she intimates that, rather than maintain the house, as her son Frédéric (Charles Berling) would prefer, she would rather the house and its assets be sold, allowing for the few things her other children, Jérémie (Jérémie Renier) and Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) might want to keep for themselves. Only Charles sees value in holding on to the house and possessions—the rest of the family is content to let the house go, and in the process perhaps releasing the last vestiges of what held their family, now spread across three continents, together as well. Summer Hours may seem to be setting up for a contentious family feud over property rights, but it’s clear early on that Assayas has no interest in such finite debates. What interests him is the dynamic between people who aren’t used to spending time together who must now face serious implications for their future. The movie has a great deal invested in the consideration of how much memory and meaning are tied up in physical objects and surroundings as opposed to within the rather less tangible reveries that may be permanent part of the makeup of a family, reveries that can be sparked by something as simple as a sweet wind or a shaft of light, dust dancing in its path. Near the film’s conclusion, as the camera traces a new path through the gardens of this lovely property, lilting past a group of teenagers who have no truck with Hélène’s past but who may be now forging their own connection with its lushly ambient confines, we feel liberated, unburdened by the weight of history and its representation. The world feels fresh, new, waiting the coming summer hours where a new history can be written.
3) FANTASTIC MR. FOX (Wes Anderson) Maybe it never seemed obvious because the realization of such a notion seemed as unlikely as Wes Anderson directing a remake of Bullitt (that’s more of a job for Max Fischer anyway). But now that the evidence is right there in front of us, doesn’t it feel like destiny that Wes Anderson, master of the tightly controlled, precisely balanced, overly decorated mise-en-scène, whose films up till now felt as rigidly choreographed as puppet shows, should find his greatest expression of that live-action style in stop-motion animation? Based on the slender and sophisticated volume of children’s literature by Roald Dahl, Fantastic Mr. Fox is, however unlikely it may seem, a masterpiece of the form, a tactile, hilarious, consistently surprising wonder of storytelling simplicity (which in itself proves quite complex) that has, as Stephanie Zacharek so keenly observed, the valued quality of an object handmade with affection, “a movie that feels dog-eared and loved before it's even reached our hands.” It’s through that handmade quality that Anderson and his brilliant team of set designers, costume designers, and of course animators, imbue the story with true magic-- a fox (George Clooney) who tries to change his ways but who endangers all his family and friends when he decides to pursue who he really is—a beast dedicated to survival— soars on a mixture of Anderson’s signature deadpan wit and a feral visual poetry that makes each frame look and feel and behave in a unique manner. If Fantastic Mr. Fox had been a hit we might have been able to entertain the thought of Anderson returning to this time-consuming and exacting well of inspiration again sometime in the near future. But audiences were indifferent to, and perhaps suspicious of the idea of such a low-tech, non-CGI-reliant approach to storytelling, one which has soundly trumped Pixar this year with a time-honored variation of their own game. Too bad. Anderson locates the substance in the style of animation here, the poetry and the warmth of rough-hewn surfaces, making each frame of movement recognizable and meaningful. Rather than call attention to itself as exacting craft, he seduces us with the sort of warmth and immediacy of techniques that key into the imagination of children at play (in a way similar, yet less surreal than A Town Called Panic) and will now and forever be inaccessible by the smooth operations of CGI. Anderson’s movie is unruly, spirited, truly fantastic.
