Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Top 40 Films of 2009 (40-36)

With this post, my last of the year (and the decade), I begin looking back on the past year's best films. 2009 was an embarrassment of cinematic riches, so much so that I refuse to submit myself to the "tyranny of ten," as the estimable critic Jonathan Keifer terms it, since there were far more than ten films that deserve recognition as great achievements. So herewith, in a nod to the great Casey Kasem, begins a Top-40 countdown of the year's best films. Everyone has their own rules for inclusion, and here are mine: if a film had or began its commercial run, or played for at least a week in New York during the calendar year 2009, it was eligible. The vagaries of film distribution being what they are, many of the films on my list were not actually made in 2009. That said, here we go.

40. Zombieland (Ruben Fleischer, US, 2009)/Drag Me to Hell (Sam Raimi, US, 2009)

A double shot of exhilarating B-movie bliss. Fleischer picks up John Carpenter’s mantle and delivers a stylish, hilarious road movie that traverses a post-zombie apocalypse America, with breathless verve and invention. The denizens of this blasted landscape include: Jesse Eisenberg (who is also in another film much higher on this list), refining his virginal-neurotic persona, suggesting a younger Woody Allen; Woody Harrelson, aces as a swaggering zombie hunter with an acute hankering for Twinkies; and the cherry on top is a priceless Bill Murray cameo. Raimi interrupts his Spider-Man movie career to return to his roots with an appealingly old-school Gothic horror that has a dash of topicality (an ill-advised bank foreclosure decision sets the mayhem into motion), but is mostly an opportunity for Raimi to prove himself a master of shock mechanics and to fuck with our heads in the way only he can.

39. The Informant! (Steven Soderbergh, US, 2009)

The curious case of Mark Whitacre: Soderbergh’s latest is a slippery object, at once mainstream star vehicle and odd experiment, at once parodic and subtly chilling. As unsettling and elusive as its protagonist (portrayed by Matt Damon in one of his best performances), The Informant! has an oddly anachronistic feel: even though the action takes place in the early 90’s, the wardrobe, production design, and Marvin Hamlisch score evoke the ‘70s, referencing such paranoiac cinema touchstones as Coppola’s The Conversation, which this film often seems like a bizarre parody of. This is the true(ish) tale of the whistleblower who dropped the dime on his employer Archer Daniels Midland, who perpetrated a massive industrial price-fixing scheme. Unbeknownst to his FBI handlers, Whitacre himself was just as deceptive about his motives and actions as his employers, if not more so. The film gives no ground to the viewer on which to stand as far as audience identification goes: almost everyone is just a different degree of a liar. As such, it perfectly reflects our post-economic collapse world.

38. Summer Hours/L’heure d’été (Olivier Assayas, France, 2008)

A sun-dappled, elegiac pastoral evoking the films of Jean Renoir, the spiritual grandfather of practically all the great French directors who followed him, Summer Hours captures the ephemeral nature of life and what we collect during it, even more accurately evoked by its French title. The death of a family matriarch (the wonderful Edith Scob) occasions a debate and familial conflict over the true value of art works, and what it really means when family heirlooms are put on display at a public museum. The grown children, who are scattered around the planet, deal with the severed family bonds in often diametrically opposed ways. As much as Summer Hours laments things lost, it is not without optimism; we are left with a strong hint that the youngest generation, who while at play in the family garden make their own life discoveries (often with a pop and hip-hop soundtrack), and who have the best hope at surviving in the current world, deciding what should be preserved and what should be discarded.

37. Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, US/Germany, 2009)

Regardless of their ostensible subject matter, all of Tarantino’s films are really about his all-encompassing and unabashed love of cinema, and Inglourious Basterds expresses this love on his largest, most elaborate canvas to date. A history-rewriting, wish-fulfillment fantasy that shoehorns within it many references to German cinema of the period, it may have ranked higher on my list if there were a bit more depth to its pyrotechnics. Still, it’s a tremendous achievement, and Tarantino reveals himself to be a brilliant Hitchcock acolyte in the way he gains maximum tension from very long dialogue-heavy scenes with tense undercurrents (e.g. the brilliant opening sequence).

36. Old Partner/Wonang sori (Lee Chung-ryoul, South Korea, 2008)

This beautifully constructed documentary about an old farmer and his work ox was a surprise sleeper hit in its native Korea, and opens this week at Film Forum. It actually had a run this spring at the Imaginasian Theatre, which almost no one noticed. Now that more people in this country are aware of this film’s existence, hopefully they will discover the charms and beauty of Old Partner, an intimate elegy to a way of life that is rapidly disappearing.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Best Korean Films of the 2000s: Roh Gyeong-tae, "Land of Scarecrows" (2008)

Land of Scarecrows (Heosuabideuleui ddang). 2008. Written and directed by Roh Gyeong-tae. Produced by Roh Gyeong-tae, Antonin Dedet, and Kim Jae-Chung. Cinematography by Choi Jung-soon. Edited by Choi Hyun-suk. Production design by Eum Jin-sun. Music by Lee Jaesin. Costume design by Choo Jung-hee.

