Best Films of 2009…and the Decade

The current issue of Film Comment has been on news stands for a few weeks, and it includes best-of-the-year and best-of-the-decade polls to which I was invited to contribute. I moved to Los Angeles in 2001 and starting blogging in 2003, so in many ways, pondering the decade has encouraged me to reappraise my writing here (though by no means have I written about every film I watched!), which has proven to be an enjoyable exercise.

The categories and numbers of titles requested were limiting, of course, but even restricting myself to one film per director (preventing a pile up of, say, films by Richard Linklater or the Dardennes), I’ve had to leave out a lot of singular achievements I will continue to cherish for years. (And I’m sure I don’t have to mention how the strange vagaries of distribution influenced my lists, especially for the years 2000 and 2009.) The lists emphasize features over short or experimental works, and I assumed many masterpieces were shoo-ins for the poll, so I made an effort to emphasize a few titles I didn’t want to be overlooked. The ordering is ranked roughly in terms of personal attachment, but it’s pretty fluid; I could easily be talked into rearranging most of it on any given day.

10 Favorite Films of 2009

1. Extraordinary Stories (Mariano Llinás, Argentina)
The most unconventional narrative feature I saw this year was also the most riveting: clocking in at over four hours and juxtaposing three main stories with countless mini-stories in each–all featuring wall-to-wall narration–and shot on what looks like consumer-grade video, this microbudget film still feels bigger and more expansive than Avatar. Taking supreme delight in the telling of its stories (which dabble in multiple genres), the film has been aptly compared to Louis Feuillade, Jorge Luis Borges, and Tristam Shandy for its free-flowing, episodic, patchwork structure, and its cumulative effect is thrilling. Describing Llinás, the esteemed Argentine critic Quintin wrote in Cinema Scope: “…in his capacities as director, producer, writer, editor, actor and teacher, he has opened up a new path for the country’s filmmaking community and a new direction for its cultural milieu.” Bravo.

2. Police, Adjective (Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania)
The latest masterpiece from Romania is a sly and slow-boiling (rather than hard-boiled) detective story documenting a young policeman’s monotonous surveillance of a pot-smoking teenager and the policeman’s aversion to his job because he fears the criminal punishment would be too severe. (Having traveled a bit, he also knows pot-smoking isn’t even a crime in other places.) He’d rather catch the unknown supplier, but in a tour-de-force confrontation in the film’s final act, his older superior insists that duty is duty. It’s part of the film’s brilliance that this conversation amplifies the way virtually every one of the film’s conversations pivots around ideas of process, language, and justice; the policeman’s crisis has as much to do with his country’s general moral trajectory as it does with his job. This is a movie that seems innocuous and then lingers in your mind for months.

3. United Red Army (Koji Wakamatsu, Japan)
One of the best cinematic convergences I experienced last year was when I saw Wakamatsu’s blistering dramatization of Japanese student protests just as I was exploring Nagisa Oshima’s life and work, which is haunted by the death of Sixties radicalism. Wakamatsu’s film focuses on the formation and cult encampment of the United Red Army and its eventual 1972 ten-day standoff with the police and media in the Japanese Alps. The film is a commanding and at times almost unbearably frank account of the way paranoia, group dynamics, and sloganeering festered into psychodramatic “self-criticism” that led to the group torturing and executing half of its own members. Yet this is no simple exposé–Wakamatsu, who has personal ties to the group and mortgaged his home to finance the film, directs with a profound commitment to emotional authenticity and an aversion to judgment.

4. The Beaches of Agnes (Agnes Varda, France)
As she proved with The Gleaners and I, Varda has a particular genius for autobiography and the essay film, with its freeform sense of play and spontaneity, and she confides in the viewer like a friend. Rather than a cause this time, she explores her own past, and utilizes a fascinating array of new footage, film clips, recreations, and old photos, as the width of her frame shifts from snapshots to widescreen splendor. “Cinema is a game,” she says, and recounts her life through an array of digital tricks, impromptu installations, and an assortment of cardboard cutouts. She explores the people and locations of her past and in the process discovers them anew.

5. Lorna’s Silence (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Belgium)
It’s difficult not to acknowledge the wide, and in some ways unlikely, influence the Dardennes have made on contemporary cinema with their handheld, intimate studies of enigmatic characters in personal crises. The mild backlash that greeted their latest film–accusing it simultaneously of doing the same things and doing different things (something of which their hero, Roberto Rossellini, was no stranger)–wasn’t too surprising. What is clear is that the Dardennes are serious about exploring their themes in new ways rather than falling back on proven templates. It may be their most heavily plotted film in years, but it ends with their greatest psychological mystery, a provocation that suggests a moral conscience born unconsciously might invent its own reality.

