Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Top Ten List That Time Forgot: Chris Bellamy's 2009 Retrospective

I know, I know – we’re already 25 percent of the way into 2010! What the fuck, Bellamy? Well, unlike my esteemed colleague Mr. Mathews, who rushed right into naming his top films of the year in late February, I naturally felt that all these films needed to breathe a bit, needed to be absorbed into history, before I jotted them down on a list. Surely you must believe this had nothing whatsoever to do with procrastination or forgetfulness. Of course not! And so without further ado, the definitive, time-tested best films of 2009 (and hey, at least Jeremy got the top movie right):

1. You, the Living (Du Levande)
Directed by Roy Andersson

Allow me, if you will, to have my Geoffrey Gilmore moment. Picture me up on a stage, spotlight shining in my eyes, as I flex my masturbatory jowls. To begin: Once in a great while, something magical happens; a filmmaker comes along who ... well, who makes a film like “You, the Living.” A movie like this forces us to scoff at all those times, at one film festival or another, that we heard the typical bombast about someone’s “unique artistic voice.” In Andersson’s case, such a quality is self-evident. This, his second masterpiece of the decade following “Songs from the Second Floor,” explores the hilarity of grief and despair and the beauty of impending doom in a breathtaking style all his own. In its surreal, absurdist way, it somehow – amazingly, really – cuts to the anxieties of the human race. Fearful, desperate, self-absorbed, ruthless, fatalistic but, yes, even hopeful – and nothing if not profoundly human. In Andersson’s tragicomic vision of humanity, life can be the funniest thing you ever saw or the saddest thing you ever heard, even at the same time.

2. Inglourious Basterds
Directed by Quentin Tarantino

When Quentin Tarantino takes on World War II, he re-writes the rules for how to do a World War II movie. And when Quentin Tarantino re-writes the rules for World War II movies, that just might mean he re-writes World War II as a whole. Which is exactly what he did with “Inglourious Basterds,” an exhilarating genre cocktail about a charmingly sadistic S.S. sleuth, a band of gleefully unapologetic Nazi hunters, a German war hero, a vengeful Jewish gal and the grandest, most explosive movie premiere of all-time. It is virtuoso filmmaking at its funniest, ballsiest, most suspenseful and most playful. The man is a savant, and “Basterds” features some of the best filmmaking of his – or anyone’s – career. (And a landmark performance by Christoph Waltz doesn’t hurt, either.)

3. A Serious Man
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

If Kafka wrote the Book of Job, it might resemble something like “A Serious Man,” the Coen Brothers’ absurdist, allegorical masterpiece about one decent man trying to make sense of a world that has seemingly forsaken him. Imbued with the Coens’ pitch-perfect style and trademark wit, this is one of the finest films they’ve ever made – which is saying something. Do actions have consequences, as Larry (Michael Stuhlbarg) insists? Or, for that matter, inaction? Like Josef K., Larry – a collegiate physics professor – has seemingly done nothing, but everything seems to be going wrong for him, and neither family, clergy nor the passively sinister “serious man” Sy Abelman (“Let’s have a good talk”) can make sense of it. Then again, maybe the answer has been staring Larry right in the face all along: the uncertainty principle, proving that we can never really know what’s going on. Accept the mystery.

4. Fantastic Mr. Fox

Directed by Wes Anderson

When a idiosyncratic, intensely personal film-geek darling like Wes Anderson suddenly decides to take the plunge into animation – old-fashioned stop motion, no less – and adapt a children’s book, we certainly stand up and take notice. But that doesn’t mean we expect a film quite as charming and perfect as “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” which oddly enough may be his best work yet. Then again, his films have always had a storybook quality, so maybe it makes perfect sense after all. Anchored by a gorgeous and distinctive visual style (including the finest production design of 2009), the film makes a clever hybrid of heist movie, domestic comedy and Western, and Anderson ‘s palette doesn’t waste a single frame. The cinematic vocabulary he displays here (and challenges himself with) is eye-popping. Oh, and the film is funny as hell, too. I didn’t stop smiling for a second.

5. The White Ribbon
Directed by Michael Haneke

Speaking of challenging expectations, Michael Haneke does just that with “The White Ribbon,” which (like his masterpiece “Cache”) confronts, questions and subverts his audience’s assumptions about a series of strange happenings in a pre-World War I German village - a series of happenings that may not be as clear-cut as we’re inclined to think. The graceful strokes with which Haneke builds his almost unbearably suspenseful tale make the film at once subtle and confrontational. The film is a penetrating allegory of the way societies behave; the way societies are built. With it, Haneke proves that no one can deconstruct the way movies function quite the same way he can.

