by Sam Juliano
Putting together a ‘Best Films of the Year’ list for 2009, was an extremely tedious and thankless endeavor, as it was impossible to accomodate all the films that I felt were worthy of such an honor, and in fact at one point or another seemed a certainty to make the final cut. Two of my personal favorites, genre films Star Trek and District 9 failed to secure spaces in the final twelve, because eight “foreign” films (three French, one Japanese, one Australian, one Swedish, one Romanian, and one British) left room for only four American entries. After those four, Star Trek and District 9 would have been next up. For the first time in over a decade, my #10 slot (traditionally a tie between two films) is now a three-way tie, making my “ten-best” list really a “dozen-best.” All things considered, I don’t think this is an unfair compromise at all, as I simply was unable to decide between the Japanese, French and British films that finally share that spot, and a placement in “The List.” The quality difference between #1 and that three-way 10th place tie is minimal, meaning that the numerical routine is largely a one to create a dramatic unveiling. Still, I attempted to list them in this fashion and after much shuffling (I need to get a life, is there really any importance to this in the grand scheme of things? Ha!) I finally settled on the current allignment. Deciding the #1 position between Jane Campion’s beautiful and intoxicating Bright Star and the visually spectacular Avatar was excrutiatingly difficult, but I am content with my decision. In any case, thse two films were cinematic “epiphanies” for me, and together they head up a list of impressive work from home and abroad. (note: I included comprehensive capsule essays for the Top 4, but after that I went with basic and brief summaries.)
#1 Bright Star (Campion) Australia
New Zealand-born director Jane Campion’s rapturous film Bright Star, based on a biographical volume by Andrew Motion, tells the story of Keats’s brief but intensely passionate relationship with 19 year-old Fanny Brawne when the poet was 24 and nearing the throws of the tuberculosis that eventually claimed his life in Rome a year later. As the film opens, Keats has just returned from a walking tour of Scotland with his friend, fellow poet Charles Brown, who is a neighbor of the Brawne family, which includes Fanny, 14 year-old Sam and 9 year-old Toots. it a difficult time for Keats financially, and Brown affords him vital assistance telling Keats: “Your writing is the finest thing in my life.” Needless to say such a scenario lends itself to an upcoming conflict as Keats’s blossoming affection for Fanny is rebuffed by Charles who accuses her of “making a religion out of flirting,” but it’s clear enough that there is some jealousy at play too. Charles feels that his friend’s artistic soul is at risk by this affair, which is sure to mute inspiration. But at this point Keats is actually maturing even further, as both Nightingale and Melancholy are written at this time after the death of his brother Thomas to tuberculosis and a preminition of his own death to the same illness.
At the time Keats and Fanny begin their relationship, the poet had just completed his masterful Endymion, which opens with the famous lines (“A thing of beauty is a joy forever:/Its loveliness increases; It will never/Pass into nothingness; but still will keep/A bower quiet for us, and a sleep/Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.) Predictably the poem is rejected in literary circles back in London, but Fanny’s a huge fan, and she’s tried to impress Keats by immersing herself in the works of his heroes: Shakespeare, Chaucer and Milton. But Keats’s poverty row status earns him no respect from Mrs. Brawne, who cares only about her daughter’s financial well-being and not about love and happiness.
Bright Star is really about Brawne, as Campion is content to utilize the poet’s letters and prose as sensuous presence, even though the actor Ben Whishaw gives an affecting, if oddly withdrawn performance as the doomed romantic genius. (But in view of the real-life passing of his brother at that point, constant melancholy would be expected.) It’s understandable that Campion, a fervent feminist would apply her focus on the female half of the short-lived relationship and its psychological and emotional underpinnings. It’s clear that Campion was deeply moved by the tragic brevity of the Keats-Brawne affair, and she infuses the film with unabashed emotionalism, by wedding literature to music. It’s hard not to react when one hears Abbie Cornish, (an Australian with a dark-eyed gaze) who delivers an exquisite and soulful performance as Brawne, reading of the poem “Bright Star” (printed at the outset of this essay) written specifically for her, in a pathetically sobbing and chocked up voice. And when the stunning Ode to a Nightingale (“Where but to think is to be full of sorrow/And leaden-eyed despairs”) is recited over Mozart’s “Serenade in B, K. 361, Adagio, during the closing credits it’s a sublime, emotionally wrenching moment that you know can only be experienced at the movies. But perhaps most significantly it’s the silences and non-verbal interactions between Whishaw and Cornish that are the most effective here.
