Yeah, I know.
I saw Sam Song’s list though (which Blake pointed out to me) and what can I say: I got list envy.
Also I finally clinched seeing Avatar last night, which was (other than The White Ribbon) the last “awards season” movie I needed to see this year.
Which doesn’t mean I saw all of the movies I needed to see this year, far from it. I’m merely trying to play catch-up with end-of-the-year buzzes; a failing, I suppose.
So here, in no particular order are some of the movies other people might be considering which I did not see this year:
Tulpan, Still Walking, The White Ribbon, The Sun, Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs, Bright Star, An Education, Treeless Mountain, La Danse, The Baader-Meinhoff Complex, The Informant!, The Headless Woman, Police, Adjective, Nine
It should be noted that I saw Afterschool, but now that I’m acquainted with the dude it feels weird to talk about it.
It should also be noted that I very much enjoyed my friend and peer Zach Weintraub’s film Bummer Summer, but that it was not commercially released, thus making it ineligible for this list, which brings me to:
WHAT WOULD HAVE BEEN MY NUMBER 1 MOVIE IF IT HAD ACTUALLY BEEN RELEASED:
(Sorta)1. LIFE DURING WARTIME
Todd Solondz’s opus shows not only the filmmaker’s most concerted effort since Welcome to the Dollhouse, but an intense appreciation of the universe and people he has created. Like the show The Wire, from which Mr. Solondz draws one of his stars, Michael K. Williams, Life During Wartime serves as both a self-contained film with its own pleasures (and plentiful sorrows), but also as the continuation of a world he has established, a sense of anti-abandonment. Which really, is what Solondz’s cinema is all about. Throughout his about 20-year career (give or take), he has presented us with character who are pathetic, risible, disgusting or repugnant, and he has consistently embraced them. His filmmaking is a celebration of the outcast risen to signature level, a show that even as the world rejects these people, like the father in Happiness or Dawn in Dollhouse or Scooby in Storytelling, we stay with them, on their level, living through their travails. In Life During Wartime, Solondz provides no easy solutions and little redemption, only the promise of living in a flawed world with flawed people and seeing the beauty in their struggle. He is a humanist filmmaker in the truest sense, like few others since Tod Browning.
Alright, so now that that is out of the way, here’s the real thing:
A FEITELIAN TOP 10 of 2009 or “WHY THE FUCK ARE THE OSCARS EXPANDING THIS YEAR WERE THERE EVEN 10 GOOD MOVIES PERIOD?”
This movie was the nail-biter (read: procrastination excuse) for when I was going to write this list this year. My idea of the film began at a groaning “well, I have to see it” to a somewhat-less-groaning “well, when is it even coming out” to me apparently stealing my friend Chadd’s tickets, while holding him to a promise that he would give them to me even after the conflict he had was gone. What did I get for my dastardly act, my IMAX goggles and my 16 dollars owed to Chadd (currently unpaid)? Something that was surprisingly fun and silly, which I hadn’t expected. For those imposing a “white-guilt” or “Dances With Smurfs” narrative on to this movie, let me suggest to you something: you are taking James Cameron to seriously. You counter, “What are you talking about? The guy spent 250 MILLION dollars!” I reply, “Yeah, but yakno, that’s his thing.” Unlike some of the stupid films of last year for which I wondered why indie movies weren’t getting the cash, Avatar delivers a director’s loopy dream, as fully realized as possible. Is it plot-holey and overstuffed? Yes. Is the dialogue often laughable? Yes. Is it possibly racist? Quite possibly. But these things are only apparent if you have so thoroughly squelched the child inside of you that you cannot enjoy the spectacle of the world that James Cameron has created, hopefully if you saw it right, in IMAX 3D. Was it an insane venture? Definitely. But no more insane really than Cameron’s previous production process of submerging his crew for 12 hours a day in making The Abyss. And in a way it heartens me to see an auteur gain such creative control, to really go out and make his visions, no matter how crazy they are. Even though Avatar is ungodly expensive, it serves in someway as a beacon of hope for aspiring filmmakers everywhere, that a dream sometimes, even if it is crazy, can come true. It can happen to you. But much more likely if you are James Cameron.
For those of you who have not seen the movie, that picture up above is Mariah Carey (yes, formerly of Glitter) and no, she does not look like that in the movie. In the movie she looks so pale and weird that Lee Daniels actually cast her as a Jewish character (take that, Philip Roth), Ms. Weiss, whom the eponymous main character often alludes to, in their social-work sessions as “Ms. White”. I am sure I will get some flack from people for putting this movie on this list, but what can I say, except that I really thought it was a very good movie. Just like Avatar, it was silly and often insane and over-the-top, but like Avatar, that’s what you sign up for when you go to see the film and unlike Avatar, the messages and purpose of this zaniness is clear: to offset a difficult story. As many have heard by now, yes, Precious is the story of a morbidly obese, mostly illiterate, HIV-positive teenager, who, subject to physical, sexual and emotional abuse, completes the film with two children sired by her father, one of whom has Down syndrome. However, to look at the film in this way is like reading statistics and making assumptions: it forgoes the human story. What Precious is really about is Precious, the main character, a woman coming of age with more struggles than most, but with grace and intelligence and most of all, a good and enduring sense of humor. Her circumstances are worse than most, for certain, but in many ways it is a story about growing up and finding one’s self, a journey that itself can be perilous, even taken without those factors. The interviews with the director, Lee Daniels, are abhorrent and he comes off as a self-aggrandizing, self-important asshole, a fact which sadly, as my Pops points him out puts him “comfortably in the world of filmmakers”. Regardless, Daniels the director never looks down at Precious or her journey, he allows her to shape her own story, to make her own world, as she find people to love and have love returned, herself included. Great ancillary performances by Lenny Kravitz (whodathunkit) as a male nurse and Precious’s classmates (a vibrant and talented young group of actors) seal the deal. If it’s racist, I feel I’m not the one to judge. But take for instance this conversation I had with my cousin Lenny, the family rabbi:
I had come for Shabbat dinner, in response to an invitation I had received from another cousin of mine, Lenny’s daughter, and I was excited to use the opportunity to ask a rabbi what he thought of A Serious Man (spoiler alert?) He told me that he enjoyed it as we discussed the messages we took from it and found several agreements we could make, which made me feel less ignorant in my sophomoric comprehension of Judaism. When I told him that the Jewish film critic Richard Corliss had found the movie to be “anti-semitic”, he told me that “A Serious Man shows a full portrait of the Jewish community, with some of its unsavory aspects. Some Jews are insecure and when they see a portrayal of the community like that, they jump on it as anti-semtic.” While the two movies are not analogous (and nor would I suggest that the Black and Jewish experiences are), the comparison might stand that the subject of the movie might be arousing more difficult than the substance, which I feel is at least, meritorious.
8. BIG FAN
What a remarkable debut. Coming off the tremendous funny/sad/insightful script that Robert Siegel wrote for that hack Aronofsky with The Wrestler, Siegel did the true film student thing to do with another script he had sitting on the shelf: he sat around Aronofsky’s set and convinced all of the assistants to come work as full-fledged crewman on this small script he was working on for little to no money. Thus with a half-baked crew and a rented RED camera was the best comedy of the year and this year’s true heir to Taxi Driver (beating out the universally odious Observe and Report) made. Siegel, with little to no knowledge of directing and a pedigree that included editing The Onion and one script, put a lot of trust in his DP, his editor and most of all his actors, who seemed to take the deep and funny script and run with it, as far as they damned pleased. Shouts go out to Kevin Corrigan, who seems to be coming up in the model of a John Tutturro or Steve Buscemi given his presence in indie movies and the oft-underused Michael Rappaport, another great TV actor who rarely gets his due as the film’s ultimate villain, Philadelphia Phil. But really, a lot of the credit here goes to Patton Oswalt, who had alrady proved that he could do a lot with his voice in Ratatouille and here proves that not only can he act, but that he can act! His loser portrayal of a glorified meter-maid who sits in a booth all day and lives with his mother rather than abandon the sports-radio life he loves is as nuanced as it is stubborn and real, a character whose un-desperate madness recalls the passions of real characters like the players from last year’s The King of Kong. The finale does a great job of coalescing your hopes and fears into a victory unimagined, but delightfully true to the world of the film. It is Siegel’s sort of moviemaking that not only draws nostaglia from me for the early films of Scorsese and Forman, but makes me optimistic about what a lot of heart, a little bit of money and not a lot of experience can still accomplish.
