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.


Drew McIntosh said...

Great list, some wonderful movies here.

What particularly caught my eye were a couple I saw this year for the first time myself, Gang of Four and Simon of the Desert, two wonderful films from equally wonderful directors. I have to agree with you about Gang of Four possibly being one of Rivette's best, I found it completely beguiling. I feel the same way about Secret Defense, which I watched about a month later. And one can only dream of how great Simon of the Desert would have been if the financing hadn't fell through and Bunuel was able to make the entire film as he had envisioned. As it stands, it is still one of the more hilariously fiery and entertaining works he left us with.

Also major props on mentioning The Incredible Shrinking Man. I used to watch this as a kid with my dad, definitely a classic, and one I've been meaning to revisit for quite awhile.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Ed, this is a great list, and a great idea for a list!

As one who hasn't much confidence in late period Woody Allen anymore (I may end up listing Whatever Works as the worst movie of 2009 that I saw), I'm very curious now about your endorsement of Anything Else. I skipped it at the time, but words from you are enough to make me reconsider. Is that the one with Cristina Ricci?

Les Biches is an old favorite!

And Black Narcissus is the movie that got me started on my 2009 discovery of Powell and Pressburger-- absolutely wonderful.

Ride Lonesome-- the one Boetticher/Scott I haven't yet seen!

And thanks for mentioning Summer Hours-- this was a devastating, lovely movie. I love to close my eyes and imagine the graceful, non-ostentatious tracking through that house.

Thanks for these thoughts. I think I just discovered another category for my January end-of-year list! And thanks for being a key part of what made Inglourious Basterds so much fun for me this year too!

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Drew. I'm with you on Secret Defense, too, which could've easily made this list. Actually, I feel pretty strongly about most of Rivette's films; he consistently bowls me over.

You should revisit The Incredible Shrinking Man; it's one of those films that's incredibly entertaining and stimulating on its surfaces but yields unexpected depths the more you think about it. I had a similar experience with The Thing From Another World, which I loved as a kid and which I finally revisited just this year. It had probably been 20+ years since I'd seen it last, but I still remembered some of its most vibrant images, and the overall impression of that bulky, ungainly monster stalking through the research station's tight corridors. It also revealed itself as a very rich and fascinating film in ways that obviously passed right over my head as a kid who just loved how creepy it was.

Dennis, thanks for the responses. If you don't like late-period Woody Allen in general, I'm not sure Anything Else will turn you around. Yes, it's the one with Christina Ricci and Jason Biggs. I think it's gorgeously shot and wonderfully ambiguous in its treatment of relationships. Others have disagreed and will likely continue to do so. Keep in mind that there are very, very few Woody Allen movies, of any vintage, that I dislike entirely; I thought Whatever Works was OK, and Vicky Cristina Barcelona a masterpiece.

Ride Lonesome and The Tall T are my favorite Boettichers.

Summer Hours was an utter surprise for me. I didn't intend to see it and didn't know much about it, but I happened to have some free time one day, wandering around in New York, and stumbled across a small theater that was playing it. Agreed about the tracking shots; the camera is just so graceful in that film.

And a big thanks right back at you for your Basterds roundtable with Bill. Almost as good/exciting as the film itself was all the dialogue it inspired among film writers and bloggers.

Craig said...

This is a clever way to do the year-end list, and I like your choices (the ones I've seen). Also let me say thanks for introducing me to Boetticher. I saw all five or six from that collection in the span of a week and can't remember which one "Ride Lonesome" is, but I liked most of them a great deal.

Kevin J. Olson said...


I really like what you do here. I've been thinking of doing a list that just covers my favorite things over the past 10 years, rather than the obligatory and arbitrary "best of the decade" list. In fact I may borrow this idea for my year-end list because I'm still catching up with stuff like A Christmas Tale from 2008...but why should that count against this years list?

List making is fun, though, so who knows...I may do both, but this kind of exercise is so much more fruitful because it doesn't limit you. Nice work.

Oh, and Ride Lonesome...Hell yeah! I really enjoyed If... as well...thanks to TOERIFC I was able -- like yourself -- to see that this year for the first time.

Great stuff.

Just Another Film Buff said...

Thanks for this wonderful list Ed. I've seen only 5 of those. But I'm all with you on Basterds...ebil

Jeff Duncanson said...

Ed - Have you seen the rest of Lindsay Anderson's "Mick Travis" trilogy. I think the second one ("Oh, Lucky Man") is the best of the three. Loads of bile, and some really imaginative casting techniques.

Glad you found "Thief", as well. A great, stlish flick, and terrific use of the music of Tangerine Dream - predating Risky Business by a couple of years.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Craig. Glad you got into Boetticher too. Those Scott Westerns are fantastic — not in the box is the solid Seven Men From Now, plus interesting earlier Westerns like The Man From the Alamo and The Cimarron Kid.

Kevin, it's really just because I feel sadly out of date with more recent films; I've watched so many older films but haven't gone to the theater as often. So this list is the result, because I too can't resist making lists.

