As the year to herald in a new decade, 2009 was a relatively flat endnote to the decennary of memorable cinema that preceded it—the turn of the century, with its catastrophes, technologies, and blurring of boundaries, galvanizing so many filmmakers throughout the ‘noughties’.
The best releases from the last twelve months—Dogtooth, Wendy and Lucy, The White Ribbon, Still Walking, 24 City—were premiered by the New Zealand International Film Festival, a mid-Winter saviour that, despite being streamlined with prudence in mind (less 20 films and 46 sessions in Wellington, for instance), was the source of some very good cinema. Never really in danger of coming up short with Michael Haneke, Hirokazu Kore-eda, Hayao Miyazaki and Claire Denis leading the way, 2009’s edition proved to be a user-friendly line-up, if one that lacked a sense of crisis and urgency according to some. Was this symptomatic of 2009 overall? To cite the festival’s recent history—when Hidden and The Wind That Shakes the Barley were opening night films, and statement-makers Fahrenheit 9/11 and An Inconvenient Truth were creating waves—and conclude that politics was front-and-centre only a few years ago, is a little too straightforward. Political discourse, for one, revealed itself implicitly in many of the festival films I saw—the problem was the filmmaking, at times suspicious or misguided when trading in serious issues and contemporary concerns. Rather than question the integrity of programming, what seemed more evident at that juncture was the decline of documentary, or the notion that directors have either moved on or somehow regressed.
While Lars von Trier’s Antichrist doesn’t fall squarely into the category of regression, it’s easy to see why pundits leapt to that conclusion: the film is daft, insufferable, an ungainly practical joke. It’s also not the atrocity it has been made out to be. Lumière’s Steve Garden already offers a considered defence of the Dane, and while I’m not as eager to apologise for von Trier’s antics, the explicit sexual violence his movie engages in (among other apparent indiscretions) hardly warrants crucifying. If male castration, for instance, can feature throughout cinema, what’s the big deal with severing a clitoris on screen? These acts of mutilation have tended to be viewed with either lurid fascination or as if they were an elephant in the room; in actuality, they are treated matter-of-factly by von Trier, shot in compact, but never intrusive close-ups, and without a hint of ambiguity. Antichrist, mind you, is also a tedious two-hander that begins with an egregious opening prologue (filmed in the style of a Euro perfume commercial) and ends in the way most Lars von Trier films do—pointedly. And yet there are far worse examples of misogyny (a notion hotly debated amongst our writers), and for all its groan-inducing introspection and frequent taunting of the audience, Antichrist’s laugh-out-loud moments, too blatant to be completely unintentional, make for improbable entertainment.
One filmmaker who took a backwards step was Pedro Almodovar, whose Broken Embraces, although voluptuous to the eye, scarcely deviated from the norm. Hinged on the overfamiliar, the film’s screenwriter-as-protagonist and self-referential elements (see: Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown) were uninspiring and failed to capture the imagination, while seemingly bored by his regular leading lady, the prolific Spaniard indifferently shifted his focus from Penelope Cruz’s cleavage to her wig changes (a metaphor for the director’s urge to rifle through his former glories, perhaps). Diminishing returns also applied to Arnaud Desplechin’s skilfully made, but frankly shallow A Christmas Tale. Whether this latest film lacks the precariousness of Kings and Queen—its giddy tightrope act between melodrama and tragicomedy the missing ingredient here—or is simply a more patent example of what’s irksome about Desplechin’s cinema (or ‘successful’ French cinema of late), I’m not entirely sure. Chances are it’s a bit of both. While not without its own stuffing of melodrama and tragicomedy, A Christmas Tale felt over-designed and bereft of risk, showy rather than spontaneous, a little bit self-congratulatory. It’s not all together coincidental that two of its manicured cast (Mathieu Almaric and Anne Consigny) also appeared in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a similarly disingenuous, force-fed French hit.
Beyond the bender of the international film festival, Star Trek triumphed as a blockbuster par excellence; J.J. Abrams’s spunky regeneration of the Gene Roddenberry brainchild the exception amongst a barrage of generally terrible science-fiction event movies (i.e. Terminator Salvation, Transformers 2, G.I.Joe). Meanwhile, the comedy that broke the shackles of the sexist Apatow-Rogen-Rudd monopoly was not Brüno (Sacha Baron Cohen’s gay Austrian outing, although repetitive in its character assassination formula, should at least be admired for the extremity of its performance art), but Lynn Shelton’s Humpday, an engaging, pitch-perfect bromance about two straight men compelled to sleep with one another. James Gray’s Two Lovers, a distinctive if a little silly bi-polar anti-romance, was the American film of the year. (Another anti-romance of sorts, 500 Days of Summer, while distastefully male-centric, was a guilty pleasure especially hard to resist for Zooey Deschanel fans.)
