The Athlete – 5

A noble effort to tell the important story of a great African athlete, Abebe Bikila. The exciting parts, however, came from archival footage of his two Olympic victories. The movie’s focus, instead, seemed to be on his efforts to compete, after a car accident as a paraplegic, as an archer and dog-sled racer – neither of much drama or import. Shots of Ethiopia were beautiful and welcome, and the director explained some of the symbolism he used, which raced right by me. [SBIFF]

Aguas Verdes (Green Water) – 7

Nigel Gilchrist, noted travel writer in dialogue at the SB Museum on Thursday, pointed out how important travel was to the understanding of art: one should experience of the theatricality of everyday life in Rome to appreciate the works of Caravaggio, Bernini, et al. The same can be said for the cinema, and our recent visits to Brazil and Argentina supplied the context for our enjoyment of this family dramedy from Argentina in which an uptight father can’t cope with the open sexuality of their beach vacation to Aguas Verdes. More than the story, this film was fun for the characters – the fat, bratty son, the sexually emerging daughter, the mysteriously romantic Lothario who broke the camel’s back and ended up in the drink.

The Elephant in the Living Room – 1

A poor excuse of a documentary, it purported to focus on a national issue – the proliferation of dangerous exotics in the wild, let loose by pet owners – but it kept coming back to one public safety officer from Ohio and a very sad man who was deeply attached to his two lions, not a story of national significance. Overall, very amateurish and not up to Film Festival standards. [SBIFF]

Learning from Light – 5

More a promotion piece for the Islamic Museum of Qatar, this “documentary” had no modulation, no drama, no perspective and raised more questions than it answered about this project. For starters, how was I.M. Pei selected? Were there any concerns about entrusting this to an architect who would be 91 years old before it was finished? There were so many overheated shots of the same building that by the end I thought it blocky and boring. Worst was the voiceover narration, pitched at the sixth-grade level – maybe because the film is to be used by the Qatari government, presumably for non-native English speakers. [SBIFF]

Still Walking – 8

A lovely and endearing portrait of a Japanese family, told with the quiet grace seemingly unique to Japanese filmmakers (although the French A Christmas Tale from last year was similar in many ways). Each character was allowed to develop his or her personality onscreen, and each character had weak points and some strong ones. No one fits someone else perfectly; how we get along is one of the main stories of life. Personally, I was struck at how familiar the routine of Japanese life was to what I enjoyed in 1963.

Mother – 4

Two hours of watching a very annoying Korean mother trying to protect her mildly retarded son from a murder charge. There was nothing unduly offensive about the story; I just got tired, very early on, of seeing her continually pained, frantic expression on the screen. [SBIFF]

Top Ten Movies 2009

“Gritty” is the word that comes to mind when I think of the movies that made the greatest impact on 2009 for me. I can still feel the Iraqi sand coating my body when I think of The Hurt Locker, the only film in my top 5 that is also garnering critics’ awards, but then again it is the only American film in this group. Gomorrah, from Italy, was even rawer, and South Africa’s District 9 gave us a science-fiction future ten times more realistic, and therefore more brutal, than Avatar. The Class, from France, was, in its own way, even more visceral, because it was easier to imagine oneself in that situation, and the acting, if it was even acting, was so unvarnished. Yngve, from Norway, would seem the odd-film-out, with its story of love and music; but unlike a Hollywood film there was no happy ending here. Not gritty, perhaps, but serious, and lasting.

            Most years I fear the list is incomplete because of all the major films that get released around Christmas. This year I’m still waiting on one or two – White Ribbon and Crazy Heart, in particular – but the year-end crop was unusually light, and I found better films in February at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

1. The Man Who Loved Yngve. A Norwegian coming-of-age story, a study, much like Juno, of that age when teenage rebellion and angst run up against real-world consequences. There was the dorky friend, the sexy girlfriend, the divorced parents, the loner bandmate, and in the middle Carlje, trying to live with the conflicting emotions that were tearing him up inside. Good rock music and the slightly different culture contributed to my most enjoyable movie experience of the year.

2. The Hurt Locker. I saw this, like Avatar, as an indictment of the U.S. presence in Iraq, while recognizing that one of this film’s strengths was its apolitical nature. Dismantling bombs is a job, someone’s got to do it, and this guy (played remarkably by Jeremy Renner) is just crazy enough to be good at it. Powerful and suspenseful, beautifully directed and acted, this film kept you on edge while making you ponder: Who is the enemy– the man with the cell phone in the butcher shop? The boy who is hawking bootleg DVDs? How can anyone tell? And when will the next bomb go off?

3. Gomorrah. Not for the fainthearted, but remarkable moviemaking. At first I dismissed this as a Sicilian version of The Sopranos without plot, humor, recognizable characters or professional camerawork. By the end, though, the stories had coalesced into a bleak, violent and scary world of Italian crime. We started with a young boy delivering groceries, watched how he was inexorably drawn into the gang, and ended with the world of the bosses, which made the child’s play along the way seem just that. This was fiction that told an ugly truth.

