As some of you already know, I usually wait till long after awards season and the general critical hubbub has passed before I post any personal lists on the previous year’s films. And along with that notion, I reserve the right to add to that list as I take in more films from that year. I’ve been lucky enough to see quite a few of the films released in 2009 so far, but there’s always more to watch and I’ll be doing that as they become available on DVD or Blu-ray.
So here is the list as it stands today. I’ve broken the titles down alphabetically as it is far too difficult to break them down much further than that for me. And I don’t limit any group to a certain number. There are as many or as few listed as I felt warranted inclusion. And, as happens often with me, many of the year’s most popular films don’t show up on my favorites list. Though a few do.
The groups listed below are:
FAVORITE FILMS OF 2009
FILMS FROM 2009 DESERVING HONORABLE MENTION
LEAST FAVORITE FILMS OF 2009
MOST DISAPPOINTING FILMS OF 2009
FAVORITE OLDER FILMS SEEN FOR 1ST TIME IN 2009
And here they are:
FAVORITE FILMS OF 2009 (alphabetical):
ANVIL: THE STORY OF ANVIL
CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY
DAMNED UNITED, THE
FANTASTIC MR. FOX
GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE, THE
IN THE LOOP
LAST STATION, THE
SERIOUS MAN, A
SINGLE MAN, A
WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE
WHITE RIBBON, THE
Oddly enough, I would have to say my favorite of all the above-mentioned films was WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE. A film I expected to enjoy, but not as much as I did. I had heard rumblings of disappointment from others and even the occasional claim of “boring” from a few. And then there were those who liked it, but didn’t seem to rave. Well, when someone says boring, it almost always turns out to be a Hal favorite. Not out of any desire to be a rebel, but I’ve simply learned that what others often experience as boring, I experience as multi-layered and exciting.
Spike Jonzes interpretation of Maurice Sendak’s book is a raw emotional journey that works on such a wonderfully internal level that I think many folks who were expecting a more traditional narrative completely missed just how incredible this film actually is. Stream-of-consciousness writing at its best! And luckily, since publicly confessing my love of WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, many friends and acquaintances have come out of the woodwork to share with me their love for this film as well! I think it’s a movie that will stand the test of time and find its audience.
I also felt that A SINGLE MAN, A SERIOUS MAN and INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS would be right at the top of the list. For anyone interested, here’s my extensive breakdown and commentary on Quentin’s film from an earlier post, Subversive Cinema: Tarantino’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS.
A SINGLE MAN gave us both a startlingly calculated directorial debut by Tom Ford and Colin Firth’s performance of a lifetime. As much as I love Jeff Bridges (and I do), I would have given the acting Oscar to Firth for this one.
A SERIOUS MAN is the Coen Brothers at their best. A film that seemed to alienate many unfamiliar with Jewish-American culture, this is nonetheless the kind of film gifted filmmakers take on after winning an Oscar the previous year. One from the heart, as it were. For me, the film captured the grotesquery of faces that occupied my childhood along with the superstitious belief that the universe is out to get us for even the smallest transgressions, including the worst one of all, the belief that things may turn out alright.
Two documentaries made their way to my faves this year. Michael Moore’s CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY and ANVIL: THE STORY OF ANVIL. The first is in a long line of terrifically frightening, revealing and darkly amusing films by Mr. Moore. This one is right up there among his best. It is a fascinating look at the pitfalls of a Capitalist society at odds with its democratic foundation.
ANVIL is essentially the true life SPINAL TAP with story and characters almost too perfect to not have been made up. The founding members of the heavy metal band ANVIL are at the center of this document of passion and resilience. Regardless of whether or not you like their music (I don’t, particularly), their story is so damn human that anyone who has ever fought to follow their passion will relate to these aging guys and their incredible ongoing journey. I had the privilege of seeing them perform live immediately after the screening I attended.
2009 was also a good year for animated films as three topped my faves list. THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX may have been my favorite of all of them with George Clooney giving the performance he actually should have been nominated for. The old-style stop-motion animation is simply outstanding and a rare treat in the face of so much digital work overtaking the medium. And Wes Anderson’s unique style of comedy and timing (mixed with Roald Dahl’s imagination) has never been used to better effect. It may be the perfect marriage of style and content.
Meanwhile, CORALINE gave us one of the darkest children’s films to come along in quite a while. Visually breathtaking, the story and characters are straight out of a nightmare, one birthed of a wildly vivid imagination and startlingly brought to life by director Henry Selick based on author Neil Gaiman’s very cool book.
And, of course, the folks at Pixar do it again with UP. While not my all-time favorite Pixar flick, I did enjoy it more than some of their more recent outings which, while I enjoyed immensely, left me wanting something more. This one didn’t. It was perfectly touching, funny and inventive.
Steven Soderbergh’s THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE is why I want that man’s career. Any director who can go from OCEAN’S 13 to CHE to this low-budget gem is my kind of director. Shot on the Red One camera and starring complete unknowns (with the exception of porn star Sasha Grey) Soderbergh continues his well-deserved and incredibly rewarding experiments in film. He is a true auteur.
A British director largely known for his television work, Tom Hooper does a stunning job with Peter Morgan’s tight script (based on David Peace’s novel) of THE DAMNED UNITED. As that rare breed of guy missing the popular sports-gene, it takes a bit of effort for me to commit to watching any film that has a sport at its center. Lucky for me I overcame my concerns (thanks to the knowledge that Michael Sheen, Timothy Spall and Colm Meaney were in the leading roles) because UNITED is thoroughly engaging. Not so much about football (soccer to those U.S.-bound folks) as it is about vengeance, obsession, insecurity and friendship, UNITED has some of the strongest performances I’ve seen all year. Sheen is truly extraordinary in what has to be the most spot-on casting of 2009. And Timothy Spall is, as always, a joy to watch. I was completely taken with this film.
IN THE LOOP is one of the best political satires I’ve seen in a long time. While American satires rarely transcend the obviousness of films like WAG THE DOG, the Brits have a knack for taking their satires to incredible heights. LOOP feels oddly realistic in its re-creation of a world (not unlike the film industry) steeped in dysfunction and abuse and filled with personal realities that remain unaffected by the unwelcome intrusion of facts.
THE LAST STATION, while not as cinematic as I would have liked, is nonetheless riveting for both its performances and its historical depiction. A sucker for any films about Russian history, STATION also threw both Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer into the package for me. Thanks.
MOON is one of the more interesting sci-fi films to come along in many years. Held together by Sam Rockwell’s little-recognized but nonetheless incredible tour de force performance, MOON harkens back to the sci fi’s of my youth, most notably SILENT RUNNING. And the film proves that sci fi can be done on a very small budget ($8 million) so long as you have a great script, great actors, and a director with vision. Wish the public had embraced this film over the lesser DISTRICT 9.
SIN NOBRE was one of the two best foreign language films I took in this year. Granted, many of the Oscar nominees in that category haven’t been released here in the States yet so I can’t compare, but I found NOMBRE to be gripping, frightening and intensely emotional. I enjoyed every second.
Best known for his creepy, highly cinematic tales of ghosts and other unsettling phenomena, Japanese director Kyoshi Kurosawa brings his unique visual style to tell this tale of an ordinary family in crisis. No poltergeists or serial killers, the enemy in TOKYO SONATA comes from within (which, truth be told, is still in keeping with Kurosawa’s favorite themes). Japanese society, status, authority, communication, and economy are all examined under the director’s revealing inner microscope. Moving, disturbing and, at times, funny, Kurosawa’s SONATA was honored with the Un Certain Regard Award at Cannes. And it was an award well-deserved. A beautiful and, yes, haunting tale of ordinary people trying to overcome very human obstacles.
The other foreign language film that completely knocked me out was Michael Haneke’s THE WHITE RIBBON. Astonishingly beautiful in stark black and white, Haneke’s emotionally violent film is mesmerizing and, like all of his films, exists in the world of the subconscious. It’s a thoughtfully paced film that squeezes you tightly and refuses to let go. Its grip lingers long after the film has ended.
