Mickey Rourke's journeyman wrestler Randy The Ram exhibited the kind of raw humanity that only a skilled director and 30 years of method acting could produce (full credit to Sean Penn for his portrayal of slain trailblazer Harvey Milk, but he was lucky to pip Rourke for Best Actor at the 2009 Oscars). Darren Aronofsky's quality film cut through the facade of spandex and stunt falls to deliver a heartfelt story of redemption and belonging on the semi-pro-wrestling circuit.
A significant film yes, but also a damn good one, too. Robert Connolly's interpretation of a political hot potato won AFI acting honours and sparked a renewed inquiry into the deaths of the Balibo Five, but it also marked a return to the kind of big stories, told well, that established the Australian film industry in the 70s.
Kate Winslet reunited with her Titanic co-star Leonardo DiCaprio to tell the story of an entirely different sinking ship. The two played the warring halves of a marriage hitting the skids in post-war Connecticut, in Sam Mendes' excellent adaptation of Richard Yates' classic novel. As a housewife at a crossroads, Winslet was a complex, mature and vulnerable creature, ably supported by two husbands – the one on-screen, and the one in the director's chair.
Nicolas Winding Refn delivered a TKO to the conventions of the biopic in his stylised rendition of Britain's most violent prisoner. The witty script and outlandish visuals made it a hybrid 'Clockwork Cuckoo's Nest', but the theatrical flourishes paled against lead actor Tom Hardy's bare-knuckled assault on the senses (and on most of the supporting cast, too).
Let The Right One In
2009 was the year of the vampire alright, but not the broody emo variety that stirred the loins of the world's 'twi-hards'. No, the honour of the year's best bloodsucker goes to a frail Swedish girl named Eli, whose fledgling relationship with the impressionable Oskar had to endure more than most tween couplings. Tomas Alfredson's simple and effective story of these two star-crossed youngsters defied convention and earned itself a most cordial invitation to my DVD collection.
Honourable mentions of the year also go to:
Mary & Max – No one does bittersweet yearning like the tremor-prone animator from Vic. This beautiful film was edged out of my Top 5 by the barest of margins; Wake in Fright; Bright Star – an exquisite and thoroughly modern take on a pre-Victorian love story; Summer Hours – a winning study on grief and the things we cling to, from France; Samson & Delilah; JCVD; An Education; 500 Days of Summer.
FIONA'S WORST FILMS OF 2009
The only film of the year I had the presence of mind to walk out of mid-way (an abridged list of those I wish I'd walked out of follows...). An execrable reinterpretation of pre-history from Harold Ramis; the decades since Caddyshack and Groundhog Day have not been kind.
The Invention of Lying
An incomprehensible offering from Ricky Gervais, whose loopy premise about a world without deception couldn't withstand its overlong running time. So thin on laughs, it tried to fire up the embers of dying jokes within the same scene (Jennifer Garner was masturbating. We get it, already).
If you're lucky, you might not have heard of this local film about a pot-growing psychopath and his spooked out sister-in-law. A mess from start to finish (with the requisite plot 'twist' you'll see coming from a mile away), Bad Bush fancies itself a thriller but much like its leafy subject matter, is more likely to provoke giggles.
The Lovely Bones
One for the 'He should have known better' files... Peter Jackson was a fan of Alice Sebold's landmark tale of intimacy and bereavement, but it's not evident in his screenplay, which collapses the best elements of the storyline into a redundant whodunit. Terrible.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine
The majority of the year's prequels, sequels and threquels fell pretty wide of the mark and the first indication that something was amiss came with this dumb reworking of a smart franchise.
Dishonourable mentions also go to:
Subdivision (a shoddy local film about the building sector); Zack and Miri Make a Porno; Observe & Report (nasty and crass I can handle, but unfunny is unforgiveable); A Bunch of Amateurs (ugh, though it does top the year's list of 'most appropriate film titles'); Beautiful (a plodding, ill-constructed slice of suburban mystique from South Australia).
