2009 Top 10

When I think back on 2009, the phrase that comes to mind is “top heavy.” Probably the top six or so films on my list were considered at one point or another for the #1 slot and designation as my favorite film of the year. Just to be clear, I do tend to think of these lists as more an exercise in self-definition (who is this guy and what kind of films does he review?) than some sort of absolute critical judgment. These films reflect my favorite experiences of the year in cinema. I also think they are very good. Are they better than (insert title here)? I think so, but rather than argue about relative virtues, I prefer to spend what time I have directing attention to what I find worthy rather than arguing about why someone else’s number 11 ought to be a ranked three slots higher or that his number 9 shouldn’t be in the top 20. So, here we go:

10) State of Play — Kevin MacDonald

State of Play

State of Play is a well executed genre piece, and if the latter part of that designation means it won’t end up on too many highbrow lists, the former, “well executed,” is something I value where I find it. Complain about the accents if you want, but the film is smart about both its subjects–politics and media–and it provides a genuinely thoughtful examination of the problems of trying to live in the world without becoming complicit in systems that are bigger than we are and enmeshed in one another. Russell Crowe has the charisma to carry a genre piece and the heft to lend it a certain gravitas greater than it would have with, say, Liev Schrieber in the lead. Add a great supporting cast including Jeff Daniels, Helen Mirren, and the vastly under-appreciated Harry Lennix (you’ll know him when you see him), and you have a film that hums along like a hummingbird.

9) Moon — Duncan Jones

Moon

Science fiction is difficult these days. The exponential rise in our ability to make special effects has had an effect similar to that of spell check in word processing programs. It’s made a lot of writers forget how to do stuff that used to be basic. Certainly the spectacle aspects of cinema have become more, well, spectacular, but that’s tended to blur the genre lines between science-fiction and action movies as everything becomes conflated into one massive video game/chase set piece.

Moon‘s pleasures are modest, yes, but amidst a cacophony of explosions and fervent action, the quiet little movie stands out all the more.  In addition, I very much respected the film’s willingness to let its idea carry through to the end rather than add twist upon twist in order to (try to) pull the rug out. While I concede that the idea(s) in the film are not particularly original, they are particularly well executed, and Moon is a film that rewards careful attention because it has a lot of little touches (and it doesn’t call attention to the little touches in the way, say, a Spielberg film always does).

Oh, and it’s always nice to see Sam Rockwell get work.

8) Forgetting Dad — Rick Minnich

Forgetting Dad

About two years ago I wrote in a similar end-of-year list that David Fincher’s Zodiac was about: “the desperate, futile, postmodern need to know. And the universe’s indifference to that need.” In some ways, that also describes the quest for answers at the heart of Forgetting Dad.

I used my original review of the film (which I screened the the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival) to grouse a little about which documentaries (political, ecological) were getting prestige prizes at film festivals and how that tends to produce more of the same. I was glad to hear in the wake of that that Forgetting Dad has played well overseas, even garnering a Grand Jury prize in China. That speaks to the universality of the film’s themes, which address issues such as family, fate, forgiveness, and the human need to know.

In retrospect, one thing that I appreciated about the film is that the director is not afraid to question himself and to let that questioning become a part of a bigger story. In that sense, the film reminded me a bit of My Kid Could Paint That. I’m genuinely surprised that the film hasn’t gotten a wider release yet. I hope it does.

7) Me and Orson Welles — Richard Linklater

Me and Orson Welles

One of the most boring debates in the blogosphere (for me) is the question of eligibility that arises when lists like these become conglomerated. Linklater’s film actually played at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2008, but it languished on the shelf (despite good reviews) before getting distribution later in 2009.

