"I will be dying and so will you, and so will everyone here.
That's what I want to explore. We're all hurtling towards death,
yet here we are for the moment, alive. Each of us knowing
we're going to die, each of us secretly believing we won't."
Caden Cotard – Synecdoche, New York
Please excuse the following brief bit of self-indulgence. Rest assured, it does have some relevance to the article as a whole.
For me, 2009 was not the easiest of years. My passion for film and the considerable time I devote to this site has had a few bumps in the past due to family illness, but this year it took a serious blow when I lost someone very dear to me after a short but devastating illness. As the year came to an end and the non-religious gathered in family groups to mark something they don't believe in under the reassuring blanket of social conformity, the appalling permanence of her absence was, and still is, all the more painfully felt.
It's at times like these that I become acutely aware of the inherent impossibility of recreating the true nature of the human experience on film or, indeed, in any art form. What film can do at its best is capture the essence of an experience, an aspect of its emotional truth that will serve as a point of recognition for those who have lived through similar and provide a small flavour for those who have not. It's something mainstream Hollywood appears to have long lost the ability to do, preferring the familiarity of cliché to the awkwardness and pain of truth and increasingly unable to communicate on an emotional level to anyone whose descriptive vocabulary extends beyond "awesome" and "sucks."
This personal disruption to what is still an all-consuming pastime saw me miss a number of planned cinema visits and let a several key DVD and Blu-ray releases slip through the review net. Given the consistently high quality of their releases, failure to cover even a single Masters of Cinema title is always galling, but this year there were two that fell by the wayside. I can't even remember just why I missed Antonioni's Il Grido [The Cry], so I'll take this opportunity to sing the praises both of the film itself, a compelling early work from one of European cinema's most celebrated auteurs, and the DVD transfer, which is consistently impressive. The other was Maurice Pialat's highly regarded La Gueule ouverte [The Mouth Agape], a film I have simply been unable to watch due to its subject matter (the last days of a dying relative) and the disquieting knack this director has for capturing the above-mentioned essence of an experience.
Several excellent BFI discs were casualties of this review gap, including three Blu-ray releases of films by Jane Arden and Jack Bond (Separation, The Other Side of Underneath and the seductively titled Anti-Clock), and a marvellous Blu-ray of Bill Douglas' excellent Comrades, a review that even this long after its release I'm still intending to complete and post. I was also halfway through coverage of Second Sight's single film release of six Takeshi Kitano films when I was forced to put review work on hold, something I am determined to complete in the not too distant future. The final key casualty was Artificial Eye, one of our favourite distributors whose 10-disc Michael Haneke box set was all lined up for coverage but whose release couldn't have come at a worse time. Subsequent review discs from Second Sight or Artificial Eye have, unsurprisingly, not appeared on our doorstep.
It's our first full year of covering Blu-ray discs and it's been an uneven settling-in period, during which I've learned a lot and have even rethought the technical aspects of a couple of my earlier Blu-ray reviews. I'll go into more detail on this in a separate article I'll be posting in the next few days, to which I'll add a link from here once it's uploaded.
But the year also had its share of very real positives, not least the arrival to two new site reviewers in the shape of Adam Wilson and L.K. Weston, two excellent writers who have expanded our coverage and together with old hand Camus really helped keep the site afloat when things were tough for its editor. A huge thank you to all three.
And so to the films and discs I did see, and despite the groan that follows there were still more than enough to make up a succulent pair of top tens. So let's start with...
Just what is it about modern American mainstream cinema that leaves me so cold? It wasn't always the case. Once upon a time there were studio productions aplenty able to at least get me into the cinema, but this year there was next to nothing. Even I've been surprised at the degree of indifference and even antipathy I've felt towards mainstream releases over the past twelve months, culminating in my utter disinterest in sitting through James Cameron's three-dimensional big-eyed creature opus Avatar. Intriguingly, friends of mine who would previously have seen at least some of these very films have this year not only given them a wide berth, but have even been unaware of the existence of some of them. Though I'd love to believe this somehow signified a wider shift in taste and that audiences might actually start seeking out films beyond the ones they're programmed to see by studio advertising budgets, I suspect it's more a symptom of increased family duties of these specific individuals requiring them to better ration their viewing time and be more picky about how it is spent.
A couple of outsiders did rise above the general dirge. District 9 may have had some logic issues and ultimately dissolved into standard action fare, but it was at least built around a solid socio-political premise and was well made in the now familiar faux-documentary style. Costing considerably less was Paranormal Activity, an inventive micro-budget horror movie that caught the public imagination and for a week was the biggest grossing film in America. That I was left undisturbed by its home movie spooks I put down more to my own deeply ingrained disbelief and over-familiarity with the genre than any serious fault with the film itself.
I was, I have to say, a lot less happy with Zombieland, whose box-office success headlined an inexplicable but still active resurgence in the zombie sub-genre. Although it kicked off in the manner of a witty independent work, the gags soon ran dry and completely stalled in a painfully unfunny visit to Bill Murray's house, then completely fell apart at the climax, as two supposedly intelligent women turn a funfair into the a huge beacon for the creatures they are supposedly trying to avoid, then render themselves helpless so that the men can come to their rescue and the teen audience can whoop at the screen as the expected ramshackle nuclear family is formed.
As usual, some of the films that should be prime contenders for inclusion I've yet to see, the result of our film society having to book titles months in advance and the difficulty of getting film prints for single day screenings until they've finished their week-long runs. Thus it will be early 2010 before I catch Broken Embraces, Sin Nombre, Bright Star, Tulpan, Johnny Mad Dog, The White Ribbon, Mesrine and A Serious Man. Doubtless many will be contenders for next year's list. It's this built-in delay that has resulted in films that were actually released last year appearing on this year's list – they're here because I saw them for the first time in the past twelve months. And so, in no particular order...
Turner Prize winner Steve McQueen's astonishing debut feature recreates the last six weeks of the life of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands in an arresting example of creative minimalist storytelling at its most cinematically poetic. Dialogue plays only a supporting role in the first and last acts, which are electrifyingly interrupted for a single, sixteen-minute 2-shot in which Sands discusses the morality of his stance with no-nonsense Father Moran, a brilliantly written and performed dialogue that really showcases the talents of actors Michael Fassbender and Liam Cunningham.
Import / Export
I have no doubt that Hollywood mainstream junkies would rather set fire to their faces than sit through this dark, troubling but compellingly told story of exploitation and the darker side of cultural exchange, a bold second dramatic feature from former documentary filmmaker Ulrich Seidl and John Waters' choice for film of the year (you can view his top ten in the sidebar). It's certainly not a comfortable experience and there are sequences that may well send the over-sensitive running from the cinema, but is also one of the most haunting and involving films I've seen in some time and is crammed with images that really do stick in your head. (Blu-ray review)
One of last year's most acclaimed films really did live up to the strong advance word, this brilliantly handled crime drama paints a damning portrait of the true-life crime syndicate known as the Camorra and the devastating effect it has on the ordinary citizens of Naples. Told through five equally gripping, interweaving stories, the outcomes may be predictable but they still pack a collective wallop.
Waltz With Bashir
Anyone who still thinks that animation is for kids should be sat down in front of Ari Folman's haunting exploration of his own participation in the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Visually a lot closer to A Scanner Darkly than Pixar and the like, the film follows Folman himself as he interviews fellow army veterans in a an attempt to restore his own shattered memories, their recollections recreated in disturbing, sometimes devastating manner, the animation allowing Folman to take his audience to places that live action would shy away from.