This year I've seen - or, in some cases, endured - 96 films in cinemas and more than 100 on DVD. Overall, I don't think the 2009 line-up matched the brilliance, flair and originality of the prior year's stand-outs led by The Dark Knight, No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood, Juno, Iron Man and Slumdog Millionaire. Here are my lists of the best and worst of 2009, in no particular order.
Possibly the best movie ever from those creative geniuses at Pixar Animation, the airborne adventures of the old guy and the kid had more heart, humour and class than most of the year's live-action films.
A terrific, stylish debut by South African-born director Neill Blomkamp, mentored by Peter Jackson, this was an inspired addition to the humans vs. aliens genre, alternately funny, shocking and gruesome. It's just a pity the tone goes awry in the final reel with the appearance of that Transformers-like Autobot.
As the grizzled, racist Korean War veteran, Clint Eastwood made me laugh and cry. A brave film from an actor and filmmaker who has no fear, even in the twilight of a distinguished career.
One of the year's sleepers from Danish director Lone Sherfig and the pen of Nick Hornby. Carey Mulligan gives an Oscar-worthy performance as a 16-year-old seduced by an older man in 1960s London.
Wake in Fright
What does it say about the year's offerings when one of the most striking and memorable movies was made nearly 30 years ago? The re-release of Ted Kotcheff's masterpiece- thanks to its editor Tony Buckley locating a long-list print- gave audiences the chance to discover, or revisit, one of the finest Australian films of all time: raw, brutal and moving.
DON'S WORST OF 09
I know I'm in the minority here, but I found James Cameron's obscenely expensive sci-fier utterly uninvolving. Yes, I marvelled at the film's other-worldly look, but the plot was sorely lacking in emotion and drama; the dialogue was clunky; and the acting from Sam Worthington and Stephen Lang was uninspiring. As for those who loved Zoe Saldana's performance: how could you tell what the actress was doing or thinking under her elaborate disguise?
The Girlfriend Experience
The most un-erotic movie involving a sex worker I've ever had to sit through, Steven Soderbergh's movie was self-indulgent, shallow, and worst of all, boring. As for the gimmick casting of porn star Sasha Grey playing the high-class hooker, I think she should stick to the porn business.
Russell Crowe starred in this dreary tale, about a jaded cop's efforts to stop a troubled teenager killing again, as a favour to his mate, director John Polson. Turns out Rusty didn't do anyone a favour, least of all the audience, as he virtually sleep-walks his way through the film, possibly the worst of his career.
Surely this botched effort, which squanders the talents of Cameron Diaz, James Marsden and Frank Langella, will demolish the myth surrounding writer-director Richard Kelly after his incomprehensible cult film Donnie Darko. The Box is a pretentious, incoherent mess, based on a preposterous premise, and filled with random people who keep getting nosebleeds, red herrings and non-sequiturs.
Disney's A Christmas Carol
Robert Zemeckis' rationale for dusting off Dickens' classic was that the 3D performance capture technology would enable him to bring a whole new dimension to the story. It didn't work on any level, there was a surfeit of Jim Carrey characters, and Disney is licking its wounds after a misfire that cost at least $US175 million.
There were two wonderful and thrilling variations within the science-fiction genre in 2009. Neil Blomkamp's District 9 was a 'what's-gonna-happen-next??' original, but we'll let its $200million worldwide take be reward enough. Even better was Moon, first-timer Duncan Jones' introspective throwback to the last great era of science fiction cinema, the 1970s. Sam Rockwell, as the astro-engineer who discovers himself on the Moon, will be overlooked for the Oscar, because that's what happens to great actors giving masterful performances in genre films. As fully-realized a cinematic vision as any directorial debut of the last 20 years.
Sony's Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs was funnier and Disney's Coraline truer to the great, dark fairytales of old, but Pixar's Up was the (latest) crowning achievement by the masters of American animation. The most unusual of friendships, blossoming in the most inhospitable of climates and featuring some of the most unique characters the studio has ever created (Best Talking Dog Ever!), Up is a wonderful fantasy, a soaring adventure and a moving drama – and in crisp 3D to boot!
