THE AICN-DOWNUNDER ANNUAL 2009: The Best, The Worst, The Wrap-Up!
Published at: Jan. 4, 2010, 2:21 a.m. CST by mrbeaks
THE AICN-DOWNUNDER ANNUAL 2009: The Best, The Worst, The Wrap-Up
Only in the last few weeks when I began looking over my list of contenders for the best films of 2009 did I begin to realise what an amazing year 2009 had been. I managed to avoid nearly all of the films so many of my contemporaries are describing as the worst of the year, whereas any time I open up a random column from the past twelve months, I find it contains a review for at least one film that would eventually vie for the best of the year list. That's a bloody good strike rate.
I won't bother with the overlong, somewhat obtuse introduction, because most of what I have to say about 2009 will be revealed as the column goes on. If you don't want to bother with the oh-so-carefully constructed narrative (hint: bother with it), I've managed to work out a table of contents thingy here.
To read my original reviews, click on the title and you will be magically transported to... well, the original review.
I wish I could talk about New Zealand cinema with more authority, but very little jumped over the pond to our screens. I saw and liked THE STRENGTH OF WATER, but that was all. Many of us over here are salivating for Jonathan King's UNDER THE MOUNTAIN, which, perplexingly, does not yet have a distributor.
So forgive me for focusing on Australia, but there is a wild and crazy claim that many may dispute, but I feel must be made: 2009 was the greatest year for Australian cinema. Period.
Sure, there was the usual pile of critical and commercial flops, but rising up from that was some of the best work this country has ever produced. BALIBO, SAMSON AND DELILAH, MAO'S LAST DANCER, LAST RIDE, MARY AND MAX, DISGRACE, BLESSED, THE COMBINATION, MY YEAR WITHOUT SEX, LUCKY COUNTRY, BEAUTIFUL KATE, VAN DIEMEN'S LAND, and THE HORSEMAN (which I saw last year, but is more than worth mentioning again) all managed to gather a lot of momentum as their causes were championed by critics (which does tend to happen frequently) and audiences (which doesn't).
The box office for Australian films continued to appear paltry next to the flashier, imported fare (those big Hollywood films with their pesky marketing budgets), but their relative successes did cause the unending debate about Australian film to falter, as if we were having an argument in a saloon, and a hushed silence came over us when MARY AND MAX entered the room. What happened is this: If, as so many of us believe, the current model of cultural-checklist film funding is untenable, unsustainable, and an unsuited to instigating new and exciting works, then how did that system produce so much greatness in a single calendar year? Surely it could not have been the cosmetic reformation of a couple of government agencies into the facelifted Screen Australia, could it? It will be a few years before we find out if the gems of 2009 indicated a new wave of excellence, or if they were blips in the radar; brief moments of fortuitous coincidence before we resume normal service and the government form-inciting mediocrity once again becomes the norm. Either way, the tiresome-yet-paradoxically-relevant "What is wrong with the Australian film industry?" debate became fascinatingly put into a sort-of stasis as we were treated to film after film of true, unassailable, unfettered brilliance.
I made a big effort to see every Australian film this year, yet still missed a lot. Far too much. I won't break down individual films here, because you'll see them in both the best and worst lists below (oo, tantalising!), but if you were in a position to see an Australian film this year and you didn't, then you missed out. Big time. We're past the point where people will tut-tut audiences looking for a good time with "Support your local industry", as if it's a chore on par with social work. We're now finally starting to realise that we're producing stuff that is every bit as good as it should be. And just typing that gives me wonderful chills.
LATAURO'S WORST FILMS OF 2009
Every year I make the caveat that I intentionally avoid the films that look like they're going to be close to unwatchable (the ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKSes, the TWILIGHT sequels, OLD DOGS, etc). But, this year, my ability to avoid crap meant that I barely had enough bad films to fill out a bottom ten. And for that, I am grateful, if not ecstatic.
This year, I found the Worst Film discussions to be less interesting than the Films That Didn't Work. See, for me, 2009 was less about crap than it was about near-failures, subverted expectations, surprises. At the start of the year, I'd have assumed INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS would shoo-in to my top ten, and that ANTI-CHRIST would shoo-in the bottom, yet neither reached those respective presumptions. But neither did they invert and appear on their opposite list; both sat in the middle for me as interesting failures, and it's a shame that lists such as this one don't easily allow for a list of nuance. We are here to rank, and so such discussions are to be left for another time. (You can, of course, simply click on the links to find out what I thought of those films, although my opinions on both have evolved a lot in the past five months.)
Because so many of the films I didn't like were noble failures made by struggling filmmakers who I don't wish to belittle, my list does not reach ten, and so I will simply mention the worst here in non-numbered form. Australian film BEAUTIFUL was so bad I couldn't bring myself to review it, whilst ALL ABOUT ACTRESSES confirmed everything that the haters of wanky French cinema have ever assumed. WOLVERINE was, somehow, worse than we were expecting; LAND OF THE LOST was a piece of incoherent nonsense without a single redeeming feature.
And yet the worst film of the year is a tussle between one I was expecting and one I wasn't. TRANSFORMERS 2 was never going to be good, but I don't think any of us truly anticipated how bad it was going to be. Does anyone have any idea what was going on? Did Michael Bay actually plan to be remembered as the director who made big budget set pieces boring? TRANSFORMERS 2 may be an easy target, but being an easy target does not earn you any sort of free pass from being recognised as the crap that it is. But there was still a film I hated more...
Many of my friends are about to laugh -- both the ones who loved this film and the ones who commented after at my stony-faced stoicism throughout the film -- but take a bow, DEAD SNOW. If you missed the Nazi Zombie film, you actually missed nothing. You know that feeling when a corporate entity cynically co-opts a fanboy fad, usually long after the fad has exhausted itself, then tries to sell it back to you with all the soul removed? As bad as that feeling is, it's even worse when the same act is performed by (supposedly) fanboys. It feels like more of a betrayal, because, really, they should fucking know better. If you think the idea of Nazi Zombies is a great one, you should know that no thought or creativity went into the film beyond that logline. The indication that the formerly niche-ish vampire/zombie genres are now well and truly exhausted and depleted is not Fucking TWILIGHT, because FUCKING TWILIGHT doesn't know any better. DEAD SNOW should have.
This isn't an official "worst of the year" listing, but just a rough guide to what pissed me off this year. Thankfully, very little did.
LATAURO'S BEST DOCUMENTARIES OF 2009
In terms of documentaries, 2008 was an impossible year to beat. The best docos of last year (NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD, WALTZ WITH BASHIR, TRUMBO, MY WINNIPEG, MAN ON WIRE, THE KING OF KONG, etc) were miles ahead of 2008's narrative films. Some of them even reinvented what a documentary could be.
Still, the documentaries of 2009 did not disappoint. BUSTIN' DOWN THE DOOR was a really interesting and well-made look at surfing culture in the 1970s; Eric Bana's ode to his car in LOVE THE BEAST was a terrific and engaging film; THE TEN CONDITIONS OF LOVE was an amazing look at Rebiya Kadir and the Chinese Uighurs, which caused no end of political strife when it played at the Melbourne International Film Festival this year; THE YES MEN FIX THE WORLD was pranks with a point, as the eponymous Yes Men cause playful turmoil but never lose sight of their own context. Yet, as great as each of these films was, none made the coveted top ten. Which is...
This Australian-made documentary is an insightful look at director Anton Corbijn, told against the backdrop of his first feature film, CONTROL. Essentially, this film is a template of how to make this sort of film; it doesn't do anything massively unexpected, but it does exactly what it sets out to do, which is tell you everything you wanted to know about Corbijn, and explain why he's such a fascinating figure.
How had I never heard of the Kuchar brothers before this film? This documentary captures them in all their D-grade movie glory, showing them as being simultaneously brilliant and clinically self-deluded. It's a very interesting film, but more importantly, it's hilarious. A group of us went to the first screening at this year's MIFF; one of my friends laughed so hard, she went to the second screening so she could see the parts she missed during her hysterics. An essential viewing for every film geek.
I was deeply sceptical of this film when I went in. Being of Jewish descent, I am suspicious of anyone who takes an institutionalised pro-Israel or anti-Israel stance that belies any acceptance of the opposing arguments. Was filmmaker Yoav Shamir subtly trying to steer us towards his own pre-established viewpoint? Not at all. This is such an even-handed and balanced documentary, if you come out with a strong opinion either way, you probably haven't been paying attention. In an attempt to uncover the state of anti-Semitism in the world today, Shamir exposes a great deal of hypocrisy on both sides, and manages to both defend and indict controversial figures using nothing but their own words. I wish everybody could see this film.
Being a journalist in Burma (aka Myanmar) is illegal. Operating a camera will result in your imprisonment. Think about that for a second. Thomas Jefferson's assertion that a free press is more important than a free government highlights how vital an issue the oppression of the Burmese is, because that oppression is rarely discussed. This documentary follows the brave few who take up small cameras, capture the events in the city, and send them overseas to be uploaded to the web. Focusing on the anti-military uprising in 2007, this is about as important a documentary as you will ever see. The fact that the oppression continues unabated makes the film all the more poignant; the fact that the film itself is so brilliantly-constructed is something of a bonus.
Davis Guggenheim was pandering straight to me when he decided to make a documentary about the electric guitar that focused on Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White. (Had The Edge been swapped out for REM's Peter Buck, it would have instantly been my favourite film of all time. Instead, it is relegated to mere greatness.) I don't know how this film will play to those who don't like any or all of those musicians, but as someone who adores all of their respective works, I was in hog heaven. My only complaint was that the film ended. Here's hoping the DVD/Blu-Ray release contains hours upon hours of deleted scenes, because as tight and captivating at the film's 98 minute running time was, all it did was whet my appetite. But then, I'm demanding like that.
From a purely practical standpoint, CITIZEN HAVEL is a monumental achievement. The film opens in 1993 when Vaclav Havel is elected as the first president of the Czech Republic. It ends in 2003 after he has left office. Over the course of the film, we see some extraordinary and unexpected events (none of which I will spoil here, as to ruin the surprises would be criminal), we see Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright, and the Rolling Stones, and yet the most fascinating part of the film is Havel himself. He is a Beckett character; whimsical, absurd, and too impossible to be real. You spend most of the film in complete disbelief at what you are watching, which, for a fly-on-the-wall documentary, is a high recommendation in and of itself. No other world leader would permit such unfettered access, which is just one of the reasons CITIZEN HAVEL is such a fascinating, brilliant, and compulsory work.
To call this film "the OCEAN'S 11 of nature documentaries" is both a cliché, and a bit of a disservice to both OCEAN'S 11 and THE COVE. And yet, the temptation to do so beckons; this isn't merely a treatise on why not killing dolphins is a good idea. This is an expose of a slaughter that the Japanese government would like to you to think isn't happening. It's a slaughter that benefits nobody, given the negative health effects that the consumption of dolphin meat creates. It's senseless and horrific, yet watching Ric O'Barry and his team use every trick at their disposal to show the world what happens every year at Wakayama makes you want to punch the air. It's exciting and important, and it's not hyperbole to echo the sentiments of other critics: THE COVE is hands-down the best thriller of the year.
As I said in my review at the time, I knew nothing about Celia Cruz when the film began. When it finished, I was her biggest fan. The best documentaries do not assume you know anything about their subjects; they pull in the uninitiated and show them why this subject is so worthy of the attention. CELIA THE QUEEN does this, then launches into the stratosphere with a beautifully-made film that traces Cruz's life and career. Every sequence is edited with grace and passion, and end result is a captivating film that instantly demands repeat viewings.
Agnes Varda, a member of the French New Wave peripheral movement Rive Gauche, was eighty years old when she made this documentary, but it doesn't show. It's an autobiographical piece every bit as unconventional as Guy Maddin's MY WINNIPEG or Terence Davies's OF TIME AND CITY, and no less fascinating. Varda is as much at home with documentary as she is with narrative; she is as comfortable with filming verité as she is with highly-stylised analogous constructions. This is a major piece that, at 110 minutes, does not feel one second overlong. But hey, don't take my word for it. Autobiographical documentaries by filmmakers with a truly unique voice are amongst the most rewarding sub-genres, and BEACHES OF AGNES is no exception. As a matter of fact, it's one of the best.
