My Top 10 Movies of 2009
This was a tough list to compile. I didn't include a few I thought I would, such as “An Education,” “Red Cliff,” and “Up in the Air,” but I did include a few that will cause some head scratching. That's part of the fun.
These are the movies that had an impact for me that resonated. Some were a joy to watch (“Up”), others were hard to watch (“The Hurt Locker”). Some I still don't fully understand (“A Serious Man”), others I felt deep in my gut (“Anvil! The Story of Anvil”). My no. 1 movie was pleasant enough, then worked on me, both subtly and deeply, ever since. Four of the 10 I've seen twice: “Up,” “Seraphine,” “Avatar” and “The Soloist.”
There are a few contenders I haven't had the chance to check out yet: “Broken Embraces,” “The White Ribbon,” “Crazy Heart.” But the year's at an end and the list needs to get out. Kind of. In E.L. Doctorow's “The Book of Daniel,” Daniel's sister, a '60s radical, upon hearing of Daniel's future plans, tells him, “Just what the world needs, Daniel—another graduate student.” So it is here. Just what the internet needs, Erik—another top 10 list. Hopefully there's something on the list that makes it worthwhile for you.
10. “Inglourious Basterds”: We know the plan won't work. Hitler, Goebbels, Goering and Bormann are all at the premiere, and it’s June 1944, and this isn’t the way they go. Hitler and Goebbels kill themselves in their bunker in April 1945. Bormann, it’s assumed, died trying to escape the Red Army in May 1945, while Goering killed himself with cyanide after being sentenced to death during the Nuremberg trials in 1946. We know they won’t die here. At the same time we wonder how Tarantino will handle it. How will he let the Nazis get away but still make it satisfying for us? Here’s how he handles it: He kills them all in June 1944. ... You could argue that Hitler’s merely a prop to him, a movie villain, the way that, say, the Sheriff of Nottingham is a movie villain. He can kill him any way he wants. And this is the way he wants. This is the way that suits his story rather than history. Or you could go deeper. The greatest villain of the 20th century escaped our clutches. Yes, he took the coward’s way out in that bunker but we didn’t begin to get our revenge for all of the death and destruction he caused. The movies have recreated that moment, that horribly uncinematic moment in the bunker, time and time again, but they’ve always played by Hitler’s rules. They always gave him the end he chose. Until Tarantino. Who machine guns his face into oblivion in June 1944. Full review here.
9. “The Informant!”: As the film opens, there’s a virus eating both the lysine in the ADM plants and the profits that the conglomerate demands, and Whitacre’s getting the blame from the son of the boss for not solving the problem. It’s amusing but unfair—in the way that sons-of-bosses are always amusing but unfair. Then Whitacre gets a call from a Japanese colleague who says an ADM mole is responsible for the virus and he’ll reveal the name for $10 million. Rather than pay off, the higher-ups at ADM bring in the FBI, who tap Whitacre’s personal line to find out more. This bothers Whitacre—first a little, then a lot—and with his wife’s prodding he reveals to FBI agent Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula) that ADM and the Japanese are involved in price-fixing the international lysine market. Which is how Whitacre turns informant. “Mark, why are you doing this?“ Shepard asks at one point. “Because things are going on that I don’t approve of,” he says. “They’re making me lie to people.” Hold that thought. Full review here.
8. ”The Soloist“: ”The Soloist“ comes close to being a remarkable film. Near the middle there's a scene that, without trying too hard, feels like it's integrating all of its parts. Weston (Catherine Keener) is in her Los Angeles Times office as a manager, off screen, talking up the company’s “very good exit package,” lets an employee go. Out her window she sees Lopez (Downey, Jr.) helping push Nathaniel’s shopping cart up a hill. They’re heading to the L.A. Symphony to listen to a rehearsal, but she doesn’t know that, she only knows what she sees. And she smiles this wistful smile. There’s great balance here: the comedy outside and the tragedy within; one man helping another while a company, part of a dying industry, lets another employee go. It doesn’t draw too fine a point—as I fear I might be doing—it just feels part of this big shifting pattern we all create. It’s worthy of Keener’s beautiful, wistful smile. Full review here.
