2009 has been an interesting year for cinema. While it didn’t boast the ridiculously generous quantity of superior films that 2007 can claim, or 2008’s uncommon breadth of form and subject, this year has proven to be a exciting one, provided viewers had the courage to seek out the gems amid an increasingly homogeneous sludge of multiplex inanities and arthouse banalities. No overriding artistic theme has emerged from 2009, but among its most estimable works were those that strove to bend the rules, to various degrees of success. 24 City, Avatar, The Beaches of Agnès, The Girlfriend Experience, Inglourious Basterds, The Limits of Control, and Of Time and the City all upended the conventions of genre, narrative, and visual possibility to marvelous effect. Yet it was also a year for astonishing films executed with established cinematic methods and within familiar generic modes: farce (In the Loop), horror (Drag Me to Hell), gangster (Gomorrah), science-fiction (Moon), and war (The Hurt Locker). The finest dramatic and comedic narrative features were not mainstream critical darlings, but already-forgotten greats like Bright Star, Goodbye Solo, and A Serious Man, or non-English-language triumphs such as 35 Shots of Rum, Summer Hours, and Treeless Mountain. Superior animated films were conspicuous in 2009 as well, as it saw the release of Coraline, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Ponyo, Up, and the lamentably undistributed Sita Sings the Blues.
Without further ado, let’s get to the best of 2009. To be considered, a film must have opened in America between January 1 and December 31, 2009 in wide, limited, or select city release. Film festival premieres don’t count, but even, say, a one-week run in New York City does. As with my previous year-in-review features, I’ve avoiding numerical rankings, which I find difficult to assign and fairly ridiculous anyway. This year I’ve selected five films that I believe are flat-out masterpieces, nine exceptional contenders, and one undistributed little marvel.
The Very Best
The Beaches of Agnès - Agnès Varda - France
I’m playing the role of a little old lady.
The late films from the living luminaries of the French New Wave have proven to be middling works, or even outright duds. (Yes, Chabrol, Resnais, Rivette: I’m looking at you.) Into such an environment, The Beaches of Agnès wafts like a welcome breeze, a confident, impish, heartfelt cinematic memoir from the movement’s lone female director. Agnès Varda’s most renowned film, the French arthouse hit Cleo from 5 to 7, was released over four decades ago. However, as her latest, intensely personal feature makes clear, she has always been a relentless creator, working in any medium she fancies: film, video, photography, print, sculpture, and performance art. Varda escorts us on a wry, wistful tour of her life and her art, lingering on memories and revisiting the scenes of various delights and tragedies. She re-enacts and reconfigures key moments of her eighty years in a half-serious search for meaning. Beaches reveals the artist not as a tormented soul, but as a spirit of curiosity, grace, humor, and, above all, warmth. Exhilarating in its honesty and unfettered joy, Varda’s masterpiece proves to be one of the most emotionally enthralling and unabashedly intimate self-portraits ever put to film. Impressions from StLIFF here.
Coraline - Henry Selick - USA
Oh my twitchy, witchy girl.
Released in the ancient history of February 2009, Henry Selick’s stop-motion horror fable seems to have been all but forgotten beneath a wave of enthusiasm for Pixar’s Up. That’s a shame, because Coraline isn’t merely Selick’s finest work to date: it’s an essentially perfect film in every way. Boasting breathtaking design that puts the director’s own The Nightmare Before Christmas to shame, Coraline wipes away the seams of stop-motion animation and welcomes us—with a Vincent Price grin—into a funhouse reality of stunning tangibility and limitless delights. Selick delivers not only a formal masterpiece that uses 3D technology to ravishing effect, but a sharply constructed, elegantly plotted tale crackling with mythic resonance. It’s an epic Hero’s Journey reborn as a tidy little monster-in-the-closet yarn. Perhaps most unexpectedly, Coraline presents an uncommonly complex and humane message for parents and children alike, a gentle call for us to curb our egos and cultivate a giving outlook towards those we love. That Selick achieves all of this in one film, a film that most critics seem to have regarded as little more than a kiddie-goth bauble, is nothing short of astounding. Full review here.
Inglourious Basterds - Quentin Tarantino - USA
Facts can be so misleading.