2) A SERIOUS MAN (Ethan and Joel Coen) In which the Coen Brothers, after the unyielding desolation of their masterpiece No Country for Old Men and the stinging brutality of their underrated comedy Burn After Reading, consider the possibility of the evidence of God in the secularity of mathematics, the ethereal, essentially intangible purposefulness of religion (Orthodox Hebrew division), and where those two apparently disparate approaches might intersect, if at all. With each new movie the Coens put the lie to the old sawhorse about their cackling condescension to their characters, their cold manipulation of fate as if reveling in the directorial whims of an omnipresent God. Who is, after all, more empathetic, more relatable in his ineffectuality than Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg)? Who is more relatable than this man, who attempts to fumble his way to a connection between the way he believes the world works—mappable probability and random chance-- and the stories that provide the foundation of the Jewish faith by which he is tethered to his family but which has become more inscrutable and divorced from his everyday reality? As my friend Bill Ryan wrote of Gopnik’s dilemma as framed by the Coens (in what must be one of the best, most searching pieces I have yet read on this movie), “The reason A Serious Man is being regarded by so many as a mean-spirited mockery of the very idea of spiritual faith is because a lot of people don't understand how much of faith and religious thought revolves around the ideas of doubt and questioning.” Gopnik believes the veins and arteries of the mathematical theorems he relies upon represent a tangible way of navigating life, and though he concludes this formulaic terrain is essentially unknowable (thus giving over to it the essential indifference and unsearchableness of God), he cannot see the obvious corollary between those formulas and the rambling Rabbinical stories which confuse and frustrate him, but may contain elusive truths about experience that the intellectually obsessed Gopnik is himself too spiritually obtuse to ever grasp. The Coens may find Gopnik’s quest, his doubt, his increasing paranoia, entirely funny, but that appreciation doesn’t preclude their taking it seriously as satirists. With A Serious Man, following in footsteps first taken in the woods at Miller’s Crossing, they may have forged their most bracing and razor-sharp inquiry yet into the point (geographical, metaphysical) where a man’s unquenchable thirst for understanding, for order, crosses paths with the vast indifference, and the roiling, darkened skies, of heaven.
1) INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (Quentin Tarantino) Once upon a time in Nazi-occupied France… The year’s best movie. It’s audacity is in its formal brilliance; its playfulness; its simultaneous embrace of control and abandon; its recognition of the warring impulses of fury and regret and ambivalence present in even the most evil and the most righteous of warriors and murderers; its unrepentant reveling in its heady Jewish revenge fantasy (for which there is historical precedent); its understanding of how language may be the most intimate battlefield of all (and certainly the one which replaces the mortar-shocked landscapes we’ve come to expect from this genre); its disregard for history (for which there is plenty of cinematic precedent); its gleeful employment of cinema as a language and landscape and finally as a literal weapon; and its utter belief in the power of cinema to enthrall, to subvert, to mystify, to seduce, to magnify, to illuminate and infuse even the rowdiest and most recklessly magnificent of epic conceits with the unmistakable force of art. No movie in 2009 held me in its sway as confidently, as cheerfully, as thrillingly, in its quiet, confident moments as well as in the fiery grasp of its fevered nightmares, as this one did.
THE REST OF THE BEST (in descending order)
HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE
THE HURT LOCKER
A PERFECT GETAWAY
I LOVE YOU, MAN
BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS
LAND OF THE LOST
TRICK ‘R TREAT
STATE OF PLAY
MONSTERS vs. ALIENS
FAST AND FURIOUS
THE BLIND SIDE
Best Directors: QUENTIN TARANTINO, Ethan & Joel Coen, Wes Anderson, Olivier Assayas, Kathryn Bigelow
Best Lead Actresses: CHARLOTTE GAINSBOURG (Antichrist), Sandra Bullock (The Blind Side), Meryl Streep (Julie & Julia), Vera Farmiga (Orphan), Isabelle Fuhrman (Orphan)
Best Lead Actors: MICHAEL STUHLBARG (A Serious Man), Sharlto Copley (District 9), Michael Fassbender(Hunger), Charles Berling (Summer Hours), George Clooney (Fantastic Mr. Fox)
Best Supporting Actresses: MELANIE LAURENT (Inglourious Basterds), Mimi Kennedy (In the Loop), Kristen Wiig (Extract), Edith Scob (Summer Hours), Natalie Portman (Brothers)
Best Supporting Actors: CHRISTOPH WALTZ (Inglourious Basterds), Peter Capaldi (In the Loop), Daryl Sabara (World’s Greatest Dad), Jemaine Clement (Gentlemen Broncos), Hank Azaria (Year One, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian)
Best Screenplays: INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (Quentin Tarantino), A SERIOUS MAN (Ethan and Joel Coen), FANTASTIC MR. FOX (Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach), SUMMER HOURS (Olivier Assayas), ORPHAN (David Johnson, screenplay, Alex Mace, story)
Best Cinematographers: ANTHONY DOD MANTLE (Antichrist), Robert Richardson (Inglourious Basterds), Roger Deakins (A Serious Man), Eric Gautier (Summer Hours), Mihai Malaimare Jr. (Tetro)
Best Editors: RODERICK JAYNES (A Serious Man), Ramin Bahrani (Goodbye, Solo), Sally Menke (Inglourious Basterds), Aaron Yanes (Tyson), Kim Roberts (Food, Inc.)