The cinematographer Greig Fraser makes excellent use of light and air in his quaint county settings, that always seems to bring awareness for nature even in the indoor segments. The metaphorical butterfly scene, rich in symbolism is a visceral highlight, but the real showcase is a ravishing field of purple flowers that has becoming an art house allure for fans. Janet Patterson’s costume design in this film is revelatory, and it’s home spun embroidering helps to forge some modest character metamorphosis, and a fine delineation of social class. It’s the finest work of its kind in many a moon. First-time feature film composer Mark Bradshaw has written about 20 to 25 minutes of his own material to compliment the use of classical music and his mainly violin-laden work here is haunting, and a subtle undercurrent to the hard-earned emotions that realize full flourish in the final scenes.
By charting a direct path to the human heart, with compelling prosaic-style direction, Jane Campion tells a story in Bright Star that seemingly needed to be told, and the result is the director’s best film, and one of the most piercingly beautiful in years. It’s 2009’s best film.
#2 Avatar (James Cameron) USA
Five years ago James Cameron announced that his next film would be a technologically astute blend of live-action and computer-generated imagry that would alter the cinematic landscape. His story of humans invading the planet Pandora in the year 2154, begins as an exploratory tale involving a team of two scientists and a crippled ex-Marine named Jake Scully who replaces his late twin brother in a scientific experiment, by which he assists in roaming the planet with other remote-controlled bodies, which have been cloned from human and indigenous DNA (the avitars of the film’s title). This distant world is the source of a valuable and expensive mineral. The controlled beings are a close approximation of the of the planet’s native Na’Vi, a tall, blue and cat-like species. Jake begins his “sojourn” as an observer, and he soon discovers the beauty, enchantment and danger of Pandora.
But then the story takes a drastic turn when Colonel Miles Quaritch requests that Jake “spy” for the coroporate bosses, a request that Jake agrees to after he’s promised exorbitantly expensive surgery to repair his damaged spine. Predictably, but no less compellingly Jake learns the culture and mores of Na’Vi tribe from a beautiful warrior Neytiri, with whom he immediately develops a permanent bond with. Of course the immersion into the tribe allows Quaritch to gain the tactical intelligence he needs to enact complete obliteration of the indigenous population. A large part of
large part of this number is located directly above the planet’s biggest vein of the ultra-precious metal “unobtanium” and if the human leader of this mission, Parker Selfridge is unable to accomplish success by willing complicity, he’s prepared to employ lethal force. Sully at first agrees with the plan, but after he (in his ‘avatar’ form) falls in love with Neytiri, the story borrows the white-turned-Indian plot thrust of Dances With Wolves. But Cameron is no fool and he knows the emotional prospects of a storytelling device where an oppressed people can rise up with the help of one, smitten by true love, and shoot an arrow into the advanced barbarians that threaten their very existence.
The narrative device is hardly original but it serves as a potent underpinning to the awesome spectacle that plays out here, culminating in a final hour of action-packed intensity that has the thrills of an endless roller coaster, filled with all the genre conventions, like hanging from the end of a cliff, falling in a canyon into a cascading river, or an all-out CGI battle, a la Return of the King. But Cameron and his technical staff have succeeded with some nifty digital deception that has raised the bar for such technology. Hence Avatar pulsates, almost breathing a life of its own in it’s conversion from movie to immersive experience. A dominant percentage of the film’s locations are quite apparently CGI too, inducing one to wonder if they should called this an “animated film with live-action” or a “live-action film with some animated aspects and sequences.” Such is this seamless immersion of what is real and what is not to create an illuminative world of arresting images, swirling, incandescent colors and an awe-inspiring beauty that elevates one’s consciousness to a
to a state of spirituality rarely aspired to, much less achieved in any film. There is an arresting naturalism that almost leaps off the screen which is populated by sumptuous images of day-glo vegetation and the exotic creatures controlled by the Na’Vi. The lengthy stretches of the movie that are sensory and wordless are as rapturous (very much in tone poem mode) as anything every seen on the screen, and this kind of visual cinema, where narrative is more of a hinderance than a benefit, is Avatar’s most extraordinary quality and it’s true selling point. It’s true that Cameron keeps insisting that the film needs to tie together plot strands, but this was unecessary, if not particularly harmful. In this sense, it’s to be noted here that some critics have taken issue with the pedestrian nature of a dialogue, a point I reject in the name of cinematic purity. Avatar is neither a satiric comedy nor a trenchant stage drama. Characters and words tell the story, but they are pawns to purvey cinematic expression. Those who are awed by and feel the film’s magic won’t feel the simplistic dialogue which seems to combine New Age expression and macho agression, is either abnormal or detrimental. That said, it’s abundantly clear that Cameron’s storytelling prowess widely trumps his talents as a writer of prose.