Cast: Kim Sun-young (Jang Ji-young), Jung Duwon (Loi Tan), Bich Phuong Thi (Rain).

One of the most original, boldly experimental, and beautiful works of Korean cinema this past decade, with indelible and haunting images that remain with me, is Roh Gyeong-tae's second feature Land of Scarecrows. An evocative tale of gender confusion, arranged marriage, adoption, and environmental devastation, Roh's film was largely dismissed and misunderstood by most critics, and notwithstanding its being awarded the New Currents prize at the 2008 Pusan International Film Festival, it didn't get the audiences or critical notices it deserved. Below is what I wrote on this film when it screened at Pusan.

For a jaded filmgoer and film festivalgoer like me, surprises can often be few and far between. Whether it is the latest Hollywood super-spectacle or the most obscure, experimental art film, most films nowadays are variations on the familiar and endlessly overdone. So it is quite a pleasure to come across such a film as Roh Gyeong-tae’s Land of Scarecrows, a true masterpiece whose elliptical, initially challenging style is nevertheless eminently accessible. Roh’s second feature, which shared the New Currents Award (for best first or second film) at this year’s Pusan International Film Festival, is one of the great discoveries one always hopes to find at a film festival, especially one with as vast a selection as Pusan’s.

Opening with a cryptic image of two mudang (Korean female shamans) performing an elaborate ritual dance, Land of Scarecrows alternates between two locales: Honghae, a rural area of South Korea, and the Philippines. The film follows a number of characters, the three most significant being Jang Ji-young (Kim Sun-young), an amateur installation artist who also happens to be a transgender woman living as a man; Rain (Bich Phuong Thi), a young Filipina who dreams of living in Korea; and Loi Tan (Jung Duwon), an ethnic Korean young man who was brought from the Philippines as a foster child. A beautiful and lyrical alchemy, not dissimilar to the artworks Ji-young creates, brings these characters together and unites their destinies into a tapestry that is mesmerizing to watch.

Land of Scarecrows melds humor, melancholy, and an ethereal sense of spirituality in a way that elevates it far above the sort of pretentious, self-consciously arty films that are far too prevalent at film festivals. The phenomenon of Korean men seeking arranged marriages with Southeastern Asian women is presented in a very humorous way, with repeated scenes of nervous potential brides being sized up by their suitors. Ji-young meets and marries Rain at one of these marriage agencies, of course with Rain initially being unaware that her new husband is a biological woman. Their relationship, however, isn’t played for laughs and in fact leads to some of the most poignant moments of the film. The film is also full of beautifully-rendered scenes that could stand alone as short films, such as Ji-young and Rain’s initial meeting, and a later scene in a karaoke bar where Ji-young belts out a plaintive, romantic song.

Roh Gyeong-tae, a former stockbroker who previously made a number of experimental short films and the feature The Last Dining Table, emerges as a major talent with Land of Scarecrows, which has a richly textured look and an unusual approach to storytelling that yields great rewards. This makes it all the more gratifying that the New Currents jury, headed by French New Wave icon Anna Karina, recognized this extraordinary work.

Land of Scarecrows is available on DVD from

Saturday, December 26, 2009

2009 Pusan International Film Festival: Sights and Sounds of Busan

I will wrap up my coverage of this year's Pusan International Film Festival with an assortment of pictures and video I made during the festival. Below is a Flickr slideshow of photos and some videos I shot that I hope will give at least a small sense of what it was like to be there, and some of the experiences Busan offered beyond the films.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Wes Anderson, "Fantastic Mr. Fox" -- Q&A at MOMA, 12/7/09

Wes Anderson spoke recently at the Museum of Modern Art following a screening of his latest film Fantastic Mr. Fox, his wonderful, beautifully crafted stop-motion animated version of Roald Dahl's classic book, the first film by Anderson that I've loved since Rushmore. Animation was a logical step for him, since his live-action films are already rather cartoonish. Fantastic Mr. Fox is one of my favorite films of the year -- watch this space for the rest of them.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Best Korean Films of the 2000s: Song Il-gon, "The Magicians" (2005)

The Magicians (Mabeopsadul). 2005. Written and directed by Song Il-gon. Produced by Lee Young-ju. Cinematography by Park Young-jun. Edited by Choi Jae-kun. Music by Song Il-gon and Loveholic.

Cast: Jung Woong-in, Jang Hyun-sung, Lee Seung-bee, Kang Kyung-hun, Kim Hak-sun.

A major trend of the past decade in film is the ever increasing prevalence of digital technology. Song Il-gon's The Magicians, a 95 minute film shot in a single take, is one of the finest films in this medium. Song, one of Korea's most interesting filmmakers, was educated at Lodz Film School in Poland, whose alumni include Kryzstof Kieslowski and Roman Polanski, and this undoubtedly contributes to his very distinctive style of filmmaking. Song previously made two digital features, Flower Island and Git (Feathers in the Wind), in both cases exploring the unique creative possibilities inherent in the medium. The Magicians was originally a 40 minute short, titled "Magician(s)," included in the omnibus "Digital Shorts By Three Filmmakers," an annual project of the Jeonju International Film Festival, in which three filmmakers are invited to make short films using digital technology. The 40 minute version, while impressive technically, never quite shook the sense of being a show-offy stunt. However, as a feature, it gains much depth and emotional resonance, transforming into a moving and, despite its somber subject matter, ultimately uplifting meditation on memory, spirituality, and the coexistence of the past and present.

The Magicians is set in and around a bar in a wooded area far from the city, where the three surviving members of the rock band Magician gather, as they do each year, for a memorial for their female guitarist Jae-eun (Lee Seung-bi), who committed suicide three years earlier. The bar is run by her boyfriend Jae-sung (Jung Woong-in), who created this remote retreat as a way to deal with his grief. The bass player (Jang Hyun-sung) and female vocalist (Kang Kyung-heon) also reminisce and are still shaken by the loss. Jae-un herself appears as a ghostly presence, hovering unseen among her living friends. Within the film's single take, flashbacks before Jae-eun's suicide and the circumstances leading up to it are handled with boldly theatrical techniques: music cues, lighting changes, and a character's movement out of the bar or up a staircase takes us back into the past. The natural setting, and the presence in the film of a fifth character, a monk leaving his monastery and looking for a snowboard he left at the bar, suggest the spiritual presence suggested by the title of the piece. By using the digital medium to evoke the past, The Magicians shares similarities to another groundbreaking digital film, Alexander Sokurov's Russian Ark, which traveled through centuries of Russian history. Song's film is much more intimate, observing the connections between a small group of people who will never escape their past, and we are left with the suggestion that this is not necessarily a bad thing. For better or worse, our relations with others, whether happy or tragic, are part of who we are, and it is folly to attempt to hide or run from it.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

2009 Pusan International Film Festival: Review Round-up #2

Sawasdee Bangkok (Wisit Sasanatieng, Aditya Assarat, Kongdej Jaturanrasmee, Pen-ek Ratanaruang, Thailand, 2009)

A great four-film anthology about the city of Bangkok, each one built around a song. In Wisit Sasanatieng’s “Sightseeing,” a blind homeless girl selling lottery tickets on the street is accompanied by a mysterious companion who claims to be a literal guardian angel. In Aditya Assarat’s “Bangkok Blues,” a young man, who has broken up with his girlfriend, and his soundman best friend are the crux of an amusing tale about relationships. Kongdej Jaturanrasmee’s “Pi Makham,” about a heartbroken, solitary man and the prostitute he picks up, morphs into an unusual ghost story. In Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s “Silence,” a woman driving home after a wild night of partying learns a painful lesson on the perils of judging by appearance. Four appealing miniatures from four of Thailand’s most accomplished young directors.

Break Away (Lee Song Hee-il, South Korea, 2009)

The second film from Lee Song, one of Korea’s very few openly gay filmmakers, and my first disappointment. Essentially a road movie consisting of two AWOL soldiers and the girlfriend of one of the men who accompanies them, the film has a thin, undeveloped scenario. It is based on a true story of soldiers who attempted to escape sexual abuse of the hands of their commanding officer. There’s really not much more to it than the above description, and Break Away is strangely inert, lacking the intensely passionate nature of his first film, No Regret.

I Am Looking For A Wife (Ha Kil-chong, South Korea, 1976)

I Am Looking For A Wife is a typically weird entry in this year’s retrospective of filmmaker and critic Ha Kil-chong. It’s not a particularly good film, but it is a divertingly eccentric portrait of Pal-soo (Ha Jae-young), a horny young man who strolls around the streets outside Ewha Womans University in Seoul ogling the college girls and fantasizing about being with them. He works as a debt collector for a loan-shark, and through his boss’ machinations, Pal-soo ends up sharing a house with a collection of nubile young women. Meanwhile, his farmer father has arranged a more traditional bridal prospect for him, which Pal-soo assiduously resists. Presented in a bizarre visual style with anarchic humor, this film is an interesting example of the unusual films released in Korea in the 1970’s, belying this period’s undeserved reputation as a cinematic wasteland.

Magma (Pierre Vinour, France, 2009)

The second feature by experimental filmmaker Vinour extends that aesthetic into this story about Paul (Mehdi Nebbou), an agoraphobic software engineer who very reluctantly travels to a conference to pitch a video surveillance program to an American company. He speaks to his wife Christie (Natacha Régnier) by video conference, where he has installed the surveillance program in his own house. Christie feels neglected and alienated from her husband, both by his extreme workaholic ways and his various personal issues. Paul, initially restricting himself to his room, is persuaded to venture into the outside world as the result of an affair he embarks on with a mysterious woman in the hotel room next door. Employing the titular substance as a metaphor for the buried evil of the main character, Magma impressively elevates its rather standard plot with some interesting visual flourishes.