Just in time for That One Awards Show, I present my own picks for the best of everything of the last year in cinema. The nominees were originally announced here. The winners are marked thus.
In the Loop
The Limits of Control
A Serious Man
You, the Living
I’ve written enough about all five of these films in the last couple months (year-in-review, decade-in-review), so let me run just through the bullet points: a gorgeous stop-motion fairy tale that re-wrote the book on 3-D; the nastiest, funniest satire in a generation; a nervy, hyper-intellectual breakdown of cinematic form; a gorgeous dark comedy about human suffering in the face of religion; and my winner, a terrifically dry series of absurd tableaux that cumulatively depict a vision of humanity at its most washed-out and its most wearily optimistic.
Roy Andersson, You, the Living
Olivier Assayas, Summer Hours
Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, A Serious Man
Henry Selick, Coraline
Agnès Varda, The Beaches of Agnès
Andersson re-captured the spirit of his earlier masterpiece Songs from the Second Floor, and bettered it, with a series of intensely controlled frames that deserve that lovelist of all adjectives: “Tati-esque”. The Coens indulged in some intense control all their own, like Andersson not fundamentally changing anything that they can’t do in their sleep, but doing it about as well as they ever have done. Selick is here mostly for the brilliant ideas he brought to the already-stale world of 3-D animation; not to mention his creation of one of the most beautiful and original fantasy worlds in memory. And Varda deserves no end of praise for the way that she deconstructs and rebuilds film language before our very eyes, in the pursuit of that elusive beast, “memory”. But best of all them, to my mind (though I couldn’t be bothered to call his film one of the five best of the year), is Assayas, demonstrating once again that there doesn’t seem to be anything he can’t do; here he liberally quotes from the master French filmmaker Jean Renoir in a well-tuned family drama that uses the camera with the rarest grace, including a final crane shot whose perfect timing and narrative implication is almost enough to make you cry.
Nicolas Cage, The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans
Sam Rockwell, Moon
Souléymane Sy Savané, Goodbye Solo
Toni Servillo, Il divo
Ben Whishaw, Bright Star
Cage and Rockwell give two very different portrayals of a man sliding into insanity; both rank among the respective actor’s best work ever. On the far opposite side, Savané is all quiet stability and thrilling optimism, the very essence of life and peace. Whishaw is off doing something completely by himself, giving a subtle and wonderfully internal performance that seems deeper every time you see the film; but such delicacy is not much in favor with tastemakers. Anyway, none of them can stand up to the single best performance I saw in a theater in 2009: Servillo’s embodiment of a grotesque power-monger, a role that could easily be played to the rafters, but is instead hushed and even bored, a collection of the tiniest details of movement and vocal inflection that builds to one of the most altogether memorable characters of the year.
Hiam Abbass, Lemon Tree
Abbie Cornish, Bright Star
Yolande Moreau, Séraphine
Gabourey Sidibe, Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire
Tilda Swinton, Julia
To Abbass, Cornish, and Sidibe: thanks for playing, but despite three wonderful performances (Cornish’s remarkably fresh and unfussy depiction of tortured romance, Sidibe’s outstanding debut as a mumbling soul in hellish amounts of pain, and Abbass as… Abbass, basically, but she’s so effing good all of the time that I’ll spot her this one), this one was always down to two choices: Swinton’s career-best performance as a self-immolating force of nature, or Moreau’s portrayal of a shy artist’s invisible slide into insanity. It’s virtually impossible to compare them, so absolutely different are the actresses’ emotional registers; but Swinton terrifies me, while Moreau makes me weep, and I am perhaps not unlike an Oscar voter preferring the latter.
Best Supporting Actor
Peter Capaldi, In the Loop
Zach Galifianakis, The Hangover
Paul Schneider, Bright Star
Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds
Red West, Goodbye Solo
Two antithetical comic performances: Galifianakis is the single ray of sweetness and humanity in The Hangover‘s raunchy pile-up, while Capaldi is the most acerbic and casually vicious player in a movie full of nasty wit. Schneider’s performance is the most visibly “acted” in his movie, but it contrasts perfectly against his two co-stars and gives an extra bite to its tragic end; West similarly plays a contrast against his lead, showcasing all the emptiness and pain of old age without begging for our sympathy. But none of them are Waltz, playing a joyous Nazi with such monstrous élan that the whole movie sags dramatically whenever he’s offscreen.
Best Supporting Actress
Rona Lipaz-Michael, Lemon Tree
Mo’Nique, Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire
Samantha Morton, The Messenger
Marife Necesito, Mammoth
Maribel Verdú, Tetro
Mo’Nique is, of course, outstanding: especially in that final monologue, which shouldn’t be even remotely playable except for the actress’ whole-body commitment to the moment. I almost even gave her the nod, except that I’ve been waiting for years for Verdú to have another role that would let her shine like she did in Y tu mamá también, and it finally came in Francis Ford Coppola’s strangely under-seen feature: as the sole anchor of normalcy caught in between two angry brothers, she is the rock on which the whole film sits. Of the other three, Lipaz-Michael pulls dramatic and emotional possibilities out of a mostly functional role and holds her own against the mighty Hiam Abbass, Morton continues to prove that she has the most expressive face in cinema, and Necesito gives a much-needed shot of human suffering to a film that sometimes takes the wrong turn into bathos.
In the Loop
The Limits of Control
A Serious Man
Proof that stars aren’t the only people who can act in movies, A Serious Man‘s mostly unknown cast takes to the Coens’ dialogue like they were born to it, and everyone from leading man Michael Stuhlbarg to the slightest extra makes an instant impression. The folks of In the Loop nail that screenplay’s bitter comedy to a T, while most – though certainly not all – of the Basterds team manages to navigate Tarantino’s wordiness without sacrificing their humanity in the process. In Summer Hours, some of the best French actors in the game demonstrate just why we love them. The Limits of Control is something of the odd man out, playing mostly as a series of vague cameos, but somehow, every single person, famous or not, manages to find what is essential about their scene and bring it home.
Best Original Screenplay
(500) Days of Summer, by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber
Duplicity, by Tony Gilroy
A Serious Man, by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
Summer Hours, by Olivier Assayas
Up, by Bob Peterson and Pete Docter
Three takes on romance: Gilroy’s twisty procedural is a fun mind game that ends up having some real emotional heft to it; it’s like a ’30s screwball with a shot of kinky sex. The (500) Days boys use an arch distancing effect to separate us from the miserable protagonist, and then proceed to document with clinical perfection all the ways that young males fool themselves about love. And the specter of a lost wife is over every line in Up, which is both the funniest and saddest of all Pixar movies. Summer Hours, meanwhile, is just a staggeringly good analysis of family dynamics. But none of them can match the Coens’ depiction of a world of suffering, done up as a giant cosmic joke instead of a tragedy, and peopled with some of the best-observed characters in the brothers’ career.
Best Adapted Screenplay
Coraline, by Henry Selick
Fantastic Mr. Fox, by Wes Anderson & Noah Baumbach
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, by Steve Kloves
In the Loop, by Jesse Armstrong & Simon Blackwell & Armando Iannucci & Ian Martin & Tony Roche
The Informant!, by Scott Z. Burns
Okay, so Harry Potter is here mostly because I had a hard time coming up with five legitimate nominees. I am sorry – it’s pretty darn good until the last quarter or so, though, when it kicks into overdrive and starts relying on the original book to fill in the gaps. All the others are really good stuff: Coraline and Fantastic Mr. Fox finding two very different ways to expand two classic children’s stories, and The Informant! giving us a really smart, discomfiting character study that makes excellent use out of the protagonist’s inability to be honest with himself or us. But In the Loop, a spin-off of the great sitcom The Thick of It, is simply the smartest screenplay of the year, even the last couple of years, a savage attack on modern politics with a hilarious acid tongue.
Best Animated Feature
Fantastic Mr. Fox
The Princess and the Frog
A Town Called Panic
Fantastic Mr. Fox looked fascinating and had itself a pretty swell screenplay; but it’s a bit fussy and quirky. The Princess and the Frog brought traditional Disney animation back in grand style; but then, Disney animation has its own set of limitations. A Town Called Panic is hilariously crude, but it would be much the same film with half the running time. Up is heavenly, but wanders just a bit in the third act, and it’s at any rate not as good as the last couple of Pixar films. About Coraline, a gorgeous stop-motion film with a gleefully black modern fairy tale story, I can say not one bad thing.
Best Foreign-Language Feature
35 Shots of Rum
You, the Living
A formally precise study of a disintegrating family; a prose opera about wicked politician; a motionless story concerning the interaction of politics and language, and another formally precise study of a disintegrating family, but one that’s a lot more user-friendly. A nice, diverse spread, I do declare; but it’s no surprise that the best of the year would be the best film here, and for much the same reason. The whole world is in that film, if you look for it.
Best Documentary Feature
Anvil! The Story of Anvil
The Beaches of Agnès
Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country
Of Time and the City
Ranging in seriousness from a comic rock & roll character study to a bit of agitprop against the capitalist underpinnings of the American food industry, with a fascinating and distressing investigative report about a fascist government positioning itself as the most urgent, it’s going to surprise nobody who reads this blog regularly that my favorite was Varda’s autobiography, a film that taught me more about human life than anything else I saw in 2009.
Coraline (Peter Kozachik)
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Bruno Delbonnel)
Nine (Dion Beebe)
A Serious Man (Roger Deakins)
Where the Wild Things Are (Lance Acord)
Delbonnel and Beebe are here mostly for making absolutely beautiful works of visual art; based in autumnal colors in the first case, and the careful application of light in the second. Kozachick gets tech-nerd points for shooting the most ambitious 3-D movie yet made, and doing it without ever once making it look hard. Deakins is Deakins: his work with the Coens is deservedly the stuff of legends, and while his latest isn’t a No Country or a Fargo, it’s hard to imagine how you could improve on one single frame. But the best of the year to my eyes, no contest, was Acord’s bittersweet soft focus and unconventional lighting used to give a child’s dreamscape that extra gloss of the lovely and uncanny.
