a Healthy Disdain


THE (ABRIDGED) 2009 YEAR-END SNOBTACULAR

Talk about inauspicious beginings!  Not only is this post nearly four months behind the times, it is also entirely repurposed from Facebook.  That said, I had to start somewhere, and it’s not like you paid for it.   Blah, blah, blah, here are my favorite films of 2009:

5. GOMORRAH (Italy, Mattaeo Garrone)

Cleverly dubbed “City of Godfather” by filmjunk.com, Mattaeo Garrone’s crime epic does for the slums of Naples what Fernando Meirelles’ City of God did for the flavelas of Rio. Namely, it paints a powerful, uncompromising and glamourless portrait of a region pervaded by organized crime. So uncompromising, in fact, that the author of the non-fiction book on which it’s based has been subject to death threats from several Neapolitan clans.

Known collectively as the Camorra, these clans are among the oldest in Italy, and have established a shockingly comprehensive network of criminal enterprise. Gomorrah documents these ventures across five intercut but independent narratives, demonstrating the alarming breadth of the Camorra’s virulent influence. From the obvious (drug trafficking, gun running) to the outlandish (toxic waste disposal, haute couture manufacturing), Garrone illustrates that wherever there’s a dirty Euro to be made, the Camorra are making it.

All the while, Garrone’s deromantacized approach underscores the plight of the innocent victims of the Camorra machine. His focus is on the footsoldiers of warring factions, and the civilians caught in the crossfire. Gomorrah, in this sense, turns the traditional mob movie upside down. Its overt references to Scarface are not an homage, but suggest the folly of a cinematic culture habituated to making heroes out of drug lords and Dons.

Thanks to some superb acting (and non-acting), and its vivid vérité authenticity, Gomorrah is a gripping, richly absorbing spectacle. It is decisively elevated, however, by its sobering rebuttal of some of the medium’s most iconic tropes.

(Trailer)

4. 35 SHOTS OF RUM (France, Claire Denis)

Apart from being a superlative work of understated beauty, 35 Shots of Rum merits inclusion in my top five partly for the fact that it constituted my belated introduction to Claire Denis.

Though a recent personal discovery, Denis is widely regarded as one of the greatest contemporary directors, and two of her films achieved the rare distinction of featuring in the TIFF Cinematheque’s ‘Best of the Decade‘ series. (2005’s L’Intrus, and her 1999 masterpiece Beau Travail.) She has a particular gift for intuitive filmmaking – almost as though her work is intended to be sensed or felt, rather than deliberately perceived. This is certainly true of 35 Shots, which is typical, magical Denis.

Described by noted critic Scott Tobias as an “intimate, accutely emotional portrait”, the film centres on Lionel (Denis stalwart Alex Descas), a middle-aged widower, who shares a flat with his doting twentysomething daughter, Joséphine (newcomer Mati Diop). Their lives have entered a delicate and potentially painful period of transition: Jo is all grown up, and, despite their enormous mutual devotion, Lionel recognizes that her moment of independence is near at hand. Denis’ dialogue is characteristically spare, but the phenomenal performances of Descas and Diop suggest a filial bond as tender and as genuine as any depicted on screen.

Part homage to Yosujiro Ozu’s father-daughter classic Late Spring, and partly inspired by the relationship between Denis’ mother and maternal grandfather, 35 Shots is evidently a deeply personal film. Even so, it remains highly accessible, and is a great entry point to Denis’ canon. A simple, sensual, bittersweet marvel, 35 Shots sees Denis develop a rich universality from the most minimal of components. It’s an achievement that serves as exquisite evidence as to why she’s so hugely revered.

(Trailer)

3. THE WHITE RIBBON (Germany, Michael Haneke)

Another of the true contemporary greats, Michael Haneke, like Denis, has enjoyed an outstanding decade. With Code Unknown (2000), La Pianiste (2001), Caché (2005), and Funny Games (2007), he secured a reputation as one of cinema’s most intelligent, skillful, and provocative filmmmakers.

With The White Ribbon, he saw off the aughts in consummate style, bringing his full talent to bear and winning the Cannes Palme d’Or in the process. Every bit as cerebral and unnerving as his previous efforts, the film is also his most visually arresting, thanks to its breathtaking monochrome cinematography and lavish period production values.

That period is the eve of World War I, and the setting is Eichwald, a small village in the German countryside, strictly Protestant, and strictly patriarchal. Beneath its pious and pastoral veneer, a spate of mysterious, malicious violence disquiets the townsfolk and audience alike. Haneke’s mastery of ambiguity only heightens this sense of unease: much of the depravity occurs off-screen, and there are no neat and tidy answers as to the culprits or their motives. And yet, The White Ribbon positively brims with revelations, not only about its immediate setting, but, allegorically, about Germany as a whole, and the generation that would grow to embrace history’s most virulent ideology.