4. The Class. Provocative, haunting and utterly realistic, this movie was a Gomorrah of the classroom. I walked away not rating the movie so much as judging the individual students, the teachers, the French school system, education in general and even our contemporary society. The teacher appeared a saint, but time and again his pedagogic techniques caused me to squirm. The student who caused the most damage appeared a good sort. Nothing was black and white in this mess of a world. As I said, it was more life than cinema.

5. District 9. Who are the bad guys here? Is it the “prawns” from outer space? The Nigerian hoodlums?  The profit-driven corporate chieftains at MNU? Or the trigger-happy South African Defense Force?  This film is brilliant in its moral ambiguity, its documentary style is oh-so-clever, and its pacing is perfect. And despite the inclusion of a million creatures from a space ship, I found the movie quite realistic, perhaps because Johannesburg was itself an alien backdrop.

6. Whatever Works.  With Match Point, Vicki Cristina Barcelona and now this, Woody Allen has returned as my favorite American director, especially with the recent three of four flat efforts from Clint Eastwood. The first half hour and the exchanges between Larry David and Evan Rachel Wood were the comedic high point of the year. The warm and fuzzy ending is a letdown from the welcome view of cynical New Yorkers at the start, but we don’t love Woody for his heft.

7. Julie and Julia. A totally charmant film. I had tears of pleasure streaming down my face from the first TV impersonation of Julia Child by Meryl Streep until the end. Contrary to most reviewers, I thought Amy Adams held her own, and both husbands were admirable anchors for their flighty spouses. How often do you see a film in which everyone is nice, everyone achieves their goal, and the audience just has fun all along the way?

8. In the Loop. Hysterically funny, at least the half I was able to catch. The performances were uniformly over-the-top, but the whole fit seamlessly together, like fingers in a glove. An especially deft and novel leitmotif was the role of 20-somethings, pulling and being hit by levers in the power corridors of Washington and London. The story of how British “intel” facilitated America’s rush into a nameless war might have seemed absurd had not every event in the movie echoed reality as we now know it.

9. Il Divo. The flip side of Gomorrah, equally daring as moviemaking and equally depressing as a picture of Italy.  All those marbled floors, high ceilings and columned terrazzos, heavily made-up women and men with deep tans and coiffed hair, who would kiss you and murder you equally without expression. There was no hint of what P.M. Andreotti’s public appeal must have been – it surely wasn’t the turned-down ears – but I take his affectless character to be a symbol of sorts that one must be Italian to decipher.

10. Adventureland. The oft-told love tale of the geeky guy and the gorgeous girl, this time set, amusingly, in an amusement park run by Bill Hader and a bunch of slacker employees. Kristen Stewart portrays the heartthrob, perfect on the outside, troubled and insecure on the inside, while Ryan Reynolds and Jesse Eisenberg are just as good as the men in her life. A great rock music soundtrack from 1987 provides an overglow of nostalgia, through which we recognize the sincerity and authenticity of the film.

Also Worth Noting: A Single Man; (500) Days of Summer; Easy Virtue; Departures; No One Said It Would Be Easy; It’s Complicated; Sin Nombre; Food, Inc.; Damn United; Three Monkeys

Best Director: Kathryn Bigelow (Hurt Locker)

Best Actress: Kristen Stewart (Adventureland); Meryl Streep (Julie & Julia); Carey Mulligan (An Education)

Best Actor: Jeremy Renner (Hurt Locker); Colin Firth (A Single Man)

Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds)

Supporting Actress: Maggie Gyllenhaal (Crazy Heart); Zoe Saldana (Avatar); Anna Kendrick (Up In the Air)

Biggest Disappointments: Whip It, Grand Torino, Valentino, Seraphine, Inglourious Basterds, Duplicity

Bran Nue Dae – 6

A cute Aboriginal musical, with many sweet touches and pleasant songs, rather in the spirit of Rocky Horror. Its pedigree as a stage musical was quite obvious, and it would have been more convincing in that venue, I’m sure. (Similarly, the Spike Lee film of Passing Strange, which I saw on Public TV recently, had none of the magic of the play.) [SBIFF]

Crazy Heart – 7

Good music brings so much to a movie, and the original songs by T Bone Burnett and Scott Bruton carried this sucker, along with a bravura, Oscar-worthy performance by…Maggie Gyllenhaal. Jeff Bridges, who is getting so much acclaim, is fine, but I didn’t see a lot of challenge in the role. Without the music, it’s hard to see what-all I would’ve gotten excited about.

Broken Embraces – 7

An expression of a sensibility, best described as “Almodovar.” The plot intrigues, then fizzles to a ‘huh’ ending, leaving us with the many guises of Penelope Cruz – not so realistic or compelling as, say, in Volver. In a movie about a movie about a movie, artifice is inevitable and may be the point. It’s just not satisfying.