2009 was an interesting year here at Cinebeats. It was the first year that I wrote about films made after 1979 and my blog traffic rose considerably because of it. While I appreciated the interest in my “Modern Monday” posts, I’m not planning on continuing with them in 2010. I do plan on sharing a complete list of my favorite films of the last decade soon and I’ll occasionally try and post a collection of my thoughts about recent films when I find the time but I want to focus more of my attention on older movies again.
My favorite blogging moment of 2009 occurred when I got the opportunity to interview the British actor Shane Briant by email who I’ve admired for a long time. Briant appeared in many of my favorite Hammer films and I was thrilled that he took the time to answer some of my questions. I also enjoyed spending a lot of time writing about the 1968 film Girl On A Motorcycle in honor of the director and cinematographer Jack Cardiff who passed away last year. The post that seemed to generate the most blog traffic from visitors last year was my very personal piece about the actor Klaus Kinski titled “Stalking Klaus Kinski or How I Worshiped a Madman.” I suspect that the provocative title was partially to blame for the high-level of interest.
As I mentioned to Adam Hartzell in his recent piece for SF360, I didn’t have the opportunity to see many new films when they were initially released. I’ve only recently caught up with a lot of 2009 films on DVD but I wish I had been able to see more of the films I enjoyed in a theater. I think 2009 was a terrific year for new movies so I thought I’d share a list of my favorites.
Antichrist (Lars von Trier; 2009)
I first experienced Lars von Trier’s work in the mid ’90s after a friend suggested I watch the horror series he made for Danish television called The Kingdom. I’ve admired the director ever since and I was excited to learn that he had decided to return to the horror genre with Antichrist in 2009. This haunting, disturbing and atmospheric film about a couple trying to repair their broken marriage is beautifully shot and well acted by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe but it’s Lars von Trier’s direction that was really the star of the film for me. Von Trier was able to conjure up some truly eerie imagery in Antichrist and there’s an otherworldly feel to the film that seems to permeate every frame. I found the negative and reactionary critical response to it really surprising but Lars von Trier often seems to be a target of critics. I appreciate the complicated nature of his work and I thought Antichrist was one of the director’s most challenging efforts.
Ben Whishaw & Ambie Cornish in Bright Star (Jane Campion; 2009)
Bright Star (Jane Campion; 2009)
Bright Star does an incredible job of detailing the relationship between the British romantic poet John Keats and his ladylove Fanny Brawne. Anyone familiar with 18th century Britain will be impressed with the way the social customs and quirks of the period were handled. It was wonderful to see a romantic figure like Keats played by such an earthy actor like the talented Ben Whishaw, but actress Ambie Cornish managed to steal the film as Keats’ love interest in the movie. Cornish is unforgettable as the young and passionate Fanny Browne and if I had my way she’d win the Oscar for best actress this year. I loved the way she was able to make Fanny into a smart and forward-thinking young woman without removing any of her inherent charm. So many historic biopics rely much too heavily on melodrama and histrionics. Bright Star doesn’t shy from the romantic aspect of Keats’ life and poetry as well as the tragedy that befell his relationship with Fanny, but the film never succumbs to the overacting and theatrics that plague so many similar productions. I’ve admired Keats’ poetry for years and when I was in London I made the trek to the home that Keats and Fanny Brawne shared together. My expectations for Bright Star weren’t particularly high since I’ve had mixed reactions to Jane Campion’s work in the past but I fell in love with the movie. I think Bright Star is her finest film and one of the most beautiful movies I’ve seen in years.
A scene from District 9 (Neill Blomkamp; 2009)
District 9 (Neill Blomkamp; 2009)
District 9 really surprised me. I didn’t know anything about the movie before I saw it and I really liked the way the material was handled. Especially considering the budget, the relatively unknown actors, etc. It reminded me of an ’80s science fiction flick loaded with plenty of action and thrills. But District 9 also contained a lot of unexpected social and political undertones. I probably could of done without the parent/child alien relationship that got in the way of the plot at the end, but overall I thought District 9 was an entertaining ride.
Michael Fassbender reaches out to Katie Jarvis in Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold; 2009)
Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold; 2009)
This potent coming-of-age drama presents a surprisingly bold look at young lust and uninhibited passion. The film stars newcomer Katie Jarvis who is terrific as an angry young woman named Mia trying to make sense of the world and her place in it. The handsome and charming Michael Fassbender becomes an object of obsession and desire for young Mia (who can blame her?) and their complicated relationship is what really drives the film.
Eva Green & Sam Riley in Franklyn (Gerald McMorrow; 2008)
Franklyn (Gerald McMorrow; 2008 – was not available to see in most American cities until 2009)
I’m surprised that this involving fantasy film hasn’t gotten more attention. If I didn’t know any better I might assume that Franklyn was scripted by Neil Gaiman and directed by Dave McKean, but it’s actually an original film from first-time director Gerald McMorrow. The movie features solid performances from all of the actors involved but I especially liked watching the romantic relationship unfold between Eva Green and Sam Riley. I think they’re two of the most beautiful and charismatic actors working today so it was just mesmerizing to watch them perform together. Franklyn isn’t without some problems and I think the film was trying to do too much with too little but I also thought it was an impressive first effort from director Gerald McMorrow.
Michael Fassbender & Rory Mullen in Hunger (Steve McQueen; 2008)
Hunger (Steve McQueen; 2008 – was not available to see in most American cities until 2009)
Incredibly haunting and troubling film impeccably directed by Steve McQueen. This slow-moving meditation on martyrdom is not easy viewing. It’s one of the most brutal movies I’ve ever seen and if you’re familiar with my viewing habits you know that I don’t make that claim lightly. But among all the filth and human suffering depicted in the film there are also some truly beautiful and transcendent moments that make Hunger not only one of the best movies I saw in 2009, but also one of the most important and memorable films that I’ve seen in the last 10 years.
Diane Kruger & Michael Fassbender in Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino; 2009)
Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino; 2009)
I’m probably one of the few people in the world who thinks Quentin Tarantino is becoming a better filmmaker as he gets older. His affection for old and often obscure films seems to be morphing into something more than just mere homage lately and I like the direction he’s taken in the last few years. He just needs to learn how to trust his audience more and I personally wish he’d hire a composer to score his films. I think Tarantino will probably make his most interesting work when he’s 60 or even 70 years old. Inglourious Basterds is without a doubt Tarantino’s best looking film and I appreciate the way he writes his female characters. I was also impressed with the performances he got out of his actors, in particular Diane Kruger, Christoph Waltz, Mélanie Laurent and my favorite basterd, Michael Fassbender.
Isaach De Bankolé in The Limits of Control (Jim Jarmusch; 2009)
The Limits of Control (Jim Jarmusch; 2009)
Along with Antichrist, The Limits of Control is easily one of the most critically maligned and misunderstood films of 2009. At least Lars von Trier has a lot of loud and smart defenders but it’s not easy to find thoughtful critics who are willing to go to bat for Jim Jarmusch over this film and that’s a pity. If there’s another working American director who is less appreciated and more misunderstood in his own country I can’t think of them at the moment. This brilliantly deconstructed political thriller is a feast for the senses. You’d have to be deaf, dumb and blind not to appreciate the pure beauty of the film, which was photographed by Christopher Doyle. Jarmusch uses his wit and incredibly dry sense of humor to pay homage to classic existential crime films such as Point Blank (John Boorman; 1967) and Le Samouraï (Jean-Pierre Melville; 1967) but if you don’t appreciate those movies you probably won’t be able to appreciate The Limits of Control, which I happen to think is Jarmusch’s best work since Dead Man.
Sam Rockwell in Moon (Duncan Jones; 2009)
Moon (Duncan Jones; 2009)
This impressive debut from Duncan “Zowie Bowie” Jones borrows a bit too much from every science fiction film made before it (2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, Silent Running, etc.) but it kept my interest thanks to Sam Rockwell’s impressive star performance and Clint Mansell’s wonderful score. I’m really looking forward to seeing what Duncan Jones does next.
Michael Stuhlbarg in A Serious Man (Ethan & Joel Coen; 2009)
A Serious Man (Ethan & Joel Coen; 2009)
The Coen brother’s strike gold again with this funny and thoughtful look at man’s never-ending quest for answers to unanswerable questions. It’s also the best Woody Allen film I’ve seen in 20 years even though Woody Allen had nothing to do with it.
The cast of Thirst (Park Chan-Wook; 2009)
Thirst (Park Chan-Wook; 2009)
This uneven vampire film has gotten mixed reviews but I personally thought the good outweighed the bad. The story involves a priest (Kang-ho Song) who accidentally gets turned into a vampire while taking part in a medical experiment. The first half of Thirst is flawless and contains some truly memorable moments and breathtaking cinematography. Unfortunately the story suffers when the focus of the film changes. I wish the director had explored the religious implications and spiritual aspects of the priest’s personal plight more but the film’s creative ending almost makes up for the film’s flaws.
There are still a bunch of films on my “must see” list that I wasn’t able to watch before compiling my list including 35 Shots of Rum (Claire Denis; 2008), An Education (Lone Scherfig; 2009), Air Doll (Hirokazu Koreeda; 2009), Chloe (Atom Egoyan; 2009), Love Exposure (Shion Sono; 2008), A Single Man (Tom Ford; 2009), The Young Victoria (Jean-Marc Vallée; 2009) and The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke; 2009. There’s a high probability that one or more of these movies might have made it onto my list if I had the opportunity to see them.