For months the debate has roiled around Quentin Tarantino’s World War II thriller-cum-revenge fantasy, and yet the vigorous back-and-forth seems to have only whetted the film’s blade and thrown its stunning achievements into sharp relief. Like all of Tarantino’s works, Inglourious Basterds functions at the primary level of visceral thrills and quotable wit, and also at a secondary level, where it evinces a profound affection for and absorption with cinema. The writer-director’s often overlooked talent for pulse-quickening, people-driven drama is in stunning evidence here, as Basterds boasts some of the finest scenes and characters of QT’s career. Effusive and encyclopedic devotee of cinema that he is, however, Tarantino can’t resist reshaping his Nazi Film into a cerebral, free-wheeling deconstruction of genre and celebrity. It’s from this angle that Basterds‘ breadth snaps into focus. What emerges is a maddening, enthralling torrent of critique and commentary on art, culture, history, and morality, where each avenue of exploration reveals two others. This is Basterds‘ triumph: a riveting tale of revenge and betrayal that shares the screen with a deceptively rich and ambitious treatise on… well, everything. It is staggering to consider that the man who created Pulp Fiction was just getting started. Full review here, and further thoughts here.
Of Time and the City - Terence Davies - UK
Come closer now, and see your dreams.
One word describes Terence Davies’ cinematic love letter to a vanished Liverpool: exquisite. Of Time and the City is not a film to appreciate or study; it is a film in which to lose yourself, in which to soak like a warm bath drawn by a loving parent. Davies, in what is remarkably his first documentary feature, delves into the recesses of his own memories and into voluminous, often perplexing archival footage of Liverpool in the mid-20th century to craft a poignant poem of images, music, and words. There is no story here, but rather a sensory and emotional journey, a work of personal nostalgia that never once feels indulgent. The genius of Of Time and the City lies in how elegantly Davies uses his own story—wistful, melancholy, sometimes acidic—to explore the meaning of home and transience. The curiously compelling footage, the classical music, and Davies’ own lyrical voice-over narration tug irresistibly on the mind and heart. The director’s sense of loss and yearning are not backgrounded in favor of abstract meanderings, and yet still something painfully universal emerges, compelling us to reflect on our own loss and yearning. A majestic film that moved me to tears. Full review here.
A Serious Man - Ethan and Joel Coen - USA
Mere surmise, sir. Very uncertain.
In what proves to be their most scathing and plaintive feature in a prolific decade, the Coen brothers offer a work of cinematic theodicy, as absurdly funny and thematically intricate as one would expect from the virtuosos of American film. Accusations of misanthropy and mean-spirited glee are misplaced when discussing the Coens, and never more-so than vis-à-vis A Simple Man, a work of profound sadness and awed confusion in which its hapless protagonist, Larry Gopnik, watches in terror as his life disintegrates before his eyes. The Coens effortlessly balance sympathy for Larry’s plight with buzzing doubts about the nature of culpability and causality. Who else but the brothers could turn the story of a nebbishy physics professor and his misfortunes into something so beautiful, so entertaining, and so philosophically audacious? Just as No Country For Old Men was the Coens’ blistering howl of post-faith despair, A Simple Man is a masterpiece of religious woe, a horror film with the rhythms and sensibilities of a timeworn Jewish joke. Yet for all its theological probings and bitter amusements, the potency of A Simple Man is summed up in its devastating cut to black and implicit caution: “It can always get worse.” Full review here.
The Next Best
24 City - Zhang Ke Jia - China
Zhang Ke Jia builds upon his reputation as the most exciting and perceptive film-maker in China with his latest stunner, a chimera of fact and fiction, chilly observation and soulful humanity. Like all of Jia’s films, 24 City is a work characterized by a heightened awareness, here for the sights and sounds of an industrial complex’s slow evolution into modern high-rises. Steeped in equal doses of hope and anxiety, 24 City demonstrates Jia’s enviable fusion of empathy and visual artistry, not to mention his eerie facility for capturing the aura of a time and place. Impressions from StLIFF here.
35 Shots of Rum - Claire Denis - France
Claire Denis’ magnificent exhale of humane drama boasts a stable of remarkable performances, but what sets 35 Shots of Rum apart from its contemporaries is the authorial strength and emotional insight that sizzle beneath Denis’ understated style. In telling this languid story of lonely souls in a block of Parisian flats, Denis discovers psychological authenticity through a graceful, bewitching approach that favors tender social observation over strident declaration. Every frame of 35 Shots of Rum sings with the energy of a confident film-maker whose understanding of the human heart is daunting in its precision. Impressions from StLIFF here.
Bright Star - Jane Campion - UK / Australia / France
For her blissfully tragic tale of the chaste love between Fanny Brawne and John Keats, Jane Campion relies upon both familiar romantic tropes and an effortless emotional intimacy with her audience. Bright Star presents Campion working in her most admirable and purely cinematic mode, where even story itself is secondary to the collision of sensation and mood. Bright Star utilizes the texture of its nineteenth-century pastoral setting to marvelous effect, not for the sake of authenticity, but always to heighten and underline the pathos that coils around its doomed lovers. A veritable vision of romance itself. Full review here.