7. THE BEACHES OF AGNES
Man, this film was the biggest guilt trip I have ever seen. I hadn’t even watched a goddam Agnes Varda film before this one. Shit, I hadn’t even watched a film by Jacques Demy, her late husband. And even though the films of both are excerpted, often to stunningly beautiful effect in The Beaches of Agnes, one can’t help but feel a profound sense of guilt and loss, that one hasn’t seen the films of what are obviously two masters. Because even looked at without those films, The Beaches of Agnes is clearly a masterpiece, in the sense of its craft, but also, more profoundly, in the sense that is the cap, the finishing touches on the career of a filmmaker. Resembling nothing less than a much more refined and elegant though just as personal Tarnation, Varda’s film takes us seamlessly through her life, her films, her marriages, lovers and friends and, inexplicably, wonderfully, to the beaches she has been near and far away from in her life. She discusses Jim Morrison, her husband’s death from AIDS, the French New Wave from a first-person point of view and her friendship with the filmmaker Chris Marker, here represented by a giant blue animated cat. Somehow nothing is incongrous, this is not the cinema of Errol Morris, a detective story where one roots around for meaning in search of discovery or revelation. Instead, The Beaches of Agnes is the cinematic equivalent of a warm embrace, a taking-into-the-fold of the viewer by a woman who loves cinema and thus you, the audience, as well. It is a beautiful film, the sum of a career, indescribable in its completeness and clarity. I can only hope one day that I might be able to make something so clear-sighted about myself, looking back on my life.
6. 35 SHOTS OF RUM
I admit being mostly unaware of Clare Denis. When I went to go see Medicine for Melancholy, an honorable mention this year, I heard from Barry Jenkins, that film’s director, that he was inspired by Denis’s Friday Night in making his own film, one that if you asks me bears more of a resemblance to Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise than anything else. Still, I hadn’t seen Friday Night, nor had I seen any of Denis’s movies. When I finally did see 35 Shots of Rum upon its release, I was absolutely charmed by the feel of it. Denis certainly had a feel for both the easy and the complicated relationships that we enjoy, the dynamic of the privileged and the underprivileged, the French class dynamic and the particular perspective of one man. Just as Lionel (Alex Descas) sees his life as a train conductor as one that allows him access to his daughter, his neighborhood and his “family”, his fellow train conductor feels trapped and kills himself on the rails. What separated these men is, if not the main subject, the point of the film; the way our societal bonds complete us and coterize our wounds. If the end left me dissatisfied, it is a fitting homage to Ozu’s Late Spring and admirable it’s unconventionality. After all, 35 Rhums ain’t an American film and thus is excused from giving all its characters a “happy ending”. I think Ms. Denis, in my small exposure to her, prefers “complex” to “happy”, as more true to life.
