One thing seems clear. The surprise announcement in June of the expansion of the Oscars’ Best Picture category to ten nominees, a virtual Ten Best list exclusive of foreign films (not just second-class citizens but green-card aliens), could not have been based on the perception or the premonition of an overflowing cornucopia of goodies. As everyone who thought about it suspected, it had to be based on the hope of stringing out the front-runners to such a point of thinness that a couple of mainstream unworthies would sneak onto the ballot and reverse the declining TV ratings. All those who still believed the Academy Awards were about excellence had yet another opportunity to disabuse themselves. This was a big story for a day — the next day Michael Jackson died — but it’s soon to be revived.
By my subjective measure — a moistened index finger held up to the breeze — the year just past was to all intents and purposes no different from innumerable years previous, much farther back than the dreaded Naughts, a period, an era, a veritable Dark Age, when it was impossible for me without relaxing my standards to fill up all the slots of a traditional Ten Best. No mere trend, no temporary slump, a settled way of life. So much so, in fact, that at the close of 2009 I could scarcely feel cheated, especially when the tallest peaks, regardless how small the mountain range, reached so high in the sky.
A Serious Man, to start at the top and work my way down, is the most personal, the most autobiographical work of the foremost American filmmakers of their generation, Joel and Ethan Coen, and an indispensable supplement, with the tangy additive of Judaism, to their previous portrait of their — and my — native state of Minnesota, Fargo. (Its subtitled Old Country prologue is in the same vein of magicianly misdirection as the title of that other. And please note, apropos of nothing, that the infamous gay bar in this one is mischievously named the North Dakota.) No further recommendation — most personal, most autobiographical, foremost — should be required. The mandatory second viewing of it turned up no major new insights, only a deeper appreciation of the Coens’ ability to keep things moving ahead in lively fashion, no dead spots. Their pacing, their weighting, their knowing just how much to put in and how long to spend on it, mark them as masters of the medium. My personal prize for the year’s best performance by a supporting actor would have to be divided between Aaron Wolff, Fred Melamed, Simon Helberg, George Wyner, Alan Mandell, Ari Hoptman, Adam Arkin, Peter Breitmeyer, David Kang, and Stephen Park. The recitation of those names, no more household than the top-billed name of Michael Stuhlbarg, reminds me that my fear the Coens were committing commercial suicide was proven baseless. The brothers, as I said at the time, are the stars of the show, and as it turned out, plenty big.
Fados had a couple of showings in the San Diego Latino Film Festival last spring, a free screening at a shopping-mall food court over the summer, and is currently available on cable via Video-On-Demand as well as on DVD. If I could go along with the perfunctory classification of it as a documentary, I would be bound to put it at the top of the year’s very large heap, but I must instead place it as the unclassifiable best of Carlos Saura’s movie musicals, odd as that placement would have sounded at any time in his first twenty years of musical-free filmmaking, up to Blood Wedding. After which he found a new métier, a new forte. Although his salute to the Portuguese urban folk songs of the title recycled the stylistic devices of his Flamenco, Tango, et al., it is not simply more of the same but the ultimate perfection of it; and the balance of song and dance (and instrumental) is unprecedented. The ten-minute finale in the Platonic ideal of a fado bar, a return to a state of purity after the definition of the art form had been stretched and twisted for an hour and a quarter, affords as grand and thrilling a climax as any musical in history.
Silent Light, descending faster now, likewise had only a couple of showings in the Latino festival. Carlos Reygadas infused the insular setting of a German-speaking Mexican Mennonite community with extreme degrees of frigidity and austerity and difficulty, and in so doing he made the people and places indelible. Jane Campion’s Bright Star and Martin Provost’s Séraphine, to take two in one stride, were almost equal to the foregoing in aliveness to the external world (without quite the rigor) and superior to it in aliveness to the inner worlds of their factual characters, the poet John Keats and his inamorata Fanny Brawne, in the one, and the Modern Primitive painter Séraphine de Senlis in the other. And Avi Nesher’s The Secrets, an exclusive of the Reading Gaslamp, was a well-charted Heroine’s Journey centered on a scholarly young ultra-orthodox Jewish woman — a serious woman — who enters an all-female seminary prior to her arranged marriage to a budding rabbi and who comes out of it, with a different calling, an even more serious woman.
Honorable mentions begin with two Clint Eastwood films from opposite ends of the calendar, Gran Torino in January, a local late arrival from the preceding year, and the under-the-wire Invictus in December. Both of them boast his customary assurance but with less to be assured about, a slacking-off not only in the pace he set for himself in the middle of the decade, Mystic River through Letters from Iwo Jima, but also in his head-to-heads competition with the Coens (in my mind there’s no one else in the chase) as the top-ranking active American filmmaker. We shall have to see what sort of films the Coens are making in their seventies.
Alphabetically close to Invictus come Quentin Tarantino’s campy, fastidious Inglourious Basterds, bearing up well for two and a half hours if not so well in recollection, and Steven Soderbergh’s mainstream but offbeat The Informant!, better by far than his three little indies — Che: Part One, Che: Part Two, The Girlfriend Experience — within these same twelve months.
Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir, a Middle East hot potato, headed the crowded fields of both animation and, strange to say, documentary, though it was challenged in the first by Hayao Miyazaki’s delicate and dreamlike Ponyo and in the second by James D. Stern’s and Adam Del Deo’s backstage Broadway drama, Every Little Step, Nati Baratz’s reincarnation mystery, Unmistaken Child, and Agnes Varda’s fanciful memoir, The Beaches of Agnes.
Eran Riklis’s Lemon Tree, a Middle East olive branch, and Lone Scherfig’s An Education, a coming-of-age period piece, were worthwhile if for nothing else than their leading ladies, Hiam Abbass and Carey Mulligan respectively. The Japanese Departures by Yojiro Takita and the German Cherry Blossoms by the Japanophile Doris Dörrie dealt tastefully and touchingly with the subject of death. And lastly: Majid Majidi’s slightly sentimental and acutely sensitive The Song of Sparrows, Laurent Cantet’s raw and realistic The Class, Olivier Assayas’s ruminative Summer Hours. I could say, after all those, that I really can’t complain. I could fib.
Tom Tykwer’s The International would have come in for a place of honor were the bulk of it anywhere near the level of the year’s standout action scene, the gunfight at the Guggenheim. Once I started to make that kind of concession, however, I should be obliged to find room as well, on different counts, for the likes of Avatar, 2012, Star Trek, Moon, Battle for Terra, Paranormal Activity, Fantastic Mr. Fox, 500 Days of Summer, Julie and Julia, The Girl from Monaco, Lorna’s Silence, Revanche, The Hurt Locker, Whatever Works, Hotel for Dogs, some others. The imminent sound of wooden spoon scraping bottom of barrel would be silenced in futility by one single statistic. Number of first-run films I watched this year: 268. Do the math.