11 February 2009

Top Twelve Of The Year, plus a bonus list

These are my favorite films from this past year. Everyone has their own way of determining which are "best", and my criteria is usually 1) recognizing that which I believe will last, 2) recognizing that which I feel got overlooked, 3) recognizing that which was so good that you can't help but comment.

These are those:

* Che. I bought into it. I appreciate that it was mostly about process, and therefore largely eschews the standard tropes of war films, as well as most of the controversial politics that have emerged from Che's life and likeness. Moreso, I think Soderbergh was interested in the parallels between building a revolution and working on a film set in a far off land. And finally, the whole sequence where Che gets captured is fascinating, as is the astonishing POV death scene.

* The Dark Knight. The first shot says everything: society is a calm, smooth surface until something unpredictable shatters it. And then all hell breaks loose. You've either seen this movie or you're dead, and it is remarkable. Deserves to be with the billion dollar boys for all of the reasons you already know.

* Dear Zachary. Melds the best things about two of the most influential documentaries ever: the investigative journalism/private detective work of "The Thin Blue Line"; the four-track, home recording vibe of a life overdocumented from "Tarnation". This is a movie so heartfelt and personal, so unobjective, that the filmmaker actually starts crying during voiceover narration. And it is totally justified. Find it, watch it, be awed by the plot twists, and get fucking mad.

* In Bruges. So underseen. The kind of movie you tell people about, they watch, then exclaim "Why didn't I hear about this movie?" Because the studio is stupid: they didn't realize that they had gold with a tightly structured screenplay, an exotic location, copious Catholic guilt to fuel it all, and great performances from Clemence Poesy, Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes playing against type as a madman, and revelatory work by Colin Farrell, who is at turns tortured and damn funny.

* Indestructible. Ben Byer was a struggling actor and playwright who, in the course of feeling his body betray him, finally made a lasting piece of art. That he acknowledges this fact late in the movie makes his courage that much more remarkable, considering his courage becomes quickly apparent. This is a ramshackle documentary, but an utterly honest and touching one. It addresses some of the same topics about the intersection of art and death as "Synecdoche, New York", but, considering this story is a non-fiction one, it makes Kaufman's film look like the fussy, narcissistic, undisciplined exercise it is.

* Lakeview Terrace. The trailers would have you believe this was some dumb by-the-book thriller. It is so much more than that: an examination of systemic racism in LA that explores the topic in much more interesting, complex, subtle and entertaining ways than did "Crash". It echoes the Rodney King beatings and the riots in a respectful way, and gives us an adriot final shot for us to contemplate the past and the future of the problem.

* Man On Wire. Like "Harlan County, USA", this documentary uses narrative devices to tell a non-fiction story. In this case, the structure and suspense of a heist movie. And then we get the glory of a man on wire, suspended above the world like no one before or since, on a building that doesn't exist anymore (a fact the filmmaker gloriously neglects to mention, so that we bring our own emotions of 9/11 to the table). The complete joie de vivre exhibited by the subject, Petit, is a marvel to watch.

* Rachel Getting Married. A home movie about a wedding that never happened but that I would have loved to have attended. A certain subset of folks are going to be using this movie as a template for their own weddings, and it's probably a larger group than you realize.

* Slumdog Millionaire. Just like "Amelie", in that it marries classical Hollywood cinema structure and techniques with motifs and archtypes from another dominant world cinema, in this case India. The melding is so successful and we westerners learn so much about the other culture -- and their cinema -- in the process that we are thankful. And we get crackerjack entertainment and social commentary in the bargain.

* Standard Operating Procedure. Errol Morris is one of the best directors working. Not in documentaries, but period. Here he examines Abu Grhaib from an angle most would never consider -- that of the process of how those famous photographs came to be and how they were used to scapegoat those subjects -- and gives a more chilling view of our war than before.

* Wall-E. Pixar makes classical Hollywood cinema that takes bold risks, and they get away with it because, as Andrew Stanton says, they focus on "story, story, story." Puts a new twist on the apocalypse scenario, gives great satire about where we're headed as a culture, and it doesn't hurt that Wall-E is utterly fucking adorable, a great hero. This movie is a masterpiece and it will last.

* The Wrestler. A simple story, well-told, which gives us a new glimpse into a world we only think we know: professional wrestling. Performance of a lifetime by Rooney, with a great, enigmatic ending that echoes the fate of another 80's rocking New Jersey anti-hero: Tony Soprano.

Bonus list!

I went to several film festival this year. Here are some fine performances in films I saw during my festival rounds:

* Ben Gazzara in "Looking For Palladin". From his thin frame and crusty cigarette voice, Ben Gazzara almost certainly is in his last days. But he gave a fine performance in his small movie, playing an aged actor in South America who just wants to be left alone. His work here is so thorough, so lived-in, that when he finally gets the space he continually requests, he's earned it.

* Dana Delaney in "Route 30". I can't get the image of Delaney's chain-smoking, hard-drinking, rumspringa-remembering Amish lady dancing and deancing to Scott Joplin out of my head. She gives life to a character that could have been an easy cliche.

* Wesley Murphy in "Boys of Summerville". Wesley Murphy's first scene is him smearing cake all over his naked body due to his despair over losing his girlfriend. He owns this little film from his first frame, and never lets go, never fails to get a chuckle from his moustache or his accent or trying-to-be-tough mannerisms every time he comes back up on the screen.

* Joe Swanberg and Greta Gerwig in "Nights and Weekends". Art imitates life as a couple's relationship dissolves, then doesn't, then finally does. Gerwig is her usual neurotic self, but in a much deeper way, letting us more into her loneliness and hurt. And Swanberg does his watchful, playful thing until the very end, when finally he can't stop crying.


Blogger the cold cowboy said...

you mean Rourke, right? I haven't seen The Wrestler yet, but if it stars Mickey Rooney I'm going to be super pissed.

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