Favorites of 2009

I’ve seen many great films this year, and for the first time in a couple of years, I can happily say I’ve even seen enough to create a list of my favorites for 2009. I’ve also continued the tradition of noting my favorite discoveries from past years, noting my favorite films that were released in 2008 or before. This year closes my first full ten-year period of watching films more seriously. Only in the late 1990s did I begin to seek out a wider variety of movies, a process that continues even to this day. Now more than ten years on, I still struggle with how to balance life as a parent of young kids with the desire to “keep up” to any measurable degree with some of the exciting newer films. I think I’ve gotten close to striking that balance, even as a third child is on its way in a few months.

That said, I am most sorry to have missed the short run of Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles a few weeks ago. I also continue to be frustrated at the overwhelming lack of variety in Dallas’ theatrical lineup (Jia’s 24 City and Bujalski’s Beeswax were both scheduled but never shown). Only Lorna’s Silence (with a one week partial run) and the star-powered Public Enemies showed theatrically in the Dallas/Forth Worth area. Any other films under real consideration for the list had to be acquired on DVD, and the simple fact is that many won’t get a DVD release until into 2010, if at all.

Great films are being made all over the world, and have been made throughout history. I still hang onto the hope that distributors will loosen their purse strings and do a little marketing for good films that might fly under most people’s radar, and that theatrical venues will find ways to broaden their selection of films beyond the typical fare available everywhere. Ok . . . rant over. Let’s get on to the list of my favorite films of 2009 [Thanks to Darren over at Long Pauses for reminding me of James Gray’s 2009 film Two Lovers, which I sadly forgot when I initially published this list. I’ve now remedied the problem.]:


5b. Public Enemies

Michael Mann’s exploration of John Dillinger’s crime spree in the 1930s continues to linger in my mind for its beautiful images and Mann’s willingness to offer something of a psychological portrait of the criminal life within the confines of a genre picture. In his film work, Mann has long shown interest in the criminal mind, including Manhunter in the late 1980s, 1995’s Heat—still his most famous work, and his film Collateral earlier this decade. Mann never seems all that interested in celebrating his criminal protagonists, but rather showing them for who they are—complex human beings with various drives and desires, some good and some not. That continues in Public Enemies. Mann beautifully choreographs his action sequences, but they come off as more cerebral than visceral. This choice creates an opportunity to continue the reflection on the criminal outside the confines of the exciting moments the audience tends to expect in a “bank robber” movie. I like that Mann is headed in this direction, as evidenced in his last couple of films, and look forward to his next project.

5a. Two Lovers

This wonderful film from writer-director James Gray really solidifies him in my mind as a filmmaker to keep an eye on. I saw his second feature, The Yards, back in 2000, and I thought it a strong and understated film. In Two Lovers, Gray shows a great willingness to avoid long and talky sequences in favor of short bursts of dialogue and allowing his actors to communicate with their bodies as well as their words. The writing develops each of the three leads, the ladies a bit less than the man, but enough for them to be full-blooded characters. Gray sets up the narrative well, refuses to give us easy answers and doesn’t avoid meaningful ambiguity-all pluses.

4. Still Walking

Without a doubt this comparison has been made numerous times, but Koreeda’s film feels like an updated and modernized Ozu film, a point which should be taken as high praise for Koreeda. It’s rare that a contemporary film compares favorably with the films of one of the great masters of cinema. Still Walking pays close attention to the simple, everyday details of the Yokoyama family, an elderly husband and wife whose two grown children (with families in tow) come for a weekend visit. Long-standing tensions are revealed in hints and snippets of information throughout the film, but thankfully remain underplayed. Instead of big emotional blow-ups between characters, Koreeda’s camera is more interested in capturing close-ups of food preparation, children playing in the yard, or noting the way nature breaks into their world. Koreeda’s camera always seems well-placed to capture the physical interaction between these family members, implicitly revealing their connection to one another, in spite of the disappointments life has brought. In the end, the film stands both as a warning and a reflection of a hard reality: we must care for people while we still have them with us, because life (and death) rolls along without our permission.

