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2009 Film Recap

Best & Worst Movies of 2009

by Scott Marks

Usually I scramble to put together an annual Top Ten, but for the first time in over a decade there is an overabundance of quality movies, enough to warrant a Top Twenty! There is one qualification for a film to appear on this list. It must have screened in a San Diego theater for at least one night. If next year’s crop of films is half as good as this year’s, I’ll be a happy critic!

Abbie Cornish in Jane Campion’s “Bright Star.”
1. Jane Campions’ BRIGHT STAR (KPBS-Radio Review)
Jane Campion once again entertaining a pet uncertainty: Is it possible for art and romantic love to peacefully coexist? Based on the last three years of the life of English romantic poet John Keats and set in a galaxy far, far away before humankind was safely ensconced in their abodes pretending that they are actually reaching out and touching someone via a computer screen. A stunning recreation of how people used to communicate and this year’s most unabashed romantic melodrama.
2. Paolo Sorrentino’s IL DIVO (KPBS-Radio Review)
A brilliantly structured 105 minute epic based on the life of Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti (Tony Servillo), a nondescript hunchbacked dwarf who quietly ran roughshod over his country’s politics for almost fifty years. Not what most American viewers expect from an epic. The film’s high energy visual style seldom jibes with Servillo’s frozen performance or the action that’s going on around him. Needless to say, it died at the box office, but don’t let that stop you from tracking down the DVD.
3. Bong Joon-Ho’s MOTHER
A mother will go to great lengths to free her mentally challenged son from a murder rap. Bong Joon-Ho’s (“The Host”) complex psychological horror film that played one night at the San Diego Asian Film Festival. Hopefully Landmark or Reading will pick this up for a theatrical run.
4. Atom Egoyan’s ADORATION
A teenager named Simon tells both his class and an internet chat group that his father was involved in a terrorist plot. A terrific film about a catastrophe that never happened. Atom Egoyan once again uses a lie to get at the truth in the year’s most non judgmental picture.
5. Majid Majidi’s THE SONG OF SPARROWS
A simple story complexly told and a masterpiece of technological miscommunication. An ostrich farmer loses his job and while in the city to get his daughter a new hearing aid, discovers a new career as a motorcycle cabbie. A life-affirming character study told in moments of quiet dignity.
6. Martin Provost’s SERAPHINE
French painter Séraphine de Senlis was a hopelessly unworldly 40-year old devout Catholic cleaning woman who was discovered by tenant and art collecter Wilhelm Uhde. Filmed in a constant state of overcast, this slow descent into madness is the finest film of its kind since David Cronenberg’s “Spider.”
7. Hirokazu Koreeda’s STILL WALKING
Basically the same subject matter in “Everybody’s Fine” done right. This drama about a family getting together to commemorate the anniversary of a child’s death is the closest contemporary movies have come to capturing the beauty and heartbreak of the films of Yasujiro Ozu.
8. Quentin Tarantino’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS
The single greatest Jewish revenge fantasy ever filmed and the year’s funniest movie.
9. Pablo Larrain’s TONY MANERO
A John Travolta impersonator/serial killer quietly wreaks havoc over an impoverished section of Santiago in 1978, four years into Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship. No film this year appealed more to my dark side than “Tony Manero.” Who among us has never wanted to bash in the skulls of a theater owner and her projectionist for changing pictures before you’ve had enough chances to study it? Kudos to the Latino Film Festival’s Ethan Van Thillo for bringing this to town as part of the Cinema en tu Idioma series.
Frank Langella, Cameron Diaz and James Marsden in Richard Kelly’s “The Box.”
10. Richard Kelly’s THE BOX
Let the record show that “The Box” has officially been classified one of the five worst reviewed films of the decade. To be quite honest, I’ve seen it four times and I still don’t know what the hell it’s about. On the surface it’s a futuristic sci-fi drama set in the not so distant past about a couple given the chance to anonymously play God in exchange for $1 million. If I always complain about Hollywood films barely having one original thought to play off of, “The Box” has enough ideas to spawn dozens of features. Hopefully Richard Kelly’s eventual DVD audio commentary will help plaster a few black holes and if not, I’ll still be in love with this movie.
11. Jim Jarmusch’s THE LIMITS OF CONTROL
There’s one too many exchanges of match books and star cameos and when you start addressing the molecular structure of the universe, I need a ticket to get back in. But if Jarmusch’s goal was to spark dialog and make people think, this is 2009’s most successful film. I haven’t thought or talked more about a movie this year.
12. John Woo’s RED CLIFF PART 1 (John Woo Interview)
John Woo’s return to China turns out to be the best film he’s made since he came to America in 1993. The three major battle sequences are brilliantly staged and unlike anything you’ve seen come out of Hollywood in ages. WARNING: This is not the so-called International Cut which takes the five hour Parts I & II and condenses them into a 150 minute version.
13. Erick Zonca’s JULIA
Tilda Swinton, in another head turning performance, plays a career alcoholic who buys into a neighbor’s plan to kidnap her ten-year old son and extort money from the boy’s drug trafficking grandfather. Needless to say everything goes wrong in this dark comedic reworking of John Cassavetes’ “Gloria.”
14. Christophe Van Rompaey’s MOSCOW, BELGIUM
It starts with a meet cute – After her husband leaves her for a younger woman, an ornery housewife reluctantly begins an affair with a younger truck driver she accidentally backs into – and proceeds to go in every direction other than where you’d expect it. The best romantic comedy of the year never found an audience here due to a lack of Sandra Bullock and an overabundance of subtitles.
15. Avi Nescher’s THE SECRETS
Between this movie and “A Simple Man,” every horrific memory from my Hebrew school upbringing went flashing before my eyes. A young orthodox Jewish woman dreams of entering into one of the world’s oldest boy’s club and becoming a rabbi. This bold, sensual, fact-based film takes great delight in telling tales out of Hebrew school.
16. Oren Moverman’s THE MESSENGER (Woody Harrelson Interview)
Give the filmmakers an ‘A’ for originality. There have been thousands of war films produced since the dawn of cinema, but none ever told the story of the Army’s Casualty Notification service. Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson and Samantha Morton figure in the best ensemble cast of the year.
17. Tom Ford’s A SINGLE MAN
The bleakest of all this year’s holiday releases tells the tale of an English professor (Colin Firth) who spends his day working up the nerve to commit suicide after his lover is killed in a car crash. Impeccable 60s period recreation, stylish direction, a solid script based on Christopher Isherwood’s novel and one of the year’s best performances more than compensate for all the gloom.
18. Benoît Pilon’s THE NECESSITIES OF LIFE
A sick Inuit who can’t speak French leaves his igloo and family in order to recuperate at a Canadian sanitarium where he strikes up a friendship with a young orphan who acts as his translator. Here is concrete evidence that there is a great film to be made out of any story, even one concerning a tubercular Eskimo and a sick kid. Never maudlin or content to follow any televised “disease of the week” format, “The Necessities of Life” tells its story with grace, style and an exceptional use of expressionistic color. With all that going for it you’d hardly expect this to open wide on 3,500 screens. It played one night at the Cinema Society of San Diego where I was fortunate enough to have seen it.
19. Eran Riklis’ LEMON TREE
A field of lemon trees representing a battleground between Israel and Palestine sounds a bit facile, but Eran Riklis’ allegorical tale is anything but. As with most events between Palestinians and Israelis, nobody actually comes out a winner and the film concludes with the most devastating curtain shot of the year.
20. Robert Siegel’s BIG FAN
Still my favorite premise of the year: A sports ubergeek runs into “his” team’s quarterback in a strip club. After an innocent exchange of words, the coked-out hurler beats the guy within an inch of his life, yet the big fan refuses to press charges in fear that the star QB will be sidelined. Who can ask for better entertainment than this?
Runners Up: Sebastián Silva’s “The Maid,” Götz Spielmann’s “Revanche,” The Coen Brothers’ “A Serious Man,” So Yong Kim’s “Treeless Mountain,” Ramin Bahrani’s “Goodbye Solo,” Wes Anderson’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” Steven Soderbergh’s “The Girlfriend Experience,” Bent Hamer’s “O’Horten,” Park Chan Wook’s “Thirst,” Scott McGehee & David Siegel’s “Uncertainty,” John Woo’s “Red Cliff Part 2,” The Dardienne Brothers’ “Lorna’s Silence,” Pierre Morel’s “Taken,” Matt Aselton’s “Gigantic,” James Mottern’s “Trucker,” Kevin Macdonald’s “State of Play,” Bruce McDonald’s “Pontypool,” and Marc Webb’s “(500) Days of Summer.”

Tony Servillo in Paolo Sorrentino’s “Il Divo.”
Not Cattle: Tony Servillo in “Il Divo,” Yolande Moreau in “Seraphine,” Colin Firth in “The Single Man,” Christoph Waltz in “Inglourious Basterds,” Michelle Monaghan in “Trucker,” Kirin Kiki in “Still Walking,” Tilda Swinton in “Julia,” Evan Rachel Wood in “Whatever Works,” Ben Foster, Samantha Morton & Woody Harrelson in “The Messenger,” Christian McKay in “Me and Orson Welles,” Nicolas Cage in “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans,” Jeff Bridges in “Crazy Heart,” Bill Murray in “The Limits of Control,” Barbara Sarafian in “Moscow, Belgium,” Baard Owe in “O’Horten,” John Goodman in “Gigantic,” Abbie Cornish in “Bright Star,” Hiam Abbas in “Lemon Tree,” Charlotte Gainsbourgh in “Antichrist,” Sam Rockwell in “Moon,” Melanie Laurent in “Inglourious Basterds,” Alfredo Castro is “Tony Manero,” Arsineee Khanjian in “Adoration,” Zooey Deschanel in “(500) Days of Summer,” Juliette Lewis & Alia Shawkat in “Whip It,” John Malkovich in “The Great Buck Howard,” Anna Kendrick in “Up in the Air,” Patton Oswalt in “Big Fan,” Mary Steenburgen in “Did You Hear About the Morgans?,” Seth Rogen in “Observe and Report,” Verne Troyer in “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus” and Harrison Ford in “Bruno.”
Favorite Documentaries: Louie Psihoyos’ “The Cove,” Robert Stone’s “Earth Days,” Sacha Gervasi’s “Anvil: The Story of Anvil,” Aviva Kempner’s “Yoo Hoo! Mrs. Goldberg,” Matt Tyrnauer’s “Valentino: The Last Emperor,” and Kenny Ortega’s “This is It.”
Best Animated Features: Wes Anderson’s “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” and Aristomenis Tsirbas’ “Battle for Terra.” Sorry, “Up” started well and quickly drifted off into Spielbergia.
5 Guilty Pleasures: “I Hope they Serve Beer in Hell,” “Dead Snow,” “Fired Up,” “Last House on the Left” and “Antichrist.”
Films I’ve yet to see that could potentially alter this list: “The Last Station,” The White Ribbon,” “The Day the Clown Cried.”
Best Action Thrill Ride: “Taken.”
2009’s Two Walk-Outs: “Transformers II” and “The Blind Side” (They sent me a screener of “The Blind Side,” so I did eventually see how it ended. Hmm. What a surprise.)
5 Films That Are So Bad They’re Hilarious: “Emlio,” “Precious,” “Free Style,” “Adam” and “Two Lovers”
YEAHBUTHOWLONGDOIGOTTAWAIT?: Scorsese’s “Shutter Island,” originally scheduled to open on Oct. 2, was pushed back to Feb. 19 because Paramount claimed they didn’t have enough money to properly market it. Look how they make Him look. Like a bum. Like a Mama Luke!
Nazis left the White House and returned to the big screen where they belong: “Inglourious Basterds,” “Dead Snow,” “A Woman in Berlin,” “Adoration,” “Flame and Citron,” “Paris 36,” “9” and “Coco Before Chanel.”
5 Major Disappointments: “Bruno, “Invictus,” “Tetro,” “Whatever Works” and “Drag Me to Hell.”
Worst Musical Score: Marvin Hamlisch’s “Bananas” retread for “The Informant.”
Best Nude Scenes: Amber Heard in “The Informers,” Ania Bukstein and Michal Shtamler in “The Secrets,” Paz de la Huerta in “The Limits of Control” and Little Abdul putting on the feedbag in “Precious.”
The Longest 100 minutes of the Year: “Where the Wild Things Are.”
Worst Screening of the Year: I’m not going to narc anybody, but there was a certain screening of “A Single Man” that took the young projectionist ten minutes (and two critics walking out to complain) to figure out that the movie was in ‘Scope. First clue: If you can’t fit the name of the distribution company and their logo in the same frame something is wrong. They at least were able to re-start the film from the beginning.
Funny Curtain Shot: “The Girlfriend Experience.”
Devastating Curtain Shot: “Lemon Tree.”
Remind Me When The DVDs Come Out: To splice “Chaos Reigns!” somewhere into “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”
New Year’s Resolutions: Lay off the comic book adaptations and after this year’s most pestiferous hat trick, unless she signs on to do Marty’s next picture, avoid Sandra Bullock like the plague.
The 10 Worst Films of 2009:
“Gentlemen Broncos”
“Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire”
“Where the Wild Things Are”
“Outlander”
“Emilio”
“Easy Virtue”
“Free Style”
“The Stoning of Soraya M”
“Little Ashes”
“Gamer”

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