This is a fundamentally dishonest list to begin with, with several films that are probably quite good excluded due to a lack of release on the part of the studios or a lack of time on mine. Also the list has eleven films on it for reasons that should become apparent. Still, it is safe to say the year was weak, and with a few remarkable exceptions, a dull and unsurprising one.
For sheer entertainment value, nothing touches this gritty and cynical sci-fi masterpiece with a grim outlook on human nature. Based in the violent and compromised urban slums of Johannesburg, it provides the perfect crucible in which racial and economic issues create a melange of subtext that provides food for thought. Despite the alien characters, it is a consideration of what makes us human, as well as questioning whether humanity has any value in itself. This allegory about apartheid also regards the devastating impact of losing an intellectual class and the cannibalistic nature of populations under pressure. Most of all, it was dead entertaining, with action to spare. In the coda, there is suggestion of either hope amidst the decayed setting, or perhaps that we are most human when we betray our nature. Neill Blomkamp is a talent to watch, crafting a film for our times. In a year with homogenized films and lifeless CGI, a gory B-movie that runs roughshod over racial stereotypes in an unphotogenic city while playing with complex themes gave life to an utterly dead year. It would be hard to imagine a less marketable film. Perhaps there is hope for the medium after all.
A meditative work by one of America’s finest filmmakers, featuring flawless acting by amateurs in a masterfully made character study. Ignoring any larger point to be made, watching the two leads play off each other is endlessly entertaining. Bahrani came into his own with the truly magnificent Chop Shop; here the perfectionist director considers larger questions of humanity and identity. Red West and Souleymane Sy Savane turn in natural performances in one of the best films of the year. Any further attempt at description only seems to diminish its impact, so I will not even try.
The future of journalism will not be the newsmodels who hide behind desks and monitors – it will be in the hands of impoverished and powerless guerilla reporters armed with digital cameras capturing world events. Burma VJ tells the story of one cell of journalists who managed to film the uprising in Burma in 2007 as the monks led the charge against the military junta that has maintained an iron grip since a coup in 1962 removed the elected leader. Many of these men and women joined those monks in prison and shallow graves after the rebellion was crushed by the military. You will not see a more electrifying film this year, starring nameless people who have a far more profound understanding of the importance of democracy than we do.
Beaches of Agnes
This sublime documentary by and about the most unique and iconoclastic of the French New Wave auteurs is a true work of art in its exploration of a compulsive artist. The director of such diverse works as Vagabond and The Gleaners and I makes for a fascinating figure even when talking about herself. As she considers people and places important to her life, you get a feeling for who Agnes Varda is, without really knowing her at all; this is a recurrent theme in her work. This is a reflective film of a life fully lived while reviewing some of her better known films as signposts along the way. Beaches of Agnes is a free flowing essay about the life of Agnes Varda, a poem without rhyme or meter, nor underlying purpose, other than an expression of life. At least the way she sees life. As she gets older, she expresses the regret that memory begins to fade, and our recollections fall to dust as do our bodies. “Our memory ultimately fails. But it is still ours, and nobody knows us.” The director and numerous actors spend time walking backward in an expression of reflection without nostalgia. Varda is 80 going on 18, and has a great deal to say, even if we could only brush the surface of understanding her, or anyone else in our lives. “While I live… I remember.”
This film makes subtlety its medium in an exploration of the meaning of the things in our life when time and context change. Olivier Assayas evokes the immortal Jean Renoir with his delicate touch and an intuitive sense of human nature. As such, there is no real plot apart from how three siblings who have drifted apart handle the estate of their departed mother; this description hardly does justice to the depth of characterization that makes this an absorbing film. As the destructive power of time works on our frail vessels, the meaning of our lives and the objects we own (which in turn help define us) changes dramatically. This becomes clearer in a final, seemingly irrelevant scene in which the next generation appears to take a beautiful but worn country house for granted, while one youth regards it with greater value than perhaps her predecessors did.
The traditional sporting film dies a deserved death in this sublime tribute to the sheer effort required to simply endure in the face of mounting pressure to perform. The grand question is, if talent and hard work is not enough to succeed, what then? Sugar goes toward this dark corner of the American psyche, as we have become accustomed to ignoring the possibility of failure. Finding a way to succeed despite failure shows greater character than winning. Sugar interweaves threads of cultural disconnect, the plight of the immigrant, and establishing a sense of home. These threads intersect in the understated ending in which a mere gesture speaks with greater resonance than any dialogue.
