Love, strong women among the themes found in the best films of 2009
Some movies are so great, I just want to grab people by the lapels and drag them off to the moviehouse. There weren’t many films like that in 2009, but if it was an unexceptional movie year in general, there were still a few small gems worth noting. Here are my Top Ten films of the year, plus a few guilty pleasures. Enjoy!
1 UP Pixar combines exuberant animation with delicately rendered grown-up themes in this lovely fable of loss and redemption. A lonely old man fulfills a promise to his beloved late wife and his younger self and sails their house (via hot air balloons) to a South American jungle with a fatherless neighbor boy. Their adventures are funny and exciting, but the heart of the film is the love story of the man and his wife. A boisterous romp that’s also incredibly moving. I cried more at this movie than at any other film of the year, and I mean that in a good way.
2 JULIE & JULIA The movie l most often recommended to people this year features Meryl Streep’s delicious performance as Julia Child in all her witty, bawdy, irresistible humanity. Nora Ephron adapts Julie Powell’s blog about cooking her way through Child’s French cookbook, along with Child’s own memoir, interweaving the stories of both women, and Child’s adventures in 1950s Paris are way more fun onscreen. But kudos to Powell (and Streep) for introducing a new generation to the unique, original American eccentric that was Julia Child.
3 BROKEN EMBRACES (LOS ABRAZOS ROTOS) Lust, betrayal, and filmmaking are whipped into a gorgeous and volatile froth in this spicy drama from Pedro Almodóvar, served with a side of wry. Penélope Cruz at her most vibrant and earthy stars in the love triangle plot that keeps us on edge and enthralled. But it’s Almodóvar’s love affair with the art of filmic storytelling (from his artfully fragmented narrative and beauteous visuals, to sly comic homages) that make this a gift to be cherished by a master of rapturous storytelling.
4 PRECIOUS Gabourey Sidibe gives an astounding, adjective-defying performance as a hard-luck Harlem teen in Lee Daniels’ masterful adaptation of the novel, “Push,” by Sapphire, which shows how the tiniest flicker of compassion can transform a life of complete degradation into something triumphant. Mo’Nique is incendiary as the girl’s toxic mother in this uncompromising, inventive and rewarding film.
5 (500) DAYS OF SUMMER In love, as in any other team effort, you get the best results when everyone’s on the same page. If not, you might get a lopsided affair like the one in this fresh, funny, wistful and completely engaging romantic comedy from Marc Webb. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel star, and Webb punches up the action with sharp use of savvy narrative techniques, and a non-stop soundtrack of tasty alt rock.
6 BRIGHT STAR Reconstructing a romance in the life of Romantic-era English poet John Keats, filmmaker Jane Campion creates a rapturous, mysterious, achingly lovely ode to youthful passion, and the wellspring of art. Campion gets it that in their day, people’s emotions weren’t pre-digested for them via pop culture; her protagonists’ love is raw, stubborn, all-consuming. Seductive to watch, paced and rigorous in its accumulation of feeling, this is vivid storytelling by a filmmaker of astonishing craft and subtlety.
7 SIN NOMBRE A poor Honduran teenage girl and a tough, but disillusioned young gangbanger from the slums of Mexico meet on a freight train heading for redemption in El Norte in this debut feature from UCSC grad Cary Joji Fukunaga. Remarkable not only for the raw intensity of its action and the authenticity of its portrait of various Latin American sub-cultures, but for the fleet precision and moral force of Fukunaga’s storytelling.
8 THE BOYS ARE BACK Neverland is more than a fairy tale for a carefree, globe-trotting sportswriter thrust suddenly into single fatherhood after losing his wife in this moving, yet buoyant film. Directed by Scott Hicks and featuring a marvelous performance by Clive Owen, it’s a wry, poignant, and perceptive look at fathers and sons who use creative anarchy to navigate the process of growing up together.
9 MOSCOW, BELGIUM An exasperated older woman about one thread away from the end of her rope, and a young truck driver with a grudge against women, make an unlikely but delicious romantic pair in Christophe Van Rompaey’s adroit, entertaining Belgian comedy-drama. Barbara Sarafian is exceptional as a character we don’t see enough of in the movies—a middle-aged woman who doesn’t fade into the wallpaper, but commands the screen with heart, wit, and sexual identity intact.
10 SÉRAPHINE This one is for Mort Marcus, who insisted this was one of his favorite movies of the year. I agree. The wonder of how Art claims its devotees propels Martin Provost’s engrossing biographical drama about a charwoman in the turn-of-the-century rural France driven to spend her nights painting in a state of ecstatic creativity. Yolande Moreau brings intrepid spirit to the title role, and Provost’s leisurely, enigmatic film refuses to tell us what to think about the effects of civilization and commerce on Séraphine’s cranky and obsessive creative muse.
THE BROTHERS BLOOM This elaborate hokum about two con-artist brothers asks a lot from it’s audience. Stylized to a nutty degree, and spiked with humor and poetry, Rian Johnson’s surreal fable never quite succeeds. But it never feels like an empty con game, either, and a gorgeous travelogue (Mexico, Montenegro, Greece, medieval Prague) makes it an entertaining ride while it lasts.
TETRO Francis Ford Coppola’s experimental adventure in technique, style, and pure cinematic brio, runs on way too long, but there’s plenty of swoony delight to be had in this delirious operatic melodrama of near-Biblical proportions. Shot in brooding black-and-white, with flashbacks inserted in spasms of saturated color created in homage to the lush, berserk Technicolor dance melodramas of the great Robert Powell.
WATCHMEN A fighting force of masked superheroes (and heroines) in an increasingly violent and crime-riddled society, find themselves facing one last chance to save the world—and wondering if they should bother. This is the essence of the Alan Moore graphic novel that spawned this bold, kinetic, disturbing, fun-house carnival ride of a movie from Zack Snyder. When its not wallowing in human depravity, it’s put together with audacity, wit, and a bracingly cynical, yet moral point of view.