Tuesday Pragmatism | 2009 The year in film

Here are some of the films I’ve watched this year, or perhaps the ones I remember watching. They’re not in a strict, regimented order of sorts; Benjamin Button was probably the first film I saw in theatres in January this year, and then thing more-or-less progress towards my most treasured experiences. I won’t be discussing all of them in detail.
In this case, the nomenclature indicates the year in which the film was released in parentheses – all of these I viewed in 2009 for the first time. Many were released in North America in 2008, but were naturally later released here this year.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
Public Enemies (2009)
Gwai wik (Re-Cycle) (2006)
Paris – When it Sizzles (1964)
Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005)
Memphis Belle (1990)

Watchmen (2009)
Inglorious Basterds (2009)

Speed Racer (2008)
Coraline (2009)

Sukiyaki Western Django (2007)
The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008)
Narren (Fools) (2003)

Je vais bien, ne t’en fais pas (Don’t worry, I’m fine) (2006)
Kingdom of Heaven – Extended Cut Blu-Ray (2005)
X Files: I want to believe (2008)
The Treatment (2006)
Cashback (2006)

The Divind Bell and the Butterfly (2007)

Control (2007)
Lovely & Amazing (2001)
The Door in the Floor (2004)
We don’t live here anymore (2004)
Normal (2007)
House of Sand and Fog (2003)
L’Enfer (2005)
Genova (2008)
Snow Cake (2006)
The Savages (2007)

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006)
Allegro (2005)
Ma Mere (2004)

The Grocer’s Son (2004)
Junimond (2002)

Generation Kill (2008)

Up (2009)
The Wrestler (2008)
Viskningar och rop (Cries and Whispers) (1972)
Persona (1966)
Sky Crawlers (2008)
Synecdoche, New York (2008)


Significant repeat views this year:
Heat (1995)
Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)
Gattaca (1997)
Jin-Ro (1998)
Ghost in the Shell (1995)
Innocence: Ghost in the Shell 2 (2004)
Su-ki-da (2005)
Mulholland Dr. (2001)
Babel (2006)
Romeo + Juliet (1996)
Synecdoche, New York (once in print, several times in DVD and Blu-Ray)
Tokyo.Sora (2002) (all-time most favoured film)

The full scored list can be found at IMDB, however it only tells part of the story. I have a database at home which lists films in tiers, and so a tier 1 film scoring 7 is not worse per se than a tier 2 film scoring 8. Unfortunately the metadata remains for the moment private, with no real facility for me to keep a database as dense as the local file. Scores for me though work on a sliding scale. There is no real reference between two films and their scores – it’s not about a film being better or worse than another, it’s about my feelings and response upon watching it, and scaling it to that response. They are mere indications only, and even with the metadata, the true response to a film is something that cannot be understood unless discussed in great length – so take the scores with a healthy grain of salt. It probably also doesn’t warrant mentioning, but I will anyway – god knows why – but please bear in mind that scores are always just a matter of taste. People like different things and don’t like others – I have no problem with people not liking films I enjoy, nor enjoying films I don’t. We’re diverse people – it’s not a big deal.
Let it also be known that I will not hate on a film simply because it’s popular. Sometimes I’ll love a very popular film, and other times I won’t enjoy it as much as others seem to. The fact of its popularity has no bearing on my response.


Traditionalists seemed to hate Michael Mann’s use of DV for Public Enemies. I didn’t mind it at all. It was different, and I didn’t find it terrible visually. Sure, there are still a few major drawbacks of using digital, particularly in very subtle colour gradients, but I liked what I saw and am all for it. Knowing what I know about the technical and logistical advantages of DV and seeing what Mann was able to produce with it, I’m encouraged by the medium.

Re-Cycle turned out to be a nice little film. Mostly over-enthusiastic and often undisciplined, my curiosity was piqued by a single screen-grab and I was duly rewarded. Some of the set-pieces, even some of the digital ones of poorer quality, were nevertheless amazing. Asian cinema is slowly maturing at a goodly pace, and seeing as many of my favourite films have come from the region, I have no doubt that they’ll be able to perfect this kind of story-telling in ways that other cultures cannot, they of-course having their own strengths.

