Well, movie year 2009 is more than half over. Normally, at this time of year I find myself thinking that there’s no way in hell I’ll end up with a Ten Best list by year’s end. The January “white sale” of lousy movies—that often extends till March or April—that the studios dump on viewers who are burnt out after the frenzy of awards season rarely provide much in the way of “best of” material. The summer blockbusters are not known for adding to the choices in any meaningful way.
I looked over last year’s Ten Best list and discovered that only three titles—Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind, Bharati Nalluri’s Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day and Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges—appeared on the moviegoing scene before fall. That’s not terribly surprising since studios work on the assumption—not entirely without reason—that critics and Academy voters have limited attention spans. The result is that they want to bring out everything of note—or what they think is of note—as near the end of the year as possible. This usually pays off, though there are exceptions—witness the dashed hopes last year of Defiance, Revolutionary Road, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Changeling and Gran Torino.
Now, 2009 looks a little different from my perspective. As things stand at the moment, I could easily come up with eight of a Ten Best list—and I could be persuaded to add Cheri, Moon, The Hurt Locker and even Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince to the mix in a pinch. With those and my eight titles, I could come up with a Ten Best list that didn’t feel terribly compromised. So unless the whole year is just screwy, it ought to prove to be a pretty crowded field by the end of December.
With this in mind, it occurred to me that it might be kind of interesting to see what my Eight Best list looks like now—and by comparison how it stacks up at the end of the year. The inherent flaw—or possible flaw—in a list like this is that it consists largely of movies that I’ve only seen once. Of the eight titles I’ve only seen four—Tokyo!, Sunshine Cleaning, Up, Easy Virtue—more than once. Whenever possible, I try to see every contender for that final list at least twice. There are, after all, some perfectly enjoyable movies that don’t lend themselves to repeat viewings. Truly fine films, on the other hand, improve with familiarity as elements of structure and other nuances reveal themselves over time.
In any case, the eight films that seem likely to be heavy contenders for the final list are listed below.
1. The Brothers Bloom. At this point Rian Johnson’s The Brothers Bloom is locked in a slugfest with my number two title for the top slot. It’s the sort of quirky, original work that appeals on so many levels that it’s not going to be easy to beat. On my single viewing, I couldn’t spot a false move, a forced moment or a less-than-terrific performance for its entire length. The film is beautifully structured, very funny and yet very human all at once. Charges that the film is too grounded in the realm of Wes Anderson seem to me to be off-base. The humor isn’t dissimilar, but the style and approach are actually very different.
2. Tetro. As far as a pure cinematic high, nothing has gotten me higher than Francis Ford Coppola’s Tetro this year. As I noted in my review for the film, I was quite surprised because I’m not a big fan of Coppola’s work in general—something that has less to do with its quality than with his tendency to tackle subject matter that doesn’t resonate with me. Tetro is different in that regard, but even if it wasn’t I would still be blown away by the look of the film and Coppola’s creative audacity from first to last. If I have any single reservation on this title, it stems from a lack of complete emotional involvement with the two main characters—at least on a single viewing. That’s what I felt while I was watching the film, but here I am a little over a week after seeing the film and I’m still thinking about them, which suggests there was considerably more involvement than I sensed at the time.
3. Easy Virtue. I’ll be very surprised if Stephan Elliott’s wickedly funny and very perceptive Easy Virtue doesn’t end up on the top half of my final list. I was entranced and entertained by this decidedly “free” interpretation of the Noel Coward play from start to finish. Not every film can blend the gloriously romantic (and few things are romantic than the opening of this movie) with bitter satire, over-the-top comic set-pieces and a down-to-earth romantic conclusion. Easy Virtue is a film that not only can, but does—and tops it all off with one of the most playful uses of music I’ve seen in ages.
