Top Ten Films of 2009: Foreign Films Reign Supreme

This list is accurate as of post-date. So many films and not enough time to see them all, the potential for future change is inevitable, but as of today here are the best …

Another year gone, another 100+ releases down. 2009 was one that included a lot of good directors and some great ensemble pieces. Out of all the inclusions to my top ten, plus honorable mentions, only three really contained a central figure worthy of mention above the work itself; the others truly were complete packages consisting of group success. Not only that, but for the first time in a while, the foreign language pieces proved that the Hollywood machine is far from telling great stories, relying instead on blockbuster special effects and scantily clad models. I enjoy a good Transformers 2, Fired Up, and Zombieland like the next guy, but it’s the indies like Lymelife, Two Lovers, and Sunshine Cleaning that show what cinema should be. No one knows that more than the excellent directors abroad, whether it be Spain, France, Korea, and even Australia this year. I hope that one day soon the studios take a page from their book rather than try to import them over to make work here with their hands cuffed behind their backs. If staying home and crafting tales that hit hard emotionally mean we Americans must read subtitles, then so be it. Next year sees even more famous auteurs returning to the big screen and no moneymen should be allowed to hinder their artistic visions, especially for such a bigoted reason as their films not being in English. We shouldn’t underestimate our own country’s ability to appreciate high art, no matter how much people prove time and time again that we should.

Films not seen yet that have potential of creeping into the top 10:
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans; Black Dynamite; Coco avant Chanel [Coco Before Chanel]; Crazy Heart; Julia; The Last Station; Le silence de Lorna [Lorna’s Silence]; Chi bi xia: Jue zhan tian xia [Red Cliff 2]; Sugar; Tyson

Honorable Mention (in reverse order):
The Hurt Locker, review: All the press and acclaim is deserved for Kathryn Bigelow’s new film. It takes an impartial stance on the war and instead relies on showing the psyche of the soldiers sent to disarm bombs. Authentic, gritty, funny, and dramatic, The Hurt Locker could be the best war film to come out in quite some time, leaving all the politics and agendas behind.

Los abrazos rotos [Broken Embraces], review: Pedro shows once more that he is like a fine wine. One would think he could only do the handicapped artist embroiled in a unique love triangle melodrama so often without becoming tired, but this Spanish wizard will hear nothing of it. Penélope Cruz is fantastic as always, but it’s Lluís Homar’s portrayal that makes this film great.

Where the Wild Things Are, review: It is not easy to turn a beloved children’s tale full of nostalgia and happy memories into a good film, let alone a great one. Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers did just that and brought Maurice Sendak’s world to life. Darker than most Americans might want to expose their sheltered children to, Where the Wild Things Are expresses the isolation and strong emotions every young kid experiences as they deal with issues parents feel are too adult to fully explain to them.

A Serious Man, review: It may not have the blatant humor or the pitch black drama that a great Coen Brothers film usually excels in, but A Serious Man does have the intrigue needed to keep you riveted to your seat. With an intelligent screenplay, great performances from a mostly unknown cast, and exposure of the mystical secrets and traditions of Jewish religion and culture, the black humor leaves you slightly off-kilter, never knowing what tragedies could possibly occur to Larry Gopnik next.

35 Rhums [35 Shots of Rum], review: On the top of so many lists I’ve read this awards season, Claire Denis’s French film lives up to the praise. Love is a central theme, showing how important it is to survival while also how it can hinder your own evolution by trapping you in the past. We try so hard to please the ones who love us that sometimes we don’t allow for the time to be happy ourselves. Stellar acting and gorgeous cinematography complement the dramatic story, showing its audience that being selfish in order to be happy can be okay.

The Top Ten of 2009 (in reverse order):

10. (500) Days of Summer, review: The romantic comedy for guys and girls alike. Marc Webb’s film brought in audiences with its quirky, inventive setup, making it one of the year’s surprise hits. It has comedy, heartbreak, impeccable taste in music, and even a musical number complete with animated bird. Told out of linear order to let character emotion drive the plot, Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are relatable and perfect stand-ins for ourselves, showing us the highs and lows of every relationship we’ve ever been in.

9. Inglourious Basterds, review: I think I have to watch it again to hail it as a masterpiece like so many others do—Pulp Fiction is still my favorite Tarantino—but it doesn’t take a second viewing to realize its greatness. The scale is the largest he’s ever tackled with multiple locales and plot threads, numerous languages and subtitles, as well as his own absurd take on history, changing everything we’ve learned about the end of WWII. All you know and love about Quentin is here from the witty dialogue to the use of constant visual homage, but it does appear that he has grown as a filmmaker it each aspect, further entrenching this former video store clerk as one of the best filmmakers of his generation.

8. Up in the Air, review: George Clooney may have outdone himself with this film. Never have I said, “Wow, Clooney really knocked that one out of the park,” but Reitman has gotten that type of performance out of him here. Full of heart and really funny, Up in the Air was a huge surprise when I saw it at the Toronto Film Festival, especially having walked in knowing the talent but not the plot. This sets the bar for where adult cinema should be—honest and raw in how people interact and converse in the business world, giving even a man who excels at firing people the room to redeem his life and for once find happiness.

7. The Limits of Control, review: Built like a David Lynch film, Jarmusch has amped up the surrealism and crafted a film so dreamlike that the true meaning he attempts to get across is unnecessary. I’m sure The Limits of Control has a different effect on each of its viewers, making all decipher the puzzle based on their own life experiences. Isaach de Bankolé is stoic perfection, wandering through the landscape of his mind as he works towards destroying what it is that has been undermining mankind’s ability to stay creative and use their imaginations.

6. Avatar, review: Sometimes the extreme spectacle of new technology can live up to expectations. Cameron’s Avatar risked overexposure through advertising and hype, very easily having the possibility of complete and utter failure, but once again he delivered on his word. The new 3D tech is mind-blowing in comparison to anything that came before it and the motion capture computer graphics have never been better. So many look to the weak story in order to dismiss it as pretty but devoid of a soul. That reaction is simple and convenient, though, because if you’ve ever wanted to be transported away into another world when seated at the movie theatre, Avatar makes it happen.

5. Moon, review: Sam Rockwell and director Duncan Jones are Moon. Science fiction deserves to be this stark and sterile, showing the dehumanization of technology and isolation space holds. Rockwell gives the performance of his career as cabin fever sets in and the existence of another version of his character arrives in the spaceship. The answer to this wrinkle comes quickly, leaving the rest of the film to keep you on the edge of your seat, wondering what it is actually going on miles and miles from Earth.

4. Up, review: Pixar has made its best feature in Up. The only animation studio that relies on the intellect of its audience, they are never afraid to put story in front, whether it means a lack of dialogue or fantastical worlds of talking animals. With an opening scrapbook representation of Carl and Ellie’s lifetime together that will have you in tears before the film’s actual plot even begins, Up’s journey is vast and full of detail. For kids and adults alike, no other animated movie has ever resonated so strong emotionally—equal parts goofy humor and heart-warming companionship.

3. Sin Nombre, review: A harsh representation of gang lifestyle taking place in South America, Sin Nombre gets everything right. Combining the storyline of a young man standing up to his superiors in the brotherhood with a girl escaping to America that he crosses paths with allows this film to be more than just a crime drama. No matter how much evil you’ve done, an opportunity to turn things around and try to do good will always exist. Once you get in bed with the devil, though, your fate is all but sealed; it becomes what you do before you die that creates the legacy you leave behind.

2. Das weisse band [The White Ribbon], review: It took a little while afterwards to officially realize how great Haneke’s new film was, but it hit hard when it did. A sprawling epic of a seemingly quiet town in Austria, the movie will leave you with more questions than answers. The mysteries occurring could be answered in many ways depending on you own outlook on humanity. Murder and abuse occurs, religion is used to punish, and war breaks out across Europe, leaving the kids at hand here to soon inherit their parents’ mistakes in the years leading up to Hitler’s reign of terror. Haneke loves to make art that begs its audience to think, using their own preconceptions and feelings of persecution to create answers. He challenges us to see how maybe we aren’t as righteous as we may believe, making us complicit in the tragedies he puts on screen.

1. A Single Man, review: Visually stunning and powerfully acted, Tom Ford’s debut is a wonderful piece of art. Colin Firth is a revelation playing a three-dimensional soul in pain—a far cry than his usual British love interest in romantic comedies. Speaking about issues such as life and death, giving visuals to psychological pain, and portraying the way in which we all are taken over by memories of happier times, A Single Man is a masterpiece, bringing the interior workings of a desperately distraught human being to life through the marriage of intense close-ups and haunting melodies. I seriously wanted to see it again as soon as the end credits began to roll.

Some films to keep on the radar in 2010 are listed here.


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