In The Loop
Probably one of the most dense and economical films in recent memory, In The Loop packages the political machinations at work during the run-up to the war in Iraq. As a fictionalized account, it is just chaotic and stupid enough to nail how politicians act under pressure and how what appears to be government business is the sum total of an army of individual bureaucratic drones feeding their own ambitions. It answers a great many questions as to how war can be declared under such dubious circumstances, why the public was fooled, and why nobody seemed capable of stopping the monster that had been set in motion. The acting is flawless, the dialogue demonically funny, and the intuitive screenplay is sharp as a laser. Peter Capaldi has a nomination (at minimum) coming for his part, as few have fashioned a more magnetic and hateful cunt.
Texaco-Chevron spent the last two decades pumping oil out and pumping toxic waste into a remote section of the Ecuadorian rain forest, causing billions of dollars in damage and precipitating an epidemic of skin diseases, cancers, and gastrointestinal hemorrhages amongst the indigenous people who live in that forest. Sounds like a clear cut case that should result in a judgment against the company, but in Crude you get a front row seat to the power of multinational corporations to evade responsibility. Via payoffs, coercion, and massive spending upon attorney fees, Chevron’s strategy has been to simply stall until all of the plaintiffs living in that part of the forest have died. And it is working. You will seldom see a more powerful and frustrating film about the legal arena and how it can represent the potential to both redeem and destroy people’s lives.
The standard parable of corporate corruption is inverted in this deceptively simple story of a whistleblower who is as corrupt as his bosses, and has a great hunger for fame. Matt Damon disappears into a role that is scrupulously effective, yet not flashy enough to garner much attention. The constant goofy and relentlessly irrelevant narraration becomes one of the few useful windows into the rather opaque Mark Whitacre. As a liar he is peerless, if for no reason other than that he is utterly convinced of his own bullshit. It is left to the viewer to decide what the ultimate motive is, since money hardly seems to adequately explain the lengths to which he risked his family and fortune. Even if one stands to lose everything, it seems to be worth the risk just to be seen as a star.
OSS 117 -Lost in Rio
James Bond has been interpreted by many actors and directors, but only Roger Moore seemed to come close to the essence of Bond as a smug know-it-all dipshit who coasts on charisma and bumbles into terror plots. In OSS 117, Jean Dujardin gets it right: he is an obtuse dumbass. This is how people around Bond see him, ignorant of history and culture, disinterested in any subject unrelated to poon. Beneath the comedy is a thug who ‘enjoys fighting’ and pushes a colonial agenda, among the more clever jokes amidst the insane mugging and underwear sparring. Compulsively watchable, goofy without being distracted, OSS 117 is that rare comedy that will grow in your estimation with repeat viewings.
And number eleven: Star Trek
This film deserves to be on a year-end list not despite its flaws, but because of them. The wildly uneven theatrical franchise gets a reboot in the best way possible with a pseudoscience mess of a time warp that by itself redefines the entire canon. The drill, the black hole weapon, the whatever science used to explain each improbable way that the story is set back on track; these things are logically indefensible, and along with awkward fistfights and aliens with variant forehead wrinkles make Star Trek what it is. So this film has it all in spades with solid action, surprisingly good acting (Zachary Quinto deserves a medal for his interpretation of Spock while standing next to the legend), and a playful feel for science that keeps the geeks happy. After all, playing with science and the strange laws on its margins is what sci-fi is all about.
Inglorious Basterds should be on the list above, but since Cale will do greater justice to its synopsis, I have deliberately left it off. Other strong films from 2009 include Outrage, Revanche, Munyurangabo, Katyn, Food Inc., Jerichow, 35 Shots of Rum, and Somers Town.
Lest I forget:
There have been many films unavailable for viewing due to our increasingly retarded film distribution system. Surely, some of these would have made the list if they ever crossed the fucking ocean or played in more than one theatre nationwide. Skin, Disgrace, Seraphine, Red Cliff (the full film, not the oddly butchered version), Bronson, Waterlife, Afghan Star, and the list goes on. And these assholes wonder why people download movies illegally.