Tuesday, December 29, 2009

2009: the year in movies

Let me first confess that I still haven’t seen at least one movie that I predict I’m going to adore. It's been a busy winter! Fortunately, I don’t think there’s any lack of love out there for
Fantastic Mr. Fox and it’ll surely be heartily celebrated elsewhere. This may not be case however with my first pick for the best of 2009, which barely screened anywhere in Canada but is now at least available on DVD. In fact so many of my favourites didn’t hit theatres or had only limited runs that I’ve decided to comprise my list from anything that debuted in theatres or on DVD in 2009. This is hardly news of course, but given the current state of exhibitors, unless we all get to attend major festivals we need to look to screens of all sizes if we’re to embrace the spectrum of what’s exciting in movies these days.

The Headless Woman
A hit and run occurs. We don’t see the victim, but neither does the driver. We see the driver work through her decision not to look—the process is oddly transfixing. We then see her do many strange yet finally instinctively logical things in response to the accident. We’re dream-deep in noir territory, but the author of this beguiling movie is Lucrecia Martel, who made
The Holy Girl, so along its periphery are unforgettably peculiar, unnervingly funny details, and troubling questions of class solidarity and willful blindness. María Onetto gives an immensely absorbing performance, like Gena Rowlands on Quaaludes.

Summer Hours
A final family reunion precedes a matriarch’s death. Her adult children, now spread across the globe, must reconvene to sort out mother’s legacy. Olivier Assayas’ most emotionally rich work is about things, “bric-a-brac from another era,” the residue of a life, its memories and secrets. It offers a sobering sense of mortality, followed by the consolation of renewal: the last characters we see are the matriarch’s teenaged grandchildren, whiling away the summer hours at grandmother’s old house one last time, before it becomes the property of someone else.

The Limits of Control
“As I descended into impassable rivers, I no longer felt guided by the ferryman.” The opening Rimbaud quote says it all: surrender to the drift, the buoyancy of the texture, mystery and playfulness will carry you along. Thus unmoored, Jim Jarmusch made one of the loosest, most chimerical and, it would appear, most divisive works of his career. Smartly suited Isaach De Bankolé slips across Spain, meeting with shadowy figures, deciphering cryptic messages, drinking twin espressos and even enjoying some after-hours flamenco on his way to complete a sinister mission. Pitched somewhere between
Point Blank, The Passenger and Jarmusch’s own Ghost Dog, this is a cinema of wanderlust and hypnosis, far more concerned with architecture, atmosphere, jokes, musical logic, naked ladies, sensation and sensibility, than it is about, say, espionage. My second viewing was approached very skeptically. I still loved it completely.

Inglorious Basterds
Here’s some synchronicity for you: 17 years after
Reservoir Dogs Quentin Tarantino finally goes completely bananas and reaches the peak of his maniacal, pastiche-frenzied craftsmanship at the same time. Who else could have made this insanely verbose, over-the-top epic about resistance in war-torn Europe that fantasizes both a scalp-collecting Jewish revenge squad and the complete annihilation of the entire Nazi elite in one explosive screening at a Parisian movie palace? I rest my case.

35 Rhums
This was Claire Denis’ entrancing and moving tale of a closely bound father and daughter gradually finding their individual paths after years of living together. Denis’ touch is so light as to seem weightless, her exposition so minimal as to seem neglectful of plot, yet no one makes movies like this, so alive, so warm and sometimes funky and funny, so sensitive to everyday rhythms and nuance, so trusting in story to reveal itself once nurtured. I could curl up on a rug and drift away with her films for ages.

A Serious Man
Remember the story of Job? Well, this is funnier. A physics professor’s wife leaves him. His brother is arrested. He could any moment be accused of taking a bribe from an alarmingly deadpan student from Korea. He’s inexplicably hounded by the Columbia Record Club. This is the Coen Brother’s vision of the universe, set in the Minneapolis suburbs, circa 1967. A tornado might come along and kill everybody. Uncertainty is the only certainty. There’s no comfort in religion, though it’s kind of fun to look for it anyway. As the Korean student’s dad advises, “Accept the mystery.”

Two Lovers
Speaking of Jews in trouble. A Brooklyn dry cleaner’s son trying not to be suicidal, Joaquin Phoenix loves the sweet girl his family has implicitly selected for him. He also loves Gwyneth Paltrow, who’s clearly bad news but is so much more exciting. He also loves his mom, who happens to be Isabella Rossellini. James Gray is a master storyteller, and this is his best work, a vision of the abyss we traverse when we surrender fully to romantic longing, and of those harrowing moments when compromise wollops us upside the head until out ears ring.

The first part of Steven Soderbergh’s portrait of Ernesto Guevara is a puzzle made of trial and error while the second arm-wrestles with The Thin Red Line for the title of Most Hypnotic War Movie. The whole thing eschews Guevara the T-shirt icon, yet it doesn’t hoist phony biopic vulnerability on him either. It’s by turns lyrical and strategic, a manual on armed revolution and a consideration of violence as a tool for social change.

Miguel ‘Sugar’ Santos is hardly a revolutionary, but his story provides us with much insight into the uneasy alliances that span the Americas. Recruited to play ball, he leaves the DR for the US, discovers French toast and TV on the Radio, as well as the simultaneous warmth and cool conservatism of the semi-rural Midwest. So much more than a sports movie—though the baseball is rendered excitingly—Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden’s follow-up to
Half Nelson is a beautiful, profoundly resonant tale of the unpredictable paths that characterize the immigrant experience.

Wendy and Lucy
One needn’t be an immigrant however to understand how riddled with obstacles American life can be. Kelly Reichardt’s neorealist story of a young woman stranded in Oregon, trying to find her dog and get to Alaska, uses the simplest of narrative elements to forge both a lament for the outsider in the ostensible land of plenty and an ode to the kindness of strangers.

A sailor goes ashore in Argentina. He says he wants to visit his home, a tiny village in the mountains, to see if his mother is still alive. It's winter, and the sailor drinks, swigging off a bottle he keeps in his small bag. But it may not only be the cold that he's bracing himself for. Lisandro Alonso's rigorously observational approach is employed with special elegance here, gradually gliding away from the protagonist to someone else, someone he's forgotten, until we rest on the image that explains the enigmatic title, and offers up some touchingly subtle gesture of things passed along from one generation to another.

Maybe not quite as good but still very good:
Hunger, The Hurt Locker, Let the Right One In, Pontypool, The Road, Tulpan.


Paul Matwychuk said...

Nice list, JB!

Usually our two lists have a lot of overlap, but that doesn't look like it'll be the case this year. That's partly because I still haven't seen 35 RHUMS, SUGAR, or LIVERPOOL, partly because I had problems with A SERIOUS MAN, CHE, and especially THE LIMITS OF CONTROL, and partly because I had a whole lot of comedies and kids' movies that I liked better. Am I mentally regressing? Sometimes I wonder. Maybe a shot of Claire Denis (or 35 shots!) will get me back to normal.

JB said...

Thanks, Paul. I'm not at all concerned about your mental regression (and I actually don't think I saw some of the kid's movies you're referring to, so, hey, I don't even know what I'm missing). But I'm pretty sure a shot of Claire Denis would be a nice New Year's gift to yourself nonetheless. I recall that you really liked FRIDAY NIGHT, and 35 RHUMS possesses a somewhat similar warmth. I sure wish Mongrel did more with the film...