By Roderick Heath
Out with the old, in with the same old. Like (almost) everyone else, I pinched pennies and withheld from excessive spending on frivolities in the past 12 months as we rode out the financial crisis like the ark-dwellers of Roland Emmerich’s 2012, so my trips to the cinema in 2009 were relatively limited. Fortunately, in the past couple of months, mine and Marilyn’s entry (promotion? ascension? beatification?) into the ranks of the Online Film Critics Society saw us inundated with screener discs sent by hopeful studios and independent distributors, constituting the first actual perk I’ve experienced in film critiquing. And as happy as I have generally been to have such an opportunity, then again, much like Yossarian pointedly not helping build the officers’ club, I’ve always taken pride in ignoring a lot of movies, a pride now rather threatened by having copies of films I would be happy never to see, like The Blind Side, mailed to me. Now, as my film writing has been nudged gently out of the realm of happy amateurism and into that of desperate semi-professionalism, thus joining too many of my other pursuits, I am, therefore, in search of a new hobby. I will be accepting suggestions until the end of January. The current frontrunner is fly fishing.
Call me a terminal grouch if you like, but at least amongst the films I saw, this was a weak and watery year of cinema-going indeed, with a few real gems shining out amidst the indifferent. As ever, it began with clearing away the dried-up carcasses of 2008’s crop of Oscar bait, wading through the (white) elephantine, instantly forgettable likes of Doubt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and The Reader, the brutally disappointing Revolutionary Road, and the dispiritingly bogus “feel-good” victor, Slumdog Millionaire. Easily the best of that batch were Gus Van Sant’s slightly too pat but still dramatic Milk, and Jonathan Demme’s lively, lived-in Rachel Getting Married. I also liked the closest thing Woody Allen will ever offer to a late-period movie in the Hawks mode, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, making it the first Allen film I’ve liked in 20 years.
The year’s roster was strongest in serving up forceful, volatile action films and thrillers. Three of my four most favoured 2009 films were, to a certain extent, shoot-’em-ups: Michael Mann’s majestic Public Enemies, Quentin Tarantino’s delirious Inglourious Basterds, and Zack Snyder’s waywardly wonderful Watchmen. A few highly entertaining worthies included Pierre Morel’s smashing Taken, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, Tom Tykwer’s soulful The International, Neil Blomkamp’s raucous District 9, Kevin Macdonald’s absorbing State of Play, and J. J. Abrams’ vivid Star Trek. Taken was the kind of high-octane crap Hollywood’s supposed to give us regularly, but now it seems the French do with the most gusto, whilst Star Trek took this year’s inaugural Iron Man Award for “The Film that Isn’t Quite as Rocking as We Wanted It to Be, but Rocks Anyway”. The International and State of Play sustained a remnant of the spirit of Fritz Lang and Alan Pakula, and District 9 energetically revived the ideals of ’80s sci-fi action.
And no, I haven’t yet seen the new work by an actual icon of ’80s sci-fi action, James Cameron’s Avatar, which, so I understand, cost enough to buy Sri Lanka, and I’m hesitant to do so until it comes out on DVD, free of the need for funny glasses. Meanwhile I’m quite glad I resisted the temptation to go see Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen, GI Joe, and a few other oversold bang-bang flicks even when the darkest days of recessionary angst made their hermetic, juvenile pleasures appealing, retaining them instead for their proper place and hour: cable TV when nothing else is on. I went instead to see the new Harry Potter flick, and strike me dead if it wasn’t the year’s most unexpectedly likeable blockbuster, and the aforementioned 2012 which, when treated rightly as comedy, I found a blast. No, I’m not ashamed.
Certainly those smarter action films continue a trend I noted last year of intelligent filmmakers being drawn to expressing themselves through material once regarded as trashy. There’s also been the intriguing phenomenon of noted directors tackling children’s movies, which resulted in Spike Jonze’s valium-soaked edition of Maurice Sendak’s hymn to the inner beast, Where the Wild Things Are, a film which successfully defined everything witless and boring about the modern alt-culture it so desperately wanted to channel. I’m also left still pondering The Hurt Locker, whose modest generic reconfigurations have been far outstripped by the rhetorical praise it’s received. It’s certain that filmic phenomena move by at a quicker pace than ever now: I watched the Twilight phenomenon go from a tolerable and intriguing opening installment in January to an excruciating disaster called New Moon by December.
