For the past four years, my best-films-of-the-year list has been restricted to movies screened in Egyptian theaters either via commercial release or in film festivals. And because of these limitations, none of the previous lists were accurately comprehensive.
This year, I failed to abide by the rules for one simple reason: I couldn’t find enough films.
The Egyptian film market was oversaturated than ever with big Hollywood movies of average quality. Aside from the recent European Film Panorama, the European film retrospectives carried noteworthy pictures, but not great ones. Apart from two or three productions, The Cairo International Film Festival offered no great films either in its most inconsequential edition in many years.
Taking a cue from “Sight & Sound, I decided to base this year’s best-of list on all the 2009 releases I’ve watched. And what a year this has been for movies.
Perhaps more than other years in recent memory, 2009 saw a massive gush of new films by some of the most prominent filmmakers in the world. The majority of the big hitters came from Europe, but the wide range of talents can be traced all across the map, from Asia (Joon-ho Bong, Hirokazu Koreeda), South America (Lisandro Alonso, Lucrecia Martel), the Middle East (Asghar Farhadi, Yousry Nasrallah) and Australia (Warwick Thornton). American cinema had a very disappointing year, yet still managed to deliver great works by the Coen Brothers, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck and James Gray.
As expected, new box-office numbers were broken this year, yet the sole beneficiary of this boom seems to be studio films. Small, independent pictures struggled for audience attention, the medium-size ones even more so. The chasm between studio productions and art-house films is growing, expanded by an American imported marketing model that has transformed the public at large into indolent consumers. Beyond this list, there are many, many real gems released this year that you should start seeking. The following list should make for a good start though.
The next 10: “The Hurt Locker, “Liverpool, “The Headless Woman, “Milk of Sorrow, “24 City, “Of Time and the City, “Tales From the Golden Age, “Vincere, “Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl, and “Sita Sings the Blues.
15) Still Walking
An observational look at a middle-class Japanese family by gifted Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda (“Nobody Knows ) set in one summer day at a reunion. Underneath the ostensible calm is an old reservoir of unspoken resentments, open wounds and regrets Koreeda never allows to reach a boiling point. Conceived mostly via fixed frames, the collision of emotions is eventually subverted by the inevitability of life and the strange ways by which we connect to our parents.
14) In the Loop and Better Things
Two radically different films representing the new faces of independent British films. Armando Iannucci’s brilliantly potty-mouthed political satire “In the Loop is a sardonic insight into the backstage folly leading into a fictional war ignited by clueless political bureaucrats. On the other hand, Duane Hopkins’s little-seen debut feature is an austere plotless portrait of a group of alienated drug addicts at the Cotswolds. A silent rumination on grief, pain and abandonment, every frame of the film seeps with piercing beauty.
Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s follow-up to 2006’s “Half Nelson is an exemplary model of the new wave of American realism, a sports film that turns genre conventions on their head and circumvents stereotypes. In this bittersweet story of a young Dominican baseball player experiencing the different sides of the American dream, Boden and Fleck concocts a vivacious world abundant with sights, color, music, disappointments and hope.
12) Scheherazade, Tell Me A Story
Great Egyptian filmmaker Yousry Nasrallah scored his biggest commercial success to date this year with “Scheherazade, a fierce, bold indictment of women’s conditions in Egypt. Based on a script by veteran scriptwriter Wahid Hamed, Nasrallah adeptly maintains an even balance between the exactness and immediacy of Hamed’s writing and his own artistic sensibilities, suffusing his film with nuances and mood rarely seen in mainstream cinema.
11) A Serious Man
The Coen Brothers’ third film in three years sees them returning back to their Jewish Midwestern suburban roots circa 1960s in a tale that is essentially a reworking of the Book of Job. As bleak in its world vision as any of their best work, the sharp edges of the story of a powerless man searching for meaning in an indifferent and cruel cosmos are softened by their signature macabre humor and a surprising tinge of warmth.
10) A Prophet
Jacques Audiard’s Grand Prix winning fifth feature is the most perfect genre film of the year; a gritty, hard-edged and arresting prison drama charting the gradual rise of a young illiterate Arab from a naïve hoodlum to a major mobster. Featuring a subtle, finely tuned performance by newcomer Tahar Rahim, “A Prophet functions both as a critique of France’s classicism and prejudices as well as an examination of the notion of a modern-day prophet.
9) Les Plages d’Agnès
Agnès Varda, grandmother of the French New Wave, looks back at her loves, her films and her favorite beaches in this charming, whimsical autobiographical documentary. For cinephiles, “Beaches acts like a time capsule to a time and place of experimentation, rebelliousness and dreams; a Proustian series of snapshots into a magnificently rich life. The truth about her marriage to great filmmaker Jacques Demy remains an enigma locked in a safe she closely guards.
8) Two Lovers
James Gray takes a break from the crime world for this melancholic, compassionate love-triangle melodrama, deeply-rooted in Manhattan. The result is his best film to date; a mood piece with a strong sense of place, a throwback to the 50s’ Italian dramas of Fellini and Visconti. Joaquin Phoenix delivers the best male performance of the year, laying bare the soul of a tortured loner with heartbreaking delicacy.
7) The Red Riding Trilogy
Originally broadcasted earlier this year on Britain’s Channel 4, “Red Riding ranks among the best film trilogies of all time and certainly the most accomplished of the decade. Based on a quarter of crime novels by British author David Peace and helmed by three different directors, the trilogy is set in West Yorkshire from the mid 70s till the early 80s around the time of Ripper murders. Uncompromising, brutal and exceedingly grim, “Red Riding is a complex triptych unveiling a disintegrating world where individual will to change, or escape, is trampled by institutional corruption. Only at the very end of the last film do we glimpse a sign of deliverance.
Inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid, Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki’s latest masterpiece is the most joyful 100 minutes I’ve spent at the movies this year. The best animated film of 2009 is an explosion of colors, overflowing with overwhelming innocence and soothing sweetness. Eschewing the classic three-act narrative structure, Miyazaki doesn’t saddle his story with villains and dreary action, creating instead an awe-inspiring world of boundless imagination where trouble and worry has no place.
5) 35 Shots of Rum
Great French filmmaker Claire Denis channels the spirit of Yasujiro Ozu in her warmest film in years. A domestic drama with no tangible story visualized with skillful formality, “Rum centers on the relationship of a widowed train driver and his daughter, a university student, with their small multicultural community. Dialogue is kept to a minimum. Every detail is given a weight. Glances, gestures and restrained actions communicate the characters’ understated feelings. Crafted with moving subtlety and tenderness, “Rum is a lovely poem of the difficulty of separation, the need for companionship and the unstoppable passage of time.
4) The Time That Remains
Elia Suleiman’s concluding chapter of his Palestinian trilogy is an intimate autobiograph
y of his family spanning 60 years, from the 1948 Nakba until the present day. Suleiman abandons the loose, fragmented structure of his previous film in favor of a semi-narrative, allowing for a build-up of an intense emotional charge augmented by an inspired employment of music in the form of aural memory. Suleiman’s wry humor is on full display, but the tone is more sorrowful, permeated by a sense of resignation. “The Time That Remains is a minimalistic epic, a fond tribute to Suleiman’s parents and his hometown of Nazareth. It’s also a testament to the genius of Suleiman, the most original Arab director working today.
Seven months after its infamous debut in Cannes, the controversy surrounding Lars von Trier’s succès de scandale continues to rage on. Replete with grisly violence, nightmarish images evoking Hieronymus Bosch and graphic sex, “Antichrist is, nevertheless, von Trier’s most visually striking film since 1991’s “Europa. Underneath the conventional premise of a woman failing to overcome the loss of her child is a dense reimagining of the story of creation told in reverse, exploring the concepts of inherited evil, the original sin and, as in all of his films, sacrifice.
Conceived during a severe fit of depression, “Antichrist is a portal into the soul of a man going mad, a loud cry of despair. It’s von Trier’s most misanthropic film to date and the most despairing film I’ve seen in some time. Few artists dare to push the envelope as far as von Trier does, and for that alone, he remains the defiant prince of art-house cinema.
2) The White Ribbon
The deserved winner of this year’s Palm d’Or, Michael Haneke’s latest magnum opus returns him to Germany for the first time since 1997’s “Funny Games. Set in the eve of World War I, Haneke’s first period piece revolves around a serious of malicious crimes that may have, or may have not, perpetrated by the children of a small German village. Always a moralist, Haneke shatters the misleadingly calm veneer of the village to reveal a rotten patriarchal culture of oppression and callousness where the seeds of fascism can be traced. The historical setting aside, the themes of the film are as contemporary as ever.
What elevates the film into the ranks of the greats is its aura of ambiguity. The crimes are never solved, the grand theory of the film is implied, but never spelled out. Haneke gives the audience the space to draw their own conclusions, to find answers to the film’s unanswered questions. “White Ribbon is one of Haneke’s most flawless films in his legendary career, it’s also his most elusive to date.
1) Summer Hours
Out of more than 200 new titles I’ve watched this year, this is the one film that stayed with me the longest. Olivier Assayas’ Chekhovian drama about three grown siblings debating whether to donate their deceased mother’s precious art collection and sell the family’s country house or keep it for future generations might appear mundane on the surface. Gradually though, the layers are peeled off to reveal the most predominant theme of Assayas’ oeuvre: the position of the individual in the new globalized world. But it’s much more than that.
Deeply entrenched in nostalgia, “Summer Hours is a lyrical meditation on dissolving familial bonds, the soulnessness of modern world, the loss of youth and the changing value of art. This is a work of sublime beauty; sad, heartwarming, elegant and haunting beyond words. It’s one of the few films whose sheer beauty can move you to tears. The film’s elegiac ambiance is ultimately suspended by a final note of grace; the most perfect ending for an extraordinarily somber decade.