There's a lot of differing opinions and some writers, due to their locations (we've got people in the U.K., Australia, Canada and U.S. places other than NY/LA), don't get to see most of the year's films until January 2010. And yes, we're deep in January now, but some are still making their way through everything (example, "The Lovely Bones" just hit wide this past weekend).
But this writer, your editor-in-chief, has seen — not every movie this year — but definitely a significant amount of pictures. Enough that I feel comfortable with going out there with my top 20 pictures of 2009 (yes, I'll drop the "we" conceit for this; kinda have to). Plus lists, as we all know, are always ever-evolving creatures anyhow; your relationships to films should change over time as you grow as a human being.
While 2009 in many ways was a weak year for movies (Cannes was subpar to be sure, TIFF was slightly better), at least in the mainstream (if James Cameron's populist silly space opera wins the top Oscar, oh boy...), but as usual, if you looked out past your backyard into the international cinema scene, there were lots of films to be admired. Here's my personal top 20 films of 2009, they're basically the ones that stuck with me the most, the ones that were the most emotionally affecting and the most psychologically haunting. Again, the tried and true formula: the experience + the resonance= great movie (i.e., it has to be great in that moment and months later, unlike say, "Avatar" which was fun, but forgotten about an hour later). It's what makes a true dent in your psyche and often in your heart.
This year, and unlike our 2008 picks, we stuck explicitly to 2009 films, not including pictures that are set for a 2010 release that we saw earlier this year at Cannes and TIFF (Nicolas Winding Refn's spiritual horror viking film, "Valhalla Rising" and Bong Joon-Ho's amazing oedipal, murder mystery drama, "Mother" being the two that would easily penetrate this list if they were technically not 2010 films).
20. "Tokyo Sonata" — Japan — Regent Films
A family drama like none other done by former J-horror master Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to the grandmaster Akira), the only reason this film is probably so low on our list is that we saw it over a year ago now. 'Sonata' is a sprawling saga about a father too ashamed to admit he's been fired and the aftermath that effects his family. And if Kurosawa was once the maestro of Japanese horror, well this is an internal terror of another kind: a disquietude that haunts even as it defies categorization, veering into absurdist comedy and social commentary, before finally settling on a graceful, quivering and jaw-dropping solemnity.
19. "The Cove" — U.S. — Lionsgate
How do you treat a potentially bleeding-heart, environmentally-friendly save-the-dolphins type hot-button issue documentary? If you're director Louie Psihoyos, you check all the angles, and realize the only true way to expose and uncover the dirt behind what's actually going on in an illegal fishing cove in Taijii, Japan, is to go stealth and infiltrate from the inside with all the logistics and planning of a special ops team ala Jason Bourne. Using state of the art technology (plus help from ILM) and Ric O'Barry — one of the world's preeminent dolphin advocates — "The Cove" becomes a riveting spy-like thriller and one of the most truly captivating documentaries of the year. It's also a powerful examination of redemption. O'Barry became famous (and rich) for capturing and training the dolphins that starred in the T.V series, "Flipper." Eventually realizing the show was a catalyst for the abuse and captivity of dolphins worldwide, it depicts a passionate man dedicated to righting former mistakes. This one pretty much has the best Oscar doc in the bag and deservedly so.
18. "Two Lovers" — U.S. — Magnolia
If Joaquin Phoenix sticks to his guns and does end up retiring from acting then his incredibly manic, yet vulnerable final performance in James Gray's "Two Lovers" is certainly not a bad way to go out. A loose remake of Luchino Visconti's 1957 film, "Le Notti Bianche" (starring Marcello Mastroianni), Phoenix plays an emasculated man-child torn between two women: one that represents chaos and lust (Gwyneth Paltrow) and one that symbolizes stability and open-heartedness (Vinessa Shaw). The right choice isn't quite so easy and watching Phoenix grapple and unravel with his decision is remarkable.
17. "Goodbye Solo" — U.S. — Roadside Attractions
An old man wants to die and a relentlessly optimist Senegalese cab driver tries to convince him otherwise in a hands-off, round-about way. Ramin Bahrani's acute, occasionally funny and well-observed examination of loneliness and friendship is incredibly thoughtful and textured. Tags of neo-neo realism aside, it's easily his best work thus far showcasing an incredible touch with finding untapped talent and quietly guiding them to greatness.
16. "The Limits Of Control" — U.S./Japan — Focus Features
Perhaps the most misunderstood film of 2009. A swirling, mantra-like hypnotic dream and a deceptively funny piece of minimalist art, Jim Jarmusch's "The Limits of Control" starring a stoic Isaach De Bankolé was sorely undervalued this year by impatient, short-sighted critics, but mark our words, like mind-benders such as David Lynch's "Muholland Drive," Alain Renais' "Last Year At Marienbad," or even Jarmusch's own "Dead Man' (which also received poor reviews and now is a cult classic) this psychedelic masterpiece will one day get its proper due. And in some circles it already has.
15. "Tetro" — U.S./Argentina — Self-Distributed
Francis Ford Coppola's sophomore, "return to filmmaking" effort (no one noticed "Youth Without Youth") might have been maddeningly uneven, but damn if it wasn't lasting and affective. Vincent Gallo expertly plays... himself... a highly irritable grouchy artist put out and incensed at the unannounced arrival of his younger brother, fantastic newcomer Alden Ehrenreich. Gallo's Tetro abandoned the family and left his little sibling years ago and the return of his brother brings a flood of unwanted memories, pain and confusing baggage. Put aside the color flashbacks and the preoccupation with dream sequence homages to Powell & Pressburger and you have a near perfect serio-comic picture about family bonds. At times riotously funny (thanks to Gallo) and tremendously moving (thanks to everyone, including wonderful supporting actress Maribel Verdu), "Tetro" is a stirring account of familial discord and the costs of indulging in one's artistic temperament.
14. "Where The Wild Things Are" — U.S. — Warner Bros.
Intuitively rendered with childlike curiosity, and handcrafted lo-fi charm, Spike Jonze's scrappy 'Wild Things' was an extraordinarily captivating version of Maurice Sendak's classic kids book that extrapolated the boy-in-the-woods-with-monsters tale into an intimate, raw and extremely honest depiction about the traumas of childhood. With an emphasis of mood over plot (which was a dealbreaker for some), Jonze's bittersweet look at how kid's play and bruise each others feelings may have been pervasively melancholy, but was still incredibly rich and emotionally contoured.
13. "Revanche" — Austria — Janus
A slow-burning meditation on revenge and ultimately forgiveness, Götz Spielmann's Austrian drama is an intense and taut, but patiently-building thriller cum Greek tragedy about a man seething with vengeance, but simmering with an anger that is all his own fault. And it's almost two films in one. After admirably trying to give his girlfriend a better life and afford her salvation from her soul-crushing life of acceptable prostitution (Act One) he attempts one last bank job so their life on the run can be sustained (Act Two). But the heist goes terribly awry and the guilt-ridden protagonist (a fiery Johannes Krisch) decides to hunt down the local police officer who has robbed him of the one true thing he loved. The Criterion Collection were so moved by this haunting work of art that they nabbed right to it before it was even ever released in theaters. That should tell you all you need to know as it's a rare, rare move on their part.
12. "Sin Nombre" — U.S./Mexico — Focus Features
While it made a splash at Sundance early in the year, Cary Fukunaga's arresting first feature became more and more overlooked as the year went on which is a shame. An occasionally harsh and almost documentarian-like immigration drama about a Central American girl trying to illegally emigrate by train to the U.S. and the Mexican ex-gang member on the run that she falls in with, 'Nombre' is an unflinching and harrowing chronicle of the brutality and indignities that are endured in the hopes of pursuing the American dream.
11. "An Education" — U.K./Denmark — Sony Picture Classics
Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig's well-celebrated coming-of-age film has its flaws: a weak, wrap-up-to-quick ending and a Hallmark-like tone in spots. Yet to offset all that is has the tremendous Carey Mulligan who imbues every blush, giggle and rush of awe she feels with an irresistible potency you're desperate to be a part of and captivated to watch. As her caged character wakes up to the world around her — swinging London in the early '60s — you are entranced and cannot take your eyes off her. Mulligan's magnetic presence pushes this film forward with a terrific and career-making performance that won't soon be forgotten.
10. "A Single Man" — U.S. — The Weinstein Company
An incredible elegant, stylish and moving look at emotional devastation via loss, former Gucci fashion designer Tom Ford's assured debut feature-film resembles the work of filmmaker midway through his consistent career, not the work of a newb just out of the starting gate. And Colin Firth — an actor who never quite fully impressed previously — is outstanding as the dead man walking; a teacher reeling from the death of his gay lover. A splendidly crafted and immaculately detailed film that thankfully doesn't trade style over substance and soul.
9. "Anvil! The Story Of Anvil" — U.S. — Rock Docs/VH1 Films
Yeah, Sacha Gervasi's metalhead documentary about loveable lunkheads, the persevering Canadian metal heads Anvil, is something we had in our best of 2008 list, but it technically came out this year. The doc is so good and affecting dare we say that if you loathe metal and are intolerant of loser schlubs you will still love this winning, touching and funny documentary to death. It's a moving and heartfelt tribute to brotherhood and the well-worn resilience required in the face of massive adversity in order to keep chasing your dreams.
8. "A Serious Man" — U.S. — Focus Features
An inscrutable treasure from the Coen Brothers, if you thought the ending of of "No Country For Old Men" was puzzling, but breathtaking, then the awe-inspiring conclusion of this suburban, comedic drama about universal punishment will just dazzle and leave your jaw on the floor. Michael Stuhlburg puts in a breakthrough performance as the loyal husband and devout Jewish father trying to be a good man, but is still punished by the universe at every turn to devilish and dark hilarity. Also features one of the most puzzling prologues of any film this year. It's the Cohen Brothers' modern-day "Barton Fink," and and odd but wonderful puzzle that likely will be studied for ages.
7. "Bright Star" — U.K./Australia/France — Apparition
Jane Campion returns to her element — the romance period piece — with stunning results. Abbie Cornish has always been good, but here she's commanding and outstanding — you can't take your eyes off her and she carries the this film that is lovely in every sense of the word (the cinematography, music and general aesethetics are crafted with such exquisiteness). However, its greatest strength is its delicate carefulness, as if you can feel porcelain fingers move and eyelashes flutter. Campion devastatingly conveys the butterflies flush of emotion in your stomach and the crestfallen rush of heartache like no other.
6. "The Hurt Locker" — U.S. — Summit
Kathryn Bigelow's 'Hurt Locker' is our kind of reverse action film. While heart-pounding detonations do go off and shots are fired, this explosives ordinance film set in Iraq is actually more powerful for the action that doesn't happen. Diffusing bombs is the name of the game for these adrenaline junkies who get off on handling live wires, but damn, there hasn't been an "action film" this tense, riveting and intelligent in years. Bigelow excels here are setting pulses racing when seemingly nothing is happening. Case in point? Jeremy Renner's paralysis in a grocery store overwhelmed by the choice of cereals in the real world is one of the most breathtaking scenes in the film. Living with a job where every day might be his last, he'll never be the same.
5. "The Headless Woman" — Argentina — Strand
An eerie and intentionally disorienting experience about a woman and the frightening after affects of a random car accident, Lucrecia Martel enigmatically places you in a claustrophobic mental crawlspace that blurs the lines between reality and depth perception autism. Perhaps the first film that frighteningly (and subtly) makes you feel like you're taking on the first symptoms of schizophrenia. A disembodying and haunting piece of cinema.
4. "Bronson" — U.K./Denmark — Magnet
A wickedly delirious, gleefully vicious and hypnotically operatic look at one of the U.K.'s most notorious prisoners. While the music and clinical aesthetic of the picture is very Kubrick at times, sonically there's some sexy "Trainspotting" textures going on (the pulsating and sexy electro score) plus an Lynch-ian absurdity to it all. It all come courtesy of Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn who's bold style is so audacious and idiosyncratic, if he doesn't watch it, someone is going to try and convince him to take on "Batman 3" if Nolan bails. Or at least he would probably be my pie in the sky first choice.
