What to say about film in 2009? It was clearly a transitional and scary year for independents and biggies alike, with an uncertain theatrical future leading to (exciting? underwhelming?) developments in film availability online and on demand and via your computer. Some of the stories that we clung to this year echoed that uncertainty, from Precious to Up in the Air. Other stories, like this summer's Transformers 2, simply blew stuff up. And then there's Avatar... already #21 in IMDB's top 250.
The films we wanted to highlight in our Movies We Love piece are not necessarily the "best" or buzziest of the year; those lists, after a while, all start to sound the same. We wanted to focus on the films that touched us, moved us, and maybe changed the way we saw the world for a little while. Movies are a powerful art form and our picks—Amreeka, Big Fan, Disgrace, Hunger, In the Loop, Medicine for Melancholy, Moon, Racing Dreams, Two Lovers, Whip It—are all films that are worth seeking out.
(A shout out to Entre Nos, Bright Star, Adventureland, and The Road—all films that didn't quite make this list due to technicalities like distribution or assumptions about whether they'll be mentioned in year-end awards or not. What do they have in common? They're all films that are worth seeing.)
Dir. Cherien Dabis
Newcomer Cherien Dabis found her way onto more than one “directors to watch” lists in 2009, starting with the Sundance premiere of her debut feature, Amreeka. In the touching and timely film, a Palestinian mother and son find their way to the US, only to face an uphill battle in their search for the American dream. It may sound clichéd, but Dabis’ story is anything but—rather, it’s refreshing, honest, funny, and very slice-of-life. Palestinian actress Nisreen Faour has the maternal warmth and lush loveliness to make us want to see her again and again, and we are also big fans of her elegant costar Hiam Abbass, whom you’ll recognize from The Visitor, one of our Movies We Love from 2008. An indie success story, Amreeka continues to make its way to theaters across the country, and will also be on DVD January 12.
Read more: Chasing the American Dream: Amreeka—January 13
Dir. Robert D. Siegel
Sometimes powerful performances come in the most unlikely of packages, and such was the case with Patton Oswalt’s turn in Big Fan. The directorial debut of Robert Siegel, who also wrote last year’s The Wrestler, Big Fan is a small film that seethes with quiet desperation and rabid fandom, which will feel familiar to anyone who really, really, I mean really likes a team, a musician, a movie franchise (Star Trek, anyone?)—you name it. It’s not a football movie, but there is certainly football involved, as Oswalt’s Paul Aufiero from Staten Island (great, realistic name, par for the movie) and his equally-loneresque buddy (played by indie favorite Kevin Corrigan, aka “the ugly guy” from Walking and Talking) eat, drink, and sleep the New York Giants. When a chance meeting with their idol goes horribly wrong, the two are caught in a downward spiral that will break your heart. Rounded out by a fantastic cast of mostly unknowns, Big Fan can still be found in theaters as it continues its slow-but-steady national rollout, but it will also be out on DVD January 12.
Read more: Tragicomedy: Big Fan—August 24
Dir. Steve Jacobs
We know it's the end of the year, and all you really want under the tree is a little cheer, but in the dreary days of winter, sometimes a little despair on screen can make your own problems seem more mundane. In this film, an exquisite adaptation of Nobel winner J. M. Coetzee's slim masterpiece of a novel, American treasure John Malkovich gives a largely-overlooked, award-worthy performance. (Too bad this year's Best Actor category runneth over with possibilities.) His languid portrayal of a smarmily complacent South African professor whose world is suddenly rocked by horrific violence works as a metaphor on so many levels, it will have you thinking about it for days to come. Jessica Haines is also a standout as his enigmatic and willing martyr of a daughter. Sadly, Disgrace is not yet on DVD, but you can save it to your Netflix queue, so when it's out, you'll know.
Read more: Film & Literature: Disgrace—September 15
Dir. Steve McQueen
Speeding onto the list of "Great Films that are Harrowing Experiences to Watch and I Probably Can't Do it Again," Steve McQueen's Cannes-friendly debut hit American shores properly in 2009 thanks to IFC. The incredible Michael Fassbender stars (who is hale and hearty in Inglourious Basterds, happily) as Bobby Sands, the IRA member who led the prisoners' hunger strike in 1981 Ireland. McQueen, a Turner Prize-winning British visual artist, has a knack with visuals, and there are loads of horrifying, stunning scenes in this film: a prison guard smoking against a wall, snow falling on the ground, a man smearing his shit on the walls, the visual rot of Sands' body as he achieves some sort of peace in death. A film that turns human strife into something like poetry.
Read more: Hunger Strike—March 18
Hunger will be available on DVD through the Criterion Collection on Feburary 16, 2010.
You know how the Eskimos have 40 words for snow? In the world of In the Loop, there are over 40 different and ever more colorful ways to say "f*** off!" A joy to watch, and you can get the DVD on January 12, Iannucci's feature-length variation on his BBC series The Thick of It is a word-mad rush to war. With an ensemble cast (including My Girl's Anna Chlumsky) led ably by the angry sexy Scotsman Peter Capaldi as spin doctor Malcolm Tucker, the film follows bumbling British politicos as they're used as pawns for America's hawk agendas. The script is particularly brilliant, with the charge coming from the pleasure of watching people play around with words, words, words as they verbally eviscerate each other. Yet the screwball comedy set-up, the barrage of insults and one-liners, hide the scathing message at the heart of this merciless, truly-black hearted satire (one of the few films deserving of the word "satire")—that through forces of ego and one-upmanship, these horrible, well-meaning idiots have just authorized a war that will kill thousands of innocent people, civilians and soldiers alike. It is a work of genius, and if we weren't living in such idiotic times, it would be mentioned in the same breath as Dr. Strangelove. As it should be.
