Sunday, January 3, 2010

2009 Year End Lists

Everyone creates Top 10 lists at the end of the year so I'll make a list(s). All lists are in random order.


Top Ten Films Released in 2009 That I Wish I Saw

Two Lovers starring Joaquin Phoenix & Gwyneth Paltrow - This remake of Luchino Visconti's Le Notti Bianche (which was based on a Dostoevsky story), is a love triangle between Phoenix, Paltrow and Vinessa Shaw. Phoenix has announced his retirement from acting (so he can concentrate on being a rapper) so this film is being advertised as Phoenix's last film.

The Hurt Locker directed by Kathryn Bigelow - A tense psychological thriller/war film about a bomb disposal unit in modern-day Iraq. The films shows the exhiliration and abject fear these soldiers have for their jobs.

Bright Star directed by Jane Campion - Poet John Keats' ill-fated romance with Fanny Brawne is lovingly told in this early 19th century love story.

The Damned United starring Michael Sheen, Jim Broadbent & Colm Meaney - Portrait of a flawed genius masquerading as a sport film and set in the 1970's to boot.

Skin starring Sophie Okonedo, Sam Neill & Alice Krige - Set in South Africa during apartheid, the film exmaines the true story of Sandra Laing (Okonedo), a "white" woman who has dark skin and nappy hair. Her independent nautre and appearance allows her to experience both sides of apartheid and gain unique insights.

Precious starring Gabourey Sidibe - Gritty examination of a sexually abused teenager who must perservere in impossible circumstances. Her resilience ultimately gives hope for her future.

The Messenger starring Ben Foster & Woody Harrelson - The story of two soldiers (Foster & Harrelson) who are tasked with informing families that their loved one has died in combat. The film examines the encounters as well as the emotional toll it takes on the two soldiers.

Up in the Air directed by Jason Reitman; starring George Clooney, Vera Farmiga & Anna Kendrick - Highly touted comedy about a corporate man (Clooeny) that jets around the country firing people from their jobs. Increasingly melancholy as the film progrsses, Clooney's character must confront his own loneliness, flirt with a fellow frequent flier (Farmiga) and deal with his protege (Kendrick).

Sin Nombre; Spanish with subtitles - Part romance & part (poor man's) road movie, the film follows two youths in Mexico trying to get to and eventually cross the border, illegally, into Texas for a better life. The film touches on the street gangs in Mexico as well as the dangers faced by illegal immigrants well before they reach the US border.

In the Loop starring Tom Hollander & James Gandolfini - Absurdist comedy about the political and diplomatic machinations leading up to the Iraq War. Multiple British & American characters populate this ensemble piece.

Film That Would Be in Top 10 But I Excluded Because It Was Released on December 30
The White Ribbon; German with subtitles - Grim tale set in pre-WWI Germany. Filmed in black & white, the story revolves around a small town where mysterious events and retribution explode into mistrust & violence.


Ten More Films Released in 2009 That I Wish I Saw But Not As Much as the Previous 10

Watchmen starring Patrick Wilson, Billy Crudup & Jackie Earle Haley - Enjoyed the graphic novel; want to compare against the film.

Sunshine Cleaning starring Amy Adams and Emily Blunt - Comedy about two sister that run a crime-scene cleaning company.

The Girlfriend Experience starring Sasha Grey; directed by Steven Soderbergh - Tale of a high-end prostitute as she deals with her clients, her boyfriend and the demands of her job; set against the backdrop of the Great Recession.

(500) Days of Summer starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt & Zooey Deschanel - Love story told in non-linear fashion from beginning to end with the versatile Gordon-Levitt.

Sugar; English & Spanish with subtitles - Story of a Dominican baseball phenom who tries to adapt to his new surroundings in US and ultimately outside baseball.

Tetro directed by Francis Ford Coppola; starring Vincent Gallo - Black & white film set in Buenos Aires explores familial bonds between two brothers and their domineering father

Big Fan directed by Robert D. Siegel; starring Patton Oswalt - Siegel, screenwriter for The Wrestler, makes his directorial debut in this comedy about a loser obsessed with the New York Giants (you can hear real-life SF Giants counterparts if you tune into KNBR).

Coco Before Chanel starring Audrey Tautou; French with subtitles - Biopic about the amazing life of Coco Chanel before she became an icon.

Paranormal Activity - Indiefest entry with a micro-budget that was released with slight revisions as opposed being remade and "crapified."

Zombieland starring Woody Harrelson - Effective as both zombie movie satire and zombie movie, the film is several notches above the average horror movie.


My Ten Favorite Films Released in the US in 2009 And That I Watched in 2009

Tokyo Sonata directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa; Japanese with subtitles - Interesting comedy that touches on the plight on unemployment in contemporary Japan.

Still Walking directed by Hirokazu Koreeda; Japanese with subtitles - Drama dealing with a family still coping with the eldest son's death years earlier.

The Baader Meinhof Complex; German with subtitles - Stylish retelling of the Red Army Faction operating out of Germany in the 1970's.

Inglourious Basterds starring Brad Pitt; directed by Quentin Tarantino - Tarantino's best work benefits greatly from Christoph Waltz's performance as the Nazi "Jew Hunter."

The Hangover - Raunchy comedy at its best.

Departures directed by Yôjirô Takita; Japanese with subtitles - Heartwarming story about a distasteful job - ritual undertaking. The film deals with both the emotional and societal impacts of this uniquely Japanese custom.

A Serious Man directed by Ethan Coen & Joel Coen - Quirky comedy and exploration of Jewish life in the US during the 1960's.

Tyson; documentary; directed by James Toback - Powerful documentary with only former heavyweight boxing champ Mike Tyson providing commentary.

East Virtue starring Jessica Biel, Kristin Scott Thomas & Colin Firth - A lightweight but highly entertaining film about the role of women and vagaries of the British upper class in the 1920's. Thomas and Firth give nice performances as the inlaws of a free spirited American racecar driver (Biel).


My 15 Favorite Films That I Watched in 2009 in a Theater

Why 15? Because I couldn't make up my mind about the Top 10.

The Baader Meinhof Complex; German with subtitles; (2009) - Beautifully shot period piece about 1970's radicals in Germany. The film captures the idealism, frustration, self-delusion and ultimately ruinous effects of the era. Viewed at Landmark Embarcadero.

Inglourious Basterds starring Brad Pitt; directed by Quentin Tarantino; (2009) - Tarantino's alternate history of WWII with all the flourishes we have come to expect from QT. Strong performances by Chistophe Waltz, Mélanie Laurent and Diane Krüger. The extended opening scene where the Jew Hunter interviews M. LaPadite about the whereabouts of a family of Jews is my favorite of the year. - Viewed at a Century Theater in Las Vegas.

United Red Army directed by Kôji Wakamatsu; Japanese with subtitles; (2008) - Similar to Baader Meinhof as it cover Japanese activists/terrorist in the 1970's but more powerful due the specific circumstances. A group of idealist begin to kill each other when they do not sufficiently live up to their Communist dogma. Viewed at YBCA.

No Greater Love directed by Masaki Kobayashi; Japanese with subtitles; (1959) - Powerful first installment of the Human Condition trilogy. The film chronicles the journey of an idealistic (if not socialist) lablor expert as he is sent to Manchuria during the war to implement his theories at a Chinese labor camp. His theories and ideals are tested by the harsh conditions of his new existence. Viewed at PFA.

The Beast Stalker starring Nicholas Tse; Cantonese with subtitles; (2008) - Outstanding action film due to the psychological complexities of the monstrous killer (Nick Cheung) who commits his crimes to pay for the care of his invalid wife. Viewed at 4-Star.

Ms. 45 directed by Abel Ferrara; (1981) - Cult classic that mixes in a fair amount of dark humor while telling the story of raped woman's descent into psychosis. Viewed at the Castro.

The Horseman directed by Steven Kastrissios; filmed in Australia; (2008) - Ridiculously harsh film about a man tracking down the pornographers that led to his daughter's drug overdose. Its most infamous scene involves pliers and a man's nipple. Viewed at the Roxie.

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles; French with subtitles; (1975) - Single mother turns to prostitution to pay the bills. However, the monotony of her life leads to a shocking ending. Viewed at YBCA.

Deadlier Than the Male starring Jean Gabin; directed by Julien Duvivier; French with subtitles; (1956) - Effective noir about a successful restaurant that gets ensnared by scheme hatched by his drug addicted ex-wife and her daughter. Danièle Delorme stands out as the femme fatale. Viewed at PFA.

And The Spring Comes; Mandarin with subtitles; (2007) - Relentlessly bleak story about a Chinese would-be opera singer and the lies she tells and difficulties she encounters. Viewed at the 4-Star.

Hellsinki (Rööperi); Finnish with subtitles; (2009) - A stylish movie about bootleggers and their rise & fall. Finnish Goodfellas. Best line of the year - "I fell in love with you the first time we fucked." Viewed at CineArts in Mill Valley.

Anatomy of a Murder starring Jimmy Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara and George C. Scott; directed by Otto Preminger; (1959) - Exceedingly entertaining classic about courtroom theatrics. Stewart and Scott square off as opposing lawyers in a murder case. Viewed at PFA.

North by Northwest starring Cary Grant; directed by Alfred Hitchcock; (1959) - Hitchcock's classic thriller featuring Archibald Leach in full Cary Grant mode. Hitchcock masterfully juxtaposes tension and humor. Viewed at the Castro.

S+M Hunter; pinku eiga; Japanese with subtitles; (1986) - Great use of humor, music and Catholic iconography to tell the story of a man (dressed like a Catholic priest) who must rescue a gay man from clutches of an evil gang of lesbians. The climax involves the toughest lesbian dressed in Nazi regalia squaring off against the S+M Hunter. Viewed at the Roxie.

Zero Bridge; directed by Tariq Tapa; Kashmiri/Urdu with English subtitles; (2008) - Powerful story about two youths in Kashmir trying to escape their circumstances. The boy is on the road to become a petty criminal and the girl to a life of servitude in an arranged marriage. Heartbreaking ending. Viewed at the Castro.


My 10 Favorite Festivals or Programs That I Watched in 2009

Josef von Sternberg Retrospective at the PFA - Favorites included Underworld (1927), The Devil is a Woman (1935) and An American Tragedy (1931). I had already seen many of von Sternberg's collaborations with Marlene Dietrich and this retrospective was running at the same time as Indiefest so I skipped many of the films in the program including The Blue Angel, Shanghai Express, The Scarlet Empress and Blonde Venus. The Devil is a Woman is a Dietrich film and was my favorite of the films I saw during the series. Although von Sternberg made silent film that were significant, he showed his true skill once talkies came into being. Or was it because that was around the time he started making films with Dietrich? The Blue Angel, Blonde Venus and The Devil is a Woman all make use of Dietrich as a chanteuse.

The Human Condition Trilogy at the PFA - Shown on a rainy Sunday in February, the three films screened over 11.5 hours (including intermissions and breaks between films). The three films (Japanese with subtitles) were No Greater Love (1959), The Road to Eternity (1959) and A Soldier’s Prayer (1961). All three films were directed by Masaki Kobayashi and starred Tatsuya Nakadai. The film shine an unyielding spotlight on the Japanese atrocities in China, the inhumane conditions the soldiers endured and ultimately an indictment on Communism.

Otto Preminger Retrospective at the PFA - The Preminger series was chock full of entertaining films. At the top of the list was Anatomy of a Murder but Bonjour Tristesse, Carmen Jones and Advise and Consent proved highly entertaining.

Nagisa Oshima Retrospective at the PFA - Although none of Oshima films made my top 15 list, many of them were a notch below. I debated putting any of the film in this series on that list but I saw my two favorite films by this Japanese director (Boy and The Ceremony) in 2008 as part of the Madame Kawakita series. In the Realm of the Senses was his most provocative film in the series depicting sex and a castration in graphic details. Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is later work by Oshima (1983) and stars David Bowie and Tom Conti as well as Japanese actor/comic Beat Takeshi. The film deals with Allied prisoners in a Japanese POW camp. The treatment of the prisoners provides dramas but it becomes heightened when the camp commandant (a vaguely androgynous Ryuichi Sakamoto) displays decidedly homoerotic behavior towards David Bowie (looking much less androgynous than usual for the period). This film also features a memorable title soundtrack (played at times with what sounds to be a xylophone).

2009 Hole in the Head Festival at the Roxie - One of the best Hole in the Heads since I've been attending. Top entries included The Horseman, Black Devil Doll, Pig Hunt, Run! Bitch Run!, Crows: Episode Zero and Samurai Avenger: The Blind Wolf. Among the lowlights are a man's nipple being removed with pliers, a militant black puppet that rapes/murders a houseful of women, a machete to the rectum, a man forced to gouge out his own eyes and not one but two Takashi Miike films.

Julien Duvivier Retrospective at the PFA - An outstanding series from a director was only nominally aware of. My favorites were Deadlier Than the Male, Poil de Carotte was an overwrought but effective drama about a neglected red-headed boy who desperately seeks love from his family. Au bonheur des dames was a silent gloriously filmed in the fabulous Galeries Lafayette Department store.

2009 3rd I San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival at the Roxie & Castro - Zero Bridge was one of my favorite films of the year. The Bollywood spectacular (My Heart Goes Hooray!) featured Rani Mukherjee as a cricket playing phenom who must pretend to be a man (complete with fake beard and turban) to play on the national team. Problems arise when the team captain falls in love with her. Iron Eaters was a moving documentary about exploited workers at a shipbreaking facility on the Bay of Bengal. Although I didn't think so much of it at the time, two months later, Full Moon, a 1960 melodrama directed by Mohammed Sadiq still lingers in my mind. The story involves a man that is in love with a woman. Muslim customs and the face veil lead to confusion as the woman marries the man's best friend. Friendship is put to the ultimate test as the husband knows his best friend is in love with his wife but the man doesn't know his best friend is married to the woman he loves.

2009 Noir City at the Castro - There is always strong line-up at Noir City and this year did not disappoint. Ace in the Hole was a Billy Wilder gem. It starred Kirk Douglas as a slimy news reporter that covering an accident involving a cave-in. Douglas actually hinders efforts to save the trapped man so he milk the story for a gig at a big city newspaper. In Shakedown, shady newsphotographer Howard Duff schemes his way to the top without consideration for such professional ethics such as conspiracy to commit murder and romancing the decedant's widow. Desperate was an early Anthony Mann work. The plot involves a truck driver that gets mixed up with a gangster, Raymond Burr in a particularly nasty role. Scandal Sheet with the always watchable and gravelly voiced Broderick Crawford also sticks in my memory. Crawford plays a newspaper editor that kills his ex-wife. He didn't count on his ace reporter (John Derek) tracking down the leads in the case. Crawford must walk a fine line between protecting his freedom and reaping the benefits of increased newspaper sales which Derek's stories are producing.

2009 San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival at the Castro, PFA & Kabuki - I saw a number of strong films at SFIAAFF - Kanchivaram: A Communist Confession: a Tamil language tearjerker about a man that steal silk to make his daughter a wedding sari; Diamond Head: a 1963 Charlton Heston vehicle set in Hawaii that touched on racism and the Hapa culture in Hawaii; The Chaser: an ultraviolent Korean thriller about an ex-cop turned pimp chasing down the psycho killing his whores; Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi: a big budget Bollywood musical featuring Shah Rukh Khan as a man trying to win his wife's love by disguising himself as another man; a Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Tokyo Sonata) retrospective and my favorite, All Around Us: an examination of a decade in a Japanese married couple's life set against the husband's courtroom sketches of some of the most notorious cases & the wife's incresingly unstable emotional state.

2009 San Francisco Silent Film Festival at the Castro - The festival didn't hit the high notes like it did in 2008 but there were several strong entries. The Gaucho starring Douglas Fairbanks showed everyone the prototypical movie star at the height of his fame. Lilian Gish starred in The Wind which looked like grueling shoot since it was shot on location in the Mojave desert and sand was blowing constantly. Lady of the Pavements was a Lupe Velez feature that was a variation on Pygmalion that gave an opportunity for Velez to sing, showcase her comedic talents and pull our heartstrings.


I guess I should list the bottom 10 as well. It was difficult to find 10 that I disliked enough to call them out. The retrospectives at the PFA are programmed so presumably someone thinks the films are worthwhile although some PFA films made their way onto the list. Festival programmers have a myriad of reasons to include film in their program. Increasingly, I'm convinced that factors other than the quality of the film play a part. I guess I was naive to think otherwise.

10 Films I Saw in 2009 and Hope They are Never Screened Again

Skidoo (1968)- Otto Preminger's LSD fueled farce/musical. I fell asleep twice but wish I had slept all the way through. Viewed at the PFA.

The Great Waltz (1938) - Julien Duvivier's first American film was a biopic of composer Johann Strauss. To his defense, Victor Fleming and Josef von Sternberg directed portons of the film but were uncredited. The film is schmaltzy until the finale where Strauss composes The Blue Danube to the beat of a horse's step and an irksome driver. The finale drove the film from predictable and trite to irritating and wince inducing. Viewed at the PFA.

Blood River (2009) - The worst film at this year's Hole in the Head. Poorly acted film about a married couple whose car breaks down in the desert. A menacing stranger in a duster and some surreal moments round out this pretentious film. Viewed at the Roxie.

Dark and Stormy Night (2009) - Screwball comedy and homage to 1930's "Big House" films. You know - Agatha Christie type films where people are locked in a house and die one by one. A bunch of other genre staples are included - fast-talking newspaperman, plucky newspaperwoman, cowardly cabdriver, etc. In fact, the film seems like they threw everything against the wall and most of it stuck. Viewed at Charles B. Smith Center in San Rafael as part of the Mill Valley Film Festival.

The Founding of a Republic (2009) - Big budget Chinese film about Chairman Mao, Chiang Kai-shek and the Chinese Civil War. The film was superficial by not exploring what drove these two men. It seemed like the filmmakers wanted to get as many Chinese stars in cameo roles as possible. Favorite scene - two US Marine Corps guards comment on how "hot" Madame Chiang is. Viewed at the 4-Star as part of the Chinese American Film Festival.

Visions of Eight (1973) - Big budget documentary about the 1972 Munich Olympics directed by 8 well respected directors. The directors were given free reign and the result were several segments that tried to hard to capture the moment or attain artistic achievement. At lest half the segments should have been edited out. Viewed at the PFA as part of their Beyond ESPN: An Offbeat Look at the Sports Film series.

Violated Angels (1967) - Pinku eiga (soft core porn) film directed by Kôji Wakamatsu. Nominally the story about a serial killer terrorizing a nursing dormitory. The film veers off with scenes of lesbian sex and I believe most of what is depicted are the pyschotic visions of the killer. Even the sight of nude Japanese women wasn't enough to keep my interest. It was an attempted art house film masquerading as soft core porn. Viewed at the PFA as part of their Kôji Wakamatsu/Pinku Eiga series.

Battle League Horumô (2009) - Quirky but ultimately unsatisfying Japanese film featuring Gogo Ibari from Kill Bill Volume 1. These four colleges in Kyoto have an intra-collegiate league where they compete by leading these horumô. A horumô is a prune faced sprite that are invisible to everyone except the students. To command the horumô, the students have to make these awkward gestures. To nurse the horumô, the students have to feed them raisins. It was all boring and not very funny. It felt like the screenwriter(s) said "Wouldn't it be cute...?" It wasn't very cute although I guess film is based on a manga. Viewed at Viz Cinema or New People.

Possession (1981) - Another WTF film (in the bad sense). Sam Neill & Isabelle Adjani play a married couple. Set in Berlin, the film has that cold, stark feel emanating from the architecture but the film quickly establishes its art house bona fides with weird dialog and weird characters. It veers off the track when it shows some weird plasmatic entity that spits out a duplicate Sam Neill. Completely inaccessible film that made me wish I had walked out. Viewed at the Castro as part of their Women on the Verge series.

What’s the Matter with Kansas? (2009) - A boring, scattershot documentary that is nominally based on a book about how midwesterners vote against their self-interest due to skillful and pervasive political propaganda. Instead, the film followed a bunch of people who I didn't care about & living strange lives I can't imagine. One family donated something like $250,000 or so to their church or maybe they loaned it to a church but the money went missing. Who the hell does that? To cap it off, the church was going to build an amusement park or the church was going to be on the grounds of an amusement park. Viewed at the Roxie as part of DocFest.

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