3. "Still Walking" — Japan — IFC
Hirokuza Kore-eda's carefully observed family drama may owe its simple, aesthetic to the great Japanese master Yasujirō Ozu, but nonetheless the film is tremendously moving, intricately nuanced and emotionally textured. A son returns home to visit his elderly parents and long-simmering bitter family issues soon begin to surface over the course of one hot summer day. Has there been a film that accurately yet compassionately illustrates the irritation, affection and sadness of our complicated relationships to our loved ones better this year? A beautiful, yet painfully honest portrait of family.
2. "35 Shots Of Rum" — France/Germany — CinemaGuild
Leave it to the venerable doyenne of the French arthouse Claire Denis to make an exquisite film that is ostensibly about nothing and yet, about everything. Guided by a wistful soundtrack by the Tindersticks, and the warm, intimate lens of cinematographer Agnes Godard, Denis' film about the relationship between a daughter and her father and a man who lives in their apartment complex is, as per her usual work, tactile, sensual and flush with magnetic and intoxicating moments of real human connection. It's also a captivating picture about the taciturn, unspoken things said behind the eyes. A masterful piece of work.
1. "Summer Hours" — France — IFC
This warm, humanistic and sentimental, yet never treacly, drama is about a trio of middle-age siblings that, in the wake of their mother's death are forced to sell the family summer home and for the first time face their adult lives on their own. Tender yet, matter of fact, Oliver Assayas does a wonderful job of balancing the joys and pains of life without manipulation, and captures the shifting values of contemporary French life with graceful subtlety. What "Summer Hours" does better than any film this year is capture the bittersweetness in endings, the quiet fear of new beginnings, the passing of seasons and the melancholy, inevitable changing of the guard.
Honorable Mention: goes to perhaps first and foremost, Over Moverman's "The Messenger" an excellent film that I will be more than happy if it makes the Academy 10 (as some seem to be gunning for it lately) and it features tremendous performances by Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster (who's always great), but for whatever reason it didn't stick with me enough to include in this top 20. Other mention needs to go to Judd Apatow's overly long, but still comical and moving, "Funny People," Duncan Jones' wonderfully eerie and lugubrious space oddity, "Moon," the hickory smoked Southern Gothic drama, "That Evening Sun" that had a stellar performance by Hal Holbrook, Lars Von Trier's off-the-rails "Antichrist" (if the second half was as good as the first, it would have been top 5), Pedro Almodovar's "Broken Embraces" (flawed, but very, very memorable and impeccable aesthetics all around), Greg Mottola's understated and low-key teen dramedy, "Adventureland," John Hillcoat's bleak and ashen, "The Road" (which was tremendously moving in the moment, but the experience has diminished for me) and Gerardo Naranjo's "Voy A Explotar" which we still like, but on a second viewing it has fallen off for us in our estimation a bit (again, living, breathing, evolving lists and taste). Also props to Christian Petzold's "Jerichow," the truly compelling documentary, "Food Inc.," estimable doc-filmmaker Frederick Wiseman's captivating, almost-3-hour-long ballet documentary "La Danse," Christophe Honoré's "La Belle Personnes," with the porcelain beauty that is Léa Seydoux; the super twisted, pitch-black Russian comedy cum serial killer communist screed, "Cargo 200," Jan Troell's ambrosial and affecting, "Everlasting Moments," slight, but still warm and winsome is Shane Meadows' "Somers Town" and Terrence Davies deeply poetic and nostalgic paean to his Liverpudllian upbringing in the documentary, "Of Time and the City." Gotta give some love to "District 9" for being the most inventive and entertaining tentpole of the year (even though that's a relative term, but it was deceptively funny) and the audacity of "The World's Greatest Dad" which by no means was perfect, but certainly made me laugh out loud a few times.
Ok, I haven't seen everything. I didn't see "Paris" starring Juliette Binoche, but most people seemed to think it was mediocre (I love Binoche so I will see this eventually regardless). The Cannes 2009 runner-up "Un Prophete" has been seen by many (including several other Playlist members), but technically does not come out in the U.S. until February, 2010, so it wouldn't be included here. Many critics, including Roger Ebert for one, are including "Silent Light" in their 2009 picks, but it came out for a week in New York during Christmas of 2008, so I included it in those picks. I suppose if I included it here, it would crack the top 5, but again, for my specific purposes, we're going to consider it a 2009 film. Go see it regardless as it is a radiant picture to be sure.