Having missed this in cinemas, it was only when my review DVD arrived a few weeks ago that I got around to checking it out. This documentary is a look at the life of Jack Charles, a man who defies singular description. He is an aging Aboriginal man, part of the Stolen Generation. He is a successful actor, having appeared in films such as THE CHANT OF JIMMY BLACKSMITH and TOM WHITE. He is a cat burglar. He is gay. He is a drug addict. He is a musician. He is too strange to be fictitious. Amiel Courtey-Wilson's masterpiece of a documentary tells his life story as we follow Charles's day-to-day struggle. It's an astonishing work even before the game-changing event that occurs two-thirds of the way through, something that the filmmakers could never have predicted, yet something that would not have happened if they'd not been there. I won't tell you what it is. Instead, you'll have to pick up the fantastic two disc box set that Siren Visual put out. To think I almost missed the best documentary of the year gives me a shiver. And now that I've told you about it, you won't have to.
LATAURO'S BEST NARRATIVE FILMS OF 2009
Every since my first Best Of list for AICN back in 2003 when I shamefully forgot to include RUSSIAN ARK (it would have been number four, revisionist fans), I've been keeping a list open all-year long. Every time I see a film I'd be more than happy to claim as one of the year's ten best, I put it on the list. It's an exclusive list, and I don't just add films I like: these films have done something extraordinary to justify their inclusion. It's only later that I whittle them down to the best ten.
However, I've spent the last few days trying to break down the list and I just can't do it. 2009 beat me. The one glorious downside of having a year filled with such greatness presents itself when you come to separate the great from the greater. I have, therefore, decided to cheat.
All fifty films have been ranked, and for this I make little apology. The whole point of this list -- and the reason I read similar lists from other crits -- is so I can track down reportedly-brilliant titles I may have missed. So why cut out so many great films simply because we get aroused at the mention of a round number? (Yes, I'm aware fifty is a round number. Go away, I make the rules here.) However, aware that I am being a cad about it, I have included only a cursory description of the films in spots 50-11. If you wish simply for a top ten list, you can skip down where my ten favourites have been listed in greater detail.
However, as I stated at the top of the article, should you wish for more detail on any of the below titles (a few are quite obscure), links to my original, more detailed reviews can be found by clicking on the film's title. Also, keep in mind that some of these are late 2008 films released in Australia in 2009. Enough prattle! On with the list...
50. BRONSON - A very good film that is elevated to greatness by virtue of Tom Hardy's amazing performance.
49. HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE - One of the best of the series, with an amazing performance by Jim Broadbent and some truly brilliant direction by David Yates.
48.48. THE PRIVATE LIVES OF PIPPA LEE - On the surface, it looks like a Sam Mendes film without the pathos, but this film from Rebecca Miller has an awful lot going on underneath, and a personality all its own.
47. DOUBT - The strength of the writing and the performances made this one of the highlights of the typically-overwrought Oscar season.
46. MOMMO - A small, beautiful Turkish film that gets better and better with every passing day spent considering it.
45. UP IN THE AIR - It's not my favourite Jason Reitman film, but still a superb piece of work that utilises George Clooney's tabloid baggage in a way no other role has managed.
44. THE BURROWERS - Ballsy, hilarious, and wonderfully horrific, this is the sort of film I want to see more of.
43. DRAG ME TO HELL - Sam Raimi atones for SPIDER-MAN 3 by blasting the pretenders to horror-comedy out of the water.
42. FISH TANK - A gritty piece of English realism about a disaffected teenaged girl that earns every single brilliant moment.
41. THE INFORMANT! - Soderbergh nails this hilarious story of real-life whistleblower Mark Whitacre, possibly Matt Damon's best role to date.
40. LET THE RIGHT ONE IN - A beautiful, subtle love story that uses the immortal vampire angle to brilliant effect.
39. THE MAID - This Peruvian film about a maid to an upper-class family does poignant and uplifting without ever overstaying its welcome.
38. HUMPDAY - Imagine an ultra-low budget Kevin Smith film with Owen Wilson and Roy Livingstone that's funnier than nearly every other comedy of the year, and you've got HUMPDAY.
37. THE ROAD - Nobody does dystopia like John Hillcoat, who gave us this incredible adaptation that rewards reflection.
36. DEAN SPANLEY - An unexpected, delightful, gorgeous film with a surprising premise whose unfolding is the film's primary joy.
35. LAKE MUNGO - An Australian horror mockumentary that, frankly, shits all over PARANORMAL ACTIVITY.
34. MILK - Another delayed release date, Gus Van Sant's cliché-dodging biopic of Harvey Milk was more than worth the wait.
33. WATCHMEN - Zack Snyder had all the cards stacked against him, yet managed to make the best adaptation of Alan Moore's book that we were ever likely to see.
32. THIRST - Just as I thought the vampire genre was dead, LET THE RIGHT ONE IN and THIRST come along and prove that, in the right hands, there's plenty of life left in it.
31. THE READER - I'm yet to hear a criticism of this film that doesn't ring false; far from being cynical Oscarbait, this amazing film refuses to treat anyone as black or white.
30. STILL WALKING - The description of this Japanese drama made it sound truly depressing, and yet it was anything but; it's a beautiful and surprisingly funny film.
29. NOWHERE BOY - The Adventures of Young John Lennon could have failed in so many place, but doesn't falter once.
28. MOON - Duncan Jones knew there was an audience for smart, proper science fiction, and made an amazing film that actually had respect for its audience.
27. THE BOYS ARE BACK - Scott Hicks's best film since SHINE shows us just how great Clive Owen can be.
26. ABOUT ELLY - An Iranian drama and character study that does more to illustrate our cultural differences than any dry dissertation could ever hope to do.
25. AWAY WE GO - Sam Mendes continues his streak of brilliant films with a funny, touching film destined to, like all of his work, be profoundly misunderstood.
24. PONYO - Miyazaki, the most tactile filmmaker on the planet, again makes his fantasy work by making us feel it.
23. UP - So confident is Pixar in its unparalleled story-telling ability, it can throw together a bunch of non-demographic-pleasing bizarre elements, and still produce something this damned good.
22. THE CHASER - A past-paced, twist-filled South Korean thriller than shows everyone how it's done.
21. REVOLUTIONARY ROAD - Another delayed release, this incredible melodrama is perhaps the most subversive attack on the idea of the American Dream that we've ever been witness to.
20. AN EDUCATION - The story is familiar, but the execution is not; this coming-of-age story is elevated to greatness by a flawless script, direction and cast.
19. IN THE LOOP - Painfully funny and truly incisive, this is everything political satire should be; a "Yes, Minister" for the 21st Century.
18. SHERLOCK HOLMES - If all blockbusters were this well-made and this damned fun, I would be Hollywood's biggest advocate.
17. THE LIMITS OF CONTROL - There's barely a story to be found under the molasses-thick metaphor, yet Jim Jarmusch's deeply personal film is something special if you can figure out how to read it.
16. WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE - A film about kids made for adults; a true masterpiece.
15. SYNECHDOCHE, NEW YORK - I'm still struggling to understand the film, but it's such a remarkable work, the term "intellectual exercise" now becomes a compliment.
14. THE MAN WHO CAME WITH THE SNOW - This 75 minute Iranian-French film comes out of left field with its marked understatement, but it is impossible to forget.
13. THE HURT LOCKER - Kathryn Bigelow's best film is an unflinching look at the experience of the US soldier in Iraq, and provides a visceral punch that delivers an important underlying message.
12. WHATEVER WORKS - Woody Allen takes another swing at his Classic Style and nails it completely, ignoring the well-trodden themes of love and looking at the more-interesting and less-examined idea of what it means to be content.
11. SILENT WEDDING - So painfully close to being in the top ten, this glorious film is perhaps the most criminally unsung work of the year, aiming for multiple targets and hitting every single one; more than worth the time to track it down.
