These twenty films (the ten in the 20-11 list below and the ten back-ups, or 30-21, below that) were all, in my view, great and diverse examples of what cinema was capable of offering up last year. All were worth special mention for being some of the best of '09. Not quite the very best but close to it.
20. The International Tom Tykwer (USA/Germany/UK)
A lot of folk I've read online dismissed The International for lacking excitement, or that it was trying too hard to be a Bond flick, or that an espionage thriller about dodgy international banking doesn't exactly raise the temperature. On paper, I can see that may be so, but I didn't think it needed the too-hectic pace of a Bourne film or to be another slick Bond wannabe (though I actually thought it was better and infinitely more interesting than Daniel Craig's last two 007 outings). It was engrossing enough without the need to be overly showy. As for brushing it off for not being exciting, I'd say look again. After all, The Third Man (1949) was essentially about a penicillin racket. Director Tom Tykwer does play down a lot of the dramatic exchanges and covert meetings in his film, but its in service of a story that filters events based loosely on political what-ifs and makes them work through sheer stolid determination. It's something to be somewhat admired in a genre which often prides hollow gimmickry over penetrating and distinct film craftsmanship. And Clive Owen, with his gaunt demeanor and in his tatty overcoat, makes for a nicely shabby (non-)hero. The Film's obvious standout moment, a tense late-in-the-story shoot-out at New York's Guggenheim Museum was one of the most expertly staged and executed scenes of the year. But all that came before it was equally exciting, too.
19. Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman) USA
There was a lot to like about Synecdoche, New York despite a fair amount of frustration and brain ache involved. But the frustration paid off in the end. It had one of the most bizarrely emotive endings of any film I saw last year; the final fifteen minutes were incredibly affecting. Kaufman has snuck out from under the cover of his collaborators (Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry) to create a debut that was far more interesting (and a dazzling mess in places) than some of their films. Synecdoche suggests that the films he wrote for them were like experimental sketches in preparation for his debut here (though that's not a slight on his collaborators' work - some were very good in their own right). He pours years worth of anguish, playfulness and thought (and a pinch of restrained surrealism) into the film. It feels very much like a grandiose culmination of his key themes, and therefore comes across like a weird signing-off film, a last statement from an image-soaked mind. Maybe, like many of the skewed and direction-bending ideas contained in his scripts, he's working backwards himself. Here's to a last film, sometime in the distant future, that has the energy of an eager and image-starved "first" film.
18. Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country (Anders Østergaard) Denmark/Sweden/Norway /UK/USA/Germany/Netherlands/Israel/Spain/Belgium/Canada
Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country was a late watch for the list (three weeks ago), but it deserves mention as one of the most important and fascinating documentaries of last year. It was a captivating look at the breakdown of politics within a tumultuous, and effectively sealed-off, country, and the small band of bold and impassioned filmmakers (self-named the Democratic Voice of Burma) who wanted (and needed) the rest of the world to witness for themselves the extent of that breakdown that they risked their lives to show it as it unfolded. The present day-set fictional inserts in no way diminish the unsettling and affecting documented images of the protests by the group of Buddhist monks at the centre of the upheaval (that infamously took place in September 2007). It's a shocking film, but essential and rewarding. And it's also the best example of the use of a camera as a journalistic tool in quite some time.
17. Triangle (Christopher Smith) UK/Australia
Triangle may have suffered slightly coming after the other similarly-themed and -structured loopy time travel film of last year, Timecrimes, but it stood out nonetheless by having some new things to say (particularly during the protracted dénouement) and including many inspired creepy moments (and with a fully committed and affecting lead performance from Melissa George). It's a pure genre pleasure from beginning to end: George makes for a great unlikely protagonist, the tension never flags and it has some unique and memorable visuals tucked away below deck - not least a chilling and surreal shot of identical bodies piled up on the bow of the phantom ship of the film's setting (though revealing the whys and hows of this particular image may spoil part of the plot). It's well worth seeking out on dvd, where I hope it receives the acclaim and the audience it deserves. It's a great mini gem of a film.
16. Let the Right One In/Låt den rätte komma in (Tomas Alfredson) Sweden
Let the Right One In was rightly praised for bringing something fresh to the horror genre last year. It's curious story of a young vampire girl and the friendship she strikes up with a boy, set in an eerie Swedish block of flats, was played out against an early-'80s period backdrop of snowfall and bloodletting. The two child leads gave great performances and the imagery was nicely subdued; Alfredson's a director with a great deal of talent for subsuming all the grisly lore of vampirism into a story essentially about youthful bonding. I'm intrigued to see what he follows this original film up with next. It also got my vote for best score of last year, too; Johan Söderqvist's music for the film is truly beautiful, and works just as well outside of the film as it does accompanying its stark images.
15. Inside/À l'intérieur (Alexandre Bustillo/Julien Maury) France
Another bold and original horror of '09 (though made in 2007) was Inside, starring that dark French maiden Beatrice Dalle. She plays a woman, known only as La femme, who wants a baby so bad that she's willing to go to any extreme to get one; and to an extreme end she goes. To say that she's playing the world's worst midwife is putting it lightly. It's a relatively thrifty seventy-five minutes long, but makes effective use of its time. After a brief set-up the action is confined to a single location, a recently widowed mother-to-be's house. Dalle's introduction as a shape looming outside - spied through darkened windows or through the eyehole in a door - is incredibly unsettling, and the hazy, yellowish cinematography becomes more and more fogged, more womblike as the tautness of the situation turns more horrific (and more giallo-esque; red and yellow being colours synonymous with murder in Argento, Bava etc - likely influences). What Dalle does with knitting needles here would make granny shit a brick.
