My Favourite Films of… 2009

Michael Prescott

24-year-old Welsh writer on all things film. Background in Philosophy. Accidentally in Sheffield for 6 years and counting. Addicted to Kevin Spacey. Tweetable: @M_S_Prescott

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After previous posts on my favourites from 2012, 2011 and 2010, we’re now beginning to head into the slightly hazy territory of 2009 which is, somehow, five freakin’ years ago.

Some of the great films released that year which don’t quite make the list are as follows:

– Darren Aronofsky’s fourth film, The Wrestler. Despite his current release Noah being quite clearly his worst effort to date, The Wrestler – which was originally an amalgamated idea along with Black Swan until they were split into separate films, was a familiar look at obsession for the once-indie director. It also features a great central performance from a returning Mickey Rourke.

Frost/Nixon, capitalising on the good press for Michael Sheen’s Tony Blair in The Queen, casts him as David Frost pitted against the formidable Frank Langella as Nixon in the infamous post-Watergate interviews from yo-yo-quality director Ron Howard.

Milk, one of the great LGBT films and – along with Brokeback Mountain – the most prominent and influential in mainstream cinema in the 21st century. Sean Penn is fantastic as the charismatic campaigner and Gus Van Sant’s film is a superb homage to the activist and politician.

– In his pre-Doctor Who days, Peter Capaldi was (and, let’s face it, still is) Malcolm Tucker. He took The Thick of It to the big-screen in what was essentially an adaptation as the other cast members played new characters for the spinoff, In the Loop. It’s as funny and sharp as ever, though probably more suited to television.

– In the wake of his untimely death, there was a lot of recent and retrospective love for the Philip Seymour Hoffman-led Synecdoche, New York,the mind-melting blurring of life and fiction from writer and first-time director Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation., Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind).

I Love You, Man is an underappreciated bromance with heart and plenty of laughs from loveable duo Paul Rudd and Jason Segel along with Parks and Recreation’s Rashida Jones.

– Before the tedious, bland and sub-par Elysium came along – which read like a follow-up to the director’s previous film gone wrong – there was the excellent debut District 9 from Neill Blomkamp.

– Carey Mulligan burst onto the scene with British coming-of-age drama An Education in a cast that also featured Dominic Cooper, Rosamund Pike, Emma Thompson and Sally Hawkins.

– And finally Spike Jonze, a collaborator of Charlie Kaufman’s, released his third feature film. He adapted the popular children’s story Where the Wild Things Are with a soundtrack from Karen O.

…but none of these are in my top nine of 2009. This month I’ve gone for some lesser heralded films including another animation, three foreign language films, a comedy-documentary and some indie gems.

They are, in order of release…

Timecrimes

Originally released in 2007 but not out in the UK until February 2009, Timecrimes (Los cronocrimenes) is a Spanish time-travel thriller. Though I have a soft spot for Triangle which was also released that year and is a similar (but less polished) film, Timecrimes is rather excellent.

The plot is of increasingly mind-bending proportions as Hector, the protagonist of a very small cast and husband in what appears to be a traditional home, appears to glimpse a naked woman in the distant woods. He explores further and flees a pursuer, landing up in a ‘time-travel tank’, propelling him into the near-past (approximately an hour behind). This causes a spiralling sense of chaos as events unravel and get away from him more and more.

With a clear nod to Pan’s Labyrinth at one point via its striking imagery, Timecrimes is brilliant in many ways. It has a growing likeability, it holds up well under re-watches (and in fact necessitates them) and is genuinely chilling, puzzling and devastating at separate points. A wonderful maze of identity, chaos and regret.

The Class

The Class was the 2008 Palme d’Or winner and a unanimous one at that (which is rare; only 7 of the last 30 to take the crown have been the result of undisputed decisions, and two of those were in fact joint-champions [in 1993 and 1997]).

It’s admittedly a French film although it was the first in over 20 years to achieve the honour, and it’s also absolutely worthy of the plaudits bestowed upon it. The Class is two hours of fast-paced, handheld-cam, dialogue-driven… teaching. It might not sound glamorous, but it’s a brilliant insight into life within a classroom, and one that feels genuine (the leading adult in the film is an author and former teacher playing a version of himself).

This is about a lot of things: diversity, acceptance, bullying, nature and nurture, parenthood, education and many more. It escalates into something resembling The Hunt as we despair of escalating scenarios and the (realistically) powerless head of the room succumbing to such a scary fate.

However this is only possible because of the method of shooting which draws us in. The performances are properly top-notch and feel more natural than the vast, vast majority of kids-on-screen – a tremendous achievement – and every moment we spend with them and with the protagonist teacher feels like a tortured reminder of just how difficult this prison-like setting can be for one and all.

Religulous

This is one that I’ve reviewed glowingly the past – naming it a Modern Great – but the brilliance of it, briefly, is that Bill Maher, carrying on God’s George Carlin’s work, travels around the world to look, laugh at and debunk various religions based on their beliefs.