SPECIAL MENTION: To QUENTIN TARANTINO, for stepping in to save the New Beverly Cinema from certain closure, thereby preserving and renewing Los Angeles’ only surviving calendar-based, classically programmed repertory cinema for the foreseeable future.
Thom McGregor’s Picks of the Year (Spousal Division): District 9, A Serious Man, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds
The Pickings of My Daughters (Nine-year-Old Division): Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
The Pickings of My Daughters (Seven-year-Old Division): Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
I SURE WISH I HADN’T MISSED (by post time): Silent Light, Medicine for Melancholy, Tokyo!, Sugar, Anvil: The Story of Anvil, Treeless Mountain, The Beaches of Agnes,. The Headless Woman, Away We Go, Surveillance, Soul Power, (500) Days of Summer, Flame and Citron, Bandslam, The Brothers Bloom, It Might Get Loud, Big Fan, The September Issue, La danse - Le ballet de l'Opéra de Paris, No Impact Man, 35 Shots of Rum, Black Dynamite, Red Cliff, Bright Star, The Informant!, Capitalism: A Love Story, Whip It, Zombieland, Bronson, The Damned United, An Education, Good Hair, The Maid, Where the Wild Things Are, The Box, The Men Who Stare at Goats, The Messenger, Broken Embraces, Mammoth, Me and Orson Welles, The Road, Ninja Assassin, Armored, The Young Victoria, The Last Station, Up in the Air, Invictus, The Lovely Bones, Nine, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus and The White Ribbon.
DON’T MUCH CARE IF I EVER SEE: It’s Complicated
ACADEMY OF THE UNDERRATED: A SERIOUS MAN, Antichrist, Orphan, Extract, Duplicity, Observe and Report, A Perfect Getaway, Land of the Lost, Year One, Gentlemen Broncos, The International, 2012, Knowing, Monsters vs. Aliens, The Blind Side, The Uninvited
ACADEMY OF THE OVERRATED: PRECIOUS: BASED ON THE NOVEL “PUSH” BY SAPPHIRE, The Hurt Locker, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Avatar, Adventureland, The Princess and the Frog, Public Enemies, The House of the Devil, Taken, Splinter, The Hangover, Whatever Works, The Limits of Control
YOU REALLY SHOULD HAVE SEEN: Year One, Gentlemen Broncos and Land of the Lost, a triumvirate of comedies that were by no means perfect but were also far funnier and more intelligent than they were ever given credit for. In the case of Gentlemen Broncos, as David Edelstein (the only other person I know who even admits to having seen this movie) put it, if we still knew, as a film-going culture, how to cultivate real midnight cult movies—you know, at midnight, with a receptively stoned or otherwise enthusiastic audience, Jared Hess’s sincerely weird and heartfelt comedy would be a sensation.
BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: Public Enemies
BIGGEST SURPRISES: Antichrist, Orphan, Tetro, World’s Greatest Dad, Star Trek, Land of the Lost
SCARIEST (Fiction Division): Drag Me to Hell-- Lorna Raver!
SCARIEST (Non-fiction Division): Food, Inc.
BEST MOVIE EXPERIENCES OF THE YEAR:
Earthquake (first time in Sensurround), The Towering Inferno, The Magnificent Seven, Freebie and the Bean and Hickey and Boggs, all in January courtesy of The American Cinematheque at the Egyptian in Hollywood.
In February and March, watching High Sierra late at night on DVD, and The Lady Eve courtesy of director Rian Johnson at the New Beverly, both with my oldest daughter. The whole family made it to a screening of Rio Bravo at the Bing Theater at LACMA. And I have to admit I really enjoyed having my eyes peeled back by Convoy on the MGM HD Channel.
I got to travel to Eugene in April for the world premiere of Mr. Ooh-La-La’s Earth Day. The entirety of the experience, especially the company of the jovial and endearing crackpots that made up the cast and crew, including my best friend Bruce Lundy, one of the stars of the movie, and the very enthusiastic and receptive Mr. Ooh La La himself, made for a week I’ll always remember fondly.
Back at the New Beverly for the summer: The girls and I completely delighted in a double feature of Duck Soup and Animal Crackers and their first experience with Back to the Future, with Christopher Lloyd in the house.
May brought the most ambitious and memorable movie-going experience of the year, the SLIFR Drive-in Movie Night featuring Drag Me to Hell, Angels and Demons and a whole bunch of wonderful people who came out to enjoy the movie with us! Why, we even had cake!
Later, in June, back to the New Beverly for a brilliant Grindhouse double feature of Plague Town and The Sinful Dwarf, and the whole family got to drive to Barstow with the Southern California Drive-in Movie Society to take in Up at the wonderful atmospheric Starlite Drive-in.
August 1 was a big day for Emma and me. First we took in the restoration of Powell and Pressburger’s inarguably brilliant The Red Shoes at the Billy Wilder Theater inside the Armand Hammer Museum in Westwood, and then we caught up with the entire family for a screening of The Awful Truth at the New Beverly that same evening. Two days later, we gathered up her grandparents (Patty’s mom and dad) for a New Beverly double feature of Modern Times and The General. That following Wednesday was the inaugural screening of the second edition of Dante’s Inferno at the New Beverly, with director Joe Dante present for double features like The ‘burbs and Smile (special guest: Bruce Dern), The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and Not of This Earth (introduced by Dante and Roger Corman, who directed both films), and finally Matinee paired with Miracle Mile. The month ended on a high note, with multiple viewings off Inglourious Basterds (including one at the Vista with Don) and the girls and I thrilling to the first two Indiana Jones movies at the New Beverly.
We continued haunting the New Beverly during the fall. My daughter brought drawings she made of herself, Michael and I standing in front of the theater (she drew the marquee featuring a double bill of Zabriskie Point and Il Grido!), and then later brought a similar sketch of Julia, Michael, she and I all standing at the New Beverly snack bar. Both drawings are currently featured on the New Beverly’s box office window as you enter the lobby! She continued her cinematic education there with screenings of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken,, The Muppets Christmas Carol, The Muppets Take Manhattan, Sullivan’s Travels, The Palm Beach Story and most recently, Double Indemnity and The Palm Beach Story.
It was also a thrill to watch both of my daughters get completely absorbed by the beautiful ethno-doc The Story of the Weeping Camel and Suzie Templeton’s Oscar-winning animated short Peter and the Wolf, all courtesy of Netflix Instant Play. Finally, the year’s highlights have to include seeing Child’s Play at UCLA with a panel discussion featuring, Don, Mike Werb, Catherine Hicks, David Kirschner and puppet designer Kevin Yagher, and also Bruce and I taking off on a Monday afternoon to the Vista to get our shit rumbled by 2012. Good times.
MOVIES THAT MEANT THE MOST TO ME FROM THE LAST DECADE (totally off the top of my head, but alphabetized!)
GOODBYE DRAGON INN
IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE
LOS ANGELES PLAYS ITSELF
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
A SERIOUS MAN
TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE
FILMS I FINALLY CAUGHT UP WITH in 2009 (Thanks, Ed!) THAT MADE MY LIFE BETTER-- listed roughly in the order in which I saw them
HIGH SIERRA (Raoul Walsh)
WHITE HEAT (Raoul Walsh)
BE KIND, REWIND (Michel Gondry)
CLOVERFIELD (Matt Reeves)
MAN OF THE WEST (Anthony Mann)
GOD’S ANGRY MAN (Werner Herzog)
THE SMALL BACK ROOM (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)
TUMBLEWEED (Nathan Juran)
LA DOLCE VITA (Federico Fellini)
VON RYAN’S EXPRESS (Mark Robson)
THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG (Nick Grinde)
DOMINO (Tony Scott)
DAY OF WRATH (Carl Theodor Dreyer)
HAXAN: WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES (Benjamin Christensen)
THE NANNY (Seth Holt)
DON’T TORTURE A DUCKLING (Lucio Fulci)
MASKED AND ANONYMOUS (Larry Charles)
MAJOR BARBARA (Gabriel Pascal)
THE BIG CLOCK (John Farrow)
MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW (Leo McCarey)
THE STORY OF THE WEEPING CAMEL (Byambasuren Davaa, Luigi Falomi)
LA SOUFRIERE (Werner Herzog)
EYES WITHOUT A FACE (Georges Franju)
THE ROARING TWENTIES (Raoul Walsh)
PLAY DIRTY (Andre De Toth)
BIGGER THAN LIFE (Nicholas Ray)
HELL IS FOR HEROES (Don Siegel)
THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (Irving Pichel, Ernest B. Schoedsack)
10 RILLINGTON PLACE (Richard Fleischer)
UNDERWORLD U.S.A. (Samuel Fuller)
THE BLUE DAHLIA (George Marshall)
EDMOND (Stuart Gordon)
It’s pretty great to have so many talented friends who are terrific writers and filmmakers and actors, because of the opportunities I get to brag on them occasionally. I’ve already told you about the 2009 artistic achievement of my friend Peet Gelderblom with his film Out of Sync, but I see no good reason why I can’t mention it twice!
