Thursday, December 31, 2009


Though this isn't, strictly speaking, a film-based site, I seem to spend as much time writing about them there movin' pictures as anything else, so I guess it must be time for a Best Of The Year list. Later, hopefully, there'll be a Best Of The Decade list, for those of you who subscribe to the notion that the decade began in 2000, and is thus winding down. (This is the kind of thing that could be debated for hours, and frankly, who has the time?)

Anyway--the list. It comes with a couple of caveats. For one thing, I haven't seen every movie released this year, whether due to laziness (I really mean to see Invictus) or simply because they never played in my area (Big Fan). I'm excluding any movie I didn't actually see in a theater, since watching at home is a whole different experience. Also, this list is maybe even more subjective than usual. I didn't go back and look at a list of all films released this year, and gauge my opinion of them, weighing their relative merits. It's just the ones I remember and like the best, in reverse order of preference.

10. Every Little Step.

Any documentary about the making of a Broadway show is probably going to tread somewhat familiar water, but directors Adam Del Deo and James D. Stern keep their examination of the casting process for the recent (and now long gone) revival of A Chorus Line remarkably clear-eyed, examining the process that turns creative enterprise into a kind of sausage factory, and the effects of that mentality on the poor performers who live and die on the whims of the producers.

9. Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince.

Believe you me, nobody could be more surprised than myself by how much I liked this. I hadn't even seen any previous entries in the Potter series until this year, when I caught up with them all on DVD. And conventional wisdom held: The first two entries, under the uninspired direction of Chris Columbus, were merely workmanlike, more frantic than entertaining, but the series took a noticeable upswing when Alfonso Cuaron was brought in to handle the third picture.

Still, I'd have to say David Yates is the director who really ramped up this franchise. Order Of The Phoenix and especially Half-Blood Prince mark the point where the series went from respectable adaptation of beloved books to something wholly organic. There's a sense of dread in every frame of this picture, and it is the rare blockbuster that lingers in the imagination long after it has ended.

8. In The Loop.

I was going to call Armando Iannucci's film the best comedy of the year, which it is, but although often bracingly funny, it is also a serious, even tragic study of how easily words can be misinterpreted, how minor functionaries are often allowed power they don't deserve, how easily we allow ourselves to be led astray. The peerless Peter Capaldi leads a flawless cast, tearing through one of the best scripts of recent years.

The only flaw that can be found is that Iannucci isn't really a filmmaker--he's a British TV vet, and this is definitely word- and performance-driven. Visually, it ain't much, but most of The Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields look like crap, and they're still some of the best comedies ever. And In The Loop belongs in their company.

7. The Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Wes Anderson's foray into the world of stop-motion animation resulted in what may be best described as his most Wes Andersony film: Suddenly his increasingly self-conscious use of framing, music, props and color find their perfect setting, and an ostensible children's film about a family of foxes becomes an emotionally rich study of a group of idealistic dreamers coming face-to face with the limits of their dreams.

6. Inglourious Basterds.

Quentin Tarantino's best film since Jackie Brown is a sprawling mess, but its a mess with a purpose and a surprising moral tone: Tarantino both indulges our bloodlust, and mocks us for it. And while that might seem simplistic coming from a lesser filmmaker, for Tarantino it almost seems like an act of self-criticism, an awareness that maybe he's been too glib for too long, that maybe even the provocations of a popular filmmaker can have real-world repercussions.

That he can do all that while demonstrating a casual mastery of nerve-wracking suspense and giving us the best World War II espionage movie since I don't know when...well, the guy's good.

5. Ponyo.

It's not just that Hayao Miyazaki prefers to work in the now-unfashionable mode of hand-drawn animation, it's that he uses his medium to demonstrate a similarly old-fashioned notion of modesty and restraint. Ponyo is the story of a goldfish who wills herself into a human child, and as bizarre as that sounds, Miyazaki never presents it as anything other than an ordinary occurrence. Magic can happen anytime and anywhere in his world, and is present in everything we do. What a wonderful worldview, and what a wonderful film.

