Tuesday, December 22, 2009

O, Dreamland: 2009 in Review

1. Coraline (Selick)

2. Two Lovers (Gray)

3. Inglourious Basterds (Tarantino)

4. Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Allen)

5. Genova (Winterbottom)

6. Prodigal Sons (K. Reed)

7. Seraphine (Provost)

8. Star Trek (Abrams)

9. Man on Wire (Marsh)

10. Let It Rain (Jaoui)

Best Director:

Neill Blomkamp (District 9)

Best Screenplay:

Quentin Tarantino (Inglourious Basterds)

Best Actor:

Sharlto Copley (District 9)

Best Actress:

Gwyneth Paltrow (Two Lovers)

Best Acting Ensemble:

Le Petit Nicolas (Tirard)

Best Polish Film:

The Reverse (Lankosz)

If anything, this passing year belonged to dreamers and their reckless fantasies. Tarantino got away with shooting Hitler point-blank; J.J. Abrams restarted Star Trek to a great, suitably breezy effect; and Philippe Petit minced his tiny steps between the WTC towers without mentioning anywhere in Man on Wire what he felt when they went down (in fact, the director James Marsh seals off this information from his documentary entirely – a single stroke that elevates this superbly executed suspense-doc to a higher level of film art).

Every now and then, fantasies and realities collided, and the ensuing showdown was something to behold. Clever little Coraline Jones learned the hard way that – contrary to what she believed to be the case – “dreams are dangerous”. Séraphine Louis (a sensational performance by Yolande Moreau) is Coraline’s twin sister: she, too, sinks into her own narcissistic world of unlimited creativity, just to end up locked into a destructive solipsism. And Kimberly Reed had to cope with Orson Welles quite literally entering her world – already conflicted to begin with.

Stylistically, all the movies I cherished most this year were quite classical; even conservative. No Paranoid Park (2008) to be found, but I don’t mind – that is, as long as we have such stunning examples of old-fashioned craftsmanship as James Gray’s Two Lovers! Joaquín Bac-Asay’s camerawork, slipping comfortably from gold to brown to steely gray, with occasional strokes of blue (so rare in Gray’s work they almost always mean something special) – conveys a world of Leonard’s (Joaquin Phoenix) solitude and his ever-simmering fantasies in a painful, tactile way.

The single flight of fancy Leonard allows himself goes stale almost immediately upon execution. Ultimately, the movie is not so much about a dreamer’s failure, but about the dream as a mistake. Real, unchecked melancholy rarely makes its way to the screen – sentimentality intervenes too often – but Gray pulled it off. His film hurts so beautifully and quietly, I would rank it with the works of this passing decade’s true poets of sadness. James Gray, say hello to Tsai Ming-Liang and Nuri Bilge Ceylan!


  1. I envy your having seen the new Winterbottom. I love his work, even his more questionable stuff (that's mostly NINE SONGS, I guess).

    Surprised at VCB but love the fact that you championed DISTRICT 9. I liked it's chutzpah but have seriously problems with that film even if it is certainly worthy.

    Also wish LE PETIT NICOLAS came out here. And THE REVERSE. And LET IT RAIN. Ah, so many films that you lucky Europeans get that we Americans don't.

  2. Winterbottom may be my favorite contemporary director -- at least in terms of sheer *quantity* of his movies I happen to love (then again, he shoots so many, the odds are higher with him than with anyone else!).

    GENOVA is his best work since A COCK AND BULL STORY: it combines sketchbook-like, ultra-loose narrative with some genuinely spooky haunting scenes, via DON'T LOOK NOW references.

    My only problem with DISTRICT 9 (and the reason it didn't make it to the Top 10) is its occasional flirt with Spielbergian notion of alien-cutness-among-the-human-havoc, which I found completely out of place.

    Oh, man: for every cine-nugget we get here, you Stateside guys get ten, believe me -- it's we Europeans who envy you New Yorkers!

  3. I'd love to read more of your thoughts on Winterbottom. I can't say I've got much sense of personality from his films, except for the Steve Coogan ones. What do you think he's all about?

  4. Ha! Not an easy question, since his body of work is so huge and diverse, and I saw only a part of it. I honestly think, though, that he's the most creative and innovative re-definer of film realism to come along recently (only the Dardennes surpass him). His way of cutting, as well as blurring the distinction between fiction and documentary (IN THIS WORLD, ROAD TO GUANTANAMO), or simply putting fiction itself to a test (A COCK AND BULL STORY and the almost-narrative-free 9 SONGS) is very daring, I think. And hugely impressive in purely cinematic terms -- Winterbottom could rival Arnaud Desplechin in the sheer, palpable moviemaking joy that is so visible in his films.

    These are my initial thoughts about him, but obviously there's a lot of material to ponder.

    Thanks for stopping by!