January 29, 2010

Best of 2009: Part 5

(overlooked performances, disappointments, favorite settings)

(best scenes, worst movies)

(best scores and soundtracks)

Read the Best of 2009: Part 4
(best documentaries) 

The Best Movies of 2009

Though I chalked up 2009 as a generally disappointing year at the movies, when you see as many movies as I do you're bound to still find some that you like. These may not be the 10 "best" films of the year by critical standards, but they are 10+ that mattered to me in 2009.

"...There couldn't be more obstacles in its way in catching on with American audiences: it has subtitles, it's one of "those artsy foreign films", and - hide the women and children - it's from Iran...My point is, movies like The Song of Sparrows, which truly is accessible, charming, and relevant to people from all countries (especially the U.S.), are too often tossed aside or overlooked because people fear they're weird, boring, overlong, serious, tragic, or something worse. Well here's a surprise: this movie is none of those things, and its comedy is sure to be both more original and more humanistic than repetitive scenes of Will Ferrell fleeing dinosaurs..."

2. Avatar
Much as it might have been a self-fulfilling prophecy that I would fall for this movie, I'm still a little surprised that James Cameron got me again. I loved the scenery, I loved the music, and yes, I loved the outrageous dialogue, particularly from Giovanni Ribisi. A lot of people talk about "letting go" and "having fun" at the movies, but rarely am I able to do it as easily as with James Cameron blockbusters. As I wrote about Titanic a couple of years ago, this was also..."everything you would ever want from a blockbuster. Simply stated, it's why you go to the theater, and it was certainly worth the price of admission. I know most people can't stand it and James Cameron is jerk and it went way over budget and blah blah blah, but if wasn't for productions like it, you wouldn't go to the movies...". Maybe a bit oversimplified, but it holds true for me.

3. Take Out
"Completed in 2004 but not released on DVD until this week, Take Out is an unassuming early effort from filmmaker Sean Baker and his writing partner, Shih-Ching Tsou. The film received a very limited theatrical release last summer, but the few critics who saw it were unanimously and enthusiastically impressed. I can only add to the chorus of praise for this movie; were I to know what year to place it in it would definitely be in my Top 10. If you know my taste you won't be surprised, of course, since Take Out is another neorealistic, slice-of-life look at American culture, in this case focusing on the underworld of illegal immigration."

4. The Hurt Locker
"But as I've written ad nauseam here over the last couple of years, the unspoken truth of The Hurt Locker and every similar movie made recently is that there are a couple million Jeremy Renners and Anthony Mackies who aren't returning to posh Los Angeles-area homes. They're returning to our blocks, our apartment buildings, our families, our schools, our workplaces and our circles of friends...Finally, I find it curious that the three films I have discussed here as the best of the Iraq War bunch (The Hurt Locker, Stop-Loss, and The War Tapes) have two other interesting traits in common: a.) they don't feature a lot of explosions and shoot-outs, and b.) they are all directed by American women. Coincidence?"

"Judging by the trailer you might think Jerichow plays like a soap opera, but as in real life, the dilemmas faced by Thomas, Laura, and Ali are believable, and the consequences of their actions are grave. Moreover, Petzold keeps the intrigue high by gradually allowing these complex characters and their backstories to fully bloom over the course of 93 riveting minutes. You don't get to know somebody after a five minute discussion in real life, so why shouldn't it be the same in movies? Because of Petzold's patience (and because there are only three characters), by the climactic ending our loyalties are torn among the three."

6. A Serious Man
"Set in their home state at the time of their childhood, and featuring characters that have clearly influenced their storytelling style, A Serious Man exists not only as the most personally realized film of the Coens' 25 year-long career, but quite certainly one of their best. In fact, on close examination this is the film that explains the thirteen that preceded it. You see by this really-but-not-really autobiography how they must have viewed the world as children, surrounded by a culture (Jewish Midwestern) and cast of characters (quirky, disturbed, confused) that would leave an impression on anyone. Fortunately for all of us, the brothers have been sharing their peculiar outlook on life through their films for years, culminating in a melancholic masterpiece that will delight their fans as much as it disinterests their critics (all of them fools, anyway, right?)."

"Despite the general consensus that "change" in America arrived on January 20th, 2009, Ramin Bahrani has done his best in Man Push Cart, Chop Shop, and now Goodbye Solo to show us that change actually arrived quite a while ago, not evidenced by the person in the White House but the person in the house down the block from you. He's attempted to expose us to the "new" America, the immigrant America, the Bahrani America, and insofar as I'm the only member of my family born here, my America, too. That's one way to look at Bahrani's films, and it can lead to effusive, perhaps blindingly positive praise on my part, or wary, perhaps unfair charges of "immigrant chic" on the part of others. To the extent that Goodbye Solo is made in the same general style as his last two films and showcases the same general characters, the same general praise and criticism may be applied."

8. Sin Nombre
I'll blame post-film festival fatigue in April to explain why I never got around to writing a review of Cary Fukunaga's harrowing directorial debut. Vividly filmed on location and featuring a talented cast of young actors, it was a daring and timely project about the dangers of illegal immigration to the U.S. via the gang-controlled railways of Guatemala and Mexico. Sure, the love story was a bit misplaced, but I thought the narrative was well-paced and the melodrama kept to a minimum. People are risking their lives riding these trains as I'm writing this, and I applaud filmmakers like Fukunaga who explore the issues surrounding those decisions.

9. Sugar
"Sugar portrays the situation as it is, not as it should or could be. The many former players they show as at the end of the film remind us that baseball is only one part of these people's lives, and most of them have found another way to be productive members of American society...It's becoming clear that only two features into their young careers, Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden have proven they belong in the big leagues of independent film. After throwing a deceptive strike with their first pitch (Half Nelson), they have now delivered another knuckle ball of a movie, unpredictably rising up and down and every which way before eventually, accordingly, patiently hitting its mark across the plate. It's essential viewing for even casual fans of professional baseball, but I really don't want to limit it to that audience. Simply put, Sugar is an earnest and entertaining film with fascinating real-life relevance."

"It's a verite-style romantic musical dramedy that defies categorization precisely because it fits so many descriptions: indie, docudrama, mumblecore, to name a few. At different times it reminded of new cinema (In Search of a Midnight Kiss and Medicine for Melancholy) and classic cinema (the dancing scene from Jean-Luc Godard's Band of Outsiders), and it won't work for everyone if only because it's so peculiarly surreal.But I think that's why I loved it, aside from the fact that it was shot on the Boston and Cambridge streets that hold a special nostalgia for me...It's a delight that sneaks up on you like a spontaneous jazz solo; you almost don't have time to process the fact that what you're watching is truly special. "

And 15 More:
The Messenger
Inglourious Basterds
Crazy Heart
Up/The Princess and the Frog/Fantastic Mr. Fox
Revanche /Lorna's Silence
35 Shots of Rum/Summer Hours


  1. Daniel, I never saw your Number 10, GUY AND MADELINE ON A PARK BENCH, but that's just the kind of choice that really makes your list personalized and eclectic! Nice. I think it's interesting that we both had AVATAR at #2 (I had BRIGHT STAR on top, you had SONG), and I applaud you for favoring fare that may have either been overlooked or underestimated. OK, I didn't care all that much for JERICHO or SUGAR, but I'd be willing to take another spin with both. Of course I am a huge fan of A SERIOUS MAN and to a slightly lesser extent THE HURT LOCKER, but I really tip my cap to you on TAKE OUT, which was as authentic a film as one will ever see (I counted it though fo last year) and both GOODBYE SOLO and SIN NOMBRE are quality inclusions.

    One of your best lists ever.

  2. Muchas gracias, Sam. Funny how similarly we thought about so many movies all year only to split on this list. For whatever reason I thought you'd been higher on Jerichow, but I know Sugar didn't work for a lot of people - it was pretty much forgotten about after its first week in release. Take Out is a complete outlier for 2009, but since it was never released here and had it's DVD release this year, and since I was so impressed by it, well I had to make an exception just to give it some more love.

    Guy and Madeline is also a very personal choice, one could love it or hate it depending on what they're expecting. More likely hate it if what they're expecting is not a jazz musical filmed in 16mm black and white!

  3. Thanks for this list, Daniel. I've added a few of the titles here to my own to-see list. We have many overlaps at this point in my list-making endeavor, including The Hurt Locker, A Serious Man, and Goodbye Solo, not to mention many of your "next 15." Avatar will perhaps always remain a mystery to me (though I do not begrudge those who love it; in many respect I envy them). But as I said, thanks again for pointing me toward some titles I might not have otherwise known or sought.

  4. Glad I could put a couple of them on your radar, T.S. I think it takes a particular kind of taste to like Goodbye Solo (and A Serious Man, of course), but if the immigrant/fish out of water/unlikely friendship angle was what did it for you, definitely check out Take Out, Sugar, Sin Nombre, Jerichow, and Lorna's Silence, if you haven't already. Yes, a solid 5 out of my top 10 this year were immigrant stories in one way or another.

  5. I'll set aside a specific argument on the merits of Avatar to focus on you're bolded statement:"it's why you go to the theater".

    I mean, I get what you're trying to say there and I'm sure this movie compares well to something like Transformers, but look at the rest of your list. Of the remaining nine, only two come close to a wide (or marketed or backed, what is the word I'm looking for?) release. And The Hurt Locker and A Serious Man don't really qualify in the same blockbuster, event-type manner that I think you are alluding to.

    I'm going to the movies for the other 70% of your list, movies that don't spend or earn a borderline shameful amount of money (that's a whole other argument)movies that aren't marketed to the point of brainwashing, movies that don't need to have video games and toys and lunch boxes before they even sell their first ticket. No, I'm going to the theater to watch movies that tell personal, intimate, interesting and creative stories about the depth and bredth of the human condition. And I think that's why you go too.

  6. Alright, that was a little over the top. Please excuse the cheese, I stand behind the message though.

  7. The cheese is excused - I've served up some serious Velveeta in here before.

    I didn't realize that my claim (which was copied directly from one of my posts on Titanic) could be read in the way you read it, but I obviously agree with you that all of the other movies are why people should go to the theater.

    What I was actually saying is just that movies like Avatar are meant ONLY to be seen in a movie theater (I think I mentioned that to you a couple weeks ago). For as much as home viewing technology has improved over the last decade - Netflix, streaming video, Blu-Ray, soon 3D - nothing really comes to close to the big screen experience, in my opinion. There's a particular kind of magic involved with seeing a blockbuster in a theater, and everyone probably has an example from their childhood of discovering that magic for the first time. I think that cultural aspect is more what I meant by the claim: movies like Avatar are, in one way, the foundation of Hollywood's history.

    How do you like that for a claim?

  8. Like T.S., I'll need to add several of these to my "need to see" list, as I've only seen 4 of your 10, not to mention my "need to hear of" in a few cases.

    I'm glad you had that back and forth with teeblah, since it will spare me from having to do it instead. And I like your claim just fine. What's more important is what you stated at the outset, that these were the ones that mattered to you most. Though it still sticks out like a sore thumb.

    Great point about the lady directors/lack of boom-boom in the war flicks, though Bigelow (and her film) is just barely getting by on that qualification.

    How similar is Solo to something like The Visitor? From a distance, it seemed like it covered a lot of the same themes.

  9. Yes it's absolutely imperative to start off make a post extremely personal if you're going to use the word "best". I could never rightfully say these are the 10 best films of the year for anyone. Let the Oscar figure that out. Or foul that up.

    Goodbye Solo is a relative of The Visitor though maybe not immediate family. The plot doesn't unfold in the same way and the characters are drawn out more extremely. In one way Solo feels both more exaggerated and somehow more realistic - it also probably helped that it was set and filmed in Bahrani's hometown. But are both movies about trouble old white guys developing an unlikely relationship with a plucky immigrant? Yep.


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