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2009: The year in film

By Sean Fabery

Section: Arts

January 22, 2010

2009 was a pretty great year for film. I say this with some trepidation. After all, how can anyone pass judgment on a year in which hundreds of feature films were released? Of course, it’s all strictly subjective: sometimes a wealth of films will connect with you in a given year, sometimes… not so much.

To give an example, I didn’t think 2008 was such a hot year, as it failed to deliver a film that matched the beautiful narrative acrobatics of “Atonement” or the stark madness of “There Will Be Blood,” both of which were delivered in 2007. Film viewing, like any attempt at understanding or enjoying art, is a completely personal endeavor.

But, even on a quantifiable level, 2009 was pretty remarkable.

For one thing, in an industry that has tended to be a boy’s club, there was a large crop of films helmed by notable female auteurs like Kathryn Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker”), Lone Scherfig (“An Education”), and Jane Campion (“Bright Star”), each of which received numerous critical hosannas. Female directors also met with success at the box office, with both Nora Ephron’s “Julie & Julia” and Nancy Meyers’ “It’s Complicated” attracting large audiences. Unfortunately (at least, I think it’s unfortunate), the most victorious female-directed film of the year at the box office turned out to be Betty Thomas’ “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel.” Oh, well—can’t have everything.

It was also a banner year for science fiction. Most notably, of course, there’s “Avatar,” which coupled a familiar plot with state-of-the-art visuals. It’s currently poised to become the highest grossing film of all time. There were also “Star Trek” and “District 9,” two blockbusters that gave positive attention to a genre that doesn’t always receive it.

No other year in recent memory has featured such a plethora of high quality animated films. As usual, Pixar’s “Up” proved to be a big success, while Disney returned to traditional animation with its charming, if slight, “The Princess and the Frog.” “Coraline,” meanwhile, gleefully imbued itself with a darkness from which children’s films tend to shy away. “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” too, proved to be utterly charming. These films provided entertainment without condescending to their target audience, certainly a rare feat when so many children’s movies choose to grant their films little more than repeated jokes about flatulence and pop culture references that will feel dated in five years time.

But enough about generalities. We each have our personal preferences, and I’m no different. I’d like to share my personal top 10 films of the year.

#1. “Bright Star”

It would undoubtedly be a bit twee to describe director Jane Campion’s latest film, portraying the romance between Romantic poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and seamstress Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), as poetic. But visual poetry is the best term to describe Campion’s work at its best. The film delves, in a way few films have done this beautifully, into the similarities in the way we approach both art and love. The film’s potency could easily have been dampened by the romantic clichés and period mustiness that afflict some films that try to tackle the same kind of material. Instead, it proves to be something transformative. For all its beautiful period-specific details, it’s absolutely modern or, perhaps more accurately, timeless. This is especially true of Cornish’s performance, as one could easily see her character in any era. The world Campion creates is lived-in and feels absolutely true, and it is in this truth that the film finds its beauty, exploring the same territory that Keats himself once explored.

#2, “Inglourious Basterds”

A band of Jewish Americans embark on a plot to kill as many Nazis as possible in Nazi-occupied France. That would be a pretty audacious plot for any film, but Quentin Tarantino pulls it off beautifully, balancing his penchant for killer dialogue with a stellar ensemble cast (surprisingly, the Basterds prove to be the least engaging characters in the film). The film has come under fire for switching the historical role of the Jews and Nazis. However, it’s hardly that simple, as there are actual consequences for their drive for vengeance. And Tarantino, always the cineaste, also makes “Inglourious” a commentary on the potency of film; it’s not a coincidence that some of the most prominent characters are cinema owners, movie stars and film critics.

#3. “Up in the Air”

No man is an island. Hardly a new thought, but writer-director Jason Reitman mines this for all its worth with his follow-up to “Juno.” George Clooney stars as Ryan Bingham, a man who fires people for a living, which entails flying virtually every day. His only long-term goal is to become a member of an elite society of frequent fliers who have hit 10 million miles. All this changes, however, when he meets Alex (Vera Farmiga), a flirtatious frequent flier, and Natalie (Anna Kendrick), a novice employee. Hollywood rarely seems to make these kind of films for adults anymore, opting instead for explosions and celibate vampires. This film certainly makes a strong statement for a return to classic filmmaking.

#4. “Where the Wild Things Are”

Spike Jonze’s latest film received a mixed reaction upon its release, partially, I think, from a misunderstanding over its aims—it was much more a film about childhood than a children’s film. And here Jonze captures childhood so perfectly: the feelings of injustice, the proclivity to actively submerge oneself in a fantasy world, and the slow but steady realization of our own responsibility in the world outside ourselves. In a way, the segments of the film outside the world of the wild things are even better than the ones that take place within it­–though the wild things are pretty amazing, too.

#5. “Drag Me to Hell”

For my money, no film came close to being as entertaining as this movie, which marked director Sam Raimi’s return to horror-comedy. It wholeheartedly embraced all the conventions of horror, gleefully indulging in one over-the-top, schlocky scare after another. It also proved surprisingly timely considering the recession, as its plot followed a young bank employee, who, seeking a promotion, denies a loan to an old gypsy woman trying to keep her home. This woman, of course, proceeds to curse her. Horror ensues.

#6. “An Education”

Charming. No other word describes this film quite as aptly. Based on a memoir by journalist Lynn Barber, Lone Scherfig’s film details the attempts by Jenny, a 16-year-old girl living in 1960s England, to escape the boredom she is sure the Oxford education her father has planned for her will ensure. The story, though not exactly original, is buoyed by a fantastic script by novelist Nick Hornby and a stellar cast. Carey Mulligan, who portrays Jenny, is easily the standout and has rightfully received comparisons to Audrey Hepburn in her prime.

#7. “Summer Hours”

I would say that no film about estate taxes has ever been this well-done, but director Olivier Assayas’ “Summer Hours” is about much more—particularly the effects of a globalized society on one relatable family. After its matriarch suddenly passes away, her three children—each now living on a different continent—must decide what to do with the family’s summer cottage, which also happens to be filled with numerous pieces of art that hold great sentimental value.

#8. “Fantastic Mr. Fox”

In a stellar year for animation, director Wes Anderson’s take on the classic Roald Dahl tale was the standout. Anderson’s distinct retro style, which some have come to write off as tired, meshed perfectly with the world Dahl created in his novel.

#9. “Thirst”

Korean director Park Chan-wook’s newest film revolves around a Korean Catholic priest who becomes a vampire, causing him to suddenly be pulled into a life of decadent desire after living a simple, chaste life. Chan-wook runs with this, creating an entrancing narrative about the nature of man’s baser qualities.

#10. “Star Trek”

I’ve come to not expect much from summer blockbusters, but J. J. Abrams’ revitalization of the “Star Trek” franchise proved to be an exception. Too many blockbusters are overly long, needlessly filling themselves with as many incomprehensible action sequences as possible in order to show off their special effects. Abrams, instead, provided an immensely satisfying film that had both a strong cast and an intriguing plot.

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