No, it wasn't the explosive year in cinema I was hoping for- in part because we were denied two very-much-anticipated releases (Tree of Life and Shutter Island) after they ended up getting pushed back a year (one because of an unfinished editing process, another for admittedly wise marketing reasons); and in part because I got into some of the most SERIOUS modern movie debates of my life. I don't remember the last time I've felt so... alienated from majority opinion.
Oh, wait a minute, now I remember: last time that happened to me, it was 2008. The year before. The year when I thought that Synecdoche, New York and Revolutionary Road were the year's best films, and neither film got much praise. I wasn't too happy about that.
The good thing about 2009 was that the movies were better than those in 2008. The bad thing about it was that, again, I felt so much in the minority. You know what the worst part of it was? I reached a point where I couldn't debate with people about Avatar, Inglorious Basterds and The Hurt Locker without getting into political debates. The three films certainly seem to have been spawned by the venomous cynicism that was just waiting to spring out after eight rocky years of George W. Bush and one rough year for Barack Obama. Avatar is basically James Cameron's middle finger to Bush. Inglourious Basterds may not seem like an inherently right-wing film, but it's not insane to wonder if maybe Quentin Tarantino takes issue with Obama's anti-torture stance. And Kathryn Bigelow has openly admitted that The Hurt Locker was partially born out of her total disgust with ALL political films; she wanted to make a war film that took no political stance (and, if you think about it, that's a political stance in itself).
Already some of you are going to start yelling at me because I'm generalizing here. "You're a retard if you can't admit that Cameron has crafted the ultimate science fiction epic!" "Tarantino makes movies about movies and you're hypocritical if you don't appreciate that!" "Bigelow's movie is the first great film about the Iraq War and you'd have to be crazy to prefer those other movies that are unsubtle and biased!" People... I've heard all of it.
That's why none of these three films are going to make my top five of the year. I don't really have the heart to defend or attack any of them without feeling as though I'm crossing the laws of film criticism somehow. People say that The Hurt Locker would have been spoiled if it had taken some sort of subjective point of view. I merely question how a film that takes no stance on a controversial war would fly if, say, John McCain had been elected. Dozens continue to insist to me that Inglourious Basterds shouldn't be viewed as a film that is in favor of ideas like torture and capital punishment. I'd love to think so, but it's hard to buy that argument when so many other dozens of people I know seem to love the film because they think it does. Finally, although I was a huge fan of Avatar at first, I've come to agree that it should have been a little more discreet in its political commentary and that some of its liberal messages reek of contradiction.
All three of them are good films. Later in the post, I will try to honor them- along with some of the other films from the year that I admired. But in 2009, there were only five films that resonated personally with me. I actually felt like I was having something of an intimate conversation with them. I would treasure them in any other year.
1. A Serious Man
This isn't the first time Joel and Ethan Coen have made a film that felt so true to life for me that I was on the verge of tears. The first of theirs I ever saw was Fargo. I wasn't sure what to think at the time, but I remember deeply pitying Jerry Lundergaard for what had happened to him, and when Marge and her husband finally sat down to watch television for the night, hoping for things to get better, I felt as if I was in there with them. When I later saw Miller's Crossing, I had no idea a mob film could feel so tangible to a Greek tragedy. Barton Fink reminded me of my own problems with writer's block, and leaving Barton out there on the beach to do nothing left but observe a beautiful redhead was so devastating for me. And then came No Country for Old Men. At the time it was released, I was a junior in high school who was terribly angry about a lot of things: my inability to pass my Driver's Exam, my failing grades in Chemistry, and various other things. Then I went to see that film... and it made everything so much better. By allowing Ed Tom Bell to give up, the Coens allowed the rest of us in the audience to move on.
In my opinion, A Serious Man is like the comedic equivalent of No Country for Old Men. With the exception of a key dream sequence, it has none of the violence of the former film- although it does have the unflinching brutality. It's set in the 1960's, but it reminds us too much of the post 9/11 era we live in still. In my favorite male performance of the year, Michael Stuhlbarg plays Larry Gopnik, a math professor for whom everything that can possibly go wrong, well... does.
No doubt various other reviews for the film have already gone into detail about the troubles that he ends up going through, so instead I'll lavish on how funny it all is- how, if we were Larry ourselves, we would probably stand back and laugh after thinking long and hard about everything that has happened. But the climax in the film occurs when Larry, fed up with his issues, finally snaps, and takes out his anger at an innocent record clerk over the phone. It's the one moment in the film that really isn't funny at all, and suddenly we've sympathized with Larry. And oh, how I adore the ending, in which a bar mitzvah for Larry's son starts out ridiculously and then ends so movingly. After all that has happened, there is still hope for Larry's marriage, family, job, and perhaps even his life. Yet the Coens are too sly to let us completely off the hook, and wisely leave us on a note of pondersome uncertainty.
2. The Road
I waited two long years for this film. When The Road didn't get its much-anticipated 2008 release, I was hopping mad. I felt like we had been denied the masterpiece of the year. I didn't want to wait another year. I was already a huge fan of director John Hillcoat; his The Proposition (2006), a Western homage to Huston and Peckinpah, was one of my favorites of the decade, and I was simply intoxicated by the thought of him bringing a Cormac McCarthy story to the screen. But ultimately, I'm glad for the delayed release: it gave me time to read McCarthy's novel, a task that I carried out shortly before the film finally got its release here in St. Louis, in November 2009.
The common criticism everybody had of this film was that it just doesn't do as magnificicently of a job as McCarthy did of putting us in the shoes of the Man and the Boy. McCarthy's prose is so exotic and poetic (the best of its kind since Faulkner) that many have called it unfilmable. After all, this is a story about nuclear holocaust, and we have to be in the company of two struggling characters for most of the time. Can one only connect to the warmth of their relationship by reading about it on paper? Many complained that the film felt cold, and despite being true to the content of McCarthy's novel, didn't quite connect to its spirit.
I say: it's close enough. Honestly, in twenty years, isn't it possible that audiences are going to look back at this film and judge that it didn't get its due? Viggo Mortensen's performance here, as the Man, is the crowning point in what is now officially a great acting career. Kodi Smit-McPhee makes a true impression as the Boy. And what bothered me about all the complaints over The Road is that people weren't realizing how rare this kind of movie is. So many films these days are loud, obnoxious, or over-hyped. The Road is not exploitive. It takes its visions very seriously. It is simply a story about a father and son who stick together and try to stay alive. Nothing else. But in my opinion, that is everything.
3. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
"What are these FUCKING IGUANAS doing on my coffee table?" Having never seen Abel Ferrara's original Harvey Keitel vehicle, I went into this feeling unprepared- but as a Werner Herzog fan, I knew that I had to quickly run out and catch this (I had never seen a Herzog film in theaters) before it was gone. For my money, this is Nicholas Cage's best performance since Bringing Out the Dead; he just completely goes off the wall as a crack-addicted corrupt cop, and I ate up every minute of it. In terms of Herzogian theme, the film has more in common with Fitzcarraldo than with Aguirre- The Wrath of God or Grizzly Man, since it ends on a more positive note. I kind of love how it's alternately hilarious and... surreal. You'll know what I mean when you see it.
4. Fantastic Mr. Fox
Enough has been said by my friends in the blogosphere about just how strikingly awesome Wes Anderson's voyage into claymation is. I'll just say what no one else has said: there are clever cinema references to Welles (a farmer destroys a toolshed, Citizen Kane style), Pakula (a coded message reeks of All the President's Men), Nicholas Ray (characters quote Rebel Without A Cause at a key moment), and even Truffaut (the Cole Porter theme from Day for Night plays during a waterfull sequence). Along with all of that, it's the year's finest animated film.
5. Disney's A Christmas Carol
The year's most terrific holiday treat. What looked dreadfully like another lame bastardization of a literary classic instead became a wonder for the eyes and the imagination. Then again, we shouldn't have expected any less from Robert Zemeckis- he remains overjoyously thankful to Dickens, keeping the story's support for the plight of the lower classes alive and well. It may sound odd, but Jim Carrey is a splendid Scrooge, too; he rarely ever plays the character for laughs and, for the most part, is a spitting image of exactly what Scrooge should be (he's by far the best Scrooge since Michael Caine- or maybe even George C. Scott). What's more, Zemeckis just makes the story all his own, and infuses it with dazzling crane shots and long takes. When we finally do get to see the three Ghosts, they are unlike any of the versions we've seen before. And, again, we'd expect no less from Zemeckis.
Now to honor the runners-up. I didn't have any strong love for these films, but they are good films and need to be given their due. In alphabetical order:
Avatar- Goddamn it, I like this movie. If it wins Best Picture, I won't be angry, even though it's not quite one of my favorites of the year. James Cameron obviously has a vivid imagination, and I'm glad he was true to it. Personally, I found Pandora to be a seductive planet, and the Na'vi people to be sexy and strong-willed. That being said, even though it's nice to have a liberal Hollywood epic every now and then, did the movie have to be so obvious in its left-leaning objectives? And if the Na'vi are as respective of dead creatures as they appear to be, then why don't they mourn the deaths of all of those humans they kill at the end? With all that said and done, I still cannot side with the popular movement out there to kill this film. Avatar may not be a milestone in my book, but it's a unique film and fitting for Cameron's return to the art form.
District 9- Again, a film that's easy to hate, thanks to what Armond White and others who took offense to its apartheid allegories and whatnot. To me, this film was pretty good until the ending, which ends with your standard Big Robot Fight. It can't be denied that Neil Blomkamp is a talented filmmaker, and I look forward to more of his films (Halo adaptation or not). Same with Sharlto Copley, whose performance in this film as the victimized Wikus is nothing short of marvelous.
The Hurt Locker- I'll be happy when Kathryn Bigelow wins Best Director on Sunday. She deserves it. It may not be one of my top five favorites of the year, but I can't argue that it's the best directed. And I can bitch about the supposed superiority of Redacted all I want- it won't change the fact that this film is far more accessible. It's certainly entertaining. And it works excellently as an action/suspense picture. As a war film of great consequence? That, I don't know. I still think K-19: The Widowmaker (2002), with Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson, is Bigelow's best film to date.
Inglourious Basterds- My problems with this film are far from over. There are still a lot of things about it that bother me- whether it be Tarantino's questionable political intent or his refusal to take WWII seriously, as he very well appears to be viewing the concept of Nazi extermination more as a reactionary exercise in filthy revenge than as a realistic consequence of wartime. But I'm done with all of that. I want instead to lavish praise on Tarantino's direction: he is a great filmmaker, and he will continue to make quality films. Obviously this film is viewed by many as one of his all-time great accomplishments, and I'm glad people were able to respond that well to it. As a narrative, it does indeed work. Perhaps, in my case, I simply need to wait for this film to age: once the politics surrounding it are all gone, and perhaps even once all the hype dies down, I can become an even bigger fan of it. I know for sure that it's a good film. I just don't think it's great... yet.
Paranormal Activity- I'm going to confess that the night I saw this film, I had to lay awake in bed for about five minutes before putting my mind to rest. Oren Peli came up with something new here. And, yes... scary, too. I keep hearing rumors that Brian De Palma is being considered to direct the sequel. Sounds interesting (you know how much I love De Palma), but would it be the same without Peli? Or Mikah and Katie? Good question.
Up- Due to its conventionalism (which compares poorly with the innovation of Ratatouille and Wall-E), this wasn't one of my favorites of Pixar. However, Pete Docter had a Capraesque sensibility that I found hard not to cherish. I wish it had ended on a stronger note; it might then have been something more.
Where the Wild Things Are- I was a little let down that this film wasn't the groundbreaking epic that I thought it was going to be when I saw the theatrical trailer for it last spring. Did Spike Jonze do anything all that enlightening except craft a movie that's basically all about the dangers of horseplay? Or playing God? At times it reminded me too much of 1995's The Indian in the Cupboard in this respect. Still, it's a rare film; the kind we don't get to see very often. That made it great for some people, so I won't argue. I can most definitely say that Max Records has all the charisma of a young Haley Joel Osment.
Here's to 2010. It's already been a year of Scorsese (Shutter Island) and Polanski (The Ghost Writer). With luck, it may also be a year of Malick (Tree of Life), Stone (Wall Street 2), Lynch (Maharishi), and the Coens (the True Grit remake). And maybe even De Palma- word on the street is that either Tabloid or The Boston Stranglers will finally be getting off the ground. Hello, beautiful.