Another year has come and gone and 36 films that I’ve seen this year I considered to be worth my while. In fact, the first eight months of 2009, surprisingly, gave me no bad theater experiences which must mean I’m getting pretty selective in my choice of movie viewing (a good thing, I guess).
I want to note that this and future lists of Best Films will only include movies set for release prior to Christmas of that year. I’m frankly quite tired of studios cramming movies during a time when I’m too busy, poor and reluctant to trek out in lousy weather to gamble on what they figure Oscar voters will remember. If Up in the Air and Avatar are the greatest films ever made, tough bananas. Until I’m actually paid to watch those and other award-hyped movies or they decide to spread the good stuff out during the rest of the year, those movies are out. Whew! Okay, enough of the ranting. Now for the movies that made me glad to be watching movies.
10. World’s Greatest Dad
I’ve sat suffering through a number of high school themed nonsense films like Gentlemen Broncos and 17 Again, but I have to say this movie stunned me by its audaciousness and, I think, psychological honesty. Robin Williams, in one of his best performances ever, stars as a failed writer who is content to squeak by life as an uninspiring poetry teacher (certainly a parody of his character in Dead Poet’s Society). He lives alone with his only son, a jerk who constantly berates his father for being a loser and who has very strange sexual proclivities. Writer/Director Bobcat Goldthwait is probably one of the most daring independent comedy filmmakers out there, coming up with the pretty good Shakes the Clown and the not-so-good Stay (aka Sleeping Dogs Lie). However, he’s really struck gold with this one. Trying repeatedly in his films to mix the uncomfortable and tragic with the comic foibles of everyday life, Goldthwait gets the right mix and the right tone here with his take on how a community deals with tragedy that exposes hidden perversities and hypocrisies. This one film is worth 3 or 4 Apatow-produced comedies.
9. Where the Wild Things Are
The most brilliant kids film I’ve seen this year was this Spike Jonze directed feature based on the Maurice Sendak classic. Max, a lonely little boy with a tendency to throw tantrums, has a crying fit playing with his older sister’s friends and goes berserk at the appearance of his mom’s new boyfriend. He runs away from home and, in so doing, Max also runs off in his imagination to a distant land inhabited by strange monsters who, instead of eating him, make him their king. The close friendship he develops with his best monster friend Carol becomes complicated as “King” Max has to try his best at dealing with them. This movie remembers how it was to be a little kid, living carefree but also having to figure out tough complicated issues almost on your own. The creature costumes are great and the music score by Carter Burwell and Karen Orzolek is one of the year’s best.
8. Goodbye Solo
Here’s another example of the power of great indie films. Ramin Bahrani’s wonderful tale of the tenuous friendship between two men demonstrates how great tales can be told very simply. Souleymane Sy Savane plays the title role of Solo, a Sengalese immigrant driving a taxi in Winston-Salem, NC. One night, he picks up a disagreeable old man (Red West) who arranges a one-way trip on a specific date for $1000, no questions asked. From this arrangement, both men’s lives are changed forever as each meets unexpected ups and downs as the date approaches. Bahrani has a great grasp of the desire for the American dream and the realities of human limitations. There’s terrific cinematography by Michael Simmonds and Savane is fantastic, playing one of the most likable characters of the year.
7. The Messenger
The Hurt Locker is the war film getting all the attention (and perhaps many awards) this year, but this small budget film by co-writer/director Oren Moverman is much more moving. Ben Foster gives one of the year’s best performances playing a sergeant given the unenviable task of informing next of kin their child was killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. Woody Harrelson plays the veteran co-hort who’s been doing this for too long. More than the bombast of mortar fire and the rattle of machine guns, the after-effects of war can be as powerful and even more devastating (as in the case of the great documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly). This film also has a great grasp of how different people react to tragic news, expressed terrifically in Samantha Morton’s Oscar-calibre performance as a war widow who responds to the news unusually. The news I’ve been getting about this movie is that it’s depressing. Duh! It’s about the effects of two ongoing wars, folks. What’s remarkable is that there is hope for some of these characters, but in complex ways. Once again, just as in a few previous films discussed here, it’s about honest approaches to crises.
6. Wendy and Lucy
Speaking of honest reactions to crises, Wendy and Lucy might the truest film about Americans living on the economic edge in years. Michelle Williams plays Wendy, a young Indiana woman promised a job in Alaska if she shows up. Packing her car and taking her companion, a dog named Lucy, she finds herself stranded in Oregon. Without money and desperate, circumstances begin unraveling for her quickly until she’s forced to make unpleasant decisions. Director Kelly Reichardt’s trademark meditative pacing is perfect for this story making the kindness of some strangers and the cruelty of others felt deeply and profoundly. Williams is remarkable in the role as is Wally Dalton, who is great as a security guard willing to help her as much as possible. Yes, technically this film was released in NY and LA in 2008, but it made Chicago in 2009 and that’s when I saw it, so there.
