Overall, I think it’s been a fine year so far, although once again the major studios seemed to have mostly abandoned efforts to make good movies. But I can’t really complain, because like last year, the rest of the world is picking up a lot of the slack.
Of course, I’ve only considered the movies that were released in the US before July 1, of which I’ve seen 48. And some of these are technically 2009 films, but were not released theatrically in the US before this year.
Anyway, on to the movies.
1. The Father of My Children (Mia Hansen-Løve)
This is a French film about a movie producer whose professional struggles overwhelm his life, and it’s the most down-to-earth portrayal of the movie business that I’ve ever seen. Hansen-Løve emphasizes quiet observation over melodrama in her film, especially during the second half, after a tragic event occurs that dramatically changes the course of the film. The result is a heartbreaking study of family dynamics, with Hansen-Løve capturing the effects of said tragedy in a way that felt new and profound to me. The film has a terrific ensemble cast, led by Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, with his real-life daughter Alice de Lencquesaing also giving a standout supporting performance as his quiet and sensitive daughter.
2. The Girl on the Train (André Téchiné)
Another French film, this one inspired by a true-life incident that occurred in Paris in 2004, when a young woman claimed to have been jumped by thugs on a train because they thought she was Jewish. After a few days of national outrage over the attack, she admitted that she had fabricated her story. The film is a fictional version of those events, observing Jeanne (played by Émilie Dequenne) during the weeks leading up to the “attack” and the days immediately proceeding it. Director and co-writer André Téchiné avoids trying to theorize why Jeanne does what she does, instead choosing to introduce the people in her life and then patiently wait for events to take their course. I’m baffled that it hasn’t gotten better reviews here in the US (they’ve been respectful but unenthusiastic), because I think it’s a fantastic film. Elusive but potent in its themes, it delivers an impact along both political and personal lines.
3. Dogtooth (Yorgos Lanthimos)
I’m not too sure I’ve seen anything quite like this before. It’s a Greek film about three teenagers (two girls and a boy) who are kept in isolation from the rest of the world on their remote rural estate; they’re taught all sorts of absurd things by their sadistic parents, from incorrect definitions of everyday words to the mortal danger posed by cats. It’s a very disturbing setup, and I can’t really say I understood what it all meant, although it bears a superficial thematic resemblance with Haneke’s The White Ribbon in its portrayal of a social unit (in this case, a family) undergoing a breakdown of authority, with a particular emphasis on the way children are affected. Unlike that film, though, it’s definitely a satire – of what exactly it’s hard to say – and is perversely funny and even at times playful.
4. I Am Love (Luca Guadagnino)
Sometimes a movie announces right away that it’s going to be good, and the opening credits of this film is a good example of that. It’s a gorgeous sequence against a backdrop of snow-covered Milanese villas, and it perfectly establishes the affluent Italian world that the characters of the film live in. It’s about a Russian immigrant to Italy (Tilda Swinton) who has married into a wealthy Italian family of textile merchants, whose life is comfortable despite her her limited role in the family’s affairs. When she meets a friend of her son’s, though, great stirring of erotic unrest are unleashed. This movie is somewhat the opposite of The Father of My Children, in that it bathes in melodrama, and the movie has the feel of a period epic although it’s set in the present day. It’s also one of the performances of Tilda Swinton’s career, which is saying something.
5. Youth in Revolt (Miguel Arteta)
Michael Cera’s screen personality is, at this point, very familiar. He’s the sardonic, slightly nerdy, low-energy but extremely sensitive guy, and none of his onscreen roles (e.g., Superbad, Juno) have strayed from this particular formula. The ads for Youth in Revolt promised more of the same, but as it turns out the film does twist his personality type around. He plays a sardonic, slightly nerdy, low-energy but extremely sensitive high school guy who falls for a like-minded girl (Portia Doubleday). When circumstances force them apart, Cera’s character is forced to adopt a second, rebellious personality. The result is a surprisingly hilarious movie, with Cera alternating between his sweet nerdy self and his sociopathic (but, it must be said, equally nerdy) alter-ego. Throw in a long list of funny supporting performances (Ray Liotta, Zach Galifianakis, Justin Long, Steve Buscemi, to name a few) and you end up with a terrific, but overlooked, comedy.
6. Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik)
Several great things about this one. The first is Jennifer Lawrence’s lead performance as a 17-year-old girl who tries to track down her father when he disappears while out on bail, having signed over their home for the bond. It’s a breakout performance of a desperate but also stubborn and thoughtful character, clearly announcing Lawrence as a major talent. The second is director Granik’s use of southwestern Missouri locations and her navigation of local customs, which feels authentic where most films would exploit. This is a very fine drama, with an uncommonly well-developed script that consistently refuses to take the usual way out.
7. The Secret in Their Eyes (Juan José Campanella)
Argentinian film that won the Best Foreign Film Oscar this past year, about a dormant murder case that a retired detective is investigating for a novel. The film mixes all kinds of plot elements, blending melodrama with police procedural with austere romance with subtle political overtones. I think the romance angle works best, with the attraction between the detective (played by Ricardo Darín) and his supervisor (Soledad Villamil) spanning a quarter century of repressed and unexpressed feeling. It’s a strong film all around, though whether that’s despite or because of the mix of tones and genres is hard to say.
8. Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich); Gone Elsewhere review by Jackrabbit Slim
The first twenty minutes or so are terribly clunky, and I was worried that the movie was headed for disaster, but it rights itself well enough to become a terrific adventure. If it’s not as terrific as the first two Toy Story films, and if the new characters don’t seem to add a whole lot, I suppose that’s simply an occupational hazard when it comes to being the third film of a series.
9. Exit Through the Gift Shop (Banksy)
Billed on the poster as “the world’s first street-art disaster film”, this is a documentary about how an LA man set out to make a film about street-artist Banksy and ended up a star of the art world. I’m only slightly more interested in street art than I am decorative dentistry, but it’s actually well worth seeing, given the highly amusing twists that the story takes. I should note that the film’s veracity has been questioned, although it seems believable enough to me. Either way, though, it’s pretty insightful film about the nature of art and celebrity, with a few sour grapes thrown in for good measure.
10. Green Zone (Paul Greengrass)
Director Paul Greengrass, who made the latter two Bourne films, brings his usual no-nonsense urgency to this film about Army WMD hunting in Iraq. While others have complained about his use of “shaky-cam,” I continue to find Greengrass’s directorial work outstanding. Not since Oliver Stone’s run in the 1990s has there been a director who could make dialogue and exposition more viscerally exciting than the big action sequences. In fact, the big action sequences during the third act are the least interesting sections of the film, as a carefully constructed story of high-level political intrigue devolves into a chase through the streets of Baghdad. By this point, we’ve learned what’s going on and why, and there’s little riding on the ultimate outcome. The film is very effective in getting there, however, and the work of Greengrass and Matt Damon in the lead role is exceptional.