Old pal Lucas McNelly is at it again, following his short gravida with a new film called Blanc de Blanc. I haven’t seen it yet, Lucas, even though you so kindly provided me a copy a while ago, and for that I apologize. But I continue to look forward to seeing it and talking with you about it.
Good friend Ali Arikan wrote a fascinating piece on Istanbul for The House Next Door recently, and also was featured on Roger Ebert’s blog in this terrific video piece on 24 Hour Party People:
While we’re on personal appearances, check out my best pal Bruce Lundy’s nifty Bud Abbott impersonation in this TV spot for a Eugene, Oregon carpet dealership:
I mentioned above that one of the best pieces I read all year about the Coen Brothers’ magnificently funny A Serious Man did not come from some of the more visible outlets (writers like Ella Taylor were insistent in their tunnelvision-style dismissive reading of the film), but instead from a couple of fellas you may be familiar with from reading this blog. Bill Ryan (who kinda likes the Coens) delivered a piece that was as searching and brilliantly modulated as the movie itself in his superb post ”Schroedinger’s Man”, from which I quoted in my capsule on the film above. And Greg Ferrara followed up with ”Order and Uncertainty: Random Thoughts on A Serious Man.” I can say sincerely that both of these pieces either equaled or flatly outstripped the best writing on the movie that I was privy to read in the wake of its release, and no one since has made me stir around inside my own reactions more profoundly than these two have. It’s a testimony to them that after reading their pieces I didn’t feel the strong need to write about the movie, because while they may not have necessarily said it all, they said what they said better than anything I could have written and enriched the movie for me in the process. That’s what great film blogging should do. Thanks, guys.
Another fine writer unfamiliar with the company line is Kim Morgan, who stirred things up this year with her defense of Roman Polanski (just check out the response). Kim has never been one to shy away from a controversial stand on any given subject, and she’s there for folks like Werner Herzog and Nicolas Cage when they need her, which makes her consistently interesting during times when many writers start looking for the conventional wisdom to parrot.
Speaking of controversy (age-old division),Sheila O’Malley offered one of my favorite pieces of the year on Birth of a Nation, proving that sometimes the best writing has nothing to do with the freshest releases and the hottest topics. Thanks for keeping the torch lit, Sheila!
And my favorite person in the blogosphere, Farran Smith Nehme, the Artist Formerly Known as the Self-styled Siren, has just finished up a hell of a January. Farran’s (and co-curator Lou Lumenick’s) superb series on TCM, ”Shadows of Russia,” which documented the rise of Russia and Communism as seen through the eyes of Hollywood, was a rousing success, not only for Farran personally and for the millions of TCM viewers who benefited from her wit and wisdom in bringing this program to light, but also for the credibility and respectability of the film blogging world in general. Farran has become perhaps the most visible and respected film blogger currently active, and it’s a real honor to be able to count myself among her colleagues and friends. I’m hoping we’ll have a chance soon to ruminate on these pages about the afterglow of “Shadows of Russia.” She keeps us all up to date at her own blog, of course, but I’m looking forward to her coming over here and brightening up the place! (Read the article she wrote about “Shadows of Russia” for the Museum of the Moving Image right here. Way to go, Farran!)
And one last special shout out to my kids, who now have their own IMDb pages thanks to their participation this past summer in my friend Andrew Blackwood’s keen short film Kumar’s Day at the Park. When Andrew makes it available for me to show it you, don’t think I won’t! It’s a terrific movie, and the girls are, I must say, unprecedentedly brilliant in it. That’s as unbiased as I get.