6. Lorna’s Silence

Directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

Simply put, the Dardenne Brothers aren’t interested in the same characters we see in other movies, and good for them. Their films are richer for it. Their characters typically exist on the fringes, in the background of where we at the movies are usually looking. They’re usually navigating an impossible moral or ethical crisis that may or may not have a solution, or a right answer. Such is the case with the title character in “Lorna’s Silence,” a fascinating portrait of a young woman trying to gain Belgian citizenship, but getting herself into a situation far more emotionally complicated than she could have expected. What is so beautiful about this and other Dardenne protagonists is that they constantly surprise us with their behavior, their emotions, their reactions; they constantly surprise themselves, and, we might assume, might even surprise the Dardennes, too.

7. Up
Directed by Pete Docter

All you need to know about the level of filmmaking that exists at Pixar is in a three-minute montage early in their latest classic, “Up.” In fact, all you need to know about a lot of things is captured in there. Tracking the entire arc of one couple’s lifetime together, it is a magnificently dense, poetic piece of filmmaking in and of itself. (During this sequence, the film geek in us can't help but be reminded of the visual language of great silent cinema and the style of Woody Allen.) If the entire rest of the movie had stunk, “Up” still would have been worth seeing just for those three minutes. Thankfully, the rest of the movie doesn’t stink – in fact, it’s tremendous fun, both a great adventure story and a great screwball-ish buddy comedy.

8. Goodbye Solo

Directed by Ramin Bahrani

A sublime portrait about two men at very different stages in life. There’s Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane, in the year’s best lead performance), the optimist who sees the very best of what life can be, the very best of what is possible in America. And then there’s William, who’s in a much darker place. While we never discover exactly why, what he’s seen out of life has taken him toward a very different path and a very different conclusion about the world. The uneasy relationship that forms in an otherwise innocuous cab ride is a rather brilliant balancing act, as writer-director Ramin Bahrani refuses to cheat; both characters are so true to their nature that the scenes between them – becoming closer in one scene, more distant in the next – have a certain quality that is almost heartbreaking in its honesty. And as if the rest of the film weren’t great enough already, the final sequence puts a stunning cap on it.

9. Where the Wild Things Are
Directed by Spike Jonze

Whaddya know? Of the ten best films of the year, two were based on children’s books and adapted by prominent indie directors. Go figure. See? “Children’s” movies don’t have to be dumbed-down after all! Spike Jonze certainly proves that with “Where the Wild Things Are,” one of the most honest films about childhood I’ve ever seen – primarily because it understands the complexity and inexplicability of childhood experience and refuses to simplify it to placate a certain audience. Instead, it expresses those complexities with a beautiful interpretation of a story most of us are so familiar with – not only from the book we read as kids, but from all the times when we were kids that we acted out and wanted to get away, even if we didn’t necessarily know why. There are a number of incredible sequences in “Where the Wild Things Are,” but my two favorite ones seem to encapsulate the film best – first, when Max tells a sad, piercing story about vampires to his mother (only mildly conscious of its subtext) while she secretly types it up for safekeeping; and a scene near the end, when Max leaves the island and shares a distant look with Carol (James Gandolfini) that says what words can’t. Now that’s a fucking kids’ movie.

10. The Brothers Bloom
Directed by Rian Johnson

The movie that I grew more and more love and admiration for the more I thought about it was Rian Johnson’s “The Brothers Bloom.” As much as I liked it when I first saw it, I had some issues. By the time I saw it again, those issues not only seemed less important, but in some cases all but disappeared. Johnson is one of the most exciting young filmmakers to come along in some time – mainly because what he does is actual fucking filmmaking. Here, he gets the absolute most detail and mileage out of every scene. Whether it’s the deliciously self-conscious introduction of Robbie Coltrane’s character, or Rachel Weisz’ wry explanation of how not to get conned (with the masterful depiction of a clever card trick), or a simple shot of a despondent Adrien Brody, rest assured Johnson will enliven it with humor, charm, beauty and anything and everything else that smacks of pure cinema.


