Friday, December 18, 2009
Best Films of 2009
As always in recent years, I've heard a lot of buzz lately about how movies are going down the tubes. And as usual I don't agree, since I always find it hard to choose just 10 favorites from the films that first hit U.S. theaters this year. But I do wonder about American movies. Once again, only four of the movies on my year-end top 10 list are from the USA. The last time there were more than that was 2005.
I don't exactly feel deprived. Thanks to Netflix, movies on demand, film festivals, and the rich array always on tap in Manhattan theaters, there are always more movies I want to see than there is time to see them. But I worry about smart, gifted American filmmakers who have something to say. Is it getting so hard to finance anything other than a wannabe blockbuster that they're giving up and doing something easier? If so, that's everyone's loss, even if the online options jostling for our attention keep us from noticing right away.
Speaking of that list, I couldn’t narrow mine down to 10 this year, but we all know that number is arbitrary anyhow. So here are my 11 favorite movies of 2009, in no particular order.
The Maid. Raquel (Catalina Saavedra) has been the live-in maid for an upper-middle-class Chilean family for her entire adult life. Despite all the talk about how they love one another, she’s really not part of their family – or of her own, after living apart for more than two decades. In fact, she has no intimate relationships at all. But her little room is the only home she knows, so when the mistress of the house announces that she’ll be hiring someone to “help” her, Raquel starts acting out in increasingly bizarre ways, until a new maid comes to the house and changes everything.
Writer-director Sebastián Silva lays out the nuances of the rickety relationships between Raquel and the family with sensitivity and sly humor. Saavedra is a revelation, using her thin lips and bruised-looking eyes to convey both the pain of the emotions roiling around in Raquel’s aching head and her grim attempts to quash them, and the rest of the cast is excellent too. This story feels so real you sometimes forget you’re not watching it through a security camera.
Goodbye, Solo. It’s a pleasure to spend two hours in the company of Goodbye Solo’s title character (played by the excellent Souleymane Sy Savane), a sunny Senegalese cab driver whose insistence on connecting with the people around him amounts to a form of grace. We meet him as he’s homing in on William (Red West), a cantankerous codger who would prefer to be left alone. But Solo just keeps planting himself in William’s way, armed with a smile and a story, winning his grudging friendship while trying to solve the mystery behind this toxically lonely man’s depression.
Based on a cabbie Ramin Bahrani met in his hometown of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Goodbye, Solo is the director’s third feature about immigrants struggling to survive in inhospitable American cities, and they just keep getting better. (The others were 2005’s Man Push Cart and 2007’s Chop Shop.) All three mix professional and non-professional actors and real locations to place a scripted story within an interesting subculture, which Bahrani films with a sensitivity that establishes him as one of America’s best living directors.
Bright Star. This deeply felt, exquisitely tender love story places us smack in the world of poet John Keats (a luminescent, gently charismatic Ben Whishaw) and Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), the young woman he loved. Cinematographer Grieg Fraser captures an astonishingly gorgeous England, starkly beautiful in the winter and bursting with colors and life in the springtime and summer.
Writer-director Jane Campion revives the pressures and pleasures of early 19th-century English society, but this is no stilted costume drama. It’s the story of two vivid individuals whose feelings and motivations are as compelling as our own – if not more so. Keats is a born Romantic, full of feeling and fun, and Fanny is Campion’s most self-assured heroine yet, self-confident, forthright, competent and kind. And that pairing of lionhearted equals makes Bright Star a great romance.
Gomorrah. Gomorrah is a whole new kind of mafia movie. Compared to the goombahs of Gomorrah, even Tony Soprano looks tony, and the Godfather series look like a Cosa Nostra recruitment poster, with its movie-star Mafioso.
Writer Roberto Saviano, a native of Naples, based the screenplay on his own novel, which was in turn based on extensive research into the camorra, the criminal underground that maintains a chokehold on Naples and the surrounding countryside. Saviano exposes the hidden workings of the system by showing how it affects the lives of nearly everybody in its orbit, even infiltrating parts of the global economy.
Director Matteo Garrone, a painter as well as a filmmaker, artfully translates the novel’s grim intensity, creating an absorbing world as visceral as a kick in the gut and as claustrophobic as the tanning booths that cocoon a group of paunchy gangsters in the opening scene. There’s nothing noble or melancholy about the gangsters in Gomorrah; they’re just ugly brutes who cripple the world they rule.
The White Ribbon. While Gomorrah aims for reportorial realism, The White Ribbon is intentionally unreliable. Writer-director Michael Haneke refuses to wrap up his films too neatly on principle, often leaving key questions unanswered to prod us into doing our own thinking about what we’ve just seen. In The White Ribbon, he undermines his own narrative from the start by having the narrator inform us that he can’t trust his own memory and never did know all the facts.
At first, all seems well in this creamily photographed black-and-white tale of a farming community in Protestant northern Germany shortly before WWI. But little by little, Haneke reveals the authoritarian brutality so casually wielded by the sternly self-righteous men in charge. One father canes his children for imagined sins. Another has sex with his teenage daughter. A blithely entitled baron forces the sharecroppers to put up with daily humiliations and unsafe conditions and makes a virtual prisoner of his wife.
Meanwhile, seemingly random acts of cruelty or violence are occurring. Since we never learn who is doing them, they come to seem like an inevitable reaction to rampant oppression. Where your thoughts lead you from there – to the Nazi regime that the kids in this movie will vote in as adults? To someplace closer to home? – is up to you.
Where the Wild Things Are. Though it’s cowritten by Dave Eggers and closely based on Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are is a classic Spike Jonze Joint: intelligently conceived, ingeniously crafted, and as steeped in humanity as a rum cake is in rum.
The opening and closing scenes economically convey the anger and angst that causes Max (Max Record) to run away and the love that pulls him back. His scenes with his mother (Catherine Keener) are particularly poignant, little cinematic bouillon cubes of concentrated tenderness, frustration, and unconditional love. And when he runs away, it’s to an exhilaratingly primal island peopled by wild things that are awesome in the old-fashioned sense of the word. Played by actors in giant puppet suits and voiced by a stellar cast, the wild things are vulnerable, tender, and occasionally terrifying.
Wild Things is refreshingly free of the pyrotechnics, paint-by-numbers peril, and preachy morals that gum up most children’s movies. There are things to be learned -- Max learns how to manage his own feelings and respect other people’s, and the wild things learn not to blindly follow a king. But those lessons emerge organically from a plot as impulsive and focused on fun as a child at play.
The Hurt Locker and In the Loop. Of all the movies I’ve seen so far about what we’re doing in Iraq and Afghanistan and how we got there – and I’ve seen a lot – these two may be my favorites. Director Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker is a visceral, clear-eyed look at the pull exerted by the war on Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), an adrenaline junkie who disarms bombs in Iraq. Bigelow knows how to maximize the suspense inherent in a violent confrontation or an armed bomb, but she’s also good at showing how men reveal themselves even when they’re trying to hide. We get to know the taciturn James and the other men in his squad well enough to share the hurt when the war warps their lives.
In the Loop, a mordantly funny British satire based on a BBC-TV series, is a fictionalized tale of how the Bush Administration engineered the occupation of Iraq, as seen through the eyes of Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), a British politician pulled into a “debate” on the topic by an American State Department official (a tart Mimi Kennedy). Too inept to know he’s being used, Foster happily bumbles into a world in which nearly everyone – himself included – is motivated by self-interest, more interested in salvaging or furthering their careers than in deciding whether their country should go to war. The barbs fly by like darts as the Brits use their best remaining weapon, erudite sarcasm, to bully and manipulate each other. It’s all very funny, yet it feels alarmingly plausible – office politics with a capital P.
A Serious Man. A Serious Man’s Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a mid-century modern Job. He’s also a bit of a schnook, a nice guy who finishes dead last. His life could easily be played as a tragedy, but codirectors Joel and Ethan Coen – who also cowrote, coproduced and coedited, as usual – are after something more entertaining, more open-ended, and ultimately deeper.
The story takes place in a Jewish suburb of Minnesota in the late 1960s or early ‘70s, which the Coens recreate with their usual attention to detail. You can almost smell the pot the kids are smoking and feel the chilly disinterest of the aggressively unattractive secretaries. (Remember secretaries?) But there’s always just enough comic exaggeration to nudge us into the realm of fable and make us laugh. At their best, the Coens introduce us to ourselves, satirizing human weakness while celebrating human nature, and A Serious Man is one of their best.
Anvil! The story of Anvil. It took me a few minutes to get past the similarities to This Is Spinal Tap and stop smirking at this oddly named documentary about a balding heavy metal band trying to regain its past glory, but once I did I was hooked. Anvil is really about drummer Robb Reiner (for real) and lead singer/songwriter Steve "Lips" Kudlow, and it turns out these two are very likeable guys.
Good friends and good family men who grew up together in Toronto, Reiner and Kudlow started jamming together at age 14, made it big for a bit at the start of the heavy metal movement in the ‘80s, and quickly lapsed back into obscurity. But they never stopped playing – or hoping to become professional musicians. Their journey, as documented by director Sacha Gervasi, raises some interesting questions for a culture that constantly tells us to follow our dreams while making most dreams almost impossible to achieve. Are these guys admirable for sticking with the music they love or self-indulgent for risking their families’ financial security? How you answer may tell you more about yourself than about Reiner and Kudlow.
Summer Hours. The plot of Summer Hours doesn’t sound very interesting: The adult children of an haute-bourgeois French clan converge on their lovely old family home to bury their mother and settle her estate. But this elegiac work of art captures the ebb and flow of family life across generations, the decommissioning of an aging empire’s ruling class, and how globalization is weakening ancient cultures.
Some of the best naturalistic actors working today, including Juliette Binoche and Jérémie Renier, make us believe in the jokes and shared memories that keep these siblings together, the differences in temperament that still grate, and the interests and obligations – including working abroad— that pull them apart. On one level, as the movie makes clear, the estate is just so much stuff. But it is part of the roots that have nurtured the family for generations, and they will be weaker without it.