By John Villeneuve
2009 has not been as rich and plentiful, especially for English language films, as previous years, but if you were a miner, an archaeologist, a diviner, or just plain curious, chances are you would have, along the way, found some interesting cargo. Freight that will, for you, age well. Some invigorating drinks, red and white, that you can see yourself enjoying years from now. I believe that I have found a few gems, however rough and/or smooth, that will go down as well as the next best chardonnay, the next, almost flawless, emerald green, the next best friend that opens your eyes anew. Obviously the following list of candidates would be my chums, but, if you have met them, they may, for one reason or another, be your foes. That is democracy.
#10. Lake Tahoe
Fernando Eimbcke is the kind of director you would get if you transplanted Jim Jarmusch in Mexico. Like Stranger Than Paradise, Lake Tahoe is filled with long takes, static shots, and incisive dead-pan humor that exploits cultural stereotypes, and the essence of ennui. Ultimately, this film is an excellent follow-up to his previous movie, Duck Season.
Masterful director, Chan-wook Park (Oldboy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance), mixes religion, madness and vampirism with startlingly humorous and horrific results.
#8. I Killed My Mother
First-time, French Canadian, director, Xavier Dolan was only 19 years old when he wrote, starred in, produced and directed this intuitive examination of a turbulent mother and son relationship, littered with mental anguish and despair. I wait impatiently for his encore.
#7. Samson and Delilah
Another first-time director, Warwick Thornton, tells this almost wordless story of two Australian aboriginal outcasts, seemingly doomed by a culture of indifference and contempt, and, yet, in the mist of violence and malaise, Thorton still manages to find a diamond of hope.
#6. The White Ribbon
Though it doesn’t pack the visceral wallop of previous Michael Haneke films, The White Ribbon is a remarkable, visually captivating, and unsettling, look at religious hypocrisy and spiritual poverty pre WWI, Austria.
#5. Police, Adjective.
Romania’s impatience with modernity is our bewildered delight. Corneliu Porumboiu deftly guides us, giggling and shrugging, through a linguistic minefield.
#4. The Milk of Sorrow
There has been a lot of discussion, deservedly, about the woman director this year. For my money Claudia Llosa’s ode to the women of Peru, victims of a terrorist/political conflict 25 years ago, and, henceforth, cleansed by their daughters, has not only revived magic realism, but has rescued the heart of cinema.
Bong Joon-ho’s tale of motherly love is not merely the most twisted account of familial allegiance, but also the most damning of societal rot and corruption.
#2. Still Walking
Families as a microcosm of the world’s incommunicable woes is nothing new for director, Hirokazu Koreeda, but his success at stepping into, without mimicry, Yasujiro Ozu’s shoes, is delicate and quietly devastating.
#1. A Prophet
The endless offerings of gangster films, sparked by the success of Francis Ford Coppola’s genre-bending, The Godfather, can now step aside. Jacques Audiard is the new iconoclastic king.
The 10 Alternates: Sin Nombre (Cary Fukunaga); Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa); Home (Ursula Meier); Involuntary (Ruben √ñstlund); Lorna’s Silence (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne); 24 City (Zhang Ke Jia); City of Life and Death (Chuan Lu); Vincere (Marco Bellocchio); La Nana (Sebasti√°n Silva); The World Is Big and Salvation Lurks around the Corner (Stephan Komandarev).
And finally, I would like to mention Summer Hours, a film I saw in 2008 at the Toronto Film Festival. It was listed in my Top 10 last year, but because it did not get a sturdy release until 2009, I think it is worth mentioning again. Olivier Assayas’ haunting meditation about the fracturing effects of globalization upon a french family simply gets better with each viewing and every notable passage of time.