I’ve tried to like Linklater for some friends’ sake, and I’ve always been on the verge of doing so, but his films thus far struck me as being interesting but incomplete. Me and Orson Welles, on the other hand, is more fully realized. It shares with Before Sunrise and Before Sunset an appreciation for the intoxicating power of words, with Slacker and Dazed and Confused a sympathy for capturing a specific group of people caught up in a particular moment in time, and with The Newton Boys and School of Rock an ability to probe the sadness that oftentimes underlies and drives manic energy.

I love artists who are capable of having and exploring multiple ideas rather than simply trying to replicate a formula that gave them early success. Linklater hasn’t exactly had a blockbuster success–yet. Given that he keeps growing (rather than merely keeping producing), I would not be surprised if he does, soon. And I have a hunch his reputation will grow with time.

Link to my original review of the film.

6) The Queen and I — Nahid Persson

The Queen and I

It is indicative of the complexity of Nahid Persson’s documentary about her strange friendship with the Empress Farah Pahlavi, that the most memorable part of any of its arguments about politics is actually an indictment of those who basically represent the position(s) that Persson espouses. Pahlavi wants to know why none of the socialist or communist protesters of her husband’s regime fled to communist or socialist countries (like Cuba, China, or the Soviet Union) when her husband’s government was replaced by an even more repressive totalitarian state but rather went to the decadent Western countries that nevertheless provided them a measure of freedom greater than what they could find anywhere else.

I was impressed not only that Persson included this conversation in the film but that she resisted the urge to go back and answer it at a different time. One of the easiest forms of stacking the deck in political documentaries is enabled by the fact that interviewees are frozen in time on tape while the interviewer (or director) can do subsequent research and rebuttal at any time. Then again, as I tried to point out in my original comments about the film, The Queen and I (as its title suggests) isn’t so much a political film as a personal one. It is about how personal connections can transform even deep animosities and how time can help heal some wounds not just by allowing us to forget but by providing us with a deeper, better perspective when we remember.

5) Agora — Alejandro Amenabar

Agora

I have a sneaking suspicion that I may take flack for this recommendation. The atmosphere surrounding the screening of the film at the Toronto International Film Festival appeared to be one of bracing caution, as though everyone were expecting some outcry over the film’s representation of the conflict between science and (the Christian) religion.

Time has allowed me to grow a bit more confirmed in  two initial impressions I shared at the Christianity Today Movies Blog immediately after screening the film:

Agora represents none of its characters as above reproach; and

Agora is a smahsingly good story satisfyingly told.

The director, Alejandro Amenabar said that he was not anti-religious but “anti-fundamentalist.” The film laments coercion that comes from a place of moral (or philosophical) certainty in conjunction with political power. If there is a comparative application to be made to particular (sub) cultures it may not be because the director portrays all people of one class as alike but notices that there are few classes of people who prove themselves in their practice to be that much different when given the opportunity to exercise (personal, social, or political) power.

If I feel a need to defend the film on ideological grounds (since I suspect that is where criticism of it will come from), I would stress that my praise of it comes not so much for its message but its execution. The use of sets and actors in them is so darn refreshing in this age of CGI effects, and the film’s comments about human nature are interwoven in and always subservient to the advancement of the story.

“Epic” in modern terminology has come to mean bigger and louder set piece battles rather than vast in scope and theme. Agora is epic in the traditional (and, I think, best) sense of the word.

Rachel Weisz is terrific, too.

4) Owning the Weather — Robert Greene

Owning the Weather

The first time I saw Robert Greene’s Owning the Weather it knocked my socks off, but a small, nagging voice inside my head said that it was too small, its production values too minimal, to garner prestigious awards.

Then I saw it again, and I was impressed with the way it held up to a second viewing, but I wondered if it was too free-flowing in its structure, too unshaped to suggest careful composition. Was I just responding to the subject matter? When I watched it a third time and was still drawn in by what was and is, essentially, talking heads, I just decided maybe it really was that good.

