EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—Here it is, folks: the list most of you (I hope) have been waiting for, and the one I've been itching to release!
In my mind, this was a very fine year in cinema—but then, maybe that's because I often went the extra mile this year to try to keep up with the kind of offbeat independent fare that played exclusively in New York. So the list that follows will probably feature a lot of titles that many of you may not have even heard of. I hope that doesn't scare you away; instead, if I somehow convince you that at least one of the titles as-yet-unheard-of-by-you is worth checking out, then I feel I will have done my job. I like to think I'm not shouting my love of challenging cinema to merely an "in-crowd" or echo chamber.
That is not meant to suggest, though, that this was a bad year for mainstream cinema; far from it. I say, any year that can produce a piece of popular entertainment as defiantly oddball and idiosyncratic as Inglourious Basterds is a pretty damn strong one. And, of course, there was the parade of wonderful animated pictures that floated through movie megaplexes, films that managed not only to dazzle the eyes and push the boundaries of 3-D, but also put technique and spectacle in the service of distinctive personal visions. Yes, the welcome whiff of auteurism was alive in the big movie chains, for better or worse (depending on how seriously you take Michael Bay, whose Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen I skipped out on).
But enough of trying to fashion a grand statement about 2009 cinema. I'm inclined to let the films speak for themselves.
Counting down my ten favorite films of 2009:
10. Import/Export. Through two parallel but never-intersecting narrative strands, Austrian director Ulrich Seidl creates a bleak yet oddly hopeful drama about two people—one a Ukrainian emigrant looking for a better life in Austria, the other an unemployed Austrian looking for a better life in Ukraine—who navigate a bleak and unforgiving world by finding moments of connection amidst despair and an occasional disregard for human life. (This film will be released on DVD January 26.)
9. Police, Adjective. Corneliu Porumboiu, the Romanian New Wave's resident absurdist humorist, uses the tools of a standard-issue police procedural to mask a fascinating examination of the use of language and semantics as a tool of dictatorial power. By its climax, a dictionary has become as powerful a weapon as a gun. (This film is currently playing at the IFC Center; here's an interview I did with Porumboiu for The Wall Street Journal.)
8. Frontier of Dawn. With a sensibility that somehow allies scientific detachment with a palpable aching romanticism, French director Philippe Garrel, in Frontier of Dawn, surveys a romantic landscape in which love, for all its joys, is capable of leaving psychic scars in the wake of its destruction. (This film will be released on DVD January 26; I wrote a bit about it here.)
7. Birdsong. Through long takes pitting human figures against the wide-open landscape around them, Catalan director Albert Serra's sometimes hilarious minimalist retelling of the story of the Three Magi reawakens a sense of wonder at the natural world that envelops all of us. (I daresay, there's more genuine awe in this film than in Avatar, for all the money thrown at it.) In its own absurdist way, it's a deeply spiritual work, searching for God even in the most mundane of surroundings. (I wrote a bit about it here.)
6. The Sun. Finally getting a theatrical run this past year, Russian director Alexander Sokurov's 2005 historical biopic takes an impressionistic look at the last days of Emperor Hirohito's reign towards the end of World War II. Amidst its cavernous spaces and general feeling of dread, Sokurov explores the vast divide between a nation's public image of the emperor and the innocent human being underneath. By the end, the human being is fully revealed...but at what cost to the Japanese public? (I wrote a bit about it here.)
5. Up. This latest Pixar effort from directors Pete Docter & Bob Peterson is the one animated feature—among many gems—that moved me the most deeply this year. For all its zany plot twists and fantastical imagery, it's the film's vivid evocation of one man's yearning for adventure and deep regret of a life not lived that got to me the most. (This film is currently available on DVD.)
4. The Limits of Control. One of the most divisive films not only of the year, but of iconoclastic director Jim Jarmusch's career, The Limits of Control strikes me as less a simple-minded ode to bohemianism, and more a beguiling and consistently beautiful invitation to open oneself up to new ways of perceiving the world. Its ending is not so much an actual endpoint as it is a starting point for further artistic adventures. (This film is currently available on DVD; I wrote a bit about it here.)
3. Inglourious Basterds. Far from being an empty kill-all-'em-Nazis wish-fulfillment jamboree, Quentin Tarantino's masterpiece to date is in fact a boldly moral inquiry into the ethics and efficacy of revenge, subversive enough to not only entertain us, but also to make us think hard about what exactly it is we're being entertained by. It's, in short, smarter than it looks. (This film is currently available on DVD.)
2. A Serious Man. The Coen Brothers' latest work may on the surface be about one man's wavering religious faith in the midst of overwhelming adversity, but at a deeper level it's a film about how much we really don't know about the way the world works, and how we choose to deal, or not deal, with that (lack of) knowledge. Faith is just one facet of this brilliantly multifaceted and profound film. (I wrote a bit about it here.)
1. Summer Hours. The great French director Olivier Assayas, with his characteristic restless intelligence and startling Renoir-esque empathy, takes the temperature of a clan united by their matriarch's death, yet separated by tensions borne out of conflicting desires to honor the past while trying to move on in the present. In such a context, the late mother's prized possessions—including quite a bit of artwork—take on a special added significance; could it be that, in this age of encroaching globalization, one's personal possessions will be the way people are remembered after death? It's that profound insight in particular, given gloriously tactile expression by Assayas and cinematographer Eric Gautier, that distinguishes this film from many of the rest that were released in 2009.
Here are a bunch more that I really liked, in alphabetical order:
35 Shots of Rum, Claire Denis
Adventureland, Greg Mottola
Afterschool, Antonio Campos
Coraline, Henry Selick
La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet, Frederick Wiseman
Duplicity, Tony Gilroy
The Girlfriend Experience, Steven Soderbergh
Goodbye Solo, Ramin Bahrani
The Headless Woman, Lucrecia Martel
The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow
Julia, Erick Zonca
Lake Tahoe, Fernando Eimbcke
Loot, Darius Marder
Liverpool, Lisandro Alonso
Moon, Duncan Jones
Ponyo, Hayao Miyazaki
Ricky, François Ozon
Serbis, Brillante Mendoza
Still Walking, Hirokazu Kore-eda
Sugar, Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck
Tetro, Francis Ford Coppola
Thirst, Chan-wook Park
Two Lovers, James Gray
Where the Wild Things Are, Spike Jonze
You, the Living, Roy Andersson
Among my many blind spots: Jan Troell's Everlasting Moments, Sergei Dvortsevoy's Tulpan, So Yong Kim's Treeless Mountain, Robert Kenner's Food, Inc., Judd Apatow's Funny People, Hong Sang-soo's Night and Day, and Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon. Hey, I am only one man!