Another year ends, another tsunami of best of lists hits the net.
There are a couple of truths associated with this process that are rarely articulated by film reviewers. First, shocking though it may be, we simply cannot see everything. It is unrealistic to expect a critic to have watched every film release over a 12-month period. The bald truth is that many critics who have compiled their end-of-year lists have not ventured to see Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel (for the record, I have) or other head-banging-against-the-wall lowbrow fare such as Did You Hear About the Morgans?, Pink Panther 2 or Lesbian Vampire Killers (for the record, I’ve seen them too).
However, it’s crucial that any reviewer confident enough to compile a best-of-the-year list has seen a butt-numbing amount of films, including the vast majority of those that have even a vague shot at getting in there. Before submitting this story I waited until I’d seen Peter Jackson’s Lovely Bones on the off chance it would make it in here. It didn’t.
So, here’s the top 10 for 2009.
Drag Me to Hell
Sam Raimi’s return to the kind of cartoony horror that established him as a force to be reckoned with in his classic The Evil Dead series is the quickest, most exciting and most visceral movie of the year — simply keeping up with the gangbusters-fast Drag Me to Hell is an experience that borders on sensory overload. The story of a promotion-hungry bank loans manager who stands her ground against a old, wretched, curse-distributing hag is vintage Stephen King stuff (Thinner comes to mind) but it’s easy to underestimate the dazzlingly macabre artistry employed by Raimi, who stuffs the film full of gnarly visual inventions, a bottomless grab bag of small flashy flourishes delivered with pinpoint precision. With tongue firmly in cheek, Raimi serves up a devilishly sadistic horror comedy — rarely has the gruesome torture and eternal damnation of an essentially decent person been so much fun.
South African director Neill Blomkamp does something radically different in the well-worn ETs-on-earth genre by turning aliens into vehicles for allegories about refugees, asylum seekers and, more directly, the Apartheid. The aliens in District 9, derogatorily dubbed “prawns,” are confined to a squalid and lawless shanty town where an obnoxious government representative named Wikus (played to perfection by newcomer Sharlto Copley) comes to serve them eviction notices. The fate in store for Wikus has to be seen to be believed. The first act of District 9 seamlessly integrates faux documentary footage, Blomkamp from the outset capturing a high degree of verisimilitude. Infusing monster movies with ripe social commentary is nothing new — George Romero has been doing it in zombie movies for decades — but here it comes together dazzlingly well.
A Film With Me In It
It’s the comedy of the year that virtually nobody saw. Director Ian Fitzgibbon’s delightfully screwy blood-splotched farce is based on a simple premise: what if you were loafing about at home when a horrible accident unfolded right around you? What if the accident was so gruesome, so incredibly unlikely that going to the police wouldn’t be a good idea simply because they would probably not believe you? And what if, in the panic of trying to decide what to do, something happened again that was equally unlikely and equally horrific, and these things, well, they just kept happening? In a tightly delineated and completely outrageous model of cause and effect screenwriter/actor Mark Doherty builds an all-hell-breaking-loose chain of events without his protagonist (played by himself) even having to leave his apartment. Dylan Moran is scene stealing in another iteration of his trademark character — a salty misanthropic smart-aleck perpetually pouting around in impatient anticipation of his next drink. A Film With Me In It plays like an episode of Seinfeld gone horribly, horribly wrong, with George and Jerry yapping uncontrollably about what to do with Kramer’s dead body.
Writer/director Darren Aronofski established himself from the get-go as an exciting and unpredictable filmmaker, from the triumph of his nano-budget black-and-white debut, Pi, which plays like a furiously inventive student film to his rousing nightmarish drug drama Requiem For a Dream and his visualisation of sheer hoity-toity nonsense in The Fountain. The magnum opus so far in Aronofski’s career is The Wrestler, a character study/sports movie of staggering weight and velocity — seeing it is like being smashed on the head with a broken heart. “I’m a broken down piece of meat and I’m all alone,” says Mickey Rourke’s Randy “The Ram” Robinson, without the faintest trace of cheese or overwrought sentiment. In hindsight Rourke’s return to critical acclaim was always going to be inevitable, with talent like this coursing through his veins. I predicted along with a lot of other people that the rugged brick sh-thouse-built star would pocket a best lead actor Oscar in recognition of an emotionally pulverising performance. It is a travesty that my prediction turned out wrong.
