Sunday, March 7, 2010

Best of 2009: Cinema

Well, it's Oscar night day, and my mind is already looking forward to the baked brie I'll be making and enjoying the uncertainty of a number of my predictions. So it's a good day to talk about the best 2009 had to offer.

Let's start with what I'm hoping wins BP: The Hurt Locker. I just saw it a second time, and loved it even more. There's a lot to be said for its construction- 2.5 hours of grueling tension which almost never lets up. But a second viewing led me to pay much more attention to the nuances of character, the way they feel actually complex to the viewer. Twice one character considers killing another, but we're never sure of the reasons. The characters remain enigmatic to us the way they remain just as enigmatic to each other, and probably to themselves. I also caught more of a character arc in the main character, the way his defenses subtly break down over the course of the film. This was actually only one of several Iraq movies to emerge this year, including the equally unsettling, complex study of war's effects The Messenger, and the disarmingly sharp satire In the Loop. In both of those, the war is off-camera but strongly felt nonetheless.

On a related note, 2009 was a year of powerful violence at the cinema. Steve McQueen's Hunger, a visually rapturous, gut-wrenching film about the hunger strike of Bobby Sands is one of the more remarkable exercises in pure filmmaking but never feels overdone. Equally beautiful in its depictions of violence is Michael Haneke's austerely creepy The White Ribbon, in which a German town clings to tradition, order, and naivete as a number of unexplained acts of cruelty are unleashed. Haneke still proves the master of taut psychological suspense, but does so with increasingly subtle overtones here.

There were a few welcome romantic diversions. I prefered the looseness and performances of the under-appreciated Away We Go, with award worthy comic performances by the leads John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph, to the overly quirky but smartly observant 500 Days of Summer, both good doses of summer love with a sharp aftertaste. And the platonic romance between Maria, the camera, and the camera store owner in Everlasting Moments, one of the year's most beautifully crafted films, was perfect and small. And the first third of Up captured the year's best romance, one whose absence provides the balloon-buoyant film with its necessary heft. But the bulk of this year's best relationships were shared between two men. Goodbye Solo, a quiet, charming film slowly spins a tale of finely-etched friendship between a cab driver and a suicidal man. Humpday and Funny People, both with their flaws, worked their best because of the way easy camaraderie between two men resulted in honest, soulful revelations. Moon, an impeccable science fiction movie, mused on a friendship between two clones, with funny and very human results. The Hurt Locker and The Messenger also fit this bill quite well.

Family loss was at the center of two excellent foreign films. STill Walking, a Japanese film riffing on Ozu's Tokyo Story but finding very much its own voice as a family struggles with the loss of a brother many years earlier. And Summer Hours, a smart French film about the loss of a family's heritage and unity in a globalized world. Political and smart without hammering a moral across, and ending on the perfect grace note. That similar sense of loss is what anchored Spike Jonze's sober and virtuosic adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are.

There was fun to be had at Star Trek and Up and Harvard Beats Yale 29-29, but none moreso than at Tarantino's uproarious rewriting of history in Inglourious Basterds. But the year's best comedy was a tart-edged throwback to Preston Sturges, where social realism and commentary mixed with screwball humor. This, of course, was Up in the Air, a film of immaculate comic timing, three incomparable leads and a stellar supporting cast, the flim rises above its topicality to be the best American comedy since Lost in Translation.

And that leaves us with what I have sometimes called the year's best film, certainly its most underrated. In such a crowded field, Sugar has gone almost unnoticed, which is fitting. Whereas Avatar, The Blind Side, and Precious all deal with race in an ultimately glossy and unsatisfying way, Sugar nails the complexity of being an immigrant in America with pathos and a richness lacked by anything else this year. And the ending is a perfect mix of uplift and heartbreak. Rent it.

Top 10 of 2009:
10. Away We Go
9. Summer Hours
8. In the Loop
7. Inglourious Basterds
6. Hunger
5. The White Ribbon
4. The Messenger
Threeway tie for first at the moment
Up in the Air/The Hurt Locker/Sugar

In short, I'm rooting tonight for The Hurt Locker, Wallace and Gromit, and a probably misguided hope for Meryl Streep (although that category rightfully belongs to Carey Mulligan, just as Actor belongs to Colin Firth, but I am aware of reality).


  • I could not agree with you more about Colin Firth; what an amazing performance that was. It makes me very excited for whatever he is going to do next.

    By Blogger PMG, At March 10, 2010 at 7:22 AM  

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