What was the best movie of 2009? I could have easily listed a top 3 with nothing but animated features. We saw traditional live action directors like Wes Anderson (Fantastic Mr. Fox) and Spike Jonze (Where the Wild Things Are) make a leap into animation and childhood adaptations with great success. The Secret of Kells came out of Ireland and is available on Netflix. It is well worth your time. Also, Pixar gave us one of the most painfully beautiful wordless montage that I have ever seen. I cannot watch it to this day without tearing up. If Up ended after the first hour it would probably be my favorite of the year, but I think it falls apart a bit in the 3rd act.
We had solid releases from directors like James Cameron (Avatar) and Quentin Tarantino (Inglourious Basterds). And real surprises from newcomers like Duncan Jones (Moon), Neil Blomkamp (District 9) and Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth). All of these are great pictures and could qualify as the best of the year in their own rights. But let’s see my top 3 movies of the year.
3rd – The Hurt Locker
Kathryn Bigelow‘s Best Picture Oscar winner, The Hurt Locker is a kind of like a reverse action film. While we get plenty of heart-pounding detonations and shots are fired, this film, is actually more powerful for the action that doesn’t happen. Defusing bombs is the name of the game for these enlisted adrenaline junkies. I don;t believe I have seen an action film this tense, riveting and intelligent in years.
Bigelow excels in getting pulses racing when seemingly nothing is happening. Like when a stunning pre-Avengers Jeremy Renner is paralyzed in a grocery store, overwhelmed by the choice of cereals in the real world. It is one of the most breathtaking scenes in the film. Living with a job where every day might be his last, he’ll never be the same.
2nd – Bronson
Nicholas Winding Refn directed the recent Neon Demon and I also shared my love for his cult classic Drive on a the 2011 best movie bracket. Bronson, is one of Refn’s lesser known films that seems to capture the essence of Michael Peterson, at one time considered to be Britain’s most violent prisoner. He took the moniker of “Charles Bronson” after the American film star and because of his desire to be famous.
I honestly love Nicholas Winding Refn’s passion for his films. If you have method actors who transform themselves and pour so much into their performances, then Refn is a method director. Refn’s work is such a powerhouse, and there is an energy that comes from the film. The combination of classical music mixed with contemporary editing and the weird artistic and graphic ‘ADHD aesthetic’ of Bronson’s own drawings coming to life on screen giving us a study in criminal psychology with just a dash of voyeurism.
Refn definitely takes inspiration from Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, which I also love. And while I’m not sure if Refn’s work surpasses it, it is probably slightly more accessible for the average audience. Bronson has a faster pace, sharp dialogue, and shows a real sense of humor in the dark twisted isolation that is jail.
Tom Hardy is fantastic here in his breakout role. He gives the performance of a lifetime. Each scene feels as original as Hardy is intense. There is power in the direction which goes beyond the limited scope of the film. That is a power that I still feel now as I did when I first viewed it several years ago. This raw work of art is something that needs to be watched in order to be understood.
1st – A Serious Man
A Serious Man is not the movie I would have anyone watch as an introduction to the Coen Brothers. It is a purposeful enigma, leaving audiences in a state of uncertainty, mouths agape, popcorn uneaten, wondering what it all means. I love this type of movie. I feel like I really get my money’s worth because I’m chewing on it for weeks after I saw it. A.O. Scott said that “The story is at once hilarious and horrific, its significance both self-evident and opaque.” That pretty much sums it up. It will leave you questioning everything as you experience the downward spiral of our protagonist.
The film features Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) asking “What’s going on?” at least seven times. This is not lazy writing, but the voice of the viewer. Why are such terrible things happening to a nice Jewish physics professor raising two kids? Within a two-week period: A disgruntled student tries to bribe and then blackmail him, an anonymous rival sends nasty notes to his university’s tenure committee, and his wife asks for a divorce so she can marry their mutual friend. Then things go from bad to worse.
The Coens regularly include religious themes in their films and the sudden collapse of Larry’s life is meant to remind us of Job, whom God allows Satan to test. He kills his family and destroys his livestock just to see if he’ll remain upright and holy. Job does not curse God but he certainly asks a lot of questions, like Larry asking, “What is going on?” and “Why is this happening to me?” Of course, the story is traditionally interpreted to mean that we as mortals can’t possibly understand the complexity of God’s decision-making, and that it’s presumptuous for us to even try.
However, Gopnik isn’t much like Job aside from the sudden hardships. He is pretty weak and pathetic. Which gives us a less divine explanation for his misfortunes. Another of Gopnik’s constant lines is, “I haven’t done anything.” His wife announces that she wants a divorce. His response, “What have I done? I haven’t done anything.” During a conversation about his chances of making tenure, he admits, “I haven’t done anything. I haven’t published.” One of those annoying CD of the month clubs is hounding him for payment, and his defense, “I didn’t ask for Santana Abraxas. I didn’t listen to Santana Abraxas. I didn’t do anything.”
In the beginning, we think this is a case of misfortune falling upon an innocent man, but eventually he seems weak. His consistent inaction makes me wonder if it is why so much trouble comes his way. He is not a bad husband, he provides for his family, he’s faithful, etc… But there’s no indication that he’s particularly engaged. He may not be a bad professor, but neither is he an especially good one: As he says, he hasn’t done anything, hasn’t published anything. Perhaps his sins are sins of omission.
However, A Serious Man is primarily about questions and inscrutbility. While it is tempting to see Larry’s inaction as the root of his problems, the Coens prevent us from taking that the whole way because as soon as Gopnik finally does something, things seemingly get even worse and we are given an ending which will leave you asking questions for weeks. It is a beautifully filmed movie, very humorous though bleak, and extremely thought provoking. That’s what makes it my #1 of 2009.
For more on the Coen brothers spirituality, I would highly recommend Cathleen Falsani’s book “The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers.” I know I’m going to hear it for my choices. Let me have it in the comments below.