Ten best, five worst, part III

It just occurred to me that we are almost a full week into the new year and I haven't yet listed my five worst of 2009. My guiding principle, as usual, is not to go after the easy targets, like "Did You Hear About the Morgans?" or "Planet 51,"  "Old Dogs" or even "Land of the Lost." Instead I've chosen films with artistic or commercial pretensions, whose critical and/or monetary success indicates a wrong direction that cinema has taken, leading inevitably to cultural and moral degeneration and the breakdown of civilization as we know it. So why no "Avatar?" Because I did enjoy it.

All right, I'll lighten up. Here's the list. In reverse order, but I pretty much hated them all equally.


5."The Burning Plain"

Everything you hated about "Babel" and every other "Crash"-afflicted multi-narrative skewed-chronology movie but couldn't quite put your finger on is illustrated with torturous clarity in Alejandro González Iñárritu's directorial debut.

4."Youth in Revolt"

Ditto the above, except with "Juno."


Ditto, except with Oscar bait faux musicals like "Chicago" and "Dream Girls."

2. "Mysteries of Pittsburg"

I don't know why I bother to include it since no one saw it. Maybe because I like the original book and its author Michael Chabon and this adaptation makes him seem as twee and affected as Chuck Pahlaniuk in "Choke."

1."Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen"

This is the end of civilization I was referring to above.

Next: Brett Michel waxes eloquent on the best and worst of the year.


With all the talk of 2009 having been a less-than memorable year at the movies, I say: phooey! Sure, the US studios haven't been producing many films of substance or artistic merit (save for Disney-Pixar, a wildly successful throwback to the studios and systems of old), but there's been some tremendous work being done, both independently and on an international level - if you were willing to look for it. Not the easiest task in our fair city, but venues like the Kendall Square Cinema, the Coolidge Corner Theater, the Somerville Theater, the Brattle Theater, the Museum of Fine Arts and, especially, the Harvard Film Archive are programming the very best that cinema has to offer. In fact, the latter institution was responsible for my most sublime film-going experience of the past year, bar none: a preview screening of Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang's masterpiece, "Face (Visage)," which has yet to find a US distributor. When it does, you can be sure it will "officially" appear on that year's 10 Best list. As for my 2009 list, I'd be remiss if I didn't acknowledge the following films (listed alphabetically), each of which deserved a spot in my formal Top 10:

 "Adventureland" (Greg Mottola, US), "Antichrist" (Lars von Trier, Denmark), "The Beaches of Agnes (Les plages d'Agnes)" (Agnes Varda, France), "Beeswax" (Andrew Bujalski, US), "Coraline" (Henry Selick, US), "The Cove" (Louie Psihoyos, US) "The Damned United" (Tom Hooper, UK), "La Danse: Le Ballet de l'Opera de Paris" (Frederick Wiseman, US) "An Education" (Lone Scherfig, UK), "The Girlfriend Experience" (Steven Soderbergh, US) "Goodbye Solo" (Ramin Bahrani, US), "The Headless Woman (La mujer sin cabeza)" (Lucrecia Martel, Argentina),"Inglourious Basterds" (Quentin Tarantino, US), "Katyn" (Andrzej Wajda, Poland) "The Limits of Control" (Jim Jarmusch, US), "Lorna's Silence (Le silence de Lorna)" (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Belgium), "Munyurangabo" (Lee Isaac Chung, US), "Observe and Report" (Jody Hill, US), "Paper Heart" (Nicholas Jasenovec, US), "Red Cliff, Parts I and II (Chi bi; Chi bi xia: Jue zhan tian xia)" (John Woo, China) "The Road" (John Hillcoat, US), "The Silence Before Bach (Die Stille vor Bach)" (Pere Portabella, Spain) "Star Trek" (J.J. Abrams, US), "Sugar" (Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, US) "Summer Hours (L'heure d'ete)" (Olivier Assayas, France) "Thirst (Bakjwi)" (Chan-wook Park, Korea), "Three Monkeys (Uc maymun)" (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey), "Treeless Mountain" (So Yong Kim, US) "Tulpan" (Sergei Dvortsevoy, Kazakhstan) and "World's Greatest Dad" (Bobcat Goldthwait, US)

But, as these lists (however arbitrary) demand order, I present you with my picks for the 10 BEST FILMS OF 2009, in descending order:


10. "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans" (Werner Herzog, US) I had long ago written off Nicolas Cage, the actor, but was elated to find that the performer of old still exists outside of his monumental money problems, and it makes a perfect kind of sense that it took Herzog to reawaken him. Despite being one of the worst projected films I sat through all year, it was just about the most fun I had in the theater. I pray these two work together again.

9. "24 City (Er shi si cheng ji)" (Jia Zhang-ke, China) Zhang-ke's "Still Life (Sanxia haoren)" appeared on my 2008 list, and this film is every bit its equal. A mix of documentary and fictional elements explores the effects on a community of factory workers as they are displaced to make way for the titular city. Poetic and heartbreaking.

8. "The White Ribbon  (Das weisse Band - Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte)" (Michael Haneke, Austria) Cinema's great provocateur brings us an utterly transfixing tale of a village of the damned, filmed gloriously in black-and-white. Set in a small German town in the days leading up to WWI, and narrated by the now-elderly former schoolteacher, Haneke uses the deceptively beautiful setting to explore the roots of a cancer that spread throughout a country in subsequent decades. Haunting.

7. "Fantastic Mr. Fox"  (Wes Anderson, US) Anderson finally made the film he's been building toward for his entire, young career. Everything that seemed overly precious in live action feels right at home in animated form, where his visual sensibilities found their perfect showcase in this adaptation of Roald Dahl's children's book. Of his three films this season, George Clooney gives his best performance here, as a corduroy-suit wearing woodland animal facing an existential crisis.

