Tuesday, January 26, 2010

2009 Year in Review: The Top Ten

The best of the best. The ten best films of the year, and the ones that for me will define 2009 in terms of cinema. All of them are must sees as they will provide you with a lot to talk and think about.

10. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (Werner Herzog)
Werner Herzog has finally found another actor as willing as Klaus Kinski to go batshit insane for him in a movie. I have no idea why it took Nicolas Cage and Herzog so long to team up, but I certainly hope they make more films like this pitch black comedy in the future. A remake, pretty much in name only, of Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant, this film follows Nicolas Cage’s Terrance McDonagh a New Orleans police officer who injures his back in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He starts taking Vicodin to kill the pain in his back, and then he starts taking any other drug he can get his hands on. His girlfriend (Eva Mendes) is a prostitute, and he sometimes beats her johns down for money and drugs. He hangs outside of nightclubs and catches kids with drugs, and blackmails the girls into having sex with him as their boyfriends watch instead of taking them to jail. He is assigned a case of a murder of an entire immigrant family that he knows was drug related. But he doesn’t really care about any of it. His life is spiraling out of control, and he is lost in his own moral black hole. But the thing about Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans is that it is a black comedy. Cage hilariously goes on drug fueled rants about iguanas, beats up old ladies; his voice becomes increasingly high and pinched. Cage dives headlong into his role, and delivers the type of performance that we almost never see in the movies. Yes, he goes over the top, but every note he hits is perfect for the movie. Herzog’s camera captures the contradictions in post-Katrina New Orleans, the high rises and the ravaged neighborhoods. This is Herzog’s best non-documentary movie in decades, and one of the gloriously demented movies I have ever seen.

9. District 9 (Neill Blomkamp)
2009 was a very strong year for science fiction films, and District 9 was easily the best of the lot. The movie begins as a shaky camera, documentary style examination of the alien race (known derogatorily as prawns) whose ship stalled out above South African. In the decades since their arrival, they have been shoved into shanty towns, and treated poorly. Sharlto Copley stars as the unprepared government bureaucrat who has to go in and inform the aliens that they are being evicted and moved to another area to try and relieve tensions. These opening scenes flash between humor (Copley’s inept attempts at conversation), and social commentary – it is impossible not to look at the South Africa director Neil Blomkamp evokes and not think of apartheid. Things start to unravel for Copley as he gets infected, and slowly starts to become one of the prawns. His fear becomes real and he starts to rely on one “prawn” in particular for survival, and the two team up to try and find what they need. The last act of the film is virtuoso action filmmaking at its best – bloody as hell, but extraordinarily entertaining. Blomkamp’s film uses special effects to huge advantage here, but he uses them to support, not replace his story. This is intelligent science fiction, great action movie direction and over all one of the best, most exciting films of the year.

8. Antichrist (Lars von Trier)
Lars von Trier likes to shock his audiences, and Antichrist may just be his most shocking film to date. It opens with a couple fucking (and that’s the only world to describe it) in slow motion, gorgeous black and white photography, as their baby in the next room wonders slowly toward the window, and then crashes out of it, falling to its death on the snow covered sidewalk below. The couple, Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, has vastly different reactions to their infant’s death. She spirals downward into despair, and he devotes all of his energy into curing her, eventually taking her to their cabin in the forest of Eden. The film is essentially the Book of Genesis in reverse, as these two represent Adam and Eve in a world created by Satan instead of God. The pain they inflict on each other, him emotionally, and finally her physically, is immense and tough to take. They live in a world without kindness or love, but just pain and hate. Dafoe is perfect as the egotistical man who believes he can cure her. But it is Gainsbourg, in one of the most fearless performances of the year is truly brilliant. By the time she has had enough of the pain he inflicts on her, and snaps crushing his testicles with a block of wood, then furiously trying to make it better, before punishing herself by cutting off her own clit, she has lost it completely, and Antichrist has transformed itself into some sort of demented horror film. Antichrist is not an easy film to watch, nor should it be. Some, perhaps most, will find it almost unbearable, but it is the film this year that provides the most material to chew over and debate as you walk out of the theater. If you can handle the film, then you will find that it is one of the best, most interesting films of the year.

7. Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson)
It was only a matter of time before Wes Anderson gave into his obsession and made an animated film. In a way, he has been building towards it his entire career. Fantastic Mr. Fox is a brilliant realization of Anderson’s unique vision. Despite the fact that it is an animated film about taking animals, aimed at a children, it is still an Anderson film through and through. His concentration of the visual elements, the strange art direction, and costume design, the unique look of his characters in stop motion animation, the way their fur ruffles in the wind, their unique movements and the pop infused soundtrack (along with the great score by Alexandre Desplat) are all elements that come straight from his live action films. Yet, it’s the story, and yes, the real emotions, involved in the film that makes the film work wonderfully well. George Clooney gives the best vocal performance of the year as Mr. Fox, who is not very different from fathers of Anderson films past like The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic. He is distant from his own son, and he lies to his family in order to get what he wants. There is a scene of immense emotional pain in the film when his wife Meryl Streep scratches his face, and tells him that she never should have married him. Critics always concentrate on the terrific, very specific visual look of Anderson’s film, while almost willfully overlooking its content. His families are dysfunctional, yet love each other in their own way. Fantastic Mr. Fox is more than just a clever, hilarious animated film; it is also perhaps the best portrait of family life of the year.

6. Up (Pete Docter)
Perhaps the most consistent creative force in American movies for the last decade and a half has been Pixar, who makes brilliant animated films that look better than anyone else’s movies, and also always concentrate as much on storytelling as it does on the visuals. Their films are intelligent and touching, without pandering. Up opens with one of the very best sequences of the year - a montage that shows the life that Carl Frederickson (Ed Asner), and his wife shared right up until her death. It is a life full of love, but also of dashed hopes and dreams. Now alone, Carl simply wants to stay in his home and be left alone, but he is being forced from it. So, he decides to attach thousands of helium balloons to his house, and relocates it to Paradise Falls, in South America, the place that his wife always dreamed of going. What he doesn’t count on is an emotionally needy and very enthusiastic boy scout named Russell tagging along with him. At first Russell annoys him, but soon he breaks through his hardened exterior. The film starts off as an emotional drama, moves into an exotic adventure, and then becomes a thrilling action film in the final act. All of this is handled expertly by director Pete Docter, who never loses sight of his characters in his attempt to make a visually dazzling experience. Up will make you laugh, cry and cling to the edge of your seat. It is one of Pixar’s greatest achievements.

5. The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow)
Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker is the best film yet about the war in Iraq, and one of the best war movies of the decade. It is an almost unbearably intense movie going experience where one scene after another has us gripping the edge of your seat. Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty are a team of bomb specialists who are called whenever there is a suspected IED on the side of the road. There job is literally one where split seconds and millimeters could cause death. Renner is amazing, finally making people see his immense talent that he has displayed in every role since his breakout in the title role in Dahmer (2002). His is addicted to danger, and gets off on it, and needs a constant feed of the adrenaline provided by his job. As the movie progresses, he takes bigger and bigger risks to get off. But the real star of the movie is director Bigelow, who stages one jittery, dangerous, intense sequence after another. She is a director who has always been drawn to action movies, and the fragility of the masculine ego, and in The Hurt Locker she has created the best feature of her career. If she does become the first woman to ever win the best director Oscar, it will be well deserved.

4. Where the Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze)
Where the Wild Things Are is one of the best movies I have ever seen about what a confused state that being a child really is. Max, played brilliantly by Max Records, is a kid on the verge of adolescence, with no real friends and the product of a broken home, where the father is never around, and the mother is slowly moving back into her own life. Max tries to cling to his mother, and his older sister, but finds that he cannot hold onto them. One night, after a particularly nasty fight, he runs off into the cold winter night, and ends up in a world of his own imagination where he is king of the wild things, all of which represent a different part of his own mind. Carol (James Gandolfini, delivering a complex vocal performance) is the destructive force he holds inside, and has the same fears of abandonment he has. In Judith and Ira (Catherine O’Hara and Forrest Whitaker), he sees the type of committed, complex relationship he wishes his parents had. Douglas (Chris Cooper) is the type of ever loyal best friend he never had. KW (Lauren Ambrose) is the type of loving big sister he wishes was his was. And Alexander (Paul Dano) is the weakness in him that he hates. (Okay, I’ll admit I have trouble figuring out what The Bull represents). Every scene in Where the Wild Things Are is linked to Max’s mind, and the complex world he creates for himself is similar to the ones that all children create. Working off of Maurice Sendak’s brilliant book, Spike Jonze has created a masterpiece on the inner workings of a child’s imagination. Audiences were understandably confused, as this really isn’t a children’s movie - but rather a movie about childhood.