Jane Campion's Bright Star has only just made it to cinemas and it rivals Sam Mendes' disintegration-of-the-spirit film as the year's best tearjerker (Ayelet Menahemi's Noodle came mighty close, too). But Mendes' adaptation of Richard Yates novel is an overwhelmingly sad and insightful deconstruction of 1950s values, the illusion of marriage and forsaken dreams. Winslet was better here than in The Reader; the Academy again proved their growing irrelevance by ignoring Justin Haythe's screenplay.
Audiences everywhere hoped that 2008's satisfying The Dark Knight would lead to smarter American blockbusters. Then came...ahem... X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Transformers 2, G.I. Joe and Terminator: Salvation, each of them with a take-the-money-and-run thud. Only one film followed through on Christopher Nolan's promise – the immensely complex and utterly riveting Watchmen. From its parallel world set-up and step-back-in-time authenticity to its noir-ish detective-story plot, director Zach Snyder began with the best opening credit sequence of the last decade and then challenged our notions of the comic-book adaptation for the next 150 stunning minutes.
Pascal Laugier's Martyrs was the film of the year but, apart from its Melbourne Film Festival screening, never saw the inside of an Australian cinema; Tomas Alfredson's Let The Right One In was an emotional, terrifying stunner; Sam Raimi's return to horror, Drag Me To Hell, was a sick delight and first-person mock-shockers Paranormal Activity (in wide release) and Lake Mungo (in its unfairly limited run) had full auditoriums screaming. And Lars Von Triers Antichrist was a nightmare from which you could not escape. I know it's not fair to award the Years Best to a 'genre', but the fact is the 'horror' film, in all its guises, consistently provided the most challenging, exciting, innovative and daring form of drama in 2009 and I couldn't/wouldn't split any of these films.
Just missed out....
The romantic comedy was reinvented with warmth, style and hilarity in Marc Webb's 500 Days of Summer; the documentaries Anvil! The Story of Anvil, Every Little Step, Bustin' Down The Door, The Cove and Contact proved factual filmmakers usually tell the best stories; Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler; the French drama Summer Hours , with Juliette Binoche, and Sergei Dvortsevoy's mesmerising Tulpan (as well as the 2010 release Birdwatchers, which screened as part of the Sydney Film Festival program) were the pick of the foreign releases.
SIMON'S WORST OF '09:
The Comedy genre dished up some of the year's biggest disappointments. Ricky Gervais' The Invention of Lying, The Ugly Truth with Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler, Renee Zellwegger's New In Town, Pink Panther 2, Burt Reynolds' A Bunch of Amateurs , the strained French farce A Pain in the Ass or the acutely annoying Lesbian Vampire Killers – everyone of them without charm, purpose or worst of all, laughs. The best laugh this year was 2012, but for all the wrong reasons. Other genres contributed to some painful cinema-going experiences in 09, too – Saw 5 or 6, whatever it was, and Underworld: Rise of the Lycans flew the bad-horror flag; those behind X-Men Origins: Wolverine, G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen exhausted all their creativity just coming up with the titles; the “What-just-happened??” mistake of the year was Frank Miller's The Spirit.
But it was a trio of comedy duds that really stood out – Seth Rogen's Observe & Report, Sandra Bullock's All About Steve and Jack Black's Year One. For its achingly awful trip-through-history set-ups, Year One just takes the crown, but all three were terrible.
2009 was interesting. This is no small thing. Interesting is better than boring and over 20 years of writing about film I have witnessed too many of those. Still, this list seems to me a little predictable, perhaps conservative, since the filmmakers on it are considered, for better or worse, major figures and I know I will punished by “playing it safe”. Did I miss anything important? Probably. I look forward in that case to re-visiting 2009 in 2010.
PETER'S BEST (IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER)
Mann's ferocious, energetic, inventive movie quickly became a test case for a studio's ability to manage blockbuster expectations. Johnny Depp, handsome gangsters in hats and the 30s promised Hollywood gloss, charm and thrills. Instead Public Enemies was a $100 million experiment in digital technique and Mann's now patented form of screen dramatics, where immediacy trumps psychology every time. Disposing of the predictable form of back-story, motivation and sentimental reasoning that clogs the momentum of most films, Mann opts for a style that plunges right into the action and it's our job to work to keep up. Bracing.