6. "O'Horten" (Bent Hamer, Norway) Hamer's deadpan charmer follows retiring train conductor Odd Horten (Bard Owe) into one absurdist situation after another, and yet not a moment feels contrived or out of place; not the retired diplomat who professes to be able to drive blind, nor the absolutely perfect musical score by John Erik Kaada.

5. "The Hurt Locker" (Kathryn Bigelow, US) The first great movie to deal with the war in Iraq is a portrait of a soldier (Jeremy Renner) leading a bomb disposal unit who's only able to fully live when he's closest to death. Bigelow's ex-husband James Cameron may be the self-anointed King of the World right now with the billion-dollar success of his derivative "Avatar," but Bigelow's taut direction might just earn her the title of Queen come Oscar time.

4. "A Serious Man" (Joel and Ethan Coen, US) One of the year's funniest films, the latest from the Coen Brothers mines memories from their youth while reworking the story of Job as one big, cosmic joke, from the first parable to the last. A few vocal critics have loudly (and continuously) voiced their displeasure with the Coens' supposedly hateful presentation of the Jews in the movie (it's worth noting that the Coens are Jewish themselves), but how does that explain the bribing and blackmailing Koreans or the gun-toting, xenophobic Christians? Accept the mystery.

3. "Still Walking  (Aruitemo aruitemo)" (Kore-eda Hirokazu, Japan) My love for the films of Ozu Yasujiro directly feeds into my appreciation of Kore-eda's delightful family drama, which evokes no less than the master's "Tokyo Story (Tokyo Monogatari)," while forging it's own path. While Ozu favored spare, haiku-like dialogue, Kore-eda's exchanges unfold with an everyday homeliness, subtly revealing seething resentments and regrets, while never losing sight of his characters' fallible humanity.

2. "35 Shots of Rum (35 rhums)" (Claire Denis, France) Kore-eda may be Japan's heir apparent to Ozu, but Denis paid direct homage to no less than perhaps the greatest of Ozu's masterpieces, "Late Spring (Banshun)," and in the process created another of her own. A father-daughter tale that exactingly taps into the depths of feeling of the earlier film, Denis adds a multicultural element that feels perfectly at home in modern-day, immigrant-heavy France. Alex Descas and Mati Diop quietly approach a tenderness rarely portrayed on screen, at least not since the pairings of Ryu Chishu and Hara Setsuko.

1. "Up" (Pete Docter and Bob Peterson, US) It takes a lot to make me cry in a movie theater, and even more to make me not feel angered and manipulated by it, but the digital conjurors at Pixar found a way to open my tear ducts not 10 minutes in to their latest, and I couldn't have been happier. The 4-minute-long wordless montage (accompanied by a magical bit of scoring by up-and-coming composer Michael Giacchino, who had a terrific year, between his work here and on the "Star Trek" reboot) that encompasses an entire lifetime of simple pleasures and great love, is one of the best things to be committed to film all decade, period. The rest of the film, with it's floating houses, talking dogs and giant, goony birds, is pretty damned great, too. Just don't let me down with "Toy Story 3" like you did with "Cars," okay guys?

Alas, with all that was good, there was plenty that wasn't, and I'm not talking about the year's biggest domestic moneymaker, "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen". Sure, Michael Bay's film was truly terrible (as was, apparently, Walt Becker's Robin Williams/John Travolta vehicle "Old Dogs," which went unseen by me), but did any thinking person expect otherwise? (Okay, even I wasn't expecting the racist Sambots.) No, I'll conclude my look back by singling out some of the other films that deserve derision. (Even though you're not on this list, I'm still looking at you, "Avatar".) I leave you with my 5 WORST FILMS OF 2009:


5. "The Stoning of Soraya M." (Cyrus Nowrasteh, US) A message movie that was clearly out of its filmmaker's hamfisted grasp, the film, which brutally details the death by stoning of an innocent woman, benefited from a release window coming on the heels of the election-fueled violence in Iran, prompting a flurry of blind hate mail for my review. Yes, Barney1252, I did see the same film you did. And you're right, "stoning sucks." But so does this movie.

4. "The Boondock Saints II: All Saint's Day" (Troy Duffy, US) After Duffy's decade-old original inexplicably became a hit on home video, he returned to demonstrate that he hasn't learned a single thing in the intervening years. Even fans of the original couldn't be bothered to write me hate mail for my review of this one.

3. "Nine" (Rob Marshall, US) Not just a musical for people who hate musicals (in other words, a Rob Marshall film), but also a remake of Federico Fellini's"8½," for people who hate Fellini. I hate this movie.

2. "The Lovely Bones" (Peter Jackson, US) Illustrating the worst instincts of both men, Oscar-winning director Jackson and Oscar-winning producer Steven Spielberg team up to discover the "in-between" place found between Alice Sebold's novel and a good screen adaptation. Just because you can use visual effects doesn't mean that you should, gentlemen.

1. "All About Steve" (Phil Traill, US) Sandra Bullock's had one hell of a comeback year, what with her turns in Anne Fletcher's "The Proposal" and John Lee Hancock's "The Blind Side". So has Bradley Cooper, who finally broke out with Todd Phillips's "The Hangover". That's why I'm here to remind you that they also starred in Traill's unwatchable (I see these so that you don't have to, kids) first feature. If Bullock's character were a man, you'd want her to be committed. But, this being a chick-flick, you're supposed to think she's cute. She's not. Avoid this on DVD; if you don't, Traill might be unleashed on us again, just like Duffy. The horror...the horror...

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