CN&R film critic takes the lonely walk through the year 2009 in film

CN&R film critic takes the lonely walk through the year 2009 in film

<i>The Hurt Locker</i>

The Hurt Locker

It’s easy enough—too easy, in fact—to say that 2009 has been a very bad year in a distinctively horrendous decade. The year’s movies, both as art and entertainment, can’t help being caught up in the cultural malaise of such times. But none of that has kept 2009 from being a very interesting year for movie-going. The high points may not have been as high as those in some previous years, but there was quite a lot for local moviegoers of even the most avid and attentive stripe to contemplate—and even more, once again, for those who have linked up with the international DVD bounty.

Some of the idiosyncratic landmarks of my movie-viewing year include the following:

The Hurt Locker We’re all in the hurt locker in one way or another these days. Kathryn Bigelow’s superb combination of action movie and character study in an Iraq war setting doesn’t solve anybody’s problems, but it does stand out as the year’s most cogent and deeply satisfying movie experience.

Julie and Julia It wasn’t one of the year’s best, but Meryl Streep’s poetically robust incarnation of Julia Child was, and the marvelously adult screwball romance played out between Streep and Stanley Tucci (and perhaps carried over from another kind of pairing in The Devil Wears Prada) made me like it all way beyond expectation.

“Fork in the Road” Neil Young’s homemade music video for one of the feistier of the exultantly cranky songs on his new album of the same name looks like it was shot on his laptop in the back yard, and is all the better for it. “There’s a bailout comin’ and it’s not for you,” and the result is perhaps the shortest movie masterpiece of the year—and definitely the one I’ve watched the most often.

Porto of My Childhood A radiantly personal movie memoir in the form of a 60-minute documentary/poem. This recent work by the Portuguese old master Manoel de Oliveira (still active at age 101) got its one-shot Chico premiere at the 1078 Gallery’s film festival this summer.

Little Dorrit Andrew Davies’ richly endowed adaptation of the Dickens novel turned up in mini-series form on PBS’ Masterpiece. It was made for television, but it had the heft and depth of vision that I associate with big-screen movies at their best.

In the Electric Mist It went straight to DVD, and it too is not one of the year’s best. It is, however, the year’s best example of an English-language movie that has a great deal to recommend it, but which falls through some of the very large cracks in the American system of movie distribution. French auteur Bertrand Tavernier directed this briskly atmospheric adaptation of a James Lee Burke crime novel, filmed on location in the Deep South with Tommy Lee Jones doing solid work as the private-eye protagonist. The metaphor of the title comes from Burke, but the peculiar commercial career of Tavernier’s movie spins another layer of curiously cinematic meaning into it.

The French connection: The abundant riches of French cinema, past and present, were once again within surprisingly easy reach, especially for us film nuts with access to all-region DVDs. The Class, which played here at the Pageant, is one of the very best films of the year. So were The Beaches of Agnes (Agnès Varda) and 35 Shots of Rum (Claire Denis), which I caught at the Sacramento French Film Festival this summer; Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale (which has just been released in a splendid Criterion DVD edition); and Olivier Assayas’ Summer Hours (which I caught on Region 2 DVD).

The year’s best: The Hurt Locker, An Education, A Serious Man, Bright Star

The rest of the best: Happy-Go-Lucky, Two Lovers, Gran Torino, The Class, Gomorrah, Porto of My Childhood, Let the Right One In

Honorable mention: 500 Days of Summer, Goodbye Solo, Taking Woodstock, Revolutionary Road, Slumdog Millionaire, Milk, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Inglourious Basterds, Precious, Moon, The Informant!

Foreign affairs: Let the Right One In (Norway), Gomorrah (Italy), The Class (France), Sin Nombre (Mexico), Rudo y Cursi (Mexico), Porto of My Childhood (Portugal); plus Carlos Reygadas’ astonishing Silent Light (Mexico), which is due for a University Film Series screening at Chico State on Feb. 2; Il Divo (Italy), which stands with Gomorrah as the best of the year’s gangster films; and an impressive array of French films beyond those already mentioned: I’ve Loved You So Long with Kristin Scott Thomas, Molière with Romain Duris and Fabrice Luchini, Claude Chabrol’s A Girl Cut in Two, Cedric Klapisch’s Paris, and the over-the-top James Bond spoof OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies, all on DVD from one source or another.

Unjustly overlooked English-language movies: JCVD, a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie like no other; Sugar, an excellent account of a Dominican baseball player’s struggles as a minor-league pro in the U.S.; Frozen River, with an Oscar-nominated performance by Melissa Leo; and Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy, with Michelle Williams homeless in northern Oregon.

Stray Cats: The best music films were It Might Get Loud and Cadillac Records, in theaters; Anvil! The Story of Anvil, on cable TV; Neil Young’s homemade music videos (see above); and, I’m guessing, Pirate Radio (which I haven’t yet seen).

Film Buff’s Delight: Forbidden Hollywood Collection, Volume Three, which features six of William Wellman’s vitally dynamic Depression-era social-protest pot-boilers, from Warner Bros. in its rousing, street-smart, tough-guy heyday.