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In this unsettling mystery, a withdrawn girl assumes the identity of a missing classmate after standing in for her in a police reconstruction.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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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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