But it all comes down to the wonderment and astounding visual tapestries, accentuated by the metamorphosis of a character who sees the inherent beauty in a culture ravaged by war, internal strife and foreign invasion. This creates in the viewer an emotion so powerful that it defies description. It’s almost like you found some clues to the meaning of life. But short of those lofty aspersions, the film raises questions of mortality and existence (much in the style of Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain- a giant willow tree holding the meaning of life for all living things echoes the Tree of Life in Aronofsky’s film) and with a ruminative flow that recalls Terrence Malick) that turn a futuristic planetary action thriller into a far more profound philosophical experience. The blend of mysticism and environmentalism evident in Avatar also suggests Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, whose influence might also be discerned in the scenes of awe and wonderment set in the centerpiece forest sequences. Avatar is so overwhelming that any objections to pedestrian dialogue or plotting are really beside the point. This is no movie but an “experience” that has become all too rare these days.
#3 35 Shots of Rum (Denis) France
Enigmatic French director Claire Denis has long ignored traditional plot conventions and a preponderance of dialogue to craft seemingly oblique dramas that have favored physicality and wordless expression. The noted auteur stays the course in what can rightfully be seen as her most accesible film to date, 35 Shots of Rum, a purposely aimless study of a short time in the life of a small group of Parisians. Typically, Denis doesn’t rush to present the relationship between characters, and only gradually does the audience discover the revealing narrative data. And with a noted sparcity of dialogue, her films, this one included, have been maddening for some cinematic prospectors who desire more than the meagre narrative information on display. The fimmaking style here is abstract, and any hint of linear structure is dashed by small snippets from the characters’ lives which posess little continuity to mirror the way characters meet and interact in real life, which is also a series of encounters and time spent together with no necessary order or sequence.
The obvious influence of the great Yashujiro Ozu’s 1949 masterpiece Late Spring becomes apparent, even without a blunt admission from Denis herself, who explained in an interview for Daily Plastic’s Robert Davis: “I’ve been dreaming for many years of making an homage to Ozu, because actually it’s the story of my grandfather and my mother. She was raised by her father. And once I took her to see a retrospective of Ozu, and she really had a sort of shock to see that film [Late Spring]. That was like maybe ten, fifteen years ago, and I told her, “Maybe, once, I will try to make a film like that for you.” The film’s central focus is on a widowed train conductor named Lionel (played by Alex Descas) who was previously employed in the overseas department at Guadeloupe, and his daughter Josephine (Mati Diop), who reside in a Parisian housing complex with Lionel’s ex-girlfriend, chain-smoking Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue) a taxi driver with doleful eyes, and Noe (Gregoire Colin) a good-looking young man who is dating Josephine. The relationships are well-established at the beginning of the film, so there isn’t any need for any kind of exposition. So the stage is set for the the central plot machination in Late Spring, where the daughter must begin the new phase of her life apart from her parent.
Yet it’s clear enough that the father and daughter initially seem unable to show any affinity for making any major changes, and much of the film is an emotional stalemate of sorts, compounded by their symbiotic existence. Yet there is more than a hint in the film that cessation of movement, a major theme in 35 Shots of Rum, can result in tragic consequences as in the scene where Lionel discovers the body of a recently retired fellow worker. Lionel equates this death symbolically to the failure to “switch tracks.” As in Denis’ previous films, the actual ‘drama’ is in the commonplace when nothing happens, except for extended looks or glances and the communication of whispers. Yet the film isn’t any kind of a puzzle or mystery, as Denis is far more interesting in how the characters interact, how they feel, and what decisions they reach. She’s interested in the fabric of their lives, not the specifics of what is resolved.
The issue of dependence is and inter-connection is given supreme definition in the film’s most extraordinary scene, (in fact one of the most unforgettable scenes in any film this year) when the four characters take refuge in a restaurant during a rainstorm and commence some slow-dancing to the Commodores’ “Night Shift.” Considering the complete dearth of dialogue, it’s rather astounding what is effectively communicated here: trepidation and aspirations, and what these people really want and need in their life. There’s clearly a fear of human connection the retreat into privacy is a kind of human shield to avert being hurt. Long-time Denis collaborator, cinematographer Agnes Godard helps to accentuate the dimly-lit interiors, and close-ups are dominant. It’s somewhat miraculous how Denis is able to employ minimalism to stir this kind of character depth. It’s a scene of repressed energy, and it’s Denis’ trademark. Orchestrating the filmmaker’s focus and vision the four principals deliver affecting and finely-modulated understated performances that create full-bodied characters who navigate tenuous emotional waters. Unsurprisingly, Descas and Diop are the catalysts for connecting people with events, and their work is studied and technically adroit. Denis again examines ethnic diversity in contemporary France with great insight, and in the end 35 Shots of Rum is one of her most accessible works.
#4 Up (Doctor) USA
A silent poetic montage that opens Pixar’s latest animated offering, titled Up, follows Carl and Ellie–two children who develop a close friendship that leads to marriage, bliss and dreams of travel and a far away paradise in the southern hemisphere. The sequence shows both the moments of triumph and adversity and in so doing chronicles the timeless life concerns of love, loss and the passage of time. But when Ellie gets sick and passes on leaving Carl to make a fateful decision, the film segues into a fantasy inspired consciously or not by Virginia Lee Burton’s Caldecott Medal-winning picture book The Little House, which presents the life cycle of a house being implanted by industrialization, and Albert Lamorisee’s beautiful French short The Red Balloon, which features a boy whisked up into the air by colorful balloons to attain a spiritual nirvana. It’s a priceless sequence, imbued with sweet poignancy that surely ranks among the best work done in any animated film, and it’s difficult to sustain. Yet, in large measure, Up doesn’t violate the precious delicacy of its celebrated opening, and utilizes a deft combination of humor, fantasy and adventure to produce what is surely one of the studio’s three best films. (WALL-E and Ratatouille are the others). Apart from the superhero-dominated The Incredibles, this is the only Pixar movie that features human beings in the major roles.
Most of Up’s narrative features the bonding and exploits of Carl (now 78 years-old and a lookalike of Spencer Tracy in the last phase of his life) and a young eight-year old wilderness scout, who is first rebuffed, but then becomes part of the picture as a stowaway hiding under the old man’s porch. As children and progressing through life Carl and Ellie has always dreamed of journeying to Paradise Falls, a “lost world” on the South American continent where their childhood hero, and explorer named Charles Muntz had embarked for but had never returned from. Economical constraints prevent this trip from ever materializing, and like an older man wanting to make a last ditch effort to realize a vacation that has always eluded him, Carl decides to execute his elaborate plan which seems more like something imagined by Jules Verne. After an altercation with a construction worker which necessitates a court hearing as a result of his refusal cooperate with the suffocating construction around his house, he is advised that a retirement home named Shady Oaks would be the best choice to spend his final years. At this point the film veers drastically from realistic fiction into Fantasy land, when his house (recalling it’s famous Kansas descendent) is whisked up into the air on the strength of hundreds of balloons that are anchored by chords that run down to the chimney’s fireplace. The later segments of Up are more conventional and admittedly don’t hold the thrall of the film’s first two-thirds, but this is on balance an exquisite and moving work, which ranks at the head of the studio’s spectacular output in terms of sheer artistry.
#5 A Single Man (Ford) USA
An exquisite film debut, A Single Man was adapted from Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel of the same name, and features George, a gay man ravaged by intense grief. Gorgeously rendered interiors capture the characters’ personalities and torment—George’s glass house is appointed with anal precision; Charley’s living room challenges her daily to keep up with its midcentury glam (the film is set in the early Sixties). A mournful beauty permeates even the dreadful scene depicting Jim’s fatal car crash, yet the most surprising aspect about the film is its subtlety and poignant, introspective emotional tenor.
In adapting the book, Tom Ford cowrote the screenplay with David Scearce. The film presents a day in the life of college professor George, played brilliantly by Colin Firth, who struggles to hold his life together after the sudden death months before of his lover of 16 years, Jim (Matthew Goode). Julianne Moore portrays George’s friend Charley, a gorgeously turned out, hard-drinking matron on the precipice of decline, who longs to rekindle the brief romance the two shared many years before, and she’s nearly as impressive as Firth. The claustrophobic drama is beautifully scored in relentlessly pulsating rhythm by Tom Korzeniowski in Phillip Glass mode, and the use of flashbacks is about as powerful and fluid as we’ve seen in many a moon. This is an altogether haunting and gut-wrenching piece of cinema, that isn’t remotely forgotten weeks after it’s seen.
#6 Police, Adjective (Porumbiou) Romanian
The Romanian Police, Adjective is a minimalist police procedural, that is so meticulously observed, and so fascinating in detail, that it hardly matters that nothing is really going on. The last 15 minutes, which features a police director’s lecture on the difference between “conscience” and “justice” ranks as one of the greatets single sequences in any film this year, certainly the equal of the restaurant scene in 35 Shots of Rum, the lyrical “prologue” of Antichrist and the scrapbook segment near the beginning of Pixar’s Up. Daily routine has never seems such a fascinating ritual, and life in the former Iron Curtain country seems depressed. The film’s gifted helmer, Christian Porumbieu, seemingly uses a magnifying glass to record every surface action (and non-action) leading up to the extraordinary climax. Easily one of 2009’s most brilliant films.
#7 Everlasting Moments (Troell) Sweden
Back in 1972 when director Jan Troell completed his sweeping two-part saga about Swedish emigration to America, The Emigrants/The New Land, based on the novels of Vilhelm Moberg, film icon and fellow countryman Ingmar Bergman said that he was the “best thing that’s happened to Swedish cinema in decades.” In truth, based on the naturalistic and painterly beauty of his New World tapestries and the verisimilitude of his vision in his pair of quietly-moving epic films of a family trying to overcome oppressive hardships, Troell immediately took his place among world-class directors of the highest distinction. Two later films, The Flight of the Eagle (1982) and Il Capitano: A Swedish Requiem (1987) were reasonably impressive achievements, with the former work receiving a Best Foreign Film nomination from the academy. Troell, who began his career as elementary school teacher, later worked as a director of photography for Bo Wiederberg, another fellow Swede, whose Elvira Madigan is often mentioned by film scholars as the most ravishingly photographed film in history. But with the two-part chronicle acknowledged here at the outset, Troell, a foreign director, has given us the only fully satisfactory film statement of one of the great historical phenomena, the mass movement of peoples to this country in the nineteenth century.
Troell’s new film, Everlasting Moments is set at the turn of the century, approximately two decades after this voluntary defection depicted in the earlier films. Inspired by a true-life story, Troell again uses natural light to compose beautiful images that tell a story that showcases flawed humanity. The film centers around a working-class family, with a troubled patriarch, Sigfrid Larsson, who is both a drunk and a womanizer. But he also loves his large family, which eventually includes seven children, and that bi-polar behavior is excellently conveyed in a larger-than-life performance by Mikael Persbrandt. The indomitable and almost withdrawn mother, Maria, is the victim of one slight after the other, but she stays the course, and a seemingly minor development intercedes and alters her path. She finds a camera that she once won in a lottery but never used. Her initial intention was to sell it, but the proprietor of the shop, Sebastian Pedersen (played by Jesper Christensen) persuades Maria to learn how to use it, as he informs her of its practical and aesthetic advantages. Over a period of time, the novice camera owner develops an eye for the shoot -which is primitive to be sure-and is particularly adroit at capturing haunting portraits. She sees through her camera both the misery and beauty that defines her existence. Her new hobby is heartened by Pederson, who despite having a wife in Denmark, falls in love with Maria. But the relationship remains celibate. Meanwhile Maria begins to earn income by negotiating group shots and portraits, while at the same time her adulterous husband is having an affair with a barmaid, and there is a strike among the dock workers. Sigfrid is then falsely accused of complicity in an explosion on a ship containing a group of English scab workers resisting the strike, and is called for military service at the outbreak of World War I in 1914.
During his brief time away, Maria continues to make money taking pictures and scores big at Christmas. She sees her picture in a local newspaper, and even photographs the three kings from Scandinavia, who are having a policy meeting. Simultaneously, Sebastian is shooting newsreel footage. As soon as Sigfrid returns, domestic unrest resumes, and this even includes a marital rape and an unwanted child, but through it all the marriage survives. One child announces on a voiceover that “maybe it was really love,” but it’s hard to imagine a woman accepting such behavior and returning any kind of real affection, as the violence reached one point where the woman was dragged down and held at knife-point. Despite all the adversity, Maria burgeons as an artist, partly as a result of her gradual comprehension of her photographic gifts, and also as a result of her cognizance of all the beauty around her that serves as a stark contrast to inner duress. In any case, the psychology of the relationship with her husband is more out of Bergman or Strindberg, rather than just a simple case of marital incompatibility. Everlasting Moments will surely last a cinematic lifetime.
#8 A Serious Man (Ethan & Joel Coen) USA
Joel and Ethan Coen have combined their home state and their Jewish upbringing with a typically quirky, darkly humorous movie set in an unnamed Minnesota town in 1967, when the boys were teenagers. The literary influences on the family are the Old Testament Book of Job and the wry Jewish fictions of Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth, which were becoming almost the dominant force in American literature at the time the film is set.
The film’s hero is Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a science teacher at a small, liberal arts college, living with his wife, Judith, his teenage son Danny, and daughter Sarah on a brand-new, middle-class estate. Times are changing, and an alluring neighbour asks Larry if he’s “taking advantage of the new freedom”. But the 1960s, the Vietnam war protests and the permissive society haven’t yet caught up with the neighbourhood, and Judaism, the reform synagogue and the traditions they embody still offer a sense of community and protection from a hostile world.
The Coens take us directly and amusingly into this changing America, but first they begin with a pre-credit Yiddish fable in the manner of Sholem Aleichem or Isaac Bashevis Singer, set in the Jewish pale of 19th-century eastern Europe from which the film’s characters originate. A big-hearted peasant returns home to inform his wife that he’s met an old rabbi on a wintry road and invited him to dinner. The scornful wife tells him that as the rabbi is dead this must be a dybbuk in search of a body to possess, and when the rabbi arrives she kills him with an ice pick. There are some surprises and turns, not least of which the ending shows the brothers climxing on a very dark note. This may well be the most cerebral film of the Coens’s career, and it’s surely one of their best.
#9 Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas) France
Summer Hours pays homage to Ozu, in a year when more than one French director has honored the Japanese icon. As family members share a summer holiday in their uncle Paul Berthier’s rural house, elderly Hélène (Edith Scob) discusses the future with her son Frédéric (Charles Berling), an economist. Over the years, her brother amassed an extraordinary collection of furniture, pottery and artifacts, to say nothing of his own artwork and journals. But much of the collection, like the house itself, needs restoration that her children can’t afford.
Frédéric’s brother Jérémie (Jérémie Rénier) is considering moving to China to work, while their sister Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), a designer, has been living in New York. Their decision about what to do with the estate is forced on them sooner than expected. Should they try to hold the collection together, or should they disperse their family heirlooms to museums and auction houses?
A basic plot synopsis makes Summer Hours seem like a stereotypical French film, one filled with wine, cigarettes and endless talk. But the themes Assayas raises have more widespread appeal. For example, each character approaches art in a different manner. For Eloïse (Isabelle Sadoyan), Hélène’s longtime housekeeper, a vase is simply an object of beauty; for Jérémie, it might finance his relocation, and further separation from his siblings. For Frédéric, it represents the history of his family, something he senses is slipping away. But how can one remain loyal to a family that no longer shares a purpose or direction? There’s a deep sense of humanity and sustained emotional resonance that makes Summer Hours a film of lasting impact. It’s abundant in universal truths.
#10 Tokyo Sonta (Kurosawa) Japan -three way tie-
Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata continues in the vein of his idiosyncratically personal (and arguably, more interesting), yet equally unsettling films that began with Bright Future. As the film begins, the family patriarch, middle-aged senior administrative manager, Ryuhei (Teruyuki Kagawa) has been notified that the company has outsourced his job to China (where his salary would pay for three language-fluent office workers) and, without portable skills that could be applied to another department, will be immediately laid off from work. Reluctant to tell his family for fear of undermining his authority, Ryuhei continues the pretext of leaving for work with his briefcase each morning, spending his days alternately lining up at a job placement office and a charity lunch service on the park. Meanwhile, his stay-at-home wife, Megumi (Kyoko Koizumi), has begun to feel trapped in her unappreciated role of keeping the household together, her newly obtained driver’s license symbolizing her liberated, if guilty step away from the familiar routines of domestic life (a search for identity implied by her intended use of the license as a form of identification). Their university-aged son, Takashi (Yu Koyanagi) is similarly adrift in his part-time job distributing flyers on the streets, and sees a provision for foreigners enlisting in the U.S. military as a means of asserting his independence. Younger son, Kenji (Kai Inowaki), having been caught passing a manga book in the classroom, stages his own minor rebellion: exposing the teacher’s own penchant for reading erotic themed manga on the train, and subsequently, taking piano lessons against his father’s objection. Inspired by the four-movement structure of a sonata, Tokyo Sonata is a humorous and incisive modernist (and globalist) evocation of the shomin-geki salaryman picture popularized by Yasujiro Ozu, chronicling the increasingly divergent lives of the Sasaki family who, like the families in Ozu’s cinema are on the verge of disintegration. However, while both filmmakers reflect the inevitability of this dissolution, Kurosawa paradoxically sees the rupture as a necessary trauma towards rebuilding – a sense of renewal that is reflected in the parting image of the family leaving the stage, figuratively stepping away from the performance to forge their own path in the uncertain darkness. But what a final scene it is, with Debussey carrying the day in one of cinema’s most unforgettable moments of 2009.
#10 Seraphine (Provost) France -three way tie-
SÉRAPHINE is the true story of Séraphine Louis aka Séraphine de Senlis (Yolande Moreau), a simple and profoundly devout housekeeper who in 1905 at age 41 — self-taught and with the instigation of her guardian angel — began painting brilliantly colorful canvases.
In 1912 Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur), a German art critic and collector — he was one of the first collectors of Picasso and champion of naïve primitive painter Le Douanier Rousseau — discovered her paintings while she worked for him as a maid in his lodgings in Senlis outside Paris. Uhde became her patron and grouped her work with other naïve painters – the so-called “Sacred Heart Painters” — with acclaimed shows in Paris, elsewhere in Europe and eventually at New York’s MOMA.
Director Martin Provost builds his story around the relationship between the avant-garde art dealer and the visionary cleaning lady, forging a testament to the mysteries of creativity and the resilience of one woman’s spirit. There is a classic visual splendor to the film, and it’s beautifully-scored but Ms. Moreau (who has already won the L.A. and National Society Film Critics Awards for Best Actress) is a majestic, suffering presence in the film that carries it to cinematic heights.
#10 Of Time and the City (Davies) UK -three way tie-
Britain’s most estemmed contemporary filmmaker, Terrence Davies’s ode to his Liverpool childhood is a semi-documentary but more of a lyrical tone poem, where real-life images converge seamlessly with newreel footage, music and literature, in a film that forges a language all it’s own. The UK is changing, and Davies’s heartfelt lament to the destruction of all that he experienced an dloves is a universal lament to what is held dear to everyone.
The Top Films of 2009
1 Bright Star
3 35 Shots of Rum (France 2008)
5 A Single Man
6 Police, Adjective
7 Everlasting Moments (Sweden 2008)
8 A Serious Man
9 Summer Hours (France 2008)
10 Tokyo Sonata (Japan 2008)
Of Time and the City (UK 2008)
Runners-Up (in no particular order)
The Last Station
The Son (Russia 2005)
Rambrandt’s J’Accuse (UK 2008)
The Hurt Locker (2008)
The House of the Devil
Flame and Citron (Denmark)
Somers Town (UK 2008)
Me and Orson Welles (2008)
The Maid (Chile)
Bad Lieutenant: Port of New Orleans
The Lovely Bones