Jack Kentala’s Three Most-Favorite Films of 2009
2009, like most other years, saw me going to the theater probably less than a dozen times. Chalk it up to insane ticket prices, or obnoxious other-viewers, or the slimming release window between the theater and DVD, or my daily binge of a movie per day via Netflix, or, hell, I can be my usual curmudgeony self and say that it’s rare when ten good films come out in any given year. This fine online establishment has hosted my lukewarm reviews of Avatar and Where The Wild Things Are, to the downright-mauling of Inglorious Basterds and, to a lesser extent, Drag Me To Hell.
That said, I expect I’ll catch up on 2009 films early next year ‘round the Academy Awards, when most of these hit DVD. If nothing else, I expect good things from Up In The Air, if only because of director Jason Reitman (though I honestly don’t like Thank You For Smoking) and George Clooney. Considering that I just watched the 2000 film Tigerland, which criminally played in a scant five theaters, and now have placed next to Traffic as my favorite of the year, I figure I’ll run into some 2009 films that slipped through the cracks for the rest of my film-watching years.
I did, however, see three films worth mentioning. And, as tradition dictates, the list will be like a countdown, though if you’re really impatient, #1 is The Hurt Locker.
3. The Road, directed by John Hillcoat
Director John Hillcoat (The Proposition), for better or worse, delivers a blow-by-blow recreation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel. The novel itself seemed perfect for a big-screen treatment, if only for McCarthy’s rich prose that seemed better suited for cinema than literature. The film, however, already raised red flags when it was delayed an entire year, running the gamut of speculation that a second McCarthy adaptation right on the hells of No Country For Old Men was a bad idea, or that the film just wasn’t that good.
Outside of a handful of flashbacks featuring Charlize Theron as The Mother (scantly mentioned in the book), the adaptation, as mentioned, flows the same as the book and hits all the same memorable setpieces. Viggo Mortensen continues to mature as one of the better actors of his generation, if only for his offscreen dedication to researching roles and, here, his onscreen obsessive will to reach the coast, thinking it’ll bring himself and his son some salvation amid the ravaged landscape.
The problems with The Road, however, are the same as the book. Outside of some sour notes hit by child actor Kodi Smit-McPhee (which is, to his and Hillcoat’s credit, one of the better child performances in recent memory) and an unnecessary, intermittent voiceover by Mortensen, the greatest flaw of The Road is that it has no strong beginning or end. It’s simply a lot of <i>middle</i>, just like the book. And yeah, it’s a good middle. But you can’t tell a story without a beginning and an end, and it seems that The Road skipped those, instead giving a paltry prologue and denouement.
Regardless, The Road contained some of the most memorable non-CGI images of the year, and its unflinching, unsentimental journey of a man and his son through the (thankfully, unexplained) post-apocalyptic nightmarescape of a burnt America was as haunting as the lauded novel.
2. The Girlfriend Experience, directed by Steven Soderbergh
It’s rare when a director can command the attention of both indie and mass audiences alike. Whereas most probably know Soderbergh as “the director of Ocean’s 11, 12, and 13” and this year’s The Informant (which was advertised as directed by the Oceans’ director), he always leaves time for these little cinematic “experiments.” This, of course, comes off his epic, breathtaking two-part Che; the man simply doesn’t take a break.
The Girlfriend Experience, however odd this connection may first seem, shares a lot with Paul Greengrass’s United 93. Both are, in essence, a snapshot of uncertain times, filmed from a point-of-view that doesn’t have the gift of foresight or even hindsight. Here, Soderbergh captures the height of the economic disaster through the device of a high-end call girl that provides, quite literally, the girlfriend experience. There are oft the post-coital fearful ramblings of Wall Street players who are losing their fortunes but paying extraordinary amounts of money for Sasha Grey’s company. Connect some dots if you will, and add some Soderbergh-operated cinematography that casts New York is a perpetual gunmetal blue.
Excuse any fray into territory that might seem hyperbolic, but when the dust has settled and our parents’ 401Ks can actually let them retire, we can look back on The Girlfriend Experience as a cultural, collective What The Fuck Were We Thinking? window into an economic meltdown that was a long time coming.
1. The Hurt Locker, directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Yeah, I’ve got problems with The Hurt Locker. Explain to me how three guys from EOD seem to possess the skills to scout and snipe using a .50 cal rifle at distances damn near a kilometer? Without calling in any support or an airstrike? And that, when lead character Sgt. James has a hunch where some Bad Guys might be, charges off into a hostile slum by his lonesome?
But here’s what The Hurt Locker does that no one has come closer to: it takes place from the point of view as boots-on-the-ground in Iraq, without politicizing the action, without sentimentality, without any simple morality that can boil down this grey quagmire into black-and-white starkness. That, and it’s punctuated by some huge setpieces, like the aforementioned sniper shootout, the slum raid, and a lot of bomb defusing. Some make a big deal that a solid action movie was helmed by Kathryn Bigelow, a female director, but I can also point to the Generation Kill miniseries – another of the best works about the Iraq War – being mostly directed by Susanna White.
The Hurt Locker, I guess, catches the buzzwords I’ve tossed at my favorites of this particular year: unflinching, unsentimental, non-political, and restrained. We’re at such a strange crossroads in this country that it’s hard for American cinema to remain impartial. But The Hurt Locker manages it quite brilliantly.
So that was 2009. 2010 already has some fine prospects in the works – the delayed Shutter Island (directed by Martin Scorsese), The Tree of Life (directed by Terrence Malick), and The Green Zone (directed by Paul Greengrass). Let’s check in twelve months later and see if those three make my list. I do, however, hope to be surprised at some point in the year.