As a discourse on the origins of fascism, Haneke’s assertions may invite debate. As a feat of cinematic artistry, however, The White Ribbon is beyond reproach. It is meticulously directed, gloriously acted, and hauntingly beautiful. It may not end, Basterds-style, with one character glibly carving a swastika into another’s forehead, but it is almost certainly Haneke’s masterpiece.

(Trailer)

2. WALTZ WITH BASHIR (Israel, Ari Folman)

An instant personal favorite, Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir is a gorgeously surreal, animated, autobiographical, quasi-documentary. As that description suggests, it is a cinematic vision that genuinely defies comparison. As inventive as it is profound, it is a work wholly unlike any other.

Israel’s 1982 clash with Lebanon serves as the narrative impetus for what is a scathingly anti-war war story. Specifically, the film recounts the director’s experiences, age 19, as a member of the invading Israeli Defense Forces. Through a series of interviews with his army cohorts, intercut with vibrant, hallucinatory recreations, it depicts Folman’s attempts to recall his hazy, long-suppressed links to the massacre of Palestinian civilians at Sabra and Shatila.

Visually reminiscent of Richard Linklater’s Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, Waltz With Bashir gives the impression of a warzone graphic novel come to life. The animated aesthetic is enormously evocative, and achieves unique success in conveying the obvious, but often unspoken absurdity of warfare. Yet, thanks to the intricate, lifelike quality of the illustrations, it remains every bit as compelling as a traditional, live-action account. Folman’s directorial masterstroke, however, is the juxtaposition of a live-action, archival segment that gives the film’s conclusion a resounding, devastating resonance. (That the film persists so vividly in the memory also owes a great deal to composer Max Richter. His terrific score merits special mention.)

Truly powerful in its own right, Waltz With Bashir‘s pacifist sentiments are rendered still more poignant in light of the renewed tensions between Israel and Lebanon in 2008-09, and, indeed, in light of ongoing conflicts throughout the Middle East. Rarely, if ever, have I experienced such an abundant union of style and substance.

(Trailer)

1. INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (USA, Quentin Tarantino)

Having championed Gomorrah for its stark depiction of violence, and The White Ribbon for its cautionary tale of cruelty and retribution, it may seem peculiar to reserve special praise for a gore-spattered revenge epic. And that’s to say nothing of the apparent tension between Waltz with Bashir‘s endeavour to deglamorize war, and the manner in which Quentin Tarantino embraces similar subject matter with operatic grandeur.

“What gives?”, you might well ask.

The answer, I’d venture, has something to do with why Inglourious Basterds was a considerable disappointment to many: It actually isn’t, as had been billed, an über-violent, Brad Pitt-driven, Nazi killin’ romp. Nor was it intended to be blindly consumed as such. Those features are elements of its equation, to be sure, but above all else, Inglourious Basterds is a rapturous love letter to cinema, penned by an unmistakable auteur. Here, however, the numerous cinematic homages aren’t superfluous in-jokes, but are, rather, key building blocks of a fairytale honouring cinema’s limitless redemptive potential.

On the whole, Basterds may not boast the peerless casual rewatchability of Pulp Fiction, but it is Tarantino’s most audacious, and, in several respects, his most accomplished work to date. By turns deeply tragic, absurdly comic, and a great deal in between, it is easily his richest, most tonally dexterous screenplay. In particular, the film’s first and fourth chapters are consummate triumphs, protracted scenes of almost pure dialogue that – far from seeming self-indulgent – are expertly crafted, and achieve Hitchcockian levels of suspense. His characterisation, meanwhile, is typically iconic, but is also, in several cases, surprisingly nuanced. And then there’s the small matter of chief antagonist Hans Landa, who is quite simply, and without exaggeration, one of the greatest creations in the history of cinema.

Shockingly, Tarantino originally considered Leonardo DiCaprio for the role. Thankfully, he came to his senses and cast Cristoph Waltz, who, in addition to his Oscar, won the Cannes acting prize, a BAFTA, a SAG award, and a Golden Globe. He is, to put it crudely, f***ing amazing, and every bit the performer Landa deserved. Unquestionably, Waltz steals the show, but the rest of the ensemble do admirably to keep pace. Mélanie Laurent, Dianne Kruger, Daniel Brühl and Michael Fassbender are all excellent, while even Brat Pitt’s cartoonish Aldo Raine works within Basterds unique context.

That context is Tarantino’s movie-mad parallel universe, where, quite literally, film itself has the capacity to destroy the Third Reich. That notion is Basterds‘ central metaphor, and it is little wonder that Tarantino suggests that the magnificent saga he has built around that metaphor is his career’s crowning achievement. In fairness, the position of any work in its filmmaker’s canon is something best judged with the benefit of hindsight. In the meantime, therefore, I’m content simply to declare Inglourious Basterds my favorite film of 2009.

(Trailer)

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