4. The Informant!

Steven Soderbergh's latest is one of the strangest damned things to come along in quite some time: A muck-raking expose that constantly mocks its protagonist, a deadpan comedy with the coiled intensity of a thriller, a lark with a serious purpose, a star vehicle that disguises its star.

I laughed repeatedly during The Informant!--love that exclamation point!--but its story of a corporate whistleblower who tries to make the world over to match what he sees in his head turns sadder and sadder (and, conversely, funnier) as it goes along. Matt Damon, sporting a protruding gut and a goofy moustache, is absolute perfection in the title role, and Soderbergh's typically nutty notion of casting mostly comedians in the supporting roles plays off in aces. Who knew Alan Havey could act?

3/2. Coraline and Up.

Are you a cat person or a dog person? Your personality is likely to decide your preference for either of these extraordinary animated films. Sure, with Coraline stop-motion genius Henry Selick explores the emotional landscape of a girl on the cusp of adolescence who discovers a parallel universe which seems to eerily mirror who own twisted psyche, whereas Pete Docter's Up is about an embittered old man who rediscovers a reason to live through an extraordinary adventure and the tireless friendship of a young boy. Selick's emotionally distant effort showcased a garden of visual delights worthy of the great Michael Powell. Docter's gorgeously rendered CGI lanscapes hinted at the strong influence of John Ford. Coraline is intellect, Up is emotion.

But the personality of each movie is best summed up by their respective supporting animal players. Coraline features a cat (unnamed, because as he helpfully points out, cats don't need names) who is elegant, endlessly cool and even somewhat loving, but also contradictory, unknowable and frankly, kind of creepy. (Pretty much like my beloved Delmar!) Up brings us a talking Golden Retriever named Dug, who is the sweetest, most lovable critter seen on screen all year.

Me, I'm a cat person, but I slightly preferred Up. Maybe it's time to rethink my position.

1. A Serious Man.

When people want to knock the films of Joel and Ethan Coen, they accuse them of excessive cruelty towards their characters, of using their considerable filmmaking chops in service of smug condescension. And sometimes maybe that's true: There's no doubt that they're laughing at the rubes somewhat in, say, Fargo, at least at first. But they're not laughing as the film goes along, as the characters deepen, as violence erupts and pain results. Maybe they laugh the same way we all laugh when we first meet someone we don't know who is very different from us, when their quirks are unfamiliar, before we get to know them and realize how much we like them.

And so A Serious Man, which is set in a predominantly-Jewish suburb of Minneapolis in the late sixties, at first encourages us to laugh at the goofy clothes and hairstyles of the era, and to chuckle at our first sight of our protagonist, Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg, first among equals in a uniformly brilliant cast), as he scribbles earnestly on a chalkboard, hunched over, his rear end sticking out in a most unflattering way. And we continue to laugh as Larry comes home from work and finds his wife on the verge of leaving him, his children utterly indifferent and his brother...well, his brother has his own set of problems, which, in typical Coen fashion are initially presented comedically, but quickly deepen to utter despair.

But he's just another addition to the Job-like suffering of Larry, whose life becomes an endless series of miseries. As the Coens, in their God-like status as writers and directors, continue to heap pain on their hero, questions arise. Are the Coens making fun of Larry's suffering? Do they empathize with him? Should we laugh? Or cry? Is this a profound inquiry into the meaning of life? Or is it just a lark by two powerful filmmakers with the ability to make whatever pops into their head? Are they suggesting God is indifferent to the sufferings of man? Or that man is incapable of embracing the mysteries of life? Should we take any of this seriously? Is this movie as really as good as it seemed the first time I saw it? Or should I consider the misgivings I had with a second viewing? Or should I trust the fact that it has stayed with me, and I've come to believe it is one of the best films of the decade?

The answer to all these questions, of course, is Yes.