Friday, January 01, 2010

THE BEST FILMS I SAW IN 2009, by Duke Altum

Wow, first post of the new year... a new decade, even! 2009 was tough year for many people and we can only look forward to 2010 as a year of growth, change and hopefully, peace. On behalf of my co-conspirator and co-creator of this blog, Mutt Ploughman, I would like to wish everyone out there and very happy and peaceful new year, full of unexpected blessings and wisdom-gaining experiences.

As part of our annual year-end review on these pages, I thought I would share my personal list of the best films I saw in 2009. For this list, I don't only limit it to theaters - I mean things I have seen on DVD as well, since as the father of small children I don't get out to the movies very often. There is no restriction on year or genre: my list draws from anywhere and everywhere. I am just describing the films that lingered in my mind and impacted me the most from all that I happened to see this year.

The list is in no particular order, but I do have a favorite film that knocked me out more than any other I saw this year, so I am putting that last. It was hands-down my favorite and most memorable movie viewing experience in 2009; I simply cannot stop thinking about it since I saw it. I know it is destined to become one of my favorites, especially in its particular genre (which in this case happens to be horror).

One other note before we dive in: I had put together a list of my favorite films last year and thought I had posted it on this blog, but looking back at it now I see that I never did. So, in an attempt to share some more movies with readers that are well worth checking out, I will include that list as well... sans the original write-ups I did for them (don't want this post to get even longer and more bloated than it already is!). Hopefully when all is said and done, you will have read here about 20+ excellent movies that I contend are well worth your time, if you have an interest in film in any way.



Up, directed by Pete Docter (2009)

What it’s about: A 78-year-old curmudgeon who can’t get over the loss of his wife fulfills their mutual lifelong dream of journeying to South America, and re-discovers a sense of joy and adventure by giving of himself.

Why it made the list: Takes Pixar’s usual breathtaking animation and artistry, but then ups the ante with a deeply emotional and profound story of human love and commitment.

What surprised/stayed with me: The film’s opening montage which brilliantly captures an entire marriage, in all of its joys and difficulties, in about 10 dialog-free minutes. Beautiful and incredibly moving – enough to bring this reviewer to tears.

District 9, directed by Neill Blomkamp (2009)

What it’s about: An alien ship has been stranded on earth due to mechanical problems, and the aliens themselves are forced to live in slums on the outskirts of Johannesburg while humanity tries to decide what to do with them (and their technology, specifically their weapons). Until a government beaurocrat is infected with a mysterious virus on a trip through the alien camp.

Why it made the list: I thought this film was flawed when I first saw it, but I admit it has stayed with me – largely due the intensely paced action and the originality of its premise. Also the performance of the lead, a non-actor named Sharlto Copely, is worth singling out since he basically carries the film, and does a credible job in a physically demanding role.

What surprised/stayed with me: As mentioned before, the relentless pace – and the special effects, which are extraordinary. In my opinion the movie descends into video-game style, shoot-em-up chaos in the third act, but up until then it is an intense ride that keeps you sweaty-palmed and riveted to the screen.

Waltz with Bashir, directed by Ari Folman (2008)

What it’s about: Part documentary, part history and part personal reminiscence, this searing and beautifully animated film is the result of a man trying to come to terms with his past experiences as a soldier who participated in a brutal and senseless massacre during the war between Israel and Lebanon.

Why it made the list: Folman’s decision to tell this harrowing and deeply personal story using animation (and what stunning, non-CGI animation it is!) works brilliantly with the material, giving the film an unusual tone that blurs the line between fantasy and reality, dream and memory. This is definitely one of the most powerful anti-war films I’ve ever seen.

What surprised/stayed with me: The film’s shift to actual live-action video at a key point in the drama packs an incredible emotional gut-punch: no one who sees it will soon forget it. The opening credits in which the viewer seems to be chased by angry dogs through darkened city streets is a tour-de-force of 2D animation.

Coraline, directed by Henry Selick (2009)

What it’s about: Stunningly beautiful stop-motion animation brings Neil Gaiman’s dark fantasy to life. A young girl, routinely neglected by her working parents, finds a portal to a parallel world in which everything seems perfect – but of course, it isn’t.

Why it made the list: It’s the sheer artistry of this movie that makes it unforgettable. The story is familiar with its Alice in Wonderland overtones and young protagonist working out her issues in the land of make believe. But Selick’s masterful execution is like nothing I’ve seen before. You simply will not believe that digital technology wasn’t used to create the jaw-dropping visuals that fill the screen with extraordinary detail and color.

What surprised/stayed with me: Again, it’s the amazing visual style that kept me riveted to this movie. The haunting opening credit sequence is a perfect indicator of both the artistic genius and the creepy mood this movie sustains throughout.

Happy-Go-Lucky, directed by Mike Leigh (2008)

What it’s about: A few days in the life of “Poppy” Cross, a kindergarten teacher with a sunny outlook on life and a child’s sense of wonder and naughty humor. It’s the rarest of character studies in which the protagonist is a happy and relatively simple person who enjoys her life and tries to make the most of it.

Why it made the list: First, I think it’s really refreshing to see someone attempt to make a film about a happy person – it’s easy to do evil and calamity on screen, but quite a challenge to portray goodness and happiness. Second, Sally Hawkins’ performance as Poppy is extraordinary, and all the more so when you realize that this is a Mike Leigh film, which means it has no working script: all of the dialogue is improvised on the spot. You can’t help but smile at her goofiness – but also her compassion.

What surprised/stayed with me: How much Hawkins made me care about her character. On the surface, I’ve got nothing in common with a young, single female schoolteacher from Britain, but Hawkins makes you interested in how such a cheery person can get on in the world we live in… and she also shatters the stereotypes that a “happy-go-lucky” person must also be a fool.

Session 9 and [REC], directed by Brad Anderson & Jaume Balagueró/Paco Plaza (2001/2007)

What they’re about: I’m putting these two small horror films together in one entry because both, though flawed, scored very high on one critical element of horror filmmaking: atmosphere. Session 9 is entirely shot in a long-abandoned, notorious mental institution in Massachusetts, wherein apparently many of the rooms are shot exactly as they were found (!!) – trust me, the building itself is easily the star of this movie and it is VERY creepy. [REC] combines two very popular conventions these days – zombie outbreaks and “found footage” – but does so in a very convincing way with some shock moments that will truly make you jump.

Why they made the list: Session 9’s obvious touchpoint is The Shining, and like its predecessor, it’s all about the setting. The actors talked about how utterly unnerving it was to film in this abandoned asylum where supposedly some horrific stuff happened to the patients (in real life!). A scene where a guy who’s afraid of the dark is trying to run out of a long underground corridor as the lights go out is convincingly terrifying. With [REC], the directors found a way to scare you with very familiar material, and the final sequence shot entirely in a pitch-black apartment is comparable with the end of Blair Witch. You know what’s coming but it’s still incredibly tense.

What surprised/stayed with me: How much both of these films unnerved me, despite the fact that neither storyline is that original and some weak performances. [REC] was unfortunately remade in this country as Quarantine (and apparently pretty well, though with no real changes), but I always like to go with the original.

Gosford Park, directed by Robert Altman (2001)

What it’s about: A classic Agatha Christie-type British whodunit, elevated to the highest level by an all-star British cast (Helen Mirren, Michael Gambon, Emily Watson, Kelly MacDonald, Jeremy Northam, Clive Owen, Derek Jacobi… should I go on??) and the smooth, sure directorial hand of Robert Altman. How could you possibly go wrong here?

Why it made the list: Superb acting, superb settings, superb direction, superb script… seriously, if you are a film buff in any way, this movie is simply a feast. It is extremely entertaining, wickedly witty and surprisingly interesting in its examination of the social hierarchies within a traditional British estate – both “upstairs” (the snobbish upper class of the fading British aristocracy) and “downstairs” (the legions of servants and workers who dote on them but mercilessly gossip when they’re out of earshot).

What surprised/stayed with me: This movie was very much marketed and sold as a murder-mystery-comedy (I still remember the excellent tagline on its poster: “Tea at Four. Dinner at Eight. Murder at Midnight.”), which is why I was very surprised by the unexpected emotional punch the film delivers in the final act. It was one of the year’s true pleasures to watch some of the world’s finest actors and one of the greatest directors of all time work their magic in this sumptuous, smart and utterly engrossing film.

