Friday, February 5, 2010

2009 Year in Review: Best Unreleased Films (Watch for Them in 2010)

As we wrap up our look back at 2009 today, be sure to watch out for the following films opening sometime in 2010, or at least getting a DVD release. I saw most of these at the 2009 Toronto Film Festival, and all of them are worth your time, and the top five are great films. I could have added Ian Fitzgibbon’s supremely entertaining British gangster flick Perrier’s Bounty, Gary Yates’ just released Canadian crime comedy High Life or the French film L’Affaire Farewell with a marvelous performance by director Emir Kustrica as well, or the recent Oscar nominee for best foreign language film The Secret of Their Eyes (which I think is better than a few films on this list, but I still want to ensure that the films below get noticed), but there was only room for 10.

10. George A. Romero’s Survival of the Dead (George A. Romero)
In my mind, this is inarguably the least of all of Romero’s zombie films. However, it is still intelligent and stylish – a take on the Western genre (most notably William Wyler’s The Big Country), as a small, island town is torn apart by two warring families who disagree on what to do about the recent zombie outbreak – one family wants to kill all zombies, the others want to “take care of their own”. Romero’s social conscience is on full display here, and there is dynamite performance by Kenneth Walsh. Not as good as the other Romero zombie movies because the performances are weaker, and the screenplay less well thought out – plus after the brilliant reboot that was Diary of the Dead, this is a bit of a letdown. Still, anyone interested in Romero and his zombies needs to see his latest installment.

9. Enter the Void (Gaspar Noe)
Enter the Void is a film that I cannot honestly say I actually liked very much – but it is a film that everyone with an interest in offbeat, mind fuck cinema simply must see. The movie is about a low level American drug dealer living in Tokyo, and his sister, who is working as stripper. The movie is told entirely from the point of view of the brother – literally – we see everything from his point of view, even blinks. When he is killed at the end of the first act, he starts to float above the action, and see everything that goes on beneath him, ending in a wild orgy at a hotel, where all the characters, good and bad, have gathered. At two and half hours, the film is probably an hour too long – and the last act gets fairly ridiculous with all of the trippy “travel” sequences, where the drug dealer will transport from one place to another through lights (or, at one point, an aborted fetus). But you have to hand it to Noe, who follows his story right to the illogical end – which takes place inside his sister vagina during sex. Not a film I would ever want to sit through again, but one I am glad I saw once – and would recommend people interested in this type of thing (all three of you), to watch on the big screen if at all possible.

8. Leaves of Grass (Tim Blake Nelson)
At the present time, I am not sure if Tim Blake Nelson’s film is even going to get a theatrical release – it could go straight to DVD. That would be a shame, because although the movie is a little on the predictable side, it is the best showcase Edward Norton has had for a long time. He plays dual roles as twins from Oklahoma, one who has left and remade himself into a philosophy professor, and the other who never left, and has become the best pot grower in the country. Nelson’s film is part stoner comedy, part crime drama and part philosophical mind trip, all of which is supremely entertaining.

7. The Loved Ones (Sean Bryne)
The winner of the People’s Choice Award for the Midnight Madness program, Sean Bryne’s The Loved Ones is a brutal and unrelenting horror film. Set in Australia it is about a teenager who is drowning himself in drugs following the death of his father, who seems to just be coming out of his downward spiral on prom night with the help of his girlfriend. Not realizing that the shy loner girl he rejected has plans of her own for a memorable prom night. The final is hard core horror at its best – it never devolves into torture porn, yet the violence is purposefully off putting. The performance by Robin McLeavy as the obsessed girl is every bit as creepy and brilliant as Kathy Bates’ Oscar winning turn in Misery. Watch out for this one – something tells me it will end up going straight to video (as horror movies where people talk in accents often do), before the inevitable Hollywood remake.

6. Vincere (Marco Bellochio)
Marco Bellochio was a hero to auteurist critics in the 1960s with his film Fists in the Pocket, then for some reason fell out of vogue for nearly 40 years, despite the fact that he never stopped making movies. His latest film should help to restore his reputation. Set in Italy in early 20th Century, the movie stars Giovanna Mezzogiorno as Ida Dasler, Mussolini’s first wife and mother of his first son, who has all been written out of history. Before WWI, they two are lovers and get married, and she bares him a son. When he returns from the war, his political stock is rising, and he disavows all knowledge of her and her son. She will not let it go, and ends up being put in a mental hospital to try and shut her up. To a certain extent, this is an old fashioned “tortured woman” picture (something Joan Crawford could have done), but rarely have those films been so well made, well acted and well written. Mezzogiorno gives a great performance, as does Filippo Timi as Mussolini (and later as his own son). This one is getting a theatrical release later this spring, so watch out for it.

5. Wild Grass (Alain Resnais)
With the death of Erich Rohmer last week, Resnais remains one of the few surviving French New Wave directors, and is a on an even shorter list of those directors who are still doing interesting work. This film is a wildly ambitious love letter to the movies themselves – a demented romantic comedy about a man who becomes obsessed with the woman whose wallet he finds, and just when she starts coming around, decides that she isn’t so special after all. The movie acrobatic camera work is a marvel to behold, and the movie twists and turns itself around like a pretzel. A marvelous, one of a kind movie from Resnais, and a terrific opportunity for the entire cast to deliver unique performances. A real gem.

4. Life During Wartime (Todd Solondz)
Most critics jumped off the Todd Solondz bandwagon after his critically acclaimed film Happiness in 1998. But I have continued to follow his career with great interest in the years since, as to me, he remains a one of a kind talent, crafting movies that are like moral tests that are impossible to pass. Life During Wartime is a sequel of sorts to Happiness – all the characters are back, they are just played by different people this time around. The cast is a wonder – highlighted by a great turn by Allison Janney as the sister who has no idea who inappropriate she is being, and Paul Reubens, who is perfectly cast as the ghost of Jon Lovitz’s character from the first film. The result is an uncomfortably hilarious, wholly original film that only Solondz could make.

3. Mother (Bong Joon-ho)
Korea is one of the most interesting countries in the world right now for filmmaking, and in my mind Bong Joon-ho is the best director currently working in that country. The three films of his that I have seen – the wonderful police procedural Memories of Murder (trust me, track that masterpiece down), his monster movie The Host and now Mother have marked him for me as one of the best directors in the world. In this film, a young girl is found murdered, and the police suspect that it is the work of the mentally challenged young man from the neighborhood – they drag him in for questioning, and he confesses, but he doesn’t quite seem to know what is going on. The film focuses on his mother (obviously) – a remarkable performance by Kim Hye-ja who is overly devoted to her son, and wants to prove his innocence. This is a marvelous film – part police procedural, part revenge movie, part thriller, part drama, part surrealist movie, Bong combines these elements masterfully. The fact that the Academy had a chance to nominate this film, and didn’t, is yet another reason why the Foreign Language Film category needs to be changed.

2. Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold)
England produced two first rate films in 2009 about a teenage girl falling for an older man – An Education, and this one which I think is far superior, even though I loved An Education. Katie Jarvis is a real find here, playing Mia, a 15 year old high school dropout, who wants to become a professional dancer. When she meets Connor (Michael Fassbender), the latest in her mother’s seemingly never ending string of boyfriends, there is something not quite right in the way he looks at her. Fish Tank is like Catherine Hardwicke’s thirteen, without all the bombast. Instead it is an insightful, powerful film, anchored by two great performances that deals with the issues it presents openly and honestly. A great sophomore film for director Arnold.

1. A Prophet (Jacques Audiard)
There are certain films that key to a director’s career – that one film that kicks it up another notch and shows just how far ahead of everyone else they really are. To be, A Prophet is that film for French director Jacques Audiard. The two films that immediately proceed A Prophet on his resume were the excellent thriller Read My Lips, and the remake of James Toback’s crime film The Beat My Heart Skipped – both quite good. But in A Prophet, he reaches an entirely new level. The film stars Tahar Rahim in a brilliant performance as a young Arab man sent to prison in France for causing trouble during the riots. He doesn’t fit in with the Arabs in jail, or anyone else for that matter. The Corsicans, who run the jail (led by a brilliant Niels Arestrup), reach out to him to have him kill a fellow prisoner they cannot get close to. Thus begins Rahim’s education at the hands of the Corsicans, as he gradually becomes more confident, and more criminal. At two and half hours, Audiard spins his dizzying web of violence and intrigue. It is a masterful film, and would have easily ranked high on my 2009 top ten list had it actually gotten a release this year. As it stands, I will have a tough time choosing who to root for if this, or The White Ribbon, as both got nominated for the foreign language film Oscar this year. A masterpiece.

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