The best of not-2009

Because I did this last year and it was fun: the best movies I saw in 2009, that weren’t made in 2009.

10. The Lucky Ones (2008)

Tim Robbins, Rachel McAdams, and Michael Pena all give strong performances in this underrated film about soldiers returning from Iraq (mostly a drama but with a nice number of comic moments). If you feel like you don’t want to watch any movies about Iraq, you should know that this is really a road trip movie. The characters’ problems, the ones that put them all in that car together, are brought to the surface by the war, but not caused by it. They create relationships with each other and then see those new connections evolve rapidly, and that is what the movie is about. The characters are ones I wanted to spend more time with when the movie ended. This is a warm, honest, intelligent film.

9. Baby Doll (1956)

A strange and mesmerizing Southern Gothic tale, directed by Elia Kazan from a screenplay by Tennessee Williams. Archie, a middle-aged owner of a failing cotton gin, is married to a 19-year-old blonde everyone calls Baby Dollshe sleeps in an oversize crib, sucks her thumb, and generally embraces the image, at least in part because she doesn’t want to consummate her marriage. As her 20th birthday approaches, so does the deadline Baby Doll gave Archie for finally doing the deed. As a conflict between Archie and a Sicilian businessman who’s putting Archie out of business intensifies, things turn creepily personal, as the businessman flirts with Baby Doll to get to Archie. The film’s bizarre sultriness is still disconcerting now; in 1956, it was enough to get the Catholic Church to call for an official boycott and Time Magazine to call it the dirtiest American film to ever be legally shown in theaters.

8. [REC] (2007)

I always embrace a truly well-done zombie movie. This is small-scale, but executed the right way. A TV journalist and cameraman who are tagging along with a firefighting crew for a story find themselves quarantined in an apartment building, along with the residents, after the crew answers a call about screaming in an elderly woman’s apartment. That elderly woman proceeds to rip someone’s throat out, and yep, we’ve got zombies. The set-up is effective because it takes away one of those common complaints about any sort of outbreak movie: why can’t the authorities at least try to respond quickly and contain the problem, instead of denying it for too long? In this case, the authorities have done what we would probably want them to do in real life…and yet we’re rooting for people to escape.

Maybe [REC] uses a few too many standard horror movie tricks (“It’s dark! I’ll use the night vision on the camera lens! … Aaah, it’s right behind you!”), but I flat-out enjoyed it even so. The actors are compelling, it’s never boring, and some of those scenes with the elderly zombie are serious freaky. Plus, while I don’t find it necessary for zombie movies to address the origin of the “disease”, what they discover at the end of this one is pretty darn creative. I have not seen the American remake, but definitely recommend this Spanish original.

7. The Funeral (Ososhiki) (1984)

Writer/director Juzo Itami’s film explores the always-relevant question of how to integrate tradition and modern life, as the characters organize a three-day-long funeral for the family patriarch. This is a wry, rolling sort of film, comprised of scenes alternately satirical (the dead man’s daughter and her husband watch a video that instructs them on the proper things to say to funeral guests, intently repeating each suggestion) and tender (a lovely home movie-style montage of the family laughing and having fun in one another’s company, even as the funeral nears). This is a movie that I like more and more just as I contemplate small moments from it after the fact.

6. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

Ah, the grotesque, macabre, bizarre creation that is Bette Davis’s Baby Jane Hudson! It’s crazy to me how absolutely Davis threw herself into this character, and how ugly she lets herself look (we had definitely not yet reached the days when covering up your natural beauty meant you had a better shot at the Oscar). If all you know about this movie are the famous lines (“But you aaaaah, Blanche, you aaaaah in that chair!”), treat yourself to a visit to the world of deranged former child star Baby Jane and her wheelchair-bound sister, Blanche. It’s magically insane.

5. Happy-Go-Lucky (2008)

The main character of this film, Poppy, is an unflappable optimist. She is jolly and wacky and bright. She should drive me crazy, but I love her. As played by Sally Hawkinswho needs to be a huge movie star right nowher company, frankly, delights.