5. A SERIOUS MAN-
I forget who I was talking to the other day, but somehow the conversation came over to Mel Brooks (who Amos Poe recently accused of bad taste, I think) and History of the World, Part I, which famously ended with “JEWS! IN! SPAAAAAACE!”. Looking back, I’m amazed to think what a golden age for Jewish Cinema it must have been with Brooks operating around the same time as Allen and Allen’s Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex… coming out within a fear years of History and even closer to Blazing Saddles. Look at what we’ve got now? Some old Holocaust drudgery, some tired Spielberg crap and Daniel Craig playing some badass Romanian Jew who in reality, unlike Craig, was wider than he was tall. It’s a shame, but at least thank G-d we’ve got the Coens, who have decided to take a break looking at Midwesterners and George Clooney-types to instead focus on the home team. As I mentioned in my blurb on Precious, they may be fairly critical of the home team, but at the same time they pay it the greatest respect: honesty. The Coen’s take on the Book of Job (much like their take on The Odyssey in O Brother, Where Art Thou) doesn’t seem to take itself so seriously, but actually manages to capture the tone of what it was inspired by. In Job, G-d takes everything away from a virtuous successful man bit by bit, until he cries out to G-d, asking him why he’d inflict such terrible things upon him, to which He replies by pointing to the universe and its greatness. Here that pointing comes in the form of a biblical-style Tornado and a modern phone-call in a character-split between virtuous father and mischievous pot-smoking son. The film is littered with good performances by relatively unknown actors (here’s hoping Michael Stuhlbarg gets at least a nomination for his part in the lead) and the “wisdom” of Rabbis as men try to interpret the will of G-d. What we are left with though, from both the film and its folkloric prologue, is the unknowableness of G-d. Just like in the Book of Job, the Coens point to the vastness of G-d’s power and creation in explaining that G-d and his works are a question posed to us all (here, Jews) and that it is up to us to interpret them as we will. There are no answers in G-d, only in ourselves and the world around us, the Book of Job seems to say. It’s a very Jewish-intellectually idea, a very Jewish movie and one of the Coens’ finest.
4. TWO LOVERS
This movie feels like in came out in 2008, when it was made, but really it was just a sneak into the first couple months of 2009, placed their ignominiously so as to be ignored, an example of Indiewood’s estimation of director James Gray after his thriller We Own The Night failed to make inroads at the box office. And even though it felt like a 2008 release and came out so many months ago, its pleasures and its resonance are such that they remind me all the way to so high on this list. Leonard (an Oscar-worthy Joaquin Phoenix) is a late-blooming Jewish kid out of Brighton Beach, but this isn’t the place of Aronofsky’s hyperboles, puffed up with music and drugs, but a dark and colorful prison replete with the expectations of family, society and culture. Like a mental patient just off his meds, Leonard is reeling at his lifestyle and questioning the strange and strangling existence of “love” and “tranquility” that he’s experienced up to this point living in his parents’ apartment. He is like a man lobotomized or an amnesiac, trying to figure out what he’s missing. Enter the namely Two Lovers. Sandra (Vinessa Shaw) is the perfect neighbor next-door. Beautiful, elegant and rooted, she represents one form of manhood, the manhood of responsibility, sacrifice and domesticity that comes with running a business and raising a family. Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), on the other hand is a bottle-blond hot-headed flower, a Wall-Street mistress tucked away in Brooklyn for safe keeping. To Leonard, she represents something exotic and new, a life beyond the one he knows, a voice and a sense of freedom. As Gray guides us through Leonard’s dalliances and flirtations, it’s easy to see that what he’s talking about in his self-penned script is not just the allure of women, but the allures of adulthood and reconciling one’s dreams with one’s reality. In the world of Brighton Beach though, dreaming is ephemeral and the dreams themselves immaterial, existing only long enough to be a platform for Leonard’s tragedy, all the more devastating for its presentation to us as something “happy”.
The only movie I cried at this year, is perhaps Pixar’s finest, and the first animated movie I’ve seen in a while with a serious chance at Best Picture. I remember walking along a hilly road one day in Vermont, during my tenure as an assistant counselor and dormhead at the Putney School Summer Programs. As we scouted locations for our students’ films, the head teacher Jon and I discussed our favorite Pixar movies. As I mentioned the favorite at that time, WALL-E, as well as the other popular ones, Toy Story 2 and The Incredibles, Jon asserted that there was one film that was beyond all the others for him and that was Monsters, Inc. A fine movie, I never thought it a contender until Jon explained the basic humanity of it to me, the bond between a child and a father figure and the restorative power of joy in the world. Looking back on that film, I remember it better now and I am all the more certain that Up!, by Monsters, Inc‘s Pete Docter, is an even better film. In a story that never gets boring, Docter manages to tackle the hopes and inequities of middle age, remembrance, longing and loss in a way that’s surprisingly head-on. I remember watching films like The Incredibles and Finding Nemo and being impressed that films marketed as children’s movies were even skirting serious adult issues, like adultery and the loss of a child. Here however, Docter makes clear that he believes in us. He believes in the children in adults and the potential for maturity in children. He believes that we have something to teach each other and something to learn. We see that our heroes are not also who we want them to be and just as we may not be able to hold on to childish admiration, we have to let go of our baggage at some point and live in the moment, a point in spectacular visual fashion in the film. At one point, maybe sometime after WALL-E, I hated Pixar because I wanted to hate them, frustrated that they managed to be so commercial and yet so good. But now with Up!, I realize that I’m throwing my emotions the wrong way and should be thankful for something that educates and delights us and causes us to think, just like the animated TV of my youth did to me.