Duplicity (John Gilroy)
Goodbye Solo (Ramin Bahrani)
The Limits of Control (Jay Rabinowitz)
Of Time and the City (Liza Ryan-Carter)
A Serious Man (Joel Coen & Ethan Coen AKA “Roderick Jaynes”)
The “goy’s teeth” sequence is one of the best-edited bits of cinema that I’ve ever seen. Ever. And even beyond that, the Coens are consistently at least as good in the editing room as they are behind the camera, and A Serious Man might be the tightest film they’ve ever cut. Which is not to slight the other four, ranging from the snazzy and fun (Gilroy) to the invisible and emotionally potent (Bahrani), to the icy, precise, and sharp (Rabinowitz); Ryan-Carter gets a nod just for being able to shape mountains of found footage into a clear, brisk whole.
Best Production Design
Avatar (Rick Carter & Robert Stromberg)
Bright Star (Janet Patterson)
Fantastic Mr. Fox (Nelson Lowry)
Moon (Tony Noble)
Where the Wild Things Are (K.K. Barrett)
Patterson’s work with Jane Campion has always been exceptional; and the period details in Bright Star are immaculate and perfect. Lowry achieves in small models the fussed-over details of Wes Anderson’s live-action films, and give the film the off-kilter sense of toys come to life that gives it most of its charm. Noble’s depiction of a lunar station is both spare and beat-down, one of the most compelling realistic sci-film films since 2001: A Space Odyssey showed the world how it was done. And Barrett’s impossible shapes and angles adds to the sense of impossible fantasy that makes Wild Things a visual treat. But, sorry to be boring, the Avatar team owns me, body and soul: Pandora is the most fully-realised and inviting environment that I think I’ve ever seen in a movie. If only it were a self-guided walking tour!
Best Costume Design
Bright Star (Janet Patterson)
The Brothers Bloom (Beatrix Aruna Pasztor)
An Education (Odile Dicks-Mireaux)
The Limits of Control (Bina Daigeler)
Star Trek (Michael Kaplan)
Kaplan does a fine job of upgrading iconic designs for a shiny new vision of the future, Dicks-Mireaux makes the 1960s look incredibly glamorous and seductive, and both Pasztor and Daigeler use unconventional choices both in terms of color and shape to give their respective films a poppy, anything-goes feeling (though the films take that feeling in two wholly opposite directions). Still, it’s Patterson who makes the costumes that, in a very real sense, drive the whole plot of her movie; and with a tremendously insightful mind towards the film’s color pattern and what it means (it helps that she’s the production designer), the costumes reveal volumes about the characters that their words hardly even imply.
Both Dead Snow and Basterds have fantastically convincing gore effects; the last scene in Basterds is handily the most impressive bit of make-up all year. But there’s something very special about The Road, making everybody look so hideously corroded, that you just have to give it some love.
Coraline (Bruno Coulais & They Might Be Giants)
Duplicity (James Newton Howard)
The Informant! (Marvin Hamlisch)
Inkheart (Javier Navarrete)
Up (Michael Giacchino)
Howard’s playful music gives Duplicity exactly the mood it needs to keep bubbling along, Navarrete’s adventure score mixes in a number of clichés while managing to feel original and bold, and the Coraline music is as sparkly and black as the movie itself; but this was a two-film race. I love Giacchino, and I think the “Up Waltz” is one of the most beautiful pieces he’s ever composed, but the whole thing is a bit too reminiscent of Ratatouille; Hamlisch’s weird and unintuitive ’70s throwback, meanwhile, sounds like nothing else you’ve heard in years, and it is a vital component of the film’s peculiar, delightful bounciness.
Best Sound Mixing
Though the war sounds in Avatar and the sports crowds in Invictus were both brought into the features rather magnificently, and as unholy perfect as that theater scene is in Inglourious Basterds, and despite the typically wonderful mix of music and effects in Up, no sonic moment in 2009 impressed me a quarter as much as that late-night shootout in Wisconsin at the center of Public Enemies.
Best Sound Editing
I was sorely tempted to go with Avatar and its creation of a whole new world of sounds, but the romantic geek in me wanted to praise Star Trek for upgrading some of the most iconic sounds in science fiction for the 21st Century. District 9 is of course pretty fantastic – the alien language sounds excellent – and while neither Basterds nor Up can compete with those three in terms of ambition and scope, they both have tremendously encompassing soundscapes.
Best Visual Effects
Where the Wild Things Are
Well, duh. Besides the obvious, I still remain goggle-eyed at how well the Wild Things suits are integrated with CGI, and as for Moon… well, I love me a good practical effect more than all the fancy-ass fully-rendered bullshit that money can buy. I nearly even gave it the win, in a fit of contrarianism.