Monday, December 14, 2009
My 2009 in Movies
With a tip of the hat to That Little Round Headed Boy, I present the best films I saw for the first time in 2009, regardless of when they were released. I likely won't be doing a conventional best-of-the-year round-up here, and I much prefer this kind of format. Why limit myself to the few new movies I managed to see this year? Instead, here are 21 great films that I caught up with in 2009, including one that actually was newly released this year. The links below all point to my reviews, so this post also serves as a summary of some of what I've been up to this year.
Anything Else One of Woody Allen's late masterpieces is routinely ignored and lumped in with the dismal films that preceded it, but it's a surprisingly complex and multilayered study of romantic disappointment and folly, one of Woody's best relationship comedies.
Autumn Tale The final film in Eric Rohmer's "Four Seasons" cycle is typically low-key, leaving its richest emotional undercurrents burbling away beneath the surface.
Les Biches Flickhead's great Claude Chabrol Blog-a-thon provided me with a perfect opportunity to explore this New Wave auteur's work in much greater depth than I previously had. Among the many treasures I discovered was this sublimely nasty character study of a mutually parasitic lesbian relationship.
Black Narcissus In a mountain convent, nuns are nearly overcome by the raw sensuality of their surroundings, and Powell and Pressburger's overripe imagery makes this seduction concrete and achingly beautiful.
La cérémonie Another Chabrol treasure discovered this year: this one has more subtle lesbian undertones but is more directly about class divisions, violent personalities and, as I've recently discussed with Troy Olson, the importance of TV to modern life and the different uses of the medium by different classes of society.
Crumb Terry Zwigoff's bracing documentary looks at the artist R. Crumb and his utterly bizarre family without flinching from the twisty contradictions of his art or the ugliest aspects of the artist's personality and obsessions. Crumb is a complicated and important figure, and any documentary that does him justice has to be a masterpiece.
Gang of Four Not one of Jacques Rivette's best-known examinations of art, theater, imagination and conspiracy, but probably one of his best. A troupe of actresses stumble around in the midst of a shadowy mystery, but mostly it's an elaborate excuse for Rivette's games with acting and identity.
A Girl in Every Port My Early Hawks Blog-a-thon was a great start to this year, as I explored the nearly forgotten and obscure early 30s films of my favorite Hollywood auteur, Howard Hawks. The highlight of the project, for me, was likely the opportunity to see the only Hawks silent film I was able to get my hands on, this delightful early example of Hawks' obsession with masculine friendships and the meddling women who come between his adventuring men's men.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind This moving, tragic romance is especially overwhelming because Michel Gondry's consistently inventive visuals find, again and again, the perfect way of expressing the story's themes of memory, fate, love, loss, and the mingled pain and joy of relationships.
If.... Lindsay Anderson's highly original study of a British boarding school subtly introduces surrealist diversions as it mocks both authoritarian excess and ineffectual revolt.
The Incredible Shrinking Man This sci-fi classic is one of those rare movies that is both totally dated and yet feels as fresh and original today as it must have when it was first released. The effects don't have the same impact anymore, but director Jack Arnold's radical vision of humanity's place in the universe is as potent and poignant as ever. The final monologue is a perfect example of pulp writing at its best.
Inglourious Basterds I've already written a lot about this film in conversation with Jason Bellamy, so here I'll only say: the most exciting cinematic experience of the year.
The Mouth Agape Maurice Pialat is a master of observational dramas that get uncomfortably intimate with harrowing, psychologically trying situations. This film juxtaposes a dying woman's last days with the sexual dramas of her family as they gather to say goodbye to her, and never have sex and death been so thoroughly entangled on screen.
The Return of Dracula Paul Landres' stark low-budget horror flick actually has little connection to Dracula, but is instead a profound revision of the vampire myth, stripping down the bloodsucking monster to his barest essence, as a seductive sexual predator stalking through the night. The film's suburban setting further contextualizes the vampire's horror as a corruption of innocence and youth; in a year in which vampires are very much in vogue, this film is a reminder of just how chilling and imaginative a vampire film can be.
Ride Lonesome One of the best of Budd Boetticher's formalist, minimalist Westerns.
Simon of the Desert This is probably Luis Buñuel's funniest film, and one of his best examinations of religious hypocrisy and devotion, portraying religious conviction as both praiseworthy and somewhat absurd, a radical disjunction from the world itself. The titular saint is a pious man who denies corporeality to an extreme degree. The highlights of this saint's fantastic journey, of course, are his encounters with Sylvia Pinal's very sexy Satan.
Summer Hours Olivier Assayas patiently, subtly follows the trajectory of a single family through three generations, tracing history and emotions through pieces of art and furniture, through the objects into which these people pour their memories and emotions.
Thief Michael Mann's debut winds up being one of his strongest films, with his signature themes distilled into a minimal framework. The film explores the professionalism and aspirations of the titular safecracker through its lush visuals, replete with the sparks of high-power torches, white-hot and searing straight to the soul.
3 Godfathers This lesser-known John Ford/John Wayne pairing is a hallucinatory desert vision, isolating its characters in gorgeous but frightening landscapes and vistas.
Vladimir and Rosa The goofiest and wildest of the films made under the anonymous name of the Dziga-Vertov Group, Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin's early 70s attempt at communal, revolutionary cinema. It's a bluntly satirical, absurdo-comico take on the Chicago Eight trial, drawing in broad strokes and bright primary colors, and infusing everything with a streak of nasty humor.
Yesterday Girl Alexander Kluge's Godard-influenced debut feature is a burst of pure energy in the form of a fast-paced, unrelenting collage of images and impressions. It's a portrait of institutional absurdity coming into conflict with human reality.