- “Sugar,” Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s wonderful and surprising portrait of a Dominican minor leaguer
- “35 Shots of Rum,” Claire Denis’ startlingly intimate character study, one of those films that makes you feel like you’re in the midst of family
- “In the Loop,” Armando Ianucci’s hysterically profane and biting satirical comedy about the bureaucracy and politics of politics
- “The Informant!,” Steven Soderbergh’s corporate spy comedy-cum-disturbing character study, bolstered by Matt Damon's brilliant performance
- “The Headless Woman,” Lucrecia Martel’s haunting, oblique story of a woman stuck in a surreal, post-accident blur, featuring the best pre-credit sequence of the year
- “Police, Adjective,” Corneliu Porumboiu’s dryly absurdist take on life’s grey areas, and the black-and-white thinking inflicted upon them
- “The Hurt Locker,” Kathryn Bigelow’s stunningly visceral depiction of bomb defusers in Iraq
- “Hunger,” Steve McQueen’s (not that one!) fascinatingly multi-faceted film centering on famed Irish hunger striker Bobby Sands
- “Sita Sings the Blues,” Nina Paley’s impressive animated feature about an old folk tale and the differing ways we interpret stories and history
- “The Class,” Laurent Cantet’s verite-style drama about classroom politics in inner-city Paris
- “Moon,” Duncan Jones’ striking and ambitious sci-fi drama, featuring a fantastic Sam Rockwell in a devastating portrait of a man who comes face to face with his own irrelevance
- “An Education,” Lone Scherfig’s loving and complex story of a teenage girl (Carey Mulligan in an Oscar-worthy performance) learning the hard way
- “Star Trek,” J.J. Abrams’ reboot that – well, let’s skip with the formal pleasantries, shall we? – just flat out kicks ass
- “Summer Hours,” Olivier Assayas’ poetic study of childhood memories and family legacies
- “Bright Star,” Jane Campion’s return to form, the beautifully depicted coming-of-age of Fanny Brawne and her relationship with John Keats
- “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” David Yates’ delicate balancing act between the comedy of teenage emotion and the spectre of impending doom

ALSO WORTH CHECKING OUT: “Il divo,” “Tyson,” “Thirst,” “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,” “Still Walking,” “District 9,” “Knowing,” “Mary and Max,” “Brüno,” “A Perfect Getaway,” “The Hangover,” “Funny People,” “Adventureland,” “Drag Me to Hell,” “Just Another Love Story,” “Crazy Heart,” “Up in the Air,” “Black Dynamite,” “Anvil! The Story of Anvil,” “Capitalism: A Love Story,” “Food, Inc.,” “Che,” “Revanche,” “Tulpan,” “Sin Nombre,” “Coraline,” “Gomorrah,” “Ponyo,” “Broken Embraces,” “Me and Orson Welles,” “Humpday,” “State of Play,” “Whatever Works,” “Brief Interviews With Hideous Men” and 50 percent of “Away We Go.”


1. The Twilight Saga: New Moon (Chris Weitz)
2. Nine (Rob Marshall)
3. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (Michael Bay)
4. Year One (Harold Ramis)
5. Death in Love (Boaz Yakin)
6. Angels & Demons (Ron Howard)
7. The Informers (Gregor Jordan)
8. The Merry Gentleman (Michael Keaton)
9. Tetro (Francis Ford Coppola)
10. Surrogates (Jonathan Mostow)

HONORABLE MENTION: The OTHER 50 percent of “Away We Go.”

DISQUALIFIED: The dozen or so blatantly terrible horror movies (mostly remakes) that all blended together in my memory. Fuck you, Rob Zombie.


- Two movies that dressed up like a “Taxi Driver” pastiche but didn’t have the fucking balls to follow through: “Observe and Report” and “Big Fan”

- Penis of the Year: Ken Jeong in “The Hangover” (Sorry, Dr. Manhattan)

- Clitoris of the Year: Charlotte Gainsbourg in “Antichrist”

- The biggest collection of gaping plot holes and flaws, within a single movie, in the history of gaping plot holes: “Terminator Salvation”

- The most insufferably whiny main character ever written by a once-prominent filmmaker: Vincent Gallo in “Tetro”

- The David Mamet on Steroids Award: Peter Capaldi as Malcolm Tucker in “In the Loop”

And finally...


Lead Actor

1. Souleymane Sy Savane, “Goodbye Solo”
2. Matt Damon, “The Informant!”
3. Algenis Perez Soto, “Sugar”
4. Sam Rockwell, “Moon”
t5. Michael Stuhlbarg, “A Serious Man”
t5. Jeff Bridges, “Crazy Heart”

Lead Actress

1. Maya Rudolph, “Away We Go”
2. Arta Dobroshi, “Lorna’s Silence”
3. Carey Mulligan, “An Education”
4. Maria Onetto, “The Headless Woman”
5. Gabourey Sidibe, “Precious”

Supporting Actor

1. Christoph Waltz, “Inglourious Basterds”
2. Zach Galifianakis, “The Hangover”
3. Tom Waits, “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus”
4. Fred Melamed, “A Serious Man”
t5. Peter Capaldi and Tom Hollander, “In the Loop”
t5. Timothy Olyphant, “A Perfect Getaway”

Supporting Actress

1. Rachel Weisz, “The Brothers Bloom”
2. Melanie Laurent, “Inglourious Basterds”
3. Maggie Gyllenhaal, “Crazy Heart”
4. Ok-bin Kim, “Thirst”
5. Anna Kendrick, “Up in the Air”

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