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Saturday, January 23, 2010

A Look Back at 2009

Ten Best Films of 2009

1. The White Ribbon
2. Precious
3. Coraline
4. A Serious Man
5. Avatar
6. Nine
7. Sin Nombre
8. Up
9. The Hangover
10. The Hurt Locker

Runners-up:

Humpday
District 9
Taking Woodstock
Bright Star
Julie and Julia
The Last Station
Adventureland

Worst Films (That I Saw):

Watchmen
Whatever Works
Two Lovers
The Lovely Bones


There have been the traditional complaints that the year just past was not a good one for movies. But when I made my year-end list, I came up with close to 30 that are worth seeing. And I only saw half a dozen or so I truly disliked. Here are notes on a few of my favorites.

The White Ribbon is an austerely beautiful, chilling, haunting film about mysterious acts of violence in a rural German village in 1914 (and about the villagers’ rather disturbingly stern customs of raising and disciplining children). Its stunning black-and-white visuals and its disquieting narrative are mesmerizing. It has changed my attitude toward its director rather dramatically: having found some of his movies irritating and emptily provocative (The Seventh Continent, Funny Games), I thought he was a somewhat less hateful Lars Von Trier-style poseur. Now I want to see more of his work.

(My only caveat is that The White Ribbon is being shown mostly in small art houses with tiny screens. I was lucky enough to catch it on the enormous screen at Alice Tully Hall during the New York Film Festival. Far more than most “arty” foreign films, this one gains exponential power when its remarkable images are projected big and bright.)

Purely as a piece of moviemaking, Precious is messy and uneven. But it packs an emotional power few recent films can match. And the performances are amazing.

There have been several entertaining and highly praised 3-D fantasy movies this year. Most of them were computer-generated. But for me the standout was Coraline, a bewitchingly dark story based on a children’s book – and crafted via “old-fashioned” stop-motion animation. It’s a brilliantly sustained piece of storytelling, and often quite beautiful. (Another stop-motion film, Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, was charming but, to me at least, it was a far less potent movie. And I’m a big fan of Mr. Anderson’s earlier – live-action – films.)

I have often found the Coen brothers’ films slick and clever and empty (and sometimes much worse than that: vide Burn After Reading). But A Serious Man is to my mind by far their best film, a fable that starts dark and spirals steadily into even darker places – while remaining disconcertingly hilarious. The brilliant cast manages to stay just this side of disastrously overdoing it.

There may not be much more to say about Avatar. Yes, the technology is more accomplished than the dialogue. And subtle it ain’t. But James Cameron has a gift for big, emotional spectacle, and he is firing on all cylinders here.

I was taken aback by the many vicious reviews Nine received. I found it enormously entertaining and fantastic to look at, with a dazzling megawatt cast. No, it’s nowhere near Fellini’s , its brilliant source. No, the songs are not the greatest ever written. But it is very skillfully done on its own terms.

Sin Nombre is a brilliantly directed thriller about the dangerous path taken by countless undocumented immigrants from Latin America to the US. Tragic and intense, it is not a sentimental tale of phony Hollywood hope. It’s basically a high-voltage melodrama, but the excellent cast and direction raise it to another level.

Up is yet another delightful Pixar concoction. Hilarious, touching, a technical marvel.

The Hangover is a put-your-brain-in-neutral summer farce, but it is powered by an ingenious narrative engine and a pitch-perfect cast. It manages both to celebrate and to satirize some of the more testosterone-crazed bits of our culture.

Some will think me perverse to put The Hurt Locker (by far the most highly praised movie of the year) at the tail end of this list, right under The Hangover. Maybe I am too averse to jumping on bandwagons, even virtuous ones. Although The Hurt Locker is splendidly directed by Katharine Bigelow and acted by Jeremy Renner and others, the script seems to me very flawed – both contrived and fuzzy. Are the ambiguities intentional, or just unclear storytelling? (Nearly everyone I talk to about Renner’s encounters with an Iraqi boy seems to have perceived the events differently; why is this so foggy?) Nonetheless, well worth seeing.

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