Having created two of the most complex and deeply unsettling Japanese horror films of past 25 years in Cure and Pulse (Kairo), Kurosawa Kiyoshi bounced back from a subsequent lull with this unexpected but acutely observed study of the self-destruction of a modern Japanese family following the father's redundancy, a once unthinkable prospect for the Japanese salaryman. A sudden switch of tone weakens the final third, but this does no serious damage to one of the best family dramas to hit UK cinema screens in some time. (Film review)
Synecdoche, New York
Charlie Kaufman's complex, multi-layered story of a theatre director whose work literally becomes his world is like nothing you'll see this or any other year, boasting a string of excellent performances (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton and Tom Noonan deserve special mention) and reminding us that in the right hands American cinema can still be as bold and challenging as any in the world. Reputedly made for just $21,000,000 but looking like it cost at least three times that, it's struggled to make its money back despite excellent reviews and word of mouth – the general public, bless 'em, still prefer to hand their dosh to the likes of Roland Emmerich and James Cameron.
Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country / Burma VJ: Reporter i et lukket land
The documentary feature may not be the box-office draw it was a couple of years back, but there are still some compelling examples of the genre getting a UK cinema release, which this year included Franny Armstrong's emotive The Age of Stupid, Havana Marking's eye-opening Afghan Star and Carl Deal and Tea Lessin's remarkable Trouble the Water, but winning by a neck is Anders Østergaard's compelling portrait of the undercover Burmese video journalists who lay their lives on the line to report news that their government is still attempting to repress. Now this is what it means to be dedicated to a cause.
Let the Right One In / Låt den rätte komma in
The zombie movie is not the only horror sub-genre seeing a revival of late, but as with its living dead cousin, the news has not all been good, particularly in the targeting of the teen audience with the tiresome Twilight and the post-Buffy pretty-people vampires of True Blood. But where the zombie revival is still struggling to produce anything of real class or originality (it could sill happen), the vampire movie, which I had previously written off as being past its prime, gave us Tomas Alfredson's astonishing Let the Right One In, a genre film whose handling, location and child's eye viewpoint make it feel completely original even when it's sticking slavishly to tradition. Even the sequences you just know are coming do not play out in expected fashion, and Kåre Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson get my vote for the two most captivating child performances of the year.
In the Loop
Another one from John Waters' list and the funniest film I saw with an audience all year, as well as the one with the cruellest humour. In effect a feature length take on director Armando Iannucci's deliciously spiteful TV series The Thick of It, it introduced Peter Capaldi's furious PR monster Malcolm Tucker to the international stage – as good an ambassador for British culture as I can imagine at the moment – and once again allowed the superb Tom Hollander to quietly demonstrate why he is one of this country's most under-appreciated performers.
A film that took me some time to track down, despite the efforts on the part of the distributor to make it easy for me – I was invited to three separate preview screenings that I was unable to attend due to family ill health, and by the time the review DVD arrived we had it scheduled for a cinema screening, and I chose to hang on for that. It was worth the wait. To capture the essence of a time and place in a single character is no mean feat, but that's just what director Pablo Larrain and leading man Alfredo Castro accomplished in this riveting and grittily realistic portrait of Raúl Peralta, whose pathological obsession with the central character in Saturday Night Fever turns him into a serial killer. And in these days where the sharpness of the picture has become for some the key benchmark of quality, it's oddly refreshing to watch a film where the image is dark, grainy and sometimes even out of focus and realise that it doesn't negatively impact the drama one jot. (DVD review)
Other contenders that didn't quite make the list include the above mentioned Trouble the Water and Afghan Star, Hana Makhmalbaf's disarming Taliban critique Buddha Collapsed Out of Shame (Buda as sharm foru rikht), Reha Erdem's hypnotic Times & Winds (Bes vakit), Baltasar Kormákur's Icelandic murder mystery Jar City (Mýrin), Terence Davies witty personal portrait of Liverpool Of Time and the City, Uli Edel's pacey The Baader Meinhof Complex, Gideon Koppel's splendidly titled ode to a disappearing way of life, Sleep Furiously, Paolo Sorrentino's energy-fuelled portrait of Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti Il Divo, Duncan Jones' extended Twilight Zone episode Moon, and Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky's seductively unhurried, visually gorgeous but distractingly dubbed The Man From London (A Londoni férfi).