AVATAR's position on this list has caused me the most grief, and it's moved up and down more than any other film here. I think part of that comes from the self-defeating idea of trying to accurately predict its place in history; once I realised that's what I was doing, I stopped and focused purely on what the film did to me, realising that its place in the top ten was assured. I wrote about this film for AICN only a couple of weeks ago, so I shan't repeat all those points here, but I will say that beyond the hype, beyond the groundbreaking technology and everything that comes with it, is the experience I had in that Imax cinema. When I strip away all the nonsense and noise and look purely at that experience, I find a film that blew my mind in a way that only LORD OF THE RINGS has, this decade, managed to achieve. It's exactly what popcorn spectacle is supposed to be. As a friend of mine said recently: "It's like the best French gourmet restaurant in the world making a hamburger."
After winning the Best Animated Short Oscar for HARVIE KRUMPET in 2003, Adam Elliot did what any other impoverished animator would do, and capitalised on his success. He appeared in TV commercials, he was interviewed everywhere (where his unfortunate anecdote-to-interview ratio became apparent), and he discussed all the films he'd turned down in order to make MARY AND MAX, his dream project. Over the six year between HARVIE KRUMPET and MARY AND MAX, I became concerned that a backlash might present itself; that his overexposure since 2003 (albeit followed by a complete media seclusion) would load MARY AND MAX with intangible and overbearing expectations. I don't know if that did, in fact, happen: Elliot made a film so good, all expectations were met and surpassed before the first twenty minutes were over. Elliot's extraordinary film about a strange young girl who becomes pen pals with an obese New York man with Asperger's Syndrome is unlike anything you've seen, and could never have been made under a typical studio setup. If you weren't moved by the film's unexpected final act, you probably didn't see it.
Terry Gilliam is a tortured genius misunderstood by the world he lives in; it is, therefore, fitting that he should make a film about a tortured genius misunderstood by the world he lives in. This is possibly the most disguised autobiography anyone's ever made, for Parnassus is Gilliam through-and-through. That one of my favourite directors should make a film about his own mortality and struggles, juxtaposing a grim reality with an outlandish fantasy, cements this extraordinary piece of work in my top ten of the year. He's created too many great films for me to call this his masterpiece without a few years to think about it, but it's sure as hell a contender.
There is but one single qualification for this list: just how much did I enjoy the film? If I was being intellectual about it, those Iranian, French, Romanian and Turkish films I loved so much (and appeared in the 50-11 list above) would have been placed here to prove my worldly credentials, but if I'm 100% honest about which films made me dance during the end credits, STAR TREK takes a bow. My original review shows you just how much I thought this film wasn't going to work, and that my hope was merely that it Wouldn't Suck. I had no idea it was going to be this much fun, that it was going to shrug off the painful memory of NEMESIS and "Enterprise" and present us with something that's pure fun from start to finish, something that respectfully subverts all the "Trek" that came before. Where the "changed history" retcon is not an aside briefly mentioned as a Get Out Of Jail Free Card, but is a key plot point used to propel the action, and quietly remind us what we loved about the show in the first place. Are there flaws? Well, yes, but the more important question is: do they get in the way of the film? For me, the answer is a resounding no. I had more fun in this film than in any other of the year, and that's why it's here.
I love every film Wes Anderson has made, but even I was fully prepared for FANTASTIC MR FOX to be a minor work, a change of pace so he could catch his breath before his next live-action Owen Wilson/Bill Murray-starring Tale of Quirk. Yes, I was powerfully wrong. FANTASTIC MR FOX may not be the most faithful adaptation, but given I still have the book sitting safely on my shelf, I didn't need it to be. The spirit of Dahl is still there, and that's enough for me. The film moves so quickly from moment to moment, I know for a fact that I've forgotten most of my favourite bits. But that's okay, because it means I'll get to watch it again and again with surprises aplenty. Perfect voice work, beautifully and deliberately flawed animation, and an air-tight script make this one of the biggest and most welcome surprises of 2009.
Steven Soderbergh is my favourite working director, and, thanks to his super-fast work pace and some confused distribution, this year I found myself with four new Soderbergh films in as many months. This was, of course, heaven for me. But the fact that he's my favourite director doesn't necessarily mean all of his work instantly jumps to the top of the queue. Much as I liked CHE: THE ARGENTINE and CHE: GUERILLA, neither was a contender for the best of the year, and THE INFORMANT! sits quietly but respectfully at spot number 41. THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE's high entry is as much a surprise to me as it is to you, but it's thoroughly earned. Using the same cinema verité techniques and chronologically-altered tricks that make him one of the most interesting filmmakers working today, Soderbergh gives us an experience every bit as disconnected as the experience of the clients of professional girlfriend Chelsea (played by real-life porn star Sasha Grey). The film is a series of experiences divided by emotions; Chelsea's own personal desire for closeness played cleverly against the desires of her clients, resulting in an unforgettable, unexpected final scene. Some friends of mine complained that the theme of the global financial crisis was too heavy-handed, yet this both key to the film's plots (most significantly, money being exchanged for emotional intimacy), and was the film's setting. In 2008, there was a period where this was all anyone was talking about, and its inclusion is both thematically relevant and geographically so. (It's like complaining about all the space ships in STAR WARS, or seeing THE GODFATHER and being all "enough with the Italian people, we get it!".) It's a challenging film, and its visceral effect on me was one of the most significant I experienced all year.
The feeling I had when I came out of A SERIOUS MAN was a lot like the feeling I had after SYNECHDOCHE: I had no idea what it was I'd just witnessed, but it had hit me on a gut level in a way almost no straightforward narratives ever have. It's a dangerous precedent, this. By stripping away nearly every element of text and creating a film of pure subtext, and having it work so well, might suggest to a generation of arty wannabes that this is the way toward critical acclaim. The key point is that nobody but the Coen Brothers could create a film this powerful. They understand every moment, every word of dialogue, every frame and every edit; it's all deliberate, and it's filmmaking so advanced, I still don't fully understand what I witnessed. As I said in my original review, I've refrained from reading all the theories and dissertations that no doubt exist online, because I still need more time with it. I want to let the film settle in my head, and that may take months, and it may take years. Still, by the time the end credits were scrolling, I knew this was one of my favourite films of the year.
Park Chan-wook may be South Korea's international household name (provided your household is filled with film geeks), but Bong Joon-ho has well and truly caught up to his compatriot. MEMORIES OF MURDER and THE HOST were both great films, but only just hold a candle to his latest work. The story follows a mother who, after her mentally-disabled son is accused of killing a young girl, searches for the truth behind the murder. To go into further detail would spoil the film for those who are yet to experience it, but it is a powerful movie with an astonishing central performance by Kim Hye-ja that holds you for every single nanosecond of its 129 minutes.
Back when nobody had heard of this film, I'd RSVPed purely because I happened to be near the cinema on the day of the press screening. When I entered the lobby and saw the poster, my initial, shameful reaction was "Oh good, another depressing, federally-funded guilt trip that ticks all of those bloody PC boxes". Had I seen the poster or heard the outline, I might have found an excuse to avoid the film. I castigated myself for this short-sighted, presumptuous bias afterwards, because SAMSON AND DELILAH is a work of genius. Writer/director Warwick Thornton understood that sitting back and filming squalid living conditions does not a film make. Sure, he had some important social messages to get across, but they underscored the story, they didn't replace it. The story itself is about the love between two teenagers, both of whom completely fail to understand what it is they feel and what to do about it. It is restraint of the highest order, and the results left me stunned. I haven't been able to stop thinking about it since I first saw it, and for a few months I thought it was going to be my number one film of the year. However...