Solaris, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky (1972)

What it’s about: An astronaut, floundering emotionally from the loss of his wife, is called to investigate a remote space station because several of his colleagues there haven’t been heard from in years. When he gets there, he encounters an alien force that is able to make elements from the crew’s psyches physically present.

Why it made the list: Tarkovsky films are certainly not for everyone – they are always long, meditative, deliberately slow-paced, and open to multiple interpretations. The storyline takes a second place to the artistic composition and the mood, but for my money these are always superb in his films. I found this movie to be a fascinating philosophical exploration of loss, the effects of space travel, and the inadequacy of man’s mind before the awesome mysteriousness of the universe. There are many scenes and images that I don’t expect to forget any time soon – and the conclusion is both poignant and haunting.

What surprised/stayed with me: How unsettling and freaky this movie was in parts. I had always thought it was a kind of sci-fi romance, and it is in its way, but I didn’t realize how genuinely creepy this movie’s tone is – it almost feels like a horror film in places. Its influence looms large on films like Alien, and I never knew how much a rip-off Sphere is until I saw this!

The Innocents, directed by Jack Clayton (1961)

What it’s about: Based on the Henry James’ classic A Turn of the Screw, this is a supremely creepy ghost story set on an English estate in which a nanny comes to take care of two children whose mother has passed away. She begins to have visions of the children’s mother around the house and her own grip on sanity begins to crumble.

Why it made the list: This films is masterpiece of atmosphere, and it might win my award for getting under one’s skin the quickest: before you even see an image on the screen, even a movie studio logo, you hear a child singing this mournful, incredibly creepy English folk tune – and you’re already completely freaked out! From there the film slowly ratchets up the eerie and ominous mood. It also boasts gorgeous black and white photography throughout, which has to be seen to be appreciated.

What surprised/stayed with me: How well this movie holds up after almost 50 years – no special effects, no violence to speak of, no great big shock moments, but it still manages to be very unsettling and downright frightening at times. It’s definitely one of the most effective and well-shot ghost movies I’ve ever seen, a true classic of the genre.

And finally, my choice for the single best film I saw in 2009…

Let the Right One In, directed by Tomas Alfredson (2008)

What it’s about: The life of a lonely, picked-on preteen boy gets turned upside down when a girl about his age moves into his working class apartment complex – he falls hopelessly in love with her, only to find out she is a vampire. Which of course adds to his attraction and fascination. But this is about as far away from the romantic Twilight-y take on the vampire mythos as you can get.

Why it made the list: The film’s eerie and unsettling mix of elements such as the innocence of first love, the loneliness of adolescence, Exorcist-style horror elements and the bleak, snowbound Scandanavian landscape make it an unforgettable cinematic experience that gets under your skin and stays there. Creepy as hell but also beautifully shot. There are several stunning scenes and moments, such as a vampire bursting into flames when the sunlight hits her, or the sight of young Eli scittering up the face of a building like some kind of mutant spider.

What surprised/stayed with me: The performance of both of the child stars, especially Lena Leandersson as Eli (the vampire girl) – their scenes together are touching and achingly believable, and Leandersson is by turns sweet and vicious. And the final showdown, which is incredibly violent but it all takes place off camera, is one of the most uniquely-shot sequences of its kind I’ve ever seen.

Honorable mentions (just barely missed the list): Star Trek, directed by J.J. Abrams (2009); Five Easy Pieces, directed by Bob Rafelson (1970); The Brood, directed by David Cronenberg (1979); Moon, directed by Duncan Jones (2009); Memories of Murder, directed by Bong Joon-ho (2003); Vampyr, directed by Carl Dreyer (1932); Anvil!: The Story of Anvil, directed by Sacha Gervasi (2008); Salesman, directed by Albert and David Maysles (1968)


The 7-Up Series, directed by Michael Apted (1964-2007)
Sunset Boulevard, directed by Billy Wilder (1950)
Wall-E, directed by Andrew Stanton (2008)
Once, directed by John Carney (2007)
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, directed by Andrew Dominik (2008)
Deep Water, directed by Louise Osmond and Jerry Rothwell (2006)
The Orphanage, directed by Juan Antonio Bayona (2007)
There Will Be Blood, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (2007)
The Lives of Others, directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (2007)
Man With a Movie Camera, directed by Dziga Vertov (1929)

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