Moving on now to those films I feel deserve mention, though they didn’t quite effect me intensely enough to make my Favorites list. These films worked for me on different levels. Some in their entirety, and others only in part. But in each, I feel there is something of value and interest to me that made them stand out.
FILMS FROM 2009 DESERVING HONORABLE MENTION (alphabetical)
COCO BEFORE CHANEL
EVERY LITTLE STEP
FLAME AND CITRON
HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE
HURT LOCKER, THE
IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSIS, THE
MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS, THE
Okay, so while AVATAR may have had one of the weakest, most formulaic scripts to come along in quite some time, it nevertheless has its charms and is a fun, if not completely predictable, ride that appealed to the 15 year old boy in me. And while I appreciate the film’s left-leaning, socially and environmentally conscious themes, it’s the groundbreaking 3-D that makes seeing this film truly worthwhile.
BRIGHT STAR is one of Jane Campion’s more down-to-earth, straight-forward films. With terrific perfs all around, Campion’s style keeps us at a bit of a distance allowing us to watch these historically emotional events as if uncomfortable bystanders who simply cannot look away. And yes, that’s a good thing.
For years, Pedro Almodovar’s films lost me. I have always been a huge fan of his early work, but sometime soon after WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN he lost me. It wasn’t until the last few years that he started making films that spoke to me again. And while BROKEN EMBRACES may not be one of Almodovar’s best, it’s still damned entertaining.
COCO BEFORE CHANEL is gorgeous to look at and never a bore. My biggest complaint would be the underplaying of Coco’s struggle to make it in a man’s world. Despite this, I was still immensely entertained and enjoyed the film, but this kept it from being a favorite. However, the cinematography and performances are more than worthwhile.
AN EDUCATION is a somewhat uneven film, but its central perf by Carey Mulligan makes it a must-see. I truly enjoyed most of the film and its period recreation, but it was mostly the depiction of Jenny’s parents that took me out of the world of the film. Despite the fact that Alfred Molina is one of my favorite actors! They were just a bit too much comic relief where none was needed and never managed to be completely believable within the context of the film. For me.
EVERY LITTLE STEP, like ANVIL in many ways, is a testament to the resiliency and hard work of artists. Anyone who has ever tested the odds of career success as an artist will understand the trials and tribulations on display in this film. It is an emotional journey well worth taking. And, as someone who has worked casting for far too many years now, I had some personal insights that made it even more fascinating to watch.
FLAME AND CITRON is a solid WWII film set in Denmark. It’s part film noir, part historical drama and damned entertaining from start to finish. There’s something about the film that kept it from being great, however, but that didn’t stop me from sitting on the edge of my seat throughout.
HARRY BROWN is a wonderful return to form for Michael Caine. One of the best revenge films I’ve seen in many a year. Not exploitative and not an action film, BROWN is a riveting character study and just a terrific genre role for Caine.
HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF BLOOD PRINCE. Okay, so we’re not talking masterpiece here. But for someone like myself who started out not really liking this movie franchise, as the films progressed and each one grew even darker than the previous, my level of enjoyment increased exponentially. This is my favorite one to date.
Despite winning a slew of Academy Awards including Best Director and Best Picture, I don’t think THE HURT LOCKER is a groundbreaking film. And while I did find it well made and intense at times, the impact of the film was lessened for me after having previously viewed HBO’s miniseries GENERATION KILL, which I felt was similar but superior. By comparison, THE HURT LOCKER felt a tad contrived. That said, I still found it to be an above-average film and well worth seeing.
THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSIS is pure Terry Gilliam. Weird, startlingly creative and the best kind of eye-candy. It also contains Heath Ledger’s final performance. And it’s a wonderful one at that. I was completely taken with the world of this film. It may not be as breathtaking as Gilliam’s BRAZIL, but very little in this world is.
Soderbergh’s THE INFORMANT! contains the Matt Damon performance he should have been nominated for. The film’s disturbingly funny and tragic take on this character belongs to a world all its own. Soderbergh walks a fine line here, but manages to make it all work beautifully.
