Monday, June 22, 2009

20 Favorite Films of 2009 (as of June)

With the year halfway through I'd like to look back at my favorite films thus far. There are some releases I still need to see. Also some of these films might technically be considered from 2008, but I'm including them if they had a theatrical United States release in 2009....

You can download a PDF of this list here.

Hirokazu Koreeda, Japan

Hirokazku Koreeda is easily among my favorite current filmmakers mostly in the simplistic ways he captures the little moments. This is probably Koreeda’s best film since his 1998 After Life which I’d consider among my all-time favorite films. Still Walking understands the dynamics of the family, removing the layers to reveal lingering regrets caused from unresolved differences and bitterness. The film is a personal reflection for Koreeda yet the universal qualities make it so touching, funny, and honest. It is more sentimental then Ozu or Naruse but belongs mention in that class, for the gentle and subtle approach that few filmmakers can master with such effortlessness. A masterpiece!


Henry Selick, United States

While all the animated and Disney films getting released seem to be using this new 3D technology as a money-making gimmick it is refreshing to see 3D used this beautifully and masterfully. Coraline doesn’t rely on gimmicks but rather visual and character-driven storytelling. This is an animated film for adults first and kids second. There are psychological subtexts and artistry that make the film far more worthy then just a charming “kids cartoon”. Coraline is masterfully directed by Henry Selick proving Nightmare Before Christmas was more then just Tim Burton’s vision. The imagination and wonder of this film (both for its realism and fantasy) establishes Selick among the very top of stop-animation filmmaking, and one of the great visionaries of contemporary cinema. I can not praise this film enough except to say that it is perfect in its own methods. This is the artistic peak of stop-animation filmmaking and really must be seen at a theater in 3D!!

3… UP
Pete Docter, United States

Profound… Pixar has reached a Hayao Miyazaki level of animation cinema! Perhaps more then any other Pixar film its philosophy is not told, rather it is shown through concentrated, precise and poetic images and sounds. As great of an achievement their previous film (Wall E) is I think Up is superior because there are no contrived elements to it (something that I think Wall E slightly falls into in the second half). While Brad Bird is perhaps Pixar’s auteur, John Lasseter its founder, and Andrew Stanton its crowd-pleaser, Pete Docter is probably the best fit and most defining of the studios directors. Beautifully moving and heartwarming from the touching opening sequences to the lovely closing shots.

Li Yoon-ki, South Korea

I saw this 2008 Korean release at this years Philadelphia Film Festival. It is wonderfully smart and charming for its compassionate manner. Jean Do-yean follows up her powerful Cannes winning performance from 2007’s Secret Sunshine with another excellent performance sharing pitch perfect chemistry with Ha Jung-woo. There is a sophisticated wit to the humor and the details that give this film an old-fashioned appeal. There is some hilarious moments of humor to the film as well as some insightful subtexts without ever being forced or overdone in any way. Lee Yoon-ki’s previous film (Ad Lib Night) took as similar approach but even for its gentle nature it was a film that felt emotionless and un-involving. Structured over the period of a day, My Dear Enemy is greatly involving as it takes you along with its terrific lead characters.

Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, France

Released last year in France The Silence of Lorna won Best Screenplay at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. It marks the seventh feature film from the Dardenne Brothers. Like the Dardenne previous films this one is rooted in the neorealist roots and Robert Bresson style that has defined their highly acclaimed work. This one is getting less praise mostly because this films resorts to some more conventional genre methods, yet I do not see how this negatively impacts this particular film. Instead I find the thriller aspects of the filmmaking give it a greater sense of complexity and emotional involvement. I still find it to be the work of purist filmmakers and I’d maybe consider this my favorite Dardenne film yet.

Yoji Yamada, Japan

After the completion of his samurai trilogy (which began with the high acclaimed 2002 Twilight Samurai and concluded in 2007 with Love and Honor) 77-year old Japanese filmmaker Yoji Yamada adapted this family drama set during early World War 2 (notably Japan’s invasion in China). The film, based off the childhood memoirs of Teruyo Nogami, uses the war as backdrop to the films primary focus of its effect on the family. The film is powerfully emotional without sentiment. Yamada’s film is deeply humanist lead by delicate performances from the cast (Sayuri Yoshinaga as Kabei is especially great).

James Gray, United States

Nothing inventive but Two Lovers is excellent in the way it is directed and performed. A talented young filmmaker, James Gray has made his first great film – one that is personal, detailed and original in its own way. Joaquin Phoenix perfectly taps into the loneliness and longing of his character giving what I would say is the best performance of his career (and whether or not it is his final appearance is yet to be known, but after seeing how terrific he is here I certainly hope he is not done with acting).

Ramin Bahrani, United States

I'm still not ready to claim Ramin Bahrani the master everyone else has but I always admire his approach and have liked each film more then the next, with this by far my favorite from him. Here Bahrani recalls his Iranian roots using Abbas Kiarostami's 1997 film A Taste of Cherry as a clear source of influence (both poetically and in narrative). The strength of the film is that Bahrani keeps it simple with his trademark minimalist style not allowing for easy manipulation. This is best expressed in Souleymane Sy Savane charming performance.

9… CHE
Steven Soderbergh, United States / Spain / France

This two-part four-plus hour film was released in LA for Oscar contention last December but I’m including among the 2009 films because of the films wide release in January. It marks one of three films in 2009 from the always productive Steven Soderbergh who when not directing is always producing. Che is certainly the most epic of these films and it is almost entirely centered around the amazing lead performance of Benicio Del Toro who gives an embracing performance as the revolutionary. Soderbergh’s gives the film some experimental approaches (such as the shift in aspect ration in the second half) which create a sense of atmosphere but loose some of the emotional attachment. Even for some flaws, this is an interesting and bold achievement with a remarkable lead performance.

Gotz Spielmann, Austria

Revanche was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Foreign Language film category but did not receive a theatrical release in the United States until May. Written and directed by Austrian filmmaker Gotz Spielmann, this is a skillful film that blends genres. The film excels in the way it stays simple and thoughtfully controlled on the characters and the setting, allowing the atmosphere and emotions a chance to grow.

Steve McQueen, United Kingdom

In his debut feature British visual artist Steve McQueen shows a bold and skillful filmmaking approach in the unconventional methods of storytelling. Centering around the 1981 hunger strike inside Northern Ireland's Maze Prison the film is very dark, depressing and difficult to watch. However the filmmaking is rather interesting particularly in the different ways McQueen experiments with different visual tricks (highlighted by a stunning 17-minute unbroken shot featuring a conversion between features a conversation between Bobby Sands and a Catholic priest).

Dennis Iliadis, United States

A great modern remake! Dennis Iliadis wisely respects Wes Craven's original vision (as Craven did Ingmar Bergman's Virgin Spring) while giving this his own defining tone and suspense. Iliadis’ film is a bit less poetic then Craven’s but it is also less campy. Here the tense tone seems more connected to the home-invasion horror films of recent cinema but the filmmakers (except for the questionably forced ending shot) have a precise and skillful manner in which they create the tension.

Joe Swanberg, United States

I am not sure how much of this or any of Joe Swanberg films are filmmaking art. They either take you in with feeling and mood or they do not. This certainly did more then any previous Swanberg films have for me, particularly with the films unique opening scene (a pretend wedding between two sisters – played by Jess Weixler and Amy Seimetz). As always Swanberg centers on the freedom of the performances and the cast delivers (Jane Adams gives a notable supporting performance as a stage director). Swanberg is not quite in the class of fellow mumblecore filmmaker Andrew Bujalski, but Alexander the Last is his best film to date.

Pierre Morel, France

Taken is silly or improbable for sure, but like a John Woo or Brian De Palma film there is also something poetic and rebellious in its single-minded vision. This is something of a trademark for Luc Besson who co-wrote the screenplay for talented young director Pierre Morel (his second feature). The filmmakers understand there world and the morality of it, giving the viewers a fully engaging film experience that has some insight.