7. ”The Hurt Locker“: In “The Deer Hunter” there’s that great transition where one moment our boys are partying in rural Pennsylvania and the next moment they’re in a deadly firefight in Vietnam. Screenwriter Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow do the opposite here. There’s two days left, James has just met his match with a human IED (although he survives), and our boys are in their HUMVEE getting pelted with rocks from Iraqi children. The next second James is standing in an American grocery store, frozen food aisle, muzak in the background. He’s wearing civilian clothes and looks ordinary. The grocery store, particularly compared to the bright heat of Iraq, feels cold, devoid of life, awful. It feels like a dream but not a pleasant one. You feel the cultural dissonance James must feel, the dislocation, the difference between that and this. And as awful as that was, this feels worse. The fluorescent lights are not real lights, the music is not real music, the food is not real food. Everything is false. It’s dangerous to see Sgt. James as more than just Sgt. James but I can’t help it. Is he representative? Does he represent us? In other words, is our incessant foreign adventurism the result, in part, of having a home life, and a home culture, that feels like a lie? American culture isn’t what we’re fighting for; it’s what we’re running from. Full review here.
6. ”A Serious Man“: Larry Gopnik is the kind of man who timidly obsesses over small details—such as the property line with the Brandts, his stoic, hunting-happy Minnesota neighbors—and misses the big picture. Not only is his wife leaving him but his kids have left him. His son, Danny, is a mess of sixties contradictions: he has that classic Beatles haircut (redhaired version), smokes pot, listens to Jefferson Airplane, but only cares to talk with his father when the reception for “F Troop,” the lamest of ‘60s sitcoms, comes in fuzzy. His daughter, Sarah, only talks to her father to complain about Uncle Arthur, Larry’s brother, hogging the bathroom to drain the cyst in his neck. That’s at home. At work he’s being considered for tenure but letters arrive denigrating him. Then a Korean man accuses Larry of 1) defamation, because Larry accused his son of a bribe, and pleading 2) cultural differences, because Larry didn’t accept the bribe. Larry’s helpless before this kind of illogic. He can’t extricate himself from it. Life has the quality of a nightmare: Everything’s repetitive—Sy keeps hugging him, the Brandts keep playing catch, Arthur keeps draining his cyst—and everything’s unknowable. Dream sequences in other films are usually obvious but in the Coens’ films they blend almost seamlessly with life, so we in the audience are in the position of the dreamer: We don’t know what’s dream until it’s over. And even then. By the pool last night—did that happen? Full review here.
5. ”Anvil! The Story of Anvil“: They miss a train. They play dives for peanuts. Their fans are fervent but few. Late to one gig in the Czech Republic, they’re told the place is “jam fucking packed” but they get there and rock out before fewer than 10 fans; then the club owner refuses to pay them. It’s here we see the first of several eruptions from Lips, who, spittle flying, quickly loses his half-smile and nearly goes off on the dude. Their next gig should be a heavy-metal highlight — a rock show in Transyl-fucking-vania, with a 10,000-seat capacity — and as they make their way to the stage through narrow hallways, one bandmember, an obvious “Spinal Tap” fan, shouts “Hello, Cleveland!” Unlike Spinal Tap, Anvil finds its way to the stage. The crowd doesn’t. Only 174 show up. Cut to: Toronto in winter. Full review here.
4. ”Avatar“: James Cameron has done an amazing, ballsy thing with ”Avatar.“ Yes, he imagines an entire world and creates it in meticulous detail. Yes, he sends his main character on a hero’s journey through this world. But within this framework, this age-old story, he critiques the worst aspects of our own culture. “When people are sitting on something you want, you make them your enemy,” Jake says near the end, summing up the sad history of the human race. It’s not an abstract or ancient history, either. It’s current. The villains in “Avatar” use the language of this decade: “Shock and awe”; “fighting terror with terror”; “balance sheets.” They are us. “Dances with Wolves” was set in an historical timeframe, more than 100 years earlier, in which everyone knew the Native Americans would fight and lose. Not here. Here, in this future setting, the humans not only lose but they’re sent back to Earth—to their dying planet that has no green on it. They lose because God literally isn’t on their side. Full review here.
