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The Register’s film critic recommends last year’s standouts — which include The 13th Day, “the best movie ever made about Fatima,” and Up, “the latest gem from Pixar” — as well as other noteworthy films.
BY Steven D. Greydanus
In 2009, humans were the new alien invaders. No
fewer than three times, peaceful computer-animated alien civilizations were
invaded by human beings, provoking hostilities until an open-minded human
astronaut and open-minded members of the alien race connected and began to work
together against hostile, close-minded military forces. Two of those films (the
ambitious sci-fi actioner Battle for
Terra and the modest family
flick Planet 51) vanished without a ripple, but the third, Avatar,
is well on its way to becoming the biggest-grossing film of all time.
was a year of quirky, darkly mature childhood fantasy adaptations. Neil
Gaiman’s juvenile horror–thriller Coraline, Maurice Sendak’s picture book Where the Wild Things Are and Roald Dahl’s young reader Fantastic Mr. Fox were each made into unique, challenging films in radically different
styles by directors Henry Selick, Spike Jonze and Wes Anderson, respectively.
Not that all family films were dark; Up, Ponyo and Cloudy
With a Chance of Meatballs
brought (no less quirky) lighthearted fun to family audiences.
was a good year for science fiction. Besides the jaw-dropping spectacle of Avatar,
there was also the rip-roaring escapist fun of Star Trek,
the harsh political allegory of District 9 and the thoughtful minimalism of Moon (as
well as, again, Cloudy, which definitely qualifies as sci-fi).
are still many films I have yet to see, but below, in alphabetical order, are
10 of the films I have seen that I consider most deserving of special
recognition, followed by 10 more that are also noteworthy. As always, not all
can be recommended to all tastes or viewers, but there’s something here for
nearly everyone. All are available on DVD unless otherwise noted.
Bright Star: “The point of diving in a lake,” explains the
Romantic poet John Keats (Ben Wishaw) in Jane Campion’s poetic romance, “is not
immediately to swim to the shore — it’s to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the
sensation of water. … It is an experience beyond thought. Poetry soothes and
emboldens the soul to accept mystery.” Plunging into Bright Star,
the tale of Keats’ romance with Fanny Brawne is just such an experience.
A bad word
and a few sexual references; an out-of-wedlock pregnancy; bloody linens (in
connection with tuberculosis). Teens and up.
Crazy Heart: Jeff Bridges thoroughly embodies hard-drinking,
once-successful country singer “Bad” Blake in writer-director Scott Cooper’s
tale of self-destruction and second chances. Blake plays small gigs, resents
the Nashville success of a one-time protégé (Colin Farrell) and romances a
pretty small-town reporter and single mom (Maggie Gyllenhaal) with a penchant
for making bad decisions about men. Despite Blake’s downward spiral, the door
to redemption remains open, but actions have consequences that can’t always be
obscene, profane and crass language; a couple of brief nonmarital bedroom
scenes (no nudity, but one scene is unnecessarily explicit); heavy drinking,
drunkenness, vomiting, etc. Mature viewing. Not yet on DVD.
Katyn: Polish director Andrzej Wajda’s devastating
drama commemorates the 1940 Katyn Forest massacre in which Stalinist forces
systematically murdered thousands of Polish military officers and other POWs,
intellectuals and other leading figures, then blamed the crime on the Nazis. A
film of extraordinary moral clarity, Katyn is suffused with the national Catholic spirit
that sustained Poland through its dark night of the soul.
scenes of mass murder; archival footage of forensic examination of remains;
some language. Subtitled. Might be okay for teens.
Strange: It’s laced with
obscenity, profanity, promiscuity and more, but Spike Lee’s film of
writer-musician Stew’s riotous Broadway musical is also something else: one of
the most philosophically and existentially searching films of the year.
Narrated by Stew, the semiautobiographical tale follows a black youth on a
picaresque journey of self-discovery, rebelling against his middle-class
South-Central L.A. upbringing and dabbling variously in religion, drugs, music,
art, hedonism and radicalism. Definitely not for all tastes, but a remarkable
document of the quest for authenticity.
obscene and profane language; some bawdy musical theater, including brief
allusions to homosexual and polyamorous liaisons. Mature viewing; discretion
Hours: French director Olivier
Assayas’ familial drama of a matriarch whose three adult children live on
different continents is an exquisite meditation on the passage of time and the
passing of worlds. Family members go separate ways, pages are turned, and both
memory and the things remembered slip through our fingers.
of a possible scandalous affair in a character’s past; brief recreational drug
use and references; references to shoplifting; liberal drinking, including a
depiction of a teen party with alcohol. Subtitled. Might be okay for mature
Day: First-time filmmakers Ian
and Dominic Higgins depict the 1917 Marian apparitions and “miracle of the sun”
at Fatima in moody, impressionistic images and vignettes distilling the
childhood memories of Lucia dos Santos, who recounts the story in flashback
while writing her memoirs. Spiritually rich as well as artistically sensitive,
it’s the best movie ever made about Fatima.
infernal imagery; imprisonment and verbal menacing of children. Fine family
Informant! Matt Damon’s
whimsical, unglamorous performance highlights Steven Soderbergh’s fact-based
dark comedy about international corporate crime, embezzlement and espionage.
It’s a striking depiction of the human capacity for self-justification and
self-deception and our ability to construct narratives for ourselves in which
we are always the hero of our own drama and the victim of our own tragedy.
profane language and a number of obscenities; brief crass remarks and language
and a comment about a perverted practice. Should be okay for teens. On DVD Feb.
Tulpan: Set among the yurt-dwelling shepherds of the
vast, bleak expanse of Kazakhstan’s Hunger Steppe, Kazakh director Sergey
Dvortsevoy’s fictional feature debut is at once an en--grossing ethnographic
drama, an ab-surdist deadpan comedy and an unsentimental coming-of-age tale.
Less picturesque and uplifting than The Story
of the Weeping Camel, it’s also
less archetypal and more individually personal.
glimpses of a character’s nudie pin-up images; an instance of obscenity and a
few crass sexual remarks; a couple of explicit animal birthing scenes; images
of dead animals. Subtitles. Fine for mature teens.
Up: The latest gem from Pixar, Pete Docter’s charmer
is an oddball blend of genres: a bittersweet love story, a high-flying poetic
fantasy, a goofy funny-animal cartoon, a cross-generational odd-couple buddy
movie, a geriatric swashbuckler, even a burial quest. A flying house becomes an
astonishingly potent and fluid metaphor for stages of grief and healing.
scenes of menace and peril; an offscreen action death; sober depiction of
mortality and grief. Fine family viewing.
Wild Things Are: Spike Jonze
reimagines Maurice Sendak’s classic tale of high-spirited rebellion as a
meditation on childhood sadness and insecurity in a messy world in which
nothing —families, forests, even the sun — lasts forever. It’s a film that
knows both a child’s drowning sense of trying to hold together a broken family
and also the comfort of a mother’s embrace, a calm center in a storm of
frightening moments; a few objectionable phrases. Might be too intense for
Another Noteworthy 10
following films are not necessarily inferior to the ones above; many, if not
all titles, here could easily have been chosen in place of films in the top
list: Avatar, James Cameron’s spectacular sci-fi action-fantasy
about life on a fantastic jungle planet (teens and up; in theaters); The Class, Laurent Cantet’s engrossing drama of public
education in today’s ethnically diverse France (okay for mature teens); Coraline, Henry Selick’s darkly surreal fantasy about a young
girl in a magical but sinister alternate world (okay for adventurous kids); District 9, Neill Blomkamp’s caustic and gory but morally
resonant sci-fi action film about an alien ghetto in downtown Johannesberg (mature viewing; discretion strongly advised); Earth, Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield’s
feature-length distillation of the magisterial “Planet Earth” nature
documentary miniseries (fine
family viewing); Lorna’s Silence, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s morally charged tale of a young woman
in a criminal conspiracy whose moral awakening has unexpected consequences (mature viewing; discretion advised); Moon,
Duncan Jones’ engagingly modest sci-fi fable of personal dignity and the
commodification of human life (teens and
Lee Isaac Chung’s debut film about post-genocide Rwanda and hope for healing
and forgiveness (mature
Hayao Miyazaki’s charmingly childlike, surreal fish-out-of-water tale about a
magical sea-girl and a human boy (fine
family viewing; on DVD March 2);
and Star Trek, J. J. Abrams’ rousingly entertaining reboot of
the classic sci-fi franchise (could be
okay for mature teens).
More Worth Mentioning
With a Chance of Meatballs; Disney’s A Christmas Carol; Fantastic
Mr. Fox; The Princess and the Frog. Teens and
up: Amelia; The Blind Side; Harry
Potter and the Half-Blood Prince; Invictus; My Neighbor, My Killer; The Soloist; The Young
Victoria. Mature viewing: Adam; Goodbye
Solo; Julie & Julia; 35 Shots
more, including content advisory information for additional films, go to
Greydanus is editor
critic at DecentFilms.com.