Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Ten Best Films I Saw in 2009, a.k.a. Ten Reasons Why Avatar Does Not Deserve an Oscar (Part Two)

The first five films were presented this past Tuesday in Part One.

As a movie about the war in Iraq, The Hurt Locker was overdue, but it was decidedly worth the wait. Director, Kathryn Bigelow captures the tension, the ugliness and the aimlessness of the conflict by keeping her camera grounded and her characters adrift.

Presenting the war through the exploits of Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) – the leader of an Explosive Ordinance Disposal unit – these themes are distilled into a series of intense standoffs. Watching James attempt to defuse homemade explosive devices is inherently dramatic, but Bigelow never overplays her hand. Instead of opting for overdone, ticking time-bomb scenarios, she spreads the fear evenly; the entire film is awash in an unremitting sense of latent danger. The villains are faceless specters; their motivations are never examined. It is never clear if anything is being gained through James' successes beyond a temporary reprieve from death.

James is burdened by these ambiguities on some level and, at one point, even attempts to find direction by seeking reprisal. Even he knows, however, that he is a man who thrives in the isolation of the battlefield, independent of concerns like morality. The Hurt Locker presents an Iraq suspended in space – a place where there is no up or down, just the task at hand. It makes this relatively bloodless war movie one of the most unsettling I have seen.

To say that Quentin Tarantino's films can often be challenging to watch is an understatement. Regardless of whether one is troubled by his self-indulgent tendencies or his indifference toward good taste, however, Inglourious Basterds will likely prove to be a hell of a lot more fun than his past films.

It helps that most of his sadism is directed at Nazis this time around. Tarantino milks the World War II setting for all it is worth, gleefully flouting historical accuracy to great effect, but still playing upon common knowledge of the period. Sure, we have seen assassination attempts on Hitler in films before, but has such a scenario ever been executed with such deft dramatic build-up as it is here? Hell no. Tarantino displays a newfound capacity for restraint in the lengthy standoffs that are this film's greatest strength.

Having Christoph Waltz play the villain helps, too. He is nearly as instrumental in creating the film's most intense scenes as Tarantino. His Colonel Landa is the sort of devilishly calculating villain that every Hollywood film wishes it has. He completely overshadows the film's Hitler, who becomes a caricature. Just about every character in this film, though, is entertaining in their own right – something to be expected from Tarantino. What is unexpected is that they populate a story free of pretension. Inglourious Basterds is a giddy, pulpy rewriting of history and, because of that, it is one of Quentin Tarantino's most successful works.

Paranormal Activity is 2009's Cinderella story – not merely because it was lucrative but also because it was a wake-up call for the horror genre. Oren Peli's concept was time tested: A couple is living in a potentially haunted house. His execution is brilliant in its simplicity: One location, two actors and a camera. The result is the rebirth of the classic nail-biter.

By sidestepping the humorless sadism of torture porn and the worn-out conventions of slasher films, Paranormal Activity rediscovers the soul of the horror genre. A majority of the film consists of a static, night-vision shot of a couple's bedroom and Peli uses this narrow perspective to tightly control what the audience knows. Fear, after all, is all about the unknown. Characters run offscreen forcing the audience to fear the worst for them, sounds ring out with no hope of revealing their source and various bizarre phenomenona are depicted with chilling detachment.

Limiting the scope of the film also allows it to closely follow the degrading mental state of the two characters. It drags the audience down with them. As the characters become more and more terrified of nightfall with each passing day, the audience comes to dread each successive bedroom scene more than the last. Peli does not merely trap the film's action in this house, he traps the audience within the narrative, making it impossible not to become emotionally involved. You will dread going to bed after seeing Paranormal Activity.

Leave it to Wes Anderson to make a kids' movie about a guy going through his midlife crisis. Fantastic Mr. Fox is a wholly unique experience – a mingling of a classic children's storytelling with one of the most idiosyncratic directors around. What makes it so great is that it does complete justice to both halves of its pedigree.

In this era of soulless CGI talking animals, a film made like Fantastic Mr. Fox was sorely needed. This film wears its rustic aesthetic on its sleeve, steeped in warm wood tones and autumn foliage. Every character looks as if the animator's hand has just left them, fur bristling with each movement. Such an authentic style is the perfect vehicle for a story about identity. This seamlessly fits in with Anderson's oeuvre, not only because Mr. Fox (George Clooney) is a close cousin of Royal Tenenbaum or Steve Zissou, but because Anderson's affinity for rigid framing and blocking easily translates to stop-motion animation.

Furthermore, Anderson's clever, rapid-fire dialogue is a welcome upgrade for a genre plagued by the obnoxious dichotomy of ham-fisted puns for the kids and glib double entendres for the parents. When talking animals can be made truly palatable, instead of merely tolerable, for adults, it is a promising step for American animation.

With A Single Man, Tom Ford manages to make tragedy beautiful. That is quite the achievement for a first-time director.

The film slips us into the mind of George Falconer (Colin Firth), a reserved college professor, as he contemplates suicide in the wake of his partner's death. His depression combines with the rigid superficiality of the 1960's to create a vivid study in emotional detachment. Ethereal sequences deconstruct the facades worn by various incidental characters feature by feature. It illuminates George's pain, as he savors every detail, prematurely mourning the loss of his own life.

Still, the film is anything but a slog. George is not humorless and neither is Ford. What could have been the grimmest sequence in the movie is easily one of the funniest and George's encounters with various characters show that he is not inclined toward misery. It means that, for all of George's detachment, the audience is consistently engaged with his emotions. This is a melancholy film – undeniably potent in its depiction of despair but, nevertheless, hopeful and invigorating.

If it were not for Eduard Grau's cinematography, these qualities would not have been quite as potent. His compositions carefully confine George's interaction with the world and his judicious use of color lend particular impact to George's fleeting moments of happiness. Far too often, dramas of such gravity lack a strong visual component, but A Single Man provides a truly immersive emotional experience.

2009 was an interesting year for film, and I believe this list represents it well. The combined revenue from all of these films probably pales in comparison to that of Avatar, but ambition and individuality are rarely awarded with popularity. The Academy has chosen to squander its chance at recognizing such valuable qualities. Fortunately, that hardly means that all moviegoers must do the same.

No comments: