Ya know, I was ambitiously planning to post my Top 20 Films of 2009 list as a delicious whole, but I've now realized that the time it takes to craft these little blurbs o' cinematic love is nothing to sneeze at. Not to mention reading 20 capsules all in one sitting would probably tire even the most devoted blog consumer. Please keep these movies in mind when deciding what to rent, buy or watch on VOD. Because that's mostly what this list is about -- doing my part to pimp films that deserve a bigger audience.
Without further ado, my top five of '09.
35 Shots of Rum
Grace is a rare commodity -- both in real life and on the silver screen -- so there is a certain breathless wonder that kicks in when the elusive elixir is encountered. Writer/director Claire Denis's 35 Shots of Rum snuck up on me. It's molasses-paced, my friends. Mundane even. And its world is small -- humble apartments, cramped bars, compact cars and subway trains. But even in this claustrophobic world of lives lived in boxes, Denis allows her characters to stretch and steep -- letting them creep into our consciousness and earn our empathy. Slowly. Surely. Deeply. Co-written by Jean-Pol Fargeau, 35 Shots of Rum is about our discomfort with transitions, however inevitable, and counts among its pleasures four luminous performances (Alex Descas and Mati Diop as father/daughter roommates with Nicole Dogue and Grégoire Colin as their close friends/neighbors). In its quotidian stillness, this film moves mountains. Or to put it another way: When the sight of a rice cooker breaks your heart, you know you’re in the presence of a masterpiece.
The premise of this film was a train wreck in the making -- two straight male friends drunkenly dare each other to make a DIY porn film starring just the two of them. (Do the math.) Now picture that premise as an Adam Sandler vehicle. It would've been god-awful and homophobic, right? *Luckily* there was some kind of wonderful once-in-a-lifetime alchemy at work with the combined talents of writer/director Lynn Shelton and stars Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard. With almost all of the dialogue improvised, another mumblecore-y train wreck could’ve occurred, but no -- there is not a single false note in this film. The guys play it real and nail it. (So to speak.) With a bit o' residual slacker vibe and a palatable dose of of-the-moment slang, this film captures Aught-y 30-somethings so perfectly, honestly and affectionately that a Humpday DVD should be boxed up in every 21st century time capsule. As a reflection on the vagaries of male friendship (and the politics of marriage), Humpday is refreshingly insightful. As a comedy, Humpday is goddamn funny. As a story that offers human truths in a singular style the way all great films hope to, Humpday is absolutely unmissable.
When I first saw the trailer for Two Lovers in the theater, I rolled my eyes with annoyance. Egads, it looked like the kind of sickenly slick love triangle tale that Sharon Stone might’ve parted her legs for back in the day. OK, um, I couldn’t have been *more* off the mark. Two Lovers is a magnificently crafted romantic drama -- a darkly glorious chamber piece reflecting on the dueling human drives of nurturance and self-destruction. Director James Gray’s meticulous touch bears heartrending rewards in intimately lit visuals, lived-in dialogue, exquisite musical underlining (from fado to Mancini), as well as terrific, unaffected performances by Joaquin Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow and Vinessa Shaw. Co-written by Ric Menello, Two Lovers breathes new life into the modern American drama -- tempering ripening beauty with rueful wisdom.
Film noir by way of Austria offers one of the most finely crafted dramas I've ever seen. Writer/director Götz Spielmann, another meticulous filmmaker, introduces us to the rough and ready Alex (the brilliant Johannes Krisch) and his hooker girfriend (played with perfectly modulated melancholy by the gorgeous Irina Potapenko) by way of a steamy shower entanglement. Struggling to get by, the two ache for a better life. Alex has a quick, risky fix in mind, but the less said about the plot the better, because wondering what's next is one of the great pleasures of this film. The slow-burning Alex is edgy and unpredictable as our anti-hero and that's just as it should be, since Spielmann's subtle ways of prolonging the dread of revenge are as riveting as hell (see: the wood-chopping scene). Probably the biggest underdog on my list, but god, does it deserve to been seen and savored.
The Hurt Locker
From, um, right around the 30-second mark, The Hurt Locker will have you locked in its crosshairs. In other words, prepare to be embedded. In the most realistic look at modern warfare yet created for the big screen, director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal (who was once embedded with US soldiers in Iraq to research his script) even-handedly showcase the psychological toll of living as a human target, while also examining the sustaining rush of the warrior mentality. By contrasting the point of view of a soldier who is always looking over his shoulder (a naturalistic performance by Brian Geraghty) with that of a bomb-diffusing cowboy who refuses to blink (a star-making turn by Jeremy Renner), The Hurt Locker admirably avoids finger-pointing or war-mongering, yet (in a subtle indictment of a certain presidential administration, IMO) illustrates how bull-headed conviction can misfire. An action film with brains and brawn, The Hurt Locker entertains in concentric shockwaves of action trip-switched with the sweaty anticipation of imminent decimation. As rip-roaring as it is as a film experience, The Hurt Locker actually "supports our troops" in the most powerful, responsible way possible -- by portraying their experiences honestly, even down to the mindf*ck a simple grocery-shopping trip can be for someone used to punching his timecard in a war zone.