Thankfully, 2009 has so far been a much better year than 2008 was. Out of 39 new releases that I’ve seen through the first six months of the year, I’m actually comfortable with listing 10 of them here, with a few of them being genuinely great movies.
As always, I’ve linked to the Gone Elsewhere reviews where they exist, and as always, I’m grateful to Jackrabbit Slim for writing the vast majority of them (all reviews are his unless otherwise noted). I seem to have stopped writing reviews almost altogether, which is kind of sad but unlikely to change in the short term. Also, only movies released before July 1 are eligible.
Anyway, without further ado, here are the ten best films of the first half of 2009.
1. Silent Light (Carlos Reygadas)
I could tell this was a great film from the opening shot, a hypnotic extended take of a sunrise over a Mennonite community in rural Mexico. This is a slow-moving tale of a man torn between his love for two women in a conservative religious community, but it’s riveting all the same because it never unfolds the way you would expect. It’s a shame it didn’t get a wider theatrical release, because although it is a foreign film and does move slowly, I think it’s an accessible film that could have found a strong arthouse audience. Unfortunately, Tartan Palisades didn’t see it that way, and despite strong critical backing it was buried, and there’s not even a DVD release scheduled here in the States until September. All the same, add it to your Netflix lists now; it’s a strong contender for the top film of the year, regardless of how the next six months pan out.
2. Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas)
A film that has a lot to say about a lot of subjects, including art, culture, family, the global economy, the passing of generations, the nature of one’s ties to home and country, and the way that all of these things interact. Like Silent Light, it uses plotlines that may seem routine in other movies, such as a dispute between adult siblings over their inheritance, and lets them unfold in ways that are unexpected.
3. The Girlfriend Experience (Steven Soderbergh)
The prolific Soderbergh turns in his best film in years. It’s a document of a time and place – specifically, New York City in fall 2008 – when it became clear that the empire was crumbling, so to speak. While outwardly a movie about a call girl, I see it more as a movie about how the relentless pursuit of status among American elites leads to the exploitation of the lower classes. Ironically (or perhaps not), it’s more of a revolutionary-minded film than Soderbergh’s Che.
4. Tetro (Francis Ford Coppola)
I wasn’t expecting much from Coppola’s latest given lukewarm reviews and my own ambivalent reaction to Youth Without Youth, but I pretty much loved every minute. It’s a story about two brothers reuniting in Buenos Aires and facing the legacy of their famous father. It’s funny and poignant, and features terrific performances, especially by Vincent Gallo and Maribel Verdú. And, as an added bonus, the black-and-white photography is unbelievably beautiful.
5. Sugar (Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck)
To start with, it’s rare for a sports movie to get simple sports things right, so I was impressed when Miguel “Sugar” Santos makes his pro baseball debut and walks the first batter on four pitches. A lesser movie would have had him a little nervous but triumphing, but this movie’s scenario is far more believable. In this movie, the coaches talk like coaches, the players struggle from day to day and even inning to inning, and the actors actually look like they play the sport they’re playing. In short, it’s a thoughtful movie about a sport I love, and I appreciated the way the filmmakers allowed all of their characters, including those that would be villians in lesser movies, have their dignity.
6. Sita Sings the Blues (Nina Paley)
Perhaps the strangest and most original movie I’ve seen this year. As a reaction to being dumped, filmmaker Nina Paley has animated the Indian legend of Ramayana and set it to the songs of Annette Henshaw, and the result is both very funny and curiously sad. Unfortunately, the songs she uses are copyrighted and unlicensed, meaning it’s unlikely you’ll be able to rent a DVD any time soon. On the bright side, though, the entire film is available to download from the film’s website. If you’re so inclined, and don’t happen to be in Chicago tomorrow, I encourage you to check it out (if you are in Chicago, it’s playing at the Gene Siskel Film Center).
7. Up (Pete Docter)
Unfortunately, not one of the best Pixars in my opinion, but still a plenty fun way to spend a couple hours. I still laugh when I think of Dug, the talking dog. If dogs really could talk, I’m guessing that the vast majority would sound just like him.
8. The Merry Gentleman (Michael Keaton)
Keaton’s directorial debut mostly came and went without notice, but it has one of the year’s best performaces, by Kelly MacDonald. She plays a woman who seems to find herself in awkward relationships with men, including a hitman played by Keaton himself. At first, it seems like the movie is going to succumb to the tired old cliche in which the hitman is actually the nice guy, but it turns out to be more complicated than that. It’s an unusual film in that it’s made by a man, but sees its male characters as predatory and sinister, and sympathizes with the everyday difficulties of simply being a woman having to deal with these creeps.
9. Everlasting Moments (Jan Troell); review by Nick
Swedish film that follows a familiar template of immigrants dealing with being strangers in a strange land … only it’s not actually about immigrants. It’s about the way dramatic social change can make people feel alienated even in their own homes. Perhaps it views its characters through an overly sentimental lens – the ending felt somewhat flat to me – but it is, as Nick says, “a gripping portrait of the times.”
10. Sleep Dealer (Alex Rivera); review by filmman
There are, to be sure, things not to like about the film. The story’s a little uneven, the ending is bad, and the budget for the special effects looks like it was less than it would have cost to simply buy a new Mac. But while I was skeptical when our own filmman announced it to be on the cutting edge of science fiction, after seeing the film I had to agree. This is a thoughtful and provacative look at the casual militarization of American culture, with a premise that is absolutely ingenious.