4. Whatever Works Woody Allen’s new/old film is a marvel. Since it’s taken from a script he wrote in 1977, it has something of the flavor of what might be called his richest period. Yet it’s a film that feels fresher—and bolder—now than it would have in 1977 when its themes would have been more in keeping with the mood of the day, especially where movies were concerned. Owing to its unusual pedigree, it’s a work that offers a number of different perspectives. It says something about 1977 and it says something about 2009—more than might be casually appreciated. (Everything else to one side, in 1977 Whatever Works would have come out through a major releasing company and played in regular theaters, while now it arrives from a specialty branch of a major company and plays in art houses.) In addition to this, it’s probably the funniest movie you can expect to see all year—assuming, of course, that you find Allen’s sense of humor to your liking.
5. Up I went to see Up with fairly grave misgivings. I am not one who thinks Pixar can do no wrong, and I hadn’t liked the trailer at all. I have rarely been more agreeably surprised. The film had me hooked within ten minutes and never lost me. It wouldn’t matter whether or not Up was an animated film, it would—based on content and style—be a great movie in any form. The multiple levels on which Up works are astonishing, and yet it’s a film that feels all of a piece—unlike, say, last year’s WALL-E, which couldn’t keep from feeling like two separate movies. And it’s a movie that loses none of its punch on repeat viewings.
6. Sunshine Cleaning There is perhaps a hint of indie hipness clinging to Christine Jeff’s Sunshine Cleaning, and there’s not denying that Jeff’s direction is rarely more than craftsmanlike (the scene under the railroad trestle being a notable exception). But Jeff also created an atmosphere that allowed her actors to breathe true life into their characters. That is also directing, though it’s harder to peg and discuss—even if you know it when you see it. And you see a lot of it here. Everyone shines in this funny and surprisingly moving film. It probably won’t happen, but if anyone deserves a Best Supporting Actress Oscar this year, it’s Emily Blunt. If you missed it theaters, it comes out on DVD on August 25.
7. Tokyo! This three part film—three short films from Michel Gondry, Leos Carax, Bong Joon-ho—is perhaps the most problematic title on this list. I was absolutely and completely taken with all three movies—on both occasions that I saw it—but I recognize the fact that it’s far and away the least liked of all the films cited here. This surprised me, because it has a lot of the elements that tend to play well in Asheville. When I started hearing stories of people walking out during its stay at the Fine Arts, I couldn’t account for it. Then someone asked me if I was sticking by my five star rating on the movie. I said I was, whereupon he pointed out that while he’d admired—maybe even liked—Tokyo! it came across like “a late Beethoven string quartet.” In other words, it’s the sort of thing that can appeal very strongly to the hardcore admirer who’s really into the technique of it all, but is apt to alienate those who aren’t. I can see that. I can appreciate that. I still think it’s a great piece—or three great pieces—of filmmaking.
8. Coraline Henry Selick’s Coraline is the most likely film not to end up on the final list. It’s a film that doesn’t always work for me—though when it does work, it’s the bee’s knees, and I don’t use that term lightly. I don’t mind that it’s a dark work. I called it a “horror film for children” when it came out and that still seems about right to me. I see nothing wrong with that. The problem that existed for me at the time the movie came out remains—its lack of emotional resonance, grounded in the fact that the characters aren’t particularly likable. It would be a lot easier to fully embrace the movie if I cared all that much what happened to anyone.
That’s where I stand on things at the end of July. There are still quite a few things to come—things that could play havoc with this list. High on my list of anticipated titles are Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, Wes Anderson’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, and Rob Marshall’s Nine. I’m curious about Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, too. I have a mix of interest and dread concerning Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are. The Maurice Sendak book was not a part of my childhood, so I’m not worried about it from that standpoint. No, it’s simply the fact that the trailer waffles between intriguing and reminding me of an episode of The Banana Splits and the specter of guys wandering around in sweaty costumes. We’ll see.
Oh, and if you’re wondering about the other side of the coin—that Ten Worst list—there’s no shortage there, even though at the moment Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is riding high. Still, The Twilight Saga: New Moon lies out there waiting…waiting. Oh, yes, that looks to be a strong candidate.