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Tops on the Silver Screen 2009

by David Lamble

Colin Firth and Julianne Moore in <i>A Single Man.</i>
Colin Firth and Julianne Moore in A Single Man.  

I've declared a tie for the #1 film of 2009. Otherwise, my top picks are paired with thematically linked honorable mentions.

1. A Single Man: In Tom Ford's hypercool take on Christopher Isherwood's path-breaking 1964 novel, a middle-aged Englishman, George, wakes up in his stylish LA home heartsick over the recent death of his young lover. Despite discarding significant portions of Isherwood's George, Ford maintains the novel's core conceit that taking us through a day in George's life will reveal the whole of that life in what might be its last day.

Ford boldly re-invents the moment when the conformist, corseted 1950s turned into the dangerously free 60s. Colin Firth is at the top of his game as a man tasting life's sweet miseries for perhaps the last time. It's a performance that reminds us that, in spite of his despair, George is an incipient revolutionary, a pilgrim desperate for rebirthing.

1. A Serious Man: In possibly the funniest and yet most commandingly philosophical film in the Coen Brothers' distinct oeuvre, the mischief kicks off inside the head of a 13-year-old Jewish pothead. Drawing on verbal and physical comedy styles that lead back through Woody Allen to 40s satirist Preston Sturges, the brothers serve up parallel plots where a kid and his physics professor dad (a comic tour de force by Michael Stuhlbarg) are subject to Job-like tribulations. Newcomer Aaron Wolff gets high marks for inhabiting a shrewd little shit-disturber who knows precisely the wrong moment to deadpan, "What's sodomy?"

2. Taking Woodstock: Chronicling how a closeted Jewish boy's hapless attempts to save his eccentric parent's "roach motel" lead him to be a catalyst for social revolution, Ang Lee and his writing/producing partner James Schamus gently build the bitter family comedy beats into an exploration of the forces that brought so many different sorts of people to an illusion of oneness. Highlights include Liev Schreiber's pistol-packing drag queen and Paul Dano's leg-rubbing, acid-tripping VW bus boy.

Inglourious Basterds: Quentin Tarantino's unconscionably entertaining Nazi-kitsch gore fest thrusts him back into the cultural conversation, gives lie to an ingrained American revulsion to subtitles, and allows Austrian-born Christoph Waltz to compete for Oscar gold as a diabolically charming, Jew-hunting Nazi monster.

3. The Country Teacher: Czech actor Pavel Liska plays an emotionally bereft man whose attempt at good deeds wreaks unintended havoc. Director Bohdan Slama employs an explosively misfired sexual encounter between the teacher and a sullen farm boy to deliver a taut parable about the role lust and love play at every stage in life. A barnyard birthing scene becomes a life-changing event for three characters who, moments before, had no clue as to their fates.

Adam: If you normally cringe when confronted with sentimentalized portraits of developmentally challenged adults, then director Max Mayer's not-quite love story between a young engineer with Asperger's syndrome and a private grade-school teacher will be a refreshing addition to your Netflix queue. Hugh Dancy and Rose Byme share a quirky chemistry reminiscent of the early sketch-humor of Mike Nichols and Elaine May.

4. Rivers Wash Over Me: 15-year-old Sequan Green begins John Young's unsettling Southern melodrama with about the worst run of luck that can befall a skinny-boy, closeted, budding intellectual James Baldwin fan. The sudden death of his single mom pushes Sequan out of the relative comfort of a hip NYC life and into the brutal currents of a violent small North Carolina town that has more than its share of big-city drug, gun and sexual identity dilemmas.

Redwoods: This Russian River love story will linger with lonely-hearts of all persuasions. Everett and Miles are together out of habit, and to protect their autistic son Billy. With Miles and Billy out of town, Everett finds his too-orderly world unhinged by the convenient appearance of a handsome stranger. The ending invokes the cliches of the genre without losing our interest.

5. The Messenger: Just back from Iraq, Ben Foster's Sgt. Will Montgomery has been dumped by his girl, had an eye damaged and a leg impaired, and, as he sits alone in his room, finds his best option is to re-enlist. Then he meets a sadder sack: Woody Harrelson's Capt. Tony Stone. Stone, who's profanely nurturing a private sorrow, begins as Will's boss at the Army's Casualty Notification Office, but quickly becomes a drinking buddy and bearer of tough advice: "Never touch the next of kin."

