20. Fighting- Dito Montiel’s sophomore film again feels like pages ripped from his own life. Starring Channing Tatum as a fighter who becomes involved with underground brawls per manager Terence Howard does several things very well: the relationship between him and beautiful Zulay Henao develops in gentle, sweet waves and the fight scenes (filmed in steady long takes) begin to mount with moral and psychological gravity. Director Montiel’s future is unlimited.
19. Jerichow- A German re-working of “The Postman Always Rings Twice”, Christian Petzold’s domestic noir rolls along with subtle nuance until the final 30 minutes when the consequences begin to elicit gasps. As the cuckold husband, Ali, Hilmi Solzer gives a tremendous performance as a shrewd businessman who slowly pieces together the strands of the affair between his wife and employee Tomas (Benno Furman). Petzold’s camera holds steady on the tension beneath the surface until it boils over into grand tragedy.
18. Somers Town- Shane Meadows second slice of autobiographical life (again starring young Thomas Turgoose) is a slight (72 minute) affair but hugely affecting. The relationship between Turgoose and the teenage Polish immigrant (Piotr Jagiello) he befriends is sketched out with humor and a fondness for that awkward age, especially when they begin flirting with a beautiful French girl (Ireneusz Czop). The final moments, when the film shifts from black and white to color home movie images of the three in Paris, reach a luminous expression of youth. Whether its real or imagined is beside the point.
17.Crazy Heart- A lot of talk will be about Jeff Bridges’ performance- which is terrific. But the real merit of Scott Cooper’s debut film is the way it tackles the subgenre of the weary, hard drinking country and western singer and makes it feel so vital. It’s the secondary performances from Maggie Gyllenhall and a wonderful Colin Farrell that gives “Crazy Heart” its depth.
16. House of the Devil- Ti West’s “House of the Devil” is a definite step up from his previous genre riffs, “The Roost” and “Triggerman”. Shrouded in a great 80’s funk (with the tone set immediately by the big yellow block credits and a Cars-like knock off tune), it tells the story of a broke college student (Jocelin Donahue) who takes on more than she can handle when she accepts a baby sitting gig at a cavernous house in the country. Populated with distinctive and eerie faces such as Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov as the house’s owners, the film builds slowly. The first 2/3 is all atmosphere, mood and formalism as West sets up the exploration of the house with carefully framed static shots and slow, portentous zooms. Then the last part accelerates into a frenetic, freaky ride with some terrific shock cuts. It’s ideas are a bit derivative, but “House of the Devil” remains a strong genre effort that deserves a large midnight audience.
15. Sugar- If Ron Shelton's "Bull Durham" is the comedic take on life in the minor leagues, then "Sugar" levels off and presents something a bit more realistic... where getting to "the show" is a daily grind that seems to crush the life out of every wannabe major leaguer. But in hindsight, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's intimate portrait of Sugar Santos (Algenis Perez Soto) and his search for a spot on a professional roster is less about baseball and certainly more about the compounding confusions that overwhelm a non-English speaking immigrant plopped down in the middle of America. And isn't that what the greatest sports movies do? Which is to say they present grand human emotions and self discovery against the ordinary facade of competitive sportsmanship.
14.Bright Star- Jane Campion’s film about the evolving relationship between young poet John Keats (Ben Whitslaw) and Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) is an especially taciturn effort, filled with compelling moments of shots through window panes and a gut-punch finale. I haven’t always been a fan of Campion’s cinema, but “Bright Star” is one of her best.
13. The Brothers Bloom- Rian Johnson’s candy colored heist film plays like a Mamet script on steroids. The ensemble cast (Adrien Brody, Rachel Weisz and Mark Ruffalo) are more than just ciphers for Johnson’s deadpan humor and electric visual style. They generate actual warmth and certain moments (such as a long tracking shot following Weisz and Brody as they walk behind a pillar and emerge holding hands) recall the whimsical joy of Jacques Demy or Francious Truffaut. Probably the most under appreciated film of the year.
12. In the Loop- Vulgar, loose and fast… Armando Iannucci’s political satire is probably the first comedy about the mind-numbing beaurucratic vagaries of the military-industrial complex. And did I mention it was funny? Blink and you’ll probably miss a one liner. And if I had a vote, Peter Capaldi would take home the Best Supporting Actor Oscar.
11. Sin Nombre- Cary Fukunaga’s Sundance break out is essentially a modern day retread of Gregory Nava’s early 80’s immigrant-transfer masterpiece “El Norte”, but this film’s stunning visual palette and sense of unrelenting violence is all 2009. Young actors Edgar Flores and Paulina Gaitan undercut their seemingly benign performances with rare glimpses of honesty and emotion. Of all the films on this list, director Fukunaga’s star is shining the brightest.
10. Sunshine Cleaning- Probably the biggest surprise of my movie-going year was Christine Jeffs' "Sunshine Cleaning". I expected very little from this small comedy-drama out of Sundance, yet it resonated strongly. Emily Blunt- beautiful beyond belief- really makes me love this film even more. As the younger, more complex and off beat sister to Amy Adams, the duo organizes a crime scene cleaning business. The film goes to some very unexpected places, and I doubt I'll see a better scene in any film this year than the moment when Blunt takes her new friend (Mary Lynn Rajskub) to the train tracks and releases some pent up sadness. A very under appreciated effort.
9. The Road- John Hillcoat has already carved a splendid little career out of visually devastated landscapes and roughneck emotions, and his faithful adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s apocalypse novel to end all apocalypse novels “The Road” excels in relentless grit and grime. As the father (Viggo Mortenson) and the boy (Kodi Smit McPhee) traverse the landscape, Hillcoat’s vision of snow covered wastelands lit only by far-away fires is compelling and realistic… and its certainly done the novel’s poetic descriptions justice. Every corner of this film is loaded with debris, broken trees and technological wreckage. The one real diversion from the novel- fleshing out the character of the mother played by Charlize Theron in flashback- feels like the right decision as it provides Mortenson and McPhee with purpose and heartbreak. And when the truly chilling moments arise, such as the emergence of a band of rovers from a dark tunnel or the grisly and disturbing discovery in a house cellar, “The Road” rattles around before your eyes like a one-of-a-kind horror film.
8. The Headless Woman- Lucretia Martel’s psychological puzzle of a film follows a middle aged woman (Maria Onetto) as she sleepwalks through the days of her life, wondering whether that bump in the road she ran over a few days back was a dog or a young child. Martel’s fractured visual style mimics that of her protagonists’ conflicted state and “The Headless Woman” is a film that demands repeat viewings, slowly revealing sounds and suggested body language that deepens the mystery and opens up new interpretations.
7. Two Lovers- Four for four. That’s the current track record for director James Gray. Sidestepping the ideas of his three previous films, which dealt with the complicated gestures of domestic harmony entrenched in criminal activity, “Two Lovers” carries just as much moral tension as Joaquin Phoenix has to choose between two different women- the more traditional (and Jewish) or the blond party girl. Filmed with the same quiet patience that feels like an early 70’s Gordon Willis picture, Gray wallows in such genuine feelings and images that even a trifle event such as the choosing between two women becomes a choice that could move mountains.
6. An Education- Lone Scherfig's "An Education" takes a prominently well-spun idea and turns it into something aching and real. The May-December romance (this time with a 16 year old schoolgirl and a suave older man) plays out with sincerity, mostly due to the very strong acting by newcomer Carey Mulligan. In just a few lines of dialogue, "An Education" sharply brings into focus the canyon of differences in lifestyles, world views and knowledge between the wide-eyed youngster and her well versed suitor. "An Education" positions itself as a character study of the highest order. This is precisely the intimately made little film that keeps me going to the movie theater in search for something redeeming.
5. Up In the Air- Razor sharp in its emotions and with nary a spare word of dialogue, the film unfurls with utter truth and honesty. As the traveling warrior whose job it is to fire people, Clooney again takes a simple role and embellishes it with gentle grace. There are life changes, and some big speeches, and some very tender moments with a similar soul (the always game and beautiful Vera Farmiga), and “Up In the Air” nails each and every moment. Much has been made of the film’s prescient tone about our nation’s current economy, and it’s the mixture of comedy and improvised drama (from mostly people who have actually lost their job) that creates the aura of a film with real purpose and vitality without flaunting its ‘nowness’.
4. The Cove- Louie Psihoyos' documentary is certainly bleeding heart agitprop... but it works and works magnificently. Expounding on the long-standing practice of Japanese dolphin slaughter on a little island known as Taijie, it often takes alot to move me and "The Cove" does it several times. Like a precise thriller or slow-screw-turning horror movie, Psihoyos and his team of animal activists give us tidbits of information- first charming nuggets about the level of intelligence within dolphins and the resurgence of the mammals' popularity after "Flipper" debuted in the 1960's- and then peels back the curtain to reveal a gripping espionage tale as the group attempts to document and record what is really happening in a two acre body of water just out of sight off the island. And when the images do come (something the film builds towards with thunderous propensity), it's a completely unnerving experience that I wasn't prepared for. And while those images and sounds will stay with you for days, the real heart breaker of the story lies in the main examination of Rick O'Barry- the perfect hero if there ever was one. As the dolphin trainer and head "capturer" of the dolphins for the Flipper show, he now dedicates his life to freeing the mammals around the world. The guilt of seeing his dolphins die in captivity strain his face and resonate in his voice. If nothing else, "The Cove" is a tremendous and moving confessional.
3. Adventureland- It would seem almost too easy for a film like "Adventureland" not to fail. Add catchy 80's pop tunes by the likes of INXS, The Cure, Husker Du, toss in the improvisational comedy of Bill Hader and Kristin Wiig, star two energetic and likable young stars (Eisenberg and Stewart) and milk off the success of indie-rock tales such as last year's "Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist" while treading closely to the Apatow brand. What director Greg Mottola captures is something altogether special- the way he films the hands of Stewart and Eisenberg touching as they kiss..... the little lean-in he does underneath a sky of fireworks...."Adventureland" is the type of film that makes one reminisce about their own awkward staggering through young love, and for me it even brought back a rush of sounds and feelings. And, the final scene stands as one of the most uplifting and breathless endings in quite a while.
2. Summer Hours- Olivier Assayas’ family chamber drama breathes with naturalism. Spanning the lives of one French family before and after the death of their matriarch, “Summer Hours” feels like Assayas’ paean to the tender movies of the late Eric Rohmer or Renoir.
1. Public Enemies- Michael Mann’s invigorating, hi-def exploration of 30’s era John Dillinger combines the best of his recurring themes into a propulsive crime film that succeeds on every level. The shoot-out at Little Bohemia rivals that of the downtown Los Angeles carnality in “Heat”, but it’s the smaller moments that register-the relationship between Depp and Cotillard and the dysfunctional art of honor and civility between crooks and criminals, especially in the performance of Stephen Lang. This is the film that energized and startled me the most in 2009.
Honorable mentions: Lion's Den (Pablo Trapero), Red Cliff (John Woo), The Girlfriend Experience, Thirst (Chan Wook), The Box, Drag Me To Hell, Flame and Citron