3. The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke)
Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon takes place just before the outbreak of WWI in a small German town that seems to be isolated from the rest of the world. The adults in the movie subject their children to a strict, absolutist moral upbringing, and then seem to be shocked when kids turn on them, applying the same moral code to their parents. The movie is about the danger of raising children in an absolutist environment. In doing so, Haneke implies that kids grow up to be able to become Nazis or Islamic terrorists. The film is huge in its scope. It feels like it based on an epic novel of the past, but it is Haneke’s own workings. Strange events open the film, as adults are attacked - killed, maimed whatever, but perpetrators that are unknown. Like the videos in Cache, this is simply a setup, a way to get us involved in the story. The film concentrates on five families - all of which are ruled by a patriarch defined by what they do. The most prominent one is the minister, who makes his daughters wear white ribbons in their hair to represent purity and innocence. But the adults do not live based on the same code that they force their children to, and they strike back. Haneke’s direction is masterful. Shot in brilliant, stark black and white by Christian Berger, the film is full of memorable images - a sequence where a child comes downstairs in the dark and sees things he doesn’t understand. The minister’s prized bird crucified with a pair of scissors. This is one of Haneke’s masterpieces - a troubling, dark, epic film that speaks to humanity at its darkest.

2. A Serious Man (Joel & Ethan Coen)
The big knock on the Coen brothers has always been that they are too emotionally detached from their films (a criticism that I have never shared, but at least understood). What is surprising about A Serious Man is how invested they are in their film, and its characters. The film opens with a brilliant sequence in Yiddish that tells the story of inviting a dyybuk, or demon, into your house, before it moves onto the main story of the movie involving Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a Jewish Physics professor in 1967 Minnesota whose life crashes down around him, and sends him into a moral and religious spiral. His wife is leaving him for his friend - the new age philosophy spouting Fred Melamed who is so calm and reasonable as he insults you to your face that you want to punch him. His career is in jeopardy - he is on the verge of tenure, but someone is writing disparaging letters about him to the board, and a student is trying to bribe him to give him a better grade. His brother (Richard Kind), has some sort of mental defect, and spends his time trying to come up with mathematical ways to win at cards, and draining his cyst. His kids treat him like a cash machine or a TV repair man. He goes on a spiritual journey, talking to one useless rabbi after another. The film is like the Book of Job visited upon this man, as he faces one moral test after another, and as he struggles to do the right thing time after time, he becomes more and more lost in the moral void. He makes one bad decision at the end of the movie - one lapse of moral judgment, and it just may bring about a very American apocalypse. A Serious Man is perhaps the most serious of all of the Coen brothers’ films - the one that searches for moral and religious understanding and insight. One that questions our place in the world. It is among the best films the brothers have ever made - and an utter, one of a kind masterpiece.

1. Inglorious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino)
There has never been a filmmaker quite like Quentin Tarantino. He takes all that has come before in cinematic history, twists it all up in his warped little mind and comes up with something completely original and different. Inglorious Basterds opens with the best sequence of the year as Nazi Hans Landa (Christophe Waltz) shows up at a French farm where he is told that a family of Jews is hiding. Landa plays word games with the farmer, switching back and forth between German, French and English, whipping out his giant pipe, and toying with him. The film has a great Hitchcockian reveal of the Jewish family beneath the floorboards, before the massacre begins. From there, Tarantino spins together one great, extended sequence after another. A group of American Jewish soldiers led by Brad Pitt who have parachuted into France with the express mission of killing and scalping any Nazi they come across. A German actress and double agent (Diane Kruger) teaming up with a British spy (Michael Fassbender) to try and infiltrate a movie premiere thrown by Melanie Laurent, the lone survivor of the massacre that opened that film, who plans on getting her revenge. Tarantino’s film is about the power of cinema to change perceptions and the complexity of language. It is also the most gloriously demented alternate history movie in history, climaxing at the premiere where the Jews kill Hitler as the theater burns to the ground. Tarantino’s film is the best of his career, his most inventive, fun, original, and funny - brilliantly made and structured film. The final quote of the film, where Pitt looks into the camera and says “You know, I think this could be my masterpiece” could well me Tarantino winking at the audience. And while there is no modesty there, he isn’t wrong.

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