Gay men and a Jewish family struggling through personal and cultural challenges; an abused, teenaged girl claiming her dignity and self-worth; a mousy receptionist who discovers the twin joys of cooking and blogging; and a black woman born to surprised, white parents in apartheid-era South Africa are among the central characters in the ten best films I saw in 2009.
It was a great year on movie screens for the marginalized and the misunderstood, the neglected and the underdog. The best movies weren’t those with big budgets or, with a couple of exceptions, big stars but were themselves films on the fringes of the film industry.
There was a handful of acclaimed or highly anticipated movies (Invictus, Up in the Air, The Lovely Bones and Avatar) that I haven't been able to screen yet. No matter; I am proud of and grateful for the following films and the artists behind them:
1. Departures: The surprise winner of the 2008 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film didn’t receive theatrical release until this year. It is a deeply moving and frequently funny story of a young Japanese man who inadvertently becomes a mortician and finds himself ostracized as a result. A must-see, it is scheduled for release on DVDin January.
2. A Single Man: Out fashion designer Tom Ford makes a smashing debut as a filmmaker with this adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s novel about a gay man mourning the sudden death of his longtime partner. Colin Firth deserves an Oscar nomination, at least, for his delicate performance. One of the best gay-themed films to date.
3. After the Storm: The best among several great documentaries I saw this year, including Outrage, Every Little Step and Valentino: The Last Emperor. It’s depiction of a group of theatre artists helping young people in New Orleans mount a production of the musical Once On This Island in the wake of Hurricane Katrina is truly inspiring. Visit the film’s website for more information about the project and ongoing efforts.
4. A Serious Man: The Coen Brothers’ latest (not to be confused with A Single Man, above) is both their most autobiographical and their most theological film to date. A Jewish family in 1960’s Minnesota grapples with questions about God’s existence and mysterious ways. Long Beach native Michael Stuhlbarg is great and a likely Oscar nominee as the flummoxed patriarch.
5. The Last Station: Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren are magnificent as Russian author-activist Leo Tolstoy and his wife. After 48 years of marriage, they are facing Tolstoy’s waning health, political opportunists hoping to cash in on his legacy, and a growing call for revolution. The film evokes classics including The Lion in Winter and Reds while telling a unique, true-life story.
6. Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire: Raped and impregnated by her father, beaten by her mother and harassed by her schoolmates, Precious (an amazing performance by newcomer Gabourey Sidibe) is overweight and seemingly going nowhere. She gradually discovers her value with the help of a hopeful teacher. The film (directed by Lee Daniels) is hard to watch at times, but you’ll be glad you did in the end.
7. Little Ashes: The little-known romance between Spanish poet Federico García Lorca and surrealist painter Salvador Dalí is brought to vivid life thanks to a fine script, great direction and bold performances by Javier Beltran and Twilight’s Robert Pattinson. The film will be released on DVDnext month.
8. The Baader-Meinhof Complex: Included among last year’s Academy Award nominees for Best Foreign Language Film but only released this year. It manages to be both informative and exciting as it recounts the rise and downfall of a group of idealistic young people in post-World War II Germany who, sadly, became terrorists themselves. Superior filmmaking in every way.
9. Julie & Julia: Meryl Streep and Amy Adams, reunited after last year’s powerful Doubt, are wonderful as, respectively, world-famous chef Julia Child and a contemporary, rudder-less woman who drew inspiration from her and blogged about it. Nora Ephron adapted the latter’s autobiographical book and directed the movie to entertaining, hunger-inducing effect.
10. Skin: The true story of Sandra Laing (a great Sophie Okonedo, who was Oscar-nominated for 2004’s Hotel Rwanda) who, through a recessive gene bursting to the fore, was born black to two white parents in South Africa. Her family’s subsequent internal struggles and fight with the apartheid government make for powerful, fascinating drama.
I also want to give “shout outs” to honorable mentions Coraline, the best of a large number of 3-D animated releases, and The Road, a masterful, faithful adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s acclaimed apocalyptic novel.
Alas, into every otherwise good orchard of cinema a few bad apples must fall. My picks for the worst movies of 2009 include:
1. It’s Complicated: We love La Meryl, which is why we hate to watch her reduce herself to getting drunk, getting high and having unwise sex with her ex-husband (a puffy Alec Baldwin) in a desperate attempt to get laughs. Only the truly funny John Krasinsky, as Streep’s character’s son-in-law, emerges from this strained misfire unscathed.
2. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans: I admire German director Werner Herzog’s films and I like actor Nicolas Cage a lot, especially when he is at his most unhinged. This pseudo-sequel to the much better 1992 Bad Lieutenant is a waste of both men’s talents and moviegoers’ time.
3. Dim Sum Funeral: Shamefully manipulative, poorly acted dramedy about a Chinese-American family coming together following the presumed death of their matriarch.
4. Oh My God: Director Peter Rodger traveled around the world, posing the question “What is God?” to an eclectic assortment of people. Their responses are rarely illuminating, and only point out how hopelessly impossible to answer the question is.
5. Hannah Free: Sharon Gless is very good but miscast as a supposedly 80-year old lesbian confined to a nursing home, pining for her partner who is dying in the same facility. It’s hard to swallow the 60-ish Gless and the overall plot.
By Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.