Films in 2009 were not afraid to depict reality and display an unflinching lens that prohibits any means of sugarcoating. Directors managed to peel back a film’s alluring aesthetics to reveal what rots a system, corporation, mind and soul. Access into these demoralizing realms particularly showed that humanity isn’t afraid to shed light on situations that are none the less despicable, scary and heart-shattering. War, downsizing, vulnerability, corruption, rebellion and confusion regarding love might seem like weighty and formidable subjects but directors were strong enough to coexist with such themes to make expressive films that commented on contemporary situations. No doubt we all would like to believe that the things we distill our feelings and trust in will evidently be there in the end, but the reality is that everything is fleeting and capable of crumbling, pulling the rug from underneath where we stand without any consent.
Click through for my Top Ten Movies of 2009.
These dusty streets of Baghdad act as an aversion for most directors who previously decided to take a chomp out of the war in Iraq and leaving out a vital part in the process. They treaded waters that led them to idiotic and repetitive ideological views missing the instinctive nature of war itself. Kathryn Bigelow dignifies her filmmaking by projecting an impetuous display of how war acts as a consummate drug, both fulfilling and decapitating the soul of those participating in war. Once the drug is digested and the adrenaline is at full-throttle the need to accomplish something becomes the main priority of a soldier. In one’s blood-stream the will to cheat death, the courage it takes to disarm an explosive device that would blow an entire city to shreds, and the process of healing a psychological scar are all made possible given war’s demented opportunities that can serve as a vessel for both instances. The Hurt Locker portrays a trio of soldiers who exert their courage by risking their lives every time they awake in Baghdad 2004. That urge and ecstasy of “just making it” out of death’s grasp is Will’s (Jeremy Renner perfects the complexities of his character) drug. Any soldier ready to upend his family life in order to lie out in the open and disarm a bomb in the middle of an Iraqi market is an addict for war. It does not hurt to think of one’s self as a hero when attempting the job he is so passionate about. He does just that and by doing so he loses the traditional way of living in exchange for a life that is lived constantly on the edge. Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal do such an extraordinary job at making Will James a product of war; his humor, demeanor, and way of thinking are all related to the toll war has taken on him, even if the toll, in Will’s eyes, is a passionate toll. He tries to transmit his drug to his two partners (Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty) who are afraid to digest it. No scene in The Hurt Locker lacks urgency or wildness. Her direction is meant to show the carnage outside which then depicts the soldiers’ insides that are being poisoned with a sick passion for war. Her direction and the movie score massively for digging deep into the confines of soldiers’ minds and discovering their fears, desires and the ability of what triggers their instinct to become heroic.
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A generation in a tailspin is what Jason Reitman’s new film Up in the Air is after. It is a generation that is always fluctuating at a rapid and constant speed, not permanently or faithfully adhering to one particular thing. Instead, this generation (preferably the business men and women) is able to adapt to any city, person, cell phone, plane airliner, car service or hotel buffet. They’re used to things moving swiftly; moving through airport lines – due to their gold membership cards – and traveling ten million miles in the sky without a single hiccup. No time is dedicated to meeting their clients, which happen to be people who are getting fired or, in their business terminology, “getting let go.” Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is part of this group of people who move swiftly through life. He’s hired out by his business to other businesses around the country who are afraid to confront their clients with the news of “letting people go.” Nothing weighs Ryan down because he does not allow anything to do so. He even does speaking engagements that inform people how to travel and what to put into their backpack. He loves the life he experiences while doing his job. But when a situation arises that does threaten to upend his foundation he is floored.
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3. An Education
An Education makes it clear that experience can be seen as an asset that takes a frantic toll on life or one that slams the door shut on the mundane, ordinary and conventional. The former is more obvious with 16-year-old (Carey Mulligan), who instantly falls under spell by the amazing David (Ewan McGregor), a thirtysomething-year-old who apparently has everything going for him, from his intellectual background to his economic background. Carey has plans to attend Oxford for English. Ready to turn her back on individuality and conform to an image, orchestrated by her parents and teachers, that seems boring. She seeks a distinct direction that can lead her to possess an extraordinary way of living. David slithers his way into her life, loving her, lavishing her with gifts, fancy dinner parties and classical music concerts, but soon tangles her in a web that takes advantage of her purity and vulnerability. Director Lone Scherfig imagines this pre-Beatles England as a society all traditionally adhering to what is right, while underneath the surface, growing louder and suddenly nearer, is a group of people, resembling David, bound to dissipate away from the assimilation into a maniac atmosphere that fosters the rebellion and culturally attuned.
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Opening scenes of director Zack Snyder’s adaptation of the 1987 cult graphic novel Watchmen highlights a casual yellow smiley face pin that obtains a trickle of blood on it indicating the depravity of innocence and purity. This is an idea that batters its way throughout the film which is loaded with vigorous and apocalyptic images that adds fuel to a film that’s burning with obsession in resembling the failure of humanity in a sea of different themes. No man is safe from trouble in this world. Especially if the world is unrecognizable and void of any melancholic references that would propel the mind and soul to think soothing thoughts. After a titillating opening sequence which charts the history of the Watchmen played out to the whales of Bob Dylan’s “The Time’s are a-Changin’” Watchmen has our attention. The novel, like the movie, touches topics that shouldn’t be used within the confines of a graphic novel as it hones in to discuss a Christ-like figure, romance in the face of adversity and political decisions that can end an entire race. The immensity of its tale is simply astounding as its elaborate motif, growing bigger and bigger with each passing minute, is surely going to stir conversations like all great movies do and rightfully so.
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5. Goodbye Solo
Ramin Bahrani’s camera rarely does any work at all. It finds itself always transfixed to the nature of the environment (dark lonely nights and isolated days). His previous two films, that depicted the same environment, dealt with foreigners in America interested and willing to sacrifice anything to obtain the American dream. They were reduced to pity jobs such as hotdog vendor on the streets of New York City (Man Push Cart) and auto mechanics working for minimal pay in New York City (Chop Shop). Bahrani goes a different way with his third feature Goodbye Solo. Instead of pitting a foreigner against unfathomable odds, he places the foreigner in Goodbye Solo as a Christ-like figure. His name is Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane), a cab driver from Africa trying rapidly to provide for his Mexican girlfriend, her child and actively pursuing a career as an airline pilot. One night he picks up an old man named William (Red West) who offers Solo a thousand dollars in a cab one night to drive him to Blowing Rock. After Solo asks why he wants to go there, which William gives no clear answer, he acknowledges the bleak fact that that location will be the destination for William’s suicide. Like previous Bahrani characters Solo has a will so strong that it shields out any notion of materialism or capitalism. He is not a consumerist, he is an idealist. He holds on to a will that helps him succeed in life not necessarily in financial terms but in ways that his smile rarely separates itself from his face.
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The way Mr. Werner Herzog presents a post-Katrina New Orleans isn’t fancy, it is downright hopeless. He has a gift that allows him to have a social awareness. His ambition to fashion a whole new perspective of the world around us is exemplified here when he takes New Orleans and shows it in a way that is full of insignificances, desolation and death. This hopelessness transmits its ugliness into Nicholas Cages’ character, Terrence; a man who lost what he needed (fidelities) a long time ago and hangs onto his lieutenant badge of authority like it is the only thing that can make him responsive. Like the city after the flood, Terrence’s back injury (which causes him to walk hunchbacked) makes him feel stranded and lonely, resorting to getting and finding pleasure in all the wrong ways. The appetite of his demoralizing yearnings is monstrous. Using his badge as a means to satisfy his appetite for drugs, pills, gambling and prostitution (Eva Mendez), Terrence finds himself drifting into obscurity. By trying to be a loyal officer who is eccentric in his line of work, and balancing a private lifestyle which cohabits with a criminalist lifestyle, Herzog finds himself in contentment. All of his previous characters manage to succumb to outlandish ideals, mystical forces that are more powerful than the human will and imagery that is direct. Bad Lieutenant: PCNO is a widespread derision of man’s ability to reason due to the savage depiction of nature overpowering man.
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The Damned United is a "based on a true life story about sports", in fact a great one, but director Tom Hooper finds it necessary to fulfill the film with off-field drama and tension, relying very little on the actual game of soccer. The lack of on-field action isn't missed at all because there is a hypnotizing portrait of hatred being presented, and that is the film's main priority. Mr. Hooper perceives a myriad of vanities within a single human being which ultimately lead him being reduced to a man without a moral center, establishing himself solely within his own mad ambitions. This hatred found its core within English soccer manager Brian Clough (whom this movie faithfully portrays), whose great accomplishments from 1968-1980 are torn to asunder by the film. By slyly making his championship seasons and bringing Darby United out of the gutters of second division and into first repudiate, the script by Peter Morgan finds more sorrow in Clough's (Martin Sheen) failures and how extraneous to the soccer world he became.
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8. Two Lovers
Two Lovers is a portrait of a sheltered soul on the verge of carrying out another attempt at suicide. The movie opens with him, Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix), jumping a boardwalk into the ocean. He’s a man that can’t find enough motivation to uproot himself from a considerate mother and father so he can bestow himself to a world that would love nothing more than to see him happy in it. Delicate stuff is at work here, very delicate stuff. It’s movies like Two Lovers, a tale about a complicated love triangle, that tend to get overlooked because it contains this delicacy of filmmaking and acting. Both of those are fused finely and seamlessly to form a movie that transcends the screen. All involved (including Leonard’s two lovers played by Gwyneth Paltrow and Vinessa Shaw) and seem to be working so little that we forget we are watching a movie, and instead find ourselves peering voyeuristically at a real life situation unfolding before our very eyes. Two Lovers is drenched in a pool of timidity and that can be a good thing as the movie takes on a gut-wrenching tone.
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What a stunning and haunting film The White Ribbon is. It traverses both the realistic and metaphysical realms in an effortless manner that can only be described as beauty and grace. But the film’s subject matter is anything but beautiful or graceful. Appearing like an ineffably beautiful object from a land far away, director Michael Haneke’s film quickly punctures the screen with its persistent plaintive tone which gloriously resembles a film during an era where classics happened to be distributed frequently. There is a pervasive beauty throughout the film, laded with pastoral images that seek to conceal and even attempt to erode the impending doom the film’s undertones contain. Behold the galvanic effect that comes from Haneke’s direction which is unabashed to capture the perilous happenings of a village in pre-Nazi Germany. All this takes place within a secluded community that is infatuated with goodness, purity and kinship, but there is an undercover sense of malice, apathy and brutality. No matter what progressions are taken to prevent malice and brutality within humans, Haneke stresses the fact that all humanity has the innate ability to summon up those evil conceptions without any haste.
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Hunger doesn’t merely base the name of its title from the 1981 IRA Hunger Strikes in Ireland, but it comprehends the meaning of the word hunger and how the human soul craves to achieve something in their life that is worthwhile and how the craving resides elsewhere in faith and existentialism. Steve McQueen’s debut feature is both hypnotic and consuming. He focuses on two cellmates living in their own human excrement and freedom fighter Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender), the martyr who initiated the second hunger strike while in jail in order so IRA inmates can be granted political rights and status. McQueen’s eye for detail and Fassbender’s willingness to succumb himself to such a deplorable state expands the entire film’s scope. The two work at such masterful levels that they are able to create soul and vitality to the inanimate. In Fassbender’s case he’s able to give Sands a heart that wants to pursue a goal when all others in his position sit and watch the world of politics swallow them whole. McQueen, a world class filmmaker already with this one feature, has the foundation to decorate and film objects that when being filmed they contain a pulsating heart. These two make what would seem to be the ordinary into visual poetry. You sit in a trance amazed at what you are watching and eagerly anticipating the next scene’s nightmarish vision. Instead of watching it, we feel it and savor it.
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Best of the Rest:
11. Sin Nombre (Directed by Carl Fukunaga)
12. Of Time and the City (Directed by Terence Davies)
13. In the Loop (Directed by Armando Iannucci)
14. Coraline (Directed Maurice Selick)
15. Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (Directed by Lee Daniels)
16. Gomorrah (Directed by Matteo Garrone)
17. Invictus (Directed by Clint Eastwood)
18. Avatar (Directed by James Cameron)
19. Tulpan (Directed by Sergei Dvortsevoy)
20. Antichrist (Directed by Lars von Trier)