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.

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