There’s no way to dance around it: 2009 was a pretty dodgy year for movies, in the United States at least. Not many films in my Top 10 + 10 Honorable Mentions this year have the tang of a durable classic, to my way of thinking; certainly none of those to boast any particular mainstream prominence (I’m virtually certain that this is, film for film, the most obscure and artsy year-end list I’ve ever assembled).
I’d rather not dwell on that, though. This is not a moment for bemoaning the terrible state of cinema but for praising those little slips of genius that manage to sneak through in despite of the tedious prestige films and grating blockbusters and manic, anti-funny comedies. Because even as it boasted the worst slate of popcorn blockbusters and the worst collection of Oscar hopefuls for as long as I have been actively noticing such things, there were still some outright flashes of genius flickering here and there for those who knew where to look.
1. The Beaches of Agnès (Agnès Varda)
A cinematic memoir like nothing else I’ve ever seen. The diminutive, insanely charming Varda uses re-enactments, found footage and clips from her own movies to construct the narrative of her 79 years of life, but there is never a single moment when she isn’t fully involved in the present: her film is no mere attempt to nail down facts about the past with ossified nostalgia, but a living, breathing thing. Age has not in the least slowed down Varda’s quicksilver mind, and she is still coming up with new ways to use the grammar of cinema and even the physical film medium itself. And that same vitality she demonstrates in every word and deed makes her film a tribute to being alive. The film could so easily drift off into twee cutesiness, but the simple fact that it comes so close and never falls into that trap is part of what makes it exhilarating; at any rate, I don’t know that I’ve ever walked out of a movie theater feeling so incredibly optimistic about humanity.
2. You, the Living (Roy Andersson)
A desperately bleak series of incredibly funny comic vignettes, Andersson’s fourth feature (or fifth, depending on how exactly you define “feature”) in a career spanning 40 years cannot be said to reinvent the wheel: the basic aesthetic, a series of incredibly long static takes, usually one per scene, is exactly the same as in his marvelous Songs from the Second Floor from 2000. It does, however, perfect this particular wheel, finding an incredible number of ways to ratchet up the bitter comedy to giddy heights, mining comic gold from the essential misery of human experience as only a Scandinavian could do. With razor-sharp compositions so full of details of movement and character that one despairs of ever being able to notice every last grace note, the film more than justifies being compared to Jacques Tati’s masterpiece Play Time; the sole difference is that where Tati pointed out modern life’s absurdity with gentle mockery, Andersson shows neither mercy nor sympathy in his depiction of a world full of the walking dead.
3. In the Loop (Armando Iannucci)
Satire is hard. Too often it slides into juvenile mockery and smugness, neither insightful nor funny; and at any rate in the United States, a truly ruinous tendency towards “balance” means that no mainstream filmmaker can demonstrate the required bloody-mindedness. Thus it does well to cling to the truly brilliant satire when it makes its presence felt, and you’d have to back in time a very long way to find another satire with as much intelligence and savage with as Iannucci’s feature length spin-off of the marvelous television series The Thick of It. Cheekily recapping the run-up to the Iraq invasion of 2003 without ever even hinting at the words “Iraq” or “Bush” or “Blair”, the film is not at all generous or gentle, and that’s why it works: it is caustic and vicious and insanely hilarious, from the rampaging, expletive-laced screenplay to the uncommonly perfect editing and direction that lets the comedy pop. And hey, while we’re at it, great comedy is also rare enough that it can’t hurt to praise it to heaven when it shows up.
4. A Serious Man (Joel Coen & Ethan Coen)
I don’t have the energy to start knocking down the argument that the Coens are misanthropists who delight in lording their superiority over their characters; but this film seemed to attract that criticism as much as any of their movies have since Fargo or Barton Fink. So be it. I saw in this film the surest and most obvious proof yet that deep down the brothers have nothing but affection for their characters; they just have a funny way of showing it. You’ll never convince me that the caricatured depiction of all the side characters, and even the helpless protagonist Larry Gopnik isn’t ultimately taken from real and abiding love, but maybe that’s just the Midwesterner in me: obviously you make pitiless fun out of the people you remember with the most affection. And A Serious Man is an outstandingly Midwestern movie. It’s also sublimely shot and edited, but at this point, noting that a Coen film is formally perfect is like observing that water is wet.
5. Of Time and the City (Terence Davies)
It would make a hell of a double feature with the first film on this list: it too is a memoir-documentary, about the director’s youth in Liverpool, with special emphasis on how both he and the city have changed in the course of more than 60 years. But if The Beaches of Agnès is ultimately a warm tribute to joy and life, Davies’s film is much angrier and more cynical, the work of a man who can’t stop thinking about the roads not taken and the feelings left unfelt, and above all how badly the Church fucked him up. Davies is something of a crabby old man who just wants those damn kids out of their yard; the brilliance of his film lies in how compellingly and persuasively he makes that argument, editing a stunning array of archival footage together with music and the director’s own rich voice reciting the narration in a smooth, deliberately un-emotive way. This montage of the personal and the historical could only possibly be achieved in cinema, and thank God for Davies’s skilled manipulation of the art form’s language: a more probing, personally insightful 72 minutes is hard to find.
6. Coraline (Henry Selick)
There’s not a more labor-intensive cinematic form than stop-motion animation. Full stop. So to see it done is already a privilege, and when it’s done this superbly – at a level of technical accomplishment far above Selick’s The Nightmare Before Christmas – it’s that much harder to resist the pure aesthetic appeal of the thing. Luckily, Coraline also has a pretty marvelous children’s dark fantasy story, adapted from no less a source than Neil Gaiman, which is made all the more magical and enchanting thanks to the top-notch design and animation, bringing the otherworldly wonderland of the film’s most surreal delights and its most uncanny nightmare imagery to spectacularly macabre life. It’s a children’s movie made with all memory of how much fun it was to be scared by strange impossible ideas as a child. And all of this is given an extra glow of genius thanks to the incredible use of 3-D, making this the first and so far only film of the current 3-D wave to use that new tool in a way that specifically deepens the theme and emotions of the movie, rather than just being a spectacle for the sake of it.
7. The Limits of Control (Jim Jarmusch)
Strictly one for the Jarmusch cultists, I believe; although it would help maybe if I knew anybody else who’d seen the film, so we could compare notes. This one pretty much shot right under the radar. But it is unquestionably weird and frustrating in a lot of ways: a structural exercise before it is anything else, drifting from one observation about politics, cinema, morality, to another. It is best to think of it as a collection of shorts than a feature, maybe; each short is the conversation that Isaach De Bankolé’s stunningly opaque hitman has with one cameoing star or another (Tilda Swinton is the best and most memorable). If it has a “point”, I still cannot say with assurance what that might be; but perhaps it is meant to do nothing other than evoke how the mind wanders when force to just sit and wait. At any rate, it is a film unusually full of images and lines and sounds that have clung to me, which is usually my best method for judging whether a film is effective – a more important quality than being “good” any day.
8. Up (Pete Docter)
The worst Pixar film in three years is… still a Pixar film. And like WALL-E, which was never going to be able to do something so terrible in its last third to squander that perfect 10 after the immaculate opening sequence, so could Up hardly hope to fail out of my highest esteem once it had introduced me to the magnificent, insanely lovable Dug, the best movie character of 2009: an animated canine whose essential dogginess leads to some of the funniest and most poignant movie in a film that probably has the most rigorous emotional gauntlet of any Pixar film since I don’t know when. I have seen it six times now, and every single time I have to fight tears when the geriatric Carl Fredricksen finds the last note from his dead wife; and I’ve given up fighting in the delicate opening montage, set to a haunting and perfect waltz composed by Michael Giacchino. Sometimes you just have to love the hell out of a movie that can make you cry, especially when it’s also a successful adventure-comedy.
9. Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas)
The most stereotypical of French art house narratives: a set of siblings disintegrating under the strain of having to keep their family intact. And yet it is given rich, haunting life by Assayas, one of French cinema’s most important treasures. In his hands, this story reaches close to the heights of the Chekhov plays he claimed as an influence; and the hints of Jean Renoir’s style leave little doubt that Assayas is operating in an unusually humanistic mode, revealing characters’ faults and fears with the lightest touch, creating a movie that despite a completely sober and serious plot never becomes any more demanding than the pleasant, relaxed warmth implied by its title. It is a film that is not at all about one grand plot, but the accumulation of tiny, significant moments, presented by Assayas, cinematographer Eric Gautier and editor Luc Barnier with a gentle but firm leading hand. With the help of a top-to-bottom outstanding cast, the film is easily the most moving story of people just being people that I saw all year.
10. Duplicity (Tony Gilroy)
Having gotten that pesky respectability out of his system with Michael Clayton, Gilroy was able to turn his attention to the much more serious business of making a crafty & smart thriller for adults that sits hand-in-hand with a sparkling dark romantic comedy. In both cases, the film’s successes relies not just on the director’s sure handed treatment of his excellent screenplay, but also on Julia Roberts and Clive Owen, and their playful, sexy treatment of the characters, using their movie star personae like daggers. I suppose you could write all this off as nothing but a really high-gloss entertainment; but why would you want to? Old-school studio-style entertainments that are generally entertaining are pretty thin on the ground, and a film this refreshingly grown-up – it draws equally from the conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s and the early screwball comedies of the 1930s, two of the most sophisticated genres in Hollywood history – is rarer still. Anyway, I’m always going to find room in my heart for a love story that’s predicated on the central romantic pair getting off by lying to one another.
(500) Days of Summer
Anvil! The Story of Anvil
The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans
The Girlfriend Experience
Super Top Double Secret Extra Honorable Mention for a Film That Made Me Profoundly Happy, Though I Could Not in Good Faith Put It in the Top 20
The Princess and the Frog
The “I Wanted To So Bad” Award For Movie I Just Couldn’t Love
The Hurt Locker, which is really a darn well-made war picture, and if I had just five more honorable mentions it would have been one of them, but I just can’t bring myself to adore it as much as everybody else seems to.
It was my great fortune to miss out on most of the worst of the worst bad comedies this year; the terrible economy and my thin pocketbook finally doing something good for me. But even as I lack the context for a proper worst-of, I think these five still manage to do pretty bad things to the art of cinema.
5. Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian
Replaces the mediocre family-film idiocy of the first movie with aggressive and vicious stupidity: about history, about filmmaking, about comic timing. The plot is nothing but a roaring ping-pong game of one under-thought, over-baked setpiece coming after the next, surrounded by terrible dialogue that makes you stupider just for being part of the species that wrote it. Then there’s the horrid sight of Amy Adams and Hank Azaria foundering in the script, and giving the worst performances of their careers. A kid’s movie, they call it; child abuse, I say.
4. Underworld: Rise of the Lycans
Not merely dramatising an event than the series’ fans already know about, but dramatising an event that was already dramatised in the first Underworld, a shoddy vampire/werewolf love story that looks like Noël Coward compared to this miserable, cheap affair, which essentially re-makes the first film’s plot without that film’s one saving grace: Kate Beckinsale in a leather catsuit. That even an Underworld fanboy could eke any pleasure from any of this strikes me as impossible to credit.
3. G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra
That fine crap-slinger Stephen Sommers manages to just about bottom-out with a film that remakes a cartoon based on a toy line, and ends up with the narrative complexity and character development of neither. Too lead-footed to make me as angry as the bottom film on this list, it still typifies every one of the worst habits of studio tentpoles – unconvincing CGI sets exploding, hideous quips that stand in for characters, shockingly bad performances by decent actors – and not a one of the good habits.
