The Best and Worst of 2009

The Best Films of 2009

1) Let The Right One In

Swedish director Tomas Alfredson adapted the bestselling novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist for this darkly atmospheric vampire story about a 12 year old boy called Oscar and his friendship with an unusual young girl named Eli. As delicate, evocative and poetic a film as you are ever likely to see, the film’s complex ambiguities and haunting mood stayed with me throughout the year. A Hollywood remake is in the works. See it now, before they ruin it.

2) The White Ribbon
There are more scary kids in Michael Haneke’s Palme d’Or winning film about a black cloud of mysterious violence that passes over a Northern German village on the eve of WWI. Shot in stark monochrome and with a constant air of menace, The White Ribbon is extraordinarily gripping but frustratingly slippery, with Haneke deftly refusing to answer the questions he asks about family, community, faith and how they combined in the minds of the young people who would allow the Nazis to prosper. A singular film.

3) A Serious Man
The Coen Brothers follow the frothy caper Burn After Reading with this mordant, pleasingly pessimistic re-telling of the Book of Job as the story of a 1960s mathematics professor plagued by injustice and iniquity who attempts to find comfort in the teachings of his rabbis. A Serious Man is one of the very few films of 2009 that I watched twice.

4) Il Divo
Paolo Sorrentino offers a scathing analysis of former Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, told with consummate style, wit and a towering central performance from Tony Servillo.

5) Up
The first twenty minutes of Pixar’s 3D animation Up are amongst the finest ever committed to film, an emotionally devastating thumbnail sketch of a quiet American marriage. The rest of it is pretty special too.

6) The Wrestler
Mickey Rourke had come a long way since his heyday in the 1980s, but the trajectory was mostly downward. By the time he was offered the title role in The Wrestler, Rourke had become a parody of himself. His director, visionary wunderkind Darren Aronofsky wasn’t doing all that better, smarting after the costly commercial and critical failure of The Fountain. The Wrestler saved them both: Rourke will play the baddie in this summer’s Iron Man II while Aronofsky is currently filming the thriller Black Swan.

7) Slumdog Millionaire
Danny Boyle swept the Oscars with this rollicking rags-to-riches story about a young man from the slums of Mumbai who appear on the Indian version of “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire”. Breathless and beguiling, Slumdog Millionaire boasted the best final scene of the year; a Bollywood-style dance-off staged at Mumbai train station.

8) Mesrine I & II
Vincent Cassel excelled in this tough, stylish diptych about the life and crimes of notorious French gangster Jacques Mesrine.

9) The Hurt Locker
Katherine Bigelow’s stylish and gripping war film told the story of a bomb-disposal expert as he completes a tour of duty on the streets of Iraq. Tightly focused, horribly claustrophobic and seething with anger and adrenaline, this is the best film yet about the war in Iraq.

10) Anvil: The Story of Anvil
The documentary of the year, this touching portrait of a failed Canadian heavy metal band was like Spinal Tap made real, up to and including the brilliantly redemptive finale.

The Next Ten Best:
Bright Star, Broken Embraces, District 9, Doubt, Frost/Nixon, Frozen River, Gran Torino, Katyn, Moon, Rachel Getting Married.

The Worst Films of 2009

1) The Boat that Rocked
The Boat That Sank, more like. Richard Curtis’ appalling comedy about a 1960s pirate radio station was noisy and busy and extraordinarily lengthy, but never funny. Not even once.

2) Love Happens
This ghastly rom-com about a relationship between a bereaved self-help author and a lonely florist is told as a series of fatuous homilies about ‘recovery’. This entire list could have been composed of failed, foolish American studio romantic-comedies.

3) The Ugly Truth
Like this one. Charisma vacuums Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler combine to losing effect for this charmless comedy black hole. See also: Bride Wars, Marley & Me, Couples Retreat…

4) Lesbian Vampire Killers
The stars of TV’s Gavin & Stacey squander their reputations on this lazy, puerile comedy homage to Hammer Horror.

5) Dragonball Evolution
Or, indeed, any film that has been adapted from a video game, ever. Unwatchable garbage designed to appeal to unusually dim-witted thirteen year old boys.

6) Triangle
A sailing-party of pretty young people are lost at sea and wind up wandering through a rip off of Kubrick’s Shining, brandishing shotguns and unresolved mommy-issues. Pointless.

7) Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant
Limerick writer Darren Shan has written twelve Cirque du Freak books. The costly failure of the first adaptation, a cheap-looking, poorly-acted shambles, means it looks like we will be spared the rest.

8) Last House on the Left
Like the similarly pointless Friday The 13th, a glossy, gory remake of a 1970s horror that serves only to highlight Hollywood’s creative bankruptcy.

9) Transformers II
Micheal Bay fails to repeat the trick with his second film about shape-shifting space-robots. Eye-wateringly stupid and agonisingly lengthy. See also: X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Terminator Salvation.

10) Creation
The dullest film of the year, or any other year, Jon Amiel’s plodding story of Charles Darwin’s struggle to write On The Origin of Species saw Paul Bettany share a scene with an orang-utan, who acts him off the screen.

The best film book I read this year was Stephen Prince's keen analysis of the life and work of Akira Kurosawa in The Warrior's Camera. The worst was Robert Sellers' idiotic, priapic Bad Boy Drive. Away from the picture-house (although not that far removed) I really enjoyed reading Patricia Highsmith's quintet of Tom Ripley books.

Song of the year was RL Burnside's See What My Buddy Done from the album Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down.

A Serious Man

The new Coen Brothers comedy A Serious Man is a jagged, absorbing and brilliantly acted fable about one man’s struggle when a seemingly endless rain of problems starts to fall on his head.

The film opens with a short prologue set long ago in a Polish shtetl, in which a man and his wife are visited by a kindly old man. The suspicious wife thinks the visitor is a dybbuk, a kind of Jewish zombie, and dispatches him without thinking. Has she saved their lives, or cursed countless generations forever? We never know for sure, but the suspicion remains.

Flash forward to an unnamed American city in 1967. Mathematics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is attempting to explain Schrodinger’s classic thought experiment to his bored students. A cat, he tells them, is put in a sealed box with some radioactive material that might kill it at any time. Until the box is opened, we can observe the animal exists in two states; alive and dead, saved and cursed. The students don’t really understand, but perhaps Larry isn’t explaining himself very well. He’s in an unstable box himself.

There is catastrophe - or worse, potential catastrophe - wherever he looks. At home, his marriage to the brash Judith (Sari Lennick) is failing, his son is preparing for his bar mitzvah by smoking pot and watching television and his teenage daughter is demanding a nose job. Then there’s the matter of his deadbeat (Richard Kind), a deeply annoying moocher with a mysterious medical condition. At work, things are no better; A South Korean student is bribing him for a better grade and someone has been sending unflattering letters about Larry to his superiors.

Faced with this onslaught of calamity, Larry seeks the comfort and guidance of three Rabbis, a series of uproarious consultations that provide the story with a firm backbone. Can any of these learned men help him stop his life from dissolving around him and help him become an upstanding person – the serious man of the title; a mensch? But what can Larry make from the ramblings of his religious leaders when he struggles to articulate his questions? “God doesn’t owe us anything,” Rabbi Nachtner tells him. “The obligation runs the other way.” But why, Larry wonders, won’t He fix any of life’s problems? “He hasn’t told me,” the rabbi responds.

A Serious Man is the first Coen brothers film with an autobiographical edge and it perfectly captures both the time and culture of growing up Jewish in the heartland of 1960s America. The film acts as a distillation of the themes and techniques that have occupied the filmmaking brothers for their entire careers; a witty, idea-packed script that tells a compelling and engaging story, filled with cinematic and literary references, visual winks, cultural touchstones and delightfully complicated dead ends. The film is brilliantly acted by the unfamiliar cast, predominantly stage actors, the standout being Stuhlbarg’s floundering Larry, a study in panic trying to understand why God has cursed him to suffer. Shot in luminous tones by their usual cinematographer, Roger Deakins, and scored by their regular composer, Carter Burwell, A Serious Man is a darkly funny and wholly absorbing film that is deliberately, deliciously evasive, right up to the final scenes. It is one of the films of the year.