And now to conclude my 'Films of the Year 2009' retrospective. In the second half of the year, my viewing was a little more varied, resulting in fewer entries below that were reviewed for Den of Geek or any other outlet. So a number of the entries below are on films I have not written about before - so read away! Here's to a similarly consistent, quality-filled 2010.
The Class / Entre Les Murs
A Palme d'Or winner at Cannes in 2008, I finally saw Entre les murs at the Prince Charles over the summer. Its depiction of high school education in inner-city Paris was potent and insightful, revealing the tight-rope that teachers have to walk as they work to inspire and inform their pupils in a job that is just as much about crowd control and diplomacy. The film's fly-on-the-wall style, and well-researched (and perfectly acted) qualities make it unmissable.
After a couple of years of cross-over geek films, it seemed that there would soon be little for sci-fi nuts to call their own. However, Moon is a great big science fiction film in a style that comes along too rarely. Subtle, quiet and full of pathos, it is a piece of work that requires little special effects, and few scares and thrills; it is all bound up in human emotions and experience, and is enhanced by the coldness and isolation of space. Sam Rockwell carries the film almost single-handedly (although Kevin Spacey's mysterious, ever-so-slightly camp vocal performance deserves notice too), and newcomer Duncan Jones shows he has intelligence, resourcefulness and talent in spades. A real gem.
Fantastic Mr. Fox (review)
October came and with it brought the London Film Festival. While I didn't get full accreditation (maybe next year), I was quite excited to attend in order to see two of the programme's three films featuring George Clooney. Fantastic Mr. Fox was the first, and was the slightly better film. Full of warmth and texture provided by its orange-brown hues and furry stop-motion animation, the real joy of the flick was its collision of plucky adventure and director Wes Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach's New York, upper middle class, intellectual idiosyncrasies.
The Men Who Stare At Goats (review)
The Men Who Stare At Goats had more pronounced problems - mainly revolving around its fictionalised-non-fiction premise - but it was, like Fantastic Mr. Fox, an entertainingly light addition to the year's cinematic landscape. Clooney, Kevin Spacey and Jeff Bridges let loose in their hippy-GI roles, providing plenty of inoffensive laughs and cheery barminess. At the time, I said it was 'to the end, a joyous, heartfelt film... Its tone is pitched just right, with each cheeky montage sequence, furrowed brow of concentration, or straight-faced citation of the paranormal hitting a sweet, comic note'.
Up is a much better film than Wall-E, but both films suffer from the same problems. Again, this new Pixar film was greeted with hyperbole and praise, but all of its true, unconventional genius is crystallised in its opening act. That sequence, a life as musical montage, is a beautiful short film in its own right, showing that the creatives have perfected a graceful method of intertwining character, drama, and heart-string manipulation. The rest of the film is a ragged, slightly lop-sided adventure, full of quirky characters and mild peril. Crucially, however, it does not lose the plot like its predecessor; in fact, the proceedings are enriched by its bold opening, with the crotchety old man vitalised and shaped by his backstory. Indeed, the whole film dares to unfurl in the shadow of loss, mourning and the inevitability of aging. Yet it is never dragged down by morbidity; it blossoms with hope and energy. For that reason, it is special.
Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno
UK Distributor Park Circus had a stellar 2009, especially with their three releases in the Autumn-Winter period. Two were majestic reprints: The Red Shoes and The Godfather. The third film was an engrossing documentary, Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno, which told of a project where inspiration was scuppered by bad luck and over-indulgence. Splicing together interviews, recreations and, most importantly, astonishing experimental footage from the unfinished film project, Inferno was a real treat for cinephiles.
Men on the Bridge / Köprüdekiler
Köprüdekiler was the recipient of the London Turkish Film Festival's inaugural Golden Wings Award, and it was a worthy winner, portraying the bustling city of Istanbul from three street-level perspectives. This debut from director Asli Özge is a quiet, naturalistic piece that is miles away from the stylish fairytale of works like Issiz Adam; instead, it adopts a scope that feels like a Robert Altman film, shifting between the stories of a street hustler, a taxi driver and a lonely traffic cop - all of whom live and work in the shadow of Istanbul's Bosphorus Bridge - with the view of cooking up a rounded, insightful narrative. This is definitely one to watch out for once it receives a general release in the new year.
A Serious Man (review)
I was very surprised by A Serious Man, the latest film from the Coen Brothers. Deciding to work on a small budget, and train their sights on the Mid-West American Jewish society in which they grew up, they managed to craft something that features all of their hallmarks, and little of their flaws. And some of the best Jefferson Airplane fan service I have ever been privy to. I said in my Den of Geek review: 'A Serious Man is certainly one of [their] best works... Not only does the film have the off-kilter worldview, memorably expressive moments, and sharp dialogue of top-game Coens, it also has affecting depths of maturity and lyricism'.
On the Way to School
Shown at both the London Turkish and Kurdish Film Festivals, On the Way to School is similar to Entre les murs in its representation of education as the nexus of social tensions. It is a documentary of a Turkish trainee teacher's first placement - in an impoverished Kurdish village in the far east of the country. The tone is light, and there is much gentle humour teased out of this fish-out-of-water situation, as the teacher must handle the large classes and adjust to the community (the cast of cheeky children are a big help in this regard).
However, the film bubbles with a subtextual intensity, as the Kurdish children are forced to speak only Turkish in the class-room, are punished for speaking in their native language, and must recite the Turkish oath of citizenship every morning before school starts. With no narration and little to no authorial fingerprints, On the Way to School does not adopt a stance on these matters of enforced integration and culture suffocation, which will be frustrating for some, but these small insights give the film a harder, fascinating edge.
Ponyo / Gake no ue no Ponyo
How better to finish than with a film set for a 2010 release? I am quite a Studio Ghibli fanatic, so my anticipation for Ponyo was high. Nevertheless, it should speak volumes about the quality of 2009's animated films that the latest from Hayao Miyazaki is faced with strong competition. It is probably his most obviously flawed film, with an attempted mixture of a My Neighbour Totoro-like real-life fairy story and a Princess Mononoke/Howl's Moving Castle epic adventure plot not working so well. This is still a wonderful film, however, full of energy, inspiration and imagination.
My Den of Geek review is yet to be published, but I conclude with: 'nevertheless, the wonders of the film - its visual sense, its charming outlook, the striking score from Joe Hisaishi (which blends both wistful and Wagnerian Romanticism very well) - scream through the cultural-language barrier, making the dubbed version of Ponyo, for the most part, a beautiful, heartwarming piece that should bring a smile to anyone's face, regardless of age'.