2. Year One
I gave it a 2/10 when I reviewed it. I don’t quite know why: maybe because the camera never fell over during any of the shots. But, you see, there is one and only one thing a comedy has to do: be funny. Plenty of aesthetically awkward films are classics or masterpieces, just because they’re funny. And Year One isn’t funny. It is maybe the least-funny movie I’ve ever seen in a theater, and I saw Good Luck Chuck in a theater.
1. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
Not just the worst of the year: this film will be high in the running if I ever get around to compiling a list of the worst of the decade, and just maybe the worst of all time. Michael Bay has never had tremendous respect for the artform, but I was massively unprepared for just how sadistic and vile he could be. Transformers 2 is ugly as shit, finds ways to be racist despite a cast made up largely of CGI robots, depicts women in the most reductive ways possible – and these are not its bad points. Far, far worse is the callous way that the film disposes of the basic tenets of cinematic literacy: fight scenes are assembled with such chaos and indifference that it is nearly impossible to tell what is going on, or to care. It is a screaming howl of noise and shiny, sharp objects, and it is the farthest thing from pleasurable, in any possible definition of that word, that i have experience in ages. Six months have not dimmed my hatred one bit, and that alone speaks terrible things about just how rancid it is.
Most Overrated, Popcorn Edition
Aside from my probably overblown hatred of the cinematography – but oh, how very much I hate it – a few other points: the noble but pointless attempt to work the film back into established Star Trek continuity, rather than just let it sit alone as a reboot, ends up in a time travel plot much more convoluted than it needs to be; Chris Pine’s performance and the role as written make James T. Kirk an absolutely loathsome shitheel; the side characters are given even less definition than on the TV show; it’s visually busy in ways that I find irritating rather than exciting; the whole second half is a bundle of contrivances meant to propel the story along rather than make any particular sense.
Most Overrated, “Serious” Film Edition
Depends on the buzz of the moment, as this might well be the most thoroughly overrated Oscar season since I’ve been paying attention to such things. But I am generally content to give this particular honor to the socially irresponsible and aesthetically pedestrian “not being in love is evil” screed Up in the Air, well on its way to a Best Picture nomination and – who knows? – maybe the win.
I don’t, customarily, give this title to a film that’s already on my top 10. But I think it’s worth reiterating what a crafty, clever, sparking grown-up thriller/comedy this is, particularly in light of the terrible, terrible lesson – “don’t make films for adults” – that the studios took from its box office failure.
Screener shows up, it looks like a routine post-Tarantino “tough guy is tough” biopic. Pop the DVD in, and poof! there’s a fascinating and tricky exploration of a man who cannot possibly be known or fathomed, presented by director Nicolas Winding Refn with a showman’s brio: one of the most tightly controlled movies of the year, with its theatrical framing device and endless chain of effortlessly precise compositions.
Even as I knew going into it that Brüno is simply not as good a character as Borat Sagdiyev (given his own feature in 2006), it still seemed reasonable to hope that Sacha Baron Cohen’s newest guerilla-satire documentary would have some interesting and telling insights about American homophobia and puritanical feelings towards sex. Instead, it was mostly concerned with poking fun at American celebrity culture – a target worthy of derision, but a target as wide as two barns pushed together. Only the “Baby Nazi” sequence managed to to anything remotely as valuable as the first film.
Best Popcorn Movie
“Popcorn” in every sense: it looks more stunning and opulent than anything else released in theaters all year, and it has a story that a five-year-old could have written on a cocktail napkin. Hell, even the fact that it plainly isn’t going to hold up whatsoever on television – not even a tiny bit – adds to its popcorn movie cred: you better damn well see it in theaters, because the Experience of the thing isn’t ever going to be repeatable once it’s gone.
Such a bad, bad film. And such trashy delight. Its stupidity is rather more charming than annoying, particularly in the dear, darling way that Roland Emmerich seems to conclude that ending all of the world wasn’t enough: he still has to send the Save Humanity Boat rushing towards the peak of Mount Everest for one last obviously non-threatening climax in a movie that is already indefensibly bloated at 158 minutes. It is gaudy as could be, and shameless, and it is a potent reminder of how sad it is that those two things are found in such limited supply.
Film That Will Least Deserve My Positive Review a Decade Hence
After inexplicably giving a phantom “Clint Eastwood Point” to make a 7/10 review boast an 8/10 score, I began to suspect that, notwithstanding its customary formal elegance, this is definitely not one of the director’s films that I’ll be returning to all that often.
Film That Will Least Deserve My Negative Review a Decade Hence
None of them. It was a shitty year and I stand behind each and every pan, rant, cautious dismissal and scant measure of tepid praise that I handed out.
The story of the goy’s teeth in A Serious Man. Perhaps the best-cut sequence the Coen brothers have ever put together, a collage of canted angles, shifting perspectives, and a weirdly compelling story with a nihilistic corker of a punchline.
From Zack Snyder’s Watchmen:
The soundtrack played that sacred chord,
Nite Owl brought the girl on board,
And gave a look that said “I’m gonna do ya”.
What happened then was really weird,
They made out in their fetish gear,
And fucked to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”.
“I was hiding under your porch because I love you.”
-Dug (Bob Peterson), Up
“A German soldier conducts a search of a house suspected of hiding Jews. Where does the hawk look? He looks in the barn, he looks in the attic, he looks in the cellar, he looks everywhere he would hide, but there’s so many places it would never occur to a hawk to hide. However, the reason the Führer’s brought me off my Alps in Austria and placed me in French cow country today is because it does occur to me. Because I’m aware what tremendous feats human beings are capable of once they abandon dignity. ”
-Col. Landa (Christoph Waltz), Inglourious Basterds
Most Awesomely Stupid Line
“Remembering is what makes us survive. But sometimes, we survive by forgetting.”
-Dr. Silberling (Dean Paul Gibson), The Uninvited
The Girlfriend Experience
Besides the awesome tagline (“See it with someone you ****”), how can you not be drawn in by the almost Pop Art quality of those multi-colored dots, which almost but don’t quite seem to be drawing together into a shape, and which almost obscure the face beneath. Or maybe it’s the other way ’round, first you notice Sasha Grey and her suggestively-open mouth (she is a porn star), and then start to be aware of the dots… at any rate, it’s a great poster for just looking at it and letting the details hit. What better purpose can any poster serve?
There’s this black smeary thing and it’s moving some direction into a white shape; but if they’d wanted to fully evoke the experience of watching the movie, they should have added some giant cocksucking lens flares.
Poster That Loses the Most as a Computer Image
The Final Destination
Worst Use of Text on a Poster
Even ignoring that Unbelievable is not the title of The Informant!, there’s just no excusing that many hyphens in one word.
Poster with the Least Shame
A Serious Man (YouTube, QuickTime)
I’m totally a sucker for anything that uses repeated sounds musically, so I loved this one even before I had a clue what the movie was about. So it’s just a special bonus that, as it turns out, the film and the trailer are much the same: trapping a sad, scared man in a formal box that he can’t escape. Also, Jefferson Airplane.
Biggest Ripoff Trailer
In the Loop (YouTube, QuickTime),
of A Clockwork Orange (YouTube)
It’s one thing to have the flashing title cards crop up so fast that you can barely read them. But that and the William Tell overture?
The Hurt Locker
Title Whose Conspicuous and Deliberate Misspelling Still Confuses Me
The “Too Much Information” Award for Most Overly-Descriptive Subtitle
Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire
Best Film I Saw for the First Time in 2009
No contest. You know how every so often, you see something that fundamentally changes everything you know about how movies work? That was me and a crystal clear 35mm print of Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.