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It was not the best of years; it was not the worst of years. But 2009 reaffirmed a truism about popular culture: One way or the other, whatever is going on in the zeitgeist will somehow seep into the movies. Some of the year’s more interesting films, as well as some of the least defensible, mirrored in often equal measure the world around them.
This makes sense. If you look back to the movies of the Great Depression, the correlation between those films and that era is unmistakable. “I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang” and “Top Hat” – despairing realism and ineffable escapism – were the period’s twin poles.
In the same way, movies of the great recession, more so than usual for Hollywood, alternate between woe and flat out fantasy. “Up in the Air” and “Star Trek” are equally representative. And because this recession is coupled with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is an added measure of disquiet. It’s a perfect storm of troubles.
Another strong correlation between the Great Depression and the great recession: substantially higher total ticket sales. Hollywood has already set an all-time box office record this year. Movies are good business in tough times.
This year’s contemporary war-themed movies, most of which took no sides on the rightness of the conflict, increasingly concentrated on the price the war is exacting on returning soldiers and their families. “The Hurt Locker,” about demolitions experts in Iraq, is ultimately about the unsettled psyche of a soldier, played by Jeremy Renner, who can no longer fit into civilian life. (This scenario, repeated in the current “Brothers,” is familiar from the films of the post-Vietnam era, with their pageant of damaged vets.)
“The Messenger,” starring Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster as Army officers assigned to the Casualty Notification Office, brings the Iraq war home in a way that no other movie has done. In its earliest and best sequences, it puts us right inside the instant agonies of those who have lost a loved one in battle.
As a counterweight to all this hard-edged realism, one might expect – indeed, welcome – a giddier take on the horrors. Many of us have been awaiting a “Dr. Strangelove” for the post-9/11 era. But apart from “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” a failed attempt at a Terry Southern-like take on the war’s toll, satiric nihilism is apparently not ready for prime time. At least in America. The funniest political comedy of the year, and the one with the sharpest rapier edge, was the English screamathon “In the Loop,” set in Washington, D.C., and London, about the run-up to an Iraq-esque war in the Middle East. The film was like a cross between a hand grenade and a whoopee cushion.
Apocalypses were big in 2009, and some of them, like the egregious “2012,” were vaguely satiric as well. (If the end of the world is nigh, so the thinking went, you might as well have some fun with it.) Others, like “The Road,” based on the Cormac McCarthy novel, were so dreary that you couldn’t wait for the world to end. (Only in an era such as ours could McCarthy’s novel have been considered good movie material.) James Cameron’s 3-D sci-fi lollapalooza, “Avatar,” posits a future where earthlings have transferred their imperialist ways into outer space. The only good humans are those who renounce their human form and go native – go avatar.
Not many Hollywood movies thus far have dealt explicitly with recession woes, probably because, in Hollywood, downgrading usually means going without Gucci. (“Confessions of a Shopaholic” – what were they thinking?) Still, there was the notable – noble – example of “Up in the Air,” where George Clooney plays a “career transition consultant” whose job is to fly around the country firing people on behalf of cowardly bosses. Actual laid-off workers were used in several sequences, and, rather than seeming exploitative, this ploy hits home with a sorrowing force. Audiences who went to this movie expecting a breezy George Clooney comedy were only half right. Some of that breeze is as chilly as an Arctic head wind.
The depredations of the economy were more likely to turn up in documentaries than in dramatic films. Michael Moore’s “Capitalism: A Love Story,” “The Yes Men Fix the World,” “Food, Inc.,” and “The End of Poverty?” were essentially the cinematic equivalent of soapbox screeds.
With all this real-world weightiness to bear, it’s no wonder the big escapist franchises thrived, though for the life of me I can’t understand why anybody would want to spend three hours being assaulted by “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” or “Terminator Salvation.” (It’s like taking a vacation in a war zone.) At least “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” didn’t have any cyborgs. Animation remained big, and not just the computer-generated variety: The great Hayao Miyazaki’s “Ponyo” had a hand-drawn lyricism, and even Disney, with “The Princess and the Frog,” dispensed with the CGI playbook and (for the most part) went back to basics. Pixar’s “Up” was certainly uplifting for its first half hour, until it literally went to the dogs. Foxes and big hairy creatures had a better time of it: Wes Anderson’s stop-motion “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” like Spike Jonze’s phantasmagoric “Where the Wild Things Are,” brought a much-needed sense of wonderment to the overcrowded, underinspired family-entertainment arena.
As is so often true for me these days, the best reason to see a movie is for a bang-up performance, and there were many this year. “The Last Station,” which opens nationwide in mid-January, when I will review it, has two marvels: Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer as Sofya and Count Leo Tolstoy. Jeff Bridges in “Crazy Heart” demonstrates for the umpteenth time why he’s one of our finest actors. Meryl Streep didn’t simply impersonate Julia Child in “Julie & Julia,” she inhabited her. The same could be said for Christian McKay’s turn as Orson Welles in “Me and Orson Welles.” Watching Mo’Nique in “Precious” is like having a close encounter with a gargoyle. Michelle Pfeiffer’s underrated work as a faded courtesan in “Chéri” is moving beyond measure.
Your faithful servant saw about 250 movies this year, and so, without further ado, here are my picks for the 10 best films of 2009, in alphabetical order, plus an addendum of worthies. Alas, some of the best flew under the radar this year. I hope this list encourages you to seek them out:
One of the great Swedish director Jan Troell’s finest films, it boasts a classic performance by Maria Heiskanen as a quietly, heroically suffering wife. You really feel as though you’ve been through a life when you see this one.
In the Loop
Pound for pound this London/Washington, D.C., farce directed by Armando Iannucci is the funniest film of the year and the most pointedly political.
La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet
Our finest documentarian, Frederick Wiseman, trains his eye on one of the world’s finest ballet companies.
Me and Orson Welles
Richard Linklater’s love letter to a life in the theater is one of the most heartfelt of its kind ever made.
Hayao Miyazaki is the greatest living animator, as he demonstrates yet again in this fish-out-of-water tale that is one cascading marvel after another.
If I had to choose a best film of the year, this could well be it. Yolande Moreau, who recently won best actress from the Los Angeles film critics, plays the real-life Séraphine Louis, a religiously devout housekeeper who was also a wildly gifted, and unbalanced, artist. Directed by Martin Provost, it’s a luminous, numinous experience.
A 19-year-old Dominican baseball prospect comes north to try out for the big leagues, and nothing quite goes according to plan. It’s bittersweet and full of grace. Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck were the writer-directors. It puts “The Blind Side” in the shade.
The South Korean director So Yong Kim achieves sequences in this film as powerful as any in De Sica’s “Shoeshine” in their depiction of the sadnesses and resiliency of abandoned children.
The young Israeli documentarian Nati Baratz chronicles the search for the reincarnation of a Nepalese Buddhist master, which leads to a feisty, mischievous boy whose parents must be persuaded to part with him for life. If you really want to be transported to another world, this film will take you a lot further than “Avatar.”
Up in the Air
A smart, sexy entertainment that also has something more on its mind. George Clooney and Vera Farmiga have some of the best chemistry since Bogart and Bacall blew smoke rings at each other.
Other picks: “An Education,” “A Serious Man,” “Bright Star,” “The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans,” “The Beaches of Agnes,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “The Hurt Locker,” “The Last Station,” “O’Horten,” “Tyson,” “Where the Wild Things Are.”