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Panic, Despair and Revolution 

Yet from industry turmoil, great films arose

Wednesday, Dec 30 2009
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Tropical Malady(2005). Before Avatar, there was this interspecies, enchanted-jungle romance from the Thai-born, Chicago-educated Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul, in which a forbidden passion sparks a retreat into a primal realm where the separations between man and beast fall away like water cascading off a leaf.

Inland Empire(2006). David Lynch’s homespun, self-promoted whatsit follows a faded Hollywood starlet (the amazing Laura Dern) on a hallucinatory, identity-shifting odyssey that begins on a studio soundstage, detours through Poland and maybe Pomona, and climaxes on Hollywood Boulevard. In between, Lynch spins a Tinseltown fable as dark and dissonant as any by Nathanael West or Horace McCoy, about how and why we are all drawn to that pulsating light, like moths to the flame and buzzards to the kill.

Ratatouille(2007). Not just — and maybe not even — for kids, Brad Bird’s philosophical comedy of talent at odds with mediocrity and art at odds with ego represented the full creative flowering of one of the most inspired and imaginative storytellers at work in American movies. A slow-food movie for a fast-food nation, capped by an episode of involuntary memory borrowed from Proust. Bon appetit!

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RR(2007). James Benning’s stirring 16mm ode to trains and the wide-open spaces they travel through. It is Benning’s farewell to film, to the West and to a mode of transportation largely incongruous with the pace of modern society.

There Will Be Blood(2007). A 21st-century Citizen Kane, Paul Thomas Anderson’s freewheeling adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s Oil! was a fever dream about the American dream, charting the infernal entanglement of money, power and religion on an arid stretch of California land at the dawn of the 20th century. American movies rarely dream this big anymore, and with the wholesale shuttering of the studio-owned “specialty” divisions, it may be quite some time before they do again.

Zodiac(2007). An obsessive’s portrait of obsession, David Fincher’s storage locker–claustrophobic crime drama focused on the collateral victims of the eponymous San Francisco serial killer, the cops and reporters who allowed the case to consume (and in some cases destroy) their lives.

Gran Torino(2008). The ne plus ultra of Clint Eastwood as actor, director and cultural icon, this ostensibly ass-kicking comeback vehicle neatly inverted the revenge politics of Dirty Harry and Unforgiven while entertaining a more honest dialogue about race, economic disenfranchisement and the fog of war in America than any other movie in recent memory.

The White Ribbon(2009). See Best Films of 2009.

 

Best Films of 2009

1.The White Ribbon. Michael Haneke explores the roots of German fascism — and, by extension, all forms of paranoid groupthink — in this masterful, World War I–era sociological drama that brought the Austrian filmmaker his long-overdue Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. The ribbon of the title, a symbol of innocence and purity, is one that Haneke gradually unravels as a schoolteacher in a rural German village homes in on the ritualistic cycle of domination, submission and humiliation churning beneath the town’s placid Protestant surface.

2.Inglourious Basterds and Police, Adjective. Two extraordinary (and extraordinarily funny) films about the politics of language: In Quentin Tarantino’s exuberant World War II burlesque — the best subversive war comedy since MASH — the silver-tongued SS Colonel Hans Landa uses words as a weapon of wartime as valuable as any firearm. In Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu’s pitch-black institutional satire, a beat cop on a futile mission challenges his superior only to have conscience and morality literally spelled out for him.

3.The Hurt Locker. Kathryn Bigelow’s electrifying body-shock war movie about a U.S. Army bomb squad stationed in Baghdad matched its intricate sensory architecture with an equally detailed map of the modern soldier’s psyche.

4.Public Enemies. Like Bonnie and Clyde 40 years earlier, Michael Mann’s digital John Dillinger biopic was a period gangster movie that scarcely felt period at all, filmed in jagged swooshes of handheld HD video. It was also a movie about movies, culminating in a remarkable sequence in which Dillinger watches something like his own life (albeit with Clark Gable in the lead) flash before his eyes in Chicago’s Biograph Theater.

5.Avatar. A genuine game-changer from a filmmaker who has consistently redefined the way we see movies. Avatar was more than a decade in the making, and it will take Hollywood at least that long to catch up to it.

6.District 9 and Invictus. Clint Eastwood steered well clear of sanctimony and obvious Obama parallels for his characteristically reserved, perceptive chronicle of South Africa during the first year of Nelson Mandela’s presidency. For the unofficial sequel, there was native South African director Neill Blomkamp’s ingenious apartheid-as-alien-invasion allegory, which catches us up to a present where Mandela’s dream of a just “rainbow nation” has devolved into something closer to a nightmare.

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