December 22, 2009
My lists for the top films of the year and of the decade have been posted over at Indiewire, so feel free to rush over there and criticize my choices in the comments back here. Only two English language films made my year-end roundup (The Informant! and Orphan), but there was a whole slew of valuable work churned out in the States that I’d like to recognize in this dusty corner of the internet. The lag time in distribution means that the finest in international cinema arrives in waves – the highlights of three years of festivals hit all at once (Aleksandr Sokurov’s The Sun took four years to reach theaters, for example). I highlighted many of these on my list (go check out The Headless Woman, my topper, just out on DVD from Strand), but it necessitated knocking out a number of strong Hollywood films that were actually made in 2009. So, here’s my favorite local product:
1. The Informant!, Directed by Steven Soderbergh
An ebullient little character study of a small middle manager and his penchant for charmingly embroidered lies. Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns’s ingenious use of voice-over has the wiseacre Mark Whitacre constantly digressing from the drama in his life (whistleblowing on Archer Daniels Midland, among other things) in order to establish his monumental self-denial. It’s a clever device that pays off brilliantly in the end, when his interior monologue finally matches up with his actions – and Whitacre’s face turns ashen. Matt Damon pulls this tricky act off without a hitch. His Whitacre is a smiling gladhander, a lumpen edifice of Midwestern charm impossible to dislike despite his endless faults. Damon is surrounded by a stellar cast, led by Scott Bakula and Joel McHale as trusting FBI agents, and supported by a potpourri of comics playing straight including Patton Oswalt, Paul F. Tompkins, and both Smothers Brothers.
2. Orphan, Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra
An elegantly designed horror movie with a whiff of satire, it has been clanging around my cortex for most of the year. The premise is from the genre 101 playbook: a rich bourgeois couple adopts a child. She turns out to be a murderous psychopath. Her insidious actions uncork the husband and wife’s long simmering insecurities, unleashing her alcoholism and his unbending passivity and wandering eye. There are so many deliciously macabre notes in the film: her “outsider art”-type watercolors that hide bloody massacres in the margins, the sides of beef being unloaded in the background during marriage counseling, and the entirety of 12 year old Isabelle Fuhrman’s performance – which is astonishing in its ferocity. She kills you with a dead-eyed stare and glacial smirk, just a bit of business before dinner. The satire is aimed at the conspicuously consumptive parents, who have built a modern box in the boonies to escape themselves and the holes in their souls that money can’t seem to fill. In any case, a total delight.
3. The Fantastic Mr. Fox, directed by Wes Anderson
Another bauble in Anderson’s closet of exotic objects. This is perhaps his most detailed and expressive, since he can control all of his subjects down to their whisker hair. Every little detail holds a clue to these character’s personalities, from Ash’s train set to Mr. Fox’s bandit mask. Ash is caught in childhood, desperate to break out but still in love with play. Mr. Fox is caught between family and his essential fox-ness, that is, his need to steal and kill chickens. Both characters are torn between maturity and playfulness, and each will have to find a balance between the two that allows them to function in their makeshift society. That they succeed is due to the love of their lives – Meryl Streep’s graceful, stubborn and wise Mrs. Fox. It’s one of his most finely wrought family tales, impeccably (voice) acted.
4. Armored, directed by Nimrod Antal
A late entry that snuck in under the wire. Has the constrained feel of a legit 40s B-movie, steeped in sweat and work and a heist gone bad. A group of armored truck drivers led by Matt Dillon plans on faking the heist and taking the money for themselves. Sounds smart until a homeless man and a curious cop send the ethically curious in the crew into revolt. Once the deed goes sour, there is an extended showdown between Columbus Short (the moral one and Iraq war veteran) and the rest of the goons. He locks himself in a truck and Dillon starts to pound the hinges out with steel pipes. The insistent clanging marks off the time until one of them dies. It’s inevitable, but still they work, grunt, curse and bleed. Laurence Fishburne grunts better than most, but Dillon growls with authority, Skeet Ulrich’s wispy beard matches his weaselly cowardice, and Short exudes nice-guy calm. A refreshingly well-rigged little thriller.
5. The Limits of Control, directed by Jim Jarmusch
Dreamy patterning, etched on the sharkskin suits of Isaach de Bankole, as he traverses the cities of Spain. I forget the color coding, but suit-jacket, shirt, and pants re-combine shades at each location, as he listens to the pseudo-philosophical treatises of his contacts. Jarmusch recombines his cinematic idols with equal panache. de Bankole is an assassin in the mold of Alain Delon in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai, concerned with the purity of his own code, which is impenetrable to the long-winded talkers he gets his instructions from (Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Gael Garcia Bernal, among others). But along the way there is a lot of opaque game-playing straight out of the Jacques Rivette of Out 1, clues that lead nowhere, a mystery only about mystery. The cinematography of Christopher Doyle is sleek and intoxicating, the words are alternately maddeningly self-indulgent and engagingly inquisitive. Movies don’t come more rewarding or frustrating than this.
Now we enter the speed round:
6. Funny People, directed by Judd Apatow
Creativity as utter loneliness, rendered with a fusillade of dick jokes. And good ones.
7. Up, directed by Pete Docter and Bob Peterson
Of love and talking dogs, but more of the former, thankfully.
8. Me and Orson Welles, directed by Richard Linklater
A lovely re-imagining of Welles’ Broadway production of Julius Caesar. Christian McKay is incandescent as Welles, and inside it’s lilting rhythms is a rather dark portrait of the creative process.
9. Invictus, directed by Clint Eastwood
A lesson in structure. The divisions in South Africa rendered in Mandela’s security team, in his personal relationship with his daughter, and then through rugby’s world cup. Sports as politics.
10. A Perfect Getaway, directed by David Twohy
Clever. Screenwriter as main character in honeymoon gone awry chase film. Hammers home metaphor that writers cannibalize subjects for their own purposes. But with humor, which saves it. Timothy Olyphant wins the day as yammering special forces specimen.
Honorable mentions: Drag Me to Hell, The Box, Pandorum, Gamer, Crank: High Voltage, Star Trek, Adventureland
Special Note: I did see and admire some aspects of The Hurt Locker (i.e., the sniper scene) but have been baffled by the overwrought praise sent its way for this otherwise rote war movie. So as an act of spite, it’s not on this list.