Pause For Effect: Best of 2009

This essay has unfortunately long been on hold waiting to be published at the now defunct Gone Cinema Poaching. Looking back, I should have published it myself long ago, and I won’t make that mistake again. I fully recognize that it’s a half year late and is certainly dated, but I wanted to go ahead and post it anyways because it was a labor of love for me. So, try and remember back not so long ago to 2009, because it was a great year for Cinema that deserves it’s due.

Masked by the epic considerations and conclusions of a decade in transition, the solitary year of 2009 quietly produced a wealth of fascinating cinema. In the West, some of the year’s finest came in strange, challenging packages (The BoxThe Limits of Control), while others toed the line between the familiar and the sublime (UpSomers Town). One unforgettable debut sprung from an uneasy place of self-evaluation reflective of our current consciousness, challenging what it means to be human while immersed in the horrors of modern technology (Afterschool). But Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox managed to mix all of these aspects into one incredible mosaic of whimsy, comedy, and tragedy, creating a bustling alternate universe where humans and animals naturally battle and communicate. Color and texture highlight both the dimension and danger of Fox’s world, defining relationships out of the smallest details. The consequences of redemption and togetherness remain hauntingly realized on the fringes of each frame, glaring reminders that life can suddenly begin and end in a single moment.

Certain American trends from past years merely expanded their guise – classic genres were masterfully revised and challenged (District 9Public Enemies), while others fully embraced technological prowess over narrative and thematic concerns (AvatarTransformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen). As usual, the surface mattered more than the subtext. But some of the best American and European genre films challenged what these cinematic surfaces should look like. Pedro Almodovar’s Broken Embraces casually dissected the passage of time, watching as colors and memories fade into a sublime either of Melodrama, masking a brilliant parallel between unrequited love and artistic creation. Back home, James Gray’s Two Lovers painted a darker, blue moon interpretation of personal disappointment and compromise. In both, the heartbreaking glances of characters created indelible portraits of romantic suffering.  But Jane Campion’s gloriously romantic Bright Star captured the etherial nature of love like no other film from 2009,  charting the famous relationship between poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne with a brilliant balance of tears, tragedy, and tenderness.

Not surprisingly, the most memorable genre film of the year produced impassioned cries from both sides of the culture aisle. Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, both love letter and suicide note, gave history a defining haircut, creating an ultimate treatise on revenge concerned with the gaps and fissures of historiography, along with a bloody twist on the history books. Each dynamic scene takes on a life of its own, yet compliment the overarching subversive vision. Tarantino unearths the kinetics of genre revisionism without seeming pedantic, and his multi-lingual characters jump from the screen via cunning interrogation, disturbing retribution, and stomach-churning black humor. Most notably, Tarantino visualizes the many ways cinematic space can expand and decompress through the use of dialogue, framed by a disturbing sense of urgency, anger, and comeuppance.

Topically, 2009 wasn’t short on challenging and life-altering news. Our newly elected American President delved into the heart of a global economic crisis, the decline of one war and the reemergence of another, and the expanding importance of environmental awareness. Major filmmakers of all credos and creeds addressed these issues with varying degrees of success. Steven Soderbergh stepped up not once but twice, failing in his lead off attempt at social poignancy (The Girlfriend Experience) but making up for it with a confounding and pertinent slice of comedic strangeness (The Informant!). Clint Eastwood bungled a look back at racial unity, suffocating inspiration with historical simplification (Invictus) in what might be the year’s greatest disappointment from a master filmmaker. With A Serious Man, Joel and Ethan Coen managed to consume all of America’s small modern malaise’s into one brutal reckoning of moral compromise, constructing a serious period piece set in the 1960’s but plagued by 21st century concerns.

Thankfully, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker an Oren Moverman’s The Messenger finally gave cinematic representation to the complex angst of the modern professional soldier, both in theater and stateside. Bigelow masterfully constructed tension by withholding information until the very last moment, relying on the point-of-view shot to build suspense, giving each action scene an unmatched vitality and danger. By consistently surrounding her characters with unseen menace and uncertainty, Bigelow shoved political and ideological interests into the meat grinder of modern guerrilla warfare, producing a singular look at one soldier’s need to be the faceless symbol of extreme professionalism instead of John Wayne in fatigues. Moverman’s directing debut addresses a wide array of modern casualties slowly crumbling under the heart-wrenching pressure of multiple types of duty. These soldiers are pushed into verbal combat on the unlikely battlefields of American front porches, driveways, and living rooms, where the results are always tragic, often transcendent, and ultimately essential to the process of surviving trauma, even when the gunfire has long since dispelled.

Not surprisingly, the best foreign films of 2009 tapped into our discombobulated modern consciousness through silence and subtlety. Generational (miss)communication inhabits the end of one era and the beginning of another in Olivier Assayas’ brilliant and complex family drama Summer Hours, where the art of silence defines an upper-middle class French family in transition. Assayas uses natural light and color to express the slow moments of heartache and nostalgia within a long, shifting process of change. But it’s the vital and surprising ending, full of new growth and hope, that makes the film a masterful gaze into the poetry of personal histories and the unseen rings of a family tree. Lake Tahoe also utilized the beauty and longing of solace, slowly revealing bits of character through deadpan framing and camera movement. Director Fernando Eimbcke’s exquisite look at familial loss expands far beyond the limited scope of the frame or budget, sneaking up on you with a final sequence so lovely and moving, it’s hard to imagine any other outcome. Same with Gotz Spiellman’s spellbinding Neo-noir Revanche, where the echoes of the city and the howls of the forest haunt one man’s slow descent into forlorn guilt.

The act of listening, both by character and the viewer alike, defined the many nuances and mysteries of the best film from 2009, Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman. Martel charts the mental degeneration of Veronica, (Maria Onetta) an upper class socialite who experiences a slow mental degeneration after a causing a violent hit and run accident. Martel sends Veronica back to her world of privilege and wealth a tainted woman, and the development of both her layered reaction and those of the men around her make the film a masterful exploration of character and context. Accountability disappears as corners are cut, evidence is destroyed, and the entire affair gets brushed under the rug without protest.  Martel makes Veronica the center of every scene, stalking her with the camera. Natural sounds fade in and out as scenes overlap onto each other and life continues on without further incident. No police investigation, just interior conflict. Is Veronica truly shaken by the possibility of killing someone, or is she merely scared of getting caught? Onetta’s eyes explore Veronica’s entire character arc but never answer this disturbing question, making this mostly silent performance one of the year’s best. The Headless Woman ends in one stunning scene of guilt morphing into indifference, collecting the social artifacts of Martel’s oeuvre in a casual social setting, unmasking the skeletons of everyday life in one final moment of numbing silence. Veronica’s slow moral free-fall lyrically represents one woman’s guilt-ridden descent into panic. Doubt, uncertainty, and compromise meticulously infect Veronica’s psychological decline, as her (in)actions chart the death of personal responsibility and the rise of collective weakness, an incredibly pervasive theme at this particular historical moment.

All in all, 2009 provided plenty to mull over, both inside Plato’s cave and out. No matter your level of cynicism on the state of the medium or its critical overseer, 2009 gave everyone enough reason to keep watching

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3 thoughts on “Pause For Effect: Best of 2009

  1. Nice year-end wrap-up. One note–“A Serious Man” (probably my favorite film of ’09; either that or “Where the Wild Things Are”, most likely, though there were a lot of great movies last year) was set in the ’60s rather than the ’50s.

  2. Nice, Heath. Good to see you breaking the confines of a website whose failure to launch stifled you earlier this year. You should always post everything at matchcuts, even work done elsewhere online. Good to reminisce on 2009 looking forward to 2010 and the LA Film Fest.

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