3. “Seraphine”: By the time most of us sit down to watch “Seraphine,” we know a few basics about her story—she’s a painter who lived in France at the turn of the last century—but this may trump all: She’s important enough that 100 years later we’re watching a film about her. The mere fact of the film, in other words, acts as a kind of redemption for her and a kind of guide for us. We see her scraping by to paint at night but we know, by virtue of the film, that she succeeds. We know, when the boarding-house owner demands to see her work and then dismisses it because the apples don’t look like apples (“They could be plums,” she says), that the woman is a philistine. We know, when dinner-party guests chuckle knowingly about how Seraphine left the convent because she felt God “called her” to paint, that they’re bourgeoisie with lousy bourgeois taste. The thrill we get, then, is as old as the thrill we get from the Gospels: These people don’t know who’s in their midst. They don’t know how special she is. It’s not a stretch to say we wait for her recognition as surely as we wait for our own. Full review here.
2. “Up”: Pixar movies focus on cultural moments rather than pop-cultural moments: that early 1960s period when astronauts replaced cowboys as heroes for boys everywhere; the difference, and similarities, between 20th-century “adventurers” and 21st-century “wilderness explorers.” Pixar doesn’t need to point to a pop-cultural phenomenon to get laughs. Put it this way: In “Up,” there’s a dog, a talking dog named Dug, and he’s more real than most live-action dogs on screen. What makes him funny isn’t that he’s not like a dog—that he stands on his hind legs and sings a rap song, for example, as he might in other animated features—but that he’s exactly like a dog. Pixar finds, intrinsically within the object, its humor. And drama. ... At Paradise Falls, Carl, burdened by his house, chooses the house, and what it represents, over Kevin, and Dug, and even Russell, and what they represent. Then he sits in it, alone, his longstanding dream finally realized, and he looks through Ellie’s old adventure book, and the unfulfilled promise of STUFF I’M GOING TO DO. But the pages beyond aren’t blank; he’s shocked to find they’re filled with the life he and Ellie lived together. This fact recalls something Russell said earlier about his father: “I think the boring stuff is the stuff I remember most.” That’s what Ellie filled her pages with: the boring, everyday stuff we discount but that means the most. On the last page Ellie includes a note to Carl: “Thanks for the adventure. Now go have a new one!” And as he does, as her words inspire him to throw out most of the stuff in his house to get it aloft again, to get back into the adventure, I sat there, a 46-year-old, tearing up. Full review here.
1. “L'Heure d'ete” (“Summer Hours”): The three grown-up siblings have familiarity with, and distance from, one other. They assume they know each other but there’s also this quiet curiosity. I love you, but who are you again? Or now? The rest of the movie is disillusion of the cottage and its precious artifacts. At one point, Eloise, the housekeeper, returns for a visit and sees strangers—art dealers, reps from the Musee d’Orsay—removing this painting, taking that exquisite desk. They’re basically messing up the place she cleaned up for decades. It’s a melancholy sight. “L’heure d’ete” is suffused with sadness but not nostalgia. Life expands, life contracts, life goes on. Director Olivier Assayas could’ve ended the film at the Musee d’Orsay, with the family's desk on display, looking “caged,” according to Frederic, but chose, instead, a more ambiguous end. He takes us back to the cottage house, where Frederic’s kids throw a huge, loud summer party. At first one is appalled that Helene’s place has been taken over in this fashion. But is this better? It’s vibrant. It’s life. The final shot is of the eldest daughter and her boyfriend, young and unburdened, running away from the camera and toward whatever it is they’ll create, and collect, and leave behind. Full review here.