BRIGHT STAR (Jane Campion, 2009): A mature and unforced masterpiece whose closest relative in the Campion canon might be An Angel at My Table, even if the mud and bonnets have naturally had some saying The Piano. The intimate, direct, non-period presence of Abbie Cornish and Ben Whishaw as Fanny Brawne and John Keats helps enormously in that assessment, as does what you can take as an essential no-bullshit Antipodean spirit, perhaps signalled by Kerry Fox's apparent unwillingness to adopt anything like an early 19th century English accent. Romantically alert to language and romantically alert to the moods and colours of the natural world -- you expected both. But it's even better if you forget -- as I did -- how the story ends.
BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS (Werner Herzog, 2009): Surely Herzog's best drama since Fitzcarraldo -- better certainly than Rescue Dawn, Cobra Verde (which it almost resembles) and no one saw Invincible -- if only because it gives us the Abel Ferrara depravity of the earlier Bad Lieutenant minus the overwrought sub-Scorsese anguish; in other words, Herzog wisely plays the berserk amorality and escalating drug addiction as lively comedy and doesn't seem too interested in the off-the-peg police procedural plot. As ever in Herzog, the non-human perspective matters: the snake, the iguana, the alligator, the fish. Cobra Verde was slavery-era West Africa; this is New Orleans, post-Katrina. The Kinskian force of nature is now Nicolas Cage, never more enjoyable than when he has a good reason to be manic (Vampire's Kiss, Lord of War, Face/Off, not Captain Corelli's Mandolin).
ME AND ORSON WELLES (Richard Linklater, 2008): Non-period presence? Zac Efron has nothing but. More than audience surrogate, his Richard is closer to time traveller in Linklater's affectionate rendering of a Robert Kaplow novel about a teenage observer/interloper in Orson Welles' famous pre-war staging of a fascist Julius Caesar. If little about Efron's character rings true, Christian McKay's well-honed Welles impersonation -- mercurial, impulsive, brilliant, boastful, bullying, etc -- carries the film and everything is that much quieter and dimmer when the great man disappears. Which means that no one will argue that the museum-set epilogue is not daft. But the Nuremberg-lit Caesar looks chilling and impressive in Linklater's careful re-enactments even if he skimps on telling you anything about its context or much about its reception.
THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES (Juan Jose Campanella, 2009). The bravura, CGI-embellished camera stunt -- from high above a football stadium, into a crowd and then running -- about half-way in will wake anybody up. It even wakes up a slightly drowsy and overstuffed romantic thriller that, at its best, gives you some passing sense of the fearful mood of 1970s Argentina and, at its worst, runs like an endless Spanish-language episode of Law and Order. This beat The White Ribbon and A Prophet for a foreign-film Oscar? Maybe the dangers of vote-splitting.