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January 15, 2010

2009: II-Top Ten

The Hurt Locker
– All war movies, someone once said, are anti-war movies. Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker is at the top of that list – and arguably the best. The epigraph is from war correspondent Christopher Hedges: “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug.”

It also helps that, though a few familiar faces pepper the cast (Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes), the star is relatively low key (parts recently in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, North Country, Lords of Dogtown, among others, and a respectable resume going back to 1995) as opposed to casting Matt Damon or George Clooney for the dozenth time in a single year.

BEST ACTOR Colin Firth is stunning in Tom Ford’s A Single Man. Based on the 1964 Christopher Isherwood novel, the narrative spans a single day in the life of an English professor after the death of his partner. Firth’s performance is a definite Best Actor contender.

An Education
– Despite her gently delivered line, “I feel very old, but not very wise,” Carey Mulligan’s performance in Lone Schefig’s bildungsroman as an 18-year-old Londoner seduced away from university by an older lothario promising her “fun” (Peter Sarsgaard in a wonderfully realized performance) is very wise and very affecting. (Superb supporting cast.)

– I’m going to be so anti-PC here. Precious didn’t entirely sit right with me. Harrowing, yes. Powerful performances, yes. And though the pathos doesn’t descend into bathos, it is as if Sapphire, who wrote the novel Push on which the movie is based, has gone through a complete checklist of every tragic, oppressive, abusive situation it is possible to experience making sure not to leave out a single one. Did Job even have it so bad? All that said, Mo’Nique’s uncompromisingly raw performance as the abusive mother deserves recognition.

The Fantastic Mr. Fox
– Wes Anderson’s incarnation of the Roald Dahl children’s book sings with Wes Anderson magic. I am a long time admirer of Anderson’s world view, with its sensibility that there’s a sinister streak in even the best of us. (Spike Jonze’s adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s classic Where the Wild Things Are didn’t work for me – too smarmy or something. I did not see Henry Selick’s adaptation of Neil Gairman’s novel Coraline, nor did I see Pete Docter’s Up. [Is that guy supposed to look like Spencer Tracy?])

Goodbye Solo
– Ramin Bahrani’s heartbreaking film asks of us what it means to be human. A dying, reclusive white man named William, whose visage bespeaks a life of hard living, pays a Senegalese immigrant taxi driver named Solo $1,000 to drive him to a mountain top in North Carolina’s Blowing Rock National Park. What follows is an unlikely friendship, possible only through Solo’s persistence and their unspoken understanding that William’s hire is not intended as a round trip. The movingly evocative performances by Red West and Souleymane Sy Savane linger in the memory, as does Michael Simmonds exquisite cinematography. (If the Academy would consider movies like this one, which it does not, It should be considered for Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actor.)

Every Little Step
– James Stern’s and Adam Del Deo’s loving documentary about casting the revival of A Chorus Line. The history of the work from concept through to the 1975 opening production is recalled in contemporary interviews and archival footage. But the heart of the film is the casting call for the revival and the young dancers and singers who aspire to have their hopes realized – or risk having them dashed.

Séraphine – I can’t situate Séraphine in the biopic category; it is too profound. Martin Provost’s depiction of the French mystic artist Séraphine de Senlis, powerfully portrayed by Yolande Moreau, delves into the vagaries of time, circumstance, and human relationships – and ultimately into the mysteries of the human impulse toward artistic creation. Séraphine is discovered in 1914 by German art critic William Uhde, who also discovered Henri Rousseau and was an early collector of Picasso. History, then fate intervene.

The Informant!
– Matt Damon’s performance as the megalomaniacal narcissist Mark Whitacre is superb. Whitacre, convicted in 1998 for tax evasion and fraud, was the subject of a biography by Kurt Eichenwald upon which Steven Soderbergh bases the movie. A fascinating look at corporate greed and the insidious ways it has infected the average American’s hopes and dreams.

(Had it opened in San Antonio, I can’t help but believe that I would have given Steve Jacob’s Disgrace this nomination, having enormous respect for the South African novelist J. M. Coetzee from whose 1999 Booker Prize winning novel the film is, according to critics, faithfully adapted. John Malkovich plays the disgraced yet haughty literature professor.)

Summer Hours – Last year Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale, with Catherine Deneuve as a matriarch whose illness focuses the shadow of mortality on a dispersing family, did not shy away from the volatility of messy emotional family conflicts. Oliver Assaya’s Summer Hours similarly examines the passing of a matriarch, but is as concerned with the legacy of the objects of the inheritance as it is with the way that globalization has impinged on sustaining family legacy. Writing in the NYT, A. O. Scott observes that “one of Mr. Assaya’s themes is the way that inanimate things accrue value, sentimental and otherwise – the curious alchemy that transforms certain objects into art.” (I could write a whole paper about this movie.)

[Coming up: Honorable Mentions]

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