I really enjoyed making this list last year, so once again I present my list of the top 10 movies from other years that I saw for the first time in 2009 (my traditional top 10 is in the most recent Las Vegas Weekly).
1. After Life (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 1998) Japanese filmmaker Kore-eda is a master of building emotional effects from small everyday moments, and both 2004's Nobody Knows (which was on my best-of-the-decade list) and After Life (the only two of his films I've seen so far) are just devastatingly beautiful, simultaneously celebrating life while focusing on its ever-present pain. This film may be ostensibly supernatural, taking place in an afterlife way station where the recently deceased look back on their lives to pick out one memory (and only one) to take with them into eternity, but it's really about the mundane details that add up to an entire life while we aren't looking. Kore-eda used some real people reflecting back on their lives to mix in with his actors, but the end product is seamless and heartbreaking, both as an examination of regret and a wonderful little love story along the way.
2. Cleo From 5 to 7 (Agnes Varda, 1962) The 81-year-old Varda is on a lot of year-end lists for her documentary The Beaches of Agnes, an impressionistic look back on her long career and life, and one of the main reasons she has such a celebrated body of work to look back on is this film, a pillar of the French New Wave and a striking stylistic statement from the moment it opens in vivid color with an overhead shot of tarot cards foretelling the dire fate of the main character, a seemingly vapid pop star waiting for some ominous medical-test results. In real time, she wanders the streets of Paris, surveying the emptiness of her life, and Varda resists the urge to judge, while star Corinne Marchand projects just the right mix of haughtiness and vulnerability. A bittersweet character study that mixes the stylistic audacity of the New Wave with a very human core.
3. Cape Fear (J. Lee Thompson, 1962) I saw this one courtesy of a Gregory Peck box set that came across my desk at the Weekly, but Peck isn't the main draw here: It's Robert Mitchum in an absolutely stunning performance as an ex-con with a major grudge against the lawyer (Peck) who helped put him away. Mitchum is a master of low-key menace as he slowly and subtly terrorizes Peck and his family, yet manages to elude any verifiable criminal activity. Thrillers and horror movies tend to get less scary as time passes, but Mitchum's performance here is as creepy and unsettling now as it must have been nearly 50 years ago. The story is also a masterpiece of slow-boil pacing, and the supporting cast is consistently effective. I saw the 1991 Martin Scorsese remake years ago (probably when it first came out on video) and don't remember it very well, but I can't imagine even Robert De Niro giving as good a performance as Mitchum does here.
4. Trouble the Water (Carl Deal & Tia Lessin, 2008) This movie was nominated for a Best Documentary Oscar last year but lost to Man on Wire, which is a good movie but not nearly as powerful. I'm generally not fond of social-issue documentaries whose sole purpose is to lecture the audience, and I tend to tune out a lot of movies that merely bombard the viewer with statistics and punditry. This movie takes on a polarizing, incendiary subject - the treatment of poor New Orleans residents during and after Hurricane Katrina - and puts a human face on it, transforming it from an abstract lesson about government policy into a story about a family's struggle to survive. Deal and Lessin are lucky to have firsthand footage of the disaster, yes, but they are also extremely skilled in the way they package it, in their ability to create the right mix of drama and education. I saw this movie at a screening at UNLV, and I'd much rather see material like this circulate college campuses than the latest harangue from Michael Moore.
5. The Butcher Boy (Neil Jordan, 1997) I was fairly unimpressed with Jordan and novelist Patrick McCabe's second collaboration, Breakfast on Pluto, in 2006, and I imagine I would have been even more disappointed had I already seen this first movie they made together. What starts out as a sort of quaint, charming coming-of-age story set in Ireland in the early 1960s evolves into a dark, weird and hilarious study in the birth of a sociopath. The brilliant thing is that Jordan and McCabe maintain the same whimsical, boys-will-be-boys tone throughout the movie, as we watch young Francie Brady (an amazingly good Eamonn Owens) go from a rambunctious kid with a drunk for a father and a mentally unstable mother to a delusional young man who sees visions of the Virgin Mary and plots murderous revenge on his neighbor. The folksy narration and homey locations (small town, boarding school, seaside resort) give the movie the sense of some demented version of A Christmas Story, and Francie remains endearing even as he becomes more violent and unhinged. It's strangely uplifting.
