Here are my favorite new movies of 2009, like you care. I’m drawing from the films I saw in the theater this year, some of which were “officially” released a year or two ago. But they’re all new.
…So, Mr. Cranky, what did you like?
MY TWO FAVORITE NEW FILMS
2000’s The Gleaners and I saw Agnès Varda confirmed as one of our greatest living directors. She has directed at least one masterpiece per decade since the 1950s: La Pointe-Courte (1955), Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962), One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (1977),Vagabond (1985), and A Hundred and One Nights of Simon Cinema (1995); (well, I think that last one’s pretty great). Her most recent film belongs with Gleaners on this list. Varda’s chief talent is that she doesn’t set out with any stereotypical film in mind; rather, she looks around and proceeds to make films (and other art) from what’s on hand. The results look like nothing that anyone else ever has, or ever will, make.
This is probably the best new film I’ve seen this year, although I can’t really recommend it. Although I can write about it at length: I promise to post about it in detail, and about Tsai in general.
In the meantime, if you like Tsai’s work…then you don’t need me to tell you to see this. And if you haven’t seen The Hole (1998) or What Time Is It There? (2001), I’d recommend starting with them. They’re two of the most beguiling, oddest, most charming, sweetest, most surprising, melancholy, bittersweet, most romantic movies of our time.
MOVIES THAT WERE ALSO GOOD
Puffball (2007, Nicolas Roeg, 120 min): Nicolas Roeg’s newest feature is no patch on his 70s and 80s masterpieces (Performance, Walkabout, Don’t Look Now, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Bad Timing, and Eureka) and it isn’t exactly a return to form, as some would claim. Rather, it’s something new, and entirely enjoyable for what it is: sexual combat. (Perhaps it is a return to form?) This time, however the battle is mostly between women (and Kelly Reilly proves a fierce match for her opponents, the magnificent witches Miranda Richardson and Rita Tushingham). Characters cast spells on one another, and no one’s shy about concealing their bodies—Roeg is always deranged, dirty fun. This one is more conventional than his previous films (by his own steep standards), but it will still amaze, or confuse.
Bright Star (2009, Jane Campion, 119 min): This actually is a return to form for Jane Campion, a consistently misunderstood director who, her detractors aside, can be utterly sublime: Her adaptation of Portrait of a Lady is one of the greatest films of the 1990s (and I don’t care if no one else agrees with me on this one). Bright Star deserves every kind word that’s been said about it, and is a ridiculously engrossing and moving film. My favorite aspect of it, though, might be the subtlety of Campion’s feminist critique. Early in the film it’s established quite clearly that Fanny Brawne has a profession and an income; she and Yeats and those surrounding them then spend the rest of the film patiently waiting for Yeats to earn a shilling so that he and Brawne can marry. Campion need say no more.
This is also a film about writing that actually likes writing, and poetry (and respects that writing is hard work).
Nightwatching (2007, Peter Greenaway, 134 min): After years of repeating himself, Greenaway has turned experimental—by incorporating mainstream film techniques like shot-reverse-shot. And close-ups. And exterior scenes. I couldn’t believe my eyes! But my eyes were so happy. Greenaway also allows Martin Freeman to give the most expressively humanized performance in one of his films since Brian Dennehy in The Belly of an Architect. This is Greeenaway’s most exciting film since The Baby of Mãcon (although it’s not quite that exciting). (The DVD Special Edition includes his 2008 documentary Rembrandt’s J’accuse, which might be the funniest, goofiest film that Greenaway has ever made. It’s good to see his sense of humor has returned.)
Ponyo (2008, Hayao Miyazaki, 103 min): Yet another absurdly imaginative and cathartic feature from Hayao Miyazaki, who makes only masterpieces. Not effortlessly, though, as the effort is apparent at every moment: he makes it look easy only because it’s always so much fun. Miyazaki is easily one of the greatest living directors, and Ponyo finds delightful new expression for his pet obsessions (negligent fathers, the working class, the ravaged landscape, magical transformations…).
Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009, Wes Anderson, 87 min): Delightful, and a great addition to Anderson’s filmography, simultaneously expanding his range and narrowing it.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009, David Yates, 153 min): Excellent cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel (Amélie, Across the Universe) distinguishes this entry, making this the best Harry Potter film since Alfonso Cuarón’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (which I maintain is the greatest kid’s film of the Noughties—this generation’s Time Bandits).
Inglourious Basterds (2009, Quentin Tarantino, 153 min): Another strong film from QT prompted me to rewatch his previous features, leading me to finally acknowledge that he’s one of our best directors—so welcome to the club, Mr. Tarantino; I acknowledge you.
Whatever Works (2009, Woody Allen, 92 min): By the midway point, I was thinking that this was one of Woody Allen’s worst films. By the ending, I was thinking that it was one of his better ones, at least of more recent vintage. I’ll need to see it again, but I found myself charmed. The ending is one of his most subtle, and the entire film is more complicated—and ambiguous—than it may seem. An excellent follow-up to last year’s Vicki Christina Barcelona, which is a film that I think will ultimately rank among his finest.
Star Wars: The Phantom Menace Review (2009, Mike Stoklasa, 70 min): In the waning days of 2009, YouTube finally delivered one of the best features of the year. This creative review is better than several movies I saw this year—it’s funnier and better edited, at least—not to mention a fine work of criticism. And you can go watch it right now!
MOVIES THAT WERE OKAY
Il Divo (2008, Paolo Sorrentino, 110 min): I’ve been eager to see something by Sorrentino for some time now, and while I admired this, his third feature, it ultimately proved too obtuse for me. I’d watch it again, though, and I remain eager to see his first two films.
Watchmen (2009, Zack Snyder, 162 min): Essentially a three-hour advertisement for the graphic novel, the long-awaited film adaptation does have a few moments of its own—like the superb opening title sequence.
AND NOW FOR THE DISAPPOINTING
Katyń (2007, Andrzej Wajda, 118 min): It probably plays better in the Polish, and to Polish audiences. I thought the film well-intentioned, but it suffers from Wajda’s shoehorning the story’s remarkable true events into every war-film cliché in existence. Wajda has long struck me as the Polish equivalent of Stephen Spielberg; this film only strengthened that opinion.
Christmas on Mars (2008, Wayne Coyne with Bradley Beesley and George Salisbury, 83 min): The Flaming Lips couldn’t have made a worse film if they’d tried—and the shame is that they didn’t. Imagine if they’d put in even half the effort of one of their live shows? Or played a few of their catchy songs?
Paranormal Activity (2007, Oren Peli, 99 min): If there was any paranormal activity in this film, I missed it, but I’ll admit I tuned out after the first hour (which consisted of a couple standing around complaining about one another—and their performances were convincing, but I’d rather watch Bergman. Who even gives you ghosts sometimes!).
Redbelt (2008, David Mamet, 99 min): Mamet, what the hell are you doing? I suppose any new film by the guy has to be of some interest, but his last strong film was ten years ago. (Fun fact: If Mamet directs one more feature, he’ll have directed as many as Kubrick. He’s already directed as many as David Lynch—although with Lynch, it’s getting hard to keep count.)
The Spirit (2008, Frank Miller, 103 min): Alas, I didn’t find this as deranged as so many claimed; I found it mostly boring. Mr. Miller, next time, please be nothing but loopy!
Antichrist (2009, Lars von Trier, 104 min): I like von Trier’s films, I really do, but I can’t get behind this one. It strikes me as lazy overall, and the first hour of the film put me to sleep. And the “outrage” surrounding it at Cannes is clearly a PR stunt; the ultimate “shocks,” while certainly grisly, are tame and pointless compared to many other far superior films. Seriously, his film is less controversial than Hostel (2005), or any of the dozens of other torture porn installments since—meaning that it’s reactionary. (It’s also no more critical about anything than those films.)
ALTHOUGH ALTHOUGH ALTHOUGH—to Lars von Trier’s credit, I think he’s ahead of the curve in one respect. He understands that YouTube is rapidly replacing television, and so his new film is really an extended internet meme:
Star Trek (2009, J.J. Abrams, 127 min): Big Hollywood’s puerile co-option of the franchise, and a betrayal of everything Gene Roddenberry had the courage to stand for. It’s also garish, awash with bad lighting, jerky camera work, distracting cuts every three seconds, and the by-now ubiquitous fight scenes populated with CGI stunt-doubles struggling over chasms. What’s most odious about this film, however, is its depiction of women. There are precisely five female characters in this boy’s fantasy. Two are babes who appear in their underwear and are lusted after by the other male characters. The other three are wives or mothers who appear onscreen only to give birth or die or otherwise disappear conveniently, prompting the men to go off and have their fun. (Kirk’s mom doesn’t even attend his little party at the end. Well, having birthed him, she was no longer needed!)
The Box (2009, Richard Kelly, 115 min): I remain a booster of Southland Tales (2006), but with this third feature, Richard Kelly has revealed that he really doesn’t know how to make a film. It’s too bad. Well, at least he still has potential…
Happy viewing in 2010!
With much love,