MCN Columnists
Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

The Top Ten of 2009

As I look back on the cinematic year and the one hundred and fifty new releases that I saw, I feel absolutely certain that this is one of the worst years for films in recent history. No doubt 2009 is the worst year of the past decade with only a handful of great films, one transcendent one and a whole lot of mediocre movies. One of the most interesting stories to me has been big-time critics and other web-based columnists who I respect have wet themselves over films that I have found to be ordinary or conventional. Films like An Education or Up in the Air are definitely good films that do their job well, with excellent lead performances, but there is nothing about either film that I felt was particularly innovative or original. Everywhere I look, there seems to be a critic espousing the greatness of both films and I think they’re seeing zebras when it’s just horses. There is a lot to admire about both films, but I also thought they were so light as to be forgettable, with themes that have been done before and done better.

So that’s why you won’t see either of those films in my top ten. Despite the slim pickings, there are indeed ten films that I think are worthy of spots on this list. The films on my list are ones that I felt pushed the cinematic envelope in different ways: visually, aurally, comedically, or otherwise. Each of the films set out a specific goal for themselves and each one either meets or exceeds those goals. I’m sure there will be lots for you to disagree with, but as always, that type of disagreement is why I make these lists. I want to hear from you about why you agree or disagree or which films you would choose on your top ten list. The best part about this job, for me, is that I get to share e-mails with people who have a love of film so passionate that they pick apart my words. And I thank you all for keeping me on my toes for another year.

Without further ado…

10. Fantastic Mr. Fox (Dir. Wes Anderson)

I used to put animated films in a box. I felt like they were easier to control and manipulate and I always preferred the “reality” of live-action films, believing them to be more authentic than their animated counterparts. Even when I had seen a few animated films that changed my mind about the potential of animation, it wasn’t until last year’sWall-E that I felt I had seen an animated movie that truly hit me harder than most live-action films. I realized – with tears streaming down my face as I walked out of the theater – that I could no longer view animated features as something less than a live-action film.

This epiphany was compounded by the fact that one of my favorite filmmakers, Wes Anderson, had announced that his next film would be a claymation adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. Anderson insisted that this wasn’t some kind of “side project” and that this was indeed his next film as a director. Considering his last film, The Darjeeling Limited, was my favorite film of 2007 and my favorite of his films, I was both confused by this jump into animation and excited to see what would happen when one of film’s most evocative stylists took to clay.

The result is almost exactly what I would have expected – and I mean that in the best possible way. It’s basically a Wes Anderson movie, replete with all the usual themes about alienation, family and jealousy…except with talking clay foxes instead of people. While the storyline isn’t anything particularly exciting – the Fox family loses their home because the patriarch stole chickens from a farm and then they plot revenge – the interactions between the family members, the ways in which they speak to one another, it’s all Wes and it’s funny and poignant and moving.

I really enjoyed the character of Ash (voiced by Jason Schwartzman), offspring of Mr. and Mrs. Fox (voiced respectively by George Clooney and Meryl Streep). Ash is a strange kid who has a lack of social skills and has trouble fitting in. When his athletically talented cousin Kristofferson (voiced by Eric Chase Anderson) comes to stay with the family and Ash’s father dotes on him, the pain of being left out really stings Ash and we feel that pain. Despite the fact that we’re talking about clay foxes, this aspect of the film felt more remarkably human than most flesh and blood relationships we see on screen. The pain in Ash’s voice when the girl he likes shows more interest in his cousin is heartbreaking and it doesn’t feel out of place in a film that is otherwise an enjoyable romp.

The voice performances of Clooney and Streep really give the film a sense of fun and joy and proves that Clooney is one of the most charismatic presences in film, even when he’s in the guise of an animated fox. This was the best animated film I saw this year, but I can safely say that it wouldn’t have been any better had it been live-action.

9. Two Lovers (Dir. James Gray)

Read most of my thoughts on the film here.

I’ve written a lot about Two Lovers throughout the year and I still feel just as strongly about the film. James Gray has crafted a film that is dependent less on the machinations of plot, but rather something that is based on the motivations and desires of the characters. We know, more or less, what will happen to Leonard at the end of the film, but what we don’t know is how he feels about it. We have to infer how he might feel about his two very different potential mates and Gray and Joaquin Phoenix have designed Leonard as a character that is so complicated and wounded that it becomes like watching a horror film; we know what Leonard should do, but he is so self-destructive that his path to a happy ending is more clear to us than it is to him. And by the time the “happy” ending comes, we wonder if indeed Leonard will be happy or if he’s just settled for the next best thing.

8. In the Loop (Dir. Armando Iannucci)

Read my column about the ten reasons you must see In the Loop here.

In the Loop is the smartest comedy about the dumb things intelligent people are capable of that I’ve ever seen. It also happens to be laugh-out-loud funny. This isn’t one of those “smart” comedies that is really just smarmy and smug and only pretentious people find funny; this is a comedy that approaches The Big Lebowski in terms of filthy laughs and rewatchability. Each character is perfectly calibrated to the point where we understand and truly know them, so that when they act in certain ways or say certain things, it’s never for the benefit of the film or plot, but feels like a natural extension based on the way the characters have been built.

I will not stop saying that Peter Capaldi should be nominated for Best Supporting Actor this year because he turns curse-filled monologues into dirty symphonies. The scene between him and James Gandolfini when they make blunt yet veiled threats at one another is one of my absolute favorite scenes of the year. Of all the films on this list, this might be the one I watch the most times when all is said and done.

7. The Private Lives of Pippa Lee (Dir. Rebecca Miller)

Read my column about Rebecca Miller’s brilliant film here.

I don’t have much to add that I haven’t said in my original column or that I haven’t repeated several times in this space. Rebecca Miller is one of the best and most underrated filmmakers we have and her streak of excellence continues with this misunderstood picture about the entirety of a certain woman’s journey into adulthood and complacency. Robin Wright is probably the only actress talented enough to make this character come to life with such vitality. This movie encapsulates the ways in which women can be held down by invisible chains and how sometimes you can wake up and say to yourself, as David Byrne once famous shrieked, “well, how did I get here?”

6. A Serious Man (Dir. The Coen Brothers)

I came to this one a little bit late and finally got around to seeing the film a few days ago. I can honestly say that it wasn’t at all what I was expecting. And to be completely truthful, I wasn’t the biggest fan for the majority of the running time. The abrupt ending, though, completely changed my point of view. In the span of thirty seconds, I went from wondering what the point of the film was to thinking that I had seen a near-masterpiece that understands life, love and religion better than almost any other film this year. I was completely, utterly blown away by the ending. It’s not a twist ending, but it changes the complexion of everything that came before.

Larry Gopnik is Job. That much is made pretty clear by the fact that everything that happens in the film effects Larry negatively and rather than scream and shout about his misfortune, he seems to just kind of go along with it. Larry has the kind of life that nobody hopes for; it is without any passion or excitement. And yet, his life somehow gets worse when things start to be taken away from him, making him appreciate his terrible life. That is the real tragedy of Larry’s life: that despite his wife and house being taken from him (and potentially his tenure as a professor), he doesn’t view it as an opportunity to rebuild or start over. Instead, he wishes he could have everything back. He’s too myopic to see that the life he has built for himself is sad and that his wife doesn’t want him anymore. Instead of looking within himself, he tries to seek answers in Judaism. The Coen Brothers make their feelings on religion known, though, by having each of Larry’s religious consultations explain less and less.

And then the ending. Everything is up in the air, a tornado is coming and nothing is explained. It is either the most interesting defense of how God doesn’t interfere with life or how he doesn’t exist at all. I believe it is the latter. And I believe that if I had more time to think about this brilliant movie, I might place it even higher on this list.

5. The White Ribbon (Dir. Michael Haneke)

This is another film that I finally just caught recently and if I had more time to digest it, it’s quite possible that it would move to the very top of this list. Like with most of Haneke’s work, it is dense and rich and full of ideas that are not always immediately apparent. But unlike most of Haneke’s previous work, this is not a film that punishes its audience; it is definitely his most accessible film, maybe ever. It is a portrait of a small town in Germany shortly before World War I. There are elements here that reminded me of Jean de Florette and Amarcord, but with a nastier streak that is befitting Haneke.

Strange and violent things are happening in this village. There is work and everyone seems to live with respect to religion, manifested by the pastor of the church, but the children are acting out, despite the fact that many of them are beaten or emotionally abused by their parents. The pastor, specifically, has a very cruel streak with his own children, scolding them in awful ways for the tiniest of trespasses.

I was mesmerized by the film, the way in which it portrays the cruelty of both children and adults, but it wasn’t until halfway through that I realized what Haneke was doing – and so so effectively. This is a film about the children that would grow up to become Nazis. This is a generation of German kids that were beaten down by religious authorities to the point where they not only became abusers themselves, but ones without religion. There’s also something in there about Germany’s natural propensity towards fascism and order. This is contrasted with a sweet blossoming of young love between a school teacher and a shy housekeeper, which grounds the film in something to root for, something hopeful.

Technically, this film is also a marvel. It’s got the second best black and white cinematography of the year by Christian Berger and every frame is beautiful and each background has life in it. The acting doesn’t have any one particular standout because this is a true ensemble and every part has to work perfectly for the film to be effective and it succeeds there.

I don’t think I’ve fully grasped all of the meanings and messages that Haneke has put into the film, but like with most of his work, I’m excited to go back and see what I missed the first time around.

4. Tetro (Dir. Francis Ford Coppola)

The best cinematography of the year, hands down. In fact, this might be my favorite black and white cinematography ever with the high contrasts making me feel the colors of everything rather than actually seeing them. Mihai Malaimare Jr. is a name to remember – and it’s one that will be hard for me to forget – as his work here helps makes the film as beautiful as it is.

But what really makes this such a beautiful work of art is the script and director of Francis Ford Coppola, who proves yet again that he is a master of the form. I’ve written about this film enough times in this space, but I still can’t express exactly why I love this film. It’s about brothers, it’s about art and how difficult it can be to make that art, how it takes all of your heart and soul to make something truly transcendent and how it takes that same kind of effort and honesty to make a family work. The sins of the father having an effect on the son, the soul of the father forever etched into the soul of the son; there are a lot of very deep and philosophical wounds being exposed here. It feels like a very personal film from a young filmmaker.

In my world, Vincent Gallo and Alden Ehrenreich would get acting nominations for their brilliant work. Gallo’s intensity isn’t always suited to every role, but here it is perfect and beautiful. And Ehrenreich has the potential to be one of our best young actors; in fact, I think he is already, based on this one performance. This is one of the finest performances by a young adult since River Phoenix in My Own Private Idaho.

I cannot wait to own this movie on Blu-Ray, to get swept up in the beauty and artistry all over again.

3. Mammoth (Dir. Lukas Moodysson)

I think I’ve written more about Mammoth this year than any other film. You can find columnshere and here.

Lukas Moodysson is one of the world’s greatest filmmakers and here he’s just doing what he always does: making a masterpiece. While I’m not sure yet if I would put it on the same level as Fucking Amal or Lilya 4-ever, this is still a must-see motion picture that says more about the world we live in than any other film I’ve seen this year. Wonderful acting, brilliant direction, a wonderful script about globalization; this is the type of film the Academy should be tripping over itself to hand awards to, but for some reason is completely devoid of hype. See it and judge for yourself.

2. The Hurt Locker (Dir. Kathryn Bigelow)

The most suspenseful film I’ve seen since The Wages of Fear. I was on the edge of my seat for the entire running time. Jeremy Renner gives the performance of the year. Read my column about the best Iraq war movie here.

1. Inglourious Basterds (Dir. Quentin Tarantino)

Read my column about my number one film here.

I had written Tarantino off. I thought he had become a filmmaker that was more interested in imagining ways of remaking bad 70s grindhouse movies than making anything original or important. I walked into Inglourious Basterds wanting to detest it. But I couldn’t. This is pure filmmaking and the most fun I’ve had in a movie theater in years. This is a film that is not built around set-pieces; rather, every single scene is a set-piece. Each scene is great by itself and put all together, it makes the film one of the most exciting, funny, suspenseful and odd experience you could have in the theater. This is the Tarantino that I wanted him to be, willing to break the rules and take chances while having the type of fun he likes to have.

I wrote about why I loved the movie so much in the column that is hyperlinked above, but I really didn’t expect that by the end of the year, it would still be at the top of this list. It’s a testament to how great the movie is or how bad this year was. I’m undecided. Either way, this is a film that deserves to be mentioned with the best of the decade and will get heavy consideration when I make that list in the coming weeks.
Noah Forrest
December 28, 2009

Noah Forrest is a 26-year-old aspiring writer/filmmaker in New York City.

The opinions expressed in these columns are the writers and do not neccessarily reflect the opinions of Movie City News or any of its editors or other contributors.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon