By Jeffrey Overstreet
That’s a word I’ve read in several critical summations of 2009’s movies. And there were a lot of stinkers out there—films made by committees trying to recreate What Worked Before.
For me, 2009 served up a feast so rewarding that it’s tough to choose highlights.
In this three-part series, I’ll recommend twenty films that I’d like you to purchase for my DVD collection next Christmas, as well as a pile of leftovers—almost twenty more—that deserve praise for their considerable strengths.
You may observe some conspicuous no-shows on this list.
What can I say? Art speaks differently to all of us. A film that I find formulaic and forgettable may be a revelation to the viewer sitting next to me.
For example: I was amused, but unimpressed, by Up in the Air, a film by Juno’s Jason Reitman. Its simple lessons were all obvious in the first ten minutes. Its supporting characters were as flimsy as cardboard cutouts. And it leaned so heavily on clichés, that I’m confounded by the critical chorus hailing it the “Best Picture of the Year” and even “The Grapes of Wrath for our time.”
But the most likely explanation for no-shows is this—moviegoing takes time and money. The Movie City News “Scoreboard” of the year’s most celebrated movies includes 125 titles. That means, just to see the “serious contenders” I’d need to watch about 3 movies a week. I want movies to enhance my life, not consume it.
The reviewers and friends I trust most keep recommending certain titles, including Julie and Julia; Invictus; Sugar; The Sun, Revanche; Liverpool; 35 Shots of Rum; You, The Living; Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans; Jerichow; The Headless Woman; Il Divo; Police, Adjective; The Beaches of Agnes; Three Monkeys; The Last Station; Police, Adjective; Hadewijch; Mother; and The White Ribbon, to name a few. I’ll revise my list when I catch up with those.
In Parts 2 and 3, I’ll describe my twenty favorites. For now, here are several “runners-up,” all worthy of study and discussion.
Here are some thoughts on the rest.
In the Loop (Armando Iannucci): A wicked, abrasive British satire of political ineptitude in the events leading up to the U.S. invasion of the Middle East. It’s a spinoff from the popular BBC series The Thick of It, with humor that makes The Office seem gentle. Tom Hollander, James Gandolfini, Gina McKee, and Steve Coogan are all splendid, but the film belongs to Peter Capaldi as the Prime Minister’s perpetually infuriated, obscenity-spewing director of communications.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (Terry Gilliam): Returning to the thematic territory of Baron Munchausen, Gilliam spins a whimsical tale about an ancient mystic (Christopher Plummer) who makes a deal with the devil (Tom Waits). He asks us if humankind can survive without storytelling. Then he asks if storytellers can survive the compromises and bargains that are required of them as they seek to earn a living. The film’s so overstuffed with Python-esque lunacy that it’s disorienting. But Heath Ledger’s last performance proves again that he was a remarkable talent.
District 9 (Neill Blomkamp): What begins impressively—with awe-inspiring special effects, cutting humor, a tour-de-force turn by Sharlto Copley, and a complicated political allegory about prejudice and immigration in South Africa—devolves into typically relentless action-movie antics. It’s more thoughtful than most sci-fi filmmaking. But after a while, the machine-gunning expletives made me wonder about the range of the screenwriters' vocabulary, and the constant explosions gave me a headache.
An Education (Lone Scherfig): This modest British drama scripted by Nick Hornby is winning praise for the charming lead performance by Carey Mulligan. She plays a young schoolgirl convinced by an older man to abandon her academic ambitions and enjoy reckless, high-life indulgence. It’s also worth seeing for the underrated turn by Rosamund Pike as a woman who was similarly seduced, and lives a life of tragic emptiness.
The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow): Likely to win Best Picture at the Oscars, this is an admirable examination of adrenalin junkies, the addictive nature of war, and the damage it can do to soldiers’ minds and hearts. It’s compelling, but I found its suspenseful action too often predictable, and its thought-provoking epilogue was too little, too late for me to join the “Movie of the Year” chorus.
The Song of Sparrows (Majid Majidi): Iran’s most accessible and popular filmmaker delivers what may be his least sentimental film. It’s a comical, surprising, and profound parable about a family man seduced by the appeal of capitalism. John Wilson, editor of Books and Culture, calls it “a film of surpassing visual splendor, yet so self-effacing as to seem artless.”
The Informant! (Steven Soderbergh): Matt Damon delivers an inspired comic performance in this tongue-in-cheek nod to early ’70s espionage films like The Conversation. As an exasperated FBI agent, Scott Bakula is hilarious. If only it was about fifteen minutes shorter.
Public Enemies (Michael Mann): Mann’s epic about John Dillinger’s last days delivers a late-night shootout I’ll never forget and a breathtaking getaway made all the more thrilling by an ill-timed red light. I laughed out loud at Dillinger’s audacity in touring the office of the detectives who pursue him. But I didn’t buy the romance. And Mann seemed a little too enamored of Dillinger.
Ponyo (Hayao Miyazaki): Miyazaki returns to the simpler, hand-drawn imagery of earlier, smaller films without losing any of the majesty of his recent epics. How often do I get to call a movie “enchanting for all ages”? Very rarely.
Hunger (Steve McQueen): It missteps in making a saint of IRA rebel Bobby Sands for his hunger strike, and veers into Passion of the Christ territory in its prolonged attention to scenes of physical abuse. But the film’s centerpiece—a riveting argument between Sands and a priest—may be my favorite standalone scene this year.
Departures (Yōjirō Takita): 2008’s Oscar-winner for Best Foreign Language Film, the story of a concert cellist forced to take a job as an undertaker, is well worth seeing. It manages to be both a delightful comedy and a thoughtful meditation on meaningful work.
Still Walking (Hirokazu Koreeda): The latest from this masterful Japanese filmmaker serves as a fine tribute to Yusujiro Ozu in its delicate scenes of a family recovering from the loss of a son to drowning. It’s a fascinating study of generational differences in values, relationships, and manners of expression.
MONDAY: #20 - #11 of Jeffrey’s favorite moviegoing experiences of 2009.