3. Lorna’s Silence

A year after (rather than ‘the year of’) the release of a new Dardenne film is always a treat—since I have to wait more than a year for it to cross the Atlantic. Lorna’s Silence, like the Dardennes’ earlier films, explores ethical issues in modern society through closely observed portraits of its character’s lives. In this case, we witness the moral awakening of an Albanian woman seeking Belgian citizenship by her marriage to a known drug addict. When it comes time for Lorna’s handlers to dispose of her husband, she begins to see that the true cost of her actions goes beyond a simple exchange of money. And it’s that dehumanizing tendency to place economics on a pedestal that seems most in the Dardennes’ view: Lorna begins to lose her humanity as she fights for life against the “sound logic” of where the money leads. Can anyone retain their humanity in such an environment?

2. Munyurangabo

A powerfully understated tale of revenge in modern, post-genocidal Rwanda, this film stands out from the pack of “Rwanda films” in examining the lasting impact of the genocide that took place there in 1994. The titular character, shortened in the film as Ngabo, sets out on a journey with his friend from Kigali to the countryside where he means to revenge his father’s death. Old tribal divisions, questions about the meaning of justice and lasting peace, and the short tempers of young men create tensions that only grow as Ngabo inches closer to carrying out his plan. Rather than rely on typical narrative tricks to enhance the drama, first-time director Lee Isaac Chung instead aims for a more poetic rendering, allowing his camera to linger on faces, hands, and feet as people proceed with the largely mundane tasks of their lives. This ultimately enhances the power of the film, eschewing immediate reaction and emotion for something more lasting and thought-provoking.

1. Summer Hours

Assayas’ Summer Hours also made it onto my best of the decade list, and it stands as my favorite film of the year, though the top three are tightly bunched in my mind. Set in contemporary Paris and an outlying village, the film both reflects and offers an opportunity to contemplate our increasingly global society and its effects on families. As a kind of flip side of Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Namesake, Summer Hours looks at the home base of a family, and the effects of globalization on their family as various members drift further and further from one another, both in their geographical locations, but also in their relationships with one another. This is a film that evokes the tragedy of traditions passing away with the death of valued family members, the pain of physical locations losing their significance as places that inspire deep connection with others, and the mystery of life that continues on in new ways when the old has passed away.

Now to turn our attention backward in time, here are my favorite discoveries of 2009:

5. La jetée (1962)

The final film on this list is probably best known to modern filmgoers as the inspiration for Terry Gilliam’s 1998 film 12 Monkeys. However, La jeteé, a thirty minute short film which tells its tale entirely in still pictures, is a much better and more interesting film. The film takes place in some kind of post-apocalyptic future, where we meet a man who vividly remembers a shooting he witnessed as a boy. He desperately wants to return to that moment, and when he is chosen for a time travel experiment, he sees his opportunity. The power of the film comes in the mystery of the photographs, which with the spare dialogue tell just enough, but not too much. It’s really a beautifully chilling film.

4. The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

On the face of it, the film seems a recipe for disaster: an existential drama stuffed inside the confines of a cheap science fiction picture. However, because of the close union between the central idea of the movie (that a man is being lost within the ever increasingly terrifying modern world) and the science fiction angle (a man mysteriously shrinking making him unsafe even in the protective world of his own home), the film works brilliantly. The focus of the first half of the film is on the set up and the initial loss of size. However, it’s in the latter half, when the shrinking man finds himself trapped in the basement with a tarantula, when the film really takes off. And because of the investment in the character, the film even manages to wring a few truly creepy moments out of its plot. A great movie for goofy fun and for thought provoking post-film conversation as well.

3. The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

One of the holy grails on the cinematic landscape, Turner Classic Movies in the U.S. ran Welles’ star-crossed film one day early this year. It would certainly be number one on the list were it in its original form, but the studio enforced ending is so terribly and obviously tacked on that I couldn’t justify placing it at the top. However, the film as a whole is nothing short of magnificent, with the typical Wellesian energetic camera and editing in evidence throughout. The film is a grand spectacle, on the scale of Citizen Kane, and probably even beyond it due to the number of primary characters within the Amberson’s world. If you can track down a copy of this excellent film, don’t miss out.

2. Ballast (2008)

Director Lance Hammer’s debut film, Ballast follows the lives of three poor African-Americans scraping by somewhere near the Mississippi Delta. Hammer’s use of the handheld camera seems a questionable choice early in the film as it follows a boy running through a field. However, he settles in admirably. With limited dialogue and a camera that lingers on its subjects, Hammer is clearly of the school that show is better than tell. The director creates a number of memorable moments by, as John Ford once said of his own films, letting the pictures do the talking. But it’s the combination of Hammer’s style with the particular milieu that makes for such an effective picture. The film encourages the viewer to engage the world of these unfortunate people, portraying their lives as something worth looking at, people worth thinking about. Hammer concludes with a fine moment—a single sweep of the camera through a moving car that beautifully ties together the narrative in a most satisfying conclusion.

1. Manhattan (1979)

I am up and down on Woody Allen, but his poetic, Gershwin-drenched paean to New York City was a revelation, and not just for its musical interludes. Allen tends to have a self-effacing way about him, but I can’t say I’ve ever seen it portrayed on screen as artfully as he did here, particularly in the film’s Cabiria-esque conclusion. Of course, where Fellini’s Cabiria has troubles that are almost entirely inflicted upon her due to a certain naiveté about the modern world and men in general, Allen’s lead character here suffers from largely self-inflicted wounds. Manhattan reveals a world grown small, where characters struggle to see beyond themselves, even in the hustle and bustle of a city like New York. That it’s presented with such attention to beauty—accompanied by the aforementioned Gershwin and gorgeous black and white photography—offers a striking contrast to Allen’s limited perspective that underlines the fundamentally comic tone of the film.

Other films I appreciated in 2009: In Bruges; Dance, Girl, Dance; Paranoid Park; Doubt; I am a Sex Addict; The Exterminating Angel; The Player; The Station Agent; sex, lies, and videotape; Greed; Silent Light; I Walked with a Zombie; My Man Godfrey; Nanook of the North; The Immigrant

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Two Lovers (2008)

What makes a happy man? From writer-director James Gray (who gave us the underrated 2001 film, The Yards), Two Lovers takes for its subject a single emotionally-damaged young man utterly lost in his search for happiness. Capably played by Joaquin Phoenix, Leonard begins the film by attempting to drown himself, not the first time he’s tried suicide, we’ll eventually discover. Unsuccessful, he immediately finds himself in the sights of his well-meaning, matchmaking parents.

Through them he meets Sandra, the delicate daughter of a family friend. Of Jewish heritage like Leonard, she promises a stable life approved by Leonard’s parents, though with that stability will come routine and responsibility. Sandra will also provide a constant reminder of Leonard’s former fiancée, a woman he loved deeply but whose parents broke off the engagement.

The connection between Leonard and Sandra is evident, but quickly fades when confronted with the radiant glow of Leonard’s damaged neighbor, Michelle. Leonard meets Michelle on the landing in front of his apartment as she listens to a man cuss her out from upstairs. That it might not actually be her father never occurs to Leonard, who’s too busy basking in her beauty and bowled over by her interest in talking with him. But her anything-goes attitude coupled with her status as a Gentile (outside the strict structure of his family life) offers Leonard something different, a move away from the painful past. Michelle draws him to look outside his world of family and tradition for the happiness he so desperately seeks.

The film proceeds by following Leonard’s alternating affections for Sandra and then Michelle. Meanwhile, Leonard’s emotional instability seemingly lays in wait, preparing to rear its ugly head at an inopportune moment. That Gray holds that card for so long without playing it is a testament to his skill as a writer, for it leaves the film with a palpable sense of life and death drama playing out before us. Further, Gray’s careful observation of his characters, his mobile camera, and his occasional evocative framing give the film a thoughtful air that draws the viewer into the central dilemma of the film.

In the end, Two Lovers presents Leonard with a choice between the film’s titular characters—the fun-loving, beautiful, but unstable Michelle, or the quiet, delicate, but supportive Sandra. One holds the promise of throwing off the constraints of family and expectations for the opportunity to fulfill his every desire. The other offers a simple, if unexciting life filled with hard work, children, and obligation. Unsurprisingly, Leonard ultimately chooses the former, just at the moment Michelle’s unstable situation places her out of Leonard’s reach. Leonard, jilted by the woman he believes is his true love, stands alone in a barred courtyard with only two choices before him: Sandra or death.

Gray’s deft move from the choice between two women to the choice between life and death highlights the significance of this moment for Leonard. That he ultimately chooses life seems less a sign of resignation and more an indication of a profound truth—that perseverance through suffering produces hope. In hope all things seem possible. Even finding happiness in a life that doesn’t promise to fulfill every whim and desire he might have.