Mary and Max
Stop motion artist Adam Elliot’s gloriously textured feature debut is a film of plasticine-powered profundity. Having cut his teeth in poignant shorts Brother, Cousin, Uncle and the Oscar-winning Harvey Krumpet, Elliot ups the ante and delivers an emotionally persuasive picture faithful to his tone, style and oeuvre. His transition from short to feature format is a triumph, with Mary and Max handsomely capturing Elliot’s wobbly colour-muted European look, matched by a screenplay that seamlessly segues between gags as crass as poo jokes to dramatic moments that explore concepts as deep as mental illness and suicidology.
There are well-acted films and then there are rare, unforgettable gems as explosively well performed as director John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, which is buoyed and then some by the casting of two of the best actors on the planet. The setting is a Catholic school circa 1964 and Meryl Streep plays a bitchy acid-tongued principal who accuses Phillip Seymour Hoffman, a parish priest, of inappropriate conduct with an altar boy. The dialogue is terrific, an acute mix of theatrics and realism, the drama is tightly directed and the cinematography from Coen bros regular Roger Deakins is beautifully framed. But the acting here is something else. The toxic chemistry between Streep and Hoffman is gobsmacking and the supporting cast are pitch-perfect. A small performance from Viola Davis as the altar boy’s mother will hit you for six.
Sam Rockwell contributes a career high tour de force performance as an astronaut afflicted by a severe case of space cabin fever in Moon, set in the future on board a space ship that harvests moon minerals for clean energy back on earth. Taut, compelling and fiendishly clever, Moon builds an intriguing mystery and follows through with an inspired and immaculately handled twist. This is one helluva career kick-start for director Duncan Jones — FYI, he’s David Bowie’s son — and in the barrel of noodle-scratching space psychological dramas it is an instant classic.
Director Robert Connolly advances his oeuvre from corporate thriller (The Bank) and down-and-out drama (Three Dollars) to the realm of electrifying political sizzlers with Balibo, a tight-as-a-snare-drum wartime exposé destined to shock, shame and compel Australian audiences. The screenplay is based on the true story of five Aussie journalists (aka The Balibo Five) who were murdered by Indonesian militia in the eponymous East Timorese town in 1975, and a sixth, Roger East (Anthony LaPaglia), who endeavoured to find them and tell their story. In one helluva performance LaPaglia darkly inhabits the role, his face a podgy mat of grim determination, his eyes looking like they’re underlined by the shadows of death. Balibo is knockout stuff: taut as all hell, a stick of dynamite lit and tossed into the audience’s faces. Chalk it down as a must-see and take a cold shower afterwards.
Synecdoche New York
The kooky intellect of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman has provided an unerring source of off-the-wall mind matter, from his triumphant debut script Being John Malkovich through to Human Nature, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Kaufman’s debut as a writer/director is Synecdoche New York, a fabulously strange, beautiful and tremendously sad picture about a miserable theatre director named Caden Cotard (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) who purchases a run-down city block and fills it with actors who live constructed lives 24/7, including people hired to play himself. In true Kaufman brain-jabbing style, the difference between reality and make-believe collapses and the film becomes a compelling, exhausting and utterly extraordinary cryptic commentary on art and mortality.
2009 honourable mentions: Up, Bastardy, Avatar, A Serious Man.
… and Buckmaster’s bottom five of 2009 …
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
Bombastic blockbuster director Michael Bay unleashes another biblical-plague-proportioned round of bathtub toys gone bad in the devastatingly onerous Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, which, like its predecessor, is an assault on the senses of hitherto unprecedented magnitude. Spanning 143 brain bleeding minutes, this migraine-maker is embarrassingly hammy, relentlessly dull, shamelessly dumb and absolutely unrelenting.
The Pink Panther 2
Blake Edwards’ patchy but intermittently enjoyable Pink Panther movies from the ’70s and early ’80s oozed — despite their obvious inadequacies — a goofy, effortless charm that Steve Martin’s remakes utterly fail to replicate. Pink Panther 2 is a disjointed pastiche of well-worn physical gags that feel very, very forced. You don’t have to look closely to see the lines of desperation streaking across Martin’s forehead.
Lesbian Vampire Killers
Any movie with a title such as this shouldn’t be attempted in half measures. The only irredeemable flaws are vices like “boring” and “dull”. This one is both.
The Twilight Saga: New Moon
Bella and Edward’s second cinematic venture plays like soft, soft, soft p-rn — a pubescent Mills and Boon stomach-turner jazzed up by a half-assed supernatural twist. Watch the cast sleepwalk.
The Time Traveller’s Wife
Director Robert Schwentke’s adaptation of Audrey Niffenegger’s bestselling novel is a mawkishly sentimental and hopelessly inept romance-drama stuffed to the gills with bad performances, stilted dialogue and preposterous contrivances.