2. THE HURT LOCKER
When I first saw Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, it was not during its buried summer release, but during a FilmComment Selects screening that Chadd convinced me to go to, primarily based on the fact that it would have free booze. I knew nothing about the movie, except that the woman who had made it was apparently married to James Cameron at some point and made a movie that Rob really liked about surfer-crooks. What I got, I was floored away by. Not only was the movie stunningly good, a procedural look at the day-to-day mechanics of war which owed much to films like Escape from Alcatraz, but the director was stunningly hot–at 57. And if that shit was Botoxed, it did not look it. She must have found the fountain of youth. All comments about the director aside (a likely candidate for Best Director this year), the film was a day-by-day depiction of the war in Iraq, the likes of which (and apparently the accuracy of which) we have only seen in the misjudged, almost-forgotten HBO mini-series Generation Kill. As a touchstone, it helps that both that show and this movie were based off the testimony of journalists embedded within the armed forces as they described their circumstances. And while The Hurt Locker may lack Generation Kill‘s sublime sense of indifference to society, like the scene in that show where the soldiers “borrow” their journalists picture of his girlfriend to masturbate to–and decline to give it back, The Hurt Locker makes up for its lack of grand scheme, by its moment-to-moment precision of the sights, sounds and thrilling uncertainties of war. Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner, in yet another Oscar-worthy performance) is our hero, the savior of many lives, but he also dangerously unbalanced, an adrenaline addict who lives off the thrill of defusing complex IEDs with their Radio Shack parts; every day he stays alive is another fix. His fellow soldier Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), doesn’t understand his insanity, but is only barely holding off the thrilling madness that grips James, with his only exercise of joy depicted as an expression of violence. However, the most damning and most perfect scene in The Hurt Locker, for all its heat, claustrophobia and evocation of Iraq, happens at the end of the film, where James, having returned home to the normal choices of a married father, looks at different cereals in a big box store, and the an who makes choices to stay alive is left impotent and unable. In the next scene, he’s back in Iraq and we’re back there with him. It’s a tragedy from a distance, but to her credit, Bigelow never gives you that distance by which to judge James. You’re always caught up in the same thrill he’s riding. The best Iraq War film ever made and close to the best movie of this year. That is, except for…
1. ANVIL!: THE STORY OF ANVIL
It says something about these times that my favorite movie of the year, I saw not in theaters, but at home, uncut on VH1. To be fair I had wanted to see Anvil! this past summer when it was out there, but it was one of those movies that I could never get anyone to go see with me, the sort of film that’s good, but as not as sexy as a blockbuster or a new release in the elusive game of trying to get people to go see movies with you. Ultimately there was a collective shrug, as summer turned to fall, my life was wrapped up in a play, new movies came out and Anvil! was mostly forgotten. But when I finally did see it, browsing through the channels with Eva one night, even what I had heard about it turned out to be far more paltry than the glorious truth. I knew the film had made a convert out of that high-society curmudgeon Anthony Lane of the New Yorker, who Armond White once described to me aptly as “the sort of film critic you love if you hate movies”. Even he had been floored by the film despite his lack of knowledge of, as he put it, “the Jewish-Canadian Death Metal scene”. And no knowledge is required. We are given two middle-aged Canadian Jewish guys, Robb Reiner and Steve Kudlow, who knew their lives that they wanted to rock and committed to it. This meant playing in shitty bars and working with terrible, undermining managers. This meant dropping out of high school and having only a few die-hard fans. This meant, for Robb at least, taking a job making middle-school meals en masse, carrying trays, all to service their need to rock. Robb and Steve, known as Lips, through it all have become brothers, best friends, occasional enemies and partners in keeping each other from suicide. They may have never been Metallica or even Megadeth or Slayer, but they never compromised their ideals, never sold out, so in the end it is impossble to call them failures. In Anvil!, lovingly made by the band’s former roadie, Sacha Gervasi, we get the best story of the year, the best characters, the most complete world, fiction or otherwise. We are given two men and see them create themselves and live with it. They don’t give up and most of all, they rock. Amen, my Jewish brothers. And Rock On.