14. The Signal (David Bruckner/Dan Bush/Jacob Gentry) USA
I randomly chanced upon The Signal on dvd during the middle of last year (note: it's another sad case of a solid enough, but uncategorisable film finding its place on home rental instead of where it should have played, in the cinemas; it was leagues above many easy-fit theatrically-released horrors of the past year). A brief description and title alone was enough to get me intrigued. It's simple: a signal sent through the TV turns people bad. Very bad. Unoriginal? Perhaps. But it's what the trio of filmmakers (David Bruckner, Dan Bush and Jacob Gentry) do with the set-up that surprises: forming a filmmaking trinity, they play a visual variation on the game of exquisite corpse, where each of the three filmmakers direct a roughly thirty-minute segment with its own style and tone, but narratively picks up where the preceding one left off. The first sees the inhabitants of an apartment complex, demented by the titular signal, go on a killing spree; the second, set in a house, features a morbid, highly staged siege scenario that borders on farce; and the third is a chase through a deserted city to track down loved ones and other survivors. The Crazies (George A. Romero/1973), 28 Days Later... (Danny Boyle/2002) and early David Cronenberg are all aspired to at various points, but The Signal still contains enough energy of its own to make it feel uniquely effective. There's more going on between the lines of what a simple synopsis offers, mainly how funny, terrifying and well made it is. Divergent paths in the horror genre should be celebrated, especially in an era that sees an abundance of remakes each year. I especially liked the odd arrangement in tone that The Signal experimented with. For me it worked wonderfully.
13. The Class/Entre les murs (Laurent Cantet) France
I'm glad to see several school-set films in recent years avoid the 'chalk and talk' standard of showing teachers merely stand, write Big Important Quotes on blackboards and disagree with students. Maren Ade's excellent debut The Forest for the Trees (2003) and the politically-charged The Wave (2008) (even the parody TV comedy Summer Heights High got lots of the finer details right, amongst all the sharp comic details) have recently depicted a more truthful and explorative side to showing what happens in a classroom. Laurent Cantet's The Class - 2008's Palme d'Or winner - goes to further lengths in showing entirely real situations and the fraught, often PC-orientated issues sometimes involved in the job. The scenes of teaching - or instructing, lecturing, debating and so on - here are riveting. Each one is clearly closely drawn from reality (lead actor François Bégaudeau based the script partly on his own experiences as a teacher) and are - through Cantet's thoughtful use of his camera - as near to definitive bitesize approximations of what it's surely like to observe the process of learning (or not learning) that I've seen. The Class is quietly explosive and full of great moments of human connection.
12. Tokyo Sonata/Tôkyô sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa) Japan/Netherlands/Hong Kong
Tokyo Sonata starts as one thing and ends up quite another entirely. The first part of the film (about a proud salary man who loses his job but keeps going in to work to uphold the pretense for the sake of his family) feels very much under the influence of an Ozu or Maruse film. But strange events encroach about an hour in and a comparison to Takeshi Miike isn't too far off. It's from Kiyoshi Kurosawa, known mainly for horror films such as Seance (2000) Kairo/Pulse (2001) and Doppelgänger (2003), among others, and although it's a departure for him in many respects, it does still bear his signature fully. Kurosawa is a smart and incisive filmmaker. I've never noticed a single dull scene or wrong-footed moment in any of his films I've so far seen. The abrupt and rather oddly comical change of direction at the halfway mark perplexed me briefly, but after the remaining hour of the film comes to a close it's clear that he hasn't lost any of his deft skill for heightened drama mixed with firmly wedged social commentary. I enjoyed seeing him move away from all-out creepiness with Tokyo Sonata (though I hope he doesn't abandon the horror genre completely) and his actors (especially Teruyuki Kagawa and Kyôko Koizumi as, respectively, the husband and wife who are both thrown headlong into warped life changes - Kurosawa regular Kōji Yakusho puts in a brilliantly demented performance as a kidnapper) superbly take on their roles excellently; they all go through great shifts in personality throughout the course of the story. As the film gladly does itself.
11. In the Loop (Armando Iannucci) UK
After watching In the Loop I kicked myself for missing the TV show that spawned it, The Thick of It. It meant that I'd missed out (temporarily I hope) on seeing Peter Capaldi's character, prime minister's aide Malcolm Tucker, dish out more hilarious one-liners, aggressive insults and sharply-worded bon mots than in the time it takes him to straighten his tie. Capaldi is standout, but is almost equally matched by Tom Hollander, Gina McKee, Chris Addison and the rest of the cast. The real genius, though, is in the writing. Armando Iannucci, along with Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Tony Roche and Ian Martin, created a script that perfectly sums up British-American political relations - with added petty jibes and scathing truths - as seen by people who know how comedy can bring out the best observations on such matters. It's a better satire than any I've seen in recent times - both in film and on televison - and never less than stupendously funny scene after scene. It's the kind of film that deserves repeated viewing just to catch every single word spoken. Iannucci should be called on to hone every British (or indeed from elsewhere) comedy script currently in the works.
Just outside the top 20, in no order:
Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold) / District 9 (Neil Blomkamp) / Angel of Mine/L'empreinte de l'ange (Safy Nebbou) / Wonderful Town (Aditya Assarat) / Where the Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze) / Star Trek (J.J. Abrams) / Lake Tahoe (Fernando Eimbcke) / The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow) / Splinter (Toby Wilkins) / Embodiment of Evil/Encarnação do Demônio (José Mojica Marins)
So that's twenty to eleven and a few more thrown in. Next up is my top 10.