The Chicagoist will be launching later but in the meantime please enjoy our archives.

14 Great Movies We Watched This Year

By Rob Christopher in Arts & Entertainment on Dec 29, 2009 5:00PM

2009_12_28greatmovieswewatched.jpg The precise year a movie was "made" is in many ways becoming less and less relevant. First off, theatrical distribution can be glacial. Just look at Francois Ozon's Angel. It was completed in 2007 but wasn't shown in Chicago until this year (when it had a grand total of two screenings at the Siskel.) It won't get a proper US release until 2010. A New York Times article points out that many of next year's "new" films were actually completed last year.

On the other hand, online streaming can mean that films largely unseen for decades are suddenly watchable with a few clicks of a mouse. In addition to Netflix there are wonderful sites like The Auteurs out there dishing up formerly obscure movies like Luis Buñuel's Death in the Garden. It's never been easier to see the widest possible variety of movies, though there are still scads of treasures all but impossible to lay your eyes on. Frustratingly, some of them are on our list below.

Any movie you see for the first time is a new movie. So we're steadfastly refusing to limit our "best of" list to movies that happened to be made in 2009. And 10 is an arbitrary number anyway, so instead here are 14.

  1. Bigger Than Life (directed by Nicholas Ray, 1956)
  2. James Mason stars as a mild-mannered family man and schoolteacher who is diagnosed with heart disease. He undergoes an experimental treatment using cortisone. The drug works like a miracle ... but there are disturbing side effects. Soon he begins to experience delusions of grandeur and semi-psychotic behavior towards his family. Much like Rod Serling would later do with The Twilight Zone, director Nicholas Ray uses Mason's insanity as a clever cover for a full-bore critique of 50's conformity, family values, and materialism. It packs a wallop. Cinephiles rejoice: Criterion is releasing it on DVD in March.
  3. Billy Budd (directed by Peter Ustinov, 1962)
  4. We caught up with this seafaring tale on DVD this year and were blown away by it. Robert Ryan, Peter Ustinov, Melvyn Douglas, and Terence Stamp (in his movie debut) all turn in excellent performances. Billy Budd's examination of the subtler shades of gray in the struggle between good vs. evil, right vs. wrong, and justice vs. law hasn't dated one whit. The breathtaking black & white cinematography by Robert Krasker is a huge asset. Bonus: the DVD's commentary track features Stamp being interviewed by Steven Soderbergh. Speaking of whom--
  5. Che (directed by Steven Soderbergh, 2008)
  6. A kind of anti-Avatar? A 257-minute long movie about Che Guevara, almost entirely in Spanish, showing in two parts with an intermission. Soderbergh's mammoth audacity would be for naught if the storytelling wasn't of the highest caliber. But it is.
  7. The Class (directed by Laurent Cantet, 2008)
  8. Another probing, even-handed examination of society from Cantet, this time of a multiracial middle school classroom. Although the setting is Paris, the issues and problems on display would be familiar to any American teacher. It's skillfully shot using a cast that includes many non-professionals. The bittersweet ending is the icing on the cake.
  9. Daytime Drinking (directed by Young-Seok Noh, 2008)
  10. From our review: "A hilarious and agreeably gentle comedy, Daytime Drinking plays like a Jim Jarmusch remake of After Hours ... Shot on a budget of only $20,000 this film puts to shame most indie American fare, let alone the drek coming out of the studios. It's the funniest movie we've seen this year."
  11. Fear Me Not (directed by Kristian Levring, 2008)
  12. We loved this carefully calibrated thriller. From our review: "Director Kristian Levring locates the action in orderly, sterile settings and underplays the moments of violence. Nothing that happens is as bad as we'd imagined. Yet that only makes it worse."
  13. The Girlfriend Experience (directed by Steven Soderbergh, 2009)
  14. Two Soderbergh movies on our list? You bet! His sharp look at materialism and commodification is just what the world needed (but didn't want to see) in the midst of our current recession. Stuffed with slick surfaces and posh settings, everything looks gorgeous. But what lies beneath it all?
  15. The Headless Woman (directed by Lucrecia Martel, 2008)
  16. We thank our lucky stars we caught this during its week-long run at the Siskel earlier this month. Nothing less than Last Year at Marienbad for the 21st-Century, Martel's puzzler follows an upper-class woman who may or may not have hit a dog (or a child) with her car. Martel uses the full expanse of the ultra-widescreen frame to present us with possible clues, and just as deftly keep certain crucial details just offscreen. In other words, it's a movie that rewards repeat viewings. Think Mulholland Dr. We hope it gets a big screen revival in 2010!
  17. Los Angeles Plays Itself (directed by Thom Andersen, 2003)
  18. Alas this fascinating cine-essay on the way the city of the title has been depicted (and inadvertently preserved) on film is not easy to see. It's MIA on video, but we caught a screening at Chicago Filmmakers presented by Jonathan Rosenbaum. Perhaps CF can present an encore next year!
  19. Moon (directed by Duncan Jones, 2009)
  20. This debut from Jones (yes, he's David Bowie's son) strips down the metaphysical sci-fi of Solaris to basically two characters: the lonely technician of a lunar mining operation and his computer. It has a grubby look that's different from most space flicks, and that's only one way that it consciously defies expectations. If you missed it in theaters pop it in your queue!
  21. Mother (directed by Joon-ho Bong, 2009)
  22. From our review: "A knotty tale, part drama, part suspense mystery, part black comedy, that knows exactly when to unfurl a new twist ... each twist actually enriches our understanding of the characters rather than undermining it. Bong Joon-Ho displays a complete mastery of the camera and editing."
  23. The Pervert's Guide to Cinema (directed by Sophie Fiennes, 2006)
  24. It's not your imagination. We've been name-dropping cultural theorist Slavoj Žižek a lot in 2009, and this movie is the reason. It's a playful journey through movies as varied as Blue Velvet and Eyes Wide Shut to The Wizard of Oz and Rear Window. And we do mean journey: Žižek is inserted in various movie locales, such as 'Tippi' Hedren's boat in The Birds, while he spins analysis that's equal parts hilarious and thought-provoking.
  25. Police, Adjective (directed by Corneliu Porumboiu, 2009)
  26. From our review: "It's rare that a film doesn't just show you something but also allows to you watch something, to give you the time to dwell in the moment and contemplate what you're watching ... Watching Porumboiu's film is an immersive experience. Like the best movies, you're drawn into its world and the film gives you enough space to live there for a few hours. Somehow, it's riveting. And can you think of another film that hinges its climax on a dictionary?"
  27. The Road (directed by John Hillcoat, 2009)
  28. Not since Testament has there been such a moving exploration of humanity at the end of its rope. This apocalyptic drama is as bleak as it can possibly be, yet it's not without moments of thrilling suspense and tenderness either. And unlike many movies of its ilk it knows exactly when and where to end the story. Viggo Mortensen's portrayal of a father's ragged perseverance is matched by young Kodi Smit-McPhee's moving turn as his son.
Your turn now. What did you love this year?