Some things happen to Poppy in the movie. Most significantly, she takes driving lessons from a very angry man. It speaks to the great quality of the underlying structure of the film that the events feel both pivotal and typical. I would gladly watch Poppy carry on her daily life in any number of sequels.

4. Night Moves (1975)

Gene Hackman is a private eye. As movie private eyes do, he’s about to take a simple-enough-sounding case, and then get himself mixed up in a whole mess of shit. He’s gonna run into some crazy characters, maybe get double-crossed, find his private life to be a distraction, feel attracted to a beautiful, mysterious woman, and all that sort of thing. Except that this movie will operate outside of that genre map, even as it does right by the private eye tradition. The patient pacing, blunt dialogue, Florida Keys setting, and vulnerable gruffness of Hackman’s character all work to make a new sort of private eye world. You will not know any more than he does about what the hell everyone is up to, but trying to figure it out is simply engrossing.

3. The Thing (1982)

I cannot believe I hadn’t seen this movie before this year. I knew it would be good when I got around to it, but why didn’t anyone tell me it was this good? I’ve missed out on so much time for repeat viewings! Everything about this is ideal for a horror movie: the creatively remote setting, the limitations of what the characters can and can’t know, the absolutely genuine fear that something could be just around any corner, the increasing tension that reflects in the way the characters communicate with each other, the presence of Kurt Russell…oh, it’s great. It’s just great.

2. Black Narcissus (1947)

Way sexier and crazier than anyone could expect a movie about Anglican nuns in the Himalayas to be. Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell’s film makes a world of impossibly vibrant color, a backdrop that is too much for some of the nuns as they try to impose their sense of order on a remote community that can’t be expected to understand or need it. Throw in a dashing British ex-pat who kicks around the village and imposes a bit too much, and one of these nuns won’t be able to keep her sexual repression in check. The events that sets into motion are thrilling, framed by genius cinematography and brilliant performances by Deborah Kerr and Kathleen Byron, clashing over absolutely everything. A true classic.

1. I’m Not Scared (Io Non Ho Paura) (2003)

Fields of wheat have been done a lot in cinematography. But no one has ever really gotten fields of wheat the way the makers of this wonderful Italian film do. The opening scenes of the fields and the children running through them are so beautiful to look at, so entrancing to hear the sound of, we are lulled into a rhythm of the type of perfect summer that the very thoughts and actions of the film’s characters are about to betray.

Michele and his friends are around 10. They are on their way home from playing one day when he realizes that he’s left his little sister’s glasses at an abandoned house they discovered. He runs back to look for them, rather than catch hell, and ends up coming across something the gang had missed earlier: a sheet of corrugated metal, hidden under some grass, that hides a giant hole in the ground. Inside that hole is a boy about Michele’s age. He has clearly been in the hole for awhile.

What follows is part thriller, part study of the perspective of childhood. The actors playing the boys who meet at that hole are both absolutely perfect. The movie is unpredictable, stressful, and gorgeous. I think it is a film I will return to often. I would recommend it to just about anyone. And thus, I declare it the best not-new movie I saw this year.

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2 Responses to “The best of not-2009”


  1. 1 Carly January 12, 2010 at 8:07 pm

    yeah, Black Narcissus! that was fun. Some of those ‘deranged nun with hair down” shots still give me the shivers if I picture them. If you’re feeling documentary-ish, may I recommend “Ballerina”, a Russian doc about 4 principles with the Kirov. These are arguably the most hard-core ballerinas in the world, and the film is well-paced and expertly shows just how single-minded these girls have been their whole lives (close your eyes for the 10 yr old auditions!). It’s like watching one of those Olympic athlete profiles, but the glory is different – muted, I guess. My dad liked it, so I don’t think it’s just my extremely high ballet-tolerance speaking…

  2. 2 Chelsea February 2, 2010 at 9:44 am

    Ahem. I believe I nagged you for some time to check out The Thing…


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