Robert Connolly is the sort of multi-functional filmmaking force we desperately need more of in this country. He was a producer on Rowan Woods's THE BOYS, Samantha Lang's Dorothy Porter adaptation THE MONKEY'S MASK, Daniel Krige's WEST, Richard Roxburgh's ROMULUS MY FATHER, and Kriv Stender's LUCKY COUNTRY. In the midst of those projects, he co-wrote and directed THE BANK, and adapted and directed Elliot Pelman's THREE DOLLARS. But despite being the driving force behind a large portion of Australia's more impressive output, he had yet to truly make his mark. THE BANK was terrific, though flawed, and THREE DOLLARS had a brilliant first half followed by a not-so-brilliant second half. Connolly's had always been someone to watch out for, but he was yet to make his mark the way the directors of the Australian New Wave had in the 1970s. Then BALIBO happened.
BALIBO had its work cut out for it: it did not just have an important story to tell, it had several. The story of the Balibo Five, the five Australian journalists killed whilst covering the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975, was the driving force behind the film, as the issue is one that has yet to be resolved. (Thanks in small part to the release of this film, the Australian Federal Police has re-opened its investigation into the killings. Indonesia is reported to be anything but pleased.) Similarly, the story of Australian journalist Roger East and his quest to find out what happened to them along with his guide, the future East Timor president Jose Ramos-Horta, is also one that needed to be told. But how do you tell these concurrent stories without being all Ed Zwick about it and largely ignoring the plight of the indigenous population? Amazingly, BALIBO managed to tell all of these stories at once, without ever being crushed under the weight of its own narrative. And that fact barely scratches the surface of why BALIBO succeeds so much.
(I'll try to discuss part of this film's power without giving anything away, so forgive the occasional vagueness.) With every moment of character, every scrap of dialogue, we are made to care about the East Timorese, about these white journalists in a war zone they perhaps should not have been, made to understand Roger East's initial desire to not be involved in another conflict. Connolly does what so many filmmakers cannot, which is make us feel something for everyone involved. Two key slaughters are shown in graphic detail. The first is powerful and heartwrenching because it feels so real. It feels like documentary footage and it feels like we are right there with them when the deaths occur. The second slaughter has been unfairly criticised, but it is an essential, important juxtaposition of the first: it is stylised, quiet, filmic. It's no less disturbing, but it's disturbing for different reasons. The film's final line is not, as has been occasionally claimed, a racially-insensitive distraction from the real issues. It is an indictment of our own attitudes; our deep, shameful, innate racism that caused us to look the other way until it was five Caucasians in trouble. The final line (not technically the final line, but it feels like it -- the lines that come after feel more like a coda or a post-script) is deliberately shocking in its character's unintentional callousness. Its inclusion is part of what make the film so great.
2009 was the tenth anniversary of East Timor's independence, and on the night of that anniversary, I was watching BALIBO for the second time with the families of the Balibo Five and President Jose Ramos-Horta all in attendance. I'd already been convinced of the film's power at the first, less grandiose screening I'd attended, but seeing it alongside one of the main characters, as well as those close to the victims, was an experience it's hard to quantify.
BALIBO is a very important film for what it does in highlighting a period of history unknown to most, and yet that's not why it's here atop this list. It is flawless filmmaking; the sort of punchy, energised, fearless brilliance that feels like a direct descendant of everything we loved about the films of the 1970s (both Australian and international). There is not a single element or performance that does not deserve to be singled out and praised, which is argument enough to leave well alone. There is not a wrong note in the entire film. It is a major work that stands above every single other film released in 2009.
I mentioned the Australian New Wave of the 1970s earlier, and it's apt to mention them again, because I feel we're seeing the birth of something new. Directors who have worked out how to take a series of government agency checks and balances seen by so many struggling filmmakers as debilitating and impractically disadvantageous, and use them to fashion culturally-relevant stories that rise above the usual fare to tell something unique, something new and exciting. It's as if NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD finally put our demons to rest by acknowledging our seldom-discussed past of glorious schlock and grit, and, in that acknowledgment, allowed us to immediately burst forth with a new generation of films. This year, we were witness to a truly mesmerising movement in Australian film. The Australian New Wave is a distant memory; Post-New Wave is over; Ozploitation is truly behind us. Adam Elliot, Warwick Thorton and Robert Connolly are the front line of the New Australian Movement, the renaissance so many of us have been hoping for. For the first time in living memory, Australian cinema fills me with hope, and that fact alone make 2009 my favourite movie-going year of this decade.