Gilbey on Film: the top ten movies of 2009

Do you agree with our film critic's line up?

It's that time of year when critics of all stripe take stock, puzzling over which works deserve to have yet more praise lavished on them, and which deserve another hearty kick to the head just to finish them off. While you're frolicking with relatives and preparing to carve the turkey, or vice versa, we are furrowing our brow, doodling comedy facial hair on Barry Norman's picture byline in the Radio Times, and trying to come up with the perfect Top 10 list that appeases the gods of eclecticism, pretentiousness and perversity.

Looking at the films I loved most in 2009, I can see (or should that be "contrive"?) a recurring theme of misfits going it alone in a world that has no use for them (Up), reshaping themselves to fit in (Helen, Let the Right One In), or simply revelling in their uniqueness, be it pastoral (Sleep Furiously) or antisocial (Tony Manero).

The Hurt Locker focused on a bomb disposal squad in Iraq, but the scene that stayed with me concerns the return of one daredevil officer (Jeremy Renner) to his US home town, where he is flummoxed by an endless supermarket aisle stacked to the rafters with untold varieties of breakfast cereal.

Maybe such loners are perfect subjects for cinema, with its friction between the individual's intimate viewing and the heady passions of the crowd. Brüno and Paranormal Activity, for instance, were made to be seen with large and enthusiastic audiences. Splendid though these films are, I have no desire to revisit either alone on DVD, whereas the likes of The White Ribbon or Bright Star require no such communal enhancement.

So come with me now to a time before Avatar. (Warning: this list may contain gushing.)

1. Up (dir: Pete Docter), U

The first 20 minutes of Pixar's joyful adventure, about an elderly man who flies to South America in a house borne aloft by balloons, was an example of flawless, elegant storytelling to rank beside the beginning of Touch of Evil or the end of North By Northwest. Sadly, the rest of the film was merely wondrous and astonishing. Review here.

2. Helen (dirs: Joe Lawlor and Christine Malloy), PG

In this unsettling mystery, a withdrawn girl assumes the identity of a missing classmate after standing in for her in a police reconstruction. The arrival of these two highly original new film-makers had a rejuvenating effect on the overall tone of British cinema, and cinema in general, this year. Review here.

3. Let the Right One In (dir: Tomas Alfredson), 15

I think I put off a few friends who are non-horror fans by referring to this as a vampire film. It's only about vampires in the same way that Glengarry Glen Ross is about salesmen, or The Lady Eve is about a cruise. And exquisitely beautiful, not just visually, but in its celebration of the blind faith of childhood. Review here.

4. Bright Star (dir: Jane Campion), PG

More than three years after the death of Robert Altman, some of us are still having a tough time accepting that we won't see any new films from that master. But in approaching the story of the romance between John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), Jane Campion seemed to have asked: "What would Altman do?" Consequently this was as rumpled and informal a period piece as McCabe and Mrs Miller, Vincent and Theo or Kansas City. Review here.

5. The Hurt Locker (dir: Kathryn Bigelow), 15

Debate raged about the apolitical nature of this fraught thriller, but there could be no argument about how fully it inhabited the psychological space of its characters.

6. The Class (dir: Laurent Cantet), 15

Review here.

7. Sugar (dir: Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden), 15

Review here.

8. Wendy and Lucy (dir: Kelly Reichardt), 15

Review here.

9. Sleep Furiously (dir: Gideon Koppel), U

10. Tony Manero (dir: Pablo Larrain), 18

 

Turkey of the Year

The Brits are coming! The award is shared this year between two Brit-directed films of insufferable smugness, The Boat that Rocked (dir: Richard Curtis) and Away We Go (dir: Sam Mendes).

For his contribution to the screenplay of the latter, the novelist-turned-screenwriter Dave Eggers also wins the Sam Mendes "Please Go Back To Your Day Job" prize. He might also have ruined Where the Wild Things Are, which he co-wrote, were it not for the playful balancing sensibility of Spike Jonze.

Ryan Gilbey blogs for Cultural Capital every Tuesday. He is also the New Statesman's film critic.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Inside Syria's unending siege, civilians, not soldiers, are the victims

In Aleppo, civilian strife is just another tool of war.

Maria is a young mother who lives in Aleppo. She missed her opportunity to flee when the Syrian-Turkish border was closed to all but the seriously injured in early 2015. With her two children – Fadi, aged five, and Sama, aged nine – she stayed in the city.

Maria’s husband was killed by a barrel bomb that fell on their neighbourhood in 2014. After that, she took the children and moved in with her husband’s family. Her married brother-in-law asked her to be his second wife. She accepted the offer for the sake of security. This year he, too, was killed when a bomb fell on his shop.

Speaking to her on Skype, I referred to Aleppo as a city under siege and she quickly corrected me. “The city is not under siege,” she said. “We are human beings under siege.” Maria clearly felt offended by my words. She moved the conversation on to the images of a young Syrian boy, sitting in an ambulance, which have appeared on newspaper front pages around the world – a symbol of the human suffering in Aleppo. “What can I say? His silence and shock reflected all the pain of Syrians.”

Tearfully, she described her living conditions. “There are two widows, with three children, who live all together with our old mother-in-law. The good people around us try to give us food and clothing.”

She added: “Before, I used to cook a big meal for me and my family-in-law every day. My late husband was well off.” The children don’t go to school but they get some lessons at home – Maria used to work as an Arabic language teacher at a high school in the city.

The household’s other widow, Safaa, joined our conversation. “Since the first day of Eid ul-Fitr [the festival that marks the end of Ramadan, this year on 6 July], the siege began in Aleppo. There was no food or water. Children cried and could not sleep because of hunger.”

Safaa made food from pulses that she had managed to save, particularly lentils. As the area around the city is rich in olives and well known for producing za’atar herbs, the extended family depended on reserves of these for nutrition. “Al-za’atar al-akhdar [a dish of the herb, olive oil and a few other basic ingredients] has saved the reputation of Aleppo and its people,” Safaa joked, and both women laughed.

Then, suddenly, the Skype connection was lost and they both disappeared.

Another Aleppo native to whom I spoke, Ayham, described his desperation as he finished his engineering degree before fleeing Syria. “I am my mother’s only son, so I didn’t want to do military service, and I left, as I felt so insecure,” he told me. He had been living in Shahbaa, a neighbourhood controlled by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while completing one application after another to study abroad. Eventually he was successful and he has now made it to a university in Europe.

Ayham’s parents were pushing him to leave because they knew that he was part of an underground anti-Assad protest movement. “There are two Aleppos,” he explained. “One is free and the other is controlled by Assad’s regime. Both are very unsafe . . . Living hungry was easier than living under threat.”

There are roughly two million people in the city, most of them women and children. Since the second day of the siege, there have been no fruit or vegetables available and only a few bakeries are producing bread. Compounding the starvation, the bombing has been intense, hitting hospitals, ambulances, blood banks and the Syrian Civil Defence base. Assad’s regime is targeting vital resources for civilians.
Even after rebel forces, in co-operation with the Islamist faction Jaish al-Fateh, managed partly to break the siege and open a new road into the south of the city through the Ramoussa area, they could not bring in enough food. The little that made it inside immediately sent prices soaring. Civilians could not use this road to escape – jets were targeting the routes in and out.

The eastern areas of Aleppo, which are still under the opposition’s control, are also still without aid, because of how risky it is to get there. All the talk coming out of the city today is about decisive battles between Assad’s forces and the rebels in the southern quarters. Civilians put the recent air strikes down to these conflicts – it has long been believed that when the regime loses ground, it intensifies its bombing as revenge, and to send a message to those who continue to resist.

People in Aleppo and the north-eastern territories of Syria are suffering and dying. They have no other choice. It seems that both Isis and the Assad regime are trying as hard as they can to destroy Syrian civilians, whether through direct attacks or by gradual starvation.

There is little information available, as both sides attempt to prevent the media from documenting life under siege. Isis accuses journalists of being agents of Assad, while the regime portrays reporters as terrorists. Pro-Assad social media accounts have alleged that Mahmoud Raslan, who took the footage of the boy in the ambulance, has links with terrorism. The same channels have yet to say much about Raslan’s subject – Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old whom he showed, bloodied and stunned, after the boy was pulled from the rubble caused by multiple air strikes. Omran’s ten-year-old brother, Ali, has since died from injuries sustained in another attack.

After four hours, I heard back from Maria. She apologised for losing the connection and asked me not to worry about her. “All of us are fine. We did not die yet,” she said. Her daughter, Sama, has not been to school since last year, she told me, and now studies only Arabic poetry. They have no books, so she depends on the verses that Maria knows by heart. Sama misses her school and her friends, and though she remembers their faces she has forgotten their names.

Maria has made a doll for her out of scraps of fabric and they call it Salwa. Together, they sing Syrian folk songs for the doll, in particular one that goes: “Hey Salwa, why are you crying? I need a friend.” Maria is resigned. As she says, “We are back in the Stone Age.” 

K S is a Syrian journalist, based in Sweden since 2014

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser