I honestly think I’ve seen more films this year than I have in a long long time, mostly due to me getting a membership at the Arts Picturehouse. So, in the spirit of the huge amounts of list-making going on, I’m putting up my favourite films of this year.
Before we start, a few things: some of these aren’t quite 2009 films. But Synecdoche, New York was released in the UK this year, and that’s the standard I’m going by. This isn’t a Top 10 – the list is in no particular order except in the rough order that I saw them. I’m not listing stuff I didn’t get to see – so the list may see some additions as more stuff comes out on DVD. And films like Moon and Public Enemies, which I enjoyed but wasn’t really moved to write about, are here in spirit.
Feel free to disagree, argue, or put forward your own favourites in the comments below.
Synecdoche, New York
Dir. Charlie Kaufman (USA, 2008)
My favourite film of this year, and one of the best of the decade, Synecdoche, New York is the apotheosis of Charlie Kaufman’s quixotic, occasionally annoying but always interesting work on memory, identity, loss and the creative impulse. It’s a horror film about that most universal of horrors – aging, death, losing everything we have – and about the defences people build against it.
Philip Seymour Hoffman’s hypochondriac theatre director is a man fundamentally afraid of life. Given the opportunity through a wildly generous “genius grant” he creates a life-size replica of his world and withdraws into it, directing actors to play himself and the people in his life. As years pass, all the characters and “characters” within the play age almost imperceptibly. Hoffman in particular is masterful at this, growing ever more bowed and shuffling as the weight of time and his artistic endeavour presses down on him.
Synecdoche can be unbearably – at times almost comically – tragic. But at its core there’s a small seed of hope, of the connections we can forge with people and how previous those links are. Hoffman’s epic play is brought to life with a brilliant visual sensibility, but ultimately it’s shown to be a hollow thing. And the final curtain call comes for him, as it will come for us all.
In The Loop
Dir. Armando Iannucci (UK, 2009)
The team behind peerless political sitcom The Thick Of It transfer to the big screen for a scabrous satire with more wit and outrage than the last fifty super-earnest political documentaries combined. Peter Capaldi’s foul-mouthed spin doctor Malcom Tucker, a character for the ages, is here set loose across London and Washington after a junior minister’s comments threaten to derail the build-up to a planned Anglo-American war. Loop has the furious pace of an action flick, unbearably cringeworthy moments, and lines like “‘Climb the mountain of conflict?’ You sound like some Nazi Julie Andrews!”
It would be easy for the creators to succumb to “Jack Donaghy syndrome” (which, to a certain extent, they did in the most recent series of Thick) and turn Malcolm into a lovable anti-hero. But to their credit, they never do. Malcolm is a shit, he disseminates lies and destroys people for political gain. But all the same, you thrill to his baroque explosions of profanity, and feel for him as he discovers his clout doesn’t extend across the Atlantic. Tucker may give his political masters what they want, but the film ends with a genuine sense of outrage; in a familiar-sounding situation, victory may have been declared, but no one has won.
Dir. Neill Blomkamp (US/New Zealand, 2009)
Bringing a bit of old-school subversion back to science fiction cinema, Neill Blomkamp’s scrappy actioner melds real-world satire with fantastical concepts in a way that recalls John Carpenter or Paul Verhoeven. The film’s initial pseudo-documentary style raises the stakes on the situation of mistreated aliens living in a refugee camp in Johannesburg. We follow one lackey for the standard evil corporation as he attempts to forcibly relocate the “prawns”. Sharlto Copley’s unsympathetic protagonist starts out as an illustration of the evil of banality, but after undergoing a bizarre transformation, we see him regain his humanity even as he becomes less and less human. As he bonds with the aliens (the ugly, insect-like creatures have some genuinely heartwarming scenes), they turn the tables on the human oppressors, delivering some excellently splattery violence and culminating in a sequence that rivals Children of Men for sheer tenseness. District 9 is a wickedly entertaining genre piece that doesn’t sacrifice genre fiction’s potential for wit or intelligence to provide thrills, but instead offers up both in spades.
Mesrine: Killer Instinct and Mesrine: Public Enemy Number One
Dir. Jean-François Richet (France/Canada/Italy, 2008)
113 minutes/133 minutes
Having been let down slightly by Public Enemies, this French true-crime double bill gave me all the brutality and law-breaking I could wish for. Based on the life of infamous bank robber Jacques Mesrine, the films are pretty much owned by Vincent Cassel, who gives a storming performance as the often-charming, mostly-psychotic crook, who we first see committing dirty deeds during the French war in Algeria during the 1950s. From there, it’s an easy step to a life of crime, working for Gerard Depardieu’s sleazy OAS man (a working knowledge of French post-war history isn’t essential, but it does add a lot of depth to these early scenes). We see Mesrine’s imprisonment in Montreal, subsequent prison break and life on the run, as his trigger-happy tactics turn him into a contemporary of 1970s left-wing terrorists. Both films are staged and directed with a gritty ’70 crime flick feel, shining a light on the darker corners of postwar Europe while staging a succession of shootouts and chases that feel genuinely terrifying. And as I’ve said before, Cassel is mesmerising.
Dir. Quentin Tarantino (US, 2009)
Out of all the films on this list, I had the most pre-viewing reservations about Quentin Tarantino’s long-awaited Second World War epic. The fitfully entertaining but mostly self-indulgent Kill Bill and Death Proof had convinced me that where Tarantino had once repositioned pop-culture detritus in thrilling new ways, he was now content to strew it around lazily in lieu of actual ideas. And the trailers for Basterds made it look like a farrago of misjudged “comedy” setpieces and terrible accents. A lesson I should have learned long ago: trailers lie.
The real Basterds, impossible to condense into a choppily-edited two minutes, consists of eleven or so very long scenes, almost short films in themselves, that are masterpieces in dialogue, gamesmanship between characters, and building tension to almost unbearable levels. The Basterds themselves feature more as supporting cast than titular characters. Instead, the film concerns itself mostly with Shoshana Dreyfus, lone survivor of the slaughter of her family in the film’s first scene, and SS Colonel Hans Landa, the “Jew Hunter”, who led the massacre.
Christoph Waltz and Melanie Laurent are undoubtedly the stars of the film, giving two of the strongest screen performances this year. Waltz is excellently scary as the suave Nazi who expertly toys with people throughout the film, from the innocent French farmer in the tension-filled opening sequence to Shoshana herself in an exquisitely nasty cat-and-mouse game played over pastries. Switching languages without blinking an eye, he’s the perfect character for a film where language, interpretation and differing readings become battlegrounds as important as the war itself. And Laurent’s performance as the steely Shoshana instantly establishes her as an iconic character, and one of the strongest onscreen women in recent years.
Make no mistake, this is Tarantino Getting Serious – but in about as unpretentious a way as you can imagine. Despite the Second World War background, the film still features Tarantino’s trademark queasy-comic violence and shaggy-dog plotting. But behind this, the bloody business of revenge is given a serious consideration, as the multinational cast converge on a Paris cinema for the climactic sequence.
Without giving too much away, the whole extraordinary ending, from the “armouring-up” scene set to David Bowie’s “Cat People” to the film’s final line, made me laugh, gasp and work my brain into overdrive to grasp all the different levels. It’s a delirious fantasy that makes you cheer for revenge even as you question it, where the logic and language of film extends into “the real world” and history is rewritten in a way that’s simultaneously tasteless, inspiring, and affecting. It’s Tarantino’s best film in years.
Dir. Park Chan-Wook (South Korea, 2009)
Park Chan-Wook is one of the directors on my to-watch-anything-they-do list. Despite the current overexposure of vampires in pop culture, Thirst is a very worthy spin on the genre. The blood-soaked, guilt-ridden atmosphere of Park’s “Vengeance Trilogy” has a very Catholic sensibility to it, so I was interested to see him explicitly tackle the Church in one of his films. Thirst begins with a priest volunteering as a human guinea pig in efforts to cure some horrible blood-borne disease. He makes a miraculous recovery from near-death after receiving a blood transfusion, but discovers that the blood has given him some unwelcome new abilities.
Thirst makes an incredible amount of whiplash-inducing shifts in tone throughout its length. From an elliptical meditation on sin and death, to bizarre comedy of manners, to low-key horror film, to doomed romance, we are taken through one man’s journey into a moral void. In a way, this is a distilled version of Park’s vengeance trilogy work, where he takes an ordinary person and twists their moral compass until they are driven to committing terrible acts. In this film, the priest sees himself as a monster, but is still driven to justify his actions, until he realises there is no way out. The astounding final scene ranks as one of the most straight-up cinematic moments of this year, utilising Park’s gift for visual invention in the service of a devastating emotional gut-punch.
Le Donk and Scor-Zay-Zee
Dir. Shane Meadows (UK, 2009)
Coming off the success of This Is England, Shane Meadows’ follow-up may seem deliberately slight. The fact is, this low-budget mockumentary about a roadie (Paddy Considine) with big dreams for his Nottingham rapper protégé is the best comedy of the year. Reaching almost Spinal Tap heights of hilarity, it still has some touching moments and a nice message about creative ambition. For anyone who’s only seen Considine in scarily intense roles such as Dead Man’s Shoes, it’ll be surprising to see him give such a relaxed comic performance. The whole film has a loose, semi-improvised feel, taking in the low-rent triumphs and disasters of taking a show on the road.
Despite his ramshackle charm, Considine terribly towards rapper Scor-Zay-Zee (Dean Palinczuk), pushing him to the side to gain attention from documentary-maker “Shane Meadows” (plays by the real-life Meadows) in scenes that skirt Alan Partridge/The Office levels of awkwardness. Nevertheless, all comes good in the end, and Meadows’ soft spot for the outside allows a feel-good finish. (And a credits sequence where Considine tells the Arctic Monkeys a yarn about having sex with a transvestite.)
The Hurt Locker
Dir. Kathryn Bigelow (US, 2009)
Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker is a thrillingly intense, nightmarish exploration of the insanity of combat and the damage done to occupants of a war zone. While carrying little in the way of an obvious “message” – most of the film is a disconnected montage of scenes showing a bomb disposal unit going about their day-to-day business – The Hurt Locker has more to say on the business of war and its effects than the pious, self-important films that have tried to deal with Iraq over the last few years.
After a brutal opening sequence showing the consequences of failure for bomb technicians, we are introduced to gung-ho Sergeant Jeremy Renner, who tries the patience of his fellow soldiers as he gets them into ever more dangerous situations. As Renner ambles towards another device clad in his heavy bomb disposal suit, tension is pushed to the breaking point by slowing down the action; while the characters are trapped in life-or-death situations, we have room to feel every moment of them. A slow-motion duel between snipers . As they encounter bombs placed in a variety of locations, from a busy intersection to a car boot to a bloodied corpse, the damage done to Iraq by jihadists and occupying troops is rendered in starkly literal terms.
The Hurt Locker is not a perfect film – Renner’s behaviour strains plausibility, and a muddled attempt at a subplot doesn’t add anything in particular. But the most jarring shift of all comes in the film’s final minutes, with a return to civilian life. And it’s here that the film’s most devastating point is made. The final shot – and the final subtitle – is a killer.
A Serious Man
Dir. Joel and Ethan Coen (US, 2009)
The Coen brothers’ latest is one of their more obviously philosophical outings, and their most obviously Jewish film to date. Beginning with a dramatisation of a bizarre folk tale from the old country, A Serious Man drops us into the life of academic Michael Stuhlbarg, who tries to do right by his profession, family and religion in 1960s Middle America, despite the myriad obstacles in his way.
Typically for the Coens, it’s a very handsome-looking film, with the mid-60s interiors designed to perfection, and Roger Deakins doing typically majestic work with very down-to-earth settings. Performances are uniformly great, although Stuhlbarg anchors the film as the put-upon nice guy of Hollywood cliché filtered through the Coens’ dark imaginations.
While I loved the offbeat experience of the film, others may dislike its unwillingness to give up a clear-cut message. Despite the foregrounding of different methods of inquiry into the world, the film works against any definitive answer. The convoluted equations that Stuhlbarg’s physics professor scrawls on the blackboard are as opaque as the rambling anecdotes told by the various rabbis he asks for advice, or his deadbeat brother’s strange attempts at numerology. In the end, all we can do is “embrace the mystery”.