Top Films of 2009 | Joe Bowman

film_white-ribbon.gifThe White Ribbon is a searing motion picture that ranks among the director Michael Haneke’s best work.


With 2010 on the horizon, I spent the better part of the year revisiting the many films that impacted me over the past ten years…in addition to playing catch-up with the ones I missed for whatever reason. While most of that time would be considered well spent, keeping up with all the 2009 releases ranked as a fairly low priority, especially with the consideration that most of the films premiering in ‘09 that I desperately wanted to see likely won’t have an official release until sometime next year. The usual irritations of making an annual "Best of" list returned. Four of my favorite films of the past couple years (Roy Andersson’s You, the Living, György Pálfi’s Taxidermia, Carlos Reygadas’ Silent Light and Ulrich Seidl’s Import/Export) were finally picked up for a very limited theatrical run this year, but as I saw all four over a year ago (in addition to never actually screening in St. Louis), I left them off the list.

For separate reasons, I also omitted two great examples of the European new wave of horror, Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs and Fabrice Du Welz’s Vinyan, both sent to DVD without a theatrical run. Taking a risk by releasing them in the cinema proved too much of one for their respective studios. The unsettling violence and despondent tone of Martyrs, not to mention the language barrier, likely kept The Weinstein Company from giving it a deserved theatrical run. Vinyan, which finds Emmanuelle Béart and Rufus Sewell on a hazardous trek through the Thai jungle to find their son who disappeared in the tsunami (the common description of Vinyan as a creepy hybrid of Don’t Look Now and Apocalypse Now is accurate), must have felt a little too bizarre for Sony, even if it was filmed in English. Regardless of how they ended up being released, both films prove that the sort of high-minded, artful horror that once prevailed in Hollywood is still alive in Europe, a much-needed alternative to tired remakes of the genre’s classics (admittedly, I did kind of dig Rob Zombie’s Halloween 2).

I couldn’t begin to list all the 2009 films I would have liked to have seen before completing this list. However, the one good thing about missing out on so many ’09 titles is that I couldn’t even come up with 10 noteworthy debacles to make a "Worst of the Year" list; hell, I even liked The Limits of Control and The Informers, even though both were greeted with hostility from critics and audiences alike. Naturally, I still feel responsible for pointing out the wretched five that sucked the hardest. Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson and Lynn Shelton’s Humpday were both touted as "Sundance standouts," and if that claim is at all indicative of the sort of films that premiered at our country’s biggest first-run film festival, I count myself lucky to have not been in attendance this year. I’ll take Precious’ exploitive self-hatred over Bronson’s showboat douche-baggery and Humpday’s cowardly vexer any day. I imagine the sort of people who got riled up while watching Bronson are the type of scallies that infest the third piece of shit, Donkey Punch, a seedy dumb-teens’-prank-results-in-an-accidental-homicide garbage that subs a group of detestable townies on holiday in Spain for Jennifer Love Hewitt and Freddie Prinze Jr. On a side note, Bronson did receive a seal of approval from a number of respectable film critics; Donkey Punch did not. At least Donkey Punch‘s director seems to be on the same level as the morons in his film, because the frothing-at-the-mouth antagonism writer/director Casper Andreas expresses toward his characters in Between Love & Goodbye is enough to make Donkey Punch sound like a treat. Andreas strives for a brutal realism to the souring love affair between two pretty young boys, but what he achieves is something truly ghastly. And finally, there’s the "cute" Michael Cera vehicle Youth in Revolt, based on the popular novel by C.D. Payne. While the other four films were contemptuous, Youth in Revolt is so mediocre that it barely even registers. You decide which is more offensive.


With that out of the way, here are ten films that each, in their own way, invigorated my love of the cinema.

1. Summer Hours (MK2 Productions)

French film critic-turned-filmmaker Olivier Assayas has amassed a number of detractors over the years, particularly thanks to his globe-trotting techno noirs demonlover and Boarding Gate (two films I admire quite a bit). The sort of animosity I’ve seen his films bring out in people is a wonder to behold. I remember reading an issue of Entertainment Weekly in 1997, when I was just a budding cinephile, and seeing Assayas’ Irma Vep appear on one critic’s list of the best cinematic offerings of the year and on another’s worst. While that divisiveness has defined Assayas’ career for the past ten years, Summer Hours is such an irrefutable masterpiece that even his harshest critics have surrendered. While still clinging to his thematic obsessions with globalization and the various facets that make up a person’s identity, Assayas infuses them into an exquisite portrait of an upper-middle-class French family as the three adult siblings (Charles Berling, Juliette Binoche and Jérémie Renier) address the topic of inheritance after their mother (Edith Scob) dies. Summer Hours sounds and feels modest, but as the meticulous, but never maudlin, proceedings of dealing with the death of a parent develop, its hypnotic splendor catches you by surprise. Maybe now the disbelievers will recognize that Olivier Assayas has become (or maybe always has been) one of our generation’s greatest filmmakers.

2. The Headless Woman (Argentina Sono Film S.A.C.I.)

Out of all of the filmmakers who made their feature debut in the ’00s, few have developed a voice as refined and striking as Lucrecia Martel has. With just three films, she’s become one of the most distinctive and uncompromising figures in contemporary world cinema. In The Headless Woman, a stunning portrait of a woman (María Onetto) who enters a state of emotional paralysis (or denial) after she suspects that she might have killed someone during a hit-and-run accident, Martel builds upon her previous successes in La ciénaga and The Holy Girl, resulting in an unshakably haunting and absolutely dazzling piece of cinema.

3. Fish Tank (BBC Films)

Though brilliantly directed, Andrea Arnold’s first feature-length film Red Road, made just after she won an Oscar in 2005 for her amazing short film Wasp, nearly crashed and burned in its final act. As Red Road was the product of an experiment, called Advance Party, created by Lone Scherfig, Anders Thomas Jensen and Gillian Berrie (with some assistance from Lars von Trier) where a trilogy of films, all to be directed by different first-time filmmakers, follows a set of rules and shares the same cast and characters, I forgave Arnold the misstep. Working from an original idea, Arnold’s promise becomes fully realized in Fish Tank. Aided by an incredible breakthrough performance by first-time actress Katie Jarvis, Arnold’s vision of the perils of being a teenage girl in the British slums is a revelation. (Fish Tank will be released in St. Louis in the early spring of 2010.)

4. The White Ribbon (Filmladen)

After his ill-conceived, shot-for-shot, English-language remake of his own Funny Games, Michael Haneke rectifies that wrong with vengeance. In The White Ribbon, which won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the young schoolteacher of a small German town in the years proceeding WWI begins investigating the peculiar affairs in the town that arise after the town’s doctor is mysteriously injured while horseback riding. Like Caché, the mystery becomes less important than what it reveals in those affected by it. Exquisitely shot in black-and-white by Christian Berger in his fifth collaboration with Haneke, The White Ribbon is a searing motion picture that ranks among the director’s best work.

5. Love Exposure (Omega Project)

Summarizing Sion Sono’s four-hour epic Love Exposure is a nearly impossible task, but assessing how a film with a scope covering religious fanaticism, cults, the "art" of upskirt photography, transvestitism, pop culture, pornography, gender issues, martial arts and erectile dysfunction (among other things) manages to not only sustain momentum for its entire length but actively, intellectually challenge you in the process is what’s truly inconceivable. Make no mistake, Sono is no cheap provocateur like Takashi Miike. The weight and complexity of Love Exposure is disarming in a way Miike never could be.

6. Julia (Magnolia Pictures)

In a pseudo-remake (or homage, if you will) to John Cassavetes’ Gloria, Erick Zonca (The Dreamlife of Angels) gives Tilda Swinton the best role of her illustrious career as the titular Julia, an out-of-control alcoholic floozy who (willfully) gets involved into a dangerous kidnapping scheme. Wrongfully maligned at its premiere at the Berlin Film Festival in 2008, it took over a year to make it to the United States, where it finally found the admiration it deserves. Both Zonca, returning from an almost ten-year hiatus, and Swinton, coming off her Oscar-winning turn in Michael Clayton, dynamically thrust themselves into Julia, overshadowing the narrative implausibilities and forging something truly exhilarating.

7. Drag Me to Hell (Universal Pictures)

I haven’t had this much fun in a theatre since I saw Grindhouse two years prior. Drag Me to Hell is smart, expertly crafted and perfectly acted (especially by Alison Lohman, whom I’d written off after that awful Atom Egoyan film Where the Truth Lies), a rare example of a horror/comedy that’s neither sadistic in its violence or patronizing in its humor. I can’t think of many examples where a director’s main concern is his audience’s amusement, and I can think of even fewer that actually succeed the way Drag Me to Hell does.

8. 35 Shots of Rum (Wild Bunch Distribution)

In a flattering tribute to the great Yasujiro Ozu, Claire Denis creates a gentle and moving film about the relationship between a single father (Alex Descas) and his daughter (Mati Diop) as she approaches her own adulthood and a desire to establish her independence. In making what some might claim to be her most accessible film ("accessible" is always a dirty word when applied to a great artist), Denis never sacrifices the magic or intelligence that defined her marvelous earlier films. A scene midway through the film, where the four central characters stop at a bar to escape the rain, ranks among the finest sequences in any film all year.

9. Liverpool

Pensive, cryptic and often spellbinding, Liverpool is a bold portrait of solitude from director Lisandro Alonso (Los muertos). Like fellow Argentine Lucrecia Martel, Alonso’s films are expressly polarizing experiences. With only a thread of a plot involving a seaman who disembarks in the desolate town where he grew up, at the southernmost point of South America, to see if his mother is still alive, Liverpool becomes a subtly galvanizing film (for the patient viewer).

10. Tony Manero

Pablo Larrain’s dark tale of serial murderer obsessed with John Travolta’s character from Saturday Night Fever during Pinochet’s oppressive reign over Chile in the late ’70s is an utterly transfixing filmgoing experience. It boldly stands at the edge of a cliff for its entire running time, always an inch away from debasing itself. Thankfully, it never falls into a pit of misanthropic absurdity, nor does it run away from the edge. Tony Manero is both a frightening snapshot of a grim period of recent history and also a showcase for the co-screenwriter and lead actor Alfredo Castro, who turns his "Tony" into one of the great cinematic depictions of a deranged sociopath.


Runners-Up (alphabetically):



The Girlfriend Experience

Goodbye Solo


In the Loop

The Maid


St. Nick



Joe Bowman

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