With an emotionally searing payoff between the men, Oren Moverman's understated direction recalls classics like Hal Ashby's The Last Detail. Foster dazzles as a young man defusing the rage within.

The Hurt Locker: San Carlos-born Kathryn Bigelow jump-cuts through an Army bomb disposal unit's last days in Iraq. The soldiers' off-duty playtime resembles YouTube basement boxing videos. Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie exchange drunken punches to the gut as we wonder what civilian life could offer that might possibly compete with this sweaty, boozy, dirty love.

6. Pop Star on Ice: The beauty of David Barba and James Pellerito's full-length portrait of champion US figure skater Johnny Weir is that even when you think you know who he is, the next frame will present yet another contradiction. Weir, who we first meet sharing a bubble bath with his platonic "boyfriend," is, like rocker Adam Lambert, a prototype for the "post gay" celebrity.

Tyson: James Toback combines a vivid recapitulation of everything you think you know about "Iron Mike" â€" the childhood crime spree; youngest heavyweight boxing champ; a disputed rape conviction; his infamous ear-biting of Evander Holyfield â€" with an Id-fueled stream-of-consciousness view of Tyson by Tyson.

7. Lymelife: Derick and Steven Martini serve up a pugnacious Catholic clan during an orgy of truth-telling. Alec Baldwin and Jill Hennessy are electrically profane as the womanizing home-builder and his botanically distracted frau. Igniting this brutally funny, pop song-drenched slice of 1979 Long Island are sibling fireworks from the Culkin brothers. Kieran fulfills the promise of his rebel in Igby Goes Down, playing an estranged older son saddled with dad's ferocious temper and mom's lacerating wit. Rory jettisons a decade of pre-puberty blues, now a young stud who retains the power to sear the heart with an unexpected tear.

Clapham Junction: It's not often that the producers of anti-gay-bashing agit-prop are willing and able to subvert "the sponsor's message" with an audaciously incorrect subplot: the scheme of a 14-year-old lad to fuck a desirable older neighbor. Theo's story is sharply observed, with Pinter-like dialogue, and so steamily staged â€" a young man getting all hot and sweaty just as his Puritan-minded mom is beating down the door â€" it all but eclipses the rest of the film.

8. The Maid: Told with nonchalant sexual candor (there is non-gratuitous adult male and female frontal nudity plus horny-boy masturbation), The Maid examines a wealthy Chilean family as both buttress against change and unlikely incubator for new social and political mores.

Gomorrah: The violence here is all the more unnerving arriving as it does, as pro boxers say, like the punch you didn't see coming. Its style falls between the verite school of documentary and a revitalized Italian Neorealism. The most unsettling of Gomorrah's five parallel stories is the one involving the fate of the film's nearly naked, wannabe-hitmen poster boys.

9. Everything Strange and New: "Poet of the Oakland flatlands" Frazer Bradshaw captures a landscape and a people who are at times as much prisoners as residents.

In the Loop: In a hilarious black satire imagining the behind-the-scenes skullduggery leading up to a US/British Middle East invasion, Scottish-born Armando Iannucci translates the back-stabbing world of high-stakes diplomacy into a diabolical farce positioned uneasily between Dr. Strangelove and Joe Orton.

10. Up in the Air: In Jason Reitman's timely comedy, a guy who fires people for a living alerts a smarty-pants executive to the cost of seeing other people as extra baggage. Much of the fun derives from watching the silky smooth George Clooney navigate multiple layers of social commentary and classic screen romance. Clooney and Vera Farmiga are a seamless match as a no-rules, frequent flier couple who double as surrogate parental units for Anna Kendrick.

Zac Efron and Christian McKay in Me and Orson Welles.

Me and Orson Welles: In Richard Linklater's serio-comic tale, a 1930s Gotham teen finds a rundown theater where boy genius Orson Welles is whipping a docile mob into a modern-dress production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. British newcomer Christian McKay should sue if he doesn't nab a best supporting actor Oscar for his riveting reanimation of Welles' early stab at fame. High School Musical's Zac Efron displays mojo as a plucky newbie with just a hint of the young Tyrone Power.

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