Saturday 3 April 2010

The Best Films of 2009, 10-1

10. Fish Tank
General critical consensus seemed to be that this was a lesser film than its director Andrea Arnold's debut Red Road: it may have been the less arresting proposition, certainly, but I found it a good deal easier to warm to, not just in how Arnold really *wants* her young heroine Mia (the tremendously spiky Katie Jarvis) to escape from the Essex housing estates on which she's been caged up, but in the way the filmmaker immediately grasps the survival instincts of everyone around her protagonist. Jarvis was one of the finds of the year, but the performances across the board are no less terrific: from Kierston Wareing as Mia's mother, a study in white-stilettoed indifference; Michael Fassbender, unforced charisma personified as the garrulous Irishman who comes between them; and young Rebecca Griffiths as the cinema's pottiest-mouthed sister, whose idea of a compliment is "I like you; I'll kill you last". And no film has made better, more pointed employ of those ghastly, faux-aspirational documentaries MTV now churns out during the day when they should be showing proper music videos.

9. Katyn
One of the most heartening movie stories of the year was the way that - in the week of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen - a surprisingly sizeable proportion of the UK's cinemagoing public came to embrace, or at least try out for size, Andrzej Wajda's monumental (not to mention conscientiously fragmented and difficult) drama, initially considered unfit for distribution by one of the country's leading cinema bookers. A scream of outrage at the state-facilitated hypocrisy that compounded the massacre of 20,000 Polish officers at Soviet hands during World War II, it remains by nobody's description an easy watch, but its unblinking seriousness put the flimsy, concentration-camp tourism of The Reader and Good to shame.

8. Bright Star
A costume biopic that - in everything from its casting to the sometimes startling directness with which the principals addressed one another - seemed forever young at heart. Jane Campion threw open the shutters and let a little light and air in on this sometimes stuffy and stifling genre, along the way coaxing career-best, not to mention atypically unfiddly performances from Ben Whishaw as Keats and Abbie Cornish as Fanny; between them, these two movingly, and more or less perfectly, summoned up what it is to have a head full of dreams, a soul bursting with poetry, and pockets lined with nothing very much at all.

7. We Live in Public
This came and went without too much fanfare in cinemas, but for my money, this cautionary tale was exactly the valediction the Noughties deserved, and confirmed Ondi Timoner as among the most sharp-eyed (and best connected) documentarists of our times. Josh Harris was one of the first Internet entrepreneurs, and one of those visionaries whose visions you might not necessarily want to share all the way through: his pre-millennial art project Quiet, attempting to rebuild society under Manhattan along Harrisian lines - in the form of a capsule hotel-cum-panopticon equipped with its own church, arsenal and 24-hour surveillance system - now seems like a) an analogue equivalent to the virtual domains of the World Wide Web; b) an early (and far less secure) runout for all those arguments and confrontations Big Brother would provoke over the next decade; and c) a deeply misguided (albeit innately fascinating) idea. Timoner was there from the word go, and what she spots in Harris - and diagnoses in us all - is the jadedness, the restless and debilitating need for novelty, that relentless exhibitionism, and all those hours of watching such exhibitionism, left her subject with. If ever you needed an excuse to wean yourself off Twitter, this was it.

6. sleep furiously
Gideon Koppel's lilting, lyrical ode to the small Welsh farming community his parents call home has stuck around in my head for much longer than I expected it to when I saw it earlier in the year: its landscape photography, in the fashion of Nicolas Philibert's no less lovely Etre et Avoir or Raymond Depardon's portraits of agricultural life, was gorgeous, of course; but it's the curiously British humour - the cheeky yet wholly affectionate juxtaposing one finds in the work of the photographer Martin Parr, or the latter-day folk songs of Half Man Half Biscuit - that has kept it alive in my head: even now, I can see the man in the wellingtons reciting his poem about the wobbly signpost, and the dog wrapped up in the tracksuit jacket. Oh, and I'll take the four-minute sequence illustrating the baking of a prize-winning sponge cake over any number of sex scenes or action set-pieces. (But then I would.)

5. Broken Embraces/Los Embrazos Rotos
Because I got lost in the plot, and all I cared about was being in the same room as it for as long as possible.