Mr. & Mrs. Smith was a film I had been resisting for some time, but with the low expectations I tend to have these days, I found it to be a delight. It was wonderfully playful with the right amount of gentle wit and sass, and by the conclusion was a very charming experience.

Speed Racer and Coraline I’ve grouped together for technical achievement. Speed Racer still remains to this day to be one of my favourite films for bold colour-palettes. It has some of the most gorgeous broad colour-blocking and compositing – using what is usually a weakness of green-screen to wonderful effect to give it a real cell-shaded feel. Definitely one of the most playfully vibrant films ever made.
Coraline remains my favourite 3D experience, even-though I still favour flat viewing. I’m yet to be wholly sold on the 3D thing – it’s nice I guess, but for as long as it remains the illusion of depth-perception rather than true depth-perception, it will remain merely an interesting feature to me. It can be slightly more labouring to watch, and I believe some fidelity is lost, if not in the fact of presentation, then in the extra load on the eyes to combine the image. Nevertheless, watching Coraline flat is just as rewarding if not more so for the ease of viewing, and I adore the hand-crafted stop-motion world. Great voicing, sound-design, a wonderful soundtrack and some subtle mature themes combine to make it a great film.

Sukiyaki Western Django and The Good, The Bad, The Weird were amazing rides. They are both blasts in different ways, full of frenetic and ultra-stylised fun. The Japanese and South Koreans are really getting good at this kind of energy and these two films are outstanding examples. For me, they both had genuine laugh-out-loud moments, as well as genuine phwoar – awesome! ones.

Then start the really good films.
From Control to The Savages, many of these films are about chaos, weakness, imperfection and in many ways, embrasure. So many characters in these films are hopelessly flawed, and I really adore celebrating these aspects in film. Perhaps in part it’s exhaustion from years of homogenised, safe and tired characterisations, but in part it’s certainly because of my growing embrasure of the beauty of human imperfection. Some of the characters in these films are downright assholes, and I know many people find it hard to watch them in film, particularly when they don’t seem to learn or worse, seem to show little to no remorse for their actions and the destruction they cause in the lives around them. I can’t go into it in great detail here, but suffice to say that part of the reason I enjoy seeing this is because it’s a very real thing. It’s a very real thing that we encounter in life, something that’s rarely comfortable, usually extremely awkward and sorrowful, and to see it presented well and honestly is rare. I love over-romanticised stories almost as much as most people, but I will always enjoy these rare celebrations of chaos and failure. In almost every one of them though is sometimes the tiniest spark of optimism, if not a very obvious one. It will always be there, you just have to be a little less dismissive and a little more patient to see it.
It’s hard to give special mention to a few of these films when it’s so tempting to talk about them all, but in particular I’ll honour Control for poor Ian Curtis, We don’t live here anymore for its extremely mature and honest look at relationships and individuals, Normal for its subtle brooding insulate characters, L’Enfer for its amazing narrative and wonderful characters and The Savages which ends the bracket as it was one of my favourite films I viewed this year. There is more truth about sibling and family relationships in this film than there is in most films that attempt to cover similar topics combined. Absolutely adored the cast, writing and performances.

Allegro gets a special mention for being a wonderful atmospheric piece, and Ma Mere for covering taboo subject matter in an artistic way that appeals to me. I love deeply complex emotional behaviour and Ma Mere is a triumph of it, extremely well done.

Tokikake, or The Girl Who Leapt Through Time quickly became one of my most treasured films. I will say it over and over again; Tokikake is not about time-travel – honestly, it’s actually quite obvious where the heart of Tokikake lies that I’m almost still stunned by people not understanding it. Nevertheless, this is about my tastes and not that of others, so it doesn’t matter. I love this kind of blatant shifting from seeming to be about one subject, but truly being about another. Many film-makers can learn from this kind of charming and disarming art of subtext.
The Grocer’s Son was one of the most charming films I watched this year with wonderful characters that are flawed, but of-course romanticised in the end. As much as I love my dense celebrations of complex human weakness, I love happy endings and good, sophisticated romance just as much. Grocer’s Son is part of a growing selection of films containing one of my most favourite themes; celebrating simple everyday actions and thoughts. The idyllic setting in rural France is perfect for it and the characters are as in most films I love, extremely subtle and always charming.
Junimond is another film, this time German, that celebrates everyday things. It does have another main theme which is also beautifully and tactfully presented, and on the whole it combines into a wonderful, minimalist and peaceful film.