Prachya Pinkaew, Thailand

Thai director Prachya Pinkaew cleverly self references his own work in this bizarre revenge martial arts film. Here Pinkaew’s internationally popular 2003 film Ong-Bak is used as a frame of reference, with an autistic young girl watching the film repeatedly to learn martial arts from the Tony Jaa, so she can help her ill mother. While not Tony Jaa, JeeJa Yanin does a fine job as the young understudy and as expected the film is at its best during the high-fling action sequences. The film makes great use of set designs and a cheap budget.

Sam Mendes, United States / United Kingdom

Maybe not artistically complex, yet like a great pop song this film is beautiful and charming. There is a smugness to the film that I could see turning some people off but I found it enjoyable because (for the most part) the film avoids falling into some of the “quirky indie” traps. The real surprise is that this is quite a change of pace for director Sam Mendes who is really starting to win me over. His films tend to be forceful and ultimately hollow but I liked what he did with Revolutionary Road and here he simplifies even more with this comedy, relying on the performances and the script (also bonus points for a great use of the wonderful Velvet Underground song ‘Oh Sweet Nuthin’).

Steven Soderbergh, United States

While I admire much of his work I still say that Steven Soderbergh's films always border on pretentious. This one is no different. Its emotional disconnection is intriguing even if the film does not have the depth of its obvious Antonioni influence. Here casting porn star Sasha Grey, Soderbergh avoids making it gimmicky and Grey delivers a convincing performance. Soderbergh keeps the camera at a distance from Grey taking away any sort of intimacy, instead relying on subtle performance and visual composition and spacing.

Mark Webber, United States

28-year old actor Mark Webber makes his debut as writer-director with this socially driven but mostly unforced film dealing with poverty in Philadelphia. Shot entirely in South Philadelphia Webber makes great use of location to capture the spirit and tone of the film. The film does have some flaws toward the climax but there is also some moments of poetic filmmaking here, echoing Charles Burnett’s 1977 masterpiece Killer of Sheep. This is not in that class but it is an impressive debut and a fine collaborative effort from all the filmmakers and cast.

Oliver Blackburn, United Kingdom

Donkey Punch is nothing new but it succeeds because it understands and even embraces genre formula. The pacing and visuals are designed in two halves. The beautiful and bright images and emotions of the early half soon shift to a more gritty and claustrophobic atmosphere as the tension and chaos builds. Flawed for sure (particularly over the climax) I still found the film engrossing for the effective manner in which it incorporates conventions.

Naomi Kawase, Japan / France

Naomi Kawase made an international name for herself with her previous release the award-winning Mourning Forest. A unique filmmaker known for a seamless blend of personal autobiography, documentary and fiction, here she delves into slightly new territory – shooting outside native Japan instead in Thailand and with a cast of Japanese, French, and Thai actors. The story centers around a 30-year old Japanese woman who leaves for Thailand. Recalling some of the second half of Kawase’s previous film that film centers around the forest and the woman’s spiritual journey within the forest where she meets a monk (Jun Murakami), and then a French student (Gregoire Colin). This might be my least favorite Kawase film to date but there is a very good feeling of atmosphere and beauty to the film.

Some other notable films:

THE BROTHERS BLOOM (Rian Johnson, United States)

PHOEBE IN WONDERLAND (Daniel Barnz, United States)


THE UNINVITED (Charles and Thomas Guard, United States/Canada)

THE MAN FROM LONDON (Bela Tarr, Hungary / France)

THE OBJECTIVE (Daniel Myrick, United States/Morocco)

HOTEL FOR DOGS (Thor Freudenthal, United States/Germany)

SONG OF SPARROWS (Majid Majidi, Iran)

ADORATION (Atom Egoyan, Canada)

LEMON TREE (Eran Riklis, Israel/Germany/France)

SAUNA (Antti-Jussi Annila, Finland/Czech Republic)

NOTORIOUS (George Tillman Jr., United States)

EASY VIRTUE (Stephan Elliott, United Kingdom /Canada)

LEFT BANK (Pieter Van Hees, Belgium)