OK, I need to establish up front that this was a fair fight in which that every DVD and Blu-ray I watched this year was a contender and that I went out of my way to avoid label favouritism. Here it's all about how much I enjoyed the disc – a great film with a mediocre transfer and no extras has no place here, neither has a horrible film that's been given a pristine transfer and bundled with a bucket of features, which is why you'll see no sign of the likes of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. I'm also keen to applaud any effort to bring lesser known gems from the past to DVD no matter what condition the prints may be in, particular favourites this year being Network's DVD releases of The Sadist and Who Killed Teddy Bear? – any picture defects should be ignored to get to the films themselves, both of which are remarkable. There was also a temptation to include Eureka's upcoming DVD release of Obayashi Nobuhiko's insane Hausu, but given that this isn't released until later this month it technically doesn't qualify for inclusion. As I said above, I really did try to be fair about this, and if it seems that two or three labels dominate the list then that's as much a reflection of the quality of their releases as it is ov my movie tastes. That there are no Criterion discs on this year's list is down to me not having had the opportunity to view a single one and being unable to play region-A Blu-ray discs (honestly, their failure to respond to email inquiries had nothing to do with it – we still love them here), while I've yet to catch up this year's apparently excellent Second Run releases for the simple reason that all have been passed straight on to fellow reviewer L.K. Weston for coverage. I've bagged next two, though. As ever, this was tough to narrow down to just ten, but here we go, in no specific order...
Comrades (BFI – Blu-ray)
I specifically asked for the review disc for Bill Douglas's almost epic retelling of Tolpuddle Martyrs story, was gobsmacked by the transfer and was well into a detailed review when things went bad on the home front, and for reasons I'm still unable to justify I never picked up where I left off. The arrival of the BFI's DVD of The Miners' Campaign Tapes and some particularly annoying anti-union stories in the tabloid press have re-awakened my determination to finish the review, and I still hope to post in some time in January. For now I'll just state that this is a terrific film that's been beautifully transferred (comparing the image quality with that of the Film 4 TV screening was particularly eye-opening) and has a second disc containing a fine collection of extra features, and is typical of the love and care with which so many BFI discs are produced.
Wise Blood (Second Sight – DVD)
One of my favourite films from the 1980s was released by Second Sight on a disc whose transfer was sourced directly from Criterion's impressive high-def original, and somehow made it to the shops before Criterion's own disc, and with a very decent collection of extras. My personal recollections resulted in an email from Tennessee correcting my ignorance on the subject of shiffer-robes and kicked off a brief but enjoyable correspondence about actors and accents (sorry I let that drop Phil). (DVD review)
Bad Boy Bubby (Eureka! – Blu-ray / DVD / Digital copy)
With so much of Eureka's output jostling for inclusion on the list, I've gone for one not-so-obvious title because it's so nice to see little seen cult cinema getting a quality Blu-ray release. In what I'm guessing was a water-testing experiment, the package contained the film in three versions, a Blu-ray, a DVD and a digital copy for watching on your computer or mobile device. All coped well with the film's darker imagery and sometimes restricted colour palette, while a range of quality soundtracks were also provided, including a binaural headphone track to put you inside Bubby's head. The excellent commentary track by director Rolf de Heer and actor Nicholas Hope was the icing on the cake.
The Complete Lone Wolf & Cub Boxset (Eureka! – DVD)
It's been a long time since I last saw Shogun Assassin, and to watch all five of the original films and the American recut in a row was an eye-opening experience and a splendid demonstration of how quality drama, exploitation and high art can comfortably co-exist. The Lone Wolf & Cub films are terrific samurai dramas whose violence is extreme but whose contemplative moments are every bit as gripping as the deliciously choreographed swordplay. In my review I suggested it might just qualify as DVD box set of the year, but I was forgetting about... (DVD review)
The Complete Fritz Lang Mabuse Box Set (Masters of Cinema – DVD)
Another terrific box set from Eureka, this time under their Masters of Cinema banner, which brings together three key crime movies, all with sparkling new transfers and all with information-crammed commentaries from film historian and author David Kalat. This means you've not only got eight hours of compelling crime drama (the first two are just marvellous and the third no slouch), but a further eight hours of commentary, three quality booklets and a spattering of other worthwhile extras. An absolute must-have. (DVD review)
The Prisoner: The Complete Series (Network – Blu-ray)
If ever there was a release designed to persuade you to move up to Blu-ray then this is it. All seventeen episodes of possibly the greatest TV series ever made (personal call, I know) stunningly remastered from the original 35mm negatives, complete with new 5.1 sound mixes, commentaries, documentaries, interview, galleries, you name it – this really is the definitive digital release of the series and a new benchmark for how to package and present a well loved TV work on Blu-ray.
Herostratus (BFI Flipside – Blu-ray / DVD)
The BFI's new Flipside strand has been something of a joy, reviving little seen British films of the 60s and 70s, restoring them to sometimes jaw-dropping quality and packaging them with some splendid but equally rare short films and interviews. I've three more sitting on my shelf awaiting my attention as I write, but pick of the bunch this year has to be Don Levy's mind-bendingly experimental Herostratus, a unique and challenging one-off whose soundtrack is as adventurous as its imagery. The inclusion of an interview with Levy and a number of his short films provides the final polish, whichever format you plump for. (Blu-ray review)
Soul Power (Masters of Cinema – Blu-ray / DVD)
One of the great music events of the 70s became the concert film of 2009, assembled by director Jeffrey Levy-Hinte from over a hundred and twenty-five hours of footage shot of the Zaire '74 Music Festival, which featured some of the leading lights of American Soul and African music of the time. A virtual textbook demonstration of how capture the atmosphere and energy of a concert on film, it's been gorgeously transferred to DVD and Blu-ray, demonstrating just how good 16mm can look, and has a mother of a DTS soundtrack. (Blu-ray/DVD review)
Sunrise (Masters of Cinema – Blu-ray / DVD)
It might seem like this list has taken sponsorship from Eureka, but it really wouldn't be complete without this re-issue of Murnau's American masterpiece, the first silent film to be released on Blu-ray in the UK. While the commonly seen version looks good, it was the recently discovered Czech cut – one edited from alternative takes and angles and with subtle changes to the editing rhythm – that really justifies the move up to high-def. The inclusion of all of the extra features from the previous release makes it a must-buy for anyone who doesn't already own it – and own it you should.
King Boxer and 36th Chamber of Shaolin (Momentum/Dragon Dynasty – DVD)
Bit of a cheat here, but the two films were released simultaneously and are in some respects genre blood brothers, two martial arts classics restored for DVD release by America's Dragon Dynasty label and released over here in partnership with Momentum. My genre fan's fondness for the films aside, their inclusion here is primarily due the stunning quality of the restorations and transfers – I genuinely couldn't believe how good they both looked or, at times, that I was watching an upscaled DVD. After a gap in which we can presume distributors fought each other with sticks for UK distribution rights, future Dragon Dynasty titles will be released here by Showbox.
(King Boxer DVD review / 36th Chamber of Shaolin DVD review)
Other releases of note included Red Riding Trilogy, Terminator 2 Skynet Edition Blu-ray and The Avengers Series 1 & 2 from Optimum, Il Grido, Die Finanzen des Grossherzogs & Phantom and For All Mankind from Masters of Cinema, All the Right Noises, Magick Lantern Cycle, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning from the BFI, and The Wind Will Carry Us from Artificial Eye. I'd also give a small shout for Meet the Mobsters (Fremantle) because it made me laugh when I was expecting to groan, and Big Man Japan (Revolver), a bizarre but really inventive drama-documentary exploring the dreary private life of Tokyo's most famous but reviled superhero.
Well that's about it for 2009. There is one thing I've left out, something that began as a footnote but is expanding into an article in its own right, one I'll endeavour to post in the next few days and that looks at how video games are starting to prove more a complex, involving and long lasting entertainment experience than the Hollywood movies they have learned so much from.