Monday, January 11, 2010

Best of 2009: Movies

As with most years, I spent the beginning of 2009 catching up on the best of 2008. Most notably, these included Che, in its full 4 1/2 hour theatrical splendor, Waltz With Bashir and Wendy and Lucy—all three more than worthy of year end list making and revelry that has already past. And as 2009 blurs into 2010, so does the marker for championing the year's best films, so I'll give it my best shot as things stand today. For the first time in a very long time, the hubbub at this years Cannes Film Festival was not only, well, worth the hubbub, but also, in the case of Inglourious Basterds and Antichrist, released on these very shores in the same year. (Thank you IFC and the Weinsteins.) Love 'em or hate 'em, it turns out Lars von Trier and Quentin Tarantino have more than just bloated egos in their bag of tricks. The arthouse bad boy revolution certainly made waves in 2009, but I'm glad to say that a handful of female filmmakers made their own waves almost regardless of controversy, or lack there of. None of these women stood up to a microphone and said, "I am the best film director in the world," but instead allowed their craft speak for itself. Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker), Agnes Varda (The Beaches of Agnes) and Claire Denis (35 Shots of Rum) are not only linked by their gender, but also by turning in three of the best films of the year. The rest of the films that rocked my 2009 were the ones found in the nooks and crannies of film distribution. Often unheralded, misunderstood and underappreciated, these are the films that I live for and thankfully found their way to me despite the circumstances of time, place and wacked sense of film appreciation at large. Minneapolis is the center of my world and, with the exception of one in NYC, here is a bakers dozen of top films, alphabetically, that I found in my fair city in one form or another:

24 City directed by Jia Zhangke
January 31, Walker Art Center
Thanks to the Walker's "Expanding the Frame," 24 City had a one night stand here almost a year ago. Jia Zhangke, master from the Mainland, has always walked a fine line between fact and fiction. From the gritty realism of Xiao Wu (1997) to the fictional/non-fictional companion pieces Still Life and Dong (both 2006), Jia has been turning social observation and commentary into poetic parables about his shape-shifting home country for over ten years. 24 City profiles the soon to be shuttered Factory No. 420 in Chengdu, China. A former munitions factory and stalwart representation of Communist China, the massive Factory No. 420 is to be razed to make room for a new luxury housing development. The opening sequence of manufacturing in action would make any four-year-plan proud. But those days are over and the modernization of the 21st century is nothing like the modernization of the Great Leap Forward. Adaptability is the new slogan and, amid the backdrop of the doomed factory, Jia chronicles people's ability to navigate the brave new world of 'capitalism with Chinese characteristics.' Fact and fiction blur as Jia cleverly plants actors among the subjects of the film. But are the actors really acting? In the case of Joan Chen, she plays a woman nicknamed "little flower" because she so closely resembled the lead character in a 1980 film Little Flower, who was in fact Joan Chen. Needless to say, the history of most of the professionals in the film is not so dissimilar to their common contemporaries. Beautifully scored by Lim Giong, 24 City is a bittersweet open-ended elegy and another star on the lapel of this fifth generation general.
(24 City comes out on DVD tomorrow. Wait no longer; check it out now.)

35 Shots of Rum directed by Claire Denis
October 20, Film Forum
This is the one film I had to travel for and although I didn't make the trip specifically to see Claire Denis new film, it was certainly a huge bonus. In some respects it felt like fate that had me landing in NYC on the last day that 35 Shots of Rum was playing. 35 Shots of Rum takes a step back from her abstract and highly allegorical The Intruder. Focusing on a father and his young adult daughter and their various attempts to foster and maintain relationships, it is a subdued family drama in the tradition of Ozu. The father, Lionel, works as a train operator and his daughter, Joséphine, is a student. It is apparently based on the relationship between Denis' mother and her grandfather, and the personal nature of the film shows. It has and air of honesty that feels intimate and unencumbered. Delicate and tender, 35 Shots of Rum broaches the subjects of love, race and politics with subtle humanity instead of the heavy-handed indoctrinations that films usually hand out. I had recently read an essay by Claire Denis on Hong Sang-soo, and as a result I found myself thinking about Hong's films, not Ozu's, especially during the centerpiece in a bar. There is a distillation of the film in that sequence that is very Hong-like—an awkward yet honest summation of the heart. There is another standout scene, where Lionel is at the controls of the train and he imagines himself and Joséphine riding on a horse together. It's a warm daydream that doesn't at all feel as abstract as it should. 35 Shots is an illusive film that begs for meaning without handing it out.
(35 Shots of Rum did not make an appearance in the Twin Cities in 2009, but it will likely show its face on the big screen somewhere around here in 2010. Do. Not. Miss. It.)

Antichrist directed by Lars von Trier
November 13, Lagoon Theater
From my perspective, all the cards were stacked against Antichrist. I had read and heard too many diatribes, aimed at von Trier but inadvertently hitting the film. I was doubtful and pessimistic about this film, but I was also extremely excited to see it and thrilled that its graphic moments didn't prevent it from getting a proper theatrical release. And, wow, what a stunning film it is. Visually and narratively loaded to the gills, Antichrist is not a movie to be taken lightly, but, then again, not to be taken too seriously either. Von Trier makes a self-reflexive analysis of his own cinematic tropes right before our very eyes. His cheeky pseudo-intellectual survey of gender politics feels like a wry, overblown critique of his very own films. Von Trier uses the violence in the film like a bully on a playground, daring you to watch. But buried underneath the noise of controversy is a fairytale of iconic proportions, culminating in a talking fox. Forget Tarkovsky, for whom the film is dedicated to, von Trier is channeling the Brothers Grimm.
(No street date for the DVD. I desperately want one of these t-shirts.)

Fig Trees directed by John Greyson
June 25, Walker Art Center
John Greyson has reinvented the documentary genre with Fig Tress. Much like Chris Marker, his approach is like free verse poetry. Mixing documentary footage with an operatic reinterpretation of the last twenty years of AIDS activism, Greyson does not hesitate to reference The Matrix and La Bohème in the same breath. At the heart of the surreal narrative thread is the real-life heroism of Tim McCaskell and Zackie Achmat, two life long AIDS activists who fought for equal access to information and treatment in their respective countries of Canada and South Africa. Extremely playful and cunningly clever, Fig Trees is as mind-bending as an epic palindrome and as beautiful as an operatic aria. Fig Trees was originally a video opera for gallery installation, but Greyson has beautifully extended his vision to a full-length film unlike anything I have seen before.
(Fig Trees has not received any theatrical distribution, of course, and who knows if it will ever make its way to DVD.)

Gomorrah directed by Matteo Garone
March 15, Uptown Theater
More than any other film in this list, Gomorrah was the one that totally took my breath away. Not because of the raw violence (which is definitely there) but the completely unconventional pacing and narrative drive. With little or no context, the characters in this film negotiate a world of underground crime that is as foreign as the film structure. Unlike the character driven mafia of the Corleones, Gomorrah is rulled by money and money alone. The film plays out like a multinational nightmare where individuals do not matter, only the capital they move and the channels they create. Director Matteo Garone not so much adapts Roberto Saviano's book as he does imbue the film with the aura given off by its pages. Personalities are exhibited in place of individuals and situations in place of stories. The result is unsettling and powerful. (And I must admit, fantastic on the Uptown's huge screen.) I only read the book only after seeing the film, but I devoured it, amazed by what Garone had done to the overwhelming material.
(Criterion released Gomorrah on DVD and Blu-Ray in November.)

The Headless Woman directed by Lucrecia Martel
December 20, DVD
Failing to make an appearance in the Twin Cities, DVD was my only option for The Headless Woman. Released on December 15, I was glad to squeeze this one in before the end of the year, but I will forever be bitter about not being able to see it on the big screen. Martel's La Ciénaga is one of the best films of the decade (yes, eventually I will be going down that road) and my adoration has yet to be dashed with 2004's The Holy Girl and this year's The Headless Woman. Within the cacophonous first few minutes of the film, Verónica, a matronly platinum blond, hits something while driving home. She/we see a dog; she thinks she has hit a person; she gets amnesia. Coincidence? That is for the film to decide, and the audience to decipher. A study on class and entitlement, The Headless Woman is a puzzle that offers absolutely no dramatic irony, making the audience work for answers. Verónica spends much of the film searching for her identity alongside us, wandering aimlessly wherever people take her. The surprise is how well she functions without it and how she is never really in a situation where she needs to make an informed decision. The result is guilt by complacency. By eschewing convention, Martel's elegant and enigmatic creation is a stark reminder of just how much we rely on it.
(The Headless Woman came out on DVD last month from Strand.)

Hunger directed by Steve McQueen
March 27, Walker Art Center
Hunger was another late arrival in the Twin Cities, and although much ink was spilled last year in praise of Hunger, on the eve of its February 16 Criterion DVD and Blu-Ray release, it is worth restating how amazing this film is. Steve McQueen's debut film about the Irish nationalist Bobby Sands who died during a hunger strike is raw and brutal. Amongst the shit, urine and blood, McQueen offers a film of startling visual beauty that is unsettling, to say the least. Taking place almost entirely within the walls of a prison, Hunger first introduces the situation, then Sands' moral quandary and finally his wasting away. Michael Fassbender's performance as Sands is captivating, and his talent only becomes more apparent the more we see of him (Inglourious Basterds, Fish Tank.) Comparisons to The Passion of the Christ and allusions to Abu Ghraib are warranted, but Hunger stands on its own as a powerful piece of art.
(Hunger comes out on DVD and Blu-Ray next month from the good people at Criterion.)

The Hurt Locker directed by Kathyrn Bigelow
July 19, Uptown Theater
As the films on and about the Iraq War start to pile up, it would be easy to claim that Hollywood is merely performing an obligatory emotional purge for the masses. But the truth seems to be quite the opposite. The past few years have given us some of the most thoughtful and bitter ruminations about the war from directors and writers who are anything but passive onlookers. Top of the fictional heap is The Hurt Locker. The acute psychological spiral that soldiers are trapped in is felt within every potential exploding IED. Without the muddy notions of ideology or politics, The Hurt Locker openly studies a soldier who thrives on the danger of war. Sergeant First Class William James (played by the award-worthy Jeremy Renner) is a bomb expert who leads a team sent out to find, defuse, dismantle or safely detonate the enemies weapon of choice. James is addicted to war and, unlike his comrades in arms, loves the challenge staring death in the face. The close-up intensity of the soldiers' dripping sweat and shaking hands is countered by the equally unnerving wide-shot aerials that visually depicts their vulnerability. The opening sequence is a stunner, establishing not only the erraticism of war but also pulse-driving skill with which this film is made.
(The Hurt Locker comes out on DVD tomorrow, and, depending on how it fairs with nominations, may have a second run in theaters.)

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus directed by Terry Gilliam
December 11, Lagoon Theater
James Cameron can keep his RealD™; Gilliam can (and has) done more visually with scissors and paper than Cameron could ever dream of. I love The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus for all its chaotic creative impulses that gleefully swell out of control for 122 minutes. Christopher Plummer plays Doctor Parnassus, a washed-up sage traveling the modern world in his medieval side-show wagon with his daughter and young assistant. Parnassus puts more effort into his bottle of booze than he does his show, but when the devil shows up in the form of Tom Waits with a challenge, it is game on. Of course Heath Ledger is in the mix (with his troupe of alter egos: Jude Law, Johnny Depp and Colin Farrell) but his character is something of a side show to the side show. Plummer, Waits and Gilliam are the stars that serve up a provocative madcap fantasy. Does it make sense? No. Is it fun? Hell yes.
(The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus opened this weekend in the Twin Cities; I caught an early press screening last month.)

Inglourious Basterds directed by Quentin Tarantino
August 21, AMC Roseville
At the end of Quentin Tarantino's piece de resistance, Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) looks straight into the camera and says, "You know somethin', Utivich? I think this might just be my masterpiece." He is of course talking about the swastika he has just carved into Col. Hans Landa's, the Jew hunter's, forehead, but the screen may as well be a mirror and Raine may as well be Tarantino. Inglourious Basterds may very well be Tarantino's masterpiece, but anyone who can pull off such a grand production with such poise, deft and clever ingenuity surely has more talent to spare. The bar is set incredibly high with the first chapter, "Once upon a Nazi-Occupied France." A battle of wills between a French farmer and a German officer is perfectly scripted and paced. Denis Menochet's half moon eyes transform from those of defiance to despair as the sequence breaks into a full-blown Wagner-like eruption. Inglourious Basterds is full of moments that are damn near brilliant in their detail: the sickening sound of Christoph Waltz's teeth on his fork as he enjoys strudel; Brad Pitt's perfectly cadenced drawl; the absurd characterizations of Hitler, Goebbels and Churchill. Although the film loses some of its power when Tarentino goes overboard with Mélanie Laurent's music video in the fifth act, it does nothing to reduce the awe-inspiring catharsis of bullet riddled Nazi's. Cinema as it should be: grand, smart and incredibly entertaining.
(Now out on DVD and Blu-Ray and enjoying a second run at some theaters.)

Munyurangabo directed by Lee Isaac Chung
April 18, St. Anthony Main
Munyurangabo is one of two films in this list that I saw at the Minneapolis St Paul International Film Festival. Lee Isaac Chung's ambitious collaboration with fifteen Rwandan students on a 11-day shoot may be one of the most impressive and brave debut features ever made. Tackling the impossible, Chung and his team of non-professionals make a powerful reflection on the genocide that tore the country apart more than 15 years ago. Munyurangabo gains strength through silent intensity and honest emotions as it contemplates the the country's collective history and its inevitable effects on individuals. The film chronicles a journey made by two friends (one a Hutu and one a Tutsi) on the verge of adulthood who both seek resolution to a personal restlessness. Chung spends over an hour building up tension until the film lets loose in the form of a cathartic 7-minute poem that is the anthem for the film and a country caught between its desire for revenge and need for forgiveness.
(Munyurangabo is available on DVD from Film Movement.)

Oblivion directed by Heddy Honigmann
April 26, St Anthony Main
The second film from MSPIFF, Oblivion is a complete gem that no one is going to see. Documentary filmmaker Heddy Honigmann turns her camera on her hometown of Lima, Peru. Allowing the people to speak for themselves, Oblivion is a sublime summation of life within a very specific place and time from those who live and work around the Presidential Palace in Lima. The film opens with the monologue of a charismatic bartender. While fixing the national drink of Peru, the Pico Sour, he humorously contemplates the recent presidential elections, equating the choice between the two candidate to having to choose between Hepatitis B and AIDS. "The people chose Hepatitis B!" he laughs. Oblivion did the same thing for Peru as The Big Durian did for Malaysia: put a very gentle human face on the entire country despite imperfections. Each interview, testimonial and observation offer another layer to a mosaic I previously knew nothing about. Honigmann has an instinct for making the camera (and the presence of the filmmaker) eloquently disappear. She is like the antithesis of Michael Moore: whereas Moore takes a topic and dresses it up in loud, scary clothing, Honigmann does the same and dresses it down into something relaxed and natural. Although she had modest festival success with, Forever, her beautiful Paris-set documentary about the immortality of art, Honigmann still works far below the popular radar.
(As far as I know, Oblivion has no distribution in this country. Talk to your local film festival programmer.)

Honorable Mentions: Nanayomachi (Naomi Kawase), Il Divo (Pailo Sorrentino), Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa), Beaches of Agnes (Agnes Varda), Summer Hours (Oliver Assayas), Revanche (Gotz Spielmann), Rembrandt's J'accuse (Peter Greenaway), Still Walking (Hirokazu Kore-eda), Tony Manero (Pablo Larrain).

Update: Added some linky-dinkies, most with access to trailers.


Alex said...

Wow I missed almost all of these films, so thanks for giving me more to add to my Netflix queue. I'm really glad to see Dr Parnassus here- I haven't seen it on any Best Of list except for mine! But I completely agree, Gilliam's visual creativity can best Avatar anytime.

joetron2030 said...

Man, I really need to see "Parnassus" in the theater. I'm glad I read this and know where it's playing.

villainx said...

Nice list.

Sandy Nawrot said...

We just saw Basterds this past weekend and lo and behold! We did not fall asleep. No way you could do that. I liked that music they played 3/4 of the way through! Hurt Locker is to arrive today or tomorrow! A nice, much-awaited list. And now I know what to get you for your birthday!

Kathie Smith said...

Parnassus is undeniably the guilty pleasure in this list. See it on the big screen if you can Joe; it probably won't play long!

San, I'm glad you guys finally got to see Basterds - I knew you would both enjoy it.

villainx said...

I'm looking forward to your decade's list. And maybe a bonus decade's director list?

Hopefully ranked, or if that's too tough, grouped. Unless that's not your style, but as a moment in time thing, I think it's interesting.

Kathie Smith said...

Definitely doing a decade list; probably show up around the end of the month. Music next week.

YTSL said...

Hi Kathie --

Interesting list. Must admit though that I don't rate the two films on your top 12 list that I've seen (24 City and Gomorrah) as highly as you... Ah well, different strokes for different folks -- also, can I ask whether you forgot Ponyo or really just don't rate it as highly? :S

Kathie Smith said...

Doh! So much for keeping a detailed list of what I watch! I did forget about Ponyo. Why? I have no idea...

I guess the other one (two) that I feel bad about leaving out is Red Cliff I and II. As a five hour epic, its really incredible. But I got distracted by the lame US cut and forgot about the grander of the original.

I'll be more attentive on the decade list. I promise!

YTSL said...

Hi again --

So you DID like "Ponyo" -- even with the English dub! Waaaaaah...

As for "Red Cliff": Haven't seen the US cut and don't intend to but have to also say that I found "Red Cliff I" not that great but then was very pleasantly surprised by "Red Cliff 2". :)

Daniel Getahun said...

Crap, I'm so mad I missed Oblivion at MSPIFF. And although I thought Munyurangabo was terrific, like I think I told you before it didn't make the same impact for me as Dry Season. Or something. Both definitely deserved a lot more than one blasted screening, that's for sure.

Just saw 35 Shots of Rum last week and very much enjoyed it, though it was my first Denis film so I can't say I can fully absorb her style just yet.

Still need to see Parnassus and I don't know why I never caught up with Gomorrah. Great choice of Hunger here, too.