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James Kaelen’s Best of 2009

When John asked me to compose some sort of “best of” list for 2009, I thought immediately of film. Though I’ve read voraciously this year, most of the books I’ve consumed were written in the 20th Century. When I’m writing, I’m very particular about what I read. While editing my book We’re Getting On, I was reading Samuel Beckett’s Molloy and Malone Dies. While finishing Brute and Other Stories I read Cheever’s collected stories, The Sun Also Rises, and Jim Harrison’s The Man Who Gave Up His Name. That said, of the contemporary fiction I did manage to read, I was especially astounded by Kyle Minor’s In the Devil’s Territory — specifically the novella “A Day Meant to Do Less” which, slipping in and out of madness, contains at least forty of the most tormenting pages I’ve read recently. (In the Devil’s Territory actually came out in 2008, but who cares).

I did, though, see a number of films this year. I live in Los Angeles, and there are two independent theatres within easy walking distance, so I had almost no choice in the matter. Of the pictures that left the deepest impression on me, here are my top five, in particular order:

1. Antichrist — Lars von Trier directs one of the vilest things ever committed to celluloid. There were moments when I felt I would faint, and I pride myself on my constitution. Antichrist wasn’t the best film of the year, but no film has ever affected me so physically. I had to sit through all the credits just to gain the strength to stand.

2. The Hurt Locker — Despite directing Point Break, Kathryn Bigelow made the first great film of 2009. Jeremy Renner’s performance as Staff Sergeant James is reason enough to see this astounding, personal, and surprisingly apolitical drama about the Iraq War.

3. The Messenger — Following in Bigelow’s footsteps, Oren Moverman took a new approach to dramatizing the impact of war on American soldiers. With Oscar-caliber performances from Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson, and Samantha Morton, this small picture about the stateside effects of battle contains some of the rawest scenes of grief and suffering ever shot.

4. An Education — Although it falls apart half-way through, the first hour of Lone Scherfig’s tale about a sixteen-year-old girl embarking on her first affair (with a much older man) depicts, with unbridled yet unsentimental joy, the kind of sexual and cultural revelations that make even a hardened artist’s heart turn soft.

5. No Impact Man — Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein’s documentary about the Beaven family’s attempt to live a year without releasing any carbon into the atmosphere is both a cautionary tale and a triumphant drama. Rather than preaching, the Beavens lead by example. And somehow through all the deprivation, a romantic ideal emerges: Life may be better simpler.

James Kaelan is the Managing Editor of Flatmancrooked Publishing and a lecturer at Pepperdine University. He also writes criticism for The Millions, and his fiction is appearing this fall/winter in Monkeybicycle and Avery. His first book, We’re Getting On, comes out next summer. He’ll be riding his bike across the country to promote it.

John Madera's fiction may be found in Conjunctions, Opium Magazine, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His criticism may be found in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, John Madera lives in New York City, where he runs Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.

3 thoughts on “James Kaelen’s Best of 2009

  1. As a family man with a very young daughter I don’t often get to see the best films until they’re released on DVD. This seems to me a good list to choose from.

    I really want to see von Trier’s Antichrist.

    I did get to see Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, an imaginative re-envisioning of the Hans Christian Andersen story, The Little Mermaid, though.

  2. I second The Messenger. A simple, humble film with raw performances. It does so well capturing military culture stateside and the rift that therein exists with civilian life upon redeployment.

  3. Glad to see you mention The Messenger, my favorite movie of the year. Reminded me a lot of Half Nelson from a couple of years back. It’s nice to see that some writers/directors finally have some interesting and thoughtful things to say about our generation’s war.

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