2009: Favorite 25 Films of 2009
Fox: “Chaos reigns!”



Let’s just say it: 2009 was not a particularly groundbreaking year for cinema. Aside from our #1 pick and a few others throughout the list, we didn’t see many genuinely commercially successful films by respected auteurs. But that lack of focus made room for some surprising new developments, from a pile of ambitious children’s movies to a spate of small, focused indies and foreign films. If this list reflects anything, it’s the sheer variety of our film-going experiences in the past twelve months. And though we may have complained about this year’s offerings, in the end, we find that we aren’t so disappointed, after all. —Judy Berman

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25. I Love You, Man
Dir. John Hamburg

[DreamWorks]
by Katie Rolnick

I’ll admit it. I’ve spent a few – fine, many – Saturday nights on the couch at home, watching whatever Sandra Bullock romantic comedy TBS is showing. Predictable as the plot may be, I never tire of the volley that goes on between two characters that feel something for each other but can’t give in until the requisite 90-some minutes are up. Which is why I Love You, Man was so especially enjoyable. It followed the traditional romantic comedy blueprint, and yet, with boy-meets-girl replaced by boy-meets-boy, the dialogue felt fresh, the situations unexpected. And with the romance taking a supporting role, the focal relationship felt less burdened. A devoted fiancé without any male friends, Paul Rudd, playing real estate agent Peter Klaven, needs a best man. When he meets Sydney Fife, a surfer-cum-über-dude, he’s enamored with Sydney’s easy confidence - and why wouldn’t he be? Peter takes social awkwardness to new heights (oof, that rambling voicemail), while Sydney rides a Vespa, refuses to pick up his dog’s droppings, and talks openly about masturbation. Yes, yes, Peter learns to loosen up and Sydney learns…well, I’m not sure if Sydney learns anything. It’s all as you might expect. But the film benefited from the improv-heavy comedy style that has also made The Office so painfully good. Instead of listening to Bullock spout made-for-movie dialogue, how much better it is to watch Rudd squirm as he makes his way toward marital bliss.

I Love You, Man - DreamWorks

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24. Two Lovers
Dir. James Gray

[Magnolia Pictures]
by Derek Smith

For the past 15 years, James Gray has quietly built up his auteur credentials in intensely personal, small-scale dramas. Despite his films’ distinctive New York City settings, Gray has been far more popular in France than in the States for his unique genre twists. With Two Lovers, Gray finally struck a chord with American audiences. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as the damaged, depressed Leonard was downright mesmerizing, replete with awkward fragility and hopeful tenderness. Gray’s keen eye reproduced the sensations of wintry New York City with remarkable acuteness, conveying both the warmth and anxieties of the close-knit Jewish family with conviction and authenticity. The titular characters, one damaged yet alluring, the other traditional yet infinitely compassionate, elucidated Leonard’s mental state to a degree that far surpassed their undeniably cliché origins. With Two Lovers, Gray breathed new life into a familiar setup and retained a melancholy tone in line with its protagonist while also instilling the film with a genuine humanity that kept it vibrant.

Two Lovers - Magnolia Pictures - Review

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23. Humpday
Dir. Lynn Shelton

[Magnolia Pictures]
by Lorian Long

Putting the “head” in “bedhead cinema,” director Lynn Shelton’s Humpday is about two hetero buddies who decide to make a “beyond
gay” art film: They decide to have sex with each other on camera. Yes, the premise was contrived and risked homophobic representation, but the
delivery was fresh. There was no script, no money – just three fantastic actors (Mark Duplass, Joshua Leonard, and Alycia Delmore) and the backdrop of Seattle. Shelton’s lo-fi aesthetic is more personal than pretentious, and the film’s central theme of early-30s ennui befits her simple approach. Humpday is indeed about humping, but sex is only a minor motif, as Ben (Duplass) and Andrew (Leonard) attempt to navigate from their roaring 20s to adulthood. Ben takes the khaki pants and wife named Anna (Delmore) route; Andrew globetrots and dabbles in hedonism. The reunion represents the chance to finally make a piece of art, a last grasp at youth. But ultimately, what the friends discover is the sweetness of growing old together.