6. Un Lac (Philippe Grandrieux, France)
Despite his undeniable technical mastery of dark and blurry imagery that is by turns baffling, beautiful, and gut-wrenching, Grandrieux’s first feature, Sombre (1998), didn’t change my mind about the meagre merits of dramatizing the lives of serial killers, and I’m still processing his brilliant but confounding follow-up, La vie nouvelle (2002). But Un lac captivated and moved me, its deliciously opaque narrative–as equivocal as the bulk of the film’s images–about an unusually intense relationship between a brother and sister living in seclusion becomes a platform for a deeper and more emotionally nuanced parable about human attachment and loss.

7. It Felt Like a Kiss (Adam Curtis, Britain)
Curtis’ most avant-garde film (at least, the one with the least amount of narration and the most ambiguity) served as the basis for a theatrical installation in Manchester. It exhibits his typically brilliant, impressionistic montage of archival footage tracing developing cultural and political ideas. But freed from his usual BBC rhetorical constraints, the film is a Godardian juxtaposition of text, sounds, and images linking seemingly disparate Fifties personalities (Rock Hudson, Saddam Hussein, Lee Harvey Oswald, Enos the chimp, and “everyone above Level 7 in the CIA”) to world calamities today. Highly thought-provoking and enthralling to watch, it reinforces Curtis as one of the world’s leading film essayists.

8. Beeswax (Andrew Bujalski, USA)
With the passing of Eric Rohmer earlier this year, Bujalski seems poised to take the reigns as cinema’s master of naturalistic portraits of intelligent young adults pondering their hearts in confusing times. Don’t confuse him with his mumblecore imitators, whose calculated slacker mannerisms often seem more concerned with qualifying them as genre pieces than revealing complex personalities (it’s no surprise that Bujalski tends to cast longtime friends). Developing the post-collegiate setting of his two previous features, this film reflects the tensions, bonds, and crises prompted by the demands of business, while remaining as breezy and infectious as ever.

9. Me and Orson Welles (Richard Linklater, USA)
Linklater’s love letter to the Mercury Theatre, New Deal creativity, and youthful idealism was well worth the wait on its distribution; its host of convincing performances is topped by Christian McKay’s uncanny interpretation of Welles, which stresses intensity and fluidity over mimicry, and thereby picks up unexpected nuances along the way. As warm and clever as Linklater’s previous works but boasting an almost epic period sweep and poise, it never devolves into nostalgia or hamming, investing its coming of age story with a genuine depth of feeling.

10. The Secret of Kells (Tomm Moore, Ireland)
Los Angeles seems to be one of the only US cities where Moore’s film has played (qualifying it for an Oscar nomination), which is unfortunate because it’s one of the most visually inventive and compelling animated features I’ve seen. Evoking the feel of illustrated manuscripts and having fun with its medieval two-dimensional representations of space, it recounts the turbulent history of the Celtic tome that many consider Ireland’s greatest artistic accomplishment. The film tells its story in broad strokes suitable for adolescents without dumbing down the mysticism, barbarity, and human cost of the middle ages.

10 Favorite Discoveries of 2009 (Not a Film Comment submission, but a Film Journey tradition–in no particular order.)

• A City of Sadness (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1989)
With all the attention our Save Film at LACMA campaign received, it’s easy to overlook the stellar programming Ian Birnie and Bernardo Rondeau continued to provide (several films on this list were courtesy of LACMA), not least of which was this brand new print of Hou’s masterpiece commissioned at their initiative.

• The Crimson Kimono (Sam Fuller, 1959)
Long unavailable on video or repertory screens until it appeared this year on DVD in Sony’s Samuel Fuller Collection, this typically (for Fuller) tabloid drama with progressive and heartfelt undercurrents offers an unusually authentic portrait of Los Angeles locations (Little Tokyo, Koyasan temple, Evergreen Cemetery) and ethnic tensions. Two detectives, a Caucasian and a Japanese American, fall in love with the same woman while investigating a stripper’s murder.

• Léon Morin, Priest (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1961)
Melville takes a situation ripe for sensation–a beautiful atheist develops a crush on a handsome priest during wartime, and they frequently meet in private–and though he’s obviously attuned (as they are) to the sexual tensions, Melville presents both characters as complex, intellectual human beings unwilling to succumb to simple clichés. The film’s hushed intensity is aided greatly by the sympathetic performances of Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Paul Belmondo.

• Ivan the Terrible, Parts I and II (Sergei Eisenstein, 1944 and 1958)

• Boy (Nagisa Oshima, 1969)
LACMA and the American Cinematheque offered the most important film series of the year with their co-hosting of James Quandt’s Oshima retrospective.

• L’Enclos (Armand Gatti, 1961)
After hearing Gatti cited for many years as a major influence on the Dardennes, I was very happy to track down this French DVD.

• Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)
The kind of cinema, like 2001: A Space Odyssey or Lawrence of Arabia or Playtime, for which the big screen was invented.

• The Power of Nightmares (Adam Curtis, 2004)
I first heard about the BBC’s Adam Curtis on our local Pacifica radio station a couple years ago (when the host compared him to Guy Debord, it got my attention); catching up with his work was one of the highlights of my viewing year. This was the second of his three-hour miniseries, and it compares the evolution of the neoconservative movement in the US with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East, highlighting their shared victories (Afghanistan), clashes (9/11), and fear-based legacies. Tightly weaving together images and ideas–with music clips from a whole string of John Carpenter movies–it’s an invigorating and mind-expanding experience. (You can view the film here.)

• L’Idee (Berthold Bartosch, 1920)

• Black Rain (Shohei Imamura, 1989)
AnimEigo’s DVD release proved to be an ideal digital presentation of Imamura’s atypically reserved–but deeply moving–black-and-white family drama about the long term social and physical aftereffects of the Bomb; in particular, the inclusion of a philosophical alternate ending (shot in color) in which the forlorn protagonist, Yasuko (Yoshiko Tanaka), leaves her domestic life behind and becomes a Buddhist mendicant. It’s a decided shift in tone, and Imamura was probably right to drop it, but it’s one of the DVD’s many fascinating extras, including historical footnotes that can also be found on the distributor’s website.

50 Favorite Films of the Decade (Links to longer reviews when available.)

1. The Son (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 2002)
2. La Commune (Paris, 1871) (Peter Watkins, 2000)
3. Waking Life (Richard Linklater, 2001)
4. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu, 2005)
5. The New World (Terrence Malick, 2005)
6. Still Life (Jia Zhang-ke, 2006)
7. In Vanda’s Room (Pedro Costa, 2000)
8. Honor of the Knights (Albert Serra, 2006)
9. The Circle (Jafar Panahi, 2000)
10. Oxhide (Liu Jiayin, 2005)
11. Paraguayan Hammock (Paz Encina, 2006)
12. Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2006)
13. Star Spangled to Death (Ken Jacobs, 2004)
14. Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, 2006)
15. Peppermint Candy (Lee Chang-dong, 2000)
16. Yi Yi (Edward Yang, 2000)
17. In Praise of Love (Jean-Luc Godard, 2001)
18. In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai, 2000)
19. Distant (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2002)
20. Shadow Kill (Adoor Gopalakrishnan, 2002)
21. Funny Ha Ha (Andrew Bujalski, 2002)
22. Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt, 2008)
23. The House of Mirth (Terence Davies, 2000)
24. One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich (Chris Marker, 2000)
25. The Gleaners and I (Agnes Varda, 2000)
26. Los Angeles Plays Itself (Thom Andersen, 2003)
27. Taxi to the Dark Side (Alex Gibney, 2007)
28. When the Levees Broke (Spike Lee, 2006)
29. Extraordinary Stories (Mariano Llinas, 2008)
30. In the City of Sylvia (Jose Luis Guerin, 2007)
31. Faat Kine (Ousmane Sembene, 2000)
32. Munyurangabo (Lee Isaac Chung, 2007)
33. Regular Lovers (Philippe Garrel, 2005)
34. Heartbeat Detector (Nicolas Klotz, 2007)
35. Liverpool (Lisandro Alonso, 2008)
36. Opera Jawa (Garin Nugroho, 2006)
37. Russian Ark (Alexander Sokurov, 2002)
38. Ana and the Others (Celina Murga, 2003)
39. The Romance of Astree and Celadon (Eric Rohmer, 2007)
40. I’m Going Home (Manoel de Oliveira, 2001)
41. Eureka (Shinji Aoyama, 2001)
42. Still Walking (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2008)
43. Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2008)
44. Woman on the Beach (Hong Sang-soo, 2006)
45. Shara (Naomi Kawase, 2003)
46. Happy Here and Now (Michael Almereyda, 2002)
47. Tony Takitani (Jun Ichikawa, 2004)
48. Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001)
49. Take Out (Sean Baker and Shih-Ching Tsou, 2004)
50. Sita Sings the Blues (Nina Paley, 2008)

10 Best Reissues of the Decade

• 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967)
• Au hasard Balthazar (Robert Bresson, 1966)
• The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966)
• The Exiles (Kent MacKenzie, 1961)
• Killer of Sheep (Charles Burnett, 1977)
• Lola Montes (Max Ophuls, 1955)
• Out 1, noli me tangere (Jacques Rivette, 1971)
• Playtime (Jacques Tati, 1967)
• When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (Mikio Naruse, 1960)
• Winter Soldier (Collective, 1972)

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