I’ve been doing these top 10 lists for over a decade, and 2009 was a particularly outstanding year for cinema; it brought the decade to an aesthetically pleasing close (although it was not quite as impressive as 1999). There were fine films in almost every genre including art films (“Silent Light” and “Antichrist”), dark comedy (“A Serious Man” and “World’s Greatest Dad”), situational comedy (“The Girl from Monaco” and “Bruno”), animation (“Coraline,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” and “Ponyo”), sci-fi (“District 9”), political thrillers (“For My Father” and “The Stoning of Soraya M"), horror (“Thirst” and “Paranormal Activity”), romantic drama (“An Education” and “Bright Star”), and even in the war film category (“The Hurt Locker.”)
However, most of the most substantial motion pictures did not earn enormous sums of money or receive their due from the Golden Globe award voters and some of big newspaper critics. The choices on their lists were increasingly parochial and anti avant-garde. "Up in the Air" and “Up” were well done and entertaining, but they did not take that many chances (still I must admit Clooney had a good year.). “Avatar” was only outstanding from a special effects standpoint; the story was basically refried “Pocahontas” in cyberspace (it is worth seeing for the visuals.) “Paper Heart,” a charming little love story which looks like it was made for $35:00 impressed me more ( I loved those hand puppets.)
Now here are my choices for the best films of 2009. The ghosts of Igmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni (the two greatest film makers that died during the last decade) hover over my top two choices.
1.) Silent Light-Carlos Reygadas's poignant drama about a man who betrays his wife in an ultra strict Mennonite colony in Mexico is a beautifully shot and almost painful to watch art film masterpiece. The ambiguous, perplexing ending (which infuriated some people) made the movie for me (it has of the best open ended conclusions since “Blow-Up.”) The film also masterfully uses non-actors and a natural locale to good effect. The whole film is in Platdiesch, an east Low German dialect with English sub-titles.
2.) Antichrist-Lars Von Trier's boldly transgressive/ abrasive film about a therapist who misuses his counseling training and pays a high price in this biting commentary on interaction between the sexes and the limitations of science. Charlotte Gainsborough and Willem Dafoe (both of their characters are predator/victims) have rarely been better. Some have argued that the film is misogynistic, but I believe it is misanthropic. Director/writer Lars Von Trier proved for the umpteenth time that he is both one of the greatest artists and con men in contemporary cinema. Playing January 22-28 at the Gene Siskel Center. See Siskelfilmcenter.org
3.) Still Walking-Hirokazu Koreeda's potent and heartbreaking drama about an aging patriarch and his dysfunctional family took on an added resonance because my own dad was sick and suffering at the time I saw the film. This is surely Koreeda's most haunting film since “After Life, “perhaps it’s his most substantial film ever. In Japanese with English sub-titles
4.) An Education-Intoxicating romantic story with class implications about a young woman who has an affair with an older man who introduces her to the world of high art and culture (of course he has a dark secret). The script, dialogue and performances are simply perfect.
5.) A Serious Man-A man who does all the right things tries to find meaning in life after his wife leads him for a cad. The Coen brothers' new film is less flashy and quotable than "No Country for Old Men," but it may be even more impressive and timeless. It is their most personal, mature and intellectual feature yet, but it plays more like a good Woody Allen film than “Fargo.”
6.) Il Divo-This Coppolaesque epic biopic tells the story of Giulio Andreotti, one of the most notorious politicians in Italian history, and it captures the “disordini” (disorder) of Italian politics/culture superbly. And you thought Chicago had the most corrupt politicians! In Italian with English sub-titles.
7.) Scott Walker 30th Century Man- The year's most memorable documentary gives us a glimpse into the life and creative process of an enigmatic, experimental musician (Scott Walker) who has had more lives than a cat.
8.) The Hurt Locker-Disturbing war film about a bomb disabling expert (He's more like Evel Keneval than Private Ryan) effectively captures the addictive qualities of war. The sound quality and visuals in the theatre were so convincing that there were times when I was afraid of losing a limb (it loses some impact on the small screen.)
9) Bright Star-Jane Campion's return to form depicts the tragic, ill fated romantic relationship between the clothes designer/seamstress Fanny Brawne, and the reclusive poetic genius, John Keats. This gorgeous, moving, and underrated film has some of the most wonderful acting and glorious costumes of the year.
10.) Stoning of Soraya M.-Brilliantly acted and unforgettable film about a woman that was murdered in Iran for a sin she did not commit. A scathing indictment of the oppression of women was the year’s best feminist film. In English and Persian with English subtitles.
40 Runner ups: Angel of Death, Avatar, Beaches of Agnes, Bruno, Burma VJ, Capitalism A Love Story, Coco Before Chanel, Coraline, The Cove, District 9, Drag Me to Hell, 500 Days of Summer, Extract, Fantastic Mr. Fox, For My Father, The Girlfriend Experience, The Girl from Monaco, In the Loop, Inglorious Basterds, Invictus, Jerichow, Know Your Mushrooms, Lovely Bones, Ocean of Pearls, Paranormal Activity, Paper Heart, Passing Strange, Ponyo, Precious, The Watchmen, Seraphine, Summer Hours, Tetro, Thirst, Until the Light Takes Us, Skin, Thirst, Up in the Air, Vincere, World's Greatest Dad
Best director (English language) Joel and Ethan Coen (for A Serious Man)
Best directors: (tie) Lars Von Trier and Carlos Reygadas (tie)
Best actor (English language)
(tie) Morgan Freeman for Invictus and Willem Dafoe for Antichrist
Best actor (foreign language)
Ton Servillo (Il Divo)
Best Actress (foreign language)
Shohreh Aghdashloo for the Stoning of Soraya M.
Best Actress (English language)
Charlotte Gainsbourgh for Antichrist
Best supporting actor
Stanley Tucci (Lonely Bones)
Best supporting actress (foreign language)
Juliette Binoche-Summer Hours
Best Supporting Actress (English language)
Leonard Nimoy in Star Trek
Best screenplay (foreign language)
Hirozaku Koreeda for Still Walking
Best screenplay (English)
Joel and Ethan Coen for A Serious Man (original)
Best adapted screenplay
Jane Campion and Nick Hornby for Bright Star
Best animated film
(tie) The Amazing Mr. Fox and Coraline
Best Documentary (music)
Scott walker: 30th Century Man
Best Documentary (political)
Tie Aiden Ehrenreich for Tetro
Chung-hoon Chung for Thirst
Most Promising Performers
Abby Cornish for Bright Star
Carey Mulligan for An Education
Sasha Grey for The Girlfriend Experience
Most Promising film makers
Lynn Shelton for Hump Day
Oren Peli for Paranormal Activity
Francis Ford Coppola for Tetro and Robin Williams for World’s Greatest Dad. I had almost given up on both of them.
500 Days of Summer
Scott Walker 30th Century Man
Worst Film: Transformers: The Rise of the Fallen, one of the highest grossing films of the year (Megan Fox looks great on screen, but she needs a few years of acting lessons)
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