Films of the Year: The ‘B’ List

I posted a Top Ten/Eleven the other day, but last year was such a rich one at the movies that I knew you, Dear Reader, would ask for more.  So, herewith: Films of 09 that I liked, but only just not enough:

The Girlfriend Experience (above): The first of two films Soderbergh made this year about the love of money, and the human as commodity.

Observe and Report: Vastly misunderstood, very serious story of the cruelty of consumer culture and insensitivity to mental illness that characterizes our age.

Star Trek: A wonderful adventure story, knowing in its humour, and let down only by the villain-for-hire/scriptbot nature of the central conflict between imperfect bully Kirk and understandably grieving villain.

Avatar: The evocation of an entire world on Pandora is undeniable, and while the means used to challenge imperialism are predictably violent, there’s a real film trying to get out from behind the tech-spectacle

Youssou N’Dour I Bring What I Love: A film about music and politics, and the politics of music, and the inspiration to dance that made me think about the first two and enact the second.

Up: The first ten minutes constitute the best short film Pixar never made; the rest is magnificent – beautifully written and paced; although regrettably, as usual, with a villain that can only be defeated through killing him, as far as the film is concerned.

Humpday: A delirious entertainment that turns out also to be a sanguine and prickly assessment of where we are now; or at least of where guys my age are now. The fact that am both older than the two lead actors, and apparently less financially stable made this a candidate for what Jett might call the feelgood comedy thrill ride of the year…

Funny People: But that would mean that I couldn’t say this of ‘Funny People’, which I do happen to consider to be the feelgood comedy thrill ride of the year. Why? Because it tells a certain kind of truth about life and work, and does it with a knowing eye to the audience’s pre-conceptions of both Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen.

Sita Sings the Blues: An astonishing animated film made over five years by Nina Paley, and given away for free on-line. One vision of the future of cinema.

Hunger: Hard to detach my personal history in Northern Ireland from my experience of the film, but then again, that’s true for every film. This one took life and death in my home town more seriously than any I’ve ever seen.

Two Lovers: James Gray hasn’t put a foot wrong in re-locating 19th century Russian novels to contemporary New York; the spirit of Kubrick haunts ‘Two Lovers’, and that’s a good thing.

Tetro: Coppola returns again, and no happier way to have him back than in the form of a gorgeous black and white family drama set in Argentina, with Klaus Maria Brandaeur as a Don Corleone stand-in, and Vincent Gallo as the genius he says he is in real life.

Meeting Andrei Tarkovsky: A brilliant documentary with a genuine sense of discovery, as a young man seeks to encounter his cinematic mentor through interactions with those who knew and loved him.

Eddie Adams An Unlikely Weapon: A little clunky in its approach, nonetheless this is an amazing, moving, and entertaining portrait of a man whose most famous work is the most notorious photograph of the Vietnam War, and one of the most horrifying ever recorded.

Summer Hours: A film whose high concept charts the journey of a reasonably well-off French family deciding how to donate their late mother’s art to the Musee D’Orsay as a tax write-off. Far more compelling than that synopsis allows; and one of the truest representations of what life in the globalised/glocalised world is now like.

This Way of Life: Magnificent documentary illustration of the lives of a family seeking to live sustainably from the New Zealand/Aotearoa land.

Where the Wild Things Are: Not a children’s movie, but a movie about childhood, and dreams, and the cinematic nature of the imagination.

(500) Days of Summer: I know you’re not supposed to like it, (something about effortless cool/hipster sensibilities being the root of all evil, apparently) but I couldn’t resist.

The Informant!: Classy 70-s mimicry in Soderbergh’s kitsch money-makes-the-world-go-round comedy. With a Marvin Hamlisch score!

Moon: A homage to 2001 that earns the right, because it doesn’t pretend not to be one; Sam Rockwell and Kevin Spacey make the most believable couple you’d expect to spend years together in space.

The Invention of Lying: If the last Hollywood cop-out third matched the moral vision of the first two-thirds, it would be one of the greatest comedies ever made.

Zombieland: Ridiculously funny, smart little satire on consumerism and getting by.

A Christmas Carol: Magnificently designed, and elegantly performed.

Cold Souls: If the 80s-era Woody Allen and Andrei Tarkovsky made a film together, this would be the deleted scenes.

Taking Woodstock: More serious than its marketing would imply.

Fantastic Mr Fox: An almost mystical tale, gorgeously mounted.

The Box: A not entirely successful, but profoundly serious, and ultimately hopeful, treatment of the moral weakness of privatized capitalism and colonial guilt. Honest.

2012: A post-colonial disaster epic with a young black man who works in the White House as its hero, salvation made in China, and the future of humanity resting in Africa. Best of all, it knows it’s a comedy.

That Evening Sun: A glorious twilight performance from Hal Holbrook in a film about the recognition, sorrow over, and eventual acceptance of one’s own death. Ray McKinnon and Walton Goggins produce superb little movies that unfold in the US Southeast – (their comedy ‘Randy and the Mob’ is delirious, smart fun) – and Scott Teems is a classy new talent.

(Dis)honourable mention:

Watchmen: A gratuitously violent, shallow re-tread of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ serious political epic that forwent the philosophical depth and moral challenge of the book in exchange for throwing burning oil in a man’s face to get a laugh.

Knowing: A disaster movie which squanders its premise: angels are watching us so that they can nominate the new Adam and Eve when the world ends.

Wolverine: A complete waste of time after extraordinary opening titles.

Terminator: Salvation: Makes the parts of the original film that didn’t make sense seem as clear as the largest letters on an eye test. And that’s a bad thing.

Special Award for Vampire Story as Analogy for Mormon Abstinence and Fidelity that Turned Out to be Nowhere Near as Bad as I Expected, in Fact it was Almost a Real Movie, OK Then Maybe That’s An Overstatement But Judge Not Lest Ye Be Judged: Twilight New Moon, a film-by-corporation if ever there was one, but also a film by the real director Chris Weitz, who wanted to do something that conveyed real teenage emotions, and managed to achieve it.

Special Award for Being the Films I was Most Pretentiously Wrong About the First Time I Saw But About Which I’ve Now Changed My Mind:

Jointly awarded to:

The Hangover, which I initially couldn’t stand for being a homophobic and racist lionization of immaturity. On a second viewing it seemed like one of the smartest and funniest representations of male identity and the value of friendship.

The Cove, which seemed like an ideal candidate for the best film of the year first time round, for the compelling way in which it presents the courage of its protagonist, Ric O’Barry’s work to save dolphins from cruel deaths. But Jett convinced me that I’d missed the troubling echoes of something approaching colonialist xenophobia in its approach to the Japanese fishermen who are its target.

Public Enemies: I came late to the view that Michael Mann made the most meticulously detailed vision of 1930s gangster life, and one in which the relationship of cinema to our individual and communal dreams is as well portrayed as anywhere; but he did, and I was wrong about this film the first time I saw it.

Up in the Air, which felt a little, how should I say it? Meh?, on first viewing; but a week later was still unfolding in my memory, a visually beautiful and thoughtful portrayal of the moral damage of privatized capitalism, the breakdown of community, and the lack of purpose derived from life-as-a-transaction.

And now, to the year we find ourselves, whose first new release I paid to see was ‘The Book of Eli’, which we’ll review on next week’s episode.  A preview?  I’m tiring of the God’s-lonely-man-as-violent-avenger tropes, but everything else about this film was deliriously entertaining.  Especially Ned Beatty’s skinny younger brother.

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