JULIA is a tough film in many ways. I found it extremely difficult to watch at times due to its uncomfortable subject matter that pushed a lot of personal buttons for me. The plot moves in many different directions, many of which you never see coming, but it’s Tilda Swinton’s performance that keeps you riveted. While not at all subtle, Swinton still manages to give us one of the most memorable portrayals of an alcoholic in cinema history. The film has strong shades of Cassavetes’ GLORIA and doesn’t seem the least bit concerned with political correctness or forgiving its lead character.
Grant Heslov’s THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS, based on Jon Ronson’s book, is a quirky little film with some great comic performances. Jeff Bridges is terrific as always and George Clooney is spot on. I would have much preferred to see him nominated for this one over UP IN THE AIR. But alas… The film did poorly over all, which is a shame. It’s thoroughly enjoyable, but maybe a tad too deadpan for today’s comedy audience that still insist WEDDING CRASHERS was funny.
Yeah, there were moments I didn’t completely buy and I though the end (both of them, actually) was disappointing, but PARANORMAL ACTIVITY still did what it set out to do: scare the shit outta me.
PUBLIC ENEMIES is an incredibly imperfect film, but I really enjoyed the period recreation and many of the performances. I’m a sucker for old-style gangster films (far more than contemporary gangster films) and this one had an artistic edge to it that appealed to me. Not often a fan of Michael Mann as a director (though I loved THE INSIDER), this film has some terrific use of silent communication; how characters communicate with eyes and body language either without dialogue or between/beneath the dialogue.
THE ROAD is a stark, dour film. And that equals enjoyment for Hal. No traditional plot to speak of, THE ROAD meanders across one of the bleakest landscapes captured in modern film, both internally and externally. This one almost made my favorites list, but something about the film didn’t stick with me as long as I had expected it to. Or wanted it to.
TAKING WOODSTOCK is pure, simple fun. Nothing unpredictable about it. For more of my thoughts on this film, check out my earlier post, Seeing WOODSTOCK Before TAKING WOODSTOCK.
Francis Coppola’s recently rediscovered himself as a filmmaker. After years of squandering his vast talents in order to free himself of massive debt, this master filmmaker is now making films on his own terms. And nothing could make me happier. While TETRO wasn’t quite as compelling for me as Coppola’s previous YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH, it is still brimming with creativity, inventiveness, atmosphere, and a deep love of cinema.
Now let’s move on to those films that were just so poor by my standards that they actually warrant mention as my least favorites. And I say this with full knowledge of how difficult it is to make a film, any film, and with an understanding that one person’s trash is another person’s treasure. But here’s my trash.
LEAST FAVORITE FILMS OF 2009 (alphabetical)
FOURTH KIND, THE
2012 was so ridiculous and heavy-handed that even my guilty pleasure love of disaster films wasn’t strong enough to withstand this. So much worse than it had any right to be. And all this despite the wonderful John Cusack who is completely wasted here.
THE FOURTH KIND is more of a gimmick than it is a film. Supposedly based on true events, one would never know given that the filmmakers shot recreations and then shot recreations of their recreations so that they could cut back and forth between two sets of recreated footage–one low-budget, one higher budget. The result is a mess with no scares and no tension. It’s a bit baffling to watch as none of the characters (in either footage) act with much common sense. One has to wonder what Elias Koteas and Will Patton were doing here; two wonderful actors completely wasted. And the director made the giant mistake as casting himself in the film. Granted, it’s a small role with almost no dialogue, but rarely in film history have I seen anyone appear so uncomfortable and self-conscious in front of a camera.
I must confess here and now to not being able to get through IT’S COMPLICATED. I have never been a fan of Nancy Meyers and this film highlights all the reasons why that is. For the record, I couldn’t get through her previous film, THE HOLIDAY, either. I find the humor and the characters in Meyers’ films to be completely uninteresting and obvious, as I do her dialogue. Even the talents of Meryl Streep couldn’t pull me through this one. It was actually painful for me to watch those talents wasted here to such a staggering degree.