THREE ACTORS FOR WHOM I’M GRATEFUL
I was really glad to be reminded of just how much I’ve always loved Barbara Rush when I was lucky enough to re-encounter Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life earlier this year. In this fever-pitched movie she takes what could have been a stock role, the long-suffering wife, and invests it with so much anger and confusion bubbling just under the placid surface even before anything goes wrong with her beloved James Mason. It’s truly astonishing how much she communicates of that despair without having the big blowing-off-steam scene that might have come in a less well-modulated film. I was always more familiar with Barbara Rush from her TV work (was there a show from the ‘60s and ‘70s on which she did not guest-star?), but the evidence on display in Bigger Than Life suggests that she deserved, and would have been more than capable of delivering on a much bigger career in movies. Unfortunately, after co-starring in No Down Payment (1958) and Hombre (1967), both for Martin Ritt, her movie career all but disappeared (and no, I don’t really count playing Bob Crane’s wife in 1973’s Superdad).
I was reminded earlier this year too, after stumbling upon Gary Fleder’s tepid adaptation of John Grisham’s Runaway Jury, just how magnetic a character actor Bruce McGill has become over the years. I will watch him in literally anything, which is good for him, but not always for me because he’s made his share of bummers, like Fleder’s film, an indifferent lump of a courtroom drama whose contradictions and inconsistencies swirl around McGill’s rock-solid, implacable and incorruptible judge like so many mosquitoes. You come away wishing, as you do in so many movies which feature McGill for only a scene or two (I’m thinking of Michael Mann’s The Insider) that this dynamic actor had possession of the lead role instead of being forced to sear his way through the distractions of ungainly plots and other actors in order to make an impression. Those hang-dog eyes, which suggested violence, cartoon or otherwise, in early roles like Paul Le Mat’s quietly jealous brother in Jonathan Demme’s Citizen’s Band or D-Day in Animal House, have translated with age into deep pools, reserves of humanity that have more than enough room for anger, humility, affection, arrogance, entitlement, righteousness and the many other tools of the trade of a great character actor. I continue to wish him better parts, but I am always so grateful for those moments when he pops up unexpectedly to save whatever mediocre film he’s in at the moment that I’m almost afraid of getting what I wish for.
And then there’s Teri Garr, who I became reacquainted with on the Blu-ray disc of Young Frankenstein over the Christmas holiday. This woman, who was near death a few years ago over complications arising from multiple sclerosis, appeared in a couple of “making-of” featurettes on the disc and, as she has also done recently in reprising her role as the cantankerous host’s antagonistic guest, to whom he is unmistakably attracted, on The Late Show with David Letterman, charmed my soul with her irrepressible spirit and non-stop humor. Garr’s face, aged and broadened but still lovely, has an almost permanently comic skepticism imprinted on it which has always made her even sexier to these eyes, and it’s central to her appeal as an ingénue and a kind of everywoman. After Young Frankenstein she got stuck in a bit of a rut in the mid ‘70s playing the disbelieving wife to a couple of quasi-religious seers—Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and John Denver in Oh, God!-- and variations on the good mother type in films like The Black Stallion and Mr. Mom which carried the whiff of possible typecasting, and her movie roles as the ‘80s progressed were never up to her nervous, genially distracted talent. Her potential as a thinking man’s sex symbol was never really tapped either, although in Tootsie (for which she was nominated for an Oscar) and One from the Heart she came close. No, I wasn’t at all surprised to be reminded of just how much I loved Teri Garr and still do. But I was surprised to be reminded of how much the very same characteristics of sass, smarts, sexy humor and dazed self-deprecation she displayed and which charmed me so were also central to the vibrant personalities of two of my biggest high school crushes. These girls, who even resembled Teri Garr to some degree, were always fun to talk to, as I imagine Garr would be, and they became spirited women like Garr too (as far as I can tell from my infrequent personal encounters with them these days, and my more frequent Facebook-engineered ones). As I see them reflected in the actress, and the actress reflected in them, I am most grateful for the way all three enriched my life in their own ways, but I’m mostly grateful for Garr, whose post-Goldie Hawn persona seems to have no obvious corollary in this age of pneumatic, dimwitted hotties and whose grace has extended far beyond the reach of what she was able to achieve at the peak of her career.
THE WORST (with one climactic exception, in alphabetical order)
THE CANYON (Richard Harrah) Two none-too-bright 30-somethings get stranded in the Grand Canyon on their honeymoon and spend 90 minutes doing one stupid thing after another in pursuit of a bitterly ironic, if-they’d-only-held-out-for-ten-more-minutes, God’s-eye-view ending. The scenery goes to waste too.
COUPLES RETREAT (Peter Billingsley) Just how much lower can the bar on modern rom-coms go? This boorish, formulaic excuse for a movie—and for a sun-dappled vacation for its actors and crew-- makes light, spirited cross-gender banter and the flush of rekindled romance look like achievements far more impossible than conjuring alien worlds or making us believe that a man can fly. Three couples vacation at a tropical resort, with relationship therapy a miserable requirement of their stay. While misery, invective and lurid situations ensue, the actors get tanned and your brain gets fried. Couldn’t they have vacationed in the Grand Canyon instead?
HOTEL FOR DOGS (Thor Freudenthal) Juvenile entertainment doesn’t get engineered for a bad aftertaste much more insistently than the brand served up by this mutt.
JENNIFER’S BODY (Karyn Kusama) Smug, illogical and disinterested in the possibilities of its own premise, and made by a screenwriter and a director who fancy themselves far smarter than the genre they’ve chosen to sully. A hottie cheerleader, satanically reconstituted after being gruesomely murdered, spends an entire movie enacting gory disembowelment on boys whose only crime is ogling her in the exactly the manner she invited while she was not-dead. (One hates to apply the description “alive” to Megan Fox’s vaguely plasticine porniness.) The movie never convinces as to why the revenge visited upon the devil-worshipping emo band that actually killed her in a sacrifice to further their career is puzzlingly left off-screen—just another hollow, smart-ass move in a movie packed with them. Plenty of nods to post-feminist, Sapphicly embroidered girl friendships and swipes at Hughes-esque high school satire are left floating on a sea of indifferently delivered, agonizingly self-conscious Diablo Cody-isms posing as dialogue, making one wish only that this movie had a fraction of the smarts it thinks it does.
THE LIMITS OF CONTROL (Jim Jarmusch) Also known as The Limits of My Patience for Jim Jarmusch and His Particular Brand of Downtown/International Existential Cool Posing as Cinematic Inquiry into the Tropes of the Espionage Genre Which Turns Out to Be Mere Affected Fodder for A Whole Bunch of Actors with Attitude Gliding Past the Camera Trying to Convince Us There’s More to What We’re Seeing Than the Nothing and Nothingness Which Registers On Our Brains Like the World’s Most Pretentious 16-Ton Anvil Being Dropped Onto One of Christopher Doyle’s Beautifully Rendered European Cityscapes from An Equally Gorgeously Realized and Tantalizingly Azure SkyZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…. Huh? Was I snoring? I’m sorry. I’ll leave now.
MISS MARCH (Zach Cregger, Trevor Moore) It’s every bit as bad as you’ve heard. Cregger and Moore, veterans of TV’s The Whitest Kids You Know, do no good in endearing themselves to film history with this literally shitty comedy, about a virginal teen (remember those?) who gets clonked on the head just as he’s about get laid, only to emerge years later from a coma, muscles atrophied (hence the relentlessly loose bowels—I did say literally shitty) but still horny for his gal, who is in the intervening years has become a Playboy centerfold. Cregger is no great shakes as our aching-loin hero, but he’s Brando next to Moore, who may have carved himself a special niche in the annals of crass trolling for laffs as Cregger’s sex-obsessed, hearty-partyin’ buddy, Jughead by way of Artie Lange’s balls. Disgusting.
MY SON, MY SON, WHAT HAVE YE DONE (Werner Herzog) A great director’s most self-consciously mannered and empty film. Herzog takes a strange Oedipally-tinged case of matricide and strangles whatever fascination it might have had by aping the most obvious stylistic moves in the David Lynch catalog. (Lynch produced the movie. Coincidence?) The result is a film ossified by its own affectedness, a long, meandering joke that seems ultimately to have been played on the audience. Never has Herzog allowed such a cast of fine actors—including Michael Shannon, Willem Dafoe, Chloe Sevigny, Brad Dourif and Grace Zabriskie—to come off looking so inept and inert. Forget the son—Werner, Werner, what were you thinking?
SHORTS (Robert Rodriguez) More hopeless amateur-hour kids entertainment from the self-aggrandizing director of The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl (in 3D!), an earlier dud which is two or three notches better than this visually atrocious mess.
WHATEVER WORKS (Woody Allen) Larry David, standing in for the master, mouths the same old diatribes about cultural illiteracy, shallow youth and the tasteless masses bungling through life in all those flyover states, but it’s Allen who seems stunted, as if the last 40 years never happened. (Did it ever cross the minds of the Pixar geniuses to cast him in Up?) It’s hard to think of another movie this condescending to just about everyone it bumps into—gays, Southerners, intellectuals, Christians, kids— that then tries to spin the whole bitter pill into yet another upbeat shrug devoted to the supposed learned tolerance of the most decidedly intolerant character in the room. Musty, lazy and mean-spirited.
