Here is our annual homage to modern cinema. 3 lists. Enjoy the read and check out these movies.
1. The White Ribbon- Haneke takes a stance against conformity, tradition, religion and hate. The film is a layered and complex story on many levels but, at its core, is a study in the effects of systematic repression. A major work from one of cinemas contemporary masters.
2. Martyrs- An uncompromised masterpiece. An artful and seriously twisted vision of human depravity and evil. Contains the most disturbing visuals I’ve ever seen on film. Truly nightmarish.
3. Inglorious Basterds- What can I say that hasn’t already been said? The funnest filmmaker around takes us on a ride through movie history. Loved every minute.
4. Antichrist- Too heavy of a film to fully absorb in one viewing. Between the whole thing about The Three Beggars and all the psycho-analytical talk- this one had the wheels turning almost as much as The White Ribbon. It will probably climb this list with repeated viewings.
5. Julia- I watched this without knowing anything about it and it kept me guessing as to what would happen next the entire time- a rare feat in films these days. I loved everything about it- the weird characters, the plot, the tone, and of course, Tilda Swindon is mesmerizing. You can stream it on Netflix now.
6. Lorna’s Silence- A beautiful and unassuming study of guilt. What starts out as a cold portrait of the life of an Albanian immigrant in Belgium slowly unfolds in unexpected ways until the last few beautiful scenes drift into magical realism. Features an extremely realistic performance by Jeremie Renier as a pathetic junkie.
7. Bruno- Funny stuff, man, funny stuff.
8. The Road- A refreshingly bleak film from Hollywood. I don’t think Viggo really picks bad material. Loved the depressing ideas, the washed out colors, the amazing sets, the fucked up situations…
9. Collapse- A convincing argument for the end of the world that had me "glued to my seat."
10. Che- Good enough that I watched both parts consecutively without stopping. The action scenes were shot beautifully- especially the one with the rocket propelled grenade.
Silent Light- Carlos Reygadas is an unheralded genius from Mexico. His previous film Battle in Heaven is pretty mind blowing and must have been pretty damn controversial upon release. Here we have a meditation on faith and love based around a group of weird looking Mennonites living in Mexico. Reygadas uses non-professional actors and whoever does his cinematography is extremely talented. The film is book ended with some of the finest nature photography I’ve seen.
My Son My Son, What Have Ye Done
This film makes the list because of its originality and overall dream like wierdness. Imagine if David Lynch (who produced) and Werner Herzog had a kid and he made a thriller. No other film that I saw this year came close to this unprecedented vision of style and substance packaged within a surreal nightmare depicting one mans descent into insanity.
Lars Von Trier
Had audiences walking out at Cannes and all over the world. Another almost perfect example of originality. Von Trier takes the thriller/horror devices and layers in surreal moments transforming the film into a true visual nightmare. The acting and cinematography are exquisite. This was the most shocking film of the year I saw.
The White Ribbon
Haneke steps up to another level with this one. His vision of modern society and its failings depicted with mirror like authenticity in much of his French and earlier Austrian work is perfected in this film, which won the Palm d'Or at Cannes. The story is described as a parable of the rising German Facism preceding World War I. By withholding information both visual and narrative, Haneke blends the story of the societal psyche of the time with the style of his visual storytelling. What you don't know and don't see is more powerful than by what you do see and know. Cinematography... breathtaking. Acting... superb. A true masterpiece.
This film take top honors in technology. The 3D IMAX experience was pretty mind blowing. His subtle use of drawing you in the frame and creating depth in the environment brought the viewer one step closer to feeling like you were really in the story. One could be extra critical and point out some flaws here and there (like the story), but when you are pioneering, there is bound to be some trial and error and compromise. 3D is the future and this movie is helping to pave the way.
A Serious Man
A Hollywood masterpiece. They take all the conventions of a classic Hollywood narrative and flip them. Lots of questions asked, plot points developed, but none answered and none resolved. There is no resolution, no ending. Like a story told by a rabbi in the film, sometimes life has no answers. This film expresses the unsure quality of reality which we call life.
The Limits of Control
A minimalist tale of a man's solitary existence in the world. Of a thinking man's experience with people and environments. And then a plot twist at the end to tie in a political message. A unique offering about a unique character from a unique director.
A hilarious look at Nazi hunting. I know a film is entertaining when 3 and a half hours feel like half an hour. I laughed a lot and actually didn't mind looking at Brad Pitt for the first time in years. This is a classic film about a film about a film. And when done by the master, a highly entertaining romp through history, both real and reel.
The funniest man on the planet pushing buttons no one wants pushed. I laughed so hard I almost cried. This was the comedy of the year, smart humor that blurs the lines of performance and reality. In my humble opinion, better than Borat.
A brutal movie. Visually stunning, and extremely disturbing. Great concept that holds no punches. This movie will imprint your brain, be warned. Images were burned into my mind forever, like a vivid dream. Filled with more substance than most of the horror junk that comes out of the states.
Phenomenal script written by the French master Luc Besson. A story told so tightly and seamlessly like this, makes the act of suspending disbelief effortless. Liam Neeson is in top form, and the camera work is crisp. Best script of the year executed by a great director.
2009 was an interesting year for cinema, I have missed a lot of films: Nine, Broken Embraces, both of the Herzogs, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Where the Wild Things Are, A Serious Man but I do feel incredibly passionate about the ones I did see. They build a fairly strong canon for the year.
1. Antichrist - Lars Von Trier's best film to date. It is multi-faceted, layered, hauntingly beautiful, controversial, poignant, and an interesting look at the inherent problems with gender roles. It's complexity demands multiple viewing and while I unfortunately only had one chance to see it, I firmly believe that it will hold up in subsequent viewings. Charlotte Gainsborogh and Willem Defoe are the only actors in the film and give the year's best performances.
2. Avatar: The 3-D IMAX Experience - Despite poor casting choices (with the exception of the brilliant work of Zoe Saldana's CGI manifestation), a mediocre and familiar storyline (John Smith and Pocohantas with a happy ending), there is no denying the technical artistry or sheer imagination of Pandora's world. This film will leave a greater imprint now than Star Wars did in 1979. Cameron's work is unparalleled in cinema, it draws the viewer inside of the world engulfing them in a world of striking beauty and imagination. I include the post-title for the disclaimer that the conditions of 3-D and IMAX necessitate the film's position on my top ten. For those who complain about the plot I argue that the film doesn't need a plot to justify it's achievement - the exploration of the world of Pandora and the Na'vi race is enough. The rest of the film (the part with the less impressive live actors) feels like waking up woozy after a lucid and beautiful dream, grumpily you face the real world only to wrap yourself back up in the covers and return to blissful sleep.
3. The White Ribbon - A fascinating study of a small German village pre-world war one. Much like the assassination of the archduke Ferdinand, small tragedies begat larger and more terrifying implications. Haneke is less interested in the cause but rather the effects of these events. The tapestry of a small town unravels before our eyes, and a lot is left unsaid and undiscovered. Despite the fact that the audience knows more than any one character we, like them, are left in the dark and subject our minds to rumor, innuendo, and our own prejudices towards others.
4. The Hurt Locker - A potent character study of the quintessential soldier, heroic to the point of dangerous and reckless, effective, efficient, an adrenaline addicted sociopath. Jeremy Renner and company develop very complex portraits of different archetypes of soldiers brought together in the most dire of situations for very different reasons. Jeremy Renner's return to civilian life, his speech to his son, and the final image encapsulates the film perfectly.
5. The Headless Woman - After my first viewing of this film I condemned it as tedious, plodding, underacted, boring and mostly pointless. Bothered it's universal critical acclaim I gave it another shot. What I discovered was our generation's Blow Up (Antonioni). The film's plot, themes, mystery, and brilliance are hidden in Maria Onetto's flawless and prefectly understated performance. They are hidden in the little details just outside of the foreground, in the heads cut off by the camera's framing. This is a very delicate and nuanced film that without exception requires repeat viewings. Director Lucretia Martel covers up the implications of the car accident the same way the characters do and allows the tension to mount and boil inside of it's protagonist letting it seep out in her expressions, affectations, and even through her hair. Much like Antonioni's masterpiece details will pour out with every studied viewing.
6. Munyurangnabo - Made as a classroom project by a 28 year old Korean-American film teacher and his students in Rwanda. The entire shoot took eleven days and it is the first film in the Rwandan language Kinyarwanda. It concerns the unlikely friendship between a Hutu and a Tutsis after the Rwandan genocide. One of them an orphan travels across the country with his friend on a mission to murder the one responsible for his parent's death during the genocide. Family and friendship is strained and we get an amazing sense of the country's culture, lifestyle, politics and history. Along the way Gnabo meets Eduordo B. Uwayo, Rwanda's poet laureate who recites for him his most famous poem. This is by far the most powerful scene as it informs both the story and the country's brutal history and hopeful future. Despite it's humble origins this movie shines as one of the year's best.
7. Inglorious Bastards - Tarantino's best film since Pulp Fiction. A well crafted story that is as fun as any war film should be allowed to be, funny, tense and irresistible. Impeccable casting and indelible performances.
8. Thirst - Chan Wook Park's return to form is a brilliantly realized slapstick vampire film. A clever, sophisticated, and fun take on the genre.
9. Summer Hours - I've been fairly lukewarm towards Oliver Assayas but this is by far his best film to date. A sad and poignant rumination on the fetishistic value of items that carry the sentimental, historical, or biographical weight of the people who owned and created them. After the death of the family matriarch the children are left to contemplate and mull over the physical remnants of their childhood, only to sell off their cherished memories as they watch their childhood home dismantled before their eyes. The final tracking shot is incredible.
10. Observe and Report - Part of me wants to put this one up here just to piss you off. The other part of me actually believes that this is a great film. If Judd Apatow did a modern day adaptation of Taxi Driver, this would be the result. There is something damned entertaining in it's sheer unbridled insanity. It moves beyond the it's so bad it's good into the realm of it's a bad film that so well executed it's brilliant and needs to be in my top ten. Seth Rogan's best role to date, and amazing performances all around, it's inherently flawed but ultimately entertaining and finely realized. It occupies a spot a gap film will surely take over but I can't help but look back and realize that I loved this film. A hilarious send up of my favorite Scorsese film and the perfect antidote to crap like Paul Blart: Mall Cop.
Honorable Mention: Public Enemies, The Limits of Control, The Hangover, Taken, Martyrs