4. Funny People
No-one is doing more to push the boundaries of modern screen comedy than Judd Apatow: his latest felt like two or three different movies in one (which some saw as a failing rather than the value-for-money it was) and skewed more towards drama - albeit a drama with epically proportioned dick jokes - than obvious laughs, though it managed plenty of those, too. What I like about it is the way Apatow delineates between different types of comedy: between good stand-up, bad stand-up and promising stand-up, between the processed sitcom humour written by the Jason Schwartzmann character and the matey improv that has become the Apatow signature, between aggressive comedy, autobiographical comedy, jokes that go too far, and those situations in life for which there really might, perhaps, be no jokes. For an American movie, Funny People was unusually relaxed - almost European, we might say - in its attitudes towards love and sex, and unusually honest about money and fame; shambling unshaven in sweatpants towards the meaning of life, it's nothing if not profoundly funny, and in Seth Rogen's encounter with Ray Romano, gave rise to my favourite pay-off line of the year: "But I thought everybody loved you!..."

3. Antichrist
In declaring himself the greatest director in the world at that now-infamous Cannes press conference, Lars von Trier managed, with typical guile, to hide what he actually was: yet another heterosexual male unwilling to 'fess up to his deepest, darkest fears and feelings in public. Because they're all there on screen, writ large and for as long as you care to keep your eyes open for. The one argument against Antichrist that I think has any legs is that it's all a thinly veiled attack by a childless director on those bourgeois types who've deigned to have kids - but could it not, equally, be perceived as an expression of the fear of becoming a parent, and what becoming a parent might do to your sex life? (As for the misogyny argument: well, neither set of genitals comes out of the woods particularly well, all told.) Von Trierism has become a religion in itself, of course, each new film a further test of faith; you either cling to your beliefs, or find reasons not to. Still, even if you took a pair of rusty scissors to the extreme grue of the finale, you can't so easily shake off the spell the film casts elsewhere: it remains a genuinely horrifying horror movie, the most remarkable experience I had in a cinema this year, and the closest summer 2009 got to an actual event movie. When was the last time that a work this potent and challenging - this much a psychoanalyst's wet dream - made the UK Top Ten? There are as many things here to celebrate as there are to cavil at.

2. In the City of Sylvia/Dans la Ville de Sylvia/En la Cuidad de Sylvia
Blankly handsome young man installs himself upon the terrace of a French cafe, places perhaps just a little too much significance on both the movements of the passing waitresses and the fact mysterious Euro one-hit wonder "Voyage Voyage" is being pumped from the cafe's PA system, and waits for the woman of his dreams to appear before him. (Story of my life.) Cinematography professor Jose Luis Guerin's fresh and endlessly intriguing one-off may be any or all of the following: a mystery playing out in broad sunlight; a primer in how we watch movies, and why we watch them in the first place; a film constructed entirely from looks and glances; a 12" remix of those old Kronenbourg 1664 commercials; the moment a significant number of male cinemagoers fell for the lithe, full-lipped charms of Spanish actress Pilar Lopez de Ayala (my own lips are sealed); an illustration of what the Situationists called la derive, what romantics call cherchez la femme, and what the Strasbourg Office of Tourism surely calls the best free publicity it's had in years; something to rival Vertigo as the most seductive film about stalking, or at least selective walking, ever made.

1. The Class/Entre les Murs
The closest thing I saw all year to a masterpiece: a film that recognises the classroom as one of the last truly democratic sites in society, a forum where everyone gets their say, "as long as they're polite". Accordingly, Laurent Cantet's Palme d'Or-winner strives for, and achieves, near-perfect balance in its presentation of how one inner-city school works, and where it doesn't; the camera is set down at the exact midpoint between a teacher and his students, while finding room in its peripheral vision for the army of cleaners, workmen and canteen staff that keep such institutions functioning. The film could have been a simple paean to the modern teacher, and writer-star Francois Begaudeau's M. Marin - veins pulsing perpetually at his temples, both tool and consequence of the job - does indeed embody everything we expect a modern teacher to be, a combination of referee, social worker, counsellor, alchemist, stand-up comic and traffic cop, deciding which of his charges' diversions are worth pursuing, and which to nip in the bud - but he's also, clearly, someone with much to learn himself: who makes several crucial mistakes, and has to come down to the pupils' level in a memorable playground confrontation. For extra fun, try and decide which of the young performers - sparky, combative presences who make each lesson a receptacle of their own concerns - you'd like to adopt for the day as part of an arthouse Big Brother program. My choice: Boubacar - knows his football, and would doubtless provide cheeky badinage on bus journeys of short-to-moderate length.

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