It’s directed by Larry Charles (Borat, Curb Your Enthusiasm) and takes us to the deepest oceans and grandest canyons – metaphorically speaking – of unbelievable belief, including Holy Land, The Vatican and a Creationist Museum. Though it focuses primarily on Christianity (let’s face it, still a classic…), it does also devote time to equally-stupid schools of thought, and the characters that Maher finds truly are beyond parody.

Coraline

Henry Selick is the much-forgotten director of Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas™ and he also gave us James and the Giant Peach.

But undoubtedly his greatest achievement so far is the creation of Coraline, adapted from a Neil Gaiman children’s novel. It’s dark and broody and at times it’s also totally terrifying. It takes the well-worn idea of a child resenting their normal, mundane life and a frustration with their parents only to find everything they ever wanted in an alternate world, but there’s a catch.

It explores just what happiness is – rather than what it’s perceived to be – and delves into similarly mature themes despite its apparent young audience. It’s actually suitable (and should be required viewing) for all and, on top of all this, the visuals are predictably dazzling too.

Star Trek

Much has been written about J. J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot so I won’t go into much detail, but suffice to say that we now agree as a society that it was a good thing. It was also executed really intelligently.

Chris Pine – not even famous for his many rom-com roles – was a hugely underwhelming if not exasperating choice for Captain Kirk. He made Heath Ledger’s Joker casting seem positively well-received in comparison, but has since risen to the challenge admirably.

The real piece of casting genius though was rising star Zachary Quinto as Spock; he captures the deadpan, unintended humour mixed with a serious, principled exterior just excellently. If you haven’t seen his interpretation – and I don’t believe that for a second – just imagine Lisa Simpson mixed with Stannis Baratheon… ish.

The on-screen chemistry between the crew is wonderful: it’s an origin story that we ‘know’ (although at least this remake is an understandable one given the delay since the previous films and TV series’) but is made entirely interesting, unlike a few others of recent times.

Abrams and co rewrite history – quite literally – allowing them a brave new world to explore. The main cameo is superb and the entire film, despite having a lesser villain and actor than its sequel, is more than the sum of its already-very-agreeable parts.

Young Kirk, Spock as captain, meeting the crew, the soundtrack, the action sequences, the emotional centre… it’s one of the best blockbusters in years, which bodes well for Star Wars: Episode VII.

Fermat’s Room

I’ve also written about this in the past. Fermat’s Room is an enigmatic Spanish thriller which combines mathematics with murder and therefore, by default, has an innate appeal that’s near-sexual. It takes the ‘many strangers, one room, one killer’ approach and innovates it with these fresh elements. The comparisons with Vincenzo Natali’s Cubeare apt, although it isn’t quite the cult triumph.

Moon

Duncan Jones (son of David Bowie, director of Source Code and the in-the-works World of Warcaft adaptation i.e. a man who has led a good life) directed this fresh sci-fi with the always-magnetic Sam Rockwell as the lone performer (and Kevin Spacey on HAL-like vocal duties).

Moon uses knowledge of the genre – be it 2001, Alien, Silent Running or Event Horizon – to work audience expectations, and references such films throughout. It’s an examination of identity in space which results in a much neater, more thoughtful sci-fi than the many romps and rages that we’ve been not-quite-treated to in recent years.

Inglorious Basterds

I love Reservoir Dogs, I love Kill Bill and I love Inglorious Basterds. Tarantino’s long-awaited and spoofy WWII drama is the first in what now looks like a trilogy of rewritten-history pictures, with an inferior version of the same story (and accompanying motifs apparent too) told in his latest film, Django Unchained.

Inglorious is vintage QT with dialogue-heavy set pieces galore: the opening scene (which also introduced the film world to Christoph Waltz), Brad Pitt’s barmy accents, Fassbender’s last stand and a revisit to foot-fetish-country are just a few memorable moments of a film packed full of them.

The film is deliberately rebellious – as Tarantino films tend to be – but it’s the great power he holds in the script over characters and plot – just like his introductory films Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction – that elevate Inglorious to one of his finest pieces of work yet.

(500) Days of Summer

The loveable would-be-hipster ‘anti’-rom-com that is 500 Days has a complementary cast of Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who has since gone on to bigger things) and Zooey Deschanel (who hasn’t), although it takes a minor misstep with the characterisation of Chloe Grace Moretz’s much younger teen sister to protagonist Tom (JGL).

Regardless, 500 Days has it all: a super-cool slick soundtrack, memorable visuals including reality vs. expectations and the You Make My Dreams Come True dance sequence, cute characters, a relatable scenario and a fresh take on it all… ish. It isn’t quite as rebellious as it pretends to be – in an Easy A kind of way – but that’s part of the charm really. Deep down, we adore love stories: we just want them to be told like this.