And the year’s worst: THE HANGOVER (Todd Phillips) What does it say when the guy sitting next to me, who couldn’t stop texting furiously for the entire movie while sitting silent and stone-faced with his girlfriend, turns to his buddies sitting in the row ahead after the credits roll and proclaims, “Dude, that was fuckin’ hilarious!” I don’t remember seeing a movie that made me feel so much like a visitor from an alien culture, so divorced was my experience from the one promised by the craftily engineered hype and the insistence of almost everyone I know who saw it that it was, well, fuckin’ hilarious. Here’s my whole story. I can’t think of much else to say except, to paraphrase a line from a movie that is far funnier in its dullest moment than anything in this barrel-bottom stinker, I’m just gonna go pour myself a cold Hamm’s, grab an even colder compress to go with it, and I’m gonna forget this movie ever happened.
RANDOM BRILLIANCE IN 2009
The following is a whole host of year-end links courtesy of David Hudson, film aggregator beyond compare, without whom I would be blissfully unaware of 75% of the goodies I’m about to re-share. Just keep on paging down. You’re sure to find something you’ll like.
2009 Moments Out of Time
The Year’s Best Posters and the Best of the Decade.
The Playlist’s Best Documentaries of the Decade
The Worst of 2009 poll
John McElwee on Cinerama
The L.A. Film Critics Circle Best of Decade list
Voices on Rohmer
The Year’s Best Film Blog Writing
Slate’s 2009 Movie Club
Forget who actually got nominated: Here’s who the New York Times critics think should have been invited to the Oscars.
Terence Rafferty on Roger Corman and his Oscar
Manohla Dargis on Kathryn Bigelow’s zoom lens
The Year in Lebowski Studies
Dave Kehr on DVD, the rise of Blu-ray, restoration & what’s coming up for the 10s
Top 10 Fred Astaire Dance Scenes
2009--The Clip Party and the texts to go along with it from L Magazine.
Fantasy Double Features of 2009
Matt Zoller Seitz’s Directors of the Decade countdown
Film Books of 2009
Best Jim Jarmusch Movie of the Year
The Art of the Title presents Dirty Harry
The Best Interview Ever? Dan Schneider
talks to Screenwriter Lem Dobbs
MSN.com 2009 in Review
D.K. Holm on World’s Greatest Dad
Marc Edward Heuck on Tommy Wiseau and the cult of The Room.
Notable Films Coming in 2010… But can any of them beat this?
The Ten Worst Movie Moments of 2009
Christopher Lee gets knighted.
David Edelstein dissents from the chorus of praise for Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.
Favorite Blog I Discovered This Year
A look at Sergio Leone’s sets
Steven Boone’s Moonwalk- The Adaptation
Carl Neville on Jacob’s Ladder
In anticipation of Joe Johnston’s The Wolfman, the Universal Monsters Legacy.
Michael Anderson on James Whale.
Bet You Missed This One Too
A.O. Scott on Duck Soup.
A Fistful of Sergio Leone
Traditional Music in The Searchers
Critic Watch 2009: Whores of the Year and The Year in Quotes.
Vadim Rizov on Seven Movies That Pushed the Boundaries of Storytelling.
Speaking of pushing boundaries, what might the King say this time around?
One of the funniest things I read all year: James Wolcott on It’s Complicated and Santa Barbarism.
R.I.P. Robin Wood
Karina Longworth Ascends
Gold Class Cinemas: You Know You Wanna Do It Just Once!
An Oregonian’s Alternative: McMenamins, particularly the Kennedy School.
Bob Westal on the Inglourious Basterds DVD Release Party.
John Waters’ Top 10 of 2009
Manohla Dargis colorfully elaborates on some of the finer points of her New York Times piece ”Women in the Seats But Not Behind the Camera.”
Just for the hell of it, a look considerably farther back than 2009:
Ron Hendren (Admit it—you remember him) on HOME VIDEO:
Entertainment Tonight on that mysterious new medium, the laserdisc:
Whew! That's it! I need another Hamm’s already! Happy New Year (Belated), everybody, and my apologies once again for being so tardy.