In the Loop - Armando Iannucci - UK
Armando Iannucci’s razor-sharp, achingly funny, breathtakingly profane farce is the best film yet made about the Iraq War—and more generally about the unremitting cascade of bullshit that characterizes politics and media in the twenty-first century. Films about horrible people doing horrible things don’t come more maniacally entertaining or uncannily frank than In the Loop, which might be classified as a tragedy if it weren’t so damn funny. Iannucci’s comedic triumph boasts not only the screenplay of the year, but also Peter Capaldi’s magnificently contemptible performance as Malcolm Tucker, a contender for cinema’s asshole of the decade. Full review here.
Moon - Duncan Jones - UK
With unwavering focus and fierce intelligence, Duncan Jones crafts an old-school, thinking-man’s science-fiction powerhouse, built on the foundations of a single enthralling performance and masterful use of practical special effects. Moon is what sci-fi can be at its finest: densely layered drama about the perilous intersection of technology and humanity, drama that seizes us and refuses to let go. Sam Rockwell positively carries the film with his frazzled portrayal of a spacebound worker bee who yearns for the truth. Moon is an unexpected triumph and an affirmation of the enduring power of futuristic settings for probing artistic discourse. Full review here.
Ponyo - Hayao Miyazaki - Japan
Animation titan Hayao Miyazaki demonstrates that his talent for blending surreal fantasy and authentic emotion has not wavered with Ponyo, an oceanic fairy tale that dazzles both the senses and the soul. Miyazaki pulls back the curtain on weird, wonderful marine vistas inspired by equal measures of scientific awe and folklore-tinged fancy. Yet as with all of Miyazaki’s triumphs, Ponyo’s most profound appeal lies in its humanity and its warm regard for life’s smallest details. By means of an elemental tale of love and separation, Miyazaki plumbs the magical, often sorrowful character of life’s transitions. Full review here.
Summer Hours - Olivier Assayas - France
With the marvelously observed, endlessly touching Summer Hours, Olivier Assayas reminds us that family drama need not be histrionic and ugly to be captivating. The list of highlights in this bittersweet tale of inheritance is long, from a parade of utterly genuine performances to Eric Gautier’s dreamy, roving camerawork. Most conspicuous, however, is the rigorous command of Assayas himself, whose hand provides the film with a powerful thematic coherence and luscious visual language. Summer Hours discovers the drama inherent in endings, rendering the dispersal of a family’s heirlooms as one of the most compelling stories of the year. Full review here.
Treeless Mountain - So Yong Kim - USA / South Korea
So Yong Kim solidifies her position as one of the most gently perceptive and soulful social realists working today with her tearful, empathetic sophomore effort, Treeless Mountain. Within the story of two young girls shuffled from relative to relative by financial pressures, Kim exhibits a profound understanding of the slow, proud way that awareness and emotional maturity germinate in a child’s consciousness. Kim’s lean, understated approach to storytelling reveals a uncommon talent for conveying meaning through the smallest details of performance, and belies the director’s masterful use of setting and motif to underline her film’s rich psychological texture. Full review here.
Up - Pete Docter - USA
Under the guise of spinning a rousing adventure tale that treats childhood whimsy with absolute conviction, Pete Docter wallops us with a sorrowful gut-punch about deferred dreams and the craving for human connection. The most emotionally complex film yet from Pixar, Up woos us with a (yes, visually dazzling) story of escape that resonates with the fussy crayon blueprints of our younger days. Even as it starkly portrays the ease with which life’s caprices stymie the grandest plans, the film posits that love itself is the noblest adventure, a trite sentiment rendered magnificently uplifting by Docter’s assured hand. Full review here.
The Do-It-Yourself Best
Sita Sings the Blues - Nina Paley - USA
Nina Paley’s labor of anguish and liberation never found a distributor due to copyright concerns, and jumped directly for one-off screenings to a DVD release. Its theatrical absence notwithstanding, Sita Sings the Blues deserves a place of honor as one of the most inventive, giddily entertaining works of musical animation since Yellow Submarine. Endlessly imaginative, expressive, and witty, Sita gleams with a consuming authorial resolve and passion. Gently feminist and distressingly personal, it nonetheless retains an atmosphere of funky good times, burnished by a plethora of wondrous styles and a sprightly affection for Indian culture and early jazz. Full review here.
Honorable Mentions: Anvil!: The Story of Anvil, Avatar, Drag Me to Hell, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Girlfriend Experience, Gomorrah, Goodbye Solo, The Hurt Locker, The Limits of Control
Underrated: Antichrist, Tetro, Watchmen
Overrated, Slightly or Highly: Adventureland, Amreeka, The Baader-Meinhof Complex, District 9, An Education, The Hangover, Lorna’s Silence, Paranormal Activity, Precious, Star Trek, Two Lovers, Where the Wild Things Are
Biggest Disappointment: Adoration