HONORABLE MENTIONS (In brief):
MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY- A black mumblecore film might be a strange duck, but this highly personal journey film by Barry Jenkins was one of the most honest and well-felt movies of the year. Here’s to a long career, Mr. Jenkins.
ADVENTURELAND- Greg Motolla’s follow up to his superb Superbad casts him out from Apatow’s grand shadow and shows his pessimism and his remembrance of the time immediately after college, where life is about picking diamonds from the shit you’ve only just realized the world has taken on you.
LORNA’S SILENCE- A metaphysical and intense drama about European affairs, identity and the extent to which one can quell one’s own conscience. A daring lead performance, if an uncertain end.
TONY MANERO- Bizarre and brilliant, barely released/mostly unseen. The best film I saw at NYFF last year and a deeply critical political statement. Intensely worth the watch.
TYSON- The most frightening movie of 2009. In this man, we, society, has created a monster. James Toback shows us how the man who wished to “punch through” his opponents’ skulls came into being, through the violence and indifference of our culture.
WORST MOVIE OF THE YEAR THAT I SAW-
INVICTUS/ANTICHRIST- When “auteur” directors pull ploys for some sort of “greater meaning”, they tend to fall flat on their face (see: Kundun). Clint Eastwood and Lars Von Trier both made some grab for self-importance and elitism with their films that ended up feeling either hokey or disgusting, but both ultimately pointless. They should go back to taking themselves less seriously and reflect upon the pieces that they did in past years (Gran Torino, Manderlay) that better showcase their talents, as opposed to these trumped-up shitfests that amount in their indifference and idiocy to a waste of a collective 21.50 and several hours of my life that I wish returned.
FANTASTIC MR. FOX- An Anderson-ian mess, lacking in the real sentiment Anderson used to reach for so easily in his first three films. In turning into a megalomaniacal animator, Anderson has gained little except some hipster-y animation moves (“Real fur, ooh!”) and his same old style. One good brit-kid song, doesn’t erase all the overplayed rock he uses in the film.
INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS- I liked QT better when he was having chicks kill people with swords as opposed to his current Jew-o-philia. Eli Roth sucked balls in the movie, as did most people who weren’t named “Hans Landa”. A fun and dissonant action movie that stumbles upon its own length as well as its two opposingly-toned stories.
HUNGER- Irritatingly serious and fake “intimate”, the directorial debut of Steve McQueen (no relation) is often monotonous when it isn’t occasionally gripping. An art-house-style disappointment.
UP IN THE AIR- God, should this be my worst movie of the year? This film was awful! The National Board of Review voted this somehow the “Best Movie of the Year”. I reiterate my buddy Dave Broad’s sentiment: “It’s a series of music videos strung together by bad dialogue.” Bad direction too, I would add, with a tack to obtain relevance that borders on seriously offensive.
PONYO: The worst Miyazaki movie. Half-assed toward the end, though parts of it are beautiful. After an only partially satisfying Howl’s Moving Castle, here’s hoping that Hayao can get his groove back somehow.
OTHER MOVIES I LIKED BUT WHICH WEREN’T INCLUDED FOR SOME REASON
Beeswax, Summer Hours, The Box, Bad Lieutenant: POCNO, Where the Wild Things Are, World’s Greatest Dad, Coraline
As Ro-In-Control-Of-His-Beardo would say: