Saturday, December 26, 2009

20 for 2009

It's been a rough year for the big boys in Hollywood. DVD sales are weak, downloading is still a cause for fear and strangely audiences refuse to reliably go see pre-manufactured pablum like Land of the Lost. 2009 was the year when big stars couldn't guarantee a film's performance (Julia Roberts in Duplicity, Russel Crowe in State of Play to name a few..) and when
other stars came back with a bang (Hello Sandra Bullock).

Still, look long and hard and you'll see signs of hope. From Fantastic Mr. Fox to Paranormal Activity and yes even Avatar, filmmakers proved that all audiences really want are artists with vision. Someone who knows how to move the camera and has something to say.

As for the industry, both blu-ray and 3D are here to stay, which means more money for people to play with. Expect more spectacles and pray for some smarts.

From 2009 here are 20 films that stood out.

It's hard to describe a film which stars a toy Cowboy, Indian and a Horse. The stop-motion animation style is primitive, the voices are just above the level of Pingu and it's freakin hilarious.
I watched this at TIFF, truly it hasn't come out in theatres in Canada yet but I couldn't leave it off my list. A Town Called Panic is one of the funniest and most inspiring films I saw this year. Silly and absurd, a blast of play-doh coloured craziness.

An Inuit hunter. A case of tuberculosis. What starts as a mission of mercy becomes an act of cruelty. There are many pleasures in this moving film from Quebec. Set in the early fifties it's a bracing look at what was done to aboriginal populations in the name of good. It's also a movie about survival, even in the most unlikely places.

If I had to pick a single film from this year people will still be talking about two decades from now, this would be that film.
Set in a small German town on the eve of the first world war this is a movie about power, about fear and the folly of fascism. Stunning work by the director who also brought us Cache.

I loved this movie perhaps more than I should have for a simple, girl-gains an-attitude-and-puts-on-some-skates, kinda film. But perhaps it was about all the things that Whip It wasn't. Whip It didn't make the heroine into some type of patsy. She didn't moon over her man (hello Bella) and it contained a nice grungy mix of gals. Good actors, great soundtrack and some body blows to cap it off. No princess in this teen wonderland. Rock on Drew.

16. Tetro

Two brothers, a woman and Buenos Aires. As I said when I first wrote about Tetro, this is a time capsule of a film. A rich sip from the pre-AVID age of cinema. It's not that Coppola has made something dated, but like The White Ribbon there's a timeless feel here, which makes up for many of the great director's indulgences.

The second best documentary of the year works on many levels. As an activist film opening your eyes to a horrible crime. As a personal journey, watching a man tied to the image of the domesticated dolphin trying to make amends. And finally, as a caper, a mad mission-impossible type scheme involving high tech gizmos and daring feats. Watch the film to the end and you'll see how the director never rests on his laurels. Always finding new ways to stimulate our senses.

14. District 9

Let us now sing the song of Wikus. The regular Joe. To be honest a bit of a jerk really, with his easy smile and that late seventies mustache. Played with verve by Sharlto Copley, it's just one of the many differences that helped set District 9 apart. A heck of a first film for Neill Blomkamp. So glad Halo fell apart.

13. The Damned United

The story of a soccer coach makes it here for two reasons: 1) The amazing performance of Michael Sheen as the swaggering Brian Clough. You would think the arrogance would cancel out the charisma but instead it almost has a multiplying effect. 2) The beautiful structure of Peter Morgan's script, almost Shakespearean in the way he dissects and displays Clough's fatal flaw.

Another movie on the list mainly because of one performance. Somewhere around the 20 minute mark I lost sight of Jeff Bridges. He slipped entirely from view, replaced by "Bad Blake" the tarnished country star at the centre of this tale. And I aint what you'd call a country music fan, but I sure as heck was humming some of those tunes by the end. (more on the music here)

Not much to add about this film except that I think it's interesting that the occasional excesses of Wes Anderson's style work perfectly in this children's tale. Although what put this on my list over Up, over Coraline, were the very adult themes Anderson managed to smuggle into this film. Something about that dance in the supermarket at the end really stuck with me. There's a subversive quality there, and the fact that Anderson cribbed it from Roald Dahl's notes makes it all the better.

Sure it's slick. It's stylish as all hell. From the second the opening credits begin you know you're in the hands of someone with something to say. But there's also some courage there. From Reitman, willing to make a movie about the collateral damage of the Great Recession. (That empty office with the receptionist crying should be the image of the year.) And credit too, for George Clooney on taking a role that plays with his own image. Or maybe he just did it to share scenes with Vera Farmiga. Yowza!

I.B. is one of those films that has gotten better as time passed. Immediately I was disappointed with the lack of battle scenes. Sorry but you say WW2, I have certain expectations. Now I appreciate it for everything else. The glorious dialogue. The slow burn of the set pieces. The farmer's table. The German bistro. And the sheer balls of Tarantino who plays tribute to his idols while smashing them to pieces.

The best movie about the Iraq War wasn't about the war. It was a comedy about the run up to the war. And it was made by a bunch of Brits. If Col. Hans Landa is this year's villain, Malcolm Tucker is a close second. The crown prince of cursing. A master of vigorous vulgarity. No amount of alliteration can prepare you for his foul-tongued fury. (Check out my interview with him here.) Lovely stuff.

7. Moon

We long suffering Sam Rockwell fans finally got the movie we were waiting for. A movie to showcase Rockwell's jittery genius, in all his manic glory. Moon is a future classic with little flourishes that cement its place in the sci-fi canon. The vibrating soundtrack. A kindly robot. (Kevin Spacey!) Flawless mise en scene. And a plot that swallows it's own tail. Plus those final shots.... Such economy in storytelling. Perfect.

It's beginning to look like the next couple years will belong to Michael Fassbender. But this is the film that got him there. An amazing performance, I don't want to say much more since this was my number one last year. Well now it's actually out and in your video store so I'm putting it on my list again. It's that good.

The best doc of the year is about a man in a meat locker explaining the way the world ends. Whether as character study or a warning, it's fascinating stuff. Suddenly the X-files feel like fairy tales. (More here and TIFF coverage here.)

Let us all now pause and give thanks that we live in a world where a movie as bleak and as twisted and funny, yes funny, as A Serious Man could be created. And give thanks to the Coens who aren't afraid to make movies with questions but no answers. Also, ending of the year.

Two of the most beautiful films of the year, each in their own way of course. (What? You don't find exploding starships beautiful? Well then you're reading the wrong blog.)
Also two films where the director is in total command. Each are rewriting history in a way. One a revisionist version of Star Trek, the other a famous poet wooing his neighbour (or was that the other way around?) Each succeeds entirely. These movies took me away and I want to go back.

You take the energy of Snatch, the drama of The Departed and add the epic quality of The Godfather and you have Il Divo. A movie about the mob. About politics. About a man, who believes above all in himself. Watch the trailer here. Then go rent it on DVD. Enjoy.

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