December 22, 2009

The best of 2009

1. Che – Part One: The Argentine and Part Two: Guerrilla (Steven Soderbergh)
The Hollywood biopic has become a set of tired conventions: the cautious adherence to the three-act structure and the story arc of promise, struggle and redemption, the oversized and sometimes too thoroughly researched impersonation in the lead (Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash, Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles, and so on and on), the psychoanalytic approach to character and behaviour, the insistence on helping us understand the great man or woman at the centre. If Gus Van Sant’s Milk was a disappointment for following all these conventions so closely, especially after four extraordinary experimental features from Van Sant that played games with mainstream cinema's received ideas about time, story and character, then Soderbergh’s Che Guevara diptych was something like the stringent, wilfully uncommercial antidote. Best seen as one four and a half hour movie with an intermission rather than a two-part miniseries, Che isn’t the most "entertaining" film on this list – it could even be the least – and it risks boredom by telling stories in two hours (the slow success of the military campaign during the Cuban Revolution; Guevara’s dismal failure to do a similar thing in Bolivia a decade later) that most biopics would chew through in 20 minutes. As Guevara, Benicio Del Toro (pictured) is working with mega-charisma but at a minimalist level – it doesn’t feel like American movie acting and is a long, long way from a show-off impersonation. But you could also argue that Walter Salles did the conventional biopic work in The Motorcycle Diaries -- the story of how one young man from Argentina was politicised -- which gave Soderbergh and Del Toro the freedom to go this way.
2. Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson)
For the swimming pool massacre scene. For all of it, really, but especially for the swimming pool massacre scene.
3. Samson and Delilah (Warwick Thornton)
Stark and unsentimental observations of Aboriginal life and everyday racism in and around Alice Springs. And by no means as offputtingly earnest as that sounds.
4. District 9 (Neill Blomkamp)
See here.
5. Synecdoche New York (Charlie Kaufman)
See here.
6. The Limits of Control (Jim Jarmusch)
Jarmusch: "Part of me wanted to make an action film with no action in it, whatever the hell that means." More here.
7. Avatar (James Cameron)
Both Hollywood-archetypal and deeply, personally weird, James Cameron’s Gaia-loving space opera manages to be an allegory for everything, maybe all of human history, but especially: the loss of Native American lands and cultures, war in Iraq, war in Vietnam, “the environment” and our relationship to it, rainforest clearances, Cameron’s own purported journey from gun-loving machinery-nerd to feminine-side ecologist. I think of it as Malick’s Pocahontas story The New World with Apocalypse Now battle scenes (indeed, as a years-in-the-making war film with deeper meanings, this probably is Cameron's Apocalypse Now) and it is also surely a need-to-see-it-in-cinemas overhaul of viewer expectations and technology just as The Matrix was in 1999 and Jurassic Park was in 1993. So, after all that, why do I feel like I don’t love it as I should? Maybe because the storytelling is perfunctory, even juvenile – which you could never say about Cameron’s two Terminators (it's this perfunctory: people named Miles and Grace define the militaristic and peaceful poles of its human experience). Maybe because it can feel like watching someone else play a computer game. Maybe because two hours and 40 minutes is a long time to be looking at that artificial scenery and those artificial people. But, yes, the phosphorescent jungle at night was very, very trippy in 3D.
8. Public Enemies (Michael Mann)
Michael Mann’s digital video art-movie about the Prohibition gangster era is as personal and wayward a directorial project as Avatar. More here.
9 and 10. Capitalism: A Love Story (Michael Moore) and Of Time and the City (Terence Davies)
Both include eulogies for vanished working-class (and Catholic) communities and histories in industrial cities – for Moore, the city is Flint, Michigan; for Davies, Liverpool. Moore's 1950s childhood was an era of super-abundance when one auto worker's income could easily provide for an entire family (the title of his film may not be ironic, just nostalgic). Now, Flint and Detroit are ghost towns of abandoned factories and houses -- in a characteristically effective example of Moore tearjerking, we see the factory his father worked in as a pile of bricks. Davies grew up amongst the sooty terrace houses we know from a million northern stories -- a place and a past now completely lost to 80s and 90s era urban renewal and with it, Davies' sense of community and belonging.