Other films to leave an impression, and may grow on me over time: Thirst, 35 Shots of Rum, Bright Star, Ponyo, Paper Soldier, and Sono Sion’s demented four-hour opus Love Exposure, all film festival coups; Revanche, straight-to-DVD locally; plus Tokyo Sonata and The Headless Woman, both still awaiting distribution (as are movers-and-shakers such as The Hurt Locker and Import/Export, films we’ve yet been able to see). The biggest pretenders of 2009—Revolutionary Road and Samson and Delilah, to name two—masqueraded their way into the hearts of impressionable middle-class liberals. Particularly with Samson and Delilah, it was troubling to witness the romanticisation of the film’s adversity by audiences who traded its poverty and devastation as some kind of currency. (Regardless of this, its makers produced a quality movie—Warwick Thornton is a graceful formalist and his non-professional cast display remarkable candour.) The year’s major failure, The Lovely Bones, was felt even closer to home, with Peter Jackson’s direction a fiasco on so many levels. Simply the wrong person for the job, it’s now clear that the Kiwi filmmaker’s optioning of Alice Sebold’s bestseller was a marriage of convenience (murder mystery, check; ghost story, check; work for Weta Digital, check), not a match made in heaven. Needless to say, Jackson’s overindulgent visual effects and habitual lack of restraint turned what was already an ordinary novel (read: a missed opportunity) into a seriously inadequate film.
Dominating multiplexes around the same period, Avatar was the movie Jackson wished he had made. James Cameron’s record-breaker is, as to be expected, a simplistic and moralistic (if not condescending) parable that attacks all the senses on a base level, one born out of a prefabricated moviemaking that’s too predictable and routine to convince as something truly perceptive or allegorical about contemporary issues. (And isn’t every sci-fi spectacle these days a metaphor for imperialism, environmentalism, and humankind’s ills?) For all its hot air though, Avatar’s significance as a 3-D trailblazer cannot be denied, with the technology’s third dimension finally reintroducing the wow-factor to CGI—so omnipresent and overused in big-budget filmmaking—that has been lacking for some time. The cinema experience of the year for me, however, was a stunning digital projection of The White Ribbon (a first for the New Zealand International Film Festival, who had to camp out at Reading Cinemas), surely the way ahead for film exhibition this decade.
The Ten Best Films of 2009
- Dogtooth (Giorgos Lanthimos, Greece)
- 24 City (Jia Zhang-ke, China, 2008)
- Two Lovers (James Gray, USA, 2008)
- Still Walking (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan, 2008)
- Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt, USA, 2008)
- Star Trek (J.J. Abrams, USA)
- The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, Germany/Austria)
- Red Riding Trilogy* (Julian Jarrold/James Marsh/Anand Tucker, UK)
- Tokyo Sonata* (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan, 2008)
- Thirst (Park Chan-wook, Korea)
Shortlisted: Bright Star, Our Beloved Month of August, Ponyo, 35 Shots of Rum.
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On the home cinema front, special mention goes to Madman’s first edition of Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright, a frightening, hysterically boozed outback odyssey. Previously thought lost until recovered by Australia’s National Film and Sound Archive, this 1971 classic, thanks to a restored picture and gorgeous gatefold packaging, can stake its claim as the standout Region 4 DVD of the year. Madman must also be commended for their ongoing Director’s Suite label, which, while licensing much of its catalogue from alternate versions abroad, has moved towards commissioning its own special features (typically, audio commentaries by Australian scholars) and booklets with essays (the norm nowadays for a film of any importance, but nonetheless a level of appreciation otherwise non-existent in the Australasian DVD market). Even a few titles in the series—All I Desire, There’s Always Tomorrow, I Married a Witch, La Luna, The Experimental Films of Osamu Tezuka, Gertrud—can be considered either superior editions to those already available, or have filled a hole left by discontinued or yet-to-be released films.
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In Part 2 of The Lumière Reader’s Year and Decade in Review, Brannavan Gnanalingam reflects on some of the best and worst films from the last ten years. Of the numerous publications that also weighed in, Film Comment recently conducted a noteworthy survey: from its January/February issue, over 130 participants were polled, with Mulholland Drive, In the Mood for Love, and Yi Yi registering as the top three (on aggregate) of the decade. While those are essential movies I’d earmark for a best-of-list in a heartbeat, the magazine’s ranking of directors was a little more surprising, at least insofar as Michael Haneke’s seventh placing. Pound-for-pound the filmmaker of the decade, the Austrian’s industriousness saw the release of no less than six films, the last of which finally delivered major acclaim (a Palme d’Or, and probably a Foreign Language Oscar too). The self-remake of Funny Games aside, it’s hard to fault the rigour and incisiveness of Haneke’s output. Hidden, widely considered his greatest, came after two films which I think are even stronger candidates: Code Unknown, now appearing a little structured after all this time, but a masterpiece; and Time of the Wolf, which was an incredibly prescient—and now more than ever, relevant—hypothosis of social collapse. Still, Film Comment’s consensus on the best director I have no reason to argue with: China’s Jia Zhang-ke, whose Platform I wouldn’t hesitate to call the film of the decade.