Posted: 01/20/2010


Best Films of 2009

by Del Harvey

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Quite a few very good films came out in 2009, I am happy to say. And at the same time there were a number of absolutely abysmal efforts. When I consider what might have driven studio executives and independent filmmakers to have made some of their choices, I cannot get away from the idea that money was a driving force behind these decisions.

By way of example, in December there were two films released which were supposed to receive consideration for Academy contention. One was Up In The Air and the other was It’s Complicated. While the acting in both was, at times, very good, the writing and the director’s choices were simply confusing. Up In The Air rolls along quite competently for the first 90-odd minutes, the characters well developed and the eventual twists adequate enough to support the storyline. Then the film simply peters out and flops around at the end, offering up no solid resolutions to the character’s question (the arc) or that of the original storyline. There is no payoff. It is student filmmaking at its worst and a complete and utter betrayal of the audience’s trust. And yet I have talked to any number of young people who think this is perfectly okay. There is a lesson to be learned here, but that is another rant altogether.

In It’s Complicated, presented as a comedy in preview trailers, we are instead exposed to a horrible conundrum, a mash-up which cannot make up its mind whether it should be a comedy or a drama. Director Nancy Myers has been cranking out similar “comedies” over the past decade and beyond - The Holiday, Something’s Gotta Give, The Parent Trap, Father of the Bride I and II, Baby Boom, etc. - yet somehow she is able to get an all-star cast to line up for whatever her next project might be. This one is atrocious. Aimed at the Baby Boomer generation, it’s like a teen angst film set to full Bi-Polar mode; one moment it’s serious, the next it’s all for laughs. It is bad enough watching an individual suffer with split personality disorder; it is quite something else to watch a film go through the same trauma.

The worst part of all of this is that there are big name actors and nicely coiffed sets in both films, but in each it appears as though the production budget guided the entire effort. Example 1: In It’s Complicated there are a series of scenes between Meryl Streep and her three best girlfriends in the world. They all take place in one location at different times in the story. But we never see any of these girlfriends outside of these bracketed scenes. That’s a budget and time constriction choice. Example 2: In Up In The Air we have a number of scenes which are shot in specific airports and a certain time of the year; the number of big name cast members has been reduced drastically for these scenes so that the filmmakers might contain cost and budget.

In other words, it appears that the big studios have, in many cases, adapted an independent attitude towards big budget filmmaking. These are only two such examples from the year, but it sure smells to me like there are serious money problems in Hollywood. And they are driving the stories which are getting made, and more specifically, how they are getting made. Sure, there are exceptions (Sherlock Holmes, Transformers 2, etc.), but those are the “sure money” investments. From where I sit, most film executives are too unsure of what comprises a good film these days to know one when they read it.

But, enough of my ranting. On with the best films of the year, from my perspective.

10. Chocolate
Acclaimed Thai action director Prachya Pinkaew helms this martial arts drama, which follows the story of Zen (JeeJa Yanin), a young autistic woman who discovers that she has the uncanny ability to absorb precision fighting skills just by watching people do them, whether they be in the school next door or martial arts movies on television. When her cancer-ridden mother’s creditors come calling, Zen attempts to settle the debts by standing up to a hardnosed gang of criminals who have wrongfully swindled money from her family. The action choreography is fantastic and the young woman who portrays Zen performs some breath-taking stunts as well and turning in a performance that is simply amazing.

TIE: 9. The Lovely Bones and Murder (Saat yan faan)
Peter Jackson takes us into the realm of limbo, where souls await transfer to Heaven or Hell. A 14-year old girl (Saoirse Ronan, Atonement), the victim of a serial killer (an Academy nod likely going to Stanley Tucci here), fights to “help” her dedicated father (Mark Wahlberg) unearth the killer living amidst their 1970’s subdivision. It is visually breathtaking; the cinematic elegance provides seamless support to a stirring and frightening story, shot through with simple human frailty. The supporting cast includes Rachel Weisz, Susan Sarandon, and Michael Imperioli.

In Chow Hin Yeung Roy’s Murderer, self-assured Police Chief Inspector Ling (Aaron Kwok) is happily married with an adopted 5-year-old son. Ling is investigating a string of murders by a cold-blooded serial killer. The film begins with a homicide attempt on Ling’s fellow inspector, Tai, in which Ling emerges unscathed, except for a minor concussion. His fellow colleagues are fast becoming wary of Ling’s potential involvement. Complicating matters is the fact that Ling suffered memory loss during the incident and cannot recall the events leading to Tai’s attempted murder. What is so amazing about this film is the risk it takes in revealing the killer, and the success with which it pulls off a truly remarkable bit of subterfuge. Look for some U.S. filmmaker to pick this up and remake it in the next year or two.

8. District 9
This independent film was shot low budget, but doesn’t show it. It’s focus remains squarely upon the human inability to trust other species, and the performances are superb in relating the story of what we would do if aliens actually tried to coexist with us. Writer-director Neill Blomkamp has established himself as a filmmaker of note with this one.

7. Banlieue 13 - Ultimatum
A sequel to last year’s District B-13 (or, in French, Banlieue 13), this one is pure fun. Writer/executive producer Luc Besson reunites the Parkour and martial arts masters from the previous film in the most exciting and action-packed film of the year. Director Patrick Alessandrin does more with his two stars (Cyril Raffaelli and David Belle) than Michael Bay has ever been able to do with any Transformer. Do yourself a favor; learn to enjoy films with subtitles and sit down with a copy of this film. You will be amazed at some of the things you’re missing.

6. Julie and Julia
Amy Adams is a delight as Julie Powell, a young woman who one day finds herself let go from unfulfilling job. She then challenges herself with making one recipe per year from Julia Child’s “Mastering The Art Of French Cooking” and to blog about it. That part of the story takes place in 2002. In 1949, Julia Child (Meryl Streep) is in Paris, the wife of a diplomat (Stanley Tucci), wondering how to spend her days. She tries hat making, bridge, and then cooking lessons at Cordon Bleu. We go back and forth between these stories of two women learning to cook and finding success. Sympathetic, loving husbands support them both and add zest to their life experiences. Another winner from Nora Ephron, whose previous credits include You’ve Got Mail and Sleepless In Seattle.

5. Five Minutes of Heaven
A reality show arranges a meeting between former Ulster rebellion member Liam Neeson and the young brother (James Nesbitt) of a man he killed 25 years earlier. The build up to their meeting, and the meeting itself are tense, emotional, and fantastic.

4. The Proposal
At long last, a screwball comedy that works. And they even managed to switch roles so that the woman is the older character. Sandra Bullock shines in what may be her best role in many years, while Ryan Reynolds shows us a tender and comedic side that takes his usual tough guy character into a mature and hopefully transitory realm for his career. The film is fun, touching, and best of all, reassures us that a few filmmakers in Hollywood still get it.

3. TIE: The Burning Plain and Trucker
Charlize Theron proves yet again that she knows how to pick an Oscar contender for Best Actress. The Burning Plain is Guillermo Arriaga’s directorial debut, and the intersection of this narrative centers on three seemingly separate stories – a mother of four in New Mexico (or Arizona; the desert) played by Kim Basinger who is having an affair with a Mexican man; another Mexican son and daughter duo (he’s a crop duster); and, Theron as an emotionally frayed woman on the edge in the rainy Pacific Northwest who sleeps with anyone who expresses interest. Theron’s inability to feel anything is what drives her story, and it is a catalyst of sorts for each of the other sub-stories. It is strong, hard to take, and one of the best performances you will see on film this year.

In Trucker, Michelle Monaghan seems to have figured out Charlize Theron’s formula for picking an Oscar nominated acting role and uses it to push her career to A-list status where quality films are concerned. Already a star in her own right for roles in films such as Gone, Baby Gone and Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang, Ms. Monaghan shows off her chops in this role - with amazing similarities to Theron’s role in The Burning Plain - as a dysfunctional mother who struggles to accept love not only from others but also to learn to give it to her own son. Diane Ford (Monaghan), a vivacious and successful independent truck driver, leads a carefree life of long-haul trucking, one night stands and all-night drinking with Runner (Nathan Fillion) until the evening her estranged 11-year-old son, Peter (Jimmy Bennett) is unexpectedly dropped at her door. Peter hasn’t seen his mother since he was a baby and wants to live with Diane as little as she wants him, but they are stuck with each other - at least for now, while his father Len (Benjamin Bratt) is in the hospital. Burdened with this new responsibility and seeing the life of freedom she’s fought for now jeopardized, Diane steps reluctantly into her past and looks sidelong at an uncharted future that is not as simple or straightforward as she had once believed possible.

2. La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet
In this incredible documentary, master documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman peeks behind the curtain of the Paris Opera Ballet company to revisit his great love of ballet, but also an institution not unlike dozens of others he’s profiled in his 40-year career. The film is presented without narrative. Instead, we are shown vignettes of the various classes studying, practicing, rehearsing, going behind the scenes, even into such pedestrian areas as the cafeteria, the workshops, or even the ticket booth. By showing us the daily workings of this venerable institution, and by connecting each segment with shots of empty hallways and staircases which lead from classroom to office to stage, Wiseman gives us a sense of actually being there, of not only seeing and hearing, but feeling what the dancers, the instructors, the administrators and staff feel in every aspect of their daily work. And the result is a masterpiece of documentary film.

1. The Young Victoria
Queen Victoria’s early years were quite unlike those of other children, and this film, which focuses upon the year before she took the crown and the three years following, is a superb adaptation of her life. It does a decent job of touching upon the difficulties of her situation and how it affected her love affair with her husband, Prince Albert of Belgium. And it does well to touch upon the infighting and scheming within the halls of Parliament and how much her taking the throne ruffled those masculine attitudes. Emily Blunt’s performance is the best of her career and should prompt more quality roles for her. But the real standout is the cinematography, which is absolutely beautiful.

Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly, a film teacher, a writer and a film critic in Chicago.

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