By Jeffrey Overstreet
10. Where the Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze): I discussed this film in a previous Good Letters post. It still haunts me, like a sad and wonderful dream. I’m grateful that Spike Jonze showed so much respect to Maurice Sendak’s artwork, and that screenwriter Dave Eggers adapted Sendak’s simple story into something so mysterious, melancholy, and meaningful.
9. Coraline (Henry Selick): I also discussed Coraline in a previous Good Letters post, and compared it with another extraordinary film based on a Neil Gaiman story—Mirrormask. I’ve seen Coraline twice since then, and I’m even more impressed with its visual artistry, humor, and storytelling. But you may want to check it out before showing it to your children; it has some intensely frightening sequences.
8. Gomorra (Matteo Garrone): Martin Scorsese was so impressed by this Italian mafia movie that he stamped his name on it to attract a larger American audience.
And yet, it’s so very different from the gangster epics directed American filmmakers. This isn’t a story about how a young punk gained power and became a monster, or how somebody went undercover to bring down a mob boss, or how the sins of charismatic bad guys finally found them out.
The title is a clever reference to a famously cursed city, and to a network of crime lords known as the Camorra. It’s a confusing film at first; Garrone drops us into crowded scenarios in medias res. We’re left to work out who’s who and how they’re connected to the gangsters.
At first, this feels like a foreign film about a foreign problem. But you’ll feel heartsick as the distance between us and them is slowly erased.
7. A Serious Man (Joel Coen): Often described as the Coen brothers’ “most personal film,” A Serious Man is also their most directly theological. And in time it may well be regarded as their best. Its dark comedy is probably too unsettling to win major awards, but it is a better-crafted work than their Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men. I discussed this film in a previous Good Letters post.
6. Lake Tahoe (Fernando Eimbcke): A lanky, mournful young man named Juan emerges from a car wreck and wanders through a quiet Mexican town, looking for a mechanic to fix what’s broken. But what’s really broken?
At first, Juan’s somnambulistic demeanor seems like shock brought on by the wreck. But it soon becomes clear: Something else is going on here. Is he dreading punishment for crashing the car? Is he prone to accidents? Did he hit his head?
What seems a slow, almost arbitrary meander through an unusual community is eventually revealed to be a carefully composed meditation on grief and healing.
Some of the most surprising episodes—a sudden breakfast in a strange home, a discussion of Christian faith, a visit to the cinema, a young woman undressing—become subtle scenes of awkward but effective repair.
Eimbcke gives us a lot of screen time to the scenery, and I suspect that he considers this location—it’s almost a ghost town—to be the film’s main character. If so, then this story of a troubled boy is really the story of a troubled community that has lost something precious and necessary for life. This town is broken, and needs a mechanic.
5. The Class (Laurent Cantet): The Class is a compelling depiction of one Parisian middle-school teacher’s experience. But no, it’s not another inspirational movie about a teacher who transforms the lives of his students.
It’s fictional, and yet it’s convincing for several reasons. The film is based on the memoir of François Bégaudeau—Entre les Murs. And its main character is not only based on Bégaudeau himself, but played by him as well. The students are real Parisian students playing characters based on themselves. And they’re a fascinating crowd, an almost unmanageable, multi-ethnic group of boisterous and beautiful personalities.
The result is as compelling as any of this year’s thrillers. It’s no wonder that the 2008 Cannes film festival jury granted The Class their highest award—the Palme d’Or.
The Class is both a tribute to today’s brave schoolteachers and a dispiriting portrait of a broken educational system. Yes, cultural diversity can be a very good thing. But how can a teacher be effective when he’s not even sure how his words will be interpreted by students from different ethnic backgrounds? What can he hope to teach them when they constantly confront his own cultural traditions and assumptions?
The movie makes it clear that this generation needs teachers who can be many things at once: educator, referee, disciplinarian, translator, social worker, and...artist.
4. Up (Pete Docter): While the Disney logo and the merchandising make us think that Pixar is producing “kids’ movies,” these remarkable artists are quietly becoming some of the most compelling filmmakers for adult audiences.
Was any big-screen storytelling this year more efficient or thoughtfully composed than Up’s wordless but heartbreaking prologue about Carl Fredrickson’s young love, marriage, and the loss of his wife?
The rest is splendidly entertaining, hilarious, and heart-warming, but it also cleverly revises common American storytelling themes: it celebrates “adventure,” but it redefines adventure as a life of courageous investment in family relationships. For more, see my previous Good Letters post.
3. Seraphine (Martin Provost): If Image were to publish a list of the most important films about the intersection of faith and art, I would expect Seraphine to be on that list. As a troubled and neglected painter who worked to honor the Virgin Mary, Yolande Moreau gave the most astonishing performance I saw all year. See my previous Good Letters post.
2. Munyurangabo (Lee Isaac Chung): We’ve seen some powerful, horrifying films about the war in Rwanda. But we’ve never seen anything like this—a film made with the help of Rwandans, informed by their own experiences, and performed in their own language. An American filmmaker who grew up in South Korea, Lee Isaac Chung made this film in order to teach Rwandans the craft of filmmaking. The movie they made is poetic, meditative, and powerful. Roger Ebert called it “a masterpiece” in his year-end reflections on the best movies he saw this year.
1. Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas): A beautiful estate in the countryside outside of Paris. A brilliant ensemble cast, including Juliette Binoche, Charles Berling, and Jeremie Renier. A meditation on art: What makes it valuable? How is globalization changing the role of art in culture, the way art is made, and what people do with it?
This sounds cerebral, but Summer Hours is an emotional family story about a woman with a scandalous secret; the haunted works of art she guards in her home; the challenges facing her children as she prepares for her own death; and what happens to her treasures when she’s gone.
I wrote much more about this, my favorite film of 2009, in a previous Good Letters post.