Uh … where was I. Really? Not so important. When I was so rudely interrupted by real-world endeavors, I was smack dab in the middle of expressing my love for any number of films released in 2009. I find it fascinating that such a crappy year (and awful decade) produced so many great films. Certainly, the correlation is a natural one: many great artists are tortured or, at the very least, bit-time complainers. But not everything in the world of film 2009 centered on morose melancholia or seriously issue-oriented; not even close.
The 10 films I listed as the best of 2009 in my last post were really just the sprinkles on top of the cinematic sundae that was 2009. Cutting to the required 10 only made me wish Mel Brooks’ joke in History of the World: Part One was actually history (or mythology, I suppose): that there truly were 15 commandments as then, our “top” lists likely would have 15 slots. And really, was 15 even enough? I count seven films that live on my next tier and each, at some point, spent time in my top 10 before I finalized my list and rankings. And beyond those seven, there were another 13 that popped into momentary consideration as I first pulled together all the titles I would consider.
Meanwhile, there are plenty of other films that don’t belong to this additional group of 20 that I still thoroughly enjoyed watching and while heavily flawed and even denigrated by many, I would still describe as “good” movies if only for pure entertainment value and/or as semi-innocuous comfort film. (Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans fits into this category; but so do It’s Complicated and Julie & Julia, two easily dismissed pieces of fluff that really shouldn’t be and aren’t … even though both have tremendous problems. And if I get around to a post on some of the films I consider most overlooked of the year, I’ll be sure to mention Bandslam.)
So here and now, I would like to devote a little time to acknowledging the films that are Top 10-adjacent (my favorite term originating from Los Angeles real estate). In the 2009 Book of Aaron, they’re all still winners.
Top 10-Adjacent (Click on title for further comments)
Those were my “next seven,” and while I simply don’t have the patience (nor time, right now; the primary goal for 2010 is to do less, better, while not over-extending myself, so let’s start – sort of – now). Among the other distributed films I really liked in 2009 (in alphabetical order), I must mention Antichrist, Anvil: The Story of Anvil, The Cove, Duplicity, Food Inc., Forbidden Lie$, The Girlfriend Experience, The Headless Woman, The House of the Devil, The Hurt Locker, I’m Gonna Explode, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, Night and Day, Outrage, Racing Dreams, The Road, Sugar, A Town Called Panic and Two Lovers.
After the jump, more comments about the adjacents, and coming soon, more comments about the year and decade in film as well as the year in decade in television; and, who knows what else. (Well, I do, but no more promises without follow-through. So there.)
Once again, Pixar comes through. I've long stopped being surprised by Pixar's ability to make great movie after great movie. When a company has just a few teams focusing for years on developing wonderful and meaningful stories and place at least as much importance on successful storytelling as on magical technological advances, why shouldn't their single film each year attain new-masterpiece status? Although it does not rank highest for me this year in terms of animated films (thanks to Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox), that says more about the year-in-film than any major issues with Up, a wonderful look at aging, love, relationships, memory, promises and all sorts of things that tug at the emotional strings that generally keep our hearts soaring. Up did not become my favorite Pixar film – the holy trinity of The Incredibles, Ratatouille and WALL*E still rise above the rest – but not including it in my final top 10 did, in fact, cause momentary bouts of pain and guilt.
- The White Ribbon
If I was going to judge other people's opinions on films, this year would find me calling more movies "misunderstood" than ever before, and with many of my peers, I would argue Michael Haneke's latest is the most misunderstood of all. I keep hearing people criticize The White Ribbon for being too obvious, focusing on the blatant "Facism is bad" message. But part of why I love this movie is because I don't believe that deliberate and somewhat simplistic message is this film's primary focus whatsoever. In fact, I will go almost as far as to call it a canard; a McGuffin of a message. The White Ribbon focuses on mythology; more specifically, the stories communities tell themselves to cover up nasty truths they no longer want to face. Historical fact is never an absolute, especially when people transmit stories with their own agendas.
In The White Ribbon, an unreliable narrator actually not directly involved in the primary story whatsoever tells us about a series of incidents dramatically affecting the town in which he lives. At the end of the film, the town has determined its own history, "solving" the mysteries not through evidence but through convenience, ignoring the reality of who did what to whom. Of course it all ties together with the anti-facism message that has bored so many, but the film does not intend to simply make a statement by drawing parallels to history. Rather, it looks to present a form of aggressive passivity; unconscious appeasement; questioning the history we all know by examining not just the teachers but those who directly crafted the stories we tell ourselves about our communities, countries, etc. The ribbon of the title has no meaning other than what the father who uses it as punishment places on it. So too, history has no meaning until the objective is made subjective by those with an agenda.
- Up in the Air
Another one of the more divisive titles of the year, I do find myself baffled by much of the outrage. While Jason Reitman's film is by no means the best of 2009, in many ways I believe it to be the movie most representative of the year that was. I have not been a Reitman fan to date: I found both Thank You for Smoking and Juno fighting hard to burst through the barrier of mediocrity but failing. For me, Reitman's third time was a charm, though. I can't ignore that the film touched me (and yes, without pandering) because I identified so closely with much of what was there, and not just in terms of downsizing or the reality I experienced three months ago, losing my job for an organization that I gave all of myself to for several years. Again, I consider the economic themes of the film to be secondary to the emotional ones, and for better-or-worse, I could also identify with a character who creates lofty goals of arguably unimportant substance for himself while living his life in a cocoon devoid of close relationships with friends, family, lovers, etc. The backpack-of-life analogy in the film carries so much weight (bad pun intended) simply because the argument it makes is neither total crap nor completely true. We each see movies through our own personal filters, and I've noticed a lot of people criticizing Up in the Air for things that, through my eyes, don't even exist in the film. And sure, Reitman may sometimes sound like an arrogant, pretentious, silver-spoon-in-the-mouth movie-prince who is blind to the advantages he has had, but for me, this time, he still manages to hit all the right notes.
Few films this year were marketed as poorly, utterly missing their audience as Greg Mottola's Adventureland, a wonderfully sublime, droll, bittersweet "comedy" that felt to me like a Dazed and Confused for the mid-'80s: summer teen life, treated not with silly slapstick humor but instead with affection and nostalgia. Unfortuantely, I guess Miramax hoped to get the Superbad (Mottola's previous film) crowd or maybe some Twilight fans (thanks to Kristen Stewart). Audiences looking for outlandish comedy would be disappointed by the subtleties and nuances of Mottola's trip down his own memory lane, and nothing could be more unfortunate because Adventureland really is an overlooked gem that I hope attains its deserved status and thrives for a long time during its post-theatrical life.
- Every Little Step
When I walked out of Every Little Step at the 2008 Toronto Film Festival, I was giddy; simultaneously floored and thrilled. I had been tracking the film since Independent Film Week a year before, encouraging my colleagues at Tribeca to go after it since it was such a great idea for a New York doc. But what surprised me the most upon seeing the finished product was how much better Every Little Step represented the themes and original story of A Chorus Line than did the production of this stage revival the film documented.
Throughout the history of American theater, and especially musical theater, few shows, if any, can top b>A Chorus Line. Artistically and historically, it quite simply is one of the greatest and most important musicals ever. Many shows aspire to its great heights, hoping to become the next be-all, end-all reinvention of musical theaters, but arguably, none have actually succeeded. (Yeah, I'm looking at you Rent.) Personally, I count A Chorus Line among my five favorite musicals of all time. So I was very excited to see the revival when it hit Broadway a few years back, only to later become quite disappointed by the production's many flaws.
Every Little Step does not mask those flaws, but by brilliantly creating a real Chorus Line experience for its desperate participants who all really need this job, it did what the stage production somehow missed. I wish more documentaries could succeed in their pure intent as well as this one does.
- Police, Adjective
Few films have stuck with me as long as Police, Adjective did after I saw it at the New York Film Festival in September. Like The Informant!, I struggled to determine whether my enjoyment of the film matched my admiration for some of what it tried to accomplish. While I agree that the final linguistic sequence "makes" the film, I don't believe it stands on its own, for the very contrast between the tedium of the detective's daily investigative activities (for a case of arguable importance in the first place) with the eventual close examination of language and the way we use it proved most compelling to me. I have not seen Police, Adjective again since that first viewing, but I look forward to doing so. Any film which occupies my thoughts as much as this one did for as long as did must be doing something right.
- Passing Strange: The Movie: Purely by coincidence, my love of musical theater maintains significant presence on this list this year, but in the case of Passing Strange, for a different reason. There are plenty of reasons to dismiss Passing Strange from any year-end list, most notably that the film is primarily a record of a stage show rather than a constructed and edited motion picture. To some degree, that very description would be wrong, though, as what exists on screen is, in fact, a compendium of two live performances with multiple edits, close-ups and pick-ups shot at a later time and edited seamlessly into the final work. Spike Lee's main manipulation is as simple as making the audience believe everything they see is from the same, final Broadway performance of the show.
But great camera direction and editing alone, fooling the audience in this way, would not earn Passing Strange my special regard. Rather, I appreciate this film for what Lee did, which I thought would be nearly impossible. I saw the stage production of Passing Strange just days before Lee brought his cameras into the theater, and i was completely blown away. I felt ashamed for not having seeing the production sooner, especially back when it played in more intimate surroundings Off-Broadway at The Public Theater. While it was by no means a be-all, end-all reinvention of the musical, it was a brilliant restructuring of the form, merging concert-style storytelling of the Hedwig and the Angry Inch variety with more pure narrative, but still somewhat abstract, storytelling. I loved it not just for its presentation and wonderfully moving coming-of-age story, but also for the tremendous energy emanating from the stage, something I simply did not believe Lee would able to capture accordingly, not through any fault of his own, but because it's almost always virtually impossible. (I wrote about the stage production of Passing Strange, as well as my concerns for Lee's film, which had already been announced.)
I was wrong. The miracle of Passing Strange: The Movie is that while it's not completely the same, Lee actually does get as close as I believe anyone ever could, with a cinematic twist, to the energy and emotion of being in the theater. And the reason that this movie belongs on a list like this is because the best way to watch it is BIG, on the biggest screen you can. Watching it on a 42-inch TV will be much better than on a 30-inch TV. Watching it in a small screening room will far surpass seeing it on your 42-inch television. And seeing it at the DGA Theater or AMC Village VII during Tribeca or at the IFC Center during its brief theatrical run, with full audiences feeling that energy with you … that's movie magic!