Saturday, January 02, 2010

2009 So Far - Part I

Every December I am busting to join into the listmaking. But because I go by year of premiere rather than American (or, god forbid, Australian) release, it’s impossible for me to come up with a legitimate Top 10 until at least two years after everybody loses interest. Along these lines, I don’t imagine many people would be itching to read capsules on all 52 of the 2009 releases I managed to watch this year in order of preference. But I want to make a list. And who doesn’t love reading lists? And since Geocities shut down my main website, I insist that you let me comment on each film (though you feel free to skip ahead at any point).

So even though this list will read very very differently once I finally catch Un Prophete and I Killed My Mother and Lourdes and Wild Grass and Hadewijch and others, I will post it as a kind of time capsule. Once again, I’ll mention that I am going by year of premiere, which is why you won’t find The Hurt Locker or Two Lovers or Julia or Summer Hours (where, incidentally, I must have missed something, since it struck me as a minor work) or 35 Shots of Rum (which, for me, was one fabulous café sequence in search of a movie) on this list. But because I love my American readers, I’ve made up a special Top 20 by US release in Part 3 of this post. xx

1. A SERIOUS MAN
****½
A bracing, consistently soul-expanding set of digressions on man’s compulsion to seek out meaning in a dumb, routinely harsh universe. Abstract though it is, and idiosyncratic, it resonates in an intimate way, and deeply.

2. THE WHITE RIBBON
****½
A stark, magisterial, beguiling polemic wound around the moderately eerie goings-on in a sequestered German village in the 1910s. Pointedly, it’s set on the cusp of World War I, though it is just as concerned with the mentality that went on to inflict World War II. Although nominally ambiguous and open-ended, it reads like a storybook compared to the rest of Haneke’s oeuvre. And although much of its pleasures are of the [dreaded] conceptual, thought-provoking, not to mention formalist kind, it is very easy to get lost in its odd stories of odd people as well as its peerless evocation of a time and a place.

3. DOGTOOTH
****½
How exhilarating to come across a vision so sharp and calm and fearless. And what a clever, urgent takedown of a mentality very prominent across the Balkans that commands dumb, unquestioning submission to a generation of elders atrophied across decades of fear bred from ignorance, dumbness and unquestioning.

4. BROKEN EMBRACES
****

Too much plot and uncharacteristically clunky exposition gets in the way of any instinct to latch this lush, dizzying confection onto Almodovar’s staggering run of masterpieces from 1999’s All About My Mother through to 2006’s Volver. Here, Pedro builds the [soap-]operatic melodrama so worshipfully, breathlessly around Penelope Cruz’s blinding star persona that when she is off-screen for hefty portions of the film’s closing half-hour, things begin to really sag. Furthermore, it’s a harsher film than we are used to getting from Almodovar – it doesn’t give into the enveloping emotional payoff that we have come to expect. What it does offer is a restless, velvety, haunting thrill ride with regular flashes of movie-drunk genius. That, and plllenty of Penelope.

5. FANTASTIC MR. FOX
****
Wes Anderson was due for some sort of reboot - even he himself was drowning under his often [and obfuscatingly] imitated aesthetic. The expensive stop-motion visuals here are as meticulous and fetching as you’d expect, but also the character dynamics are carefully developed, and even inspired (with great help from a perfectly pitched cast).

6. UP
****
Amidst this much warmth, texture and nutty inspiration, it is only too easy to overlook plotholes.

7. ABOUT ELLY
****
An exemplary exercise in suspense filmmaking. Furthermore, I don’t recall ever before seeing the social dynamics among contemporary Iranian twenty-somethings presented at all on-screen, much less this acutely.

8. THE MILK OF SORROW
***½
Whatever wariness you feel about emerging women filmmakers exploring budding or stunted female sexuality (am I the only one that hears the alarm bells?), overcome it. Though Golden Bear winners are no longer fashionable, this is hardly the only time this decade Berlin gave its first prize to a textured, visionary, horrifically neglected small-scale gem from a cinematically obscure nation.

9. MOTHER
***½
An odd, slightly overstretched mystery, it becomes more and more absorbing as it builds towards a twist-ending of sorts. This particular one bucks the current trend of twist-endings in the sense that it is neither a gimmick nor an offensive, last-minute stab at an earnest veneer of unearned depth, but both a heartbreaking and thought-provoking revelation that builds on the story in meaning. Kim Hye-ja’s lead performance is just the right mix of downtrodden, committed and unhinged.

10. AVATAR
***½
The multiplex can provide you with 3D-glasses to enhance the overhyped but often admittedly awe-inspiring imagery of the land of Pandora, as well as a string of consummately staged action sequences. You will however, need to bring your own earplugs from home to shield you against the soul-shattering dialogue. And occasionally you might just have to leave the theatre outright so as not to endure the one-note obnoxious villain posturing.

11. NO ONE KNOWS ABOUT PERSIAN CATS
***½
Technically a batch of no-budget video clips (for mostly very bad songs) half-strung around a half-plot, but the power and the resonance is in the social context and the observational detail. The songs’ mediocrity (and they’re not all mediocre) pales beside the pulsing, arresting, illegal imagery of the streets of contemporary Tehran and the poignancy of young artists scuffling to raise their voice above an obfuscating political regime. Only the climactic rushed piling on of tragedy upon severe tragedy detracts from the impact.

12. DISTRICT 9
***½

If he isn’t particularly good at dialogue or believably human characters, director Neill Blomkamp at least excels at sci-fi imagery, action setpieces and exploiting political contexts.

13. IN THE LOOP
***½
A sharp, manic, frequently very funny political satire, even if it never particularly transcends its TV roots.

14. FISH TANK
***½
A progressively absorbing, immaculately crafted variation on the familiar foul-mouthed miserabilist kitchen-sink riff.

15. OUTRAGE
***½
A bold, savage attack on closeted and/or in-denial gay politicians who have gone out of their way to stunt the progress of gay rights in the US. Kirby Dick has an unfortunate way of emphasising – whether through intertitles or foreboding strings – facts and hypocrisies that are perfectly and unambiguously damning in themselves. All the same, this is an urgent, lucid and for the most part polished document.

16. BRÜNO
***½
The third feature built around a Sacha Baron Cohen alter ego isn’t at all consistent, coherent or even necessarily inspired. But it is resolutely fearless, boundary-breaking and outrageous in that best gut-busting way.

17. WHATEVER WORKS
***½
If anyone other than Woody Allen wrote and directed this gentle farce – or even if Allen himself did before his most recent divorce – its critical drubbing would be inconceivable. It’s neither the best or worst thing that Allen has delivered this decade, though in many ways it is the most representative: an underrated, charming, deceptively resonant bit of fluff, completely divorced from the wit, scope and wisdom of Woody’s vintage years, yet thoroughly warm and likable on its own terms.

18. WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE
***½
It is one of the wonders of the era that Spike Jonze managed to push this dark, neurotic, nominally-PG-rated yet patently adult-orented oddity through the studio system. It will always get the most tears out of twenty-something hipsters who were enthralled by the picturebook at a formative age, but it’s rich and tender beyond that.

19. CORALINE
***½
After a slightly laboured, drawn-out first half that is nevertheless lovely to look at, this Gothic bit of computer-assisted stop-motion settles into something wonderfully creepy and transporting.

20. INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS
***½
A deeply troubling film in the sense that it lives and dies by its maker’s now resolutely uncontrollable, increasingly repugnant yet still-not-quite-unfounded hubris. If Tarantino was susceptible to some sort of control mechanism based on eloquence, maturity or meaning, you wouldn’t have to sit through several interminable monologues, pretensions to resonant drama or Eli Roth’s self-regard given a mallet to wield and scenery to chew. But then it’s entirely possible you would also miss out on several setpieces of frenzied, exhilarating flair. The film is more often enjoyable than not, and yet, by praising it, you feel you’re encouraging an unimaginable fiasco.

(Continued below)

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2009 So Far - Part II

21. THE MAID
***½
The script teeters on an edge between Functional and Mechanical, but the direction is quite fresh and Catalina Saavedra’s titular performance in all its nuance and insanity - something to be cherished.

22. TALES FROM THE GOLDEN AGE
***½
Depending on your luck and the distributor’s temperament, you might be able to watch either four, five or all six chapters of this Cristian-Mungiu-penned omnibus of short films about Ceausescu’s Romania in its most overtly declining years. They vary in quality from the trite (a cutesy tale of an idealistic young teacher failing to bolster literacy in the rural regions), the likable but forgettable (a farce about a political dignitary’s visit, an ours-is-bigger-than-theirs scramble about Ceausescu’s positioning in a newspaper frontpage), and the brilliant and piercing (the rest, which I won’t spoil for you).

23. BRIGHT STAR
***½
This uncommonly un-stolid biopic – of young, ailing Keats and his star-crossed love – seems to have been pretty universally greeted as Jane Campion’s return to form (discounting the romantics among us who will scramble for reasons to champion her moderately erotic, distinctly unthrilling 2003 throwback to a genre that died with straight-to-VHS releases). It takes nearly an hour of screentime for the leads to settle into the period – arguably Ben Whishaw never does completely, whereas after asserting her ahead-of-her-time headstrong-ness in about eight scenes too many, Abbie Cornish relaxes. The plot is tragic-biographical-period-romance-by-numbers, but Campion imbues it with poetry (of the cinematic kind) at every chance, immeasurably helped by Greig Fraser’s delicate lighting.

24. HUMPDAY
***½
If there was ever a concept that didn’t need to become a movement, mumblecore is it. Similarly, if there was ever a concept that didn’t need to become a ubiquitous sub-genre, the bromance is it. And yet here, writer-director Lynn Shelton and an impeccable cast who improvised most of the scenes manage to join the two into something productive and meaningful, while also rendering palatable a remarkably ridiculous premise.

25. DRAG ME TO HELL
***½
Sam Raimi revisits his schlocky roots and comes up with an uncommonly likable bit of horror. The key pleasure comes from watching Raimi utilise goo of varying hue and viscosity with unrivalled genius.

26. KATALIN VARGA
***½
A worthwhile viewing because how many Lynchian Hungarian rural noirs with a lurking electronic soundtrack will you ever get to see? And if the psychology doesn’t quite add up, there is enough substance here as well as valiant, sincere attempts at substance to balance out the overload of style.

27. IT CAME FROM KUCHAR
***½

Even if it isn’t a particularly cinematic experience on its own terms, this documentary on the Kuchar brothers’ underground filmmaking overflows with a love of movies that is infectious.

28. BLACK DYNAMITE
***½
An affectionate parody of Blaxploitation films and a fun night out in its own right.

29. AN EDUCATION
***

An intensely charming lead and a lovely sense of the period (moments before the sixties truly swung up London) elevate this above other superficial coming-of-age stories. A rushed, embarrassingly trite conclusion (with a voiceover introduced to deliver the homily) brings it back down.

30. MOON
***
A protracted existentialist quandary fluffed up with all the solemnity endemic to stark sci-fi-scapes that only moody white American men are allowed to tread. That said, most of it unfolds on such an intimate scale on such an impressively used low budget, even hitting some poignant notes in the closing stretch – it feels criminal to poke fun at it.

31. UP IN THE AIR
***
A reductive, bloodless point-A-to-point-B-to-point-forced-redemption script, bathed in a veneer of Oscar-baiting relevance. Through unearthly powers Vera Farmiga enlivens a misconceived role and stands out as a lively, sexy, life-like creation amid a bevy of one-note stereotypes. In fact all of the film’s pleasures stem from the humanity and glow with which she invests her scenes.

32. DOUBLE TAKE
***
A playful, evocative, gradually exhausting mix of Hitchcock worship, 50s advertising, 60s nuclear panic and a story by Borges.

33. EVERYONE ELSE
***
Unquestionably there is a ring of truth and careful observation to this stark, literate, flawlessly acted post-mortem of contemporary romance, but the protagonists’ ennui is catching. Two unremitting hours of it leaves you depleted.

34. AJAMI
***
A foray through the mindless hatred and vengeance that hounds the streets of contemporary Israel and Palestine, which after two hours of grounded, credible, elegantly crafted observation comes up with nothing particularly new to say.

35. THE LAST STATION
Leo Tolstoy’s final days presented as a bunch of overqualified British thespians (and an underqualified American one) exchanging exposition in genteel, mannered English peppered with an occasional “Doh-svee-dah-nya” for authenticity. A let-loose Helen Mirren and a grotesque Paul Giamatti scramble over Tolstoy’s heritage: one smashes the furniture, the other chews it up, and it’s never entirely clear why the famed mind struggles so much to pick a side between his adoring if eccentric wife of sixty years and a man portrayed by Giamatti as a malevolent, literally moustache-twirling villain. It’s an atrocious, film-destructing piece of acting. Mirren on the other hand, though she never uncovers hidden layers to her role (since there are none), puts on a solid show to distract you from the shallowness.

36. (500) DAYS OF SUMMER
***
As far as quirky soggy-indie-pop-laced hipster romances go, you could do much worse than this – the leads, at the very least, are likable and engaging. There is a whiff – actually, more of a stench – of self-pity to the script though that leaves an aftertaste.

37. VILLA AMALIA
***

Arty-bourgeois-rediscovery-by-numbers. Isabelle Huppert’s discipline lends it more of a pull than it warrants.

38. DUPLICITY
***
Two warring corporations (each with an irrepressible scenery-chewer at the helm) send Julia Roberts and Clive Owen in smug pursuit of a priceless formula and erotic charge across places like Dubai, Zurich, Rome and New York. Sex never looked so difficult. Someone had the rich idea to surname Roberts' high tech conwoman something that sounds like 'Stanwyck'. Ah, if only...

39. THE MISFORTUNATES
***

One of those ‘my-quirky-traumatic-Euro-upbringing’ stories, handled with a touch more sensitivity than is customary.

40. KILL DADDY GOODNIGHT
**½

The poorly translated title refers to a video game where you do get to kill your own father. It is one of several subplots in this existential somewhat thrill-less Austro-German thriller that also brings up alapasia, inherited guilt, Nazis still in hideout and naturally, the Holocaust. More than anything else, it’s the sheer ambition you admire.

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2009 So Far - Part III

41. THE COVE
**½
A motley crew of activists engage in astonishing and extremely dangerous tactics in this militant exposé of mass profit-motivated dolphin slaughter in rural Japan. Rambling though the film is, and protracted, it’s impossible not to be affected by the cause. And if for some reason you’re resisting, director and star Louie Psihoyos has just the music cue for you (and then some).

42. ANTICHRIST
**½
That von Trier would toy around with genital mutilation or talking animals isn't half as shocking and disconcerting as the fact that in a take on the hysterical dynamic between grief and sex he comes up with absolutely nothing worthwhile to say. Is the triteness perhaps the point? Is it a commentary on contemporary society in the sense that so many of us turn to hollow pop psychologists with ulterior motives only to close up the wound on the outside and leave it festering on the inside? Was the intention for Willem Dafoe to surpass woodenness and achieve a kind of serene ode (or is it blank-eyed verse) to non-acting? Did the fox really need to have his say? Charlotte Gainsbourg on the other hand perhaps deserves some kudos for tackling a joke of a character with such ferocity, heart and commitment. It's uncanny. Despite von Trier's best efforts, she avoids coming off as ridiculous or even pitiable, and throughout the wrench-wielding, clit-slitting shenanigans she remains searingly relatable.

43. LITTLE JOE
**½
An enjoyable, thoroughly pointless look at Joe Dallessandro’s legacy. It deserves credit though for being at least as blunt as it is, despite Dallessandro himself serving as producer and chief interviewee.

44. A TOWN CALLED PANIC
**½
Even at barely 70 minutes length, whatever chuckles you take away from this manic piece of Belgian stop-motion insanity aren’t worth the sheer exhaustion.

45. STAR TREK
**½
The younger, sleeker, plucked and tanned Next Generation. It’s packed with space wars galore, bite-sized wisecracks, funny-looking aliens and Wolverine. Or maybe not. All these Franchise-Reloaded ventures with one cluster of CGI battling another tend to blur.

46. AWAY WE GO
**½
Continuing Sam Mendes’ downward career spiral, this trite dramedy sends a pair of pointedly unglamourous expectant American parents all across the nation and beyond (i.e. Canada) in search of a place to build a home. Along the way, each dreary town plays host to an underused actress reducing herself to a hoarse caricature.

47. LAND OF MADNESS
**½

A sluggish, thoroughly pedestrian documentary that doesn’t warrant any further discussion.

48. THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE
**½
Certainly an inspired idea to tackle the recession from a high class call girl’s point of view. But it’s built around superficial glimpses of a blank heroine and the solipsistic people she encounters.

49. THE SEPTEMBER ISSUE
**½
There are plenty of pretty pictures in this cowering look at Anna Wintour and the fashion industry, but no real reason for it to exist.

50. AN ENGLISHMAN IN NEW YORK
**

A witless, artless Quentin Crisp hagiography that strings together the key events in his last few decades of life with patches of stolid exposition and half-assed apologia for his foolish statements on the AIDS epidemic.

51. THE EXPLODING GIRL
**
Just because it happened to you, that doesn’t mean it’s interesting. (Same goes re: your partner’s Treeless Mountain.)

52. THE MAN WHO CAME IN WITH THE SNOW
*½
I refuse to believe that the great, the masterful Mohsen Makhmalbaf could sink to undergrad-level arthouse cliché (there is a drunken boy with Downs syndrome here slow-dancing with a grotesque whore in a squalid Russian dive).

For my American readers – this is how my Top 20 would read currently, based on American release:

1. A Serious Man

2. The White Ribbon

3. Tulpan

4. Two Lovers

5. The Hurt Locker

6. Broken Embraces

7. Fantastic Mr. Fox

8. Burma VJ: Reporting on a Closed Country

9. Of Time and the City

10. Prodigal Sons

11. Revanche

12. 24 City

13. The Beaches of Agnes

14. You, the Living

15. Hunger

16. Home

17. Avatar

18. In the Loop

19. District 9

20. Julia

The above list may very well have read differently if I’d had a chance to catch Police, Adjective, The Headless Woman and/or Sin Nombre. I’m also yet to watch A Single Man, Precious and Public Enemies, but I doubt I’ll prefer either of them to Prodigal Sons and it’s far from certain that either of them will even out-rank Julia.

In terms of favourite performances, it’s been a funny year so far. I tend to rank my Top 5 lead and supporting performances of each year irrespective of the actor’s gender. I’m not sure if this is another case of my diva worship going overboard, but there isn’t a single male actor in my Top 5 leads so far (bear in mind, I’m yet to catch most of the Best Actor heavy hitters) and only one in my Top 5 supporting (I don’t know how it happened, but Christophe Waltz just did not blow me away). Here is how they stand at the moment:

Best Lead Performance so far:
1. Catalina Saavedra (The Maid)
2. Penelope Cruz (Broken Embraces)
3. Charlotte Gainsbourg (Antichrist)
4. Kim Hye-ja (Mother)
5. Carey Mulligan (An Education)
- Honorary ‘Best Actor so far’: Mark Duplass (Humpday)
- Only the Top 2 are likely to stick around. Of course, if we went by American release, Tilda Swinton would headline this list, and Jeremy Renner, Joaquin Phoenix and Gwyneth Paltrow would duke it out with Kim Hye-ja for the fifth spot.

Best Supporting Performance so far:
1. Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air)
2. Aggeliki Papoulia (Dogtooth)
3. Mary Tsoni (Dogtooth)
4. Alycia Delmore (Humpday)
5. Michael Fassbender (Inglourious Basterds)
- Of these five, only Farmiga is certain to stick around.

Best Cinematography so far:
1. Christian Berger (The White Ribbon)
2. Greig Fraser (Bright Star)
3. Roger Deakins (A Serious Man)
4. Rodrigo Prieto (Broken Embraces)
5. Natasha Brier (The Milk of Sorrow)

Worst Lead Performance so far:
Willem Dafoe (Antichrist)
- Most Uninspired Yet Morbidly Overpraised Lead Performance so far:
George Clooney (Up in the Air)
- If You Have to Nominate the Latter, at Least Reward His Infinitely Worthier Work:
George Clooney (Fantastic Mr. Fox)

Worst Supp. Performance so far:
Paul Giamatti (The Last Station)

To end this post on a positive note though, here are my Top 10 most anticipated 2009 movies to catch in (fingers crossed) 2010:

1. Un Prophete (Audiard)

2. I Killed My Mother (Dolan)

3. Police, Adjective (Porumboiu)

4. Lourdes (Hausner)

5. Wild Grass (Resnais)

6. Soul Kitchen (Akin)

7. Hadewijch (Dumont)

8. Life During Wartime (Solondz)

9. A Single Man (Ford)

10. Collapse (Smith)

Conversely, this is the only year where I have seen 20+ releases of which none has earned a five-star rating. In fact this decade alone, I’ve averaged two five-star films per year (I came across four such gems in 2001 alone). I don’t want to put too much pressure on Mr. Audiard et al, but I will be very sad if none of the above 10 makes a five-star impact (conceivably though, A Serious Man could stand to be bumped up upon a second viewing). When I’ve seen all of them, I might post a revised Top 10. This might not happen until next year...

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