Humpday - Magnolia Pictures - Review

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22. Coraline
Dir. Henry Selick

[Focus Features]
by Evan Jordan

During a year that saw children’s films grow up, Coraline emerged as the dark horse. With a palette so dark and surreal it would make the Brothers Grimm blush, director Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach) finally freed himself from the shackles of the Tim Burton brand without rejecting his own aesthetic — part del Toro, part Dalì. Whereas Where the Wild Things Are and The Fantastic Mr. Fox reveled in the pleasure of juvenile life, Selick portrayed a more whole vision of childhood imagination, one governed by loneliness and fear. In an age that celebrates arrested development, Coraline never talks down to kids and dares to encourage growing up. By packaging a true heart in dazzling animation, exacting detail, and charming characters, director Henry Selick has created a contemporary fairy tale we can only hope will have the longevity of those of old.

Coraline - Focus Features - Review

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21. Adventureland
Dir. Greg Motolla

[Miramax]
by Abby Margulies

Adventureland may be the best Michael Cera film ever made – never mind that Cera wasn’t actually in it. Quirky, funny, and ultimately sweet, the film exercised the restraint that so many of its indie romantic comedy brethren lack. Like Michael Chabon’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Adventureland approached growing up and falling in love as an epic odyssey, a slow, painful, and relatively hilarious journey into the unknown. The movie set out to do little more than explore the difficult transition between college and the real world, and, in doing so, it exceeded expectations. Consistently good acting, great dialogue, and an excellent soundtrack allowed us to easily succumb to the movie’s sway. Jesse Eisenberg proved himself as one of the most underrated young actors of today, managing to deliver lines in the perfect cadence of early adulthood. Meditating on the emotional angst of a classic summer of love, the movie struck the perfect balance between character development and plot. Mottola created characters who were both real and likable, packing the film with just enough action to keep us hooked. And just when the plot threatened to delve into the realm of kitsch, the film ended, leaving us perfectly sated.

Adventureland - Miramax - Review

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20. Lorna’s Silence
Dir. Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne

[Sony Pictures Classics]
by Andy Lauer

Upon its release, Lorna’s Silence was unfairly damned with faint praise by critics who declared it a mere Dardenne brothers retread and either failed to register or were put off by the subtle but transcendent shift into magical realist territory in the film’s final act. That this timely and deeply humanist masterpiece was dismissed as “minor” only speaks to the exceptionally high quality of the Belgian duo’s previous work. The fact is, however, that Lorna’s Silence was as satisfying as anything the brothers had already produced, and their exploration of the economic ties that bind resonated this year more than ever. Jérémie Renier’s twitchy, vulnerable performance as a recovering drug addict mesmerized as we watched it, but it was Arta Dobroshi’s devastating turn as his keeper and would-be downfall that sticks with us. To witness her artistry is to be forever haunted by it.

Lorna’s Silence - Sony Pictures Classics - Review

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19. Ponyo
Dir. Hayao Miyazaki

[Walt Disney Pictures]
by Keith Kawaii

Can we all just be thankful to be alive in Miyazaki’s time? I know his biggest fanboy, Pixar’s John Lasseter, certainly is: He once made the keen remark that every Miyazaki movie has at least one “new idea” – the building blocks of all great fairy tales – and Ponyo was rich with them. (I particularly love the entire representation of a living ocean.) While the film was loosely based on The Little Mermaid, comparing the two is like putting a gifted child’s wildly creative drawing next to his parent’s stilted attempt at spontaneity. Miyazaki’s world couldn’t be more filled with imagination, joy, and discovery, all brought to life by deceptively simple hand-drawn animation. The first five minutes alone were as beautiful a visual treat as I’ve ever seen, and the rest of the movie went to great lengths to preserve the simple wonderment of youth. Ponyo wasn’t just a movie about children – it made you feel like one, too.

Ponyo - Walt Disney Pictures - Review

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18.
Summer Hours
Dir. Olivier Assayas

[IFC Films]
by Andy Lauer

As sensitive and nuanced a portrayal of family dynamics as any by Ozu, Summer Hours was a work of quiet majesty that transformed what sounded on paper like a relatively mundane conceit — three siblings grappling with the decision to sell their childhood home in the wake of their mother’s death — into an incisive meditation on how families come together and drift apart. Trading in the hyper-sleek, chilly aesthetic of Boarding Gate and demonlover for a warmer, more humanist (but never sentimental) approach, Assayas concocted a feast of visual delights: a country estate full of gorgeous works of art on loan from the Musée d’Orsay and verdant, sun-dappled garden parties. What has stuck with me most since seeing it is the film’s final sequence, in which Assayas left behind the adults and turned the film (and the home at the center of it) over to the next generation of teenagers. If the first three quarters of Summer Hours were a perfectly constructed piece of chamber music, this last was (literally) rock ‘n roll. This initially jarring shift in tone eventually blossomed into as perfect a summation of generational sea change as any committed to screen.

IFC Films - Review

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17. Tokyo Sonata
Dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa

[Entertainment Farm (EF)]
by Derek Smith

Known primarily for his enigmatic, existential horror films, most notably Cure (1997) and Pulse (2001), Kiyoshi Kurosawa revealed his versatility in this socially relevant, emotionally pointed melodrama. With the same glacial pacing as its predecessors, Tokyo Sonata offered a carefully observed portrait of a Tokyo family at the height of global capitalism. Always a master of tone, Kurosawa effectively conveyed a sense of despair leavened by subtle comical and surreal touches, as the fall of the patriarch sent the splintered central family in surprising new directions. His attention to minute, personal details was matched by his unflinching examination of how this brave, new global world has affected long-standing Japanese social roles and traditions. The emasculation of the father, rendered amusingly through his secret escapades as a janitor, unleashed a newfound sense of freedom within the rest of the family. What followed was one of the most unique and touching final acts of the year. In confronting the harsh realities of the 21st century, Kurosawa perfectly balanced personal and social issues, traversing unexplored terrain within both.

Tokyo Sonata - Entertainment Farm (EF) - Review

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16. The Girlfriend Experience
Dir. Steven Soderbergh

[Magnolia Pictures]
by Alex Preiss

Since making his eye-opening, Sundance-dominating debut sex lies and videotape, Steven Soderbergh has carved out a pair of concurrent, parallel careers: In one, he’s among Hollywood’s most ambitious studio filmmakers, and in the other, he keeps working in the same no-frills territory he pioneered 20 years ago. Yet another throwaway gem in an unheralded series of experimental think pieces, The Girlfriend Experience is a minor but thought-provoking work that’s very much in the spirit of early Soderbergh, even if its message couldn’t be more timely. Smartly casting Sasha Grey (a real-life porn star with a fetish for Jean-Luc Godard) in the lead, Soderbergh’s elliptical narrative followed a high-class escort who offers the titular service to wealthy New York businessmen. In spite of its seductive, crystalline visual surface, The Girlfriend Experience was ultimately sexless, cold, and cerebral – all of which I mean in a wholly complementary way. Not just a pertinent allegory for our times but a compelling essay on the nature of humans as commodities, Soderbergh has proven once again his ability to craft thoughtful, resonant films in any genre and at every budget.

The Girlfriend Experience - Magnolia Pictures - Review

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15.
35 Shots of Rum
Dir. Claire Denis

[Cinema Guild]
by Judy Berman

Claire Denis hasn’t made a bad film yet, but 35 Shots of Rum may just be her best. It’s hard to describe what the film was “about,” in terms of plot points and spectacles: No cars blew up, there were no swoony falling-in-love montages, and characters didn’t engage in heart-to-heart dialogues designed to make their motivations explicit. In fact, Denis left out some of the most obviously important moments of the story, choosing instead to create a slow, close (but never invasive) portrait of single father Lionel (Alex Descas) and his young-adult daughter, Josephine (Mati Diop). A nearly silent scene set in a cafe on a rainy night revealed more about these characters and their complicated romances than scripted words could articulate. Ultimately, the film was about both coming of age and beginning to grow old, the formation of makeshift families, and what it means to break the familiar patterns of our lives. But what made 35 Shots of Rum so remarkable – besides its rich, gorgeous cinematography – was how subtly and gracefully it inspired us to think about such big ideas.

35 Shots of Rum - Cinema Guild - Review

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14. The Beaches of Agnès
Dir. Angès Varda

[Cinema Guild/Ciné-Tamaris]
by Evan Jordan

At 80 years old, the French master Agnès Varda achieved yet another reimagining of cinema. Her latest documentary wasn’t so much an autobiography as it is a two-hour trip through her mind, rife with memories and dreams, tangents and tears. Past and present, imagination and reality bounced off each other like so many hyperactive atoms. The film was a joyride through 55 years lived in cinema, from her game-changing La Pointe-Courte to her iconic New Wave classic Cleo from 5 to 7, through later masterpieces such as Vagabond. But Varda was not interested in listing her accomplishments or dropping names. Like her other films, her focus here was on all the fascinating people she met along the way. In between her visits with old friends and to old places, she constructed a circus in the sand, constructing a beach in the heart of France and narrating from the innards of an arts-and-crafts whale carcass. But what seemed like play and good humor slowly evolved into a philosophy, a staunch protest against seriousness and the forces of entropy. The Beaches of Agnès was less a taking-of-stock than a celebration of life, and its wit, charm, and honesty elevated it to one of the best works in an already outstanding ouevre.

Cinema Guild - Ciné-Tamaris - Review

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13. Afterschool
Dir. Antonio Campos

[BorderLine Films]
by Alex Preiss

“Visionary” isn’t an adjective I often feel comfortable using casually, but there’s simply no other word to describe 24-year-old Antonio Campos’ first feature-length film, a bracing portrait of the contemporary adolescent landscape and the techno-addicted, Ritalin-addled generation that inhabits it. Although the faux-mystery-cum-teenage-melodrama setup wasn’t too far removed from the ’80s made-for-TV specials the title invoked, the presentation of said narrative couldn’t have been more disorienting or perverse. Too genuinely provocative to register as more than a mere blip on the independent film scene radar, Campos’ static, claustrophobic composition served not only the eerily self-enclosed prep school setting, but also perfectly captured the worldview of its emotionally repressed protagonist. Formally thrilling and consistently heady, Afterschool only suffered from being a bit too ambitious for its own good, tackling an overwhelming number of zeitgeist issues, from privacy in the age of technology to post-9/11 grief counseling. Still, this stunning film was the most freakishly talented debut I’ve seen in several years, an icy, dystopic vision of a world that, frighteningly enough, exists very much in the here and now.

BorderLine Films

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12. Up
Dir. Pete Docter and Bob Peterson

[Disney•Pixar]
by Carla Pisarro

Just as they had with WALL-E, industry analysts predicted before its release that Up would be Pixar’s first film to fizzle at the box office. But no one should have been surprised that this adventure story centering on a senior citizen smashed all expectations, commercial and otherwise. Pixar’s most visually lush movie yet, with its signature image of a creaky house carried by brilliant balloons, Up was also one of its saddest, hearkening back to early Disney. The movie’s central duo – Carl, a bereaved septuagenarian, and Russell, Carl’s perky young neighbor and inadvertent traveling companion – even seemed like a pair from a neorealist bleak-fest of the Umberto D variety. While Up, so titled, predictably edged towards a buoyant ending, the route its makers took to get us there was constantly surprising, yielding charming supporting characters and subtle emotional shifts. And, like Wall-E, Up excelled in its memorable wordless passages, displaying Pixar’s penchant for artistic risk at its purest.

Up - Disney•Pixar - Review

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11. Fantastic Mr. Fox
Dir. Wes Anderson

[20th Century Fox]
by Willcoma

“Quaint,” “precious,” “ornate,” “sentimental.” All are suitable adjectives for Fantastic Mr. Fox, yet they also feel frustratingly backhanded – not quite pejorative, but somehow restrictive. The film was a classic in its own right, sure, but it was also an intricate, sprawling masterpiece of cinematic richness that did what all the classics do: leave us wanting more. It concealed a tough, hard-bitten incisiveness under its adorable surface and somehow found a way to avoid sappiness without becoming smug, snarky, or sarcastic. Anderson’s sensibility, by now tried and true, was old fashioned in the best possible way – freeing Burl Ives from his X-mas gulag (his songs are the some of the most memorable in the film) and unapologetically asserting that objects many find obsolete (digital watches, bandit masks, motorbike sidecars, etc.) are infinitely more charming than closeups of cellphone screens and websites. With Mr. Fox, Anderson proved that he is one of cinema’s reigning heroes, at a time when we really need them – a bona fide artist, exquisitely rendering everything that’s good, bad, and iffy in all of us wild beasts with poise, grace, and genuine warmth.

Fantastic Mr. Fox - 20th Century Fox - Review

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10. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
Dir. Werner Herzog

[First Look Pictures]
by Jafarkas

At first glance, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans didn’t announce itself as one of the best films of 2009. The narrative style was disjointed at best, the characters were not grounded in any sensible reality, and the events that transpired were, well, completely nuts. Lucky crack pipe? Check. P.O.V. shots from imaginary iguanas? Check. Reckless drug abuse? Check (plus). Yet, like most of Werner Herzog’s work, the film intentionally flaunted easy categorization. Was the film a sequel? Herzog said no. Did Nicolas Cage offer a bravura performance by humanizing the gnarled soul of Lieutenant Terence McDonagh, or was he merely emoting a more bizarre version of his own persona? The answer seemed to be both (not to mention channeling Klaus Kinski’s Aguirre). Was McDonagh’s arc a gonzo journey that chipped away at the notion of cinematic truth or a drug-fueled meditation on the state of post-Katrina New Orleans? Again, the answer could be either, both, or none of the above. In the hands of a lesser director, the film would have been an unmitigated disaster. But, as it turned out, Herzog was again able to explore his favorite theme, the limits of human sanity and experience, filtered through the murky lens of Hollywood action cinema.

Bad Lieutenant - First Look Studios

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09. The Limits of Control
Dir. Jim Jarmusch

[Focus Features]
by Mr P

Jim Jarmusch designed The Limits of Control to be an action film without action, a hallucinogenic movie without fades or dissolves, a film in which the plot – involving a lone wolf criminal/art lover (Isaach De Bankolé) moving from clue to clue – was intended to resolve anti-climatically. Indeed, these were self-imposed limitations. But through them, Jarmusch proffered a film that was actually much more organic and fluid than the rigidity of his aesthetics let on. The script, only 25 pages long, was mostly written while filming, and the elongated pacing with minimal dialogue aimed to heighten our awareness of the control mechanisms of language itself. No matter how philosophically or intellectually engaging the conversation became – whether discussing cinema, molecular reconfiguration, resonance, Bohemians, or peyote – it all felt appropriately misplaced and distanced. The film clearly didn’t come from a tradition of rationalism; it came from the Oblique Strategies of Brian Eno, from the I Ching, from William S. Burroughs (the film was, in fact, titled after one of his essays). Yes, reactions were decidedly mixed (40% on Rotten Tomatoes, 40 on Metacritic), but The Limits of Control was a testament to the power of perception, not conception, where a polka dot print and the shape of a violin reflected more than just their utilitarian or aesthetic purposes.

The Limits of Control - Focus Features - Review

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08. Gomorrah
Dir. Matteo Garrone

[IFC Films]
Paul Bower

The Western press definitely did their damnedest to over-hype Gomorrah, always making sure to highlight and sensationalize the dangerous life Neapolitan author Roberto Saviano was forced to lead after writing his seminal exposé of the Camorra. Of course, Saviano’s novel was the basis of Matteo Garrone’s delicate yet brutal masterpiece of the crime genre, and, sadly, the film itself was greatly overshadowed by a romantically perverted fascination with organized crime on the part of many journalists. What made Gomorrah one of the truly great films released of 2k9 was the way it completely eschewed the kind of over-the-top, larger-than-life sensibilities that the press seemed so desperately to want. Garrone populated his film with deeply flawed humans who were not quite beyond redemption, living in a cultural milieu that had much more in common with the corrupt land of antiquity than the place that invented pizza. By focusing on the utter banality of the evil acts his characters committed, and refusing to romanticize their ambitions, Garrone managed to completely peel away every last bit of Mafioso nostalgia from his film. The end result was one of the most uncompromisingly and deeply humanist cinematic offerings we’d seen in quite a while.

Gomorrah - IFC Films - Review

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07. Drag Me To Hell
Dir. Sam Raimi

[Universal Pictures]
by Colin Simpson

The 2000s were rife with supernatural thrillers, from The Unborn to The Haunting in Connecticut to White Noise. So tired was the genre that it inspired veteran horror maestro Sam Raimi to take a break from his blockbuster superhero franchise, seeming to say, “Move aside, kids. Let me show you how it’s done.” Drag Me To Hell was the result, and it singularly revitalized the idea that a horror movie doesn’t need an NC-17 rating to be damn scary. Allison Lohman pleads a loan officer haunted by a gypsy’s curse, and Raimi saw fit to torment the hell out of her (and us). Innocuous shadows transformed into demons, and dreams and nightmares mixed readily with reality. At any moment it seemed the film could break away from the real world, as Lohman moved closer and closer to madness. And the delightfully foul Raimi couldn’t resist a few gross-outs: Lohman was splashed with the expected bile and blood, of course, but also got a taste of larvae vomit, a cake made of eyeballs, and mouthful of embalming fluid, straight out of a corpse. All of which is to say that in Drag Me to Hell, we saw a master return to his true form.

Drag Me To Hell - Universal Pictures

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06. A Serious Man
Dir. Joel & Ethan Coen

[Focus Features]
by Dustin Luke Nelson

A Serious Man saw the Coen brothers returning to their trademark archetype: a character so entrenched in his own shit that we can’t help but laugh at him and feel helplessly drawn to his sad demise. The film was of a piece with their best early work: Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, and Miller’s Crossing. Full of clever cinematic moments and scattered with their signature ambiguous objects, A Serious Man existed in a world where everything felt imbued with meaning. But, like the film’s protagonist, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), we couldn’t quite seem to place what the meaning of these incidents and objects really were. Gopnik wanders this world among people, but totally alone – or at least, that’s what he thinks as he watches his life crumble around him. His wife starts divorce proceedings so she can marry a family friend, rabbis won’t help him, his brother gets arrested, and he gets in a car accident, to start. The mix of this disoriented search for meaning in the places Gopnik’s abandoned and the Coens’ saturated mise-en-scene made for one of the most darkly compelling films this year.

A Serious Man - Focus Features - Review

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05. Antichrist
Dir. Lars Von Trier

[IFC Films]
by Lorian Long

Catharsis, noun: a purification or purgation of the emotions (as pity and fear) primarily through art; a purification or purgation that brings
about spiritual renewal or release from tension; elimination of a complex by bringing it to consciousness and affording it expression.
See Aristotle, Pasolini. Lars von Trier’s muse is one nasty bitch named Depression. Suffering from a bout of the blues so bad he almost didn’t finish making the film, von Trier publicly flagellated himself with the brilliantly fucked Antichrist. The story follows a married couple, referred to only as He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who retreat to the woods (Eden) after the death of their young son. Told in six parts and shot with two hi-def digital cameras, the film shimmers dreamily. The grass appears to vibrate as She loses her mind, and we, too, go a little insane trying to figure out von Trier’s motive: to degrade women in the most Biblical way possible, or to encapsulate his own madness in the form of a female lunatic? Either way, Antichrist is a necessary cinematic experience.

Antichrist - IFC Films - Review

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04. Where the Wild Things Are
Dir. Spike Jonze

[Warner Bros.]
by Jspicer

Many will argue that, with Where the Wild Things Are, Spike Jonze took a children’s book and transformed it into a movie for adults. But the fact remains that, at its heart, Jonze’s film is one of the most child-like in modern cinema. Aside from tapping into the vivid colors and bright ideas of youth through epic landscapes and lush forestry, Jonze found in Max Records a lead who understood that you can’t fake fun, anger, indecision, or confusion. Records fed off the film’s scenery and it, in turn, yielded to his every whim. For all the accolades and admiration thrown at Jonze’s latest oddball for its cinematography, inspired acting, and refreshing direction, it is most notable for capturing what a rollercoaster childhood is while maintaining the uncomfortable ideas of Maurice Sendak’s legendary tale.

Where the Wild Things Are - Warner Bros. - Review

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03. In The Loop
Dir. Armando Iannucci

[IFC Films/BBC Films]
by Chris Norton

It’s telling that the best celluloid satire of American (and Americanized) political culture since Primary Colors and Wag The Dog sprang from the BBC. The black-hearted In The Loop’s sharpest jokes and greatest satisfaction came from director Armando Iannucci’s dissection of a political phenotype common among the carefully hewn public personalities of the nation’s Hollywood for the homely. Maybe the catastrophically puffed-up self-regard captured here was too funhouse-freaky a mirror for the denizens of the left coast, big-H version to shine such a withering gaze upon. Maybe the British were just detached enough from the international trauma of Iraq to skewer its run-up properly. In The Loop stomped hard on the feet sneaking up the rungs of the political-insider ladder, thanks to a brilliant cast of character actors, razor-blade writing delivered at a dizzying pace, and tight, snappy direction that kept the viewer focused even as all the supposedly grown-up power players in the room lost theirs. But in the ultimate gut-punch, the film turned out to have been deadly serious all along. These people are, in fact, in charge – and we put them there. We let them walk us so haphazardly into this war, and every laugh we choke out comes as someone else, far from our comfy chairs, coughs up blood.

In the Loop - IFC Films - BBC Films - Review

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02. The Hurt Locker
Dir. Kathryn Bigelow

[Summit Entertainment]
by Anthony Miccio

Remarkably free of speechifying, The Hurt Locker stayed brutally in the moment, throwing us in with a frontline EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) unit and refusing us any respite that the soldiers didn’t receive themselves. It isn’t that the movie played like a cartoon nightmare; avoiding the hysterical obviousness of most (if not all) other films about the war in Iraq, it simply attempted to pay tribute to depth and surreality of soldiers’ experience. Like Brian DePalma’s underrated Casualties Of War, The Hurt Locker showed the benefit of director Kathryn Bigelow’s years of genre experience: Each scene worked as a tense, economical set piece, with artful compositions made all the more striking by the verité-style use of hand-held camera. The actors (most notably Jeremy Renner) brought edge and nuance to the familiar military archetypes, assuring that bravura filmmaking didn’t come at the expense of human emotion. The Hurt Locker was one of the rare cinematic experiences that was both emotionally haunting and kinetically charged. With its steely focus and visceral kick, it’s hard to imagine what future film on the subject could top it. To even try would be to try too hard.

The Hurt Locker - Summit Entertainment - Review

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01. Inglourious Basterds
Dir. Quentin Tarantino

[The Weinstein Company]
by Steve Babish

It was obvious when rumors of a Quentin Tarantino World War II film first surfaced early this decade that Inglourious Basterds would be an untraditional entry into the genre, to say the least. The film that reached the public in 2009, however, bore little resemblance to the exploitation-style orgy of Nazi slaughter that most people seemed to be predicting. Ever the provocateur, Tarantino took us instead on an enthralling narrative journey that careened between dynamic multi-lingual wordplay, self-reflexive cinematic references, digressions into the chemistry of film stock, and, yes, even some of that old ultraviolence. But what’s more, he gave us all an important history lesson in the process.

Allow me to clarify: I mean a lesson about history, not a lesson in history. A professor of mine once told me half-jokingly that he wanted someday to write a book or article entitled Greatest Generation My Ass – the idea being to challenge the saintly Hollywood narratives of Tom Brokaw’s favorite war in order to challenge the larger ideological argument of a righteously and faultlessly heroic America written through them. Tarantino operated under the same premise with Inglourious Basterds but opted to fight fire with fire through full-scale cinematic revisionism. The genius of Tarantino’s film is its revelry in the fact that its “history” is no more or less factual than that found in, say, Saving Private Ryan, or the hilarious Nazi propaganda send-up Nation’s Pride, screened as the backdrop for Inglourious Basterds’ incendiary climax. The greatest cinematic pleasure of 2009 was watching Tarantino de- and re-construct World War II as only he would have imagined it: with both heroes and villains stretched to comic proportions and the movies themselves as the true savior of the day and protector of freedom.

Yet, as with any great film, the whole of Inglourious Basterds depended on the quality of its parts. Indeed, the film would have faltered without Christoph Waltz’s pitch-perfect performance as gleefully nefarious Nazi Colonel Hans Landa, or Mélanie Laurent’s simmering confidence as vengeful French-Jewish theater owner Shosanna Dreyfus. And, of course, the film crackled with Tarantino’s authorial trademarks, from the brazenly anachronistic soundtrack choices to stylistic tributes to his personal cinematic touchstones (the opening twenty-minute paean to the spaghetti western could probably have made this list by itself). Fittingly, we close out our celebration of the year in cinema with a film that celebrates both cinema’s history and cinema as history.

Inglourious Basterds - The Weinstein Company - Review

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