Thanks, Ebil. Great to hear about more love for Basterds.

Jeff, I haven't seen the other Anderson features in that trilogy, no. I definitely need to, since I loved the first one. His early Free Cinema shorts are quite good too, sardonic documentaries about everyday life.

I love that Tangerine Dream Thief soundtrack too. It really adds to the film's atmosphere and enhances those gauzy visuals.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Interesting list. Gang of Four ( or as I prefer to call it Bulle Ogier's School for Actresses) is a teriffic Rivette that ought to be beeter known. Secret Defense, however, is one of his absolute materpeices. The bulk of its time is devoted to very long train rides in which we watch Sandrine Bonnaire resolve to take actions that will of course lead to her doom. It's a modern dress version of Rivettian ideas that first fully-blossomed in Noroit.

Les Biches
is fun, but La Ceremonie is one of his very best films -- with Bonnaire and Huppert engaged in what turns out to be a vairation on the Ppapin sisters famous massacre (which insoured Genet's The Maids)

I wrote the liner notes for the Criterion edition of If. . .

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, David. Secret Defense is great. I see it as a genre deconstruction where Rivette leaves in all the scenes that would normally be cut from a conventional thriller. A normal thriller would show Sandrine Bonnaire deciding to kill her enemy and then cut directly to her stalking him. Instead, Rivette, shows her buying a train ticket, taking a long train ride, walking through a dark town, all before she ever gets anywhere near her target. He refuses to condense time as much as the usual genre picture does. He leaves in all the supposedly non-essential, mundane stuff that surrounds the action in these kinds of movies. The result is a much more contemplative thriller, where both the heroine and the audience have plenty of time to think.

DavidEhrenstein said...

That's it exactly. Rivettian cinema is replete with temps morts -- which for him are the most interesting aspect of narrartive.

DavidEhrenstein said...

One other thing. In recent years there's been a kind of dialogue going on between Rivette and Chereau. Gang of Four was largely inspired by Chereau's successful production of Marivaux's La Fausse Ruivante with Jane Birkin and Michel Piccoli -- who of course starred in Rivette's La Belle Noiseuse

Troy Olson said...

As others have stated -- great list here. I've put most of these movies on my list to watch, as I've only seen a couple (with SUMMER HOURS hopefully being watched in the next week or so).

I like this idea so much, that I think I'll try to do the same thing next year. The last three months is the first time in a long time I've actually kept track of what I've watched, so I figure if I do that for the entirety of next year, I can hopefully come up with a list as interesting as this one is.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Troy. Hope you enjoy some of these films as much as I did, and I'm looking forward to your thoughts on Summer Hours.

John said...

Ed- a great list (I have been planning on a similar list for early in January). For me, “Thief” is Mann’s best film. I think you hit that right on. “3 Godfathers” is one of Ford’s films that does not get the love it deserves and a great Christmas time film. I actually have that on my DVR to watch again. Chabrol is one of the most subtle filmmakers around, for me some of his work has been erratic but the two you mention are both fine films. I have not seen “If” since it first was released just remember being very impressed with it. One I need to revisit. The film certainly fit in with the rebellious times of the late 60’s. As you allude to in “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” ignore the now cheap special effects and you still have a powerful though provoking film that is a lot of fun also, one of my favorite 50’s sci-fi films. Glad to see Woody Allen’s Anything Else” getting some respect and “Ride Lonesome” is just wonderful.

Not as keen as you are on Mr. Tarantino’s latest, I liked it but had some problems with it also

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for reading, John, sounds like we agree on quite a few of these selections. I'm especially glad to see a fellow appreciator of Anything Else, Woody's most underrated movie.

I definitely agree about Chabrol. He really is so subtle that at times it's hard to know what to make of his films. It's rare to find a filmmaker who's so slippery and hard to pin down, and I love that about him.

Bill Haverchuck said...

Hi! I've read your review of The Mask of Fu Manchu and I think it's wonderfully written. Actually, I've watched the picture today for the first time because I'm reviewing the 15 most interesting horror films of the 30s in the USA in the blog La casa de los horrores (, where I participate in a section called "Creepy 30s". So far I've reviewed The wolf man and The Murders in the Rue Morgue, and The Mask of Fu Manchu was the next one I was planning on commenting (I'll post my review in a couple of days). Everything's in Spanish, but I hope you understand it in case you visit us.
Anyway, congratulations on your blog, and keep up the good work.


Anonymous said...

Glad to see someone mention 3 GODFATHERS. It's a personal favorite.

One of the most beautiful-to-look-at movies I've ever seen — maybe Ford's best-looking color picture. It's on my family's Christmas movie list this year — and I can't wait!

Ed Howard said...

Bill, thanks for reading and commenting, glad you enjoyed the Fu Manchu review. I wish I could read Spanish to check out your blog.

Fifties Westerns, good to see another admirer of this lesser-known Ford masterpiece. It's a gorgeous film, of course, really overwhelming in its vision of the desert.