The Films of 2009: Part One

NB: If Roger Ebert gets 21 choices then so do I.

=12. Sleep Furiously (Gideon Koppel, 2008, UK)
=12. Better Things (Duane Hopkins, 2008, UK)
Two films are not enough to announce a movement, but there is enough in these two aesthetically disparate but thematically linked British films to suggest a new direction in filmmaking in these isles. Sleep Furiously, a profoundly lyrical and beautifully composed observance of life in a small village in rural Wales, and Better Things, an altogether more harsh, downbeat work set in the aftermath of a death of a girl in the Cotswolds, both are confident and highly distinctive looks at settings and ways of life seldom brought to the big screen. Very welcome relief from those films suggesting the British population consists solely of slimy gangsters and bumbling Richard Curtis types.

11. Trick ‘R Treat (Michael Dougherty, 2008, USA)
Shamefully sent straight-to-video by distributors Warner Brothers, Trick ‘R Treat proved to be the standout film at this year’s Frightfest: an outstanding piece of genre filmmaking, consisting of a series of four modern folkloric tales set around Halloween, all of which interweaving into one elegant, beautifully constructed whole. In a genre – horror-comedy – which is so often populated with tired, soulless trash, director Dougherty brings wit, invention, intelligence and genuine warmth to a film you just want to embrace tightly. Very special.

=10. Katyń (Andrzej Wajda, 2007, Poland)
=10. In The Loop (Armando Iannucci, 2009, UK)
=10. The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, 2009, Austria/Germany/France/Italy)

Three very fine films, between them spanning the last 100 years of history, but with the common themes of war and the sinister truth lurking beneath the veneer of officialdom. Firstly Katyń, veteran director Andrzej Wajda’s adaptation of a popular novel which examined the killing by the Russians of tens of thousands of Poles during the Second World War, and then the subsequent blaming of the massacre on the Nazis by the post-war Communist regime in Poland. The tone is at times a little too overwrought, but the overall effect is extremely powerful, a grand lesson in how ‘official’ history can be rewritten for political ends.

Similarly In The Loop, though set in the near-present and ostensibly a comedy, illustrated the disparity between what the public is and is not told through the media. A spin-off of the superb television series The Thick of It, the story features an American government attempting to justify a war in the Middle East, a careerist UK MP who accidentally gets involved, and Downing Street’s vicious spin doctor who desperately tries to manage the situation. A hilarious farce in the manner of Dr Strangelove, showing how global politics is as much about ineptitude as ideology, but also suggesting how quickly small idiocies can transform into major catastrophes.

Finally, The White Ribbon, winner of the Palme D’or and to my mind the most mature and complete piece of work from Austrian director Michael Haneke. The setting is a small German town on the eve of World War 1, and this sinister film glacially reveals the underweave of violence and cruelty beneath this society’s tranquil surface, suggesting that later events may have been shaped by its suspension in Lutheran repression and brutal patriarchy. As always with Haneke there are questions regarding his handling of theme and subtext, but there is no denying his absolute mastery of tone.

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