2009: Ten Best...Public Enemies, The Road, Sin Nombre...
2009 was similar to last year in that the best acts of cinematic artistry were created in other countries. The good news is that you too can watch these films. All are available on DVD. My resolution for 2010 is to continually urge you to resist rom-coms, boycott CGI sequels, ignore animated retreads, skip post-adolescent male-centric emo indie dramedies and refuse to pay for anything starring Sandra Bullock, Kate Hudson or Matthew McConaughey, and instead seek out, sit down, and watch—patiently and without distractions—movies that challenge you, provoke you, touch you and yes, even entertain you.
Here is my list of the 10 most artful and entertaining films of 2009:
At number 10 is Avatar, in which James Cameron reinvents cinema for the next 50 years, and hopefully puts a final nail in the coffin of all those digital tricksters who have been shoveling movie shinola down our throats for the last 15 years. If you can’t make a 3D film as fabulous as this, why even try?
At number 9 is Stranded: I’ve Come From A Plane That Crashed On the Mountains, a documentary about the 1972 plane crash in the Andes that marooned a Uruguayan rugby team for 72 days, who resorted to cannibalism to survive. The film is not about the eating of human flesh, it’s about the passage these men make from the ordered morality of civilization to the more primitive, stark morality of survival.
Number 8 is Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, a thrillingly claustrophobic picture that grips you at the outset with a prison break and a shootout and a flawed getaway, and then never relents. The effect is unnerving. The movie speeds by, raking across you like a hail of bullets.
Number 7 is Star Trek, which convinced me that once in every 30 or 40 sequels, prequels, remakes and retreads, Hollywood gets things right. The whiz-bang director JJ Abrams combined a dollop of nostalgia with a strong pour of action and a secret snip of something boldly fresh yet comfortingly familiar and came up with a magic potion that left me grinning for the whole show.
Coming in at number 6 on my Top Ten is a last minute surprise, The Road, a surprisingly hopeful and extremely moving film set within a world bathed in gray ash and layered in doom. The movie is not only about a father’s love for his son, but about the fire of humanity that smolders even in the darkest of times.
At number 5 is Mexican director Carlos Reygadas’ Silent Light, a contemplative immersion into the world of a Mennonite family ruptured by an illicit affair. The movie’s astonishing mood, which is not for the restless, is sustained by a sense of observational rapture in the forces of nature.
My number 4 pick is American director Cory Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre, a hard-core, heartfelt, extremely well-shot Spanish-language film set realistically among immigrants riding the rails from Honduras to America and the dangers inherent in their journey. This is serious and gritty indie moviemaking.
Number 3 is Jane Campion’s Bright Star, a beautifully structured reverie of mood and poetry in which repetition and detail evokes the gentle unhurried real-time pace of lives lit by warm fires and the temporal light of a fading afternoon. If Vermeer had been a cinematographer he would have shot this movie.
The quality of light is just as formidable in my Number 2 pick, the French film Summer Hours, a wonderfully modulated story about families, art, and memory that unfolds before our eyes. It’s like taking a two-hour vacation to a forgotten world of aching beauty and uncommon truths.
And finally, the truth is harrowing and artistically rendered in my favorite film of 2009, Hunger, which tells the story of the infamous Bobby Sands IRA hunger strike. The picture is a magnificent work of film art, beautiful to look at, wrenching to contemplate, difficult to reconcile. Hunger absolutely requires a different way of watching in order to appreciate its rewards.