Saturday, January 23, 2010

2009 Wrap-Up

the lists

I've had it suggested that it's a professional imperative to issue some kind of list denoting my favorite films of 2009. This is probably true, despite the fact that there's at least one definition of "professional" that has nothing to do with what I'm doing here.

List-making is arbitrary. But then, so is most of the Gum Commercial. Similarly, I believe firmly in the notion that opinions, like people, can and will always change. (I'm inspired by Walter Chaw's project to re-imagine his annual Top Ten lists from the past decade.) With all this in mind, here are my Top Ten Movies of 2009, as of Saturday, January 23, 2010. This list is subject to reconsideration at whim.


10. The Informant!
9. I Love You, Man
8. Avatar
7. The Brothers Bloom
6. Sugar
5. The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
4. Humpday
3. Inglourious Basterds
2. Up
1. Where The Wild Things Are

Honorable Mentions (alphabetically):
The Class, Coraline, Crank: High Voltage, Duplicity, The Girlfriend Experience, The Hurt Locker, In The Loop, Me and Orson Welles, Observe and Report, Paranormal Activity, Star Trek, State of Play, Thirst, The White Ribbon

There are five frontrunners for the "Notably Missed" category: 35 Shots of Rum, Anti-Christ, Summer Hours, Tokyo Sonata and Two Lovers. Everything I hear about these suggests they'd have a place on one of those two lists.

this one other movie

I don't feel I've earned my place to get all Jonathan Rosenbaum on you and fill up my list with barely-released festival and niche-market films (and I'm terrible at getting out to see those regardless), but I ought to devote at least a paragraph or two to one of the best films I saw all year: La Mujer Sin Cabeza (The Headless Woman), a devious psychological thriller from Argentinian auteur Lucretia Martel.

I failed to write about this when I caught it at the Siskel, mostly because I hadn't (and still haven't) wrapped my head around it. Possibly an examination of a Dickensian class schism, definitely a Repulsion-style internalized guilt trip, the film spirals downward with an upper-class heroine reeling from her did-she-or-didn't-she? hit-and-run murder of a local boy.

Nothing is spelled out in Mujer. Not only are there no easy answers, there are frustratingly few questions. It's difficult to be sure a crime was ever committed, which I think might be the point of the film, as the protagonist's social stature seems to defy any responsibility that might be applied to her. But with no responisibility comes no agency, and her life devolves into a series of inane encounters and gardening expeditions, all imbued, somehow, with a sense of dread.

I don't know when or where I'll get the opportunity to sit through this again and study its tricks and clues, but I eagerly anticipate the second and third viewing. Amazon offers a Region 4 disc through the Marketplace.

the wrap-up

This wasn't a bad year for movies; rather, it was a bad year for me getting out to them (ironic that 2009 also saw my return to writing). But looking over this list I've hastily compiled reminds me of some great entertainments, a few devastating comedies, a lot of heartbreak and loss and plenty of treasure to be mined from further viewings.

In searching for something to connect the films I've chosen as my favorites, I'm interested in the delightful amount of subversion on display in the mainstream (arguably one of the more conventional films on my list, the immigration drama Sugar, is also probably the second-least seen, after Humpday). From the masterly prologue in Up to the consistent melancholy of Where The Wild Things Are, both films frame their adventures as quests for family and connection in the face of loss and emptiness. Both films startle and unsettle in their challenging setups and their lack of easy solutions. Soderbergh's Informant! one-ups the director's own Erin Brockovich with a tried-and-true formula of corporate whistle-blowing that quickly unravels in parallel to the mind and life of its hero. Similarly, The Brothers Bloom and Bad Lieutenant spin wild, untamed yarns of psychopathy and sacrifice in what might've first appeared to be standard genre entries.

But one of my favorite new trends in cinema is this weird 'bromance' sub-genre, which really has been around as long as the 'buddy comedy' but with the new Entertainment Weekly-approved buzzword is now confronted head on. There are two of these in my ten, and a third in the HMs if you count Star Trek, which you absolutely should.

There are few greater friendships than that between Kirk and Spock, honestly, and it's the cosmic geekiness of their mythology that must inform true platonic love between two men. The couples at the centers of I Love You, Man and Humpday are all men confronting their masculinity in first-level ways that, though sometimes lacking in precious subtext, are sorely lacking in the mainstream. The mumblecore of Humpday's emotions is incisive and honest, and what really got me about I Love You, Man is the seemingly-obvious idea to structure the story of friendship exactly like a generic romantic comedy. Sometimes the most simple alteration to a formula can be the most affecting.

but maybe it should've been Inglourious Basterds

Inglourious Basterds
challenges us - in a way I think Haneke would dig - to consider what we expect and what we want from our movies. Where the first and second slots on the list went easily to the two films that moved me and struck me personally, I must begrudgingly admit that Tarantino's efforts here have turned in a true masterpiece of the form that works on several different levels. As an action/adventure, it's thrilling and suspenseful. As historical fiction, its daring revisionism dares us to step back and consider why we root for who we root for. As cinema, the film is a shot-by-shot, choice-by-choice, balls-out masterpiece, hubristic and hilarious at parts and quietly touching when it counts.

More remarkable still, considering how well it works as a whole, is that Tarantino has structured the thing more like an album than a film. You could boil it down to an anthology of eight or nine scenes that, taken separately, work as splendid, tidy little dramas. The writer-director's ability to upend convention, throw anachronisms around like pies in your face and have it all work together is relentlessly frustrating. His messes are beautiful, his fuck-ups still fun. As any aspiring creator might attest, seeing so brazen an asshole consistently ad-lib brilliance with barely a misstep is just annoying. I almost hate to love the man.

UPDATE: (1/31/10)

35 Shots of Rum finally came to Chicago and I caught it today. The film will require more than a couple hours of processing; in the meantime I'll throw it up on my list at, oh, say number 8. This relegates The Informant! into the Honorable Mentions. But really, who gives a good damn?

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