Richard Yates' sad tale of a marriage in meltdown becomes less a discontented writer's smear of late 50s suburban culture, but a tortured tale of a man and a woman finally letting go their youth, in Sam Mendes' quiet and lovely poem of a film. It pulses with two great performances from Winslett and Di Caprio. An under-rated triumph that easily eclipses the glib ironies of American Beauty.
Almodovar's movie has been gently condemned as merely a re-statement of his favourite things…True, but who cares when it is all so acutely observed, delicately modulated and deeply affecting as this? And Cruz is sublime. Terrific.
A Serious Man
The Coen Brothers return with a movie about God and suffering. Or should that be suffering in the absence of God? Set in a suburbia of apocalyptic aridity rumoured to have a passing resemblance to the brother's own home town, the movie is hilarious, grotesque and genuinely sad as it explores the dilemma of Larry Gopnick, a decent man, whose goodness goes unrewarded. The Coen's sensibility has sunk in so deep now, after 14 features, that the originality of their vision is easy to overlook, and this a reminder of just how fulfilling it can be.
Michael Stuhlbarg is superb in the title role; the film is a truthful and chilling as a dream.
Once Upon a Time in the West and Wake in Fright
Two re-issues. Leone's sublime western is simply one of the great films; a majestic exploration of the myth of the American frontier is an exercise in pure cinema.
One of the great memories of 2009 will be watching the re-stored Wake in Fright before a packed audience at the State theatre during the Sydney Film Festival. Kotcheff's film is still a powerful hybrid of action film, existential myth-making and a documentary that explores out back life as it was at the end of the 60s.
PETER'S WORST OF 09
I don't really have a worst list this year. Not because I managed to elude cinematic catastrophes, but because they were so bad or so boring I have forgotten them. Three that I do remember as tedious and silly were Charlie and Boots, a laboured road comedy, Pride and Glory, a dreadful reactionary policier, who's pious posturing about good cops and bad, seems ludicrously out of step in a post-Wire world and Did You Hear About the Morgans?, a comedy that isn't funny.
List your Top 5 films of the year, said the editor. Oh, that's sooo easy, ha ha. On my first attempt I managed to cull it down to 18 titles with 10 that also deserved mentions.
From this I have to conclude that whatever the problems of the independent films sector post-Global Financial Crash, they've yet to make themselves felt in the quality of releases. Not yet, at any rate. I should add there were a few highly rated films I missed that I'm waiting to see on DVD, including the animations Up and Ponyo. No list of 2009 is complete without mentions of The Wire, with a runner-up mention for Mad Men – evidence perhaps that TV is becoming the new Cinema for Grown-ups, what with Hollywood cinema increasingly focused on spectacle and juvenile obsessions. That said I think Avatar, despite its crappy dialogue, is an impressive achievement. If we're to have a Cinema of Spectacle, let it be as spectacular as this.
LYNDEN'S TOP 5 FILMS:
Let The Right One In
Far and away my favourite of 2009. I have little interest in vampire films usually. Neither does Swedish director Tomas Alfredson, which partly helps to explain how he manages to avoid tired genre conventions in this brilliantly imagined and haunting meld of romance, horror and art film.
Nothing aesthetically radical here, just pure pleasure from start to finish, with a knockout lead performance from Carey Mulligan.
The opening 20 minutes amounted to one of the most extraordinary opening scenes I have seen in years - and because a few other scenes almost match it.
The Baader Meinhof Complex
A densely detailed narrative traversing two decades that is always dynamic, sometimes shocking and never romanticises its subject (leftist terrorism). Also a terrific showcase for the strength of German acting at the moment.
Samson & Delilah
Some of my favourites from anywhere this year were Australian. You can add Disgrace (shamefully overlooked by the AFI Awards), Balibo, Three Blind Mice and The Boys Are Back.
