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In this unsettling mystery, a withdrawn girl assumes the identity of a missing classmate after standing in for her in a police reconstruction.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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Friedrich Nietzsche, the conqueror with the iron hand

Gavin Jacobson considers the great philosopher’s plan for society as revealed in Nietzsche’s Great Politics by Hugo Drochon.

In 1893 Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche returned to her mother’s adopted home town of Naumburg in Germany. She had been living in Paraguay with her husband, Bernhard Förster, a nationalist and anti-Semite who had founded an Aryan colony to begin “the purification and rebirth of the human race”. Elisabeth’s brother, Friedrich Nietzsche, had condemned her husband’s anti-Semitism and her decision to join him in South America. The experiment failed in any case. Blighted by disease, poor harvests and intercommunal strife, the outpost collapsed in two years. Förster committed suicide in 1889. Around this time, Nietzsche began his final descent into madness and Elisabeth came back to take care of him and his legacy.

Nietzsche’s first book, The Birth of Tragedy, published in 1872 while he was a professor at the University of Basel, received marginal attention. It wasn’t until the 1890s that his writings gained a wide readership across Europe. Elisabeth soon took control of Nietzsche’s literary estate and, little by little, transformed him into an instrument of her fascist designs. She began to rework his notebooks and to clip, cross out and fabricate quotations, so that, in the public imagination, her brother went from an opponent of German nationalism to a lover of the fatherland, from the author of The Antichrist to a follower of the gospel, and from an anti-anti-Semite to a venomous ­Jew-hater. Before his death in 1900, Nietzsche had asked his sister to ensure that “no priest or anyone else utters falsehoods at my graveside, when I can no longer defend myself”. He could not have foreseen this betrayal by Elisabeth, as she cast him as the lodestar of National Socialism.

Since the 1950s, scholars have endeavoured to rescue Nietzsche from his asso­ciation with Nazism. Walter Kaufmann’s Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist (1950) was a formative work in which the German philosopher became a humanist and progenitor of 20th-century existentialism. His thinking was directed not at the triumph of Teutonic supremacy but at reviving, as he wrote in Twilight of the Idols (1889), an “anti-political” high culture.

The problem was that, in stripping away the layers of external disfigurement that had built up and set over the years, Kaufmann and others denied Nietzsche an interest in politics. The task that Hugo Drochon sets himself is to reinsert some political content into Nietzsche and show that he had a systematic political theory. The result is a superb case of deep intellectual renewal and the most important book to have been written about him in the past few years.

Drochon’s study takes place against the backdrop of 19th-century Europe, as that is where Nietzsche’s account of politics – the fate of democracy, the role of the state and international relations – is best understood. Nietzsche’s sane life coincided with the main political events of his time. He served as a medical orderly in the Franco-Prussian War, witnessed German unification and experienced at first hand the traits of a modern democratic order: party competition, secret ballots, voting and the influence of mass media. He also lived through Britain’s and Russia’s “great game” for control over central Asia. He went mad in the year Bismarck tended his resignation to Wilhelm II.

Drochon traces Nietzsche’s “intelligible account of modern society” in response to these events. Inspired by the Greeks – especially Plato and his mission to legislate a new state and train the men to do it – Nietzsche wanted to establish a healthy culture in which philosophy and great art could be produced. He was certain that slavery was necessary for this (a view that led to his eventual split with Wagner). The “cruel-sounding truth”, he admitted, was that “slavery belongs to the essence of culture”, as the artistic class, “a small number of Olympian men”, is released from the drudgery of daily existence to focus on producing art.

His disagreement with Wagner over the role of slavery led Nietzsche to describe the genesis and decay of the state. He saw clearly, like Hobbes, that the state of nature was “the war of all against all”. But whereas Hobbes imagined the state arising through a contract, Nietzsche saw it originating from a “conqueror with the iron hand”, who “suddenly, violently and bloodily” takes control of a people and forces it into a hierarchical society. Nietzsche then plotted its evolution, from a space within which culture flourished to the modern Kulturstaat, in which culture was appropriated for its own sake. If the state’s birth was violent, its decay was slow and was linked to Nietz­sche’s notorious phrase about the death of God: given that the Christian God was no longer a self-evident foundation of morality upon which societies could support themselves, the state faced dissolution.

Tracing with great forensic skill the minutiae of Nietzsche’s arguments across multiple sources, Drochon never loses the overall narrative thread (an occupational hazard of studying the history of political thought). Nor does he shy away from his subject’s unsavoury views. If Nietzsche’s remarks on slavery were harsh enough, his thinking on eugenics, or his physiologically inflected theories about democracy (which he regarded as the victory of a slave morality – associated with the “dark-skinned and especially dark-haired man” – over a master morality of the “Aryan conquering race”) sound even more repellent. Without wishing to justify these ideas, Drochon reminds us that theories of racial classification were prevalent and acceptable modes of inquiry in the 19th century. It would have been strange if Nietzsche had not drawn on them.

His darker side notwithstanding, many of Nietzsche’s insights speak to our politics now. He foresaw the privatisation of the state, in which “private companies” (Privatgesellschaften) would assume the business of the state, including those activities that are the “most resistant remainder of what was formerly the work of the government” – that is, “protecting the private person from the private person”. He showed how democracies gave birth to aristocracies and could become hostage to a “herd morality”, majoritarianism and misarchism: “the democratic idiosyncrasy of being against everything that dominates and wants to dominate”. He explored the question of wage labour and the increasing hostility between workers and employers and predicted the erosion of trust in
public institutions.

Nietzsche also described how statesmen revive the kind of pathologies that are corrupting European and American societies at the moment: nationalism, racism, intellectual parochialism and political insularity. He knew what he was talking about: Bismarck’s power politics, a tribute to blood (war) and iron (technology), was a “petty politics” that divided nations and peoples. Nietzsche’s “great politics”, by contrast, imagined the unification of Europe led by a cultural elite, the class he termed “good Europeans”, bred by intermixing Prussian military officers and Jewish financiers. Continental union would not only constitute a geopolitical counterweight to Britain and Russia. Good Europeans would, as Drochon writes, create “a new trans-European culture, which itself is specially called on to lead a world culture”.

So, this book has come at the right time. In the light of Britain’s vote for Brexit, which threatens to take us back to a petty politics of nationalism and continental division, Nietzsche’s writings are more significant than ever. Those of us who desire a more integrated and peaceful union with our neighbours cling despairingly – and with receding hope – to his dream that, in spite of “the morbid estrangement which the nationality craze has induced and still induces among the peoples of Europe, owing also to the short-sighted and hasty-handed politicians . . . Europe wishes to be one”.

Nietzsche’s Great Politics by Hugo Drochon is published by Princeton University Press, 224pp, £34.95

Gavin Jacobson is a writer and book critic

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt