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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