5. Big Fan
Okay, so The Wrestler might have reignited Mickey Rourke’s career, but let’s remember that if it weren’t for Robert D. Siegel’s great screenplay, he may not have had such a fascinating character. Siegel wrote and directed this magnificent debut film, one of the best directorial debuts in film history as far as I’m concerned. Patton Oswalt is nothing less than astonishing playing Paul, a poor schlup who spends his tedious hours as a parking-garage attendant taking copious notes for his nightly 1am sports rant. Obsessed with The New York Giants and, in particular star linebacker Quantrell Bishop, he lives only to see his Giants win and tear down any doubters when calling his favorite sports radio talk show. An incident with his favorite player, however, throws his whole life into a spin. This movie has one of the best thought-out climaxes I’ve seen in a long time. It truly clobbered me and Oswalt nails his character perfectly. If he doesn’t win the Oscar this year for Best Actor, it’s a robbery. Big Fan is also the first film I can remember that takes sports addiction seriously, and I don’t mean the type that makes guys paint their faces blue and run out into the stands half-naked. With The Wrestler and Big Fan, Siegel is doing nothing less than reimagining and reinvigorating the sports film genre.
As with the earlier mentioned film The Messenger, this film by American filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung looks into the after effects of armed conflict–in this case, the Rwandan Genocide of 1994. The title refers to the name of an ancient Rwandan warrior Munyurangabo and was the inspiration for the lead character, Ngabo (Jeff Rutagengwa). Ngabo is a member of the Tutsi, the tribe suffering the most deaths during the genocide. The teenage boy befriends another boy Sangwa (Eric Ndorunkundiye), descended from the opposing tribe of Hutu. Ngabo, armed with a stolen machete, informs his new friend that he’s headed off to find work, but agrees to accompany Sangwa to see the boy’s parents who he hadn’t seen in three years. Once they visit the family, circumstances emerge which test the boys’ faith in the importance of their families, friendships and integrities. I’m truly amazed at the power of this film, given that it was the first film made in the local Kinyarwanda language, shot in 11 days, and uses non-actors in the roles. This authenticity serves very well in the boys’ final conflict, one of the most heartbreaking movie scenes of the year. Munyurangabo is proof positive that some of the best tales told can be the simplest.
3. Silent Light
Another great tale told simplistically and meditatively is Carlos Reygadas’ mesmerizing Silent Light. Set in Mexico in the Mennonite Community, it tells the tale of Johan, a hard-working married man who falls in love with another woman. Much has been made of the famous 6-minute sunrise sequence at the beginning of the film, but it sets the tone for patience needed and helps the viewer enter a different world–one which may have different approaches to crises than what many of us may be accustomed. Like Munyurangabo, this movie uses non-actors and a rarely used language. Compared with the works of Tarkovsky, Olmi, Dreyer and Bergman, Silent Light puts Reygadas’ in the league of classic storytellers confident to remind us that slower paced films can be great too. It seems incredible that I have to write that last sentence, but I have had people complain about how tedious this movie is. Their loss.
2. Sita Sings the Blues
You can throw a bunch of Pixar features at me and toss in 3D effects, fine. But, by far, the most enchanting, exciting and dazzling animated feature (and of virtually any feature this year) was this bravura solo computer project by writer/produer/director/editor Nina Paley. In actual life, Paley was dumped by her boyfriend and upon recovering from her broken heart, learned that her story seemed to parallel the ancient Indian raga of Ramayana. With virtually nothing for a budget, Paley (with some help from fellow animator Jake Friedman) tells both stories using several different animated graphic styles, some hilarious bickering shadow puppets and lovely (and strangely befitting) blues songs by jazz legend Annette Hanshaw. This film is the only one that I know of on my list that you can download completely on YouTube, but seriously folks, see this on the largest screen you can find. You’ll be amazed. Also, you can help Paley pay for the cost of the music copyrights by donating on her website here.
1. The Baader-Meinhof Complex
With the recent news of a terrorist attempt on Christmas Day, watching this truly terrific and terrifying film should be required. Period.
Director Uli Edel was, thankfully, not in Hollywood when he created this international political thriller. Otherwise, this incredibly daring film would have looked more like Taken or The International instead of standing along the ranks of classics like Z and The Day of the Jackal. Focusing on radical journalist Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck in a fantastic performance), the movie shows how a terrorist movement germinated in very tense times (The Vietnam War and repression against leftists in West Germany) with justifiable grievances and understandable emotions. Edel, however, brilliantly lays out both sides of the conflict by eventually showing how the RAF (Red Army Faction), growing in popularity, gets completely out of hand. This film is able to be both an exciting action film–there are plenty of scenes showing the dozens of deaths attributed to the RAF–and a thought-provoking psychological study of a cultic political group, first using its notices to lay out its political dogma and later having to use it to justify murders. Even if you knew what eventually happened with the Baader-Meinhof Group, you can find yourself wondering in this film how the escalating conflicts are going to come to a successful end and how the emergence of new violent radical groups can be stopped.
Runners-up (in alphabetical order):
The Beaches of Agnes; Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans; Big Man Japan; Capitalism, A Love Story; Coraline; The Fantastic Mr. Fox; Flame and Citron; I Love You, Man; Il Divo; Julia; Katyn; The New Twenty; Pontypool; Spread; Valentino: The Last Emperor