The fact that the film was selected to play at the U.N. Climate Change conference in Copehnagen made me wonder if I was wrong in my assertion that the film was fair to each side of the debate. Certainly those who I’ve shown the film to have responded more strongly to the participants of the film against cloud seeding and other forms of owning the weather, but I’m convinced that is as much a predisposition than a slant in the film. In fact, one of the more powerful sound bites from the film is a critic of climate engineering conceding that some forms of geo-engineering were plausible, cost-effective and (according to simulations) might work and waxing on how this concession put him in a bad place because he had a gut feeling that “something” would go wrong.

Owning the Weather struck me as the antithesis of a Michael Moore film in two ways. First, the director appeared anxious to let people on all sides speak for themselves rather than imposing his own feelings on the subject via brute force. The other is that it is a quieter film in cadence and rhythm, talking rather than shouting. I suspect it will be roundly ignored by those on the right who find it easier to dismiss arguments they don’t like than rebut them or who can only rebut by means of ad hominem attack, but I hope they will see it nevertheless. Those on the left or those who are strong environmentalists may be frustrated that the film documents rather than proselytizes, but I think there is an educational value in that approach. It allows people who make be thinking about the issue for the first time to assimilate some of the ideas first rather than being immediately cajoled into taking a position based on twenty second talking points.

It also has what is probably my favorite “cut to credits” final shots since Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo.

3) Bright Star — Jane Campion

Bright Star

When you start getting into the upper half of a top 10 list, you start thinking about what separates the excellent from the very good. One element is staying power. Bright Star held up on a second viewing for me, and I liked it almost as much as I did on first viewing. If I had one small reservation it might be that a lot gets verbalized. Some of this may come from the fact that Campion used the letters of Keats and Brawne as the foundation for her screenplay. Some of it may be due to the youth of the protagonists. Some may have to do with differences in time period which allowed for people to talk about their feelings. While all these are legitimate reasons for the film’s construction, I’m still conditioned to say “yeah, I got it” whenever a film has a character tell me something that the film has already shown me.

But if a second viewing made me notice some of the heavy-handedness of the dialogue, it also freed me to luxuriate in some of the cinematography and appreciate the way Campion can used color and movement and image to convey passion rather than always relying on mood music. The two leads rise to meet the daunting challenge of presenting a love that is both innocent and yet substantive, and I’m always extremely grateful when films allow the supporting characters the decency of being real people with mixed (or at times even honorable) motives rather than going the easy route of getting the audience to like the core couple by making everyone else in the film despicable.

There is a softness to the film that may, I fear, sucker people into dismissing it as a less accomplished work than The Piano or Portrait of a Lady, but I actually think that works to Campion’s advantage. Those films felt stiff to me, accomplished but emotionally distant. Bright Star‘s story is serious, and its themes are as big as you can get, but for all that, it a smaller more intimate picture that draws you in to the lovers’ relationship rather than holding you at arm’s distance.

2) An Education — Lone Scherfig

An Education

When all is said and done, I think Nick Hornby will be considered to be one of the more important writers of the postmodern age.  If he does not yet have the same critical or academic reputation as a Cormac McCarthy or a Raymond Carver or even a Donald Barthelme, that may be because we don’t tend to honor comedy or think it is important.

At the question and answer session following the screening of of An Education, Hornby said one thing that drew him to Lynn Barber’s memoir is that it understood that the best comedy has its roots in pain. It was fascinating for me to see many of Hornby’s themes mediated through a woman’s perspective. The “what’s the point of it all?” argument between Jenny (Carey Mulligan in a performance that really is all that) and her headmistress (the incomparable Emma Thompson) ranks right up there with the “do you really want to be an architect?” speech given by Rob’s girlfriend in High Fidelity and the “I don’t want the same things I wanted 18 years ago, because 18 years ago I was a child” speech made by Sarah in Fever Pitch (the good one, not the crappy American remake).