6. Cabaret (Bob Fosse, 1972) I watched this movie for an online movie-discussion group in which I am a sort of lapsed participant (this was the only selection for 2009 that I managed to see), and I was a little surprised that the majority of people in the group didn't like it (some even hated it). Part of that was because many of them had seen the stage version, which I haven't, and compared the movie unfavorably to that. Obviously there are liberties taken here, and Fosse successfully does what didn't work for Rob Marshall in Nine, putting all the musical numbers in a separate setting and leaving singing out of the narrative drama. But here it flows much better, and the songs seem as much like fantasies or dream sequences as actual events. The Nazi threat is used as a reminder of the darkness always lurking behind any sort of self-indulgence, and if the movie isn't a specific history lesson, it is a more general lesson about the dangers of willful ignorance. Plus, Liza Minnelli is great, which I deserve to be reminded of as someone familiar with her mostly from boozy TV appearances and her role on Arrested Development.
7. Operation Filmmaker (Nina Davenport, 2008) Unlike Trouble the Water, this documentary pretty much flew under the radar last year and wasn't nominated for any awards; I actually saw it on PBS. But it's also an excellent human take on a big political issue, in this case the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Davenport's chronicle of good intentions gone horribly wrong, in the form of a lazy, arrogant Iraqi film student invited to work on an American film and then resented for not being a model crew member (or documentary subject), is fascinating and messy and disquieting and often funny. She manages to criticize the misguided actions of the filmmakers (led by Liev Schreiber) who bring the young man to Europe to work on Everything Is Illuminated, as well as her own intentions in continuing to film this deceitful, manipulative guy, who is alternately resentful of her attention and desperate to be noticed. She resists the urge to canonize the guy from a war-torn country, showing that even people who have endured the horrors of war can turn out to be total douchebags.
8. To Kill a Mockingbird (Robert Mulligan, 1962) Thanks again to the Gregory Peck box set for this one, and here Peck is definitely the star of the show. His stolid screen presence works perfectly in the part of the impossibly upstanding small-town lawyer, and this movie is a tense and nuanced depiction of racism and groupthink that doesn't pull any punches. It's also a tender coming-of-age story with strong performances from its young actors. I somehow avoided ever being assigned this book in school, so I can't say how the movie compares, but it certainly has enough complexity and genuine emotion to be comparable to a great novel.
9. Nights and Weekends (Joe Swanberg & Greta Gerwig, 2008) Somehow the tedious mumblecore debate rages on; meanwhile, I continue to like the movies (I had Aaron Katz's wonderful Quiet City at the top of this list last year). This is the first Swanberg movie I've seen, and maybe I'd be less impressed if I was more familiar with his other work (he's extremely prolific). But I thought this was a very insightful, realistic depiction of the way that relationships fall apart for reasons people may not even comprehend, and the way that former lovers can torment each other without meaning to. It's frank about both love and sexuality, and is another sign that Greta Gerwig deserves the big Hollywood career she seems to be building. (More in my DVD review.)
10. Still Life (Jia Zhang-ke, 2006) Jia is one of those many current world masters with whose films I'm not nearly familiar enough; this portrait of two lives affected by the massive Three Gorges Dam relocation project definitely makes me want to learn more. Again, this is a film that takes on the political through the personal: The massive upheaval of the dam project is a constant presence in the film, one that disrupts the lives of millions and is directly responsible for the actions of the two protagonists (who appear in separate, non-overlapping stories). It's there in the background of nearly every scene, but this is drama first and a political statement second, and it's a wonderful small-scale story about the difficulties of long-term relationships and the haunting nature of regret. Also, a building takes off and becomes a spaceship at one point, which I didn't understand but found quite poignant.