by Tony Dayoub
2009 proved surprisingly robust in its cinematic offerings. It yielded two films which you'll see tomorrow when I wrap this up with my look at the Best of the Decade. In the meantime, this should prove to be a highly debatable list, as these lists often are when they are created so soon before any serious critical consensus has been achieved. Some reminders: I cannot judge movies I haven't seen, so if you feel a film you like was unjustly left out, it might be that I haven't seen it; also, I've included a link back to the original review for each film.
And now, in alphabetical order, the best films of 2009...
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, director Werner Herzog - Review here. Here is a film in love with its own absurdity. Or is it the lead actor's? Or its director's? Whatever the case, Herzog (Grizzly Man), Nicolas Cage, and the story's unsettling post-Katrina environs form a sort of "perfect storm" of insanity that is a pleasure to watch. Cage is typically at his best when the movie built around him is as overheated as his performance is, and in this regard, the lurid movie doesn't disappoint. The great supporting cast knows when to step back and let the lead do his thing, all except Val Kilmer... and that's okay, too.
Fantastic Mr. Fox, dir. Wes Anderson - Review here. In one of the more exciting trends in recent cinema, auteurs are taking a shot at directing animated films. Robert Zemeckis (Who Framed Roger Rabbit) and Tim Burton (Corpse Bride) were among the first, with Cameron stretching the medium to its limits in Avatar. So it is enormously satisfying to see Anderson (The Darjeeling Limited) do it best, retaining his inimitable style as he directs a very small-scale, personal adaptation of his favorite Roald Dahl book.
L'Heure d'été, (Summer Hours), dir. Olivier Assayas - Review here. Assayas' film is an understated look at the effects of globalization on the internal dynamics of a family after their matriarch passes away. With her offspring spread across the globe, heirlooms in her once valuable family art collection now hold little sentimental or monetary significance for all but one child, the one still living in France who can hardly afford to hold onto them. It's ending is often misinterpreted, but viewed with some care, it offers a glimmer of hope to traditionalists.
The Hurt Locker, dir. Kathryn Bigelow - Review here. As Glenn Kenny and others have pointed out, in an earlier time this film would have been just another action film playing at the multiplex. It is telling then, that it is now arthouse-worthy. Bigelow (Point Break) masterfully keeps tensions running high in this Iraq war thriller that could just as easily been adapted into the story of any major city's bomb disposal unit in order to reach mainstream audiences. Except that mainstream action flicks today—with their constant pursuit of one-upmanship—are ignorant of how political context can be another element used to elevate the stakes, allowing Bigelow's setpieces to achieve a certain level of elegance with their simplicity.
Inglourious Basterds, dir. Quentin Tarantino - Review here. This postmodern fusion of the spaghetti western with the WWII B-movie offended some, even one notable critic I greatly respect. But it is Tarantino's best film since the sublime Jackie Brown (1997). The reason is simple. Hidden in plain sight among its acts of noisy cinephilic exhibitionism is a cogent, politically charged examination of violence, its excesses, and the bloodthirsty audiences who never seem to satiate their desire for more of it.
The Limits of Control, dir. Jim Jarmusch - Review here. The maverick director lovingly crafts a fascinating tribute to the existential loner archetype so prevalent in cinema. A visual feast that still manages some subtle political commentary.
La Nana (The Maid), dir. Sebastián Silva - Review here. Catalina Saavedra's portrayal of a woman at the end of her tether is a tour-de-force of minimalism. Director Silva expertly creates the unease associated with the sociopathic character type often seen in American horror films, without ever descending into the contrived histrionics depicted in those formula pictures.
A Serious Man, dirs. Joel and Ethan Coen - Review here. Those who see this film as just another example of the directors' penchant for nihilism miss the point of the film. Actually, it is a love letter to the Sisyphean search for meaning in the universe; an acknowledgement that though clear answers in that quest are rare, the need for faith is important and can be seen as a virtue unto itself.
Two Lovers, dir. James Gray - Review here. In what only seems to be a retread of a traditional formula picture (the guy caught between the right girl and the girl of his dreams) Gray confounds audience expectations by simply going for realism: Joaquin Phoenix's mensch deals with an overbearing mother who actually turns out to be right most of the time; Gwyneth Paltrow's sexy sprite is about as flighty as such a nymph can be; Vinessa Shaw's quiet, stable alternative is really the better bet.
Das weisse band (The White Ribbon), dir. Michael Haneke - Review here. This Bergmanesque meditation on the cycle of violence in a turn of the century German village deliberately leaves its audience at an emotional distance; the better to project the outcome of its legacy on the country, and indeed the world, effects of which are still felt today.
Honorable Mention: Adventureland, Bright Star, A Christmas Carol, Duplicity, Public Enemies, Serbis, Star Trek, Up
Most Overrated: Antichrist, District 9, Drag Me to Hell
Most Underrated: Los abrazos rotos (Broken Embraces), Terminator: Salvation
Best Unreleased Films: Barbe-Bleue (Bluebeard), White Material
For more of this ongoing series, click here.