So many screenplays these days are underdeveloped, so it is a refreshing treat when you get one that is polished. By that I don’t merely mean fully of memorable lines, although there are some here. (“The thing is,” David’s friend says to Jenny about the difference between being able to understand what makes a work of art good and having taste, “you just know. And that’s not half the battle. That’s the whole bloody war.”) Part of what it means to me is how each scene reveals something about the characters (often about more than one) while advancing the story. (Unlike the script for, say, Up in the Air, where I always felt like “okay, this scene is here to establish this plot point that will be important later or establish this character point,” the script for An Education felt like the characters were revealing things about themselves through their actions rather than having the screenwriter outlining their characters for me through expository speeches.)

Mulligan appears to be getting the awards season push, and rightly so, but the whole cast is pitch perfect. Olivia Williams and Rosamund Pike stand out in an ensemble cast, but there isn’t really a bad performance in the lot. Any film these days that attracts a certain amount of critical success will attract its naysayers; that’s just the nature of the democratic blogospheric beast. I’m sure there are people who won’t like An Education for reasons that are generational, social, and personal and that’s okay, I guess. Just don’t let them fool you into believing it’s not a great film.

1) Lourdes — Jessica Hausner

Lourdes

Of the top four films on my list, this is the only one that I’ve only been able to see once. I’m always worried in such instances that that my initial reaction might have been skewed by factors surrounding a particular screening and so am anxious to try to screen them again. Unfortunately, Jessica Hausner’s Lourdes is not one of those handful of foreign language films that gets tabbed for studio backing and limited release before popping up on DVD. If you get a chance to see it in a theater, grab it. If you have to wait for DVD, at least look for it. (Rottentomatoes.com says that it is slated for limited release in February of 2010.)

While I haven’t been able to nail down a second viewing, I have kept my ear to the ground to see whether others were similarly enthusiastic, and I’ve heard from a few people I respect that I am not alone in my admiration for the film.

I said a lot of what I wanted to say about Lourdes in my festival wrap at Christianity Today Movies. One thing I adore about this film is how every time I thought I had it pegged and knew what it was about, it took its premise one step further. As a result, I felt like the the early parts of the film helped me to understand who the characters were and weren’t just there to get me to one climactic scene or moment where all the pay off would be. Sylvie Testud’s performance is remarkable. That she is able to draw us into Christine’s (the main character’s) inner world and make us feel as though we understand something of her interior world and not merely her circumstances is a gargantuan achievement. Jessica Hausner’s direction is precise and restrained; it counts on us to notice things without spotlighting them–the slightest movement of a hand, a change of expression, a momentary pause.

Recently I re-watched Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest and was struck by the way the main character bears so painfully the the realization that just as faithfulness does not shield one from suffering, neither does genuine belief alleviate the pain that comes from not understanding. Sometimes, to alleviate our own painful doubts, we add to the burdens of those who suffer by speaking to them and of them as though belief is incompatible with their present state and so inferring that somehow there must be a connection between God’s failure to deliver them and some fault or lack of faith on their part. It is one of the many miracles of Lourdes that it shows both the caretakers and the infirm at their catty, human, selfish worst and yet makes us love them not just in spite of their brokenness but, perhaps, because of it.

About Kenneth R. Morefield
  • http://cynthiamorefield.com Cindy

    I’ve really enjoyed the subset of these films I’ve had the oppportunity to see (Bright Star, An Education, Owning the Weather, Forgetting Dad – almost half), so definitely looking forward to seeing the rest! Thanks for bringing these films to our attention.

  • Todd

    Lists like these usually serve as reminders that I live in a cinematographical desert. Of these 10 films, only one (State of Play) was available to view within 50 miles of my home. And, truth be told, I was only really conscious about the existence of three others. (This last bit may simply be my fault for not keeping up on the film board.)

    However, lists like these also provide fodder my next year’s “new-to-me” faves as they become available on DVD. Until then, I’ll keep sifting the muddy bottom of the Mississippi to find a fleck of Fool’s Gold.


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