I also greatly enjoyed Moon, District 9, The French Kissers, Tulpan, Summer Hours, Genova, Elegy, Rachel Getting Married, Louise-Michel, Seraphine, Dean Spanley, (500) Days of Summer, and non-fiction titles Of Time and the City and In Search of Beethoven.
On the under-rated list I'd place Valkyrie (surprisingly well-written), Nowhere Boy (I'm surprised and baffled by the negativity in some quarters) and Taking Woodstock – lightweight, true, but enjoyable nonetheless.
Listing a Worst Five I find pointless and impossible. I try to avoid seeing total crud – there's too many good films to keep up with. I'm more comfortable listing the Most Overrated, films that often had some fine qualities but were marred by what – at least to me – were obvious flaws.
LYNDEN'S OVER-RATED LIST
Well directed by Rachel Ward but her sometimes unbelievable, Tennessee Williams-wannabe script was a problem.
Lantana having a bad hair day.
Alan Moore wrote his graphic novel to be unfilmable. This ultra-violent mish-mash showed that he succeeded.
Where the Wild Things Are – see below
A Serious Man; Like Spike Jonze's film at (4) above, this tall tale from the Coen brothers had some lovely moments but was let down by narrative and dramatic problems.
At the end of 2009 I've been thinking about 1999, and wondering if Hollywood hasn't taken a step backwards. Michael Mann, for example, made a terrific, complex thriller with The Insider a decade ago, but this year he was seduced by Johnny Depp's charm and made the disappointingly slight Public Enemies. I don't think it was entirely a coincidence that comparatively younger auteurs such as Spike Jonze (Where the Wild Things Are) and Wes Anderson (The Fantastic Mr. Fox) took on children's book this year, 10 years after Being John Malkovich and Rushmore respectively. Those books, both as projects and texts, offered a sanctuary from the sequel hungry, bottom line obsessed business that had once supported them.
As it is, my favourites for this year were films that offered the unexpected – in a variety of forms:
A complex, beguiling exploration of grief and sexuality, told in allegorical terms but with physically confronting imagery, this was the director's best work since Breaking the Waves. His attempt to combine a supernatural thriller and the Japanese horror films of Takashi Miike made for a fascinating dichotomy.
Che: Parts One & Two
With this mammoth venture, recreating several key periods in the life of the Ernesto “Che” Guevara, Soderbergh turned the conventional biopic inside out – and then he buried it. The maxim of show, don't tell was upheld throughout, with Benicio Del Toro outstanding as the 20th century's leading revolutionary.
Science-fiction has been the most debased genre in recent years, so District 9 (with an assist from Duncan Jones' Moon) was a welcome riposte. First-rate world building, strong digital effects that served, instead of eclipsing, the storyline, and a droll, increasingly tragic, lead performance by Sharlto Copley all featured prominently.
Samson & Delilah
The film that made 10,000 furrowed brow opinion pieces about Australian film superfluous. Warwick Thornton's excellent debut, the story of a pair of star-crossed teenage lovers from a remote outback community who go to hell and back, revealed a natural filmmaking talent. Barely a word was said, but the movie spoke volumes.
After making The Fountain, a flawed, undergraduate exploration of science and spirituality, Darren Aronofsky appeared to be at a dead end. The Wrestler, however, took him to new heights, offering an unfettered, naturalistic portrayal of a man (a fine Mickey Rourke) living in the very past that has cursed him.
Honourable mentions to: Claire Denis' 35 Shots of Rum; Uli Edel's The Baader-Meinhof Complex; Jane Campion's Bright Star; Michael Winterbottom's Genova; Todd Phillips' The Hangover; Duncan Jones' Moon.
As for the worst of 2009, there are many bad films each year, but these involved people who should know better:
A woeful, faux-noble exploitation of imagined working class lives.
A dreary comedy and a vulgar extended advert for a certain video game franchise to boot.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
Sloppy, self-indulgent filmmaking from Terry Gilliam that drew Heath Ledger astray in his final role.
The dialogue was overly long and aimless, the storyline bloated and unconnected – it played like a bad Tarantino satire.
The Spirit (Frank Miller)
Sin City was a bad film, and yet this made Sin City look like a masterpiece.