Generation Kill was perhaps the only series I watched this year, though I have started the first season of The Wire (and will probably leave it at that – thoroughly enjoying it though). Another outstanding HBO series based on a journalist’s writings while on-tour with Marines during the second invasion of Iraq, there are countless moments of hilarity tempered equally with powerful moments of ambiguity, self-awareness and discomfort.

Finally I’m at the business-end of my year’s film viewing.
Up was an awkward one for me to 10, but after much thought I awarded it the score. Perhaps less about perfection (which it usually is for me), but more a marvelling at the amazing presentation of a long life and old-age. The first 15 minutes of the film are truly amazing, with old-age shown with such dignity being a true rarity. It was touching and beautiful. Most of the middle-sections were great, the thing that made me reconsider my score was of-course the rather dramatic conclusion to the main story, however the final scenes showing such open and embracing behaviour re-enforced that maturity shown in the opening chapter, and so I applaud these elements worthy of the 10 score.
I’m yet to view a Darren Aronofsky film I’ve not liked, and while The Wrestler is a very different film to The Fountain, it is still an amazing character piece.
I’ve only viewed two of Ingmar Bergman’s films, but both have left me speechless and hungry for more – I’m dedicated to buying one of his films a month until I have as many as I can find. If his other films are anywhere near as good as Persona and Cries and Whispers, I feel I’ll begin to love Bergman as much as I do David Lynch, natural perhaps if one perceives Lynch to be a spiritual successor. I’m amazed that films of such abstract calibre were made so long ago, and watching them is often like watching Lynch or anime like Texhnolyze – they seem to be written in my language, as if someone had gathered the sum-total of my experiences and thoughts, and made art out of it. Persona is particularly brilliant having brought myself up on Lynch’s abstract greats.

The last two films on the list became instant tens and most treasured favourites upon first viewing, and continue to be re-enforced in those positions with every repeated viewing. Sky Crawlers sees Mamoru Oshii once again leveraging someone else’s stories and themes to speak in his own dialect and express perspectives unique to him. In this film he is even more quiet than before, more sparse, even more subtle. There are two slightly dense pieces of dialogue and while they seem to be on the subject-matter of the film’s story, they are deeply emotional expositions. This is my level of subtlety, of beauty, of very quiet contemplation and broad life-view. As he gets older, Oshii just seems to be able to say more and more by presenting less – a talent that perhaps only Hiroshi Ishikawa, director of Tokyo.Sora possesses.

Synecdoche, New York left me breathless and speechless after first viewing. I simply had nothing more to add, it was astonishing in its beauty and perfection. If Oshii’s films are a celebration of my sense of minimalism, and films like L’Enfer a celebration of my perspectives on flawed humanity, Synecdoche is a celebration of density, complexity and ultimately simplicity. That sounds like wank which essentially it is; it’s a difficult thing to talk about with any kind of brevity. Suffice to say that Synecdoche hits just as close to my personal, very intimate sensibilities as Oshii, Lynch and Bergman do. I continue to be truly amazed that this film went from concept to print, and like Oshii’s films, feel humbled and grateful to have been alive to view them.

Well that’s it for now. Films are easy to talk about, even pop-fodder which I enjoy without hesitation. There’s nothing wrong with Hollywood fluff, I never expect it to reach the emotional heights or complexities of some of these films, but I never feel they have to. Nevertheless I continue to favour mostly indie, abstract, confrontational and minimalist films. Many are in foreign languages, but many are North American projects made with just as much talent and perception. I don’t fear independent film is under threat from pop in any way, as every year I seem to find more and more films to my tastes. It truly is a fine time to be alive and watching films in the modern era, particularly with the ease of distribution of older works in such high fidelity.

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