And ZOMBIELAND, despite its popularity, didn’t work for me on any level. The humor was shockingly unfunny and the zombie action scenes quite possibly the most boring ever burned to celluloid. The entire exercise felt like a string of disconnected commercials wrapped around a few lame SNL sketches. There was no connective tissue or individual style to the world of ZOMBIELAND. The rules changed on a dime and I couldn’t help feeling that it was more a vehicle for product placement than a film or a story. Sorry ZOMBIELAND fans.
Now for those films that, while not downright awful IMHO, were nonetheless disappointing to me. Of course, in order for a film to be disappointing, one has to have entered into it with some expectations that it was going to be better. So it’s a very relative category. So here are the films I had, at least, hoped would be better than they actually were:
MOST DISAPPOINTING FILMS OF 2009 (alphabetical)
BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL – NEW ORLEANS, THE
DRAG ME TO HELL
LOVELY BONES, THE
UP IN THE AIR
BAD LIEUTENANT was disappointing because I know what director Herzog is capable of. This film, for me, was a train wreck. I have no idea if Herzog meant it as a comedy or a drama as it never quite worked for me as either.
DISTRICT 9, while disgustingly popular, is nothing more than a video game actioner disguised as political commentary. For more in-depth thoughts on this, check out my previous post, DISTRICT 9: If You’re Hungry Enough, Even Cat Food Can Taste Like Fine Cuisine.
DRAG ME TO HELL left me bored. Lots of style, no real script. Had heard that the film was fun despite its lack of story. I heard wrong.
THE LOVELY BONES, while taken from great source material, completely missed the mark for me. Jackson’s view of a little girl’s heaven was both distracting and distancing for me. It felt more like an episode of MY LITTLE PONY than the drama it was meant to be. And the film concentrated less on the emotional journey of the characters and more on the “thriller” elements, which was not what I was expecting, nor was it what I wanted. And Jackson chose not to deal with the fact that this little girl was raped and dismembered. That does not exist in this film and, since it is the crux of the story and the emotional battles that ensue, I felt the film suffered tremendously from its exclusion from the story line.
PANDORUM. Okay, so I really didn’t expect this film to be any good as, by the time I became aware of its existence, it had already bombed miserably and vanished from theaters. But I love Dennis Quaid and think he is still one of the most underrated actors working today. So I’m always rooting for him. But PANDORUM is a jumbled mess that harkens back to such filmic disasters as EVENT HORIZON. Once the downward spiral starts, it swiftly picks up speed until you just want to get out of its way and let it run its course while you look elsewhere.
UP IN THE AIR. So many people loved this film, called it deep. I thought it was moderately entertaining at times, boring and self-consciously “hip” at others. In the end, I found the characters unmotivated and unbelievable. The film played it too safe for my tastes. And while I loved the cast, I didn’t feel they rose to the occasion, despite the Academy noms.
WATCHMEN was just more style over substance. The first half hour was beyond boring to me. It improved slightly as it trudged along, but never enough to propel it out of that category of potential lacking a deeper vision. Odd for a movie advertised as “From the visionary director of 300,” another film that left me hollow inside.
And despite my lifelong love of Woody Allen, the casting of Larry David as the lead in WHATEVER WORKS, while interesting in concept, was terrible in execution. David just couldn’t carry the film or handle the role and it sunk the film for me, despite a relatively amusing script. For more on this, check out my earlier post, WHATEVER WORKS. Sadly, Larry David Doesn’t.
And of course, every year brings the joy of seeing films released in previous years that I, for whatever reason, never caught up with before, but fell in love with in 2009.
FAVORITE OLDER FILMS SEEN FOR 1ST TIME IN 2009 (alphabetical)
LE FILS (2002)
BAADER MEINHOF COMPLEX, THE (2008)
BOY A (2007)
CODE UNKNOWN (2000)
MYSTERIOUS SKIN (2005)
PARANOID PARK (2007)
ROMAN POLANSKI: WANTED AND DESIRED (2008)
SECRET LIFE OF WORDS, THE (2005)
TELL NO ONE (2006)
WOODSTOCK: 3 DAYS OF PEACE AND MUSIC: DIRECTOR’S CUT (1970 -Had never seen the Director’s Cut before)
The Dardenne Brothers film LE FILS (The Son) is a daring and challenging journey for both its protagonist and the film’s viewers. Handheld and oftentimes hovering just behind our “hero’s” back, we are taken along a path seemingly ordinary at first, but with subtle complexities that build as the film progresses. Terrific performances and style.
THE BAADER MEINHOF COMPLEX is one of the best bio pics I’ve seen in ages. A return to form for director Uli Edel who hadn’t made a feature film for theatrical release since 1989’s LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN (he’s been living in TV land ever since), BAADER is about as compelling as film gets. Following the exploits of the German terrorist group The Red Army Faction, the film creates a complex tapestry of emotions and political ideologies that are anything but black and white. The film simultaneously gives us a glimpse into our past while commenting enormously on our present.
BOY A is worth seeing for so many reasons, the greatest of which is Andrew Garfield’s outstanding performance as a young man released from prison for a crime he committed as a child. The film raises so many moral and social questions that it’s impossible not to be moved by the events and characters depicted here.
CODE UNKNOWN is another incredible and complex film by Michael Haneke. Following several different characters whose stories all intersect, Haneke explores the ways in which we communicate and, more importantly, fail to communicate with one another. Juliette Binoche gives one of the many terrific perfs to be found in here. I loved every second and, in perfect Haneke fashion, the film raises more questions than it answers. My kind of film!
MARTYRS is, quite simply, the most violent film I’ve ever seen. Brutal, unrelenting, terrifying. There’s also a point to the violence (though it takes a while to find it) and I found the film to be unusually and unexpectedly thought-provoking. But be warned, it will challenge the hell out of you. If you’re even a little squeamish, there’s a good chance you won’t make it too far into this one. If you think you can handle it, though, give it a try. I found it to be worth the journey. It’s certainly unlike any film I’ve seen before and the two lead performances are uninhibited and completely committed. The film would not have worked without them.
MYSTERIOUS SKIN is my favorite of the Gregg Araki films I’ve seen. Held together by a truly fearless performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, SKIN knocked me out. It’s a painful film that treads into sometimes difficult emotional territory, but Araki handles it with both an artistic eye and an extreme amount of compassion.
PARANOID PARK is another in an ever-growing list of lower-budget films from Gus Van Sant. A great companion piece to Van Sant’s ELEPHANT, PARK takes us into the world of Pacific Northwest youth and the trials, tribulations and emotional roller-coaster rides that transpire out of eye-shot of the adult world. It’s an amazing film and another testament to Van Sant’s talents and another reason why he should continue to stay away from the Hollywood machine that simply doesn’t seem to be the creative environment for him to produce his best work.
ROMAN POLANSKI: WANTED AND DESIRED is a truly amazing documentary that dives headfirst into the complexities and misunderstandings surrounding Roman Polanski’s trial and paints a vivid picture of what drove the famous director to flee the country before sentencing. Regardless of what you think of Polanski, his crime, and the events that have happened since, this film will shed new light on your previous notions.
THE SECRET LIFE OF WORDS. I’m a big fan of director Isabel Coixet. Her last film, ELEGY, knocked me over and I’ve since made it a point to catch up with those handful of films she’s made that I somehow missed. This was one of them and it’s a terrific study of two injured people finding one another in the most unusual and unexpected of circumstances. Achingly beautiful performances by Sarah Polley and Tim Robbins.
I found the French thriller/murder mystery TELL NO ONE to be completely riveting. It’s so rare to get a thriller that actually works and doesn’t assume the audience is a bunch of idiots. It seems to me that Europe tends to produce better thrillers than Hollywood does these days and this is most certainly one of them.
As for WOODSTOCK, though I grew up watching this film, this is the first time I’d had the opportunity to see the full director’s cut. And it was a revelation. For my full review, check out my earlier post Cinematic Masterpieces: WOODSTOCK: THE DIRECTOR’S CUT.
So that’s the wrap-up of my reactions to the films of 2009 and a handful of others. All in all not a bad year. By the same token, not one for the history books either. I’ll be adding more films to the list as I view them, so feel free to check back from time to time.