Combustible Celluloid

What Happened to Me in the Dark: 2009

The Year in Film

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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This year's list is one of the most unusual in ages. I generally don't like war films or costume films, and my list contains two war films and one costume film. In a welcome change of pace, there are four films by women directors on my list, and two more on my runner-up list. Perhaps even more shocking is that there are two animated films on my list, plus three more on my runner-up list. (A friend recently remarked that animated films are getting smarter while live-action films are getting dumber.) I don't know what to make of all these changes, except that it indicates film is still alive as an art form, and it gives us something to look forward to for another year, at least. Here, then, are the year's ten best films, in preferential order:

1. The Hurt Locker
I know that by selecting this as the year's best film, I'm helping seal its fate as a "masterpiece," or an untouchable thing, a museum piece to be admired but never felt. I'd like to re-claim it as a "popcorn masterpiece," of a piece with Kathryn Bigelow's other muscular genre films, Near Dark (1987), Blue Steel (1990), Point Break (1991) and Strange Days (1995). Indeed, as a war film, its job is not to condemn the war, which is what every other war film these days does. My question is that, if war is so awful, why are so many people making so many war movies? This film is the first one to look at the draw of war, the way that it can be thrilling (or at least more thrilling than a trip to the supermarket). But the best part is that it refrains from celebrating the excitement of war; by using the Jeremy Renner character as a kind of centerpiece superhero, we have a way of looking at him as a kind of social experiment; we can thrill to his deeds and even imagine ourselves in his shoes, but at the end of the day, we're the ones that want to go home.
2. Coraline
This was a breakthrough year for animation in general, for a new kind of maturity in kids' films and for 3D technology. Coraline was the leader -- by a long shot -- in all three categories.
3. Bright Star
I usually hate costume movies, but Jane Campion's tortured romance between the poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) was uncommonly low-key, uncluttered, passionate and poetic.
4. Red Cliff
The most expensive and profitable movie in Chinese history, John Woo's battle epic manages to incorporate many of his pet themes and images, especially two men from opposite backgrounds working together for a greater good. As in his best films, it focuses on characters and emotions over violence. It was released here in a shorter version (which I loved), but I'm also reserving this spot for the full-length version, which I have yet to see.
5. You, the Living
This extraordinary Swedish film cobbles together bits of David Lynch, Terry Gilliam and Buster Keaton, mixing super-deadpan humor with a little bit of a bittersweet mean streak, all set in an endless array of blue-gray, blocky, deep-space long takes. It has all the markings of a timeless classic.
6. 35 Shots of Rum
Claire Denis' new film is much easier to follow than her last film, the baffling masterpiece The Intruder, but it loses none of her unique poetic flow or mystery; some of the best scenes pass by without a word of dialogue, and no exchange other than a look or an embrace.
7. Drag Me to Hell
Sam Raimi's much-anticipated return to horror may not have been very scary, but it was gleefully wicked and even funny; it was intoxicated with the way a camera can move around like a dark tentacle and make audiences squirm.
8. Sita Sings the Blues
It was an animated film, and a musical and an essay film, telling a centuries-old tale of romance, commenting upon it, calling to attention its inaccuracies and inconsistencies, and then comparing it all to a less grand, but equally heartbreaking modern-day tale of romance. It does all of that, and it contains some of the most glorious imagery since Fantasia.
9. Inglourious Basterds
Still trying to wrap my head around this one, but I'm certain that Quentin Tarantino's use of a film critic and a projectionist to defeat the two greatest villains of the 20th century was yet another one of his brilliant works of enthusiastic film fandom. The single image of the face being projected into a cloud of smoke will stay with me for years.
10. Adventureland
This could have been another simple gross-out comedy, but writer/director Greg Mottola instead managed to evoke a summer so honest and vivid that it could have been a few months from my own life.

Runners Up (in alphabetical order): Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (Werner Herzog), The Beaches of Agnes (Agnes Varda), Fados (Carlos Saura), Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson), The House of the Devil (Ti West), The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (Terry Gilliam), Lake Tahoe (Fernando Eimbcke), The Limits of Control (Jim Jarmusch), Ponyo (Hayao Miyazaki), Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas), The Sun (Alexander Sokurov), Treeless Mountain (So Yong Kim), Up (Pete Docter, Bob Peterson), Where the Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze), Whip It (Drew Barrymore), Zombieland (Ruben Fleischer)

Revivals: Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio De Sica), The Devil Thumbs a Ride (Felix E. Feist), Made in USA (Jean-Luc Godard), The Wild Child (Francois Truffaut)

Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker
Abbie Cornish, Bright Star
Penelope Cruz, Nine
Jackie Earle Haley, Watchmen
Christian McKay, Me and Orson Welles
Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds
Kristen Wiig, Whip It and Adventureland
Samantha Morton, The Messenger

Future historians might look at 2009 as the pinnacle of animated feature films, the way that 1939 is considered the greatest year of Hollywood. If that's the case, the following films will be of interest:

Astro Boy
Battle for Terra
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
Fantastic Mr. Fox
Monsters vs. Aliens
The Princess and the Frog
The Secret of Kells
Sita Sings the Blues
A Town Called Panic
Waltz with Bashir (released wide in 2009)

The 30 Worst: 9, Adoration, Angels & Demons, Battle for Terra, Blood: The Last Vampire, Bride Wars, Brothers, Crossing Over, Dance Flick, Fame, Fired Up!, Gigantic, He's Just Not That Into You, Hotel for Dogs, The Invention of Lying, It's Complicated, Law Abiding Citizen, Miss March, My Sister's Keeper, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Not Easily Broken, Ong Bak 2, Outlander, Paris 36, Shall We Kiss?, Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, The Ugly Truth, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, Whiteout

December 23, 2009

Movies Unlimtied