Matt Singer: We entered 2009 with a new president who promised to bring our country hope. But looking back at the year in film, I don’t see a lot of hope; I see a lot of grief and despair. Oh sure, the box office charts were dominated by your now-typical assortment of franchises, spin-offs, reboots and sequels — a major cause of grief and despair for some — but you also had enough apocalypse movies to fill a book on Biblical prophecy. Even some of the obligatory superheroes got dark: the world (spoiler alert!) doesn’t end in “Watchmen,” but it comes awfully close.
There was an air of doom in certain quarters of the film industry this year too, as the effects of the bad economy rippled through everything from festival attendance to the shriveling ranks of working film critics. Examining my own list of the year’s best, I find that most were stories about people struggling with loss, like the husband in my #4 film, or the trio of siblings in my #2 film (too bad Scorsese’s “Shutter Island” was moved to next year, on the basis of the early reviews, it looks like it would have fit in perfectly). I also see a lot of films on my list about waiting: waiting for success that never comes (my #5 film), or for the end of a tour of duty in Iraq (#6), or for the moment when a demon will come and drags your eternal soul to hell (#3). The bleak mood may have also contributed to it being a fine year for dark comedies, including two outstanding films on my list.
I’ve read lots of complaints that 2009 was a mediocre year for movies, but people who tend to complain about that sort of thing say that every year, no matter how many good movies there are. All I know is trying to pick just ten favorites out of all the worthy films felt tougher this year than it has in the four previous I’ve been at IFC. To me, that feels like a reason to hope. Without further ado:
Chev Chelios, the protagonist of the “Crank” series, is the perfect action hero. In each film, he’s saddled with a physical impairment that forces him to remain in a constant state of excitement. For Chelios, and for the audience of action films, boredom equals death. This time around, Triad gangsters steal Chelios’ heart and he has to get it back while keeping his artificial ticker pumping by blasting it with jolts of electricity. Subversive genre twists and clever metaphors abound: we follow a hero who is literally heartless on a quest for bigger and bigger electrical shocks while directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor try to jolt the audience with bigger and bigger shocks of their own, provoking viewers with a nonstop barrage of offensive humor, frenetic imagery, outrageous violence, and narrative non-sequiturs. Not all the jokes land, but you have to admire Neveldine/Taylor’s willingness to push the boundaries of bad taste and conventional visual storytelling. (The DIY duo shot much of the film themselves on cameras you can get at Best Buy.) They’re kind of action heroes themselves: blazing a bloody path into uncharted territory.
Speaking of shocking, after films like “Caché,” “Funny Games,” and his latest, “The White Ribbon,” it may be time to anoint Michael Haneke as “The Master of Shock,” in much the same way Hitchcock earned the moniker “The Master of Suspense.” Certainly no other current director is as good as Haneke at blindsiding an audience with an unsuspected jolt of terror. You can tell when it’s one of his movies as much by what’s on the screen as by the noises the people watching them make; just listen for the moments when everyone in the theater collectively gasps for breath. Beyond its beautiful, austere cinematography by Christian Berger and its chilling portrait of a small German town’s self-destruction in the years leading up to World War I, “The White Ribbon” boasts several images so shocking that that they will haunt you for days, and weeks, and beyond.
“War is too important to be left to politicians. They have neither the time, the training, nor the inclination for strategic thought.” That sentiment, originally expressed by General Jack D. Ripper from Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove,” is illustrated with uproarious and terrifying results in Armando Iannucci’s “In the Loop,” a film worthy of comparison to “Strangelove” and its pitch black political satire. In depressingly believable fashion, “In the Loop” shows how careerism, infighting, and general stupidity, can send the world spiraling into an unnecessary war. The film sounds like a didactic bummer, which is what it would have been Iannucci hadn’t packed it with rapid-fire jokes, many of them highly quotable. (I’d share some, but my word count is making things difficult difficult lemon difficult.) The documentary-style visuals and madcap energy of the film’s screwball finale gave “In the Loop” a sense of immediacy and urgency that most “important” films about the war in Iraq lacked. Clearly, a work of filmmakers with plenty of strategic thought.
Argentinean director Lucrecia Martel’s “The Headless Woman” boasted an ingenious visual style, one that put the viewer right inside its lead character’s foggy headspace. Verónica (an appealingly enigmatic María Onetto) runs over something, or maybe someone, on a deserted road and never stops to find out what. For the rest of the movie, Martel evokes Verónica’s emotional disconnection from everyone around her, framing her in the foreground of images that are otherwise blurred by shallow focus. As Verónica stares off into the murky distance, and her friends and loved ones close ranks around her, insisting she’s done nothing wrong while covering up any proof that could implicate her, we come to share her twin drives: curiosity about the full details of the accident and fear about the dark truth of her actions.
Most of us would not be able to withstand the pressure, much less the technical challenges, of diffusing a single bomb. Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) has done it more than 800 times. The power of Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” isn’t that it makes us wish we could do what he does, but that we come to some understanding of why James does. While James Cameron dominated headlines with his latest biggest movie in history, his ex-wife Bigelow beat him at his own game with a smarter, leaner movie about life in wartime against an insurgency. And like Bigelow’s “Point Break,” “The Hurt Locker” is both a well-executed thriller and an insightful character study about men with an uncontrollable compulsion for reckless thrill seeking. The movie opens with a quote from journalist Chris Hedges that reads “War is a drug.” So are movies as good as this one.
Life isn’t fair. In a world where celebrities are made overnight for singing poorly on reality television shows, talented guys like Steve “Lips” Kudlow and Robb Reiner of the Canadian metal band Anvil have been toiling in obscurity for 25 years. They inspired a generation of rock bands who appear in the film to sing their virtues, but they still spend their days making ends meet working construction and catering jobs and their nights playing gigs in dive bars. Now middle-aged with families to support, they should have given up their dreams of stardom long ago. Thank God they didn’t because the result of that stubborn, and maybe even borderline stupid, determination was this heartbreaking and heartwarming documentary, a moving story about the power of perseverance and friendship. Director Sacha Gervasi, a screenwriter turned first-time filmmaker was an Anvil roadie in the 1980s, and it shows in the finished product. Only a documentarian with a personal connection to his subjects could have crafted a film this affectionate, candid, and insightful.