Meanwhile, adult drama has been pronounced to be just about dead as far as Hollywood is concerned, which may or may not be true. The continuing dominant Clooney-Coen-Soderbergh template of deadpan, ironic comedy-drama offered up two diverting films in The Informant! and The Men Who Stare at Goats, both of which took glancing, facile lunges at defining the faults of the modern American military-industrial mindset. And I’ve still got A Serious Man and Up in the Air to look forward to, if that’s the phrase I’m after. I’ll admit to mildly enjoying Nora Ephron’s Julie and Julia, neither more nor less incisive and relevant to the state of the contemporary psyche than The Informant!
Indie cinema, it is generally believed, is in the process of imploding, and try-hard formula-squeezers like Sunshine Cleaning might indicate a certain exhaustion of ideas. But most of the truly stimulating American films still came from the outermost precincts of the mainstream: Robert Siegel’s intriguing, if finally frustrating, Big Fan, Greg Mottola’s modest, but rich and multileveled Adventureland, and James Gray’s Two Lovers, a very great film that neatly fused gritty outer-borough angst with Visconti-esque operatic flair. What I saw of British cinema this year was largely underwhelming, with the overblown, shapeless period film, The Young Victoria; the sneakily clever, if rather too silly and uncourageous Lesbian Vampire Killers; and the overrated An Education breezing in and out of my mind and leaving little to remember except for Rosamund Pike’s spiky glare. They were all a warm-up for the worst film I paid more than two dollars to see in 2009: Richard Curtis’ repulsively misogynistic and grindingly unfunny The Boat that Rocked (Pirate Radio stateside). On the other hand, there was Steve McQueen’s near-brilliant Hunger, a film that’s slowly trickled along the routes of distribution to receive the praise it deserves. I’m not sure if Jane Campion’s Bright Star counts as British or Australian filmmaking—both, I think—but either way, it was half a good film.
Such was a quality Campion’s movie shared with an entirely Aussie film, Warwick Thornton’s Samson & Delilah, the oodles of official praise which it received made it feel like an act of treason and racism to critique it honestly. It was indeed a poetic and affecting, if uncomfortably sentimental and suspiciously lightweight work of social realism. On the other hand, David Field’s The Combination was temporarily removed from cinemas over worries that the ethnic quarrels it sought to define would spill over into the audience. Field’s film was actually a solid potboiler disguised as a social-message picture, but there’s nothing new about that. I’ll admit also to having had a lousy year of keeping up with recent foreign-language releases, though I’ll blame the fact many works I wanted to see never seemed to come near a theatre near me. I did admire Philippe Claudel’s I’ve Loved You So Long, and Paolo Sorrentino’s tremendous Il Divo provided my year’s viewing with a stirring coda—on cable, undoubtedly where I’ll have to watch for many more of this year’s most well-regarded, but badly distributed works.
So, lists, and we can leave this whole sorry year behind us:
The Best Films I Saw in 2009 (Produced in and/or released in Australia in 2009)
Tie: Public Enemies (Michael Mann) and Two Lovers (James Gray)
Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino)
Il Divo (Paolo Sorrentino)
Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme)
Adventureland (Greg Mottola)
Watchmen (Zack Snyder)
Milk (Gus Van Sant)
District 9 (Neil Blomkamp)
The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow)
20 Most Awesome Films I Saw for the First Time in 2009 (Not Made or Released in 2009)
Chimes at Midnight and Confidential Report/Mr Arkadin (Orson Welles)
Bande à part (Jean-Luc Godard)
Branded to Kill (Seijun Suzuki)
Broken Blossoms; or, the Yellow Man and the Girl (D.W. Griffith)
Deep Red (Dario Argento)
M. Hulot’s Holiday (Jacques Tati)
Nosferatu the Vampyre (Werner Herzog)
The Big Parade (King Vidor)
Martin (George Romero)
Venus In Furs (Jesus Franco)
The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy)
CQ (Roman Coppola)
In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-Wai)
The Letter (William Wyler)
Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (Tsui Hark)
Fascination (Jean Rollin)
Bonjour Tristesse (Otto Preminger)
The Reptile (John Gilling)
The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer (Kevin Billington)
Hunger (Steve McQueen)