The flicks below are the best things I got out to see in multiplexes and arthouses in 2009. That leaves out Wild Grass, the kooky Alain Resnais comedy I fell in love with at this year’s New York Film Festival. Also excluded are the gunfights in Public Enemies; nude, pale Paz de la Huerta straddling brown, blue-suited Isaach De Bankolé in The Limits of Control; the rolling box of Quaker Oats in My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done; the local color in 50 Cent’s Before I Self-Destruct; the dewy, palpitating bathroom scale and human flesh in the beginning of Antichrist—all perfect fragments of movies that I simply did not dig overall.
It was an exhausted-feeling year. The new movies I came across generally seemed plum tuckered out, slumming through the end of a decade increasingly hostile to simple movie pleasures.
Except for these beauties:
Commercially, this Filipino drama crept into America way back in January, and I barely remember the plot. Something to do with a dilapidated X-rated movie house and the triple-X-rated family strife happening beyond its dingy screen. But I can tell you what the movie smells like on the drop of a dime: perfume, rust, dirty water, hot tea. Just hearing the title and seeing a still of Roxanne Jordan drying her hair in the mirror while admiring her own pouty, sunkissed beauty brings it all back. Director Brillante Mendoza likes his families sweaty and animalistic but never less than luminous.
9. Flooding with Love for the Kid
Zachary Oberzan performs every character in the novel First Blood...in his studio apartment. This one is for the filmmakers. If you’ve lost your way, forgotten what’s its all about, see Oberzan’s daredevil stunt to get back to the fundamentals. All you need is a camera and something you can’t go another second without expressing. Everything else will fly into your hands to help tell the story. A toaster, for example, will happily become a police radio. The important thing is the way Oberzan and his household items hold our gaze and move it across the frame to excite meaning.
My personal favorite of Francis Ford Coppola’s films. Here he uses every plane of Vincent Gallo’s crazy face to create some startling turns of poetry. Gallo, the patron saint of feeling sorry for yourself, seems to have made Buffalo 66 and The Brown Bunny in preparation for Coppola’s woe-is-me family melodrama. Critics—the same mawfaws who would wash Nicholas Ray’s feet if here were here—somehow equated Coppola’s unembarrassed emotionalism with inappropriately callow bombast. Nah, man. I see nothing but masterly wisdom when baby brother Alden Ehrenreich chases behind Gallo, going, “Love, love, love,” across a series of commiserative edits by Coppola’s soulmate, Walter Murch. Ditto Gallo at the café, begging Maribel Verdú with his flood lamp eyes for love, love, love. This movie is a treasury of Coppola’s cinematic comfort foods: wild women, young’uns, wives, opera, The Red Shoes, lens flares and tempestuous families—organic or improvised.
7. Broken Embraces
This is another one for the filmmakers. Pedro Almodóvar recognizes the visual cortex as sexual organ, tormentor and deadly weapon. Moving images can destroy people, and people who would destroy moving images should be destroyed. Also: Ah, to be blind and tragic, yet famous enough to have a stranger you picked up off the street describe her perfect breasts to you before letting you feel for yourself! Ah, the way Penélope Cruz, as a secretary-turned-actress twirls to smile for the camera, over and over, in various styles and degrees of adorable! Ooh, the mummified feeling of sex with the one you disgust but for complicated reasons can’t yet leave. Oh, the joy of storytelling: One great, stray scene has the blind ex-movie director and his hipster protégé brainstorming an increasingly ludicrous Twilight-ish vampire romance. It doesn’t matter the material, trash or high art, so long as it gets you going, puts that crazed look in your eyes. Beats me why many critics said this was Almodóvar serving up the same ol’ same ol’.
6. Alien: The Director’s Cut
At a Film Forum screening this summer, folks laughed when the android’s severed head started talking—a crude use of foam rubber prop and Ian Holm’s head sticking out of a table like Cousin It. But it was nervous laughter. Everything else in this film already had us on the edge of panic. In 2009, Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi/horror masterpiece packs so much weight, texture and tension, I imagine it to be Hunger director Steve McQueen’s prized DVD. In, 2009, sad to say, Alien is an art film.
5. Drag Me to Hell
The first great recession-era horror film, and the loudest, happiest audience I’ve sat with in ages. They went bananas for this gross-out morality play at Brooklyn’s Court Street multiplex. Still, the thrills are definitely old school: Afterward, the 25-year-old I was with wrinkled her nose and said, “Was that…supposed to be funny?” Hell yeah, shorty. Sam Raimi is for the children.
4. 35 Shots of Rum
Claire Denis and company show you what love is, what music does and what drinking is for. Mourning and celebration can become gross spectacle in the wrong hands; Denis is the kind of emcee/advocate you want delivering your eulogy, your wedding toast, your appeal for clemency. If you evince a soul, she’s in your corner. I will never ever forget that cat in that bag. The hell am I talking about? See the movie. It glides on the nimble watchfulness you’d expect from a rich, slim novel, except in cinema’s language of movement and expression. The male lead is not much of a talker, more of an observer, and so is the ideal viewer of this shy but insistent call for folks to let the right ones in.
3. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Oreleans
One big, beautiful secret of this movie is that it’s partly a love story between a dirty cop and a dirty whore, without shame or hesitation. Eva Mendes and Nicolas Cage are selfish scumbags here, but Herzog locates the loveliness in their bond: they trust each other no matter how many strangers they fuck or crack capsules they drain. It’s one of many whimsical touches that breeze on by in Werner Herzog’s New Orleans jazz funeral for civilization.
And anybody who thinks the Chicken Dance at the end of Herzog’s Stroszek is the greatest musical sequence ever will love the reprise of that song here, at a crucial moment. Said episode also certifies that Herzog can do anything, including stage a gunfight as balletic as those of his King of New York-directing predecessor, Abel Ferrara. Unlike Ferrara’s Lieutenant, though, there’s not much religion in this one, just Herzog’s pained humanism and cosmic daydreaming. Its first and last scenes illustrate the obscenity of Hurricane Katrina in plainer terms than even Spike Lee’s Levees documentary: We’re all stuck together, high and low, acting like we ain’t, until happenstance either reverses the roles or levels the playing field. If that makes this film sound too noble and redemptive, lemme refer you to the scene where Cage squeezes an old lady’s oxygen tube and waves his revolver.
2. Inglourious Basterds
It has one lousy scene (“Der Fuhrer vill be at ze premiere.”), one forced bit of business (“Gorlami… Gore-lahm-me!”) and one egregious Bugs-Bunny-in-Boston line reading (”...frow vawn hammmersmaaak…”) but is otherwise the war movie Robert Aldrich or Sam Fuller would have made if they’d had access to Quentin Tarantino’s video library, iPod and (not a typo) sensitivity. Tarantino is a lamb. A friend of mine who hates grisly, violent flicks but loved Inglourious Basterds was looking forward to District 9 based on Inglourious-like buzz, so we went to see it. When we both stumbled out of D9 with pounding headaches, she whined, “Why was Basterds just as violent but when I walked out of it I felt giddy, whereas here I feel beaten up?”
I was too wrung out from the roach Apartheid flick to give her my theory that one movie was a graceful, if at times graphic, dance whereas the other is a clumsy, if elaborate, beatdown. In spelling out that difference through mise-en-scène, Tarantino spanks an entire generation of filmmakers who’ve shown so little regard for big screen time and space. (And, given that Star Trek and District 9 are among his favorite films this year, this wasn’t even his agenda, just a wonderful side effect.) As if that weren’t enough, QT employs this sensitivity in defense of every mere civilian who ever lived under actual, daily occupation and terror—not just the specter of it on the teevee. Yes. The violence isn’t nearly as memorable as the odd detail, like Marcel the black projectionist enjoying Nazi champagne in secret, or the great affection that Goebbel’s mistress has for him, all in her brimming, beaming eyes. Tarantino’s war is ultramodern, with homicidal assholes in Facebook proximity to good people, and everyone convinced of his own righteous purpose.
1. Bullets Over Brownsville
Everything my astute friends tell me Jean-Luc Godard was up to in his New Wave touchstones, I find writer-directors Damon Diddit and Natural Langdon doing in their camcorder hood docudrama, Bullets Over Brownsville. This is a mischievous, sorrowful, movie-and-music-mad anthem that plays like epic screwball tragedy on the big screen. It is the furthest thing from perfect, this mircobudget tale of four Brooklyn housing project residents caught in an absurd web of violence, but BoB is the best film of 2009 because, like Flooding with Love for the Kid, only bigger, it tears away the last Ho’wood veil (the one made of billion-dollar bank loans and foreign tax shelters). Diddit takes digital effects, editing and cinematography credits, and I salute his desktop-graphic swagger: Under a sick, sad beat by Langdon, the opening credit sequence blends street corner soundbites, video scan lines and the kind of splashy keyframe animation currently in vogue on Smokin’ Aces-through-Slumdog Milllionaire. At the Brooklyn screening I attended, it played as confidently as any of those Ho’wood releases.
Diddit/Langdon’s fragmentary, cross-cutting, rewinding, film-and-TV-referencing storytelling makes BoB the kind of ghetto art film Spike Lee toyed with in his adaptation of Clockers (whose blown highlights and reversal-stock candy colors are among the many visuals this film expertly quotes). But, like the creator of his source material, Richard Price, Spike was an outsider weighing in. Watching BoB, I have little doubt that at the end of each shooting day, much of the cast and crew went home via the project stairwells. Be warned, arthouse regulars: This film is not apt to fuel coffee shop discussion afterward. It doesn’t speak your snarky, jaunty post-graduate language. Vibrant as it is, it is essentially about people who are drowning, inside a system that favors you, not them. Bullets Over Brownsville isn’t asking you to pity them or save them. This isn’t Mike Tyson or Precious crying into the camera (or to Oprah). This is the hood throwing a party for its own (heavily disputed, usually caricatured) humanity, using Ho’wood’s snatch-and-grab storytelling techniques the way insurgents employ the occupier’s discarded ammo—in retaliation. Bullets Over Brownsville is a sprawling graffiti mural in a movie landscape dominated by sterile billboards.