The Best and Worst of 2009
Single Men, Serious Men, Zombies and More
Thursday, December 31, 2009
KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando picks the best of 2009.
You can listen to my Top Ten picks or read the complete best and worst of 2009.
Every year I agonize over my ten best list because I always feel like I’m comparing apples to elephants. I mean how do you compare Nazi zombies with the slaughter of dolphins? And how do you rank a film that you can take delight in seeing dozens of times with something more artfully crafted but not really designed for repeated viewings? Aargh! It’s so hard.
Let me begin by giving kudos to a few films that revitalized their genres but didn’t quite make my top ten. In a year where “New Moon” drained the life from vampires, “Thirst” gave them new blood. “The Cove” and Burma VJ” proved that documentaries could be taut thrillers and not just talking heads. “(500) Days of Summer” gave some bite to romance flicks before copping out to cliché at the end while “The Hangover,” “Bruno,” “Zombieland,” and “In the Loop” reinvigorated comedy. And Hayao Miyazaki’s “Ponyo,” Wes Anderson’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” and Michel Ocelot’s “Azur and Asmar” proved that animation without CGI could be absolutely delightful.
The three films tied for my tenth spot illustrate my quandary. There’s Terry Gilliam’s wildly inspired “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus,” which Gilliam managed to rewrite in seamless fashion to deal with the death of Heath Ledger halfway through production and the casting of three actors (Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Farrell) to finish his role. Then there’s the luminous Mexican contemplation on faith, “Silent Light.” And then there’s the crass adrenaline driven B-movie “Crank High Voltage” that I just had to highlight because it was such unabashed stupid fun and refused to follow any rules. It’s also the only film to come remotely close to capturing the feel of being in a video game.
I am also thrilled to be able to include the subtle horror film “Pontypool,” a zombie film without zombies. Yeah you heard me right. Sounds impossible but Bruce McDonald pulls it off and reinvents the genre in ways I could have never imagined. In this zombie scenario, the infection is spread through language and words can destroy your mind. It’s amazingly effective.
I debated including John Woo’s “Red Cliff” in my top ten only because it was released in the U.S. in a condensed single film rather than in its original two-part, five-hour form. But why punish Woo and his film for a bad decision made by the distributor. Woo is in top form in this historical war epic. He truly handles action better than anyone else and enriches his film with his favorite themes of honor, loyalty, and betrayal. The battles are breathtaking and it’s great to see Woo working back in Asia again.
Contemporary warfare provides the backdrop for Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker.” Bigelow is another director with a flair for action that hasn’t had a hit in a while. Actor Jeremy Renner scores big as a bomb expert who’s an adrenaline junkie but not a gung ho warrior. “The Hurt Locker” delivers a fresh take on the war and on the modern soldier.
And a fresh perspective on everyday life is what makes Majid Majidi’s “The Song of Sparrows” so special. This Iranian film turns simplicity into breathtaking artistry. As with his earlier films ("Baran," "Children of Heaven," "The Color of Paradise"), Majidi's latest offers a simple slice of life that ends up being about so much more.
The Weinstein Company
Heading into the fifth slot you’ll find a distinct change in tone and style with Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds.” This film is just damn fun as Tarantino revels in his love of cinema and delivers a gritty war film in the tradition of Sam Fuller and Robert Aldrich. And no one delivered a better performance than Christoph Waltz as the Nazi officer that oozes polite charm and lethal effectiveness.
If Tarantino specializes in audacious fun, the Coen Brothers excel at precision control. In “A Serious Man” they nail the sixties period right down to the shag carpets as they chronicle a man’s life falling apart. The film serves up one of the year’s best ensemble casts as it delivers a tale that is painfully funny and one of their darkest films yet. Every man Larry Gopnik protests early on that he hasn’t done anything and this eventually turns into an existential refrain. But in this instance, it doesn’t seem to matter what one does, things are just destined to turn out badly.
One of the most exciting surprises of the year is the feature debut of Neill Blomkamp, “District 9.” This film kicks butt on “Avatar” in terms of innovation, clever scriptwriting, and putting the humanity back into science fiction. “District 9” takes familiar elements – aliens on earth, evil government/corporation conspiracy, the immigrant experience, and xenophobia – but allows us to view them from a new perspective.
The Weinstein Company
The human element is front and center in another feature debut, Tom Ford’s “A Single Man.” As George, Colin Firth gives the year’s best lead performance as a man coping with grief and loss, and Ford’s ability to convey George’s subjective point of view is what makes this film a standout. I just saw the film for a second time and noticed even more ways that Ford conveys that subjectivity. He plays with color saturation as a means of showing how George would occasionally be brought out of his depression and experience a flood of emotion. It’s an exquisite film, inspiring in it’s artistry.
Music Box Films
And finally, coming in at number one is Paolo Sorrentino’s “Il Divo,” a wildly inventive portrait of Guilio Andreotti, one of Italy's most powerful, feared and intriguing political figures. Sorrentino knows he has a fantastical tale to tell and he delivers it with all the drama, spectacle, and flamboyance of a great Italian opera.
And here’s a list of a few other bests worth highlighting.
Best performance by an actress: Tilda Swinton, “Julia”
Runners up: Hiam Abbass, “The Lemon Tree;” Ok-vin Kim, “Thirst;” Charlotte Gainsbourg, “Antichrist”
Best performance by an actor: Colin Firth, “A Single Man”
Runners up: Tom Hardy, “Bronson;” Jeremy Renner, “The Hurt Locker;” Ben Foster, “The Messenger;” Sam Rockwell, “Moon;” Sharlto Copley, “District 9,” Alfredo Castro, “Tony Manero;” Tony Servillo, “Il Divo”
Best cameo: Bill Murray playing himself in “Zombieland”
Best musical moment: Michael C. Hall lip-synching to “I Got You Under My Skin” in “Gamer”
Best New Addition to the Film Scene: SDAFF’s Asian Extreme, which brought us “Detroit Metal City,” “Neko Raman,” “Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl,” and “Afro Samurai Resurrection.” Heck, any of those could have been on my ten best if the list were just for films that I can watch repeatedly and always get joy out of them. I can’t tell you how happy I was to see a near sell out crowd late night at a festival for Asian Extreme. Woo-hoo!
Best horror moment: A victim’s point of view as she wakes up to discover she’s being disemboweled by zombies in “Dead Snow”
Best documentary: “The Cove” and “Burma VJ”
Runners up: “Anvil,” “The Beaches of Agnes”
Best animated film: “Ponyo” and “Fantastic Mr. Fox”
Runners up: “Azur and Asmar,” “Up”
Best song: “Stu’s Song” in “The Hangover” and “We Love Violence” in “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus”
Best ensemble: “A Serious Man”
Runners up: “In the Loop,” “Il Divo,” “Star Trek”
Best remake: “Star Trek”
Worst remake: “Land of the Lost,” “Friday the 13th”
Worst animated film: “A Christmas Carol”
Worst film of the year: “The Strip”
Runners up: “Nine,” “It’s Complicated”
Worst casting decision: Nicole Kidman as an Italian sex goddess in “Nine”
Worst sequel: “Terminator Salvation” and “Transformers 2”