Read more: The War of the Words: In the Loop—July 20
In the Loop at the Tribeca Film Festival
You've seen films like this before—a boy and girl who meet and connect for a day. But what makes Jenkins' debut special is its care and careful calibrations on this Before Sunrise formula. First, it's not quite of that genre; Micah (Wyatt Cenac, The Daily Show) and Jo (the beautiful Tracey Heggins), have already woken up bleary and hungover from their one night stand. What follows is the day after, shot in strikingly desaturated colors, as Micah and Jo flutter around each other, tentatively connecting. Micah and Jo are rare birds in pasty white, gentrified San Francisco—they're Black, they like indie rock and indie culture, and if they never see each other again after today, well, there goes a chance to talk about race and class and cities with a potentially likeminded person. There's a lot more on this film's mind than a simple case of love and sex, and that's what makes the results something that's bittersweet, sensual, and touching.
Read more: A Cure for the Blues: Medicine for Melancholy—January 28
Medicine for Melancholy is now available on DVD.
From Frost/Nixon to Gentlemen Broncos to Everybody’s Fine to the upcoming Iron Man 2, Sam Rockwell is everywhere, isn’t he? We are worried, however, that one of his best roles ever got lost in the shuffle: Duncan Jones’ (yes, the son of David Bowie, aka Zowie Bowie) experiment in isolation, Moon, premiered at TFF 2009 and had a healthy arthouse run in the US while winning awards from festivals and critics alike, but if it never made it onto your radar, remedy that. Out on DVD January 12, Moon is the story of Sam Bell, an astronaut living in a space station on the moon with intermittent (and taped) contact with his wife and daughter back on Earth. When realities start shifting, Sam’s secluded world starts to unravel. It’s a mind-bending film, and Rockwell has the right balance of gravitas, bewilderment, and vulnerability to carry the picture. Check it out.
Read more: Moon Landing: Rockwell in Space—June 9
Moon at the Tribeca Film Festival
You know how documentaries are often like articles in The New Yorker, where think you have zero interest in a subject, but then you find yourself immediately fascinated by, say, a piece on disposable diapers? Well, for us New Yorkers, Marshall Curry’s Racing Dreams follows the same pattern. In telling the story of three preteens who compete in the World Karting Association’s national championships (!?!)—also known as the Little League of NASCAR—Curry presents city folk with a primer on the wildly popular (outside of NY and LA, anyway) sport of stock-car racing, and weaves together three fantastic coming-of-age tales along the way. A fan favorite, the film received ovation after ovation at TFF 2009—where it also took the silver in the Heineken Audience Award (and won Best Documentary Feature)—and we are delighted to announce it will vroom into theaters this spring. On your mark…
Read more: Q&A: Racing Dreams—May 2
Racing Dreams at the Tribeca Film Festival
Sincerity is in short order these days at the mutliplex, and it's the driving emotion behind this sensitive, tightly observed film. Set in a recognizably ethnic Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, Two Lovers stars Joaquin Phoenix (yeah, this was the film he was promoting when he went mad) as the crushingly inarticulate Leonard Kraditor, a man starting over in the wake of a failed relationship. He's just moved back in with his parents and finds himself beguiled by the shiksa across the courtyard (Gwyneth Paltrow, giving good messed-up party girl) while also making time for the gorgeous family friend Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), who inexplicably likes him as well. Phoenix, who has been Gray's muse in other films, is a mumbling shambles of a man—and yet, with the possibility of these women, he pulls himself away from the sea of his crippling depression, tiny bit by tiny bit. On the phone in an interview earlier this year, Gray said that Phoenix was "just tired, he's been doing this for thirty years," and you can see it on the screen. Performances like this demand a level of emotional commitment that is rare and beautiful.
Read more: Brooklyn's Finest: Two Lovers—January 13
Two Lovers is now available on DVD.
Did I weep throughout the screening of Whip It, thinking, "Oh wow, THIS is the movie I've wanted to see throughout my whole career of being a woman going to films with a hankering for coming-of-age tales? Does it star mostly awesome girls being complex and fighting for things they care about in life?" Yes, yes, I did. Tears of joy, people. Tears of recognition. Tears of yes, finally, I am not being condescended to as a woman by the movies. It's completely befuddling why Fox Searchlight's usually on-target hipster marketing didn't get Whip It the audience it deserved, and let me tell you why. Based on the young adult novel by screenwriter Shauna Cross and winningly directed by Drew Barrymore, Whip It is a Breaking Away for rad girls, following the story of bored teenager Bliss Cavendar (oh, Ellen Page, you're wonderful) who finds enlightenment in the tough girl world of roller derby. Barrymore hits all the right emotional notes with this cast (Kristen Wiig is particularly good), the milieu (working class/middle class/and the pleasures of Austin) is perfect, and even little choices like the music (Jens Lekman) add to the film's effect. The most fun at the theater this year, and you should buy for every excellent woman that you know the DVD on January 26. We need more movies like Whip It!
Tell us what movies you loved in 2009!