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Top 10, 2009  

I didn’t see quite as many new releases this year, nor did I write as much about what I
did manage to see.   What can I say?  It was a year of many changes, many new things.  
That said, I still spent a fair amount of time this year glimpsing scenes inside temples of
dreams, some unsettling, some heartening, some amusing.   Some stayed with me.

"Ashes of American Flags: Wilco Live"
Exhilarating rock movie capturing my favorite band, Wilco, on tour.   For me, seeing it
constituted a reaffirmation of rock & roll vows: the promise that there is another way to
live, a vision of community.   The movie gets down on record something the musician Polly
Jean Harvey once said in an interview: “When you’re playing in front of people that are
visibly getting lost in the moment, and you are too, it’s really an uplifting, life-affirming

"Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans"
Got a kick out of Nicolas Cage's exhilaratingly unhinged turn in Werner Herzog's latest as
a debauched cop careening gleefully off the rails.   Whereas Keitel in the original “Bad
Lieutenant” was tortured, Cage is jazzed by his drug-conjured visions.   The drugs crack
him up even as they’re shutting him down.    

Von Trier the provocateur returns!   This beautiful and unspeakable film must never, ever
under any circumstances be viewed by any of my readers here (except perhaps Aunt
Lou).   After their little boy falls to his death from an open window, an inconsolable mother
and her husband, a psychoanalyst, retreat to their cabin in the woods because he
reckons it would be good therapy for her to confront her fear of the forest.   The forest is
Eden, but nature is “Satan’s church”.   Drawing on myth and dark Christian themes and
imagery, the film taps into the primal, the elemental: man and woman, blood,
motherhood, pain, despair, grief.   It’s about fear of the self.  

"Capitalism: A Love Story"
Michael Moore finally takes on the whole enchilada, summing up all his work to date.   It’s
the story of how once upon a time, during Moore’s boyhood in Detroit, capitalism provided
a good standard of living for working people, and about how the barriers to corporate
rapaciousness were unraveled over the decades, culminating in their complete shredding
by Ronald Reagan, bringing us to our present low state of affairs.   There is a Chicago
story: the dramatic story of last year’s factory takeover at Republic Windows and Doors,
which I’d only read about, is documented in one interweaving segment.   In the end
Moore sadly wraps crime-scene tape around Wall Street.   In a sane world the Tea Partiers
would be out in the streets shouting about the problems as outlined by this picture.  

"The Invention of Lying"
Fun to think about what a world would be like in which no one has the capacity to lie or
even dissemble: the fields of law and politics would fall instantly, for one thing.   This
comedy co-written and co-directed by my favorite comedian, Ricky Gervais, envisions just
such a world, where whatever someone says is true by definition, and it is a sad, drab,
mean one indeed.   The story turns on the idea that Gervais’ character suddenly discovers
that he alone has the ability to lie.   The movie ignited some controversy because, in what
is actually a very moving scene, Gervais invents a “great man in the sky” to comfort his
mother on her dying bed.   Voila!, religion is born.   What Gervais’ critics have missed,
though, is that there’s something slier going on here than simply a slam at religion: if you
look at it another way, he’s really saying that without fantasy and imagination and
stories, which are all lies on some level if looked at heartlessly, life wouldn’t really have
much meaning.   Gervais is famously an atheist, but his work is always just as much as
expression of his deep humanism.    

"Bright Star"
This is Jane Campion’s film about the burning yet chaste love between the poet Keats and
young Fanny Brawne.   The performance by Abbie Cornish as Brawne was one of the best
of the year, and the early 19th century period is vividly evoked.   Sensual, as befits one of
the great Romantic poets, with rich imagery and the swooning beauty of Keats’ language
drawn from his poems and his letters to Brawne.  

"Inglourious Basterds"
Tarantino’s ongoing project--the merger of the art film and the exploitation picture, the
naturalistic and the cartoonish--still kicks some life into cinema whenever things seem to
be getting too dull.   Here he’s re-written the history of WWII as vengeance fantasy.   The
music and images can be ravishing: think of Melanie Laurent smoking by the window in
her scarlet evening dress, applying lipstick preparatory to opening night, while Bowie’s
“Cat People” plays on the soundtrack.   As the Jew-hunter, Christoph Walz is polite,
erudite, playful…and a stone killer who would choke you to death with his bare hands.
"Funny People" (first act)
I was really enjoying Apatow’s latest for awhile, thought it brave and true and human as
it told the story of an Adam Sandler-like comic and actor (played by Adam Sandler) who
gets a diagnosis that he’s dying, while also following a group of aspiring comics from the
generation coming up behind him.   But once the death sentence is lifted and the
characters repair to the home of Sandler’s true love from long ago, now married, the
movie degenerates into hackneyed shenanigans to do with her jealous husband.   Still, it’s
really good up to that point.  

"The Fantastic Mr. Fox"
Interesting to see Wes Anderson’s take on the children’s animation genre.   It’s still
Anderson, meaning that all his hallmarks are here: the spark when he brings just the
right song together with the action, the deadpan tone, the literate sensibility, Bill Murray.  
The mise-en-scene is unmistakably his and the stop-motion animation lets him control it
down to the last detail. There’s even a little existential philosophy in there: for human
beings it’s what you do that makes you what you are, but when you’re an animal it’s
what you are that determines what you do.   I’ve never read this particular Dahl book, but
the movie’s story adheres pretty closely to genre conventions, to the point of feeling a bit
clichéd at times.  

“Goodbye Solo”
Ramin Bahrani’s film is the rare American one made in the ethic of neorealism, the anti-
escapist tradition of De Sica and his ilk, who discovered “a mysterious, volatile alloy of
documentary and theatrical elements”, as A.O. Scott put it.   Souleymane Sy Savane and
Red West gave two of the year’s more memorable performances as a gregarious taxi cab
driver from Senegal named Solo and the sad-eyed old man whom he befriends, and who
hires Solo to drive him up the Great Smoky mountains on a date certain, where Solo
comes to suspect that he intends to commit suicide.   In a scene at the end that left me
shivering, after he has let his friend go Solo